On October 27th of last year, while Shabbat services were being conducted, a 46-year-old loner armed with three guns and sympathetic to white nationalism and right-wing social media websites opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, killing 11 and injuring 7.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, this past March 15 during Friday prayers, a 26-year-old avowed white supremacist and proponent of the alt-right was on a killing rampage. Five weapons were used at two locations, a Mosque, and an Islamic Centre. Fifty-five were killed and another 50 injured. They ranged in age from 3 to 77 years old.
Now, just this Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, an island off the south-eastern coast of India, a coordinated attack began while worshippers were celebrating their faith in the resurrection. So far, 24 people have been arrested in a plot using 7 suicide bombers at many different locations involving churches and luxury hotels. 290 children, youth and adults of all ages are now dead, including 39 foreign nationals identified so far, along with an additional 500 seriously injured. It's difficult to imagine the cascading ripples of anger, fear, and heartache resulting from this appalling tragedy.
These attacks upon houses of worship erode the safety, comfort, and wisdom we have discovered in them. Instead of sanctuaries, we now call them "soft-targets" and we are reminded of so many more, all here in America: Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Antioch, Tennessee; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and the dear Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. What do we do when our temples become shooting galleries, our mosques become killing grounds and our churches become crime scenes?
First, we need to acknowledge there is no completely safe place from a world in turmoil. Grocery store parking lots, movie theaters, schools, college campuses, and all other public spaces have been sullied with violence. Moreover, suicide is the leading cause of death by guns in America and Americans are as likely to die from accidental shootings due to an unsecured firearm in the home (many who are children) then who are victims of random and senseless acts of violence against strangers.
While these realities provide some perspective, they certainly don't remedy the problem and may, in fact, amplify it. Whenever we favor more forms of violence as the solution to our problems with violence, we are feeding the madness. One of the most compelling answers to why we are witnessing more and more of these awful events is the potential for all thoughts and behaviors to be socially contagious. The more attention they command leads to the greater the likelihood they will spread and increase. In spiritual terms, the more we allow the darkness to take hold of us, the greater the darkness becomes.
We are engaged in a battle of a different sort. A struggle to not allow these titanic disasters to define us, control us or keep us quiet. We may not be able to stem the tide of insanity in our chaotic world, but I am trying a few ways to tidy up my little corner of it.
Don't let outrage turn into fear. The frequency of these terrible events pushes us past frustration and toward outrage. We can grow numb and are susceptible to fear, never venturing out without high degrees of anxiety. We should always be aware of our surroundings, but often these attacks occur without warning or any provocation. Our spiritual challenge is also within, guarding our hearts against hatred and disabling fear. "Perfect love casts out fear," declares 1 John 4:18. Each day, we are called to love those close to us and those far away. Real love means risk. We are in the season of Easter, where darkness can be as worse a fate than death. Live in the light, for the light has come.
Cry with the victims. Resist wondering about how someone could become so wicked. Why are there so many news reports, novels, and documentaries on those who cause these heinous acts and so very few on the victims whose lives have been deeply damaged by them? Human nature lends itself to a perverse fascination with evil. The real crime is against the innocent and it takes the vulnerable courage of love to suffer alongside with those who suffer. Leave it to the professionals to focus on the guilty.
Reach out to your neighbors in the Interfaith community. The recent attacks on houses of worship are crimes of religious prejudice. We are more likely to fear what we don't understand. All faiths, including Christianity, have religious extremists who practice violence as their means of influence and who thereby betray the basic tenants of the faith they falsely defend. It's time for people of goodwill to come together. (Take notice of two Lexington events in early May for this very purpose. I'm speaking at one and participating in the other. Please join me!).
Have the safety talk. If you have firearms in your home, make sure you secure them. Talk to your children about the danger of guns, especially if they spend any time at someone else's house. Don't be fooled by thinking a gun will save you. The convenience of non-secured firearms perpetuates more gun violence. Guns are dangerous and require meticulous management.
Join an effort toward gun education and common sense gun legislation. Mom's Demand Action is a great place to start. I prefer to not talk about "gun control," but about "gun safety." This re-focus might be a better place to start a process toward a more safer world.
Hug your loved ones. While we are not to be immobilized by fear, we also can't assume violence will never visit our doorsteps. Every moment is precious, every opportunity is fleeting. Take advantage of the good times and tell those nearby how much you love them.
Restore a sense of sacredness. The sin of blasphemy is not only about language. It is making profane all places we hold as holy. The tragic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral reminds the world how sacred spaces are not relics of a day now past, but symbols of what is best, highest and noblest in all our aspirations.
The ancient lament reverberates from the pages of scripture and throughout the passing of time. Our "advanced" civilizations have also advanced in the extreme harm we can visit upon one another. "How Long, O Lord?" As long as we refuse to learn from the wisdom from our faith traditions to respect human life through acts of understanding, kindness, fairness, benevolence, and mercy. May there be peace on earth. May it begin with me.
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