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White Mass Shooters: A Christian Response

by Josh Buck

Late last Tuesday night I checked my social feed to learn about the white mass shooter in Atlanta who gunned down Asian women at their workplace. I was heartbroken by the loss of these precious image bearers. I was also angry. It has become all too common to hear reports about a white male taking guns to purposefully kill lots of people. Though we are squarely in the 21st century and consider ourselves an advanced society, violence of all kinds continues to disrupt our lives and fill our newsfeeds.

Statistics about domestic violence are alarming. Stats about sexual violence on college campuses are enraging. Stats about inner-city violence are on par with war-torn areas. The use of violence by our military is routine. Yet, mass shooter violence is especially distressing.

Of 91 mass shootings from 1982–2017, a clinical forensic psychologist concluded that the vast majority were white, between the ages of 21–41.¹ What do we know about white mass shooters and the reasons for their violence? There are a few common themes that should be understood if we have any chance of creating a more peaceful society. Corrupt masculinity, persistent racism, a lack of mental health support, and the misuse of Christianity are all precipitating factors that, when put together, foster violence in white men. For Christians who are reading this, it is incumbent on us to do something. In this article, I will unpack these four factors and conclude with four practical steps for the church to respond holistically to the problem of white mass shooters.

Masculinity

Hegemonic masculinity is a key factor for the vast majority of white mass shooters. This means that white male mass shooters link concepts of masculinity with power, control, and command over those they seek to kill. Lankford initiated a study looking at 308 mass murderers from 2006 to 2014 to analyze their similarities and differences.² After isolating the white shooters in the study Lankford concluded, “the structural advantages and aggrieved entitlement experienced by whites may help explain their involvement in public mass shootings” (Lankford, Pg. 470). Put simply, young white men who commit mass shootings feel entitled within their masculine identity to act out violently towards those who they perceive as a threat to them. They do so with motivations of power, revenge, in-group loyalty, and terror. It is critical that we address corrupt versions of masculinity in our country, communities, and churches.

Racism

Very few of the white mass shooters have explicitly said that race is a motivating factor in their violence. While this seems to indicate racism is not a major factor, I would strongly argue that we must look closer. Here is why: When looking at Southern lynching events it becomes clear that almost all whites who watched, participated, or provoked violence towards African Americans did not consider themselves racist. They used various reasons for killing African Americans like (1) they were in the wrong neighborhood; (2) they looked at women wrong; (3) they were taking their jobs; (4) they were not controllable; (5) they didn’t belong here; or (6) they were impure. We look back on those white southerners and clearly see that they were racist and that to varying degrees, they all participated in racist structures.

The white Atlanta shooter told police that he killed the Asian women to eliminate sexual temptation and made clear that his attack was not racially motivated. Yet, he was reported to have said, “I’m going to kill all the Asians!” Regardless of the shooters shade of racial animus, this incident can’t be removed from the history of anti-Asian racism nor can we trust white America to determine what is and is not racist.

The Atlanta mass shooter’s response simply reveals a spiritual blindness deep within the heart of white America that fails to see racism clearly. We, white folks, have very rarely considered ourselves racist, even at the most racist points of our history. What makes us think we are any better now at detecting racism in white mass shooter violence against people of color? The explanatory power must be left in the hands of those who have been marginalized and injured by racism to begin with. Will we listen?

Mental Health

Studies show that the majority of white male mass shooters experience mental health issues before carrying out acts of mass violence. Mental health challenges are a thread running through these cases of mass shootings. These health challenges include severe depression, psychopathic traits, and a bent towards proactive aggression.³ While mental health concerns are not meant to diminish the culpability of the shooters nor diminish other factors at play, it is clear that we must address the mental health state of young white men in particular if we are going to curb mass shooting incidents moving forward. Churches and faith leaders play a key role in fostering community where men feel safe to come forward with mental health issues.

