Last week was a horrendous week in the United States, leaving me with a jumble of emotions.
It began with pipe bombs sent through the mail, our postal service, to over a dozen Democratic politicians, Trump resisters, and the CNN offices in New York City. The list included two former presidents and two former cabinet members.
That was followed by the shooting and killing of two black Americans at a Kroger Market in Kentucky.
At week’s end a man armed with an AR-15 and three handguns entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh during a sabbath morning worship service and killed 11 worshipers and wounded a handful of others, including several police officers.
These crimes were acts of hate toward:
- Democrat and liberal-leaning Americans.
- Black Americans.
- Jewish Americans.
Whatever our political leanings and convictions, it is sobering that hatred is so strong in our land at this time. Some might argue that hatred and violence have always existed in our nation. Of course, they are right. But we are living today and these acts of hatred occurred in the last two weeks—this is our time. While last week’s pipe bombs were sent to Democrats, last year’s shooting of members of Congress practicing for the annual Republican-Democratic softball game was directed at Republicans, seriously wounding a high-ranking Republican Congressman. Hatred goes both directions; indeed, hatred goes all directions. Hatred has a pervasive nature to it.
One of my preaching students included these words in her in-class sermon earlier this week:
“Because of the enormous injustices against people, especially black males, I feel helpless. When my fourteen-year old son asks me why so many black men are being murdered without justice, my heart sinks.” She is a black American. Her experience is not unique to her; it is shared by millions of black Americans. My heart sinks with her heart and I, too, feel helpless.
That experience is also shared by Jewish Americans. In my previous home, in nicely suburban Brunswick NY, our wonderful Jewish neighbors had anti-Semitic words and symbols spray-painted on the street that went just past our yard to their front yard. It happened a number of times. It was ugly and despicable.
Anti-Semitic acts of violence rose about 57% in 2017 over 2016. That is an unprecedented leap from one year to the next. Yet what happened in the Tree of Life Synagogue is virtually unprecedented. The perpetrator made clear that he did it intentionally out of hatred for Jews. But something like it happened a few years ago in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Hatred has a pervasive nature to it.
There is a fear of the Other in our land. That Other may be from the other political party, the other skin-color, or the other ethnicity. That fear of the Other too often leads to hate speech, which leads to outright hatred for the Other. It is not a large leap for that hatred to lead to acts of violence and terror toward the Other.
The other political party is not the enemy. Political opponents need not be enemies. Republicans and Democrats are not enemies. The press and media are not the enemy of the people. The nation needs a free press. People of other skin-color or other ethnicity are not the enemy. We share the same humanity. People born in other countries are not the enemy. We share the same humanity. People of other religions are not the enemy. Our nation favors no one religion over other religions. People yearning for freedom and opportunity are not the enemy.
Those of us who follow Jesus are under orders to love all others, including even those that were once our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….’” (Matthew 5:43-44). Jesus came for the Other and gladly welcomed Others all through his earthly ministry. That hasn’t changed. He is still doing it when his Church welcomes the Others. Sometimes he is doing it beyond his Church, when his Church isn’t doing it.
In the midst of turbulent times, times of too much fear of and hatred for the Other, there is a better way, a higher wisdom. Mr. Rogers liked to quote his mother’s words to him when he was frightened as a youngster. She said that in scary times, always look for the helpers, for there will always be helpers.
In Pittsburgh last week, we saw helpers emerging from all over the city and beyond. The Islamic community in Pittsburgh has raised over $200,000 so far for the Tree of Life Synagogue. People have been lining up to visit the police precinct in Squirrel Hill from which the wounded officers came to thank the police. After all, Mr. Rogers and his family lived in Squirrel Hill, just three short blocks from the Tree of Life Synagogue. In the midst of the hate-filled horror of last Saturday, I think Mr. Rogers, even in his tears at what happened, would be smiling at how his neighborhood is responding.