I knew Elton Simpson.
On Sunday, May 3, 2015, Elton and a friend opened fire at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. He was shot and killed shortly after. Elton and his friend drove from Arizona to Texas to attack a gathering celebrating free speech — by displaying artistic depictions of Muhammad. Images of Muhammad are considered highly offensive to Muslims.
No, Elton was not insane. Elton was not mean. Elton was not rude. Elton was not wild-eyed. Elton was not constantly angry. Elton never threatened me. Elton was calm, level-headed, smart, and studious. He was generally kind and well-mannered. Bright and articulate, he spoke smooth and easy. Elton was not a poor unwanted outcast; a down-and-outer he was not. Neither the simplistic narratives of the right or left work for him.
THE CORE ISSUE IS THEOLOGY
I am convinced the secular world will never properly understand people like Elton because the secular world will never properly understand Elton’s theology.
Secularist presuppositions cause many people to seek in vain for a non-theological answer for “radicalization”: economics, insanity, politics, personal nastiness, family problems, blood lust, revenge. Certainly, some of those factors play into some aspects of some people who commit what we know as terrorist acts. But these are not the core.
The core is theology. The core is taking Muhammad, his words and his actions, seriously. Elton took Islam seriously.
How do I know? Elton and I worked for the same company. We spent time together at our mutual workplace. For example, I once asked Elton if he was going to take a certain job promotion:
“They would ask me to trim my beard.”
“Why must you keep your beard?”
“To be like the Prophet.”
“Why? You don’t worship him.”
“No, but he was the best example of what it means to live as a Muslim. Do you know what ‘Muslim’ means?”
“Yes – one submitted.”
Yes, submitted to Allah’s will – like Muhammad was.”
“Is that why you wear your pants this way?”
(Elton wore his pants slightly above the ankles)
“Yes, The Prophet never let his garment drag on the ground.”
Elton’s understanding of Islam was such that Muhammad’s example (as found in the accepted Hadith) was paradigmatic for the proper practice of Islam. The way he went about this was very matter of fact. Elton exhibited such a cool confidence in his interpretation of Islam, it is easy to imagine him convincing others to adopt his positions. I once witnessed Elton’s casual yet charismatic sway on display.
THE POWER TO PERSUADE
First, some context: Elton and I conversed at his local mosque a few times. Yes, I have been to the mosque Elton frequented in north Phoenix. Yet, I am not a Muslim. I was at Elton’s mosque to share the gospel with Muslims as they left Friday prayer. I am a Christian; a pastor and a seminary graduate. I engage in evangelism. This is how I ran into my friend at the mosque.
One Friday afternoon, some fellow Christians and I were at the mosque Elton attended, doing what we often did: quietly and peacefully handing out bilingual (Arabic/English) copies of the Gospel of John to all takers. We stood out of the exit paths, on the public sidewalk. We had an established protocol: when someone said “No”, we responded in clumsy Arabic – “Barak Allahu fik” (a common way of expressing thanks to a person) – and then moved on.
Some days, no one would speak with us or accept our offer of the Holy Injil (what Muslims call the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). This day was not like that – it seemed as if every other person was willingly taking a book – it was fantastic. Elton changed all that. He briefly spoke with me as he came out of prayer and then quickly turned to his fellow Muslims. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but after a brief but friendly-looking conversation, they would hand over the Gospel of John they had just received. Elton went around to as many folks as he could in a very short amount of time, smiling and chatting all the way. Almost every person handed over their book to him. Elton was in the adjacent parking lot by this time. Being that it was private property, we stayed put. Elton then slowly turned towards me and slyly smiled – he held up two hand-sized stacks of gospels and threw them all in the trash. Elton single-handedly stopped 30 people from having a chance to read the Gospel of John.
As I left that day, I was rather depressed. A bleak feeling settled over me as I sat in my car, waiting at the stop light on 27th Ave. and Glendale. As I looked to my side, I saw Elton. We recognized each other immediately. I quickly rolled down my window and we had a brief conversation till the light changed. I asked him why he was so afraid of his friends reading one book out of the New Testament. I don’t recall his precise reply, but I believe it was something to the effect of, “I’m not afraid, I am just warning them about poison.”
I believe Elton was genuinely concerned for the Muslims at his mosque. That is why he did what he did that day. I also believe Elton was genuinely concerned for the honor of the one he deems a Prophet – and that is ultimately why he did what he did on May 3rd.
Even though I was surprised by what Elton did – drove from Phoenix to Dallas to kill people who were supporting drawing pictures of Muhammad – I can’t say I was shocked.
Why? I knew Elton’s theology.