San Diegans have become callous to the daily reports of crimes in “America’s finest city.” Nevertheless some stories stand out because of their particularly disturbing or shocking nature. The story this past week of a middle-aged man suspected of planting a pipe bomb underneath his wife’s vehicle fits this category. His homemade bomb exploded as he planned when she started for home after a day’s work at a daycare. Though the bomb did not kill her, it destroyed her car and left her in critical condition. The 52-year old wife, by all accounts, is a lovely and gracious woman. The husband is being held without bail on suspicion of attempted murder. It turns out he is an evangelical Christian. Ouch.
The man was a professional photographer who owned his own business. This was your typical suburban middle-class family. These people had friends, social skills, and a decent level of education. This is not the typical criminal profile. There are many incongruous pieces to it, and that’s why it is so troubling. It implies that we cannot predict where evil and danger may surface. Even the most upstanding and “normal” people can manifest unspeakable irrationality and malice. It is profoundly unsettling because it implies that the world is not as safe and predictable as we need and want it to be.
Some of my friends will be disappointed with me for bringing up the evangelical aspect of the suspected bomber’s profile, but in the interests of candor I must. He has been an active and regular churchgoer at one of the more conspicuous evangelical mega-churches in San Diego County. By some accounts he has taught Bible studies under church auspices.
This additional information adds to organized Christianity’s public relations headaches. We are already reeling from the Catholic Church’s pedophilic scandals, and the drug-addled double lives of high-profile evangelical leaders like Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Some will argue that for the reputation and honor of Christ these embarrassments should be swept under the carpet. But our position is that in order to cure cancer you have to start by acknowledging the problem and carefully probing the pathology.
Some argue that the way to clean up the morality of church members is to impose a stricter ethical standard on everyone associated with a congregation, with firmer discipline and even ostracism where necessary. That will keep the holy huddle cleaner, perhaps, but it is certainly graceless and inevitably breeds legalism. Everything reduces in the end to who’s in and who’s out.
On the other hand, however, unless churchgoers really are different in their behavior from those who simply parrot the social and cultural mainstream, what’s the point? In their desire to sustain a decent-size membership (read: market share), many churches flatter themselves that their permissiveness is actually some sort of commendable tolerance and virtuous generosity of soul. In such churches, studies suggest, there are no significant or appreciable improvement in general morality or decency among the members.
There is a third way, and it is neither the path of moral degeneracy nor the strategy of ruthlessly cracking the moral whip. It is to be a community where healthy personal transformation occurs naturally because it is an environment in which truth is affirmed, and goodness, compassion, grace and self-discipline are modeled and lived out. In other words, what we need are more church communities in which the Holy Spirit is actually alive and well.
In the meantime, we might do well to resuscitate the venerable practice of the confessional, but with a twist. Last week I met someone from an innovative group of young Christians in downtown San Diego who are trying to live out their faith together in the inner city by focusing on helping people in need. They decided to rent a booth at the local Earth Day festival in Balboa Park, and were casting about for a good theme related to ecology. They ended up borrowing an idea from Donald Miller in his book Blue Like Jazz.
They built a makeshift (wood and cardboard) confessional booth, with two doors, one on each end, and a screened window between the two sides. On Earth Day passers-by were invited to go in, and the Christian on the other side would confess to them that as a Christian they were truly sorry for the huge credibility gap between our frequent conduct (on creation-care and other issues) and the inspirational example of our founder, Jesus himself. This went on for hours. It was cathartic for the Christians involved, and exposed the hundreds drifting by to a new, more human and less triumphal face of Christianity.
I hope that this husband in the crime news turns out to be innocent, although the evidence against him is daunting. If the pipe-bomber does turn out to be one of us, we should be ready to acknowledge the sad reality, and admit that too often we have played the hypocritical game of “holier than thou.” It would be a start toward greater healthiness, definitely a step in the right direction.