As probably all of you know, we have experienced a heart-wrenching tragedy here in Chapel Hill, as three young, happy, and good Muslim students were murdered on Tuesday, point-blank, in their home.   The issue is tangential to the topics I normally deal with on the blog, but I did want to take time out to reflect a bit on what has happened.

On Wednesday I did something that I’ve never done before in my 30 years of university teaching.   I blew off the lecture for the day and discussed the issue with my class of 240 students – giving them my thoughts about the matter, having one of my teaching assistants, a graduate student who is an expert in Islam, say a few words from his perspective, and, mainly, letting the undergraduate students emote and express their views and concerns and ask questions.  For many of the students it was a welcome catharsis.

The big issue that is being posed in the newspapers – at least the local ones (less so the national ones, and not at all, so far as I can tell, the international ones) – is whether this was a religious hate crime or a dispute about parking.   Frankly, most of the people that I have had contact with can’t believe we’re having that conversation.   Parking?!?  Are you serious?    Someone murders three Muslims in cold blood and you want to talk about parking regulations?

OK, so we do know that this guy who has turned himself in for the shootings was an exceedingly angry vigilante who prided himself with wearing a gun on his hip.  (The only ones who seem to be completely incredulous that very angry vigilantes are entitled to wear guns on their hips are my European friends, all of whom – to a person – have, as their first reaction, “Why is he allowed to have a gun???”  For most Americans, the question doesn’t come up.) (Let me stress, I’m not taking a position on second amendment rights.  I’m pointing out that most of the rest of the civilized world thinks our gun laws are crazy.  We have every right to think that *they* are the ones who are crazy.  But we ought at least to be thinking about whether they are right instead of simply letting our knees jerk every time they raise the point) (which is every time yet another tragedy hits….).

But back to the guy with a gun on his hip.  Yes, he was angry and mean-spirited, and was known to be caustic and threatening, and not to like people, especially when they committed misdemeanors in his parking lot.   But really.   He murdered three Muslims.  Most of us simply do not believe that if this was not from beginning to end a violent act meant to rid the world of three Muslims, then at the very least the fact that they were specifically Muslim was not peripheral to his (to us) unthinkable act.  And that local Muslims – and Muslims throughout the country – have every right to feel targeted.  Of course they are targeted.  (Just as in other parts of the world Christians are targeted;  But do we want these other parts of the world to dictate our moral values and behavior???)  As risible as it seems to many (most?) of us, I can see why the local papers would want to paint the tragic incident as a parking dispute.   We have the issue of community image.  We have the issue of not wanting to stir up more animosity.  We have the issue of not wanting copy-cat murders.  We have lots of issues.

But we also have the issue of the truth, and whatever that truth is, we should not be afraid to get to the bottom of it.

It does appear that the self-confessed murderer is a hater of all things religious.   He is not simply an atheist (he is avowedly that as well).  He is an anti-theist.  It’s important to keep that straight.  He is not a live-and-let-live atheist who does not believe in God but does not have major problems with anyone who does (i.e., *my* kind of atheist).  He is opposed to people who are theists.  He thinks religion is dangerous and does a lot of ill in the world (now *there’s* an irony…), and he would be happy to stamp it out.  And so he is not even your run-of-the mill anti-theist.  He is a violent anti-theist.

So he may not like parking violators; but he *hates* people who are religious (i.e., most people).  And most of all, quite obviously, he hates Muslims.

I told my class that even though our course dealt with early Christianity, I thought it did have relevance to the murders.   I have never told a class this before, but I do indeed have a particular and important reason for teaching the New Testament and the history of early Christianity the way I do.  It is this:  I stress throughout the entire semester, and try to get my students to see (sometimes they are highly unwilling at first to see it), that early Christianity was a highly diverse phenomenon, with different early Christians having astoundingly different points of view and perspective, all of them thinking that they were “right” and all the others were “wrong.”   The focus in both my research and teaching for the past decades has been largely on the diversity of the early Christian movement.  I have wanted, and continue to want, to stress this diversity not only for antiquarian reasons (i.e., just because it is historically true) (which it is), but also for another purpose.

It seems to me that if modern Christians (the VAST majority of my students) can see that there was not simply ONE form of early Christianity, but lots and lots of different forms of early Christianity, it should show that the religion is diverse BY ITS VERY NATURE.   Recognizing that there are, and always have been, diverse forms of the Christian religion should help us be more open to the variety and diversity of Christian belief and practice.   Which should open us up to the rich variety and diversity of all belief and practice.  Which should make us less centered on the view that OUR view is the only right one, and help us see that other people have other views that deserve to be considered just as much as the one we were raised with or that we subscribe to.   Recognizing religious and cultural diversity in all its rich texture can help us be more sympathetic to and empathetic with people who are different from us.  In other words, it is one of the ways to help fight religious and cultural intolerance.

Intolerance surrounds us.  And we need to do all we can to fight it – not with guns on our hips, but with forgiving, caring, and loving alternatives.   We do not solve the problems of hate with more hate, or problems of violence with more violence, or acts of ignorance and prejudice with retaliatory acts of ignorance and prejudice.  We need loving, peaceful, and informed responses to the intolerant violence so massively surrounding us.

But for now we are simply sad and mournful.