September 22, 1999

Was it a hate crime or sign
of spiritual warfare or what?

___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___FORT WORTH--When a gunman walks into a church and randomly shoots worshippers while shouting obscenities about Christianity, is it a hate crime? Is it a sign of spiritual warfare between
ADAM BAILEY of Garland and Frank Garner of Fort Worth pray outside the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, September 16. Seven churchgoers, including three teens, were gunned down at prayer vigil September 15 at the church. The gunman ended the rampage by turning the gun on himself. (REUTERS)
the cosmic forces of good and evil? Or is it just the result of a crazy person acting out delusions?
___In the wake of last week's deadly shooting spree at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, theologians and ethicists found a variety of answers to these questions.
___Some sided heavily on one theory or another, while others said they see the actions of Larry Gene Ashbrook as a combination of all three things.
___"These are not mutually exclusive categories," said Jeph Holloway, associate professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, near where the shootings occurred.
___Holloway said he suspects Ashbrook was "someone who has lived a tortured life of one sort or another" and "known loneliness, darkness that maybe he brought on himself.
___"To label him simply as crazy is sometimes a device we use to try to impose rationality upon our world," Holloway continued. "He by definition has to be crazy because in a rational world these things don't happen."
___Yet that must not preclude a consideration of spiritual influences that had taken Ashbrook into "real darkness" as well, the ethicist said. "I don't want to leave out of the consideration the reality of genuine evil in the world. Too quick an appeal to 'he was crazy' seems to mitigate against that reality.
___Glen Bucy, a 17-year-old high school senior who looked the shooter in the eye as he entered the sanctuary of Wedgwood Baptist Church, said he definitely considers the event evidence of spiritual warfare.
___"The way he was cussing, I think he just had a real hate for God," Bucy said, noting Ashbrook spewed constant slurs against Christianity during his rampage
___"I think he just wanted to kill Christians. Ö I think there's a real war going on right now against Christianity. Even at Columbine, they asked that girl if she believed in God and she said yes and they shot her. Now they're coming into our churches. It think it was just a real hate for God that caused him to do this."
___Those sentiments were echoed by Franklyn Harber, evangelist in residence at Southwestern Seminary and one of the first on the scene to minister to the shooting victims.
___"It is very much fair to classify this as martyrdom," Harber said. "These young people definitely died for their faith. That's exactly why this gunman was there. He was shooting them because they were professing Jesus Christ."
___Others, while equally disturbed by the rampage at Wedgwood, said it may be premature to hastily classify the event as a hate crime or as the deliberate persecution of Christians.
___"In this particular case, we don't know whether this could be called a hate crime because we don't know the motivation of the individual who murdered these people," said Weston Ware, director of citizenship education for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. "The assumption you make when you say something is a hate crime is that you know why someone killed."
___Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn., said he is reluctant to tag such events hate crimes because he fears such labels too often are used to promote political agendas.
___"I have a great deal of suspicion about the notion Ö that Christians are under persecution," he said. "A lot of that is coming out of the Religious Right, and it's nothing more than their copycatting what other groups do in trying to obtain victim status.
___"I think the Religious Right is in this game of saying, 'We can't pray in public schools, so we're victims. We can't make Hollywood make the movies we want, so we're victims. We can't cut federal funding for art, so we're victims.' Ö I think it's part of the victim card some Christians are playing."
___The sad reality and bigger point to be seen, Parham said, is shootings are increasingly taking place in vulnerable settings: schools, a Jewish community center, businesses, churches.
___"These are very vulnerable places that have almost no security," Parham said. "The question in my mind is, what happens when Americans realize how vulnerable their institutions are?"
___Texas Gov. George W. Bush expressed sympathy with both sides of the equation during a brief news conference outside Southwest High School in Fort Worth the day after the shootings.
___He freely used the word "hate" to describe what had happened, yet at the same time he said he didn't know of anything government could have done to prevent such a crime.
___"It's hard to explain to high school students or elementary students how somebody can have so much hate in their heart to walk into a church and kill people like this," Bush said. "There is no law that says people will love one another. I wish there were; I'd sign it. But that's a greater law."
___Events classified as hate crimes traditionally have been violence clearly aimed at someone because of their ethnicity or sexuality.
___Two Texas religious leaders who live amid the threat of ethnically motivated hate crimes said they might be willing to extend the definition to cover an attack like the one at Wedgwood.
___"It's hate true enough, but it's not a hate crime in the sense that it is committed against a racial, ethnic group," said Michael Bell, a prominent Fort Worth activist for African-American causes and pastor of Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church.
___Bell was quick to compare the Fort Worth shootings to the shootings this summer at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles.
___"There's something going on that I don't know if we've even categorized it yet because we don't even know everything it means," Bell said. "If it was a hate crime, I could say, 'That's a hate crime' and I could have some degree of balance because I was able to point it out and say this is what it is. But the way this thing occurred and the way the thing at the Jewish community center occurred Ö seems to go to the heart of what we're about as a society.
___"I don't know how to categorize it," Bell concluded. "This is behavior outside the box to the extreme. Ö Is the sanctuary a sanctuary any more? What happens when the sanctuary is violated?"
___Marty Cohen, a Messianic Jewish rabbi and member of Ridge View Baptist Church in Rockwall, said he, too, thinks it's fair to compare the Wedgwood shootings to the Jewish community center shootings.
___"The shooting in Los Angeles, the shooter went there because he had a passionate hatred toward Jewish people," Cohen explained. "And it sounds like this fellow had a passionate hatred toward Christians. As both a Jewish man and a believer in Jesus, the two are very much motivated by the same hatred for God's people. Satan is truly a roaring lion seeking whom he shall destroy.
___Cohen said both situations clearly represent Satan's effort to God's people, represented in the Christian church and the Jewish race. "Satan is the source of all evil, and his mission is to destroy God's people.
___"We read about spiritual warfare and we make light of it," he noted. "We better not. We don't have time to. What we saw in Fort Worth was a battle waged in the heavenlies that touched earth."

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