Even as we mourn with those who are mourning in Christ Church, the recent massacre that took place at two mosques in this city reminds us that we cannot assume that everyone believes that every human life is sacred and has inherent value and dignity. Indeed, if there is anything we know about this lone Australian gunman who in cold-blood killed at least 50 people and wounded several others, it is that Brenton Tarrant is but one amongst many who regard themselves as superior over others. Not only so, judging from his 74-page manifesto, it appears that he has no qualms of resorting to violence in order to restore ascendency of his own “kind”.
Although the media has labelled Tarrant as a White supremacist and right-wing extremist, I do wonder if this is but a convenient label. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what the media would have called Tarrant if he is of mixed Asian ethnicity instead. But I digress. What is more important is that regardless of what our skin colour is or where we lean towards politically, we all need to guard our hearts and consider how do we treat others who are different from us, lest we become guilty of some degree of racism or form of bigotry. For example, whenever we sense some self-righteousness or disdain of others rearing its ugly head, let us repent and ask God to teach us what it means to love others.
In the case of Tarrant, it seems that his years in school and travels around the world where he recalled being treated kindly by others were insufficient to inoculate him against the indoctrination from the darkest corner of the online world. Like the ancient parable of Pandora’s Box, the free exchange of ideas that the internet brings also makes it to be a rather terribly efficient platform to propagate hatred and violence. Although Tarrant’s worldview is more of a mix-mesh of extremist ideologies, it nevertheless had a cumulative effect of pushing this 28 year-old young man off the edge and turning him into a mass murderer.
In the wake of this tragic incident, there is now further discussion about the role of social media companies and how they do have moral obligations to filter out content that are deemed potentially harmful to individuals and detrimental to social harmony. Indeed, there is no doubt of the extensive reach of the online world. After this shooting incident, Facebook shared that the videos of the attack was uploaded by users 1.5 million times in the first 24 hours. Even though Facebook’s automatic detection systems automatically blocked 1.2 million, there were still 300,000 copies left to be shared or commented on by Facebook users.
As much as we can hope that social media companies will get better at their filtering capabilities, there remains a bigger question. How are they going to determine what is extremist ideology? Does it also mean that if Facebook wants to be given access to operate in certain countries that they should take their cue from their “pay-masters” and filter out whatever the latter deems as unacceptable?
From a Christian perspective, we know that to honour a free society also means that we have to understand that honouring freedom comes with certain vulnerabilities that are inescapable with freedom. Such vulnerabilities can never be totally overcome, given that the people most determined to do evil may accomplish that evil before they can be stopped.
In addition, while we all recognise that there needs to be some limits to free speech, the challenge is that it is not always so easy to nail it down. The freedom that allows Christians to say that Jesus is Lord is also one that allows another to say Jesus is not God. Imagine the dilemma that our authorities will face if enough people complain to them that Christian evangelistic rallies in public places are deemed offensive and for the sake of public order should be banned. Or consider how carefully the government is treading on the repeal of 377A. While we can thank God and continue to pray for our government in their handling of such matters, we need to be mindful that in some other countries where there is religious freedom, crosses have been taken down from public schools or asked to be removed from civic spaces.
At the end of the day, legislation can only do so much to rein in hatred and violence. We can try to prevent potential terrorists from flying to another country to cause harm. However, we are well aware that deep-seated prejudices can easily take root even within the same ethnic group. For example, some Chinese used to frown upon marriages between different dialect groups. In the Bible, the stories of Cain & Abel (Gen 4) as well as Joseph and his brothers (Gen 37) remind us that family members are also not spared from jealousy and malice.
If we are to relate with others the way God calls us to, we certainly need to fill our hearts and minds with “whatever is true, honourable, just, pure…”(Phil 4:8-9) and to depend on God’s grace to apply it in our daily lives. Admittedly, in today’s context, this is becoming an even greater challenge as people have radically different views of what constitutes good. In an age of moral relativism, how can Christians help people to understand that love does not mean that we must condone another’s action or agree with one’s worldview?
For Tarrant, he may have thought he was fighting for a just cause for his own countrymen. Sadly, the only way he knew was through hatred and taking life away from others. For Tarrant’s hideous crime, there must be just punishment. Nevertheless, it is heartening to hear family members of some victims extending forgiveness to Tarrant. As Christians, we know that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, hatred does not have the last word. Indeed, since Jesus has born the penalty of our sins of hate and defeated hate itself, there is always hope for anyone who struggles with hate and desires to overcome it. Even for the likes of Tarrant, hate need not remain in his heart. Even if some in their hatred may wish otherwise for all that he has done.
Rev Edwin Wong
March 24, 2019