We do not often share the things that keep us from sleeping well, the nocturnal anxiety we hold deep in our hearts that emerges only in the quiet, breathless hours of the night. We encounter this buried fear when we are defenseless, away from light and noise and distraction. Suddenly, we are gripped by our fear, and our minds are flooded with unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems until fatigue is so great it drags us into sleep. And when we rise, we swallow our questions and confusion to greet the new day and whatever it might bring.
Yesterday morning, a mass shooting occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were killed and several more injured. It was another devastating event, an avoidable tragedy, the result of the bigotry, hate, and anti-semitism that seems to be swelling evermore in our culture. There are no words that can explain the injustice or brutality of this event. There are no words that will lessen the sickening pain or the harsh juxtaposition of the innocent devoted next to a hateful, armed, greedy man, a terrorist exploiting the faith, the trust, the goodness, the hope, the dedication of kind-hearted people. People who were spending their lives in this insane world in community, in prayer, and in compassion.
The pain of this event evokes for me the memory of similar tragedies we have witnessed over the last decade in the U.S.. Six people killed at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. Nine people killed at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. And most recently, twenty-six people killed at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas last year. My heart bleeds. It bleeds for the injustice of these violations, for the unholy loss of people motivated by prayer, not by violence, in anger and solidarity.
I cannot imagine the pain of losing a loved one to a mass shooting and I cannot imagine the grief of losing a loved one in church, the place where I learn to become kinder, more trusting, more soft-hearted. The house of God we choose – no matter our faith, no matter how we name God, no matter how we pray – is supposed to be a safe house, where we can enter in our brokenness and be healed, where we can enter with our loneliness and find community, where we can enter in our grief and rest. Any man who enters a house of worship with a violent agenda in his heart, with guns hidden in his pockets, with the arrogant idea that he knows who should be saved, who should live, is the definition of evil itself.
After events like these, we inevitably hear talk of what churches, temples, synagogues, mosques should do about the threat of mass shootings. There are calls, from the Right: if only they’d had protection, then the wrong people, the innocent people, would not have lost their lives. They say that radicalized white men are aberrations from the norm, from the good, salt-of-the-earth people who make up their base. They say that the violence of their words and the violence of their calls for more guns are in no way the cause of this man’s actions. He was an outlier, and this is devastating. But tomorrow, they will return to saying terrible, dehumanizing things about people of color, Jews, Muslims, refugees, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people. By tomorrow, they will forget the names of those who lost their lives, never having learned any lesson about the rotten fruit of dehumanization. They will keep poisoning our commons, our water, people’s minds and plotting ways to harm the most vulnerable among us. It is infuriating knowing this, having witnessed this mimetic countless times before, knowing that innocent blood will continue to be needlessly spilled.
I took this question, the question of churches arming themselves, to one of my professors last year. My question was as much about guns as it was about the problem of evil. My professor listened, nodded, then shook his head and sighed, “Sarah, the problem is that people think they can control violence. You cannot control violence.”
This realization felt like noticing gravity for the first time. You cannot control violence. What does this mean for us now, for how we respond to the evil in our world?
The problem of evil is a central issue in every major religion. Human beings are confounded by the question of why evil exists in the world, and they puzzle over who their God is in relation to the suffering they see, witness, or experience. In the Christian context, theologians and congregants ask the same series of questions, “If our God is truly all-loving, all-good, and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God created the world and the world is an extension of the Creator, how can there be evil in the world?” Different denominations answer this question differently, but mostly through some iteration of original sin and human fallenness. Some talk more about wrath and others talk more about immeasurable love. No tradition, however, has a full answer for these questions. There is a lot of silence and speculation in and amongst ongoing suffering.
This week was a dark week. The air has been thick with discussion of corruption, radicalization, torture, nationalism, and evil. We are witnessing, with our human eyes, the scope and effects of hate in our country and world. From within our human frailty, we confront questions of suffering, many of us without a religious tradition or defined community to rely upon. Our hearts break in the silence of the night, tears streaming down our face, in pain alone.
Last night, I couldn’t fall asleep. I was kept awake by thoughts of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are grieving. I was kept awake by thoughts of our Yemeni brothers and sisters who are starving. I was kept awake by thoughts of our black brothers and sisters who suffer daily the effects of oppression. All I could think, as I heard sirens beneath our window, was: how are these terrible realities part of our world? Why is there so much pain? How can people be so arrogant, so hateful, so blind, so violent? Does anyone, does God, hear our cry?
The truth is that these forces, anti-semitism, gun violence, racism, genocide, are not new. They did not just happen within my lifetime. They are ongoing. So the question becomes, what can we do with our broken hearts that bleed with those who suffer? What can we do with our goodness, with our hope, with our faith, with our compassion that will have a positive effect on our world?
I waited, breathless, for a response, but there was only silence, which was then punctuated by the return of sirens.
Like all the seekers before and alongside me, I have no solution to the problem of evil. But like all the seekers before and alongside me, I have a choice, just as you have a choice, between one of two options: resorting to forms of similar evil or continuing to love in the face of evil itself. We choose every day, in the most fleeting moments and in our most minute actions, whether or not to participate in dehumanization, whether or not to suffer with. Suffering with is painful, but it is the task of compassion and honors the humanity in everyone.
Honoring those who have lost their lives at the hands of brutality and injustice means that we will not participate in the evil that precipitated their loss of life in the first place. We can choose to stand with those fallen warriors who spent their precious time in service of something greater than themselves, representative of the interfaith efforts to make this earth holier, kinder, safer, and a more beautiful place for all. We can choose to stand with the departed devoted who strove for love, integrity, mercy, and justice, all the virtues that our world is starved for. That is sacred work.
In this scary time, when so little makes sense and the terrible nature of things is being revealed, we can bring to one another that which keeps us up at night. We can bring to one another our grief, our loneliness, our broken-heartedness and trust that collective love will make us and our world anew.
“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” – Rabbi