Mental Illness is not Religious Persecution

The recent shooting at a Sikh temple was perpetrated by a person who exhibited aberrant behavior in many other regards. He had been engaged in groups that advocated a “white supremacy” agenda. Even though such attitudes are considered unnatural in our culture, the freedoms protected by our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly protect the groups and their members as long as they do not actually harm others. Some may remember when some neonazi sympathizers marched in Skokie, Illinois. Nobody thought they had good ideas, but nobody wanted to suppress the Constitutional guarantee of free speech. The outcomes of this shooter’s attitudes are just as destructive as persecution, but the attitudes are personal, not rooted in the culture or the state.

Self-centered behavior and the assumption of a right to execute judgments on personal enemies is beyond the capabilities or even the rightful powers of the state to prevent. Many people have ideas just as judgmental as the shooter at the Sikh temple, but the vast majority of people do not feel entitled to execute judgment on others. The fact that this person felt that sort of entitlement is not within the power of law or enforcement to control. People who feel this way always feel driven by a power nobody else can even imagine, because most people, probably 99% of all people, do not feel entitled to execute terminal judgment on people they disagree with.  

Human law and the legitimate enforcement powers are not able to prevent this sort of “one-off” behavior. Like the shooter in Aurora, the shooter at the Sikh temple gave nobody in the general population any hint of what was coming. Police can study organized crime or gang warfare and learn things that may poise them to prevent or intervene in such criminal behavior. Neither the shooting in Aurora nor the shooting at the Sikh temple is rooted in the normal venal or intergroup conflicts that police action can hope to intervene in or thwart.

All human law relies on instilling a fear of the consequences as a very real part of the power of law to contain the behaviors that grow out of the natural human sinful nature. It is human nature to want to avoid arrest, detention or execution. Setting up harsh penalties for crimes is a partial deterrent, although the fact that criminal behavior continues apace despite harsh penalties, is a reminder that many of the perpetrators of crimes simply believe that they are so smart that nobody will ever catch them. Hence, they have no fear of the consequences. This attitude is typical of those violent and exceptional individuals with the kind of agenda that leads a person to engage in mass shootings of innocent people.

The recent episodes in which shooters killed random victims in movie theater and at a Sikh temple are the outcome of mental illness too irrational to be controlled by any fear of arrest or imprisonment. These individuals give ample evidence that they don’t care if they are caught in the act. The behavior is a crime, but the crime can only be punished, not prevented. This sort of behavior is not touched by rules or laws or cultural norms.

The recent episodes were perpetrated with guns, leading to yet another national discussion of the Second Amendment. This blog is focused on the recognition of religious persecution, not on the Second Amendment, so I will only say in passing that removing guns will not prevent such episodes. It will only change the mechanism by which the madness is expressed.

It is important for Christians to recognize and respond appropriately to evidence of religious persecution. The acts of madmen do not meet the definition of religious persecution by the culture or the state. The murder of innocent people is already a crime in the laws of the United States, and therefore, no new laws are required in order to appropriately deal with perpetrators who are arrested alive. In the case of the Sikh temple shooting, the perpetrator was killed by the police engaging in appropriate action for the protection of the people under assault.

Neither Sikhs nor Christians nor any other religious group needs to fear that this event is a sign of things to come. If the government had responded to this shooting by ignoring the crime or by trying to protect the perpetrator, then people of all religious persuasions would have both the right and the responsibility to speak up and ask the government to do its duty to protect the free expression of religion as our First Amendment requires. If the former associates of the shooter had subsequently announced their endorsement of this act or worse, announced that it is part of their agenda with more such acts to come, then we could understand it as a cultural expression of religious persecution. If the government responded by folding its hands and refusing to investigate the crime or to speak against such an agenda, then we could start worrying that our government supports such violence. We can give prayers of thanksgiving that our government is not protecting anyone who behaves this way.

We can also give prayers of thanksgiving that normal police policies and procedures did, in fact, end the life of the shooter before he could end any more lives than were lost due to normal police response time.

We can further give thanks that in our country, churches are not surrounded by guards. The Indian government asked that places of worship be protected at all costs. Such a request sounds like political overkill, not a reasonable reaction to a real tragedy. Places of worship in the United States are not under assault. If that were the case, we would see frequent reports of such killings and attacks. If places of worship were under regular assault by ordinary citizens, then our culture would be in a real shambles. We can look to Nigeria for the evidence of a cultural climate and a government attitude that promotes frequent assaults on places of worship. That is not what is happening here.

It is important to be vigilant against persecution. We need to be vigilant because attitudes and behaviors that lead to real persecution can slip up on us. Like the well-known cautionary tale of the frog in the boiling water, a lack of vigilance can result in the ultimate destruction of our freedom. There are cultural indicators that the free exercise of religion is increasingly disfavored by our fellow citizens who have in many cases adopted the secular words expressed by political leaders without applying critical thinking skills to those words in order to discern the truth embodied in the seemingly innocuous verbiage. Christians, and Sikhs and Buddhists and other religious groups, must be very alert when any political leader speaks on a subject related to religion. As the Catholic Bishops are discovering, seemingly normal language can be used to enforce quite discriminatory behavior that suppresses the normal free exercise of religion, all the while claiming quite the opposite.

We all must join with the Sikhs who mourn the death of their innocent fellow worshipers. We must all speak and act in accord with our national commitment to assure the right of all people to exercise their religious beliefs in peace. We must not, absolutely not, join in a national diatribe, using deliberately pejorative words to impugn the character of everyone who disagrees with us. Rather, following the teaching of Christ, we must pray to stand firm in our testimony and pray for the love and blessing of God upon our opponents in this conversation..