gun violence

Should 26 Texas Baptists massacred during Sunday worship be hailed as 'martyrs'?

Should 26 Texas Baptists massacred during Sunday worship be hailed as 'martyrs'?


Are the congregants massacred in Sutherland Springs martyrs?


A shooting rampage during Sunday worship at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, took 26 lives (counting an unborn baby). It was the worst slaughter at a house of worship in American history, though such atrocities occur all too often at mosques or churches in strife-ridden Muslim lands.

The murderer -- “Religion Q & A” will not dignify him by using his name -- sprayed hundreds of bullets at helpless worshipers trapped in the pews, and may have especially targeted youngsters.

We usually think of a martyr as a brave Christian executed by authorities or slain otherwise for professing the faith or refusing to spurn it, as with the biblical St. Stephen (Acts 7:54-60).

Unlike Southern Baptists, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity specialize in martyrology and have recognized as saints hundreds across the centuries who faced death for professing their faith. The Catholic church’s official definition:

“Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: It means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by chrity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude” (Catechism #2473).

Understand that here “he” covers both genders.

A more succinct Russian Orthodox definition says “martyrdom is bearing witness to the truth of Christ and God’s church to the death.” Whether that’s the appropriate label for the Texas victims depends on the motives of both the killer and those killed.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

Why are so many people mad about the "thoughts and prayers" angle of the tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?

That was the question that host Todd Wilken asked at the start of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

The short answer is that many Americans think that "prayers" are not real, if the goal is solving a problem in the real world, while gun-control legislation is "real," since it is linked to government and politics. As I wrote in my national "On Religion" column earlier this week, after interviewing Tim Stewart, a professional editor-writer who who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website;

It's obvious, explained Stewart, that many Americans believe that this kind of prayer talk after disasters or tragedies is meaningless, a kind of emotional fog that helps public leaders avoid action on tough issues.
It only makes matters worse when these criticisms of "thoughts and prayers" language turn into nasty attacks. After all, millions of believers sincerely think that prayer is the first step to any faithful effort to help others through charity, ministry, political activism or any other strategy in public life.

In other words, this controversy is -- stop and think about it -- another way of looking at the decades of debate among editors and reporters about how and why religion news should or should not be covered in the first place. The bottom line: Politics is "real" and "public," while religious faith is "private" and "spiritual."

I'm not sure why, but I found myself thinking , earlier this week, about a famous event in the life of the man who would become St. Pope John Paul II. It was during his work as an archbishop of Poland, wrestling with the powers that be in the Communist party.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page?

Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page?

In the social-media age, journalists have learned -- the hard way -- to be very careful about materials that they find online at Facebook and similar sites.

This leads us directly to Devin Patrick Kelley and the latest question for an answer to the "Why?" component in the old journalism formula, "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "Why" and "How."

Let's ignore, for a moment, the fringe websites that have what appear to be doctored online materials claiming that Kelley is an Antifa supporter who hates ordinary America.

The crucial question for reporters, today, is this: When will they discuss the contents of what appears to have been the gunman's Facebook page? The key word in this controversy is this: "Atheist." If you are reading British papers, you have been told that Kelley was a militant atheist who hated Christians. In American news outlets? Hold that thought.

As of this morning, BuzzFeed is openly stating that there was a fake Facebook page for Kelley. That annotated-list story notes:

A fake Facebook page was being spread on social media hours after the news broke, but it's not real. It was a page, not a profile, and it kept posting after the news of the shooting broke.

I'm not exactly sure what that means. Did someone build a fake page in a matter of minutes with the same photo that police are using as real? Did someone fake the friends of Kelley, connections made before the shooting and those people immediately started leaving new comments about their connections to Kelley?

At the same time, The Los Angeles Times has published coverage that seems to accept that the Facebook page is real -- but doesn't want to discuss the contents. The story states:

A Facebook profile under the gunman's name featured a photo of an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. In recent months, Kelley was adding strangers as friends on Facebook from "within 20 minutes" of the Sutherland Springs area and starting Facebook fights with them, according to area resident Johnathan Castillo.
Castillo accepted Kelley's friend request a couple of months ago, thinking that maybe he or his friends had met Kelley but hadn't remembered him. But Kelley soon proved to be troublesome.
“A lot of people were deleting him” for “starting drama” on Facebook, including sending insulting Facebook messages, Castillo said.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Omar Mateen's 911 call answered big question; reporters seeking more info around the world

Omar Mateen's 911 call answered big question; reporters seeking more info around the world

While there remain some mysteries linked to the hellish massacre at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, one thing was clear -- the man who kept pulling the trigger wanted to make sure that it was impossible for journalists around the world to avoid putting religion in the lede.

In the past, journalists have often had to wrestle with vague allusions to the names or nationalities of the terrorists involved in this kind of incident, while cautiously searching for on-the-record information that might point to motivation.

With his mobile call to Orlando's 911 center, Omar Mateen settled that issue, claiming that he was acting out of loyalty to the Islamic State.

