When Dylan Roof murdered nine of our sisters and brothers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston, South Carolina, I did not shift the focus of our service the following Lord’s Day to address the issue fully. I have regretted that ever since, and so – in the wake of the mass shooting yesterday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood – we are tackling the subject today.
The faithful of three congregations had gone there to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One congregation was celebrating a bris – the ceremonial circumcision of an eight-day-old baby boy.
That sacred space was infiltrated by hatred, and eleven worshippers were gunned down. In a house of worship.
What makes this attack even harder to understand is that it happened in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Fred and Joan Rogers lived in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and attended Sixth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues. The prayer vigil last night was held at that church.
We could debate from now until eternity about whether this is a gun issue, so we will not have that debate today. But I can tell you that it is a hate issue – just like the mailing of pipe bombs to prominent people in the Democratic Party, and the shootings at of two African-Americans at a Kroger in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. Police there say the suspect tried unsuccessfully to get into a predominantly black church, so he went to the store instead.
A police officer radioing in from the Synagogue say that the suspect, Robert Bowers, told police as he was taken into custody, “All these Jews need to die.” Multiple anti-Semitic rants on social media were posted on accounts with Bower’s name on them.
I spent Sunday evening, all day Monday, and Tuesday morning at our Synod’s Annual Assembly. Ironically – or should I say, Providentially, the theme was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ ordination – and how to be good neighbors, how to relate to our neighbors – especially the ones who are different from us.
A significant portion of the time was spent on hate groups and how to respond to them. We learned that the highest concentration of hate groups in the country is in Pennsylvania – with several headquartered in Pittsburgh. Police have not said whether Bowers was connected with any of them – but their presence is unsettling. Especially when they hail something like this as heroic.
Hatred is not heroic – hatred is cowardly. People who are filled with fear look for someone to blame. Change is often what triggers fear – change in economic stability, change in the make-up of a once-familiar community, change in moral and ethical thinking, change in the family, political change, and the biggest one for young people: disconnection or alienation. They often feel like they are the “other” and don’t belong. Hate groups welcome them, so they can feel as though they now belong.
Others stay alienated and turn to the internet for comradeship. This has led to a spike in “armchair racists” – people who don’t belong to a formal hate group, but feed off each other through hateful posts. Bowers’ account included a number of posts containing an offensive name for Jewish people.
Such hate speech diminishes other people – so that they become less-than-human in our minds. During wartime, soldiers and even civilians were encouraged to refer to citizens of the countries we were fighting by distasteful or racist names. During the World Wars, Germans were “Huns” – even though many of the people in this church have German ancestry. We feared them, so it made us feel more powerful if we considered them to be lower life forms than us. It also made them easier to kill.
Such fear nourishes hate groups. So hate groups are a symptom – not the problem. And Van Dyke of the Community Responders Network in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told our Synod that these groups are aided by our silence. She calls silence “the welcome mat for hate.”
Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, demonstrated love for us – sometimes in words and always in action. Van Dyke advised us not to respond to hate with hate, but with God’s love. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” It is the only thing that will last forever, so it can conquer hate.
So when someone starts spouting hateful ideas in our presence, we have the right to – but more importantly, as ambassadors for Jesus Christ, we have His commission to tell them gently but firmly, “Jesus told us to love one another.” If someone starts telling a joke that demeans anyone, we must tell them, “I don’t tell such jokes and I don’t listen to them, either.”
If a hate group should come to town, Van Dyke suggested staging a unity rally in a different part of town. Hate groups want confrontation – and we should never give them what they want. If one should picket our church, we should not be intimidated, but should hand them bulletins and invite them to worship with us. They won’t come in.
And we must examine our own hearts, because we probably have a closet full of biases, prejudices, assumptions, and maybe even resentment toward entire groups of people. We probably don’t hate them, but are we actively reaching out to them? Do we invite them to church? To our backyard barbecues? Into our kitchens?
On this Reformation Sunday, we must remember the countless lives lost over the centuries to hatred among Christians. Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants killed Catholics, and they teamed up to kill Anabaptists and Jews. And we cannot forget the first peoples here in the Americas who were killed because they were considered by the Christian explorers to be pagan savages – making them appear less-than-human – who needed to be exterminated to the glory of God, rather than given the Good News of the Gospel.
For these sins of our forefathers, we must repent. Please remember that the word “repentance” in the New Testament means a transforming of the mind. Let us pray that God – who created every human being in His image – will change our thinking to see everyone as valuable – everyone as a person – everyone as having the same right to live and to worship in peace and security as we are doing right now.