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When you attack a church, you attack God

(RNS) There was a 27th victim of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (COMMENTARY)

Mourners participate during a candlelight vigil held for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

This is what you need to know about attacking a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, or any other religious institution.

The entire purpose of a religious place is to be a sanctuary — a place in which people can be safe.

That was always its purpose, going back to biblical times.

The altar itself was the original “safe place.” According to Exodus 21: 13-14, as well as First Kings 1:50, a fugitive could escape into the ancient sanctuary, and grab onto the horns of the altar, and therefore escape vengeance.

That is the way that religious sanctuaries are supposed to work.

They are for people who seek communion with God, and with a religious community, and with a sacred text.

They are also for people who are escaping the often torturous burdens of the world. They enter those sanctuaries like the fugitives of biblical times, figuratively grasping onto the horns of the altar, trying to make sacred meaning out of their lives.

Except that did not happen this past Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

A gunman entered the First Baptist Church, and opened fire, and before he was finished, 26 people lay dead and numerous people were gravely injured.

As a congregational rabbi, I cannot imagine what next Sunday will be like in that small, rural church.

Neither can I imagine — may God spare us such things — the kind of moral, spiritual, and pastoral courage that its pastor, Frank Pomeroy, must now muster up for his people — with the added, unspeakable agony of his own fourteen year old daughter lying dead before him.

Neither can I imagine what the entire notion of “sanctuary” must now mean, and what it can no longer mean, to that community of faith.

Because the last thing you expect when you enter a house of God is that it will become a house of unspeakable evil.

And not, Mr. President, a house of unspeakable derangement.

For that is President Trump’s clinical understand of what happened in Texas.

Because, if you can write this off as a mental illness, then you are liberated, you think, from confronting the deeper issue.

That is the propensity of human evil, which is aided and abetted by the availability of assault weapons.

Let us be clear. An attack on a house of religion is not only an attack on the worshipers.

It is an attack on God. 

Did anyone else notice the grim coincidence?

This week is the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” the anti-Jewish pogrom of November 9-10, 1938, in which Jewish homes, synagogues, and synagogues in Germany, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia were reduced to broken glass.

Consider the savage glee with which Nazis destroyed those synagogues — along with their arks and Torah scrolls.

At the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, an exhibit of the material remnants of Kristallnacht features the Ark of the synagogue in Essen, Germany.

The Ark had been adorned with the traditional words: “Know before Whom you stand.”

But Nazi thugs scratched those words off the Ark.

Imagine — they had ripped the Ark off the wall of the synagogue, thrown it into the street — and in the midst of the chaos that surrounded them, they actually took the time to find a tool, and to remove those words from their holy container.

Because, what were they saying?

“There is no one before Whom you stand, or before Whom we stand, or before Whom the world stands.”

It is as if they were saying that, of all the victims of that night, there would be an additional victim.


Make no mistake of it.

If someone attacks a church, or any other religious institution, the attacker is not only coming after the worshipers. That is, of course, sufficient in its evil. Human beings are the image of God, the very icon of godliness in the world.

But, you don’t have to rip a holy ark off of a synagogue to understand that any attack on a religious institution is, by its very nature, an attack on God.

Here’s the thing: once upon a time, in our mythic world, we might have imagined that God would protect us (and God) from such unmitigated evil.


That’s our job.

And we are doing a blisteringly horrific job at it.



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