I tracked news reports of a bomber terrorizing Austin, and then less than a month later, of a mass-shooter in Nashville. Both were white, Christian, and formerly home-schooled. All identity markers that I share.
I read the reports from both Austin, Texas and Morton, Illinois (the home of the Nashville shooter) with knots forming in my stomach, and ice running down my spine.
A little awkward.
Nice, but kept to himself.
When I look into the faces, or the headlines, of those men, I saw someone who could easily be my brother, or one of my close friends from my home-school group.
It grieves me because as much as I want to scratch my head and wonder “Why?” alongside so many others, it would be disingenuous.
I don’t have the reasons why these young men were driven to such radical acts of violence, but I do know that home-school culture probably didn’t help.
I took these incidents as an invitation for critical self-reflection for the community that raised me, and for those who, like me, have left that community behind in many ways.
There are many things the christian home-schooling community handed to me that were great gifts; skills that continue to serve me well in my career today. I still think that home-schooling can be a good thing for some parents, and in some situations. I don’t believe it’s all bad, but I know it’s not all good either, and critical engagement, refinement, and repentance honors both.
I was educated inside a home that taught me the world was becoming increasingly corrupt, and that I, and each my friends who believed like me, was the hope who would correct the terrible woes of our society.
It was assumed my greatest contribution to this movement would be for me to one day raise my own children in a godly way, and home-school them and keep our home. That’s a lot for a twelve year old to shoulder, and I did so awkwardly at best.
My male friends were lauded for their strength. Accounts from the Austin bomber’s childhood community recorded hobbies like choreographing epic sword-fighting battles, and learning survivalist techniques. Reading those accounts took me back to long afternoons in sprawling backyards watching “the boys” wield their foam swords, sun streaming through the trees and baking my legs and shoulders as I sat by the swings.
We believed we were going to change the world. The models that I was handed for “Christian living” and the hope for our “Christian nation” were narrow, and sharply defined. It was our duty to vie for political power, and mobilize those who would agree with us, so that we might move the depraved culture back to the “good old days”—for the glory of God.
Tolerance for differences in opinion was a fast-track on to the slippery slope that led to the moral decline of a nation and, ultimately, to eternal torment in hell.
Most people I knew had different ideas on what things should be tolerated, and what things should not. I remember my mom specifically challenging my textbook’s accusation that Catholics were not true Christians.
Our family was more tolerant around the Protestant-Catholic division than some, and certainly more so than the authors of my textbook from Bob Jones University. There were other viewpoints on which there could be no tolerance for disagreement though:
Evolution? No way.
Immigration reform? Definitely not.
Gay marriage? Please see yourself out.
Abolishing the death penalty? What kind of liberal crazy person are you?
There was an national movement, Generation Joshua, that some kids joined to learn how to be more effective at this.
I never really stopped to think about what the world we were trying to create would look like practically, what it would mean for kids who weren’t home-schooled, who weren’t Christians. I never thought about how our civic engagement effected anyone not like us.
They were probably wrong anyway.
What happens to that sense of purpose when things don’t go as planned though?
We were convinced we were the hope of the world, that anyone who wouldn’t receive the politics and the religion we were peddling was deceived – God save their souls. Rather than calling us to participate in the work of God redeeming the world already unfolding, we were trying to build a movement on our own. That’s hard to sustain, and easily led to me feeling like messenger, judge, and jury in the lives of those whom I encountered.
What kind of desperate lengths can one be driven to under such pressure? I don’t know, but it seems like an area worth reflecting on.
The question of suffering seemed to consistently be answered by a gesture to the external. Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, it’s probably their own fault somehow. Why are there problems in society? Because we “banned God” from public schools. Admitting powerlessness in the face of the unexplainable requires a healthy understanding and practice of humility, which rightly understood is a practice of seeing oneself in a sober light, as neither more excellent nor more broken than one actually is.
We were at once both depraved little worms, sinful to the bone, and also completely absolved from contributing to any societal ills—because we voted Republican.
The problems were always outside the community. We never stopped to consider that the policies we pushed for may be harmful for some. We never stopped to think about the ways we were complicit in the systems and structures that gave rise to oppression and violence. We looked back at the men who had shaped our nation, and lauded them without reproach and longed for the days we could move the nation back.
Make America great again, you could say.
Like Pilate, we washed our hands of violence we were complicit in committing, and turned a blind eye to the problems within our own homes. When you grow up believing everyone else is responsible for the problems in society, or in your own life, lashing out at those who are not like you is not such a radical leap.
I don’t have answers, but these stories have chilled me to the bone and brought me to my knees in lament. Not because I don’t understand how it happened, but because I can see the potential all too clearly.
These damning instances are a door thrown wide open, inviting those in the Christian home-school movement to critically reflect on the ways in which they are forming their children. They are an opportunity for those of us who grew up in the midst of this subculture to interrogate our own lives. To seek the help of professional counselors and therapists where we find our internal lives unmanageable.
I didn’t have friends with differing viewpoints or life experiences, at least not radically so. Sure, some of us were Baptist and some were Presbyterian, but the quibble over free will versus predestination was the furthest bridge one could cross, and mostly we just didn’t talk about it.
For all the emphasis on civil engagement and contending for our beliefs, there wasn’t much said about critically engaging your opponent. Reading the blogs from the Waffle House shooter’s college course are entirely too familiar. “I disagree with this, because it’s against nature. It’s a bad idea. This isn’t Christian.” I’ve made those kind of arguments for decades of my life.
May we resist the urge to shrug our shoulders and scratch our heads, and instead engage in the hard, necessary work of critical reflection and repentance.
When children are raised to be soldiers in a culture war, everything and everyone can begin to look like a target.
I grew up thinking the answer to our societal woes would be to dial back the pluralism in society. That’s not going to happen, nor do I think it should any more. Much harm has been done in the name on monoculturalism, and yes, monoculturalism in the name of Jesus. A more helpful question is: how are we becoming people who engage with those who are different than we are in a way that models the humility and love of Christ? How do we embody radical tolerance, and not only that-even radical grace! Not because we’re so great, but because this is the very posture and action of the God we claim to worship.