The Theology That Inspired the Poway Synagogue Shooting (and New Zealand) Remains Strikingly Commonplace

Image of Orthodox Presbyterian Church is from Facebook. (Note: image is not of the church attended by Earnest.)

John T. Earnest, the alleged Poway Chabad Synagogue shooter, like those “many fine people” bearing torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, didn’t much want Jews to “replace” him. No, that would send time’s arrow off its providential course in the wrong direction. His Orthodox Presbyterian theology made it clear who was being replaced, and who would be doing the replacing. The “who’s who” of replacement was all preordained in purest Calvinist fashion. But just to make sure that Divine Providence was doing a thorough job of it, Earnest felt compelled to lend a bloody hand, depriving Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of a couple of fingers in the process.

Concerned as we rightly are about the immediate human cost of Lori Gilbert Kaye’s awful murder and the trauma inflicted on the Poway and national Jewish communities, hardly anyone has delved into the theological causes behind Earnest’s actions, as confused as they may be. Does the fact of the crossed wires in Earnest’s theology—both affirming predestination, but also needing to hasten it—matter? Why the talk of “replacement” by Earnest or the Charlottesville mob? Would knowing about any of this have helped prevent the killing?

In a heartfelt letter of public apology, Earnest’s parents—sincerely, no doubt—assured us that:

Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold…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 that he took to this evil and despicable act.

Perhaps Earnest was indeed in the grips of people the Earnest family “do not know, and ideas we do not hold.” Still, it seems unpersuasive to say so. We know Earnest was active on the internet site chan8/pol/—a self-styled “politically incorrect” space in the ether for parking all sorts of postings. Some salute Christian white nationalists like “Saint John of Poway and Saint Brenton of Christchurch” (sic). Others assume insincere passive-aggressive, self-pitying stances. One, posted by Owen Benjamin pleads, “I did not want to kill Jews. But they have given us no other option…the Jew—with his genocidal instincts—is insistent on poking the bear.” Yeah, right.

Or, another post, this time anonymous, reads “Vigil Held For Annihilated Parasites Of Poway Synagogue Shooting.” To be fair, many other posts on chan8/pol/ offered sympathy for Poway victims, made appeals for mutual understanding, and generally denounced hatred. But those quoted stood out for their resemblance to Earnest’s wish to eliminate Jews and other perceived enemies.

In particular, the same site hosts numerous posts voicing ideas that the Earnest family would find all too familiar. Populating these sites is a supersessionist or “replacement” theology native to the Earnest family’s Orthodox Presbyterian creed. Some of these posts make portentous apocalyptic anti-Semitic threats. These, tellingly, articulate the same “replacement” ideology/theology made notorious in Charlottesville’s white Christian nationalist chant of “Jews will not replace us.” So, we read in another anonymous angry post:

Even when they’re trying to fuck with the truth, the jew has to be the one damaging the world. It’s jew pathology, the victim and the aggressor. they cannot see any other way to try to control the narrative. Fuck it jew, we’ve passed the tipping point and the narrative is now ours to write. [Emphasis mine.]

The author of this post is not about to let Jews “replace” him any more than John T. Earnest accepted that Jews would “replace” him.

Not to single out the Orthodox Presbyterians, it should be noted that all three Abrahamic religions deploy supersessionist talk and often a bloody history to go with it. Each successive installment of Abrahamic religion at some point sees itself as a new and improved version of the older. Each new stage of Abrahamic religion in some way “fulfills,” “completes,” “supersedes,” “replaces,” and most often pushes aside the older. The Qur’an marks progress over the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, as the New Testament improves upon the Old. Islam replaces Christianity as Christianity replaces Judaism, and so on. (This is not to say that all or even most Christians, Jews and Muslims believe this, but it is undoubtedly a part of those traditions.)

