Christchurch - "They Are Us"

04-02-2019 by

David Crawford, President

In the Muslim world, Friday is called Yawm al-Jum’ah or Day of Assembly. It is a time to break from work or other business and gather as a community at a local masjid for mid-day prayer. So it was on Friday afternoon, half a world a way, in Christchurch, New Zealand, that the faithful were called to prayer at two neighborhood mosques; the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue, and another several miles away on Linwood Avenue. Many of those gathered were migrants and refugees from violence in other parts of the world, invited, indeed, welcomed to New Zealand—a country widely thought of as one of the most peaceful and tolerant in the world.

As the faithful prayed and women and children gathered together in rooms throughout the Al Noor Mosque, a white man, armed with a military assault rifle, and wearing a bullet-proof vest and para-military clothing reportedly entered this sacred space and began shooting.

As of this writing, 49 human beings, men, women, and children have died; as many 40 others, some in critical condition, are still being treated at local hospitals.

Stop and remember:

Nine African-American Christians in Charleston. Eleven Jewish men and women in Pittsburgh. And now, forty-nine Muslim men, women, and children in Christchurch, New Zealand. Human beings of different backgrounds, cultures, and faith traditions living on two continents—all lost—each a victim of the same radical, hate-filled, social media fueled, white supremacist ideology.

As New Zealand’s president, Jacinda Ardern, noted without any equivocation (unlike a certain other president after attacks in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh), this was a terrorist attack. This was not just a hate crime; it was an act designed to advance an ideology of white supremacy, a violent, racist, ideological threat both here and abroad.

As if the attack were not horrific enough, it is reported that the gunman at the Al Noor Mosque live-streamed the attack on Facebook, with videos quickly posted and re-posted on other sites. As reported in the Washington Post:

  • The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit. Users on 8chan — known for its politically extreme and often-hateful commentary — watched in real time, cheering or expressing horror. They traded links to the alleged shooter’s hate-filled postings and to mirrors of his videos, while encouraging each other to download copies before they were taken off line.

In the same article, Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center asserts, "The point [of live streaming] isn't to gain attention to the violence, the point is to gain attention to the ideology."

In an interview reported by CBS News online, New York Police Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said:

  • The New Zealand attack was further evidence that, ‘in terms of tactics, the neo-fascist groups, the white supremacists, are borrowing from the ISIS playbook.’ Miller noted that it was ISIS that first instructed its terrorist followers to "die live" -- by broadcasting attacks in real time via social media platforms. He said white nationalist extremism was something ‘we monitor very carefully. It's something that has been emergent. We're seeing an increase in the propaganda.’

In addition to live-streaming the attack, we now know that one of the terrorists posted a 70-page “manifesto” on his Facebook page following the attack. In it he expresses his support for Donald Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” while dismissing him as a “policy leader and leader.” In the same manifesto, the shooter also reportedly states that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-American members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was one of his inspirations. Mr. Trump has condemned the attack with a tweet saying his “warmest sympathies and best wishes goes [sic] out to the people of New Zealand.” No mention of terrorism or white supremacy or racism or zenophobia or Islamophobia or hate or guns.

(In an article for The Nation posted later this afternoon, national correspondent John Nichols calls out Mr. Trump’s incapacity to name these things for what they are and also notes, sadly, that shortly after briefly expressing his sympathies for the people of New Zealand, Mr. Trump went on to deliver yet another lengthy whine about Robert Mueller.

Our own troubles aside, I must say that when I first heard this news, my thoughts couldn’t align the words. They made no sense. The headline was momentarily incomprehensible: Forty-nine people gunned down in Christchurch. In Christchurch.

My brain slowly wrapped around it, but having never been to New Zealand, my first mental connection was a visit to Oxford, England.

By way of background, Christchurch is the third largest city in New Zealand with a population of about 400,000, and the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island. The city was named for Christ Church, one of the constituent colleges of Oxford University in England. The college, originally founded in 1520 by Henry VIII’s then chief advisor, Cardinal Woolsey, was, according the college’s website, established “to improve education and train young men for an active life in the church or the state.” After Woolsey’s fall from favor in 1529, Henry himself took over the college and re-founded it in 1546 as Aedes Christi—the house or church of Christ. Yes, that Henry.

Among the college’s many famous alumni is the philosopher John Locke. However we might regard his work today, his “Letter Concerning Toleration” published some 330 years ago, may offer a meaningful, but imperfect, insight to this awful attack:

“The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light.”

Whether animated by rage or reason, or, perhaps, both, let us make today our day of prayer and pray for those whose lives have been lost and the lives now forever changed by this latest white terrorist attack. Pray for the dead, the wounded, and their families. Pray for Muslim brothers and sisters here at home as they gather in sacred spaces for prayers today and in all the days to come. Pray for the people of New Zealand as they seek to find light in this darkness. And pray that we, too, will find strength and courage to pursue the paths of love and tolerance, and resist the hate and fear that fuel this virulent strain of white terrorism.

And let us keep close the words of New Zealand’s president who reminded her community that those whose lives were taken were not “they” or “them.” “They are us.”

David Crawford, President
McCormick Theological Seminary