Please read these names slowly: Bernice and Sylvan Simon, brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, Rose Mallinger, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.
Their lives were taken from them Saturday morning as they gathered to worship at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Some 2,500 people gathered yesterday at a memorial service for them, responding to what the mayor called “the darkest hour in our city’s history.” Robert Bowers, the man accused of killing them in a shooting rampage, is due in court today.
Three hate crimes in one week
Last Wednesday, Gregory Bush allegedly tried to enter a predominantly black church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, just outside of Louisville. The doors were locked, so he went to a nearby Kroger store, where he allegedly killed two people, both African-American.
The first victim was Maurice Stallard, age sixty-nine, who was with his twelve-year-old grandson buying a poster board for a school project. The second was Vickie Jones, age sixty-seven, who was killed in the parking lot as Bush left. Bush has a history of mental illness and made racist threats in the past.
On Friday, a fifty-six-year-old Florida man named Cesar Sayoc was arrested after federal authorities said he mailed a total of fourteen packages containing pipe bombs. He was known for condemning Democratic Party leaders on social media.
The next day, eleven people were killed and six others injured (including four police officers) when a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to a federal law enforcement official, the alleged gunman had frequently posted his hatred for Jews on social media.
What motivates such seemingly senseless violence? How should we respond biblically?
“The most terrifying thing”
A neighbor said of Robert Bowers, “The most terrifying thing is just how normal he seemed.” The normalization of hatred is indeed terrifying.
Hate crimes follow the same pattern: objectification, followed by vilification, followed by violence.
Theologian Martin Buber suggested that all relationships fit into two categories: “I-Thou” and “I-It.” An “I-Thou” relationship recognizes the inherent value of the other person. It views others as fellow human beings on a par with myself and loves them as I love myself (Matthew 22:39). An “I-It” relationship views the other person as an object to my subject, a means to my end, a possession more than a person.
Whether last week’s victims were African-Americans, Democrats, or Jews, the perpetrators saw them as less than themselves, people they could treat however they wished.
Next, objectification leads to vilification as the attacker blames the victim for supposed crimes against himself.
After his capture, Bowers told a SWAT officer, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” Hitler blamed the Jews for supposedly subjugating the German people. White supremacists typically claim that other races are stealing their jobs and threatening their way of life.
Next, vilification often leads to violence, from slander to discrimination to physical attacks.
“All of us are wounded”
Yesterday, Pope Francis led prayers for Pittsburgh in St. Peter’s Square and said, “In reality, all of us are wounded by this inhuman act of violence.” He was right.
Saturday’s shooting targeted Jews. Wednesday’s shooting targeted African-Americans. The Orlando shooting targeted gay people. The Las Vegas shooting targeted concertgoers. The Sutherland Springs shooting targeted white churchgoers.
Worshipers attended more than four hundred thousand churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious gatherings over the weekend. It is impossible to secure them all. In fact, a Homeland Security “protective security adviser” visited the Tree of Life synagogue as recently as March.
Anytime we hear of a hate crime victim, we should remember that we could be next.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy”
What is the biblical response to hate crimes?
First, love every person as though they were a member of your family, because they are. We were all created by the same Father and descended from the same parents (Genesis 1:26-27). There are many ethnicities but only one race–the human race.
Second, stand against anyone who stands against a member of your family. Take such hatred as personally as if it were directed against your spouse, child, or parents. Just as “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34), so we must reject all discrimination and “live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16).
Third, stand with all who grieve. Our Father “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Have you prayed for those grieving in Pittsburgh yet today?
Imagine a culture in which everyone followed these three simple precepts.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Will your life make such a difference today?