Religion in Media

Crime, Violence, and Faith

Do you watch the news?

Do you read the news from a newspaper or online?

Honestly, I will assume that at one point or another you have been exposed to the news of your community, your state, our nation, and the international world.

Our Unfortunate Human Reality:

The lightning speed, media filled reality of our 21st century does not permit us to escape, to flee, or to ignore the dark realities of our sin displayed as the horrors of crime and violence.

What horrific realities have you experienced either through the media or more personally?

December 2014, I was visiting family in Arizona for the holidays. My sister (Amanda), my husband (John), and I went shopping at a local mall that is not in the best of neighborhoods. We were in the mall for less than 30 minutes, but when we walked to her jeep the parking lot was filled with several police cars. Apparently, there was a gang related disagreement in the parking lot that included the firing of at least six shots with no known injuries.

July 1995, Amanda’s friend (Eric) was brutally murdered by his own father. Eric’s parents had a history of illegal drug usage. Therefore, his brother (Larry) and he lived with their grandparents. July 1995, their father (reportedly rehabilitated) was granted a fishing trip with Eric and Larry. After crossing into New Mexico, the three arrived at their fishing spot. The father (under the influence) attacked Larry, but Eric enabled Larry to escape. Eric was stabbed 60+ times in the back, beheaded, and his head was thrown from the window onto the inter-state. His father originally claimed that he was “freeing his son from demons”.

Between 1988 and 1993, my mother (Tonya) was married to my step-father (Randy). Randy was an abusive alcoholic. Although Randy did not abuse Amanda and me, he seemed to have an unlimited supply of “reasons” to abuse my mother.

Faith-Based Crime and Violence:

Perhaps you have attempted to ignore any correlation between crime, violence, and religion/faith. Unfortunately, this would simply be an illusion. It is challenging to find a religious tradition that does not have a dark (maybe bloody) skeleton hidden in their closet. Similarly, each religious faith, ideology, philosophy, culture, or gathering of multiple human beings has an extremist or two (or more) that twist it into a justification for horrifying action.

Please note, not all faith-based crimes or violence will be to the scale of these examples given below and these are but only a few of the examples to be found.

Boston Marathon:

On 15 April 2013, the Boston Marathon was shook by two explosive devices that killed 3 people and injured another 264. The suspects are awaiting trial, but speculation is that the motive was rooted in extremist religiosity.

September 11, 2001:

The horrifying events in the United States of America conducted by Al-Qaeda.

Branch Davidians (e.g. Waco Siege):

There are religious communities of survivalist that are concerned with the impending, immediate end of our world. These communities often prepare with shelter stocked in food, water, resources, and occasionally firearms. This collection of firearms often attracts the attention of the federal government, more specifically Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). On 19 April 1993, the ATF engaged the Branch Davidians (“survivalist, doomsday cult”) in a deadly fire-fight at their compound outside of Waco Texas (reference: Waco Siege). Their collection of firearms and defense of the compound was rooted in and motivated by the religious faith and convictions of the Branch Davidian community.

Oklahoma Bombing:

Unfortunately, violence breeds violence. On 19 April 1995 (the two year anniversary), Timothy McVeigh and associates demonstrated to the world their displeasure of the federal government’s (esp. ATF) response in the Waco Siege. The displeasure was rooted in the survivalist ideology, although the relevance of the religious ideology is unknown. McVeigh and associates bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma City Bombing was responsible for the death of 168 people and the injuries of an addition 680+. It damaged 324 buildings within a 16 block radius.

The People’s Temple:

There are religious communities that have embraced mass-suicide. The most prominent mass-suicide in recorded history was the People’s Temple led by the charismatic and influential Jim Jones. Scholars argue that Jones was plagued with mental illness further fueled with substance abuse, a combination that led to unusual, questionably illegal practices. The People’s Temple moved from Indiana to California, and then to Guyana establishing the People’s Temple Agricultural Project (informally: Jonestown).

The People’s Temple Agricultural Project was a compound heavily guarded to ensure safety from jungle animals, but also to ensure the individuals were unable to flee without Jones’ permission. The compound was separated from concerned family and friends, who expressed their concern to the United States government. In November 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan with an aide and cameraman visited the compound. Congressman Ryan guaranteed that those who desired to return to America would be able to do so safely. On 18 November 1978, Jones sent guards to prevent the departure of the members and in the process the Congressman, aide, cameraman and two members were murdered.

The guards reported to Jones, who radio-communicated with the People’s Temple headquarters in Georgetown managed by Sharon Amos. As ordered, Amos gathered her three children. She stabbed the youngest two children to death. She assisted the oldest in her own stabbing suicide. Then, she committed suicide with the same sharp instrument.

