Tree of Life Synagogue Shootings: So What Now?


The shooting that took place Saturday, October 27, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, was, like all of the mass shootings we live through, an assault by hatred upon hope.

I say hope, because most people of goodwill, and certainly people of faith, live with hope and by hope.

Every day in Pittsburgh and throughout the United States, Jews interact with people of all walks of life. And every day, thousands, yes, even millions, of such interactions are examples of people living together with respect, hope and good will. In a religiously pluralistic and a multi-ethnic culture, we arguably get along just fine 99.99 percent of the time — every day. We help each other, we show respect and we offer support. We Americans are kind. We have good hearts.

Then the specter of evil rears its head, and with motive, means and opportunity, the evildoer assaults hope with hatred. And it’s like we have to start all over. So what now?

It’s no coincidence that many, certainly not all, of these attacks are upon the innocent who are at school studying their lessons, or at church praying and reading their scriptures. Only a year ago, 26 people were killed at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And it was only seven months ago that 17 were killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Those whose minds and hearts are filled with hatred, bitterness and a thirst for violence attack those who embody the ideals of innocence, education and faith. In that way, hatred is cowardly.

This Sunday’s gospel reading in Mark 12 helps us with the “What now?” question.

What’s the most important commandment? Jesus was asked. And Jesus says, Love God, and love your neighbor. In the Luke version of this encounter, Jesus goes on to explain who the neighbor is.

It’s the person who’s not like us.

In the aftermath of the synagogue shootings, neighbors have rushed to help. The Muslim community in Pittsburgh has responded with sympathy and concern, raising more than $190,000 to help with the burial of the victims. “Jewish and Muslim burial practices are very similar, so we thought we could do something,” said Islamic Center of Pittsburgh Executive Director Wasi Mohamed.

Good Samaritans.

What should we do now? We should leave our homes, leave our churches and search for the stranger and alien among us, and commit acts of virtue, not violence.

In so doing, we love God, we love our neighbors and we fulfil the most important laws of God.

The lawyer who posed the question thought Jesus’ response was spot on. “You’re right,” he said. “Loving God and our neighbor is much more important than burnt offerings.”

Jesus liked this comment. He said, “You’re not far from the kingdom.”

This tragedy in Pittsburgh is a reminder to persist with hope, to persevere in our love for God and to be relentless in our love for the “other,” the stranger, the alien — our neighbor.

We, too, may not be far from the kingdom.

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Timothy Merrill

TIMOTHY MERRILL is an ordained minister and has served churches in Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. His work has been published in the academic press including the Patristica and Byzantine Review and the Westminster Theological Journal. His book, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy (Chalice Press) appeared in 1998.

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