Sound Off: Recent Violence in Sacred Spaces

Quick Takes

What connections may we draw between attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Christchurch mosque shooting, African-American church arsons in Louisiana, the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka, and the synagogue shooting in San Diego?

We asked scholars around the Political Theology Network to share their brief reflections on religious and racially motivated violence. What connections may we draw between attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Christchurch mosque shooting, African-American church arsons in Louisiana, the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka, and the synagogue shooting in San Diego?


I opened my social media feed to find the story of dozens of Muslims who had been shot at a New Zealand mosque. The shooting was livestreamed on facebook, as if our bodies were parts of a video game. Usually I am deployed to help other communities through their grief; today I was embodying my own community’s grief.

I joined my community at the mosque, and during the press conference I could not contain grief in my body. Pictures of me crying went viral. I spoke a few weeks later with my niece who talked about the press conference at her mosque after this shooting. Elected officials spoke, interfaith leaders proclaimed solidarity as well.

I wanted to ask, when do we get the space to grieve? Why does our grief become a public assurance that we are law-abiding citizens? How have our own rituals of grief become hidden deep in our community and when did our pain become useful only ensuring to others we are not a threat?

Even as victims, we seem to have to make society comfortable with the fact that we are not predators. Islamophobia and dehumanization have robbed us of the humanity to speak our pain, seek our rituals of grief and the communal privacy  necessary for healing.


Classical just war thought explains that in a war, both opponents often think they have justice on their side, and frequently, both sides do in fact have some measure of justice they are striving to uphold. Recent attacks on houses of worship demonstrate a kind of perversion of this idea. From available information, all the attackers understood themselves to be “defending” something they feel is under attack: they saw themselves as engaged in a “just” defense of a community and its values. Understanding “defense” as a motivation for terrorism calls religious communities and citizens to be properly critical about what it means to “defend” something. The Christchurch, Tree of Life, and other shooters see themselves as “defending” a vaguely-Christian but mostly racially-tinged conception of the “white race” – evidenced further by arsons at African-American Christian places of worship. The Sri Lankan bombers may believe themselves to be “defending” an Islamic order or community. All these cases point to the continued, crucial importance of clear thought about war and violence. Religious and other communities must articulate what values are appropriate to “defend” and in which ways – for instance, not by targeting civilians! – in order to speak out clearly against acts of terror.


It is tempting to collapse anti-religious hatred into racial hatred and leave it at that. For instance, scholars and activists treat American Islamophobia as simply a subspecies of anti-Middle Eastern resentment. In his book Islamophobia and Racism in America, Erik Love argues persuasively that in American political rhetoric “Muslim” gets treated as a racial identity more so than a religious one, and that American Islamophobia ought to be understood primarily as a type of racism. As Love and others argue, religious concepts get decontextualized and cited as rationalizations for prior and deeper racist animosity.

We should continue to point out the racist dimensions of slander and violence against religious groups. But these tragic attacks on places of worship should remind us that hatred explicitly against religious groups also exists. Ideologies, belief systems, and practices can become sites for hatred and scapegoating just as much as racial stereotypes have been. To challenge the attitudes that facilitate attacks like these, we cannot only decry the racism involved, we must also attend to (and hopefully correct) the ways people mischaracterize religious traditions.


Violence defines, divides, clarifies. Religious violence and violence against religion exemplify the power of violence to do so. One of the primary mechanisms for religion’s ability to bind communities, according to the bio-cultural study of religion, is “costly signaling.” Most commonly, costly signaling is achieved through engagement in ritual and belief in supernatural agents. Violence can also be used to signal the in-group that one is loyal and ready to pay a high price for group membership. And this violence can further bind the group. What results is a vicious cycle. The group is bound together through ritual and belief resulting in an almost inevitable groupishness. The groupishness leads to out-group reactivity. Out-group reactivity can lead to violence. Violence further binds the group and groupishness increases.

The groups in question related to some recent acts of violence seem to be alternative, online communities. The perpetrators of the shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the shootings in Christchurch mosques, and the church arsons in Louisiana were all white men who had been radicalized online. The rituals and beliefs of these alt-right, white supremacist, and black metal communities are much more nebulous than other kinds of communities. Costly signaling is certainly still present as community members express their loyalty through elaborate conspiracy theories, heightened rhetoric, and unflinching adherence to hateful ideology. But lacking well established ritual and belief (as well as real human contact), violence seems to follow more quickly as a way to signal allegiance. The intent to use this violence to define and divide couldn’t be made clearer than in Brennan Tarrant’s own words, “I chose firearms for the affect it would have on social discourse…” with the intent “to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide… ensuring the death of the ‘melting pot’ pipe dream.”


Kurt Vonnegut viewed America’s gun culture as a sign of a terminally ill society. In his novel Deadeye Dick(1982) the main character accidentally shoots and kills a pregnant woman and never recovers from the trauma. Today, mass shootings are so commonplace we no longer respond with outrage. Last fall the horrific events at the Tree of Life Synagogue reminded us of Christianity’s complicity in anti-Semitism, only to have these events repeated at a synagogue in San Diego a few months later. Our moral numbness is also on display by the lack of outcry following the burning of African American churches in Louisiana. Of course, Christianity is not the only religion that tolerates wanton violence, and the US is not the only country producing mass killings, as evidenced by the Easter Sunday bombing of three churches in Sri Lanka by Islamic extremists. But our society is the only one where such violent incidents regularly lead to political impotence. New Zealand, after a mass shooting in a mosque, instituted bans on assault weapons; in Sri Lanka there were calls for the resignation of public officials after they mishandled the bombing investigation. Here at home, in Virginia Beach, a disgruntled former city employee—and Army veteran—shot and killed 12 co-workers last week. Our elected officials once again distinguished themselves by their deafening silence.

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