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Violence, Hatred and a Call to Self-Reflection

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The headlines have been haunting in recent days. Last week 14 explosive devices were intercepted while in transit through the US mail. Fortunately no one was injured. Worshippers at the Sabbath services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA were not so fortunate. A gunman barged into the building and opened fire. The assault resulted in 11 dead and many others wounded.

On Friday, law officials arrested Cesar Sayoc for sending the mail bombs and charged him with five federal crimes. After the shootout in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Robert Bowers surrendered to police. He faces 50 charges ranging from committing hate crimes to premeditated murder. Bower’s rampage is the worst assault against Jews in US history.

These shocking instances of violence and hatred cause us to weep and lament. But we should also sieze these tragic moments for self-reflection and self-examination, for these actions did not happen in a vacuum. We live and breath in a culture sick with anger, hatred and division.

I hope none of our readers is tempted towards such unspeakable acts. However, we should all examine the way we talk to and think about one another, especially about those with whom we disagree.  Below are three initial ways we can begin:

1. Watch our speech.

We live in a time of red-hot rhetoric. Disagreements are cast in lurid terms; opponents are denounced as evil enemies. Both sides of the political aisle are guilty of using extreme (and sometimes violent) language. It’s time for a moratorium.

We need to reassess the way we talk to and about our theological and political opponents. Our words have power, and the exercise of that power has consequences.

Scripture has a lot to say about the proper way to communicate. A lot. Consider what Paul said to the Ephesian church:

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil… Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear… Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 5:25-32)

The Bible has many other similar passages. More than ever, believers need to make sure that all of our conversations—including those which take place on social media—are grace-filled and Christ-honoring.

2. Allow God’s grace to cultivate in our hearts.

Both of this week’s accused assailants are older men; Sayoc is 56 years old, and Bowers is 46. One cannot help but notice how many of the perpetrators of mass violent crimes are middle-aged (and older) men. For example, this time last year Stephen Paddock opened fire on an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding hundreds of others. Paddock was 64 years of age. As a 60-year-old man myself, this fact disturbs me.

I believe an important principle is at play here. In these instances, these men are not hotheaded and young, impulsively driven by the passions of youth. Their evil actions are the culmination of many years of perverse and destructive thinking. They have evidently allowed a lifetime of grievances to fester.

Tendencies that we exhibit in our youth often become defining traits as we grow older. We have all heard the platitudes about how thoughts lead to actions, actions lead to habits, habits shape character, and character defines who we are. Cliché or not, character formation really matters. These men did not become who they are overnight.

We need to be careful about the thoughts we harbor in our hearts about those with whom we disagree, for these thoughts can set our life on a negative trajectory.

Tendencies that we exhibit in our youth often become defining traits as we grow older.

3. Have a community of faith speak truth into our lives.

Another characteristic of each man is that they had little in the way of positive community. Evidently they were loners who either had no community or who searched for community among fringe groups. Character formation does not happen in a vacuum. Proper spiritual and emotional development requires the right environment. This is where a gospel-centered church can make a tremendous difference.

We all need someone to speak truth to us, to call us to account on the first two points. We all need a local church that takes discipleship seriously and that will call us down when our speech, actions and attitudes are out of line. Having a brother or sister in Christ love us enough to hold us to account for repentance and life change can make all the difference in the world.

While violence and hatred are erupting across our country, we must show our neighbors a better way. We must guard our speech, guard our hearts and allow both to be guided by the community of faith.

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Ken Keathley

Senior Professor of Theology and the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology

Ken Keathley is Senior Professor of Theology and the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina where he has been teaching since 2006. He also directs the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He is the co-author of '40 Questions About Creation and Evolution' (Kregel, November 2014). Ken and his wife Penny have been married since 1980, live in Wake Forest, NC and are members of North Wake Church. They have a son and daughter, both married, and four grandchildren.

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