Mulling Over the Poway Synagogue Shooter’s Background

Mulling Over the Poway Synagogue Shooter’s Background May 2, 2019

I’ve been mulling the background of the shooter at Chabad of Poway synagogue in California over in my head for several days now. He was homeschooled until high school, one of six children raised in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). That’s Kevin Swanson’s denomination. And while Doug Wilson founded his own denomination, he, too, has OPC ties. What does all of this mean? I’ve been trying to puzzle it out all week.

The shooter’s family put out a statement disavowing his actions and arguing that they taught him that “love must be the motive for everything we do.” They wrote with sadness and regret that their son “is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on the Jewish people for centuries.”

There were aspects of the shooter’s manifesto that were profoundly alien to me. The rank antisemitism for one: the shooter used the same antisemitic tropes verbatim as the Nazis. The white nationalism, for another: the shooter claimed that Jews are engaged in a plot to eliminate the Aryan race, the most beautiful race ever created.

Like the shooter, I was homeschooled. While I was not raised Reformed, I did grow up that movement’s fringes, and I’m familiar with many of its leaders. When I read about the shooter, I experience an odd mixture of the familiar and the alien. It’s a strange experience.

The shooter states in his manifesto that he didn’t get his antisemitism from his parents. He appears to have been radicalized in shadowy corners of the internet—the same corners of the internet where the New Zealand mosque shooter was radicalized, in fact. This leaves me tempted to consign him to the same pile as all the other young white men radicalized on the internet, their hate stoked and directed at the same list of targets.

But then, that doesn’t mean everything in the shooter’s manifesto was unfamiliar to me, a homeschool kided like him. The shooter derided “cultural Marxism.” I remember that term well. According to others that I’ve read, the shooter also lays out a theology of justifiable homicide similar to that used to justify the killing of abortion doctors in the 1990s. I remember those days too. It made sense. If abortion doctors are murdering babies, killing them would save lives.

And then there are other things that keep surfacing in the churn of my mind. I grew up believing that we were locked in a war of us versus them, a conflict to end all conflicts with liberals who wanted to eliminate God from our society and strip our country of its moral foundations. It was spiritual war. Liberals were Satan’s willing pawns.

While I haven’t seen research on this, it seems to make intuitive sense that teaching young people to see the world in this way would make it easier for extremists to radicalize them. While there are certainly big differences between the dire, apocalyptic worldview I was taught and the one traded in by white nationalists, there are some significant similarities in their dualistic extremes, their certainty, and their absolute urgency. And both traffic in fear.

What about the shooter’s parents’ statement that they taught him that “love must be the motive for everything we do”? Unsurprisingly, it’s not that simple. We weren’t taught to fight back against cultural Marxism merely with love, or merely by trying to spread the gospel or convert more people. No. In 2000, Michael Farris founded Patrick Henry College to educate homeschooled youth and put them in positions in government, media, and education. See, we were supposed to fight back. Not with guns, surely. But this was never just about love. It was war.

I don’t mean to minimize the difference between going to law school with the expressed intent to return the country to its biblical mores, on the one hand, and picking up a gun and tactical gear and walking into a synagogue, on the other. These are obviously two very different things.

Consider the shooting of abortion doctors in the 1990s. That was a moment when the Christian Right I grew up in veered into abject violence. That wasn’t about training up young lawyers to put on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. That was about something very different. Yes, those murders were widely avowed. But still—within a certain mindset, they were understandable.

Imagine being taught that homosexuals are degenerate monsters dragging our nation into a godless abyss that will result in concentration camps for Christians. Imagine being taught that Hollywood is putting smut into movies on purpose, to erode the nation’s morals and hand the country over to Satan. Imagine being told that abortion doctors strangle and dismember thousands of screaming infants every day, in the greatest genocide of our time.

I sometimes wonder why we haven’t seen violence more often, to be honest.

What of the shooter’s white supremacism, though? My mind is drawn to Doug Wilson’s 1997 book, Southern Slavery As It Was. In it, slaves are docile, uncomplicated, and obedient while southern whites are beneficent and good. Wilson’s co-author was one of the founders of the League of the South, a white nationalist separatist organization that attended Charlottesville in full armor. (Yes, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has sometimes had its arguments with Wilson, but those arguments have been over obscure theological points, not his views on race and slavery.)

I was taught, growing up, that racism was evil and that all are equal in God’s eyes. But it’s not always that simple, is it? I also grew up on missionary stories of good, godly white people ministering to barbarous, pagan black and brown people. The homeschool community I grew up in—that the shooter grew up in—elevated a “classical” curriculum that centered on books written by white people and implicitly presented civilization as white. 

But in the Reformed world, there’s also more. There’s kinism, for instance. (While my parents were influenced by Wilson, I didn’t grow up Reformed.) The Reformed world—the one the shooter grew up in—has some very serious racial problems that it has never fully grappled with.

I’m not used to linking the Gospel Coalition positively, but if you’re not familiar with kinism, you should read this excellent Gospel Coalition article by Joe Carter. Kinism, in short, is the belief that God designed the races to be separate. This belief, Carter writes, is “far more prevalent [in Reformed churches] than many of us want to admit.”

I started following Anthony Bradley on twitter by accident. I’m honestly not sure how it happened, but his tweets started showing up on my phone’s lock screen. And I started reading them. Anthony Bradley is black and Reformed, and he doesn’t mince words about racism and white supremacism in the Reformed church. I’ve been reading him for weeks, long before this shooting, but what he has to say never felt more relevant than it does now.

And have a look at this tweet, which makes the same point I did:

I am not an expert in the race problems that have beset the Reformed world for—well, centuries—but if you want to know more, you should read through Anthony Bradley’s facebook feed. And while I’m no expert, I’m well familiar with Robert Dabney, who is still widely venerated in Reformed circles. Dabney, a Virginian, was a rank white supremacist.

Don’t take my word for it. Dabney wrote as follows in 1876:

But you asked for my opinion of this fearful question of the negro in our common schools … to raise taxes to give a pretended education to the brats of black paupers, who are loafing around their plantations … the pretended education which Virginia is now giving, at so heavy a cost, to the Negroes, is, as a remedy for negro suffrage, utterly deceptive, farcical and dishonest. …

Negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of American citizens: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship; a general moral grade so deplorably low as to permit their being driven or bouth like a herd of sheep by the demagogue; a parasitical servility and dependency of nature which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages … Now our political quacks propose to cure them. And how? A modicum of the arts of reading, writing, and ciphering, will infuse through the wool of such heads.

Just so we’re perfectly clear: the man who wrote these words is viewed as a wise, prescient, and absolutely foundational theologian by those in the Reformed world to this day. According to Dabney’s wiki, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church values his theological work but has disavowed his views on race and slavery. But surely views as horrific as Dabney’s couldn’t help but affect his theology. Why would you think he could get that right, while having such views? Especially when many of his theological views were formed in the context of the Civil War?

So yes, we absolutely do need to focus on the dark corners of the internet where the Poway shooter was radicalized, but we shouldn’t focus only on those corners. I think we also need to ask whether some of the things the shooter learned, growing up in an OPC church and in Reformed circles, being homeschooled in a Christian homeschool community, may have in some ways primed him for such radicalization.

This is something I’ll likely continue mulling on for a long, long time.

Note: Some may wonder whether I’m drawing a lot out from a single case. One shooter. Not exactly much of a pattern. But it’s not actually just one shooter

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