When I read the title of this piece in PuffHo’s “Religion” section, “I am no better than Dylann Roof“, I took it as a determinist: all of us are capable of doing what Roof did if we had a certain combination of genes and environments. (As you may recall, Roof murdered 9 African-Americans at a Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been convicted and sentenced to death.) Of course even a determinist would still use use the word “better,” in that the author of the piece, believer Jonathan Walton, surely was not as bad for society as was Roof.
Author Walton is identified as “InterVarsity’s NYCUP Director, founder of the LoGOFF Movement and co-founder of Good Journey Stores. Jonathan works to call students and community leaders to put their faith into concrete, sustainable, Christ-like action.” This gives us a clue that he’s going to talk not about determinism, but God. But Walton does mention circumstances in Roof’s background that could have prompted his murderous acts, though it’s seen more as a historical background than as an environment that could affect Roof’s brain and his actions:
“Additionally, to call Roof uniquely evil, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has also pointed out, is to ignore the history that made him possible. Roof is not a historical anomaly as much as a representation of a past that America prefers to sweep under its rug rather than commit to cleaning up. When Roof told Tywanza Sanders, one of the victims in the church, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go,” he was echoing a vast history that has used such rationale to decimate black lives. Killing Roof does nothing other than soothe the moral conscience of a country that would rather not reckon with the forces that created and cultivated his ideology.”
One can interpret this simply as Roof’s act resulting in part from endemic racism that he internalized. And I agree with Walton that killing Roof does nothing positive: it is a retributive punishment levied for having made the “wrong choice”—when the right choice wasn’t possible.
But the real reason the author is no better than Dylann Roof is religious, and to me makes no sense:
Every person is made in the image of God ― including me, my wife, my daughter and Dylann Roof. There is nothing that I can do for God to love me any more or any less. There is nothing that I could say to compromise God’s desire to be close to me, to know me and for me to be close and know Him. And that is the same for Dylann Roof.
Think about that. I presume that author Walton believes that God gave us true libertarian free will, so that Roof did indeed choose to murder others when he might not have. Nevertheless, despite the misuse of this free will, God still loves him! What that means is that no matter how badly you act, no matter how many humans you murder or mistreat, God loves you just as much. What unites Roof and Walton is the fact that they are both sinners. No matter that some sins are worse than others (is murder as bad as masturbation?); all sins can be expunged if you simply accept Jesus as your savior.
That is the old doctrine of sola fide, salvation (or “justification”) through faith rather than works: no matter how bad a life you’ve lived, if you accept Jesus into your heart in your last moments, all will be forgiven and you’ll find a place in Heaven. That would hold, to use an extreme example, even for Hitler. Now, not all faiths adhere to this doctrine: it’s historically Protestant, and Catholics aren’t on board with it—as you know from having to confess your sins.
Sola fide is one of the things that theologians argue about but can never resolve because there’s no way to settle the issue, even in the Bible. For Scripture itself can be interpreted to favor justification through faith or justification through acts, depending on which verses you choose. It’s simply made-up stuff, but stuff that has conditioned the lives and behaviors of millions of people.
I have to say that if you’re a Christian who really believes that people can choose how to behave, the only kind of God that makes sense is one who rewards people for their acts and not their belief in Jesus. After all, think of the millions of people who reject Jesus simply because they weren’t exposed to Christianity: both before Christianity was founded and those who live in countries dominated by other faiths. Are they doomed for a circumstance that they didn’t choose, or because of when they were born?
Sola fide makes no sense to me, but it’s the basis of Walton’s article, an article in which he spreads a dubious theology all over HuffPo (and where’s the opposite view?). He ends with the explicit doctrine, expressed in rather infelicitious prose:
Dylann Roof might be sick, demented, or mentally ill ― but for sure he is sinful. His heart is deceitfully wicked above all things. And the only medication that cures this ailment is the love of Jesus. And those beautiful men and women that he murdered were studying the Jesus who died that we all might have life and have it abundantly ― including Dylann Roof. Not just the folks who do everything right or excluding those who do evil. That is the scandalous grace of God. That is precisely why we study scripture as followers of Jesus. Because when we don’t, we mistake the laws of America for the Law of God and they are clearly not the same.
We are saved by grace through faith so that no man can boast. It is not my actions that set me apart but only God’s grace. I have put my trust in the Living God and it is His work on the Cross and my faith in Him that saved me. Thus it is not my actions that save or condemn me, but the condition of my heart. And what the Bible says about Dylan Roof is also what it says about me. So instead of picking up a stone to kill him and gnashing my teeth in anger and disgust, I will pick up the Gospel of John and do like Cynthia, Susan, Ethel, Depayne, Clemente, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda and Myra and ponder instead what kind of Jesus cries out for His murderers to be forgiven; not for them to be killed.
Aren’t you glad that you don’t believe in this kind of nonsense?