Orlando’s Fire

Orlando’s Fire June 14, 2016

The world is on fire.

And I feel the need to write.  All I can do is write.

Yet our words feel so inadequate in the face of the massacre in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.  All responses appear to fall short. Every word misses the mark.

49 people were murdered.  We must be more specific in our remembrances.  When giving voice to memory we must avoid abbreviations.  49 young, primarily Latino, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, queers, or questioning, and perhaps straight, human beings were massacred.  49 souls were taken from their families, from their friends, from their community.  And 53 were injured.

All by one person.  All by one person who claims allegiance to ISIS and radical Islam.  Look at the photographs of the victims online.  Allow their smiles to overwhelm the smirking grin of their murderer.

Many explanations are offered.  Countless pundits have weighed in with their opinions.  Allow me to offer my responses.

Guns.  If you were to read liberal commentators you might think this is the only cause of Sunday morning’s atrocity.  And yet it is clear to me that the assault rifle used in this crime made this exponentially worse and transformed a shooting into a massacre.  News reports suggested that there were approximately 150 people in the club at the 2 am last call.  That means that over 100 of those present were shot.  Less than one third escaped without physical injuries.

I do not like guns.  I fired a shotgun one time in my life and that was one time too many.  Despite this I want the police and army to have them so that they can better protect us.  I recognize that some of my friends like to hunt and shoot targets.  I also recognize that this is their constitutional right, but there is no reason why anyone except the army should have military weapons or for that matter be able to stockpile ammunition.  There needs to be greater limits placed on gun ownership.  Our repeated failures to enact sensible legislation in the face of repeated massacres and countless examples of gun violence should be an embarrassment to every responsible gun owner.

I wish the President did not appear so defeated.  I appreciate his words of comfort and consolation.  I welcome his words of caution against vilifying one group.  But I want him to do more than lead us in mourning.  I long for him to stake out a stronger path and send legislation to Congress banning assault rifles and requiring strenuous background checks.  In the face of such massacres (I thought Newtown would have awakened us) that would be a sensible response.  Bars, movie theatres, malls and most especially schools, should be able to reclaim their rightful sense of security and safety.

Homophobia.  Make no mistake the murderer purposely targeted a gay bar.  He sought to murder those who gathered there to dance, party and perhaps find love.  We should celebrate their love and joy.  We should rejoice in their increasing acceptance in our society.  And yet we should recognize that LGBTQ individuals are discriminated against.  Our very own sacred texts give voice to this prejudice.  Too many who call themselves religious stand guilty of this sin.  It is time that we say in a loud and clear voice that prejudice against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and queers will not be accepted in our community.  I have lost patience with those for whom such views make them uncomfortable.

Our children have learned acceptance.  It is time we do the same.  It is time we recognize that our tradition must change and our arms must reach out and embrace everyone, and our beloved religious institutions must become even more welcoming.  We must say that if our country is going to live up to its founding principles then discrimination against someone because of their sexual orientation will never again be tolerated.

ISIS regularly murders those who they suspect of homosexuality.  Muslim countries have some of the worst records of discrimination against LGBTQ people.  Israel by contrast just hosted one of the largest gay pride parades along the streets of Tel Aviv.  We can do better.  We must do better.  Most important when remembering the victims we must never strip them of their identities, most especially when it is an identity that they have often fought so hard to proclaim and that we must continue to defend.

Terrorism.  It is curious that the victims of atrocities are by and large allowed their identities but the perpetrator is often stripped of his beliefs.  The president suggests that we must disassociate ISIS from Islam and so avoids labeling such crimes as Muslim terror.  I understand his strategy.  Such ideologies and the terrorism they spawn are perversions of Islam.  Denying the murderer the faith he claims as his own, however distorted it may be, does not serve to address our contemporary struggle.  The Muslim world needs to address this cancer.  Still if you were to listen to conservative commentators you would think this is the massacre’s root cause.  Open your ears.  American Muslims and their organizations have raised their voices against this atrocity and have spoken out against terrorism.

This event has only increased my resolve to do more, to learn more about others and in particular about my Muslim compatriots.  I remain committed to doing everything in my power to continue my discussions and dialogue.  I will not be deterred.  I continue to believe that Islam is a noble religion.  And I will stand shoulder to shoulder against those who would hijack it—or those seeking to defame it.

Donald Trump’s defamatory comments against Muslims, his vitriol leveled against Islam are the wrong responses.  His calls to ban immigrants from particular ethnic groups, most especially Muslims, are to my mind, un-American.  Let us not forget that it was Latin night at the Pulse nightclub.  We are a nation of immigrants.  My grandparents sought refuge here.  They were welcomed here.  They raised families here.  They embraced democracy.  They learned the value of pluralism. I am going to live up to the values that gave my family an American life. I am going to do everything in my power to help amplify the voices of Muslims who share these American values of tolerance and pluralism.  I am certain that there are many such Muslims.

I am a rabbi.  I believe in religion in general, and of course Judaism in particular.  When someone commits such a heinous crime in the name of his religion, all people who call themselves religious are defamed.  It is too easy to say, “It is their religion but not mine.  It is them not us.  They are evil.  We are good.”  We are battling a worldview that proclaims “I can only be right if you are wrong.”  We are at war with its most evil form, “I can only be right if you are dead.”  This view narrows the world, and shrinks humanity.  It proclaims: “The world was only given to us.”

We must come to recognize that religion can be a beautiful fire that soothes or it can become a raging inferno.  It carries the seeds for both.  As one who has devoted his life to its soothing power we must be honest and forthright about the fire’s dangers.  We cannot simply dismiss this act as the crime of someone who is mentally deranged.  While I believe there is already ample evidence to support such a claim we also must admit that his act was fueled by religious zealotry.  His crime was given license by those who speak with Islamic tropes.  His act has defamed my friends’ religion.  Faith has been sullied.

The world is on fire.

Do we ignore the flames?  And offer passing comments about the warmth of its glow?

Or do we add fuel to fire?  And stoke hatred against those unlike ourselves?

Or do we band together?  Will Muslims, Jews and Christians, LGBTQ and straight, gun owners and gun control advocates unite and do something—finally.  Please!

Will we find the courage to temper the flames?

So now at least I feel better, if only slightly.  Still I pray.  Perhaps my words can find their way into your hearts as well.

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