Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Berean Pastors Reflect on the Newtown Tragedy

Earlier this year, Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, NC found himself in the middle of a media firestorm. During a "Marriage Sunday" sermon, Harris told congregants to punch "effeminate" sons. Ever since the controversy, I've taken an interest in Berean's rhetoric, listening to their podcasts from time to time in search of controversial messages.

With the Newtown shooting drawing so much attention from the nation, I was eager to hear what the Berean pastors had to say about the tragedy. What I found was a mixed bag, with the Berean pastors making both sensitive and insensitive remarks about Newtown.

On one hand, the Berean pastors seemed to be trying to add constructive observations to the public conversation about violence. On December 17th, in a podcast entitled "Violent America Wonders Why", William Sturm rejected the idea that widespread gun ownership is correlated with violence. Rather, he blamed society glorification and normalization of violence for brutal crimes such as the Newtown massacre. "America is a culture that absolutely craved violence," Sturm stated, telling listeners that if they seek out ultraviolent entertainment, allow children to play violent first-person shooter video games, or become mired in anger, they are part of the problem. At the 5:01 mark, Sturm criticized people who blame politicians for America's problems without doing their share to stop violence.
"I am irritated, aggravated, nauseated, annoyed and frustrated at the believers who want to hound their president, their representatives, their senators and bemoan all that is wrong in America when they won't even fix their own front yard. It's easy to slam a politician. It's hard to take something from one of your children, and to remove something, an influence of some type from their life and for just a few moments, understand that you have just disappointed them. That's the hard work."
On the other hand, Sturm also used the Newtown tragedy to disparage non-Christians. On December 16th, in a podcast entitled "Obama Cries, Quotes Scripture in Speech on Conn. School Shooting", Sturm was pleased that Obama quoted the Bible during his speech on the massacre. At the 2:50 mark, Sturm gloated that President Obama supposedly left out Muslims and atheists.
"I think it's interesting that first of all, we need to point out that he did not quote the Quran. I think that should be pointed out. I think it should be pointed out that he was willing to, for just a few brief moments, ostracize the Muslims, to make them feel like they were unincluded. Why did he not quote the Quran? Why did he not quote simply the Torah, to endure [sic] the Jewish folks to himself? why did he have to quote anything? He right flat out probably offended the atheists, and before anyone says something stupid like, well, the separation of church and state ... don't even bring that dog to the fight. The truth is, it's not in the constitution, and only a novice would bring that up."
Actually, it is. Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," while Article VI states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." But I digress.

Sturm's interpretation of the President's speech indicate a deep contempt for non-Christians and an eagerness to see them delegitimized in the public realm. He should reflect on the fact that people of many faiths contribute to American society, and that people of many faith were horrified by the Newtown shooting, not just Christians. Sturm should remember that fundamentalist Christians do not have a monopoly on American identity, compassion, or sorrow.

Finally, in a December 16th podcast entitled "The Hero of Sandy Hook: Vicki Soto", Sean E. Harris recounted the heroism of Vicki Soto, who tried to protect children from Lanza's rampage. He also spoke reverently of the Sandy Hook Elementary principle and school psychology, who demonstrated bravery during the massacre. In doing so, Harris demonstrated sensitivity and respect for victims. However, at the 9:01 mark, Harris claimed that the Gospel, not legislation, was the real answer to mass violence.
"The Gospel's the only solution to this. There are not enough laws that could be enacted to solve this problem. We already have the law that communicated all that needs to be communicated. The law's very simple. The law's very simple. Thou shalt do no murder. Thou shalt do no murder. That's the law. That's the plain and simple law. That law's not sufficient, and adding two more laws or three more laws or four more laws is not going to do anything to correct depraved situations. And certainly safeguards can be taken, and we should look for every measure of safeguard we can, but I want to remind you what the word of God says ... We're to do everything we can to prevent these kind of tragedies, everything we can to safeguard children. Do all we can, but safety belongs to the Lord."
I did not find this comment particularly constructive. Instead of hoping that a return to the Christian Gospel will solve America's violence problem, we need to explore the roots of mass violence and developed multi-pronged strategies for preventing future tragedies. Lasting solutions to any social problem includes cultural change and community awareness as well as legislation, so automatically dismissing any new laws is premature.

In short, the Berean pastors' response to the Sandy Hook tragedy was mixed. Some of their comments encouraged sensitivity, respect for lives lost, and personal efforts to change our culture of violence. On the other hand, other comments used the tragedy as an excuse to take jabs at non-Christians, or promote a Gospel solution to violence when far more efforts are needed.

To listen to Berean Baptist Church's podcasts, click here.

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