WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers came face to face with hate and escaped its wrath Oct. 27, 2018, when it walked into the most unlikely of places: through the doors of his house of worship, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
There, in a place of peace, a gunman unleashed bullets on the congregation gathered for Shabbat services, killing 11 worshippers.
“I’m a victim, witness and survivor of the worst attack in a synagogue in the history of the United States,” said the rabbi, addressing the U.S. Helsinki Commission July 16 on Capitol Hill, where the independent government agency that monitors human rights invited religious leaders such as Rabbi Myers, Jesuit Father James Martin and others to discuss how religious actors can respond to hate.
In 2018, places of worship in Christchurch, New Zealand, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Pittsburgh, to name a few, were targets of hate-based violence that resulted in the deaths of Muslims, Catholics and Jews.
“We must not wait until tragedy strikes, again, and again, and again, to learn the value of mutual respect,” said Gwen Moore, a U.S. representative for Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District, who is part of the commission. “The role of religious actors is embedded in the history of this country. I am led to believe that it’s time for the religious community to take a historic place at the forefront.”
For Myers, that means making the effort to learn about other religions and other members of a community.
“The metaphor of America as a melting pot is a beautiful image, but sadly it is not true,” he said. “We do not know our neighbors. We live in silos with no bridges. Many choose to live in their own private silos not wanting others to enter their silo.”
Some don’t know how to build that bridge, but religious leaders can step in, he said.
“This is where religious leaders like me make a difference,” he said. “When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree. The same goes for Roman Catholic, various Protestant denominations, the Sikh, Buddhists, Jain … and so many more.”
In the aftermath of the synagogue shooting, the Tree of Life community was “overwhelmed by expressions of love from around the planet,” he said.
“People of all faiths and sexual orientations have enveloped us in vast global hug that continues unabated,” he said. “Their message is clear: The acts of one person are not representative of all of humanity.”
Clergy and congregants of various faith groups can make efforts to get to know their neighbors, the rabbi said, to get to know those who are different and institute an appreciation of others that can diminish acts of hate against those they might perceive worthy of physical and other attacks just because they don’t agree with them or understand them.
But that’s something that’s a work in progress among some communities of faith, said Martin, who delivered a message to the commission via video.
He said that while he was proud that the Catholic Church in the U.S. was standing up against the vilification of refugees and migrants, “perhaps the newest victims of hatred,” there were actions or speech by some Catholics that mock, stigmatize, dehumanize certain groups of people, participating in something “completely opposed to the Christian worldview.”
Racism, sexism and homophobia are still endemic in some Christian churches, he said, “my own included.”
“Casually racist, sexist and homophobic comments from the pulpit, as well as overtly racist, sexist and homophobic comments made in private, both give a silent blessing to more racism, sexism and homophobia from the parishioners,” he said. “Just this month, an influential far-right Catholic website published an article that opposed even gay-straight alliances in schools as part of what they call their war against LGBT propaganda.”
Part of what’s happening is that they may be imitating what they see or hear from their religious leaders, he said.
“What does such tacit support by church leaders end up doing? It excuses hate, it fosters hate, it blesses hate and it unintentionally encourages the violence that this hate leads to,” Martin said.
In some of these instances, such as when Catholics treat LGBT people with contempt, they think they are doing so with the Church’s blessing, he said, perhaps because they have seen other religious leaders do the same.
“Thus, these people think they are being prophetic,” he said. “They don’t see themselves as haters. They see themselves as prophets because they feel the support of their churches. This is not to say that all or even most Christian churches are places of racism, sexism or homophobia. Often, it is Christian groups that lead the fight against hatred.”
A prime example is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose impetus for his work and sacrifice in the civil rights movement “was an overtly Christian one,” he said.
But legitimizing hate against someone who is seen as different and as “the other” is “completely antithetical to the actions of the Jesus whom we encounter in the Gospels,” he said. Jesus reached out first and foremost to those who were seen as “the other” in his time: women, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman centurions, people who are sick, et cetera, Martin said.
“Jesus is always bringing those on the outside in. He brings the outsider into his circle of friendship because, for Jesus, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’ there’s only ‘us,'” Martin said.
The most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to eradicate hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside of a faith community, but on the inside as well, he added.
“How? First by taking a clear look at how their organizations speak of and minister to members of marginalized groups. Second by reaching out to these groups, specifically to make them feel welcome into what are, after all, their churches, too,” he said. “By taking every opportunity to stand with them publicly, to advocate for them, to fight for them, even at the risk of losing some parishioners.”
“Overall, they must remind their own communities and the world that, for Jesus, and therefore for all Christians, there is no ‘us and them,’ there’s only ‘us.'”
Radia Bakkouch of the group Coexister, an interfaith movement of youth of different faiths in Paris, also testified and said more needs to be done by religious leaders to combat hate and the violence that it unleashes.
“Tolerance is not enough,” she said, adding that religious leaders have an important role to play in modeling peace for youth, and peace is not something that is taught but experimented.
Myers said learning this at an early age is key so that what happened in his house of worship doesn’t happen to others.
“We must provide tools for all people to honor and respect their neighbor,” he said.
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