Christchurch attack: Let’s talk about beliefs

Ronald JJ Wong // March 18, 2019, 2:13 pm

This is your home and you should have been safe here

The recent Christchurch terrorist attack deeply saddened me. It haunts me when I imagine a terrorist storming into my place of worship raining bullets on all my fellow worshippers I love. I pray for peace upon the families and communities affected. I pray for justice and mercy.

Reflecting on this episode, I wonder what I can learn from it.


1. Beliefs have consequences

The terrorist Brenton Tarrant planned and committed the attack to express his ideology and beliefs. His belief that immigrants, Muslims and Jews and religious converts in particular were encroaching upon other people’s land.

He describes himself as a white supremacist. He learned from others like him in the past and in groups in Europe who call themselves renewed Knights Templar and the Europeans (a rather misleading name for a group).

Beliefs drive behaviour.

2. Not all beliefs are to be treated equally

A same text or circumstance can give rise to different beliefs, depending on how the person interprets it. One man’s paradise can be another man’s hell. A terrorist and a saint can read the same scriptures.

Some beliefs drive destructive violent behaviour, while some do not. Some beliefs promote constructive behaviour.

Since there are beliefs that promote destructive behaviour, then we cannot treat all beliefs the same way.

Some beliefs should not be enabled or given the platform to be communicated. Such beliefs cannot be eradicated completely, but they must be corrected and contained.

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3. People should be given the chance to form and change beliefs

Why do beliefs matter so much? Because circling back to point 1, beliefs have consequences. Beliefs drive behaviour. Beliefs shape the world for better or worse.

Beliefs about race, nationality, immigration, religion, gun laws, violence, terror, citizenship, morality, culture, entertainment, etc. affect the world we inhabit, and affect our lives and those around us.

Hence, it’s critical for people to be given access to a variety of beliefs and the opportunity to form and change beliefs. That’s why the freedoms of conscience, of thought, of speech, of organising as collectives and of religion are so important.

These freedoms, however, are subject to certain limitations that protect the common space and the individual person from things that undermine their functioning and free will. Otherwise, the freedoms themselves become undermined.

4. Beliefs that undermine human functioning should be contained

No human being is born into this world with fixed beliefs. People pick up, form and change beliefs. But for this process to happen, people need to be able to first function well.

At the most fundamental level, people need basic material provisions like food, water and shelter. That’s not a given in many parts of the world today.

At another level, people need to have the developed ability to comprehend, choose and communicate beliefs. Education and the freedom to access various ideas and beliefs are therefore critical.

However, this should be subject to beliefs that undermine human functioning, i.e. which promote violence. People need to be free from violence, whether physical or sexual or mental, because violence oppresses or removes basic human will. Without free will, a person cannot freely form or change beliefs.

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5. Some beliefs are sacred 

The above fundamental points lay the ground for the protection of fundamental human rights. But there’s a problem – all the points are themselves beliefs, which means that they can be rejected.

That’s the fatal weakness of grounding human rights in nothing but beliefs. Some beliefs are only intellectual notions.

The lives of human beings are sacred.

If the premise for ensuring people can form, change and hold beliefs is itself a belief, then it cannot stand on its own. This is the circularity of beliefs. Something more is needed.

Yet, some beliefs invoke the sense of the sacred. Some beliefs shape our very senses. The sense that the lives of human beings are sacred. The sense that every human being has inherent dignity.

The very fact that the terrorist Brenton Tarrant committed this heinous attack on worshippers in the middle of prayers in a house of worship shows this gaping problem: When people forgo the sense of the sacred and metaphysical notions of inherent dignity, then there are no limits to depravity, violence and terror.

Everything is either merely material reality or subjective belief. In which case, we have no reason for optimism about other humans treating us in any way deemed good or right or just in their eyes. 

We cannot count on some vague abstract notion of quid pro quo (a mutually beneficial exchange where something is given in return for something) among all humans. Because any person who feels like he did not get a fair bargain from this multilateral quid pro quo can feel entitled to take it out on others.

We need to reflect on and recapture the sense of the sacred in one another.

We need to stop objectifying and begin humanising.

We need to relearn human dignity.

We need to look to the mystery of the sacred to build our fundamental beliefs.

In the wake of this tragic episode, I hope that families of the affected may find peace in things seen and unseen, things hoped for, and in the things sacred to their hearts.

This was originally posted on Ronald’s Facebook page and has been republished with permission.