After contacting Sharon in Georgetown, Jones ordered a cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to be prepared. The members of the compound were ordered to gather and partake as previously practiced. The adults prepared bottles and cups for administrating the poison to their children. Then the adults administered the poison to themselves. The compound guards were available to shoot and kill all members that did not “willingly” partake in the mass-suicide. The mass-suicide at the compound included 909 persons, including 287 children. Only 3 of the 909 was not cyanide poisoning including Jones, who was found with a gunshot to the left temple believed to be self-inflected.

If calculating the death toll, it is a total of 918: Port Kaituma Airstrip (5), Georgetown (4), and the People’s Temple Agricultural Project/Jonestown (909). It is the largest mass-suicide in recorded history, although the Guyanese courts ruled 915 of the deaths as murder. Additionally, it was the largest loss of American life in a deliberate act until the events of September 11, 2001.

Please Note:

In light of these events and the number of lives prematurely lost, please do not use the expression “drinking the Kool-Aide”. It is often used with little to no knowledge or consideration for the events and lives in which it references.

Our Reality and Our Faith

Admittedly, I avoid the news, but continue to be subjected to the images and narratives of our broken and dark human reality clothed in the sin of crime and violence. But, please do not assume that I am claiming to be without sin. When I am subjected to the news of a parent brutally murdering their child, a violent shooting at a school, a serial rapist, and the unfortunate eternally, never-ending list… I become pissed off, discouraged, and to be quite honest desire the divine power to condemn people to the fire and brimstone of an unpleasant hell that the more conservative Christian denominations preach.

However, I am forced to stumble back, to ponder, and to attempt to reconcile this desire with a foundational, theological conviction that I hold dearly. This conviction is that God is incomprehensively gracious and merciful. (Gracious is the giving of undeserved blessings, while merciful is the not upholding deserved punishment.) God is also the divine judge. Therefore, how can I reconcile the condemnation of an individual to hell with this conviction?

It is impossible to logically and rationally reconcile the desire to condemn and this conviction about the nature of God. Admittedly, we humans are not always logical and rational creatures. It is impossible to fully embody this conviction, especially in our initial reaction to the sins of crime and violence in our human reality. Our (broken) human nature desires to be the righteous, divine judge that possess grace and mercy to not (openly) acknowledge our own short-comings and sins; yet, possess the justice to punish the other. This nature (lacking incomprehensible grace and mercy) is the reason I remain eternally grateful that I am not the divine judge.

Plus, to be honest I would bet money that a person or two (or more) have desired the divine ability to condemn me to the fire and brimstone of that most unpleasant hell. If not individuals, then I would bet that organizations and institutions desired to condemn me on principle alone (e.g. American, female seeking ordination, etc.).

Do not assume, however, that I am arguing society must be tolerant and accepting of all human action particularly crime and violence. As Lutherans, we have the balance of Law and Gospel in theology, preaching, and (hopefully) living. We have a code of conduct, expectations, and free will. Our free will is a blessing, but also a curse. We are responsible for our decisions, actions, and inactions that result in consequences. The maintaining of the civil and social order, in fact, is the first usage of the Law. It is to prevent humans from destroying one another (remember we have a dark, broken nature). Although each religious tradition (ideology, philosophy, culture) have different “norms” and definitions of sin, we can embrace the basic principles that Christians root in the Ten Commandments:

-Do Not Murder

-Do Not Steal

-Do Not Lust (including Rape)

-Do Not Bear False Witness

-Honor Our Parents (e.g. Elders)



What will you do in the name of religious faith?

Will you commit crimes and acts of violence?

Or will you care for and serve your neighbors far and near?


How does our dark reality affect your faith?

Garth Brooks, an Oklahoma native, wrote and recorded a song about the Oklahoma City Bombing entitled ‘The Change’. It is a powerful song about not permitting the dark human reality to change your heart to stone, but rather acts of kindness as a response to it. Here are the lyrics.

One hand reaches out and pulls a lost soul from harm

While a thousand more go unspoken for

And they say to you, what good have you done by saving just this one?

It’s like whispering a prayer in the fury of a storm

And I hear them saying you’ll never change things

And no matter what you do it’s still the same thing

But It’s not the world that I am changing I do this

So this world will know that it will not change me

This heart still believes that love and mercy still exist

While all the hatred rage and so many say

That love is all but pointless in madness such as this

It’s like trying to stop a fire with the moisture from a kiss

And I hear them saying you’ll never change things

And no matter what you do it’s still the same thing

But It’s not the world that I am changing I do this

So this world will know that it will not change me

As long as one heart still holds on

Then hope is never really gone

I hear them saying you’ll never change things

And no matter what you do it’s still the same thing

But It’s not the world that I am changing I do this

So this world will know that it will not change me

How do you interpret this dark reality?

Is this interpretation rooted in religious faith? Why or Why Not?

How does your faith inform this dark reality?

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