Dear Church family,
By now we have all learned what happened in the early morning hours of this past Sunday, when a domestic terrorist pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS) entered a nightclub in Orlando and proceeded to kill 49 people and wound 53 others. Orlando police eventually killed the attacker after a 3-hour standoff.
The sheer magnitude of this atrocity is overwhelming — may God have mercy on us. The loss of life makes the Orlando massacre the greatest single mass killing by an individual in American history. There have been many issues raised in connection with it in the media over the past few days: the fact that that the terrorist was targeting gay and lesbian people (given that he attacked a gay nightclub), the ongoing debate about gun control, the role of social media in allowing terrorists to glamorize acts of violence, and the mental pathologies of the particular man who carried out the attacks. All of these issues are important and worthy of discussion. Yet at heart I think they are symptoms rather than root causes.
There is a root cause, though, and I think it is important to name it. What motivated the terrorist who attacked the Orlando nightclub — according to his own statements — was a commitment to radical Islam and a desire to inflict punishment on the West. We could easily list out a tragic catalog of other attacks inspired by radical Islam over the past several years. In this country alone, that includes the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the 2015 Chattanooga attacks, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting, and, of course, 9/11 itself. Those are just the incidents that have received the most media attention: because they involved so many deaths, or because they involved attacks on military installations, or because they were so brazen in the way they were carried out. There have been many other similarly motivated attacks besides.
The root cause of the Orlando tragedy and so many others in recent years is a clash of cultures. In the West, we have a foundational commitment to liberty that guides our attitudes towards religious freedom, economic opportunity, and personal self-expression. We certainly don’t always agree with one another — but insisting on a conformity of belief or practice is not what our culture is grounded upon. It is rather grounded upon the idea that a people should be free to seek out their own fulfillment and that a society of free men and women is ultimately stronger because of that very freedom. One might say that the history of the United States of America, while far from perfect, is a testament to the fruits that liberty produces.
As a Christian pastor, I believe that religious liberty, in particular, is essential to my own ability to preach the gospel and guide others to faith in Jesus Christ. I can speak in the name of God with the assurance that no government organization or other outside group is going to censor me. I can lead my flock in the ways of discipleship even when those ways are out of step with the broader culture, knowing that no one is going to arrest or imprison us because of it. Because we share a right to the freedom of assembly, we can gather each Sunday for worship knowing that nobody can place a padlock on the doors of our church to keep us from doing so.
The culture represented by those who have carried out heinous acts like the one in Orlando is nothing so broad as “Middle Eastern” or “Islamic,” and we should be careful about the language that we use when we are talking about it. I have had Muslim friends and acquaintances at various points in my life, and I’ve been enriched by those relationships. During a 2007 trip to Egypt, I experienced Muslim hospitality over meals and meetings and was humbled by it. Understanding that the vast majority of Muslims are just as desirous of peace, compassion, and mutual understanding as anyone else is very important.
Yet there is a particular strain of radical Islam that sees itself as being in fundamental conflict with Western values and beliefs. In some cases — including two different incidents in Libya from 2015 when ISIS executed dozens of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians — the proponents of radical Islam frame their conflict as being between their own faith and that of Christianity. This is the radical Islam of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. And whether the terrorists who embrace it travel to our country from abroad or are domestic terrorists who “self-radicalize,” the danger that radical Islam represents to us is the same. Its culture and our own are simply incompatible.
There are no easy answers to what I am describing here, though I think keeping in mind the actual root cause is important. That’s not to say that the symptomatic issues I mentioned earlier are unimportant. Far from it. Yet I would counsel us all to understand what is fundamentally at stake with clear-eyed vision and courage.
My own heart has been troubled by reading story after story about the Orlando massacre since last Sunday. I have been praying for the victims and their families, and I hope you will do that as well. I have also been praying for all of you — something which as your pastor I will continue to do always.
Yours in Christ,