But you knew that already and that's my point. It's hard to find a lede this morning that doesn't include a direct reference to that call.

So it's no secret why Mateen did what he did, at least according to whatever logic was functioning in his head at the time he marched into that nightclub. In this terrorism case, reporters could move straight into the second layer of mysteries about the man and the details of his life and faith. While President Barack Obama kept his language vague, other political leaders were quite blunt. The New York Post noted:

Mateen “made a pledge of allegiance to ISIS,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN.
Schiff said the timing and target of the attack can’t be a coincidence.
“The fact that this shooting took place during Ramadan and that ISIS leadership in Raqqa has been urging attacks during this time, that the target was an LGBT nightclub during (LGBT) Pride (month) and, if accurate, that according to local law enforcement the shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS, indicates an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism,” Schiff said.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Death in Chicago: Tribune story shines in reporting nuns' response

Death in Chicago: Tribune story shines in reporting nuns' response

While most media obsess over the primaries, people are still dying on our streets -- one of them in front of a monastery in Chicago.

But he didn’t die forgotten: The resident nuns plan to lead a peace walk tonight.

Nor did the Chicago Tribune overlook this wound dealt to a community: It produced a gentle, heartfelt newsfeature that at once captures the grief and serves as an advance for the event.

Written by Godbeat veteran Manya Brachear Pashman, the story first sets the Benedictine nuns in their neighborhood, then quickly gears up to the emergency:

Neighbors of St. Scholastica Monastery in the Rogers Park neighborhood occasionally see the Roman Catholic sisters who live there, either gardening or leaving to run errands or go to work. They wave and take comfort knowing the religious women have them in their prayers.
Then last weekend, one of the nuns showed up on their doorsteps. Shaken by news that an 18-year-old man had been fatally shot steps from the sisters' home, she put fliers on doorknobs and fence posts and chatted up passers-by, urging neighbors to help the sisters reclaim the crime scene as a place of peace.
On Wednesday, the nuns and their neighbors will gather at the corner of Seeley and Birchwood avenues to walk silently toward the scene of the crime and pray for Antonio Robert Johnson, the man who died there.
"It's important to have our neighbors know we're an oasis for peace in the area," said Sister Benita Coffey, the sister in charge of promoting social justice for the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago. "We've been on this property since 1906 and we are not getting up and leaving the neighborhood. We're going to support our neighbors in whatever ways we can."

The Trib backgrounds us on similar actions by the Benedictines: "The Chicago women have been outspoken against excessive military spending, capital punishment, human trafficking and torture."  They also held a vigil in September 2014 when a man was killed across the street from the monastery.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

Another day, another gunman, another mass shooting. Once again, when government authorities consistently declined to discuss possible motives, it was hard not to assume that the religion shoe was going to drop, sooner or later.

By this morning, journalists have had quite a bit of time to look for witnesses and to sift through social-media looking for clues and quotes. At this point, it's almost like journalists in key newsrooms were not covering the same tragedy. 

Let's look in New York City, for example. That did The New York Times have to say about the religion angle? The world's most powerful newspaper opened with the basic facts and then, five paragraphs in, added:

Law enforcement officials identified the gunman Thursday night as Chris Harper Mercer, and said he had three weapons, at least one of them a long gun and the other ones handguns. It was not clear whether he fired them all. The officials said the man lived in the Roseburg area.
They said one witness had told them that Mr. Mercer had asked about people’s religions before he began firing. “He appears to be an angry young man who was very filled with hate,” one law enforcement official said. Investigators are poring over what one official described as “hateful” writings by Mr. Mercer.

Did he ask anything specific, when it came to religion? Were members of one faith, or no faith, more at risk than others? And those "hateful" writings -- on social media, perhaps -- were about what?

Writing for a radically different audience than the TimesThe New York Post went straight to the point with the religion angle bannered on its website a few hours after the massacre. The most recent version of that story now states, drawing on material from news and social media:

A gunman singled out Christians, telling them they would see God in “one second,” during a rampage at an Oregon college Thursday that left at least nine innocent people dead and several more wounded, survivors and authorities said.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Jesus is not a member of the NRA,' Episcopal bishop tells religion writers at #RNA2014

'Jesus is not a member of the NRA,' Episcopal bishop tells religion writers at #RNA2014

"Jesus is not a member of the NRA."

Of all the words said by all the experts who spoke on all the panels at the information-packed Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting this weekend in the Atlanta area, those may be the most memorable.

Journalists, after all, know a good soundbite when they hear one.

That explains why both religion writers for The New York Times and many of their colleagues tweeted the NRA quote, which came during a session on "God and Guns" at 

Given the number of firearm deaths in America, all five panelists seemed confident that Jesus wouldn't be out advocating for his right to own a gun.

What did the other side — people of faith who oppose gun control efforts — have to say? That was the awkward part. That side was not represented on the panel.

Please respect our Commenting Policy