Twenty-nine-year-old New York native and Florida resident Omar Mateen used a legally purchased assault rifle and handgun to kill 49 people and injure 53 others at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, a popular spot for LGBTQ+ clubbers, on its weekly Latin Night, June 12, 2016.
Mateen’s ideology and sexuality were much speculated on in the days following the shooting, though the only reportable facts include his upbringing in a Muslim home and his marriage to a woman named Noor Salman (whom he texted during the rampage to keep her abreast of events as they unfolded). It is widely reported that Mateen openly expressed hostility toward same-sex couples and minority groups in the past, yet some sources say Mateen had been a regular at Pulse himself.
Understood as the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11, the religious and political elements of the event continue to be mined for their connections to larger terrorist and Muslim entities. Thus far, though President Obama declared the massacre an “act of hate” and an “act of terror,” and though Mateen was on an FBI watch list prior to the shooting for his claims of intimacy with foreign terrorist organizations, there is no clear evidence that Mateen’s actions were sanctioned by the Islamic State terrorist group.
Regardless of Mateen’s worldview, political leanings or sexual orientation, the massacre of 49 people with a legally purchased assault rifle, in a space populated primarily by LGBTQ+ and minority persons, lends itself to a lifetime of analysis. As the 1991 Gulf War came to be known as the first “televised war,” the real-time use of social media during the Orlando shooting frenzy lends itself to an in-depth critique of the role of social media in shaping our realities, identities and sense of space and safety. Mid-crisis, the nightclub posted to Facebook: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running,” and it is reported that Mateen himself searched Facebook during the attack for news of it. In the days following the tragedy, politicians such as Donald Trump used the event to “humble brag” (as Huffington Post described it) about his foreign policy over Twitter by stating, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism. . . . I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
With a story rife for analysis on so many levels, it is natural but facile to hone in myopically on one aspect of the tragedy and use it to overwrite the chain of events as a “one issue” narrative: gun control, terrorism, Islamophobia, homophobia, racism or revenge. The truth is much more nuanced than that. Yet the fact remains that the bodies strewn across the floor en masse, unable to answer the countless cell phones ringing like death knells, their uniquely intimate chimes populating the nightclub as if it were a cathedral – these bodies belonged mostly to a particular demographic, one spurned by persons of faith across denominations and even across religions: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and questioning. These are a group of people for whom, it goes without saying, the Church has often been an unsafe space, and this crime – the deadliest of its kind in United States history – both with its attendant “isms” and “phobias” as well as stripped bare of all such labels, is a question writ large for people everywhere who claim Jesus Christ as Saviour, that being: Christ-followers, what are the limits of your compassion? And accordingly: Church, what is the depth of your complacency?
All too soon, this will become “something terrible that happened to someone who is not me.”
Grace without limits
For Christians of the Reformed tradition, it is notable that the Orlando tragedy took place just four days before Synod’s report and decision on pastoral care for same sex members (an evaluation of which, from different perspectives, can be found further in this issue of the CC). For the world at large and North America in particular, summer marks the launch of many Gay Pride festivals and parades. Suffice it to say, dialogue around equitable treatment for LGBTQ+ peoples is at the forefront of discussion across all forms of media, and from within and without many pews and pulpits.
But the mass execution in Orlando requires more from us than mere dialogue. This was not “just” a shooting. The events in Orlando mark a moment in history, and it is incumbent upon those of us who claim Christianity to recognize the moral and theological imperative inherent in this historical moment to move beyond what are necessarily abstract, semantic debates about biological leanings, and into the messy, iconoclastic reality that is the unconditional, boundless compassion we are called to as Christ-followers. We are here for but a brief moment. We should not be so foolhardy as to build barricades around Christ’s love in the name of a God who defies all barriers.
And some of us are doing that. Organizations like New Direction Ministries (see the interview with their executive director in this issue) are using social media to extend a message of grace and compassion to the LGTBQ+ community and to help situate the tragedy for those unfamiliar with the situation and the targeted demographic. In the same moment members of the Westboro Baptist church picketed the funerals of an Orlando shooting victim, a protest group dressed as angels physically interceded between the picketers and the grieving families to sing “Amazing Grace” to muffle the vitriol from the notoriously anti-gay Kansas Westboro group. The DeVos Family Foundation, whose members have roots in the Grand Rapids area CRC, donated $400,000 to OneOrlando, a nonprofit created to assist the families of those impacted by the tragedy, and there are countless other stories of individuals and communities alike reaching out to offer solidarity, prayers, financial aid and much more to those impacted by the Orlando shooting.
But in this situation and in others where we are pushed to question deeply held assumptions, it is important to be vigilant about inspecting the self-imposed limits of our grace. Are we brave enough to decry the areas in which we allow our prejudices to remain coddled underneath apparently inclusive messages that are nothing more than thinly veiled hypocrisy, if we claim a theology of limitless compassion? Do we support the grieving families of Orlando victims, but stop short of allowing our compassion to extend to their LGBTQ+ loved ones, the direct target of hate-fueled violence? Now that the tragedy is one month old, will it go the way of Ebola – that is to say, “something terrible that happened to someone who is not me”? Will we continue to participate in dialogue that may make us uncomfortable, that brings to the fore our unwillingness to question our hubris as it conflicts with the idea that God’s grace is entirely non-linear and non-hierarchical?
Omar Mateen was no doubt entangled in a web of fear with roots in a life narrative we will never fully understand. Fear, in some costume or another, moved him toward violence, and, as with so many Shakespearean characters and biblical persons alike, that selfsame violence ultimately authored his own demise. The tragedy in Orlando is a moment in history by which many will define their personal, political and theological priorities. We exist in this moment in history for a reason. Let us move beyond the limits of personal comfort to participate in overwriting a narrative of fear with a narrative of compassion.
Will we as Christ-followers build barriers around Christ's love?