Typically overlooked by the players in this game of religious “leapfrog” is the fundamentally subjective, and often actively violent, nature of the stories each party tells itself. The ancient Hebrews superseded the Canaanites and Philistines by taking action physically to replace them as inhabitants of the holy land. But who today knows what the Canaanites and Philistines reported about such self-serving Hebrew claims?

In their turn, Christians likewise see themselves as superseding Jews as the Chosen People, establishing a New Israel, allegedly justified in doing so by the genius of Christian “fulfillments” of ancient Jewish prophecies, matched only by the uncanny anticipation those Jewish prophets had of the Christians to come. But last time I checked, no one seems to have polled the Jews about their replacement by Christians as Yahweh’s chosen. Such an oversight!

In their confidence of Christian success at displacing Jews from their role as Chosen People, the Earnest family’s Orthodox Presbyterians are not special. They line up predictably with a two millennia-long line of Christian apologists. This line of Christian theologians essentially shares the same view of the supersessionist course of salvation history with respect to Judaism.

Unfortunately for Christians, Abrahamic supersessionism doesn’t halt for their convenience. Muslims view Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets,” and Islam as the latest and final stage in a long line of succession and supersession. Small wonder with a serious challenge to Christian supersessionism appearing on the horizon, that Earnest boasted online of his March arson attack on a mosque in Escondido, San Diego County. So, Earnest wasn’t prepared to leave matters to Providence here, either, but instead nudged it along by seeking to replace the new Muslim replacers all the while making sure that the long-replaced Jews in Poway stayed securely in place.

So however sincere the Earnest family may have been in absolving their religious community of any connection to the Poway attack, the flood of all that “replacement” theology makes one wonder. When and how can one disaffiliate young John T. Earnest’s attempts actually to “replace” Jews and Muslims by physically eliminating them, on the one side, from the theological vision of their “replacement” incessantly preached in his church, on the other? Is someone going to argue that everyday behavior and religious formation occupy different universes of discourse and practice? If so, why bother with preaching, teaching or theologizing at all?

In fixating on Earnest’s Orthodox Presbyterians, let’s not forgot the Christian figures and denominations that have countered the notion of the replacement of the Jewish people by their alleged divine abandonment. Prominent here is Pope John Paul II’s 1980 statement that God’s covenant with the Jewish people had never been revoked. This and the earlier work of Vatican II reversed the supersessionist teaching of recent documents, such as Pope Pius XI’s Cum Supremae (1928). The LDS Church has likewise rejected it, as have mainline denominations like the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ.

I end, not with solutions, but with two broad clusters of questions.

First, how is it that, despite owning theologies of supersession, few of those Christians have taken up the murderous path of a John T. Earnest? Does this mean that Christians, even in churches retaining a supersessionist outlook, simply don’t take replacement theology seriously? By contrast, does Earnest represent what happens when religious beliefs are taken seriously and put into action? Put otherwise, why did Earnest feel obliged to operationalize supersessionist theological discourse into murderous “replacement” practice, when one would have thought he’d trust Divine Providence to accomplish His purposes and do the deed? Or, why do others, equally committed to the same “supersessionist” theology, get by with garden variety bigotry?

Second, by what sort of intellectual gymnastics can religious communities like the Catholics, long committed to supersessionism, all of a sudden dismiss it? Thus, while celebrating the Vatican’s refusal to further subscribe to “replacement” theology, how can we square that with what I would call the “deep” supersessionism inscribed into so much Christian theological, institutional, architectural, aesthetic and liturgical discourse and practice? With a well-documented memory of supersessionism at their disposal, Catholic intransigents today never tire of calling out this uneasy disjunction between a dense supersessionist past and a shallow progressivist present. Finally, what does the Orthodox Presbyterian rejection of moves like the Vatican’s decision to squelch supersessionism tell us? Does it warn of an excess of theological subtlety and complexity? Does it speak to an appetite of the popular religious partisan will for a more straightforward and uncomplicated kind of theology? Does it speak to a Trumpian passion for “winning,” so ably represented by an us/them supersessionism?