Revelations that the accused gunman in a deadly synagogue shooting in California was a church-going Presbyterian prompted response from a small denomination that is part of the “young, restless and reformed” family tree.
An open letter allegedly written by John T. Earnest — a 19-year-old, piano-playing member of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, California, accused of murder in last weekend’s attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego — admits that he got most of his extreme white nationalist views and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories from sources other than his church.
At the same time the author of the document, circulated on the Internet faster than mainstream social media could censor it, presents himself as a self-sacrificing Christian who is neither a terrorist nor mentally ill.
“Remember that you are secure in Christ,” he advises “brothers in Christ of all races.”
“Turn away from your sin,” the manifesto continues. “Not because it is required for your salvation — for nobody save Christ can merit heaven based on his own works — but rather out of gratitude for the gift of salvation that your God has given you…. Christ alone is the only source of life. Know that you are saved in Christ and nothing — not death, nor torture, nor sin — can steal your soul away from God.”
The hundred-member Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church is part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a denomination founded in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen, longtime professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary who founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently described Machen — who in a 1921 address argued that evangelical and liberal Christianity are in effect different and rival religions — as “one of the most important theologians of orthodoxy in the early 20th century.”
“Our system of doctrine is the Reformed faith, also called Calvinism (because Calvin was the most important exponent of it during the Reformation),” the Orthodox Christian Church says in a “what we believe” web page. “It pulls together the most significant doctrines taught in the Bible,” articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
More controversial tenets include that God predestines who is saved or lost, humans lack the free will to accept Christ unless they are drawn to do so by the Holy Spirit and once saved, it is impossible for someone to fall from grace.
“Those whom God has predestined unto life are effectually drawn to Christ by the inner working of the Spirit as they hear the gospel,” the beliefs page explains. “When they believe in Christ, God declares them righteous (justifies them), pardoning their sins and accepting them as righteous, not because of any righteousness of their own, but by imputing Christ’s merits to them. They are adopted as the children of God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies them, enabling them increasingly to stop sinning and act as the fruit of their faith, and persevere to the end in communion with Christ, with assurance of their salvation.”
Earnest’s open letter defends his hatred of all things Jewish.
“There is no love without hatred,” the document says. “You cannot love God if you do not hate Satan. You cannot love righteousness if you do not also hate sin. You cannot love your own race if you do not hate those who wish to destroy it. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. I may be filled with hatred, but I am also filled with love. Most people are empty inside — unspiritual and shameful dopamine fiends devoid of all love, honor and purpose. I cannot imagine a more pathetic existence.”
The suspect’s parents said they are ashamed of their son’s participation in “the history of evil that has been perpetuated on Jewish people for centuries.”
“Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” the family said in a statement. “Like our other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do. How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, though we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path he took to this evil and despicable act.”
“We deplore and resist all forms of anti-Semitism and racism,” Pastor Zachary R. Keele said on behalf of the membership of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. “We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community. Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs or practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Leaders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church strongly condemned anti-Semitic and racist hatred that apparently motived the shooter.
“Such beliefs are contrary to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and have no place within our system of doctrine or in the teachings and practices of our church,” Moderator John D. Van Meerbeke and Stated Clerk Ross W. Graham said in a joint statement. “We believe that God created man, male and female, in His own image in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. And in love, we offer the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ to every human being.”
Earnest, who quotes several Bible verses in the open letter, on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder with a special circumstance of a hate crime. He also faces three charges of attempted murder. Prosecutors are seeking either the death penalty or a sentence of life without parole.
The Poway slaying came exactly six months after a white supremacist shot dead 11 people at a synagogue in Pennsylvania, described as the worst attack against the Jewish people in modern U.S. history.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a report in March showing a sharp rise in propaganda efforts carried out by white supremacists in the U.S. in 2018.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the ADL, said the most recent synagogue shooting should be a “wake-up call” for politicians to more seriously address anti-Semitism in the United States.
“We desperately need our leaders to stop politicizing the issue,” Greenblatt told reporters on a conference call. “Those who dismiss anti-Semitism when it comes from their side of the aisle are only minimizing the issue and perpetuating the problem.”