Again this past weekend we have been confronted with the evil and violence of human brokenness and sin as 49 people were killed and 53 injured by a gunman at an Orlando nightclub. According to those who knew him, the shooter appears to have been a troubled, angry man prone to violence. He was also given to angry anti-gay rhetoric. And he expressed a somewhat confused affinity for groups espousing violent versions of Islam.
There is no doubt this was a calculated terrorist attack. The groups with whom the attacker verbally aligned himself are evil perversions of Islam specializing in terror. While these groups represent a strain of "extremist" Islam, we need to be clear that they do not represent all of Islam or the majority Muslims. And we need to be wary of responding to their violent rejection of all who differ with them with a similar rejection of those with whom we differ. We must counter their ideology and theology of death with an ideology and theology of life and peace (Romans 8:6).
There is also no doubt that it was not a random attack. It was a targeted attack against gay and lesbian people – people who are all too often the targets of physical violence and violent, disdainful rhetoric. We can give thanks that another attack apparently targeting a Gay Pride parade in Los Angeles was thwarted by police. But, we also need to recognize that the Orlando shooter did not need inspiration from foreign terrorists to conclude that the presence of gays and lesbians is somehow an egregious moral threat. Rhetoric like that is common enough in America – and in American churches. We need to find better ways to talk about and to one another, regardless of our convictions about human sexuality.
I suggest that the best way to respond to the Orlando shooting is with the basic Christian disciplines of hope, love, and peace.
Hope. If we have died with Christ in baptism with the promise of sharing in his resurrection, we have a hope stronger than life or death or anything in between. With St. Paul, we can live convinced that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). With that assurance, we can dare to live without fear, including without fear of those who are different from us or with whom we disagree.
Love. Free from fear, we are free to learn to love. The love Christians are called to practice is not a sentimental feeling, but a determination to die to self in order to make space for the other. It is the way of the cross that calls us to love even our enemies and those who wish us harm. And it is a love that challenges us to consider where we have hurt or offended others. Love seeks more to understand than to be understood. Love demands that we take care how we carry others in our hearts and on our tongues. How we think and talk to or about one another matters (Matthew 12:36; cf. Matthew 5:22, James 3:2-9, 1 John 4:20)
Peace. As with love, there is no sentimentality in following the way of the Prince of Peace – it is the clear-eyed determination to bless rather than curse, to seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:13-14 & 1 Peter 3:8-22), and to not be conformed to this world, but transformed into a people who return good for evil (Romans 12). There have been mass killings in the United States inspired by violent strains of Islam. But, there have been more that had nothing to do with Islam or any foreign terrorist group. We need to come to terms with the violence of our society. We need to reconsider our own ready embrace of violence as a solution and the idea that if we all just armed ourselves more we would be safe. That is not the way of Jesus.