Reflections on the Orlando killings

While the nation continues to take in the full extent of the mass killing in Orlando this past week, the worst in American history, both political and religious leaders are taking a second look at how homophobia played a part in this tragic event. As we all know by now, the killing spree took the lives of nearly 50 people and seriously injured another 53. Gay people seem to have been targeted by this home grown terrorist. It seems to some experts in the field of mental health that the killer may have been concealing homosexual inclinations and that his self hatred of this part of his persona may have led to his choice of a gay nightclub to unleash his maniacal killing spree.

At this early stage of investigation, experts in the field of mental health, terrorism, extremism and other related fields are seeking explanations for his violent behavior. Certainly, one of the conundrums in all this is that he chose a venue where a large number of gay people gather to kill and maim, while at the same time in his own life was secretly involved tangentially with the gay lifestyle. Some leading voices in the mental health community point to his internal struggle — stemming from a negative religious view of homosexuality being taught him by his family and faith, possible repressed and latent homosexual conflict, along with mental illness, personal failures and disappointments and perceived feelings of being prejudiced against for being Muslim — as the trigger that led to his killing and punishing innocent victims the other week. And of course his nebulous link to terror organizations abroad.

Claiming adherence to the Muslim faith, the killer worshiped at a mosque in his local area. How much his Muslim faith played a part in his process of radicalization is still inconclusive. Members of the leadership and congregation of his local mosque described him as nominally devout. His former wife told new organizations that he was both physically and verbally abusive. She also said while he was religious he never espoused allegiance to any terrorist groups but did make anti-gay comments when he was angry.

Some religious leaders are questioning how religious teachings, scriptures and condemnations of homosexuality may have helped set the stage for this particular mass killing. Over the centuries the inheritors of the Abrahamic faith, Jews, Christians and Muslims, have variously looked negatively upon homosexual behavior. They have all struggled with how to handle gay members of their faith. Christians have struggled mightily in this present millennium with how to respect and include gay people while holding fast to teachings addressing homosexual behavior and now marriage.

Catholic leaders have struggled along with other Christian leaders as how to view and treat people from the gay community. Bishop Robert Lynch, St. Petersburg, Fla., decried the role that religion may have played in the tragedy. “Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people,” he wrote on his blog, “Attacks today on L.G.B.T. men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.”

Pope Francis ignited a firestorm among some in the church when he innocently remarked in 2013 during a dialogue with journalists that “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” Some were even shocked that he used the word, “gay” in a public forum.

He also said, “the key is for the church to welcome, not exclude and show mercy, not condemnation. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

We may never know to what extent that the negative view of homosexuality in Islam influenced the tragedy in Orlando or played in the killer’s self-hatred or just plain hatred for gay people. In light of the worst mass killing in American history, religions are given an opportunity to reflect on how our teachings and traditions can negatively affect our brothers and sisters in the gay community.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.