Should we really never name the Christchurch killer?

ReutersMuslims prayed outside the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch.

In the aftermath of the appalling killings at two Christchurch mosques, the Prime Minister of New Zealand has won plaudits around the world for her handling of the tragedy.

It has been quite right to praise Jacinda Ardern. She has led her country with dignity, compassion and decisiveness in the wake of the tragic events which left 50 people dead and many others injured.

Who can forget the clear empathy she showed as she met some of those affected? And who could fault her desire to toughen up New Zealand's gun ownership laws to try and prevent such a terrible massacre ever happening again?

She also promised to cover the funeral costs of those who were killed. We can all agree her leadership has been inspiring.

But there is just one thing, also widely applauded, which perhaps we should just stop to think about for a moment. And that is Jacinda Ardern's pledge that she would never utter the name of the gunman.

She told her Parliament: 'He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety; that is why you will never hear me mention his name.'

On first hearing, this sounds eminently wise and reasonable. After all, it is the names of those who were killed which, quite rightly, should be remembered first and foremost. And why would we want to give any publicity to the man who carried out this wicked and repugnant act?

But I wonder. In general terms, the precedent for 'denying the oxygen of publicity' to terrorists has not worked out too well. That phrase, of course, was coined by UK Premier Margaret Thatcher when she sought to have the voices of various Northern Irish terrorists banned from British airwaves. In practice, it somehow seemed, perversely perhaps, to glamorise their notoriety, rather than obscure it.

However, there are two much more significant reasons why we might just pause and wonder about this specific aspect of Jacinda Ardern's approach, while rightly lauding her wider handling of the tragedy. The first is simply the argument that in denying people their name, we dehumanise them, which of course is exactly how the killer regarded those in the Christchurch mosques. And part of the strength of western style democracy is the dignity it is supposed to give to everyone – everyone – regardless of who they are.

One of the reasons this system of government partly feels more fragile than it used to in current times is because of the persistent 'othering' or dehumanising of people, whether on social media or in political debate. It seems to me we do well to avoid that.

And, secondly, from a Christian perspective, names are really important. Those long lists of genealogies in the Bible are not just thrown in there to fill up the space. Among other reasons, they are there to show that the ordinary people, the insignificant people, the otherwise nameless masses, do matter; they matter to a God who knows them all by name and who says he knows every human being by name.

More than that, names remind us that each and every human being is made in the image of the God who reveals himself by name. Thus each individual has innate value, however flawed or sinful they might be – whatever wicked acts they might carry out. People may do all sorts of truly horrific things, and the original beauty of the image of God may be left shattered, foul-smelling and disfigured within them – but in this life, there is always the possibility of redemption.

The Christchurch massacre was vile. Nothing, of course, could ever, ever justify it. Nonetheless, the gospel remains true for the killer as much as all of us. After all, if we know our Bibles we will know that none of us qualify on merit to start with, however 'good' we may or may not have been. As the famous hymn puts it: 'The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.'

This possibility of redemption stands true even for wicked and evil gunmen. Even the Christchurch killer, for whom we should pray: Brenton Tarrant.

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A

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