Christianity

We, as North American Christians, live in a settler society that was created, established, and sustained through unimaginable violence.⁴ The white church has historically connected the founding of this country with God’s blessing on white settlers.⁵ It continues to alarm me that so many white Christians resist criticizing our settler society as one that committed and still commits acts of unjust violence on behalf of God. The god/country & god/gun ideological sins have crippled the ability of our churches to meaningfully resist violence in our midst. These ideologies have trained us to dismiss the liberating work of Jesus while simultaneously weaponizing passages like Romans 13 to justify settler violence. All of this is done in the name of a white, American Jesus.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that Dylan Roof of the Charleston Massacre and Robert Long from the Atlanta Spa Massacre attended evangelical churches and Long was a self-identified Christian. It is evident that white evangelical spaces have suffered from a broken vision of power and masculinity that has damaged the witness of the church. We must rediscover the historical Jesus and a Christian ethic that fosters counter-violent churches that are unafraid to call out national violence, community violence, and local forms of violence. The god/country & god/gun ideologies must be rejected.

Four Practical Steps:

1. Churches must reimagine masculinity. We need humble, meek, emotive, thoughtful, and courageous church leaders who can foster Christlikeness in men. When this is done properly, we will train men to replace force with humility, aggression with restraint, and hate with love. We need churches that will not glorify violence on the battlefield, in movies, or video games, but glorify the non-violent lamb of God who teaches us what true masculinity should be.

2. The church must address racism. We must hire, platform, and listen to people of color in our midst who have been crying out for centuries that racism is real and that racialization persists into the present. We must work against spiritual forces of darkness that manifest in the modern forms of racism, sexism, and classism. The deep-seated sins of white America are not resolved easily. We must create church spaces that guide us into whole-life discipleship that calls out the sins of racism and that fosters a healthy understanding of collective civic engagement for all marginalized peoples.

3. Churches must address mental health. Put counseling pamphlets in your spaces, talk openly about depression, and de-stigmatize those of us who struggle in the dark with inner pain. Reach out to local therapists for how best to begin the process of de-stigmatization and mental health service integration. The church has only begun to discover the mental health issues that are fostered in a settler society.

4. The church must embrace the way of Jesus. There has been a strong connection between evangelical spaces and the justifications of violence, punitive law, and the valorization of war. We have wrapped the American flag around the cross and made Jesus into a gun-toting American patriot that has blessed the establishment of America through violent conquest. A church that does not reject violence as a core aspect of Christian discipleship does a disservice to young white men who are prone to violence. Our bible studies, preaching, liturgical activities, and discipleship must do this work.

The church of Jesus Christ must call young white men to pick up their cross and abandon violence for the way of love and resistance to evil. The church can become a beacon of counter-violent love and hope in a culture that aggressively fosters white male violence.

It is the work of the church to reimagine masculinity, reject racism, and enable young white men to come forward with their mental health issues. This is the new world God is bringing about through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

NOTE: This article in no way is meant to center white mass shooters. I (Josh) am a white man who is hoping to shed light on a massive problem we face as a collective group in hope of curbing white male violence in the future.

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[1] Springmire, B. (2019). Investigation of mass shootings in America: Establishing a more accurate profile of the mass shooter.

[2] Lankford, A. (2016). Race and mass murder in the United States: A social and behavioral analysis. Current Sociology, 64(3), 470–490.

[3] Wilson, L. C. (Ed.). (2017). The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings. John Wiley & Sons.

[4] A settler society is type of colonialism that replaces the indigenous peoples with an invasive settler population. Over time, this settler society develops a national identity and sovereignty over the land and its natives through the ongoing use of violence.

[5] E.g. → Supersessionism, Manifest Destiny, etc.

Josh is a co-founder of Pax. He has a B.A. in Biblical studies, M.A. in Ministry, and is working on a P.h.D. in Intercultural Studies. His doctoral work involves qualitative research that platforms the voices and stories that have experienced racially motivated violence. He is an adjunct professor at Eternity Bible College, was the co-founding pastor of Antioch City Church of Los Angeles, and is co-founder of an after-school arts program in L.A. called AMP Los Angeles. He has produced and directed documentary films including the life story of Dr. John Perkins. His wife Sarswatie and three kids (Aahana, Anaia, & Azariah) all live in South Bend, Indiana. Follow him on Instagram at @j.w.buck.

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