May 25, 2019

A Christian Killer in Poway

A car, allegedly used by the gunman who killed one at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, is pictured, few hundred feet from the Interstate 15 off-ramp north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

There has been a long history of Christians persecuting and murdering Jews. Antipathy toward the Jews began in the first few centuries of Christendom, became widespread and violent during the Crusades in the 13th Century, even more violent during the Pogroms of the late 1800’s, and then just when it seemed it could not get worse, the Holocaust resulted in millions of Jews murdered at the hands of baptized Christians, while church leaders watched on.

Only then did the churches come to their senses. In 1965, Pope Paul VI declared in Nostra aetate that “from enemies and strangers, we have become friends and brothers.” It seemed that, even if the “Christ killer” accusation and the “blood libel” did not entirely become a thing of the past, such myths would no longer result in the murder of Jews.

And then came Poway.

The shooting in the synagogue at Poway was a racially and theologically driven Christian killing. It is a most terrible flash point in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Once again, the killed and wounded are victims of Christian Antisemitism. In the shooter’s own letter, posted online before the shooting, there was a clear and unequivocal Christian call to action. “To my brothers in Christ… although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews, remember that you are secure in Christ.”

If ever words could kill: This letter epitomizes the link between ideas and actions. The shooter describes himself as having “a loving family,” and “great friends.” He was training to be a nurse, he went to church. He also knew the history of antisemitism very well. Not that he had any sympathy. In fact, he accuses Jews of harming Christians, from the killing of Christian martyrs St. Stephen in the first few centuries, to Simon of Trent, in the 15th century, through to the recent deaths of Christians in Syria.

We are familiar with Neo Nazi white supremacists, including the Pittsburgh killer, and Islamist killers such as the shooter in Toulouse in March 2012. But we are not so familiar with a white supremacist who is not a part of a radical organization, who goes to Church on Sunday, is training to be a nurse, and wants to kill Jews.

We are familiar with Neo Nazi white supremacists, including the Pittsburgh killer, and Islamist killers such as the shooter in Toulouse in March 2012. But we are not so familiar with a white supremacist who is not a part of a radical organization, who goes to Church on Sunday, is training to be a nurse, and wants to kill Jews.

When I read the killer’s letter as a trained theologian and Holocaust historian, it gave me the deepest sense of disquiet I remember in my adult life. This was an entirely rationalized killing. The shooter knew what his purpose was, first to defend Christianity from Jewish influence, then to defend his European heritage, and finally to make a personal sacrifice on behalf of all white Christians. He even describes his task as a sacrifice. He is prepared to die, but believes he will survive, serve his time, and then return to society to complete his task.

At Poway the threat of Christianity has joined the lethal theological threat of the Islamist terrorists. It now needs the full and unequivocal denunciation of Christian leaders across the United States, and across the world.


Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.