This last week, America watched helplessly as a community of faith in Texas experienced an armed hostage situation that brought many different responses from different parts of the faith community:
- Jewish Americans had some of their worst fears brought to the surface once again, when a British Muslim man took 3 people hostage for more than 11 hours. There were many Rabbis, Cantors and Jewish friends posting prayers, citations of Psalms to pray in solidarity, in hopes that another mass shooting in Jewish space could be averted….
- Muslim Americans also were posting on social media, in solidarity with the Synagogue and the stories of the Rabbi’s Interfaith relationships started making the news, being included in the news stories that were spreading was the warmth with which this religious leader was held by his non-Jewish faith leader colleagues in the region….
- Mainstream media had gotten the gunman wrong for hours, wrongfully blaming the brother of the woman the gunman sought to free….
- The gunman themselves somehow got it in his mind that Jews run the world, so the only way he thought he could free the woman who is in jail for terror charges herself was to take an American Jewish Rabbi hostage to get another nation state to free her….
- There was little said about the ability of a British national about how easy it is to purchase a gun illegally in this country, perhaps because we don’t think there is a way to challenge the current interpretation of the 2nd amendment….
Now my take: Why hasn’t the faith community come together to share a consistent message that our Sanctuaries are no place for weapons of any kind? How did we as people of faith allow security to outrank our hospitality. Hospitality to the stranger is a central tenet in all of our traditions – one that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was living out by lending a listening ear to a troubled soul that showed up at the door of his Synagogue. But our culture and legal establishment has allowed men with guns to take precedence over the safety of people in Sanctuaries and Gathering Places (that’s what Synagogue means).
We have also allowed Christian Supremacy to become the loudest form of religiosity in this country to an alarming rate. By not pressing moderate and progressive forms of Christianity in the public square, we have relegated the religious sphere mainly to the loudest voices on AM, FM and Satellite Radio, Cable and online streaming media, where it seems that the most patriarchal, misogynistic, Islamophobic and Anti-Semitic forms of religion have become normalized for many. This is our failure as Christians.
Make no mistake, the Religious Right gives more than space and repetition to these ideas, they propagate them with zeal, because it normalizes the other, anti-democratic ideas they are attempting to enforce in our culture. This movement is ahistorical, often wrongly telling their adherents that America was once a Christian Nation, and it needs to return to being so or God’s favor won’t rest upon us any longer, rather than the historical truth that we rejected being a Christian nation when we institute a constitutional, pluralist Republic, where everyone’s right to choose their own religion was sacrosanct. Let’s be clear, the policies they are promoting would do away with our constitutional guarantees of the separation of Church and State, equality of all peoples before the law, and even the equality of women.
Ideas do have consequences. When someone believes the anti-Semitic lie that Jews control the world, this is how they seek to make the changes they desire. Expose the lies, and take away the power. But we need to strip our culture and society of these other lies told to bring about Christian Supremacy, which is as real a threat to democracy as White Supremacy, militias, or other groups attempting to take over the government. Sinclair Lewis was a Minnesota born Nobel prize winning author, who wrote “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Lewis must have seen this possibility in us, as he saw first hand the rise of Italian fascism in the 30’s and 40’s.
So, please read this recent article in the New York Times, “For Jews, Going to Services is an Act of Courage” by Deborah E. Lipstadt, to understand how foreign these threats against houses of worship make Jewish people feel right now. Then think back on your memories. Was there ever a time you were fearful to go to your house of worship? Not just bored or not wanting to go for any other reason, but fearful, afraid – because of the threat of outside groups to do harm against you and the ones you love? As the Washington Post pointed out in 2019, three in ten American Jews sometimes hide the visible markers of their Judaism, and eight in ten Americans also think anti-Semitism is a problem that has increased in the past five years.
If you can’t wrap your head around why Jews or Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or others feel fearful in our culture, then it’s time to do some serious personal and historical work. When the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963, it killed four little beautiful girls before the heart of the nation was turned. We have already had mass shootings in schools all over our country. But what have we really done after 6 major shooting incidents in houses of worship just between 2000 and 2013? Since then, we have seen the numbers of anti-Semitic shooters increasing, targeting Jewish spaces at the Tree of Life Synagogue in, Pittsburgh, PA (2018); a mass stabbing at a Rabbi’s house in NY (2019); a mass shooting at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey (2019); and the shooter of the Chabad Synagogue in Poway, CA (2019) admitted he was motivated by his Christian Nationalism. His pastor, of a fundamentalist Presbyterian congregation, admitted “We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him — he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church,” Edmondson said. Mass shootings have also targeted other religious spaces as well, such as First Baptist, Sutherland, TX (2017), Mother Emmanuel AME, Charleston, SC (2015), the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI (2012); Living Church of God in Brookfield, WI (2005) – all for various, differing ‘reasons.’
What will it take for our elected leaders and the religious right to stop using worn out anti-Semitic tropes that continue to contribute to such violence? And, what will it take to address the new anti-Semitism from the Left many Jews are experiencing as well? And, we who are so comfortable in Interfaith circles need to recognize how the discourse of our co-religionists also contributes to already high rates of Islamophobia domestically, and increased targeting of Muslim countries in our US Foreign Policy, regardless of which party is in control of Congress.
Still there is much we could do as a culture, as the picture of those doing the shooting has not eluded us as much as we may think. As Julian Peterson and James Densley, academics who run The Violence Projectpoint out in their LA Times OpEd,
“Worship mass shooters were in crisis prior to the shooting 82% of the time, and 64% of them were suicidal. Some 73% of perpetrators had histories of mental illness and 82% had histories of substance abuse. Three-quarters of them had recently lost or changed jobs, with most of them having been fired. Their shootings were typically not well planned, although about half of them had displayed an active interest in past mass shootings and several had studied white supremacist conspiracy theories online or interacted with communities on the internet that helped galvanize them into action.”
Anti-Semitism is the base theology for White Nationalism and Christian Nationalisms. No, Jews don’t run the world. We should stop allowing others to believe it as well. And, we need to speak up for better mental health care, crisis services, and more engagement with those at risk of ideological violence. It’s our job as people of faith.
Together we serve,
Printed in the East County Shared Ministry – ECSM News January 2022 Newsletter