The horror of last Friday’s murders at UCSB has us asking the all-important question: Why did this happen?
Of course, we ask the same question whenever violent tragedies like this grip the nation. Our first answer is usually the same one provided by Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown just after Friday’s rampage: “It’s obviously the work of a madman.”
I wish the answers to tragic shootings were that easy. Eliot Rodgers had psychological issues, no doubt, but it would be a mistake to isolate his issues to his own personal “madness.” What makes Rodgers actions so scary is that he is a product of the American theology of violence.
American Theology of Violence
Anyone who has heard Rodgers’ recorded rant will know the demonic theology behind his actions. If you dismiss Rodgers’ statements about becoming a god and his “Day of Retribution” as fomenting hatred coming from the lips of a madman, then you have to dismiss 90 percent of American Christian theology as fomenting hatred from the lips of madmen.
And I hope you do.
American Christian theology is mad. Rodgers claimed that he had been rejected by women and by men, and because they rejected him, he felt justified in rejecting them. He was rejected by the “alpha-males” and he was rejected by women. His resentment stewed; he wanted to become just like those he hated; he wanted to be an “alpha-male.” He looked to them and imitated their violent methods of being alpha-males. And the only way to become an alpha-male is through violence. And, in becoming a violent alpha-male, he tried to become “like a god to them.”
Here is where theology has failed. The message that we often hear is that if you reject God, God will reject you. God is the ultimate alpha-male; a domineering Father who wills His way with power and violence. And you should be afraid of this God. In fact, fear is often the motivator for evangelism – fear that if you don’t turn to God then, on the Day of Vengeance, the Alpha-God will roast you in the fires of hell where you will suffer eternal conscious torment.
Rodgers’ statements reveal that he was a product of that madly demonic theological message. Those who preach that message about God must repent of that message or such tragedies will only continue. Please notice that even outside the confines of a religious setting, theology matters. It doesn’t matter whether Rodgers considered himself a Christian or not, American Christian theology is implicated in this tragedy because Rodgers’ violent theology is virtually identical to the violence that runs through American Christian theology.
Redeeming American Theology
In the New Testament, the word “repent” means to “change one’s mind.” When Jesus asks us to repent, he wants us to change our mind about God. We need a theological shift, and one person leading the way is Michael Hardin. In his book The Jesus Driven Life, Michael states that he tries, “to refer to the Bible as much as possible in this book, for what is ultimately being proposed is a theological shift that could affect American Christianity to its core.”
Michael proposes a theological shift that takes the violence out of the core of American Christianity. He does this not, as he states, by ignoring the Bible and Christian tradition. Rather, he makes the shift by delving deep into the Bible and tradition, and specifically, into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus, Christian tradition tells us, was fully human and fully divine. In other words, Jesus reveals what it means to be both fully human and fully God. Notice that in Jesus there is no violence. Jesus does not reveal that the way to be fully human is to be a violent alpha-male or that God is a violent alpha-god who violently rejects those who reject him. Rather, Michael claims that “we must begin our theology with Jesus and not some abstract definition of God.”
This point cannot be overstated when it comes to redeeming American Christianity. Jesus did not come as an alpha-male. Jesus flips our view of manhood upside down. To be fully human is not to hold power over and against others, but to live a life of service to others. Jesus says that the “Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” The alpha-male wants to be served. The Truly Human one serves through love and nonviolence.
Jesus also flips our view of God upside down. If God is like Jesus, then God is the Spirit of service, love and nonviolence, who lovingly forgives even God’s enemies. There is no violent alpha-male in God!
To make the point, Michael directs us to the cross. Given what much of American theology says about the cross, this may seem an unlikely place. But it’s exactly here, in our Atonement theology, where our discussion about God needs the most redemption. Humanity’s ultimate rejection of God is seen on the cross. But did God respond to that ultimate rejection by rejecting those who rejected him?
No, in fact, God forgave those who rejected him. Michael states:
The cross is the ultimate place of God’s brokenness. It is in this brokenness that we see most clearly the affection of God for humanity, an affection or love which takes even misjudgment, torture, humiliation and shame and still announces forgiveness.
American Christian theology, with its violent god who rejects those who reject him, is implicated in the murders that happened last Friday. Those of us who call ourselves Christians must repent from that theology. We must change our minds about a violent god. We must take responsibility for doing our part in redeeming theology so that it begins to look much more like the fully human and fully divine Jesus than the violent and idolatrous god of our own making.
This reflection was inspired by Michael’s Facebook post on the tragedy, which you can read here.