The tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was harrowing. How on earth could such brutal violence take place?
As I see it, there are at least three levels of explanation we need to confront. The first is socio-political.
Anti-Semitism and alt-right genocide
Before he opened fire at Tree of Life, Bowers shouted “all Jews must die.” Bowers’ Gab profile, a platform that calls itself “the free speech social network,” confirms that he harbored deep hatred for Jewish people. His posts contain anti-Semitic slurs, complained about Jewish people in the White House, and blamed them for helping migrant caravans enter the United States.
Hatred of Jewish people is not incidental to the agenda of white nationalists; it’s essential. White supremacism had been the law of the land until the success of the civil rights movement. And from a white nationalist perspective, it is baffling that a black-led social movement could have overturned this power structure by its own organizing efforts. And so, the white nationalist concludes that there must be some secret manipulator behind the scenes, some diabolical power orchestrating the downfall of white people everywhere.
Their conclusion? Jewish people. Throughout the civil rights movement, Jewish activists tirelessly worked for justice alongside African-American leaders. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965: “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom—it has been so great.”
In more recent years, Jewish people have continued to respond to God’s biblical call to welcome the stranger. At Capitol Hill, in local communities, and at the US-Mexico border, Jewish advocates have ceaselessly worked to welcome and care for immigrants.
This is why white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Because the Jewish community has worked to realize the Kingdom of God on earth, to build a more just, more equal, more welcoming society.
Put this together with horrifically lax laws around gun control (Bowers had twenty-one guns registered to his name. Twenty one.) and one can begin to understand how this atrocity at Tree of Life could have taken place. Before he entered the building, Bowers logged on to Gab and wrote “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The scapegoating of Jewish people
The second level of explanation for Tree of Life is psychological: white nationalists are using Jewish people as scapegoats. Scapegoating is when a person displaces her uncomfortable feelings and projects them on another individual or group. Often, this target group is more vulnerable. By persecuting the scapegoat, the individual can relieve his uncomfortable feelings and take refuge in self-righteous indignation.
Right now, white nationalists live in fear of an equalizing society. This fear, fueled by Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and minorities, generates feelings of anger, frustration, and guilt. These are the uncomfortable feelings they are displacing and projecting onto Jewish people.
Scapegoating is more likely to break out in violence in poor economic conditions. In other words, scapegoating grows especially strong when there is some shortage, some competition, scarcity of some resource. In those cases, the boundary lines of “us vs. them” are sharpened. Definitions of who “belongs” grow more stringent in an effort to stay ahead.
But ultimately, the socio-political and psychological factors show us how the horror at Tree of Life happened. To understand why, we have to turn to a theological level of explanation.
The violence of sin
The human person is fallen, and constantly tempted to sin. Giving oneself over to this sin does violence to the heart. Choosing sin over God rends the heart, tearing it into two and leaving us broken. As a result, sin dehumanizes us and turns us into the evil we choose. Perhaps nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than in as Dante’s Inferno, in which he paints the punishment of souls according to the law of contrappasso.
It is only from a violence within the heart that such horrific physical violence can be born.
So our invitation is to examine our heart, to identify the dividing line that runs through it, and to work for healing. In this process, we should ask for the intercession of (newly-canonized!!!) Saint Oscar Romero.
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of the love that led Christ to be nailed to a cross. We preach only the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and to eliminate the cruel inequalities among us. This is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love and fraternity, the violence that chooses to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Let’s embrace the violence of love in our heart, our society, and in the community of Tree of Life Synagogue. Saint Romero, pray for us!
Further reading recommendations
Read this article from Plough on the relationship between the amazing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. In Rabbi Heschel’s introduction to MLK on March 25, 1968, he said: “Where does God dwell in America today? Is He at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy? Is He not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums?”
The Scandal of Redemption is a great selection from Saint Romero’s homilies, diaries, and letters.
Watch Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s take on the problem of human suffering.