Extreme Christianity: a response to the Wieambilla tragedy

Simon Smart responds to Christian extremism in the wake of the Wieambilla tragedy.

When Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Tracey Linford fronted a press conference a few weeks ago to outline the police’s initial findings into the shooting of two young officers and a neighbour in Wieambilla in December, she explained that this horrifying event was no random or spontaneous act but was well-planned and specifically targeted police. That was no surprise.

What was shocking was her description of this crime as a “religiously motivated terror attack” connected to “Christian extremist ideology.” Church goers all over the nation would have winced when they heard that combination of words.

The coroner will make the final determination on the motivation for the attack, but police investigations—drawing from the perpetrator’s social media postings, texts, 190 interviews, and the diary entries of Stacey Train—left them in no doubt about the role religion played in this terrible episode.

Deputy Commissioner Linford referred to a “broad Christian fundamentalist belief system, known as premillennialism,” alongside anti-vax and corresponding anti-government sentiment. She explained premillennialism as a “belief that Christ will return to the Earth for 1,000 [years], and provide peace and prosperity.

“But it will be preceded by an era, or a period of time of tribulation, widespread destruction and suffering.”

The first thing to say is that I hope it is clear to anyone who knows anything about Christianity that the actions of the three people who lay in wait for police officers to arrive at their property were so antithetical to Christian belief and teaching as to be unrecognisable.

That Bible verses and Christian theological concepts were commandeered for such treacherous purposes is a major distortion and perversion of the faith.

Jesus of course completely rejected violence and called his followers to do the same. In that regard it’s easy to see when someone is following Christ or in fact completely disobeying him. So these actions must be dismissed as having any meaningful connection to genuine Christianity.

Even for those who could be described as Christian fundamentalists, and even those fundamentalists who might subscribe to “premillennialism”, there is zero connection theologically with being anti-government, or anti-vax and violent in expressing your beliefs. Plenty of people (mostly outside of mainline churches) have held to premillennial beliefs but are clear that it’s God’s action in the world that is in view and not theirs’. It’s not up to them to take up arms and be part of some physical battle against perceived dark forces. Only the most bizarre and misguided fringe could think Biblical material could legitimately lead them to attack police.

Christians do have to acknowledge that it’s not new that people have used the Bible for nefarious purposes. That’s part of the history and no one knows better than Christians how liable humans are to failure and ineptitude. A book that is all about personal liberation has been used to justify slavery. (It’s also been powerfully used in abolitionist movements). A book that envisions profound equality and unity across races and cultures has been deployed to give energy to nationalism and division.

Is there an antidote to this?

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf is helpful here in his description of “thin” and “thick” religion. A “thin” religious commitment is not given priority in a believer’s life. It therefore easily becomes “thinned out”, instrumentalized, serving as a justification for actions which emerge from a very different set of values. Such “thin” understanding and commitment is easily hijacked for negative and even bizarre purposes.

“Thick” Christian faith on the other hand is not depleted of its meaning within the larger Jesus story but full of its original moral content, which is at its heart non-violent and a force for good. It will impel its adherents towards things like self-sacrifice, generosity and forgiveness. With that framework in mind, Volf argues that the answer to violent and harmful expressions of the faith, is not less Christianity but more. But more of the kind that is true to its founder.

I can’t imagine the sorrow felt by those who loved Constable Rachel McCrow, Constable Matthew Arnold, and Alan Dare who came to try to help them, nor the anguish they must feel when faced with the senselessness with which these lives were taken.

I do know that wherever the killers began on their dark and morbid journey that took them from school teaching in disadvantaged areas of NSW to, eventually, paranoid isolation and commitment to extreme violence, where they arrived was nowhere close to anything resembling true Christianity.

The moment they had their first thought of hurting someone to pay for whatever pain and frustration they felt, they turned their back on whatever little understanding they had of Jesus.

Christian extremism isn’t a phrase we hear very often. But extreme Christianity—of the truest type—might not be something to fear. “Love your enemies”, Jesus said, to anyone who wanted to follow him. More of that kind of radicalism would be a rare kind of light in our day.

Simon Smart is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the host of the “Life & Faith” podcast.

Image: Unknown author – Condolences to the Arnold and McCrow Families, Murgon Police © The State of Queensland (Queensland Police Service) 2023, published under CC-BY-4.0 licence