Last weekend, like so many other people in so many cities and towns across the country, I attended a vigil to remember the murdered victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and to add my voice to the other voices raised against hate and bigotry. The program was filled with more than twenty speakers: leaders from different faiths from all over our region stood to offer support and share their thoughts on the tragic event: leaders of the Muslim faith, Jewish faith, and Catholics, and Christians of many different denominations. They shared stories. They read from scripture. They asked us to pray for the victims and their families. And they asked us to pray for healing and for peace.
And as I sat and listened to them speak, I honestly found no solace in their words. I heard no hope. Reverend Steve from the Episcopal Church told us that he (of course) prays every day. In the last few years, he said, he has added “Please let there be no mass shooting today” to his daily litany of prayer. “Most days, God answers my prayers” he said. “But not every day.”
Pastor Larry from the Lutheran church said that since 9/11 he has prayed every day for peace. That’s over 17 years he’s been praying that prayer. It hasn’t worked.
They said I should add my prayers. But why? It seems to me that people have been praying for peace for literally thousands of years, but to no avail. What is it that they say about people who do the same thing over and over and expect a different result?
As I sat at that assembly singing songs and listening to words about “loving thy neighbor,” I was deeply conflicted. Of course I needed to honor the victims of Antisemitism and be part of a community that comes together to show its vulnerable members that such actions are not tolerated here. A noble cause for sure. But how is another vigil for yet another terrible crime going to make any difference if all the vigils that have come before haven’t fixed anything? I looked around during the service and I saw a lot of people wearing buttons that said “Love” and “Peace” and “Coexist” and a few people holding signs that said “Hate will not win.” I didn’t see a single swastika in the crowd. The people who attend vigils to honor the victims of racial or religious hatred are not the people who need to hear messages of tolerance. And the people who are to blame for horrible acts like the one at Tree of Life, or Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, or Charlottesville aren’t attending services which remind us to be tolerant of different faiths and backgrounds. Those people are getting a very different message somewhere.
The fact is, I think it’s religion itself that is sending that other message. Rather than reinforcing the notion that we are all humans to be valued to the same degree (or to put it in more spiritual terms: “We are all the same in God’s eyes”), religion actually creates artificial differences between us. Religion is inherently an “us” vs. “them” proposition. The “us” believes that our way of worship is right and it alone provides the one true path to the most vital of issues — the state of our souls. It follows that if we have it right, then they must have it wrong. And not just wrong: really wrong.
Confidence in the rightness and the righteousness of our beliefs makes us disdainful of people who don’t believe the way we believe: They are heretics, they are being led astray by the devil himself; they are evil. Many people believe it’s their duty to convert non-believers. And if you can’t convert them, what then? If they are evil, it’s easy to believe that the world would be better — cleansed, even — if they were removed. Not that long ago, we thought it was okay to burn them at the stake. How many people have died for — or because of their religion?
Speakers at the vigil talked about the importance of reaching across faiths to help build understanding for one another’s differences, but all of the interfaith conferences in the world aren’t going to fix what’s broken. Realistically, the issue here isn’t a disagreement over theology. It’s that once you start looking at people as “them” they become “other,” and after that it’s a short step to dehumanizing them. Dehumanizing entire categories of people is what armies do to make it possible for their soldiers to kill the enemy. If you don’t see them as human then it makes it possible to kill them without remorse. It even makes it seem right.
People say God is love and peace. And maybe so, but the religions that have sprung up in His name (whether that name is Jesus, God, Allah, or Yahweh) have done more to divide us than to unite us. It’s not helpful for faiths to set up artificial distinctions among people and then expect to be able to cover over those differences with phrases like “God created us all.” Such expressions are of no value. After all, He created both chocolate and broccoli. And I like one and dislike the other.
As I walked away from the ceremony last weekend, I was left with the feeling that the faith leaders were trying to offer solutions to a problem created by the very institutions that they represent.
Maybe the real solution is for us all to stop defining ourselves by which faith we belong to. All houses of worship should open their doors to all without distinction. No more denominations. No crosses, crescents, or stars. One building. All are welcome. All are accepted. If there really is more that unites us than divides us, our churches should start practicing what they preach.