Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the disobedient. So do not be associated with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.
Ephesians 5: 6-8
Many years ago, when graduate students in Pittsburgh, we would as often as possible go the the Squirrel Hill section of the city. It was a very beautiful, peaceful, cultured and cultivated section of the city, which often afforded a unique sense of peace and deep aliveness in the midst of the city. It made perfect sense that the unique, and yet universally welcomed, atmosphere of the neighborhood was due in large part to its being an expression of the lives of its largely Jewish inhabitants, a people formed and steeped in a great spiritual tradition and one of the world’s most influential wisdom traditions. The very nature of the neighborhood exuded a sense of “shalom” that comes from a life of obedience to a transcendent Other and a love of study and learning that such a faith evokes. Although it has now been decades since I was there, I still carry a palpable sense of its peace, quiet, and spiritual evocation.
Thus, to hear on Saturday of the horrible massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue evoked in me a sense that the encroaching barbarianism of our present time had crossed a line that I fear is irrevocable. It is not easy for us to live distinctively human lives; yet, it is always quite easy for us to to fallback into the typical human lives that make us little more than the beastly nature that we share with all other animals. Yet, even they, for the most part, do not gratuitously kill their own.
In our cultural analysis of this event, we continue to practice a relativism in the name of a so-called political balance that suggests to me that we may have truly lost our way. Today’s reading from Ephesians reminds us that there are ways we are to act and not to act, to speak and not to speak. The measure of those words and those actions is not whether they are effective, or whether they persuade, or whether they make us winners. It is rather their integrity and truth. As President Trump said after this attack: “Evil takes many forms.” It certainly does, and one of them is not realizing the reality of evil in us and how we must speak and act in ways that do not make a home for evil’s expanding expression.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times today, David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, writes of a need for “cleanliness among the sordidness.” At this point in our cultural and political history, we have allowed the sordidness to pervade our discourse and culture. We, who fancy ourselves a Christian culture, once again have allowed the value of “nationalism” ascendance, the value which brought to Europe the two great wars of the last century. A year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, so-called white nationalists marched chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Our President declared that there were “good people” among them. Some years ago, certain hyper-orthodox officials in the Vatican provided a forum there for Stephen Bannon to speak his anti-semitic and xenophobic views under the guise of protecting Christian culture. We now have a President who, before the United Nations, decries “globalists,” a perennial code word for Jews.
There is in our country no more serious “mental health problem” than there has ever been. Of course, we need to be caring and attentive to this issue which touches pretty much all of us, but those with mental illness, as we tend to define it, must not be made the scapegoats. The “political way” that is gaining ascendancy in our country is a way that asserts that “our” well being must come at the cost of others. There are poor humble people who are fleeing hunger and danger, and they are the threat to our well being. For the person who killed and wounded all of these innocent people in their house of worship, the enemy was those who sought to welcome these strangers and aliens, in accord with the command they had been given by their God. Those practicing compassion and hospitality were the threat. This is not so bizarre a notion, really, because it has, in a more veiled form become part of our political discourse.
Ephesians tells us that there are persons, words, and actions with whom we are not to be associated. It is to the appeals of the poor and the displaced that we are to be open; it is the words that communicate greed, division, and hate with which we are not to be associated. Each of us carries within us light and darkness. To live as children of light requires an honesty about what is dark and what is light. it requires that we stop blurring the lines between them with a false equivalency and a moral relativity. I truly hope that I am wrong and that the worst act of anti-semitism in American history is not the crossing of a line that cannot be redrawn. Yet, we may now find ourselves in a place where our faith requires of us a witness both against and for. We must cease to normalize and to stand up against acts and discourse of evil and darkness, of all that would set us against others for the sake of the gain of a few. And we must strive to develop communities that cross every human boundary, that point to the common life we share in the spirit of our distinctive humanity.
In all of this, racing around town and then to the office to join my colleagues in chronicling this sad chapter in our city’s history, I could not repress a line that the presidential chronicler Theodore H. White wrote in the commemorative edition of Life magazine in the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “One wished for a cry, a sob, a wail, any human sound.’’
And during the day of Pittsburgh’s suffering so many of us — not only Jews like me — wished for that cry, or any human sound, or perhaps even some shard of routine to ward off the certainty that the day was anything but routine. Now a confession on this time of surpassing sin: Amid it all I dropped by my home, within the sound of the sirens, and took the wet laundry out of the washer and placed it in the dryer. Something about cleanliness amid the sordidness made me need to do it.
David M. Shribman, Anti-Semitism Comes to a City of Tolerance, New York Times, Oct. 28, 2018