Columns Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Pittsburgh massacre was about refugees

A man holds a sign during a vigil for the Pittsburgh synagogue victims West Hartford, CT, on Oct. 29, 2018. RNS photo by Mark Silk

They shut off the block of Farmington Avenue in front of Temple Beth Israel in West Hartford Sunday evening as a crowd of 2,000 gathered for an interfaith vigil on behalf of the 11 Jews killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

There were clergy and an array of state and local officials who condemned the most deadly attack on Jews ever to occur in the United States. There was a good deal of talk about the growth of anti-Semitism and the need for solidarity across religious lines. While no one uttered the words “Donald Trump,” there were pointed remarks about  demagoguery and how the political leaders of Connecticut never fail to stand against bigotry.

But only South Windsor Mayor Saud Anwar, representing the Muslim community, mentioned the elephant in the room. “We have a collective responsibility,” he said. “We will take care of the stranger. We will take care of the refugee.”

Yes, Robert Bowers, the alleged killer, seems to be a classic anti-Semite, seeing a malignant Jewish conspiracy behind everything he doesn’t like. But the evidence indicates that it was Jewish support for migrants that  caused him to take up his guns on Saturday.

He had been railing on the social media site Gab against HIAS, the Jewish agency that works on behalf of refugees of all kinds. He specifically mentioned HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat, which synagogues across the country celebrated a week before the massacre.

In fact, no one should be surprised that a large segment of the Jewish community stood up to oppose the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents at the southern border.

“As Jews, we know what it is like to leave one’s country of origin in search of peace and freedom from oppression,” declared  a statement from the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford last June. “Our Torah reminds us again and again that we should not wrong or oppress a stranger, because we too were once strangers in a new land.” The statement concluded: “We stand with dozens of national organizations from across the spectrum of Jewish tradition in condemning this immoral policy and demanding that the administration rescind it.”

But it’s important to understand that this view was not unanimous. In response to the statement, Federation President Howard Sovronsky received what he described in an interview as “terrible, nasty emails.” So far as some members of our community are concerned, criticism of President Trump is more objectionable than tearing children away from their parents.

During the civil rights era, it was common for white Southerners to deplore the activism of black religious leaders as destroying “the spirituality of the church.” So too, today, it is no hypothetical danger that religious communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, will choose to remain silent on fundamental issues in the face of loud and angry objections from fellow congregants whose political commitments place them on the side of immorality.

This cannot be allowed to happen. We must redouble our support for the stranger, for the refugee, even at the expense of alienating some of our own. Otherwise we dishonor the memory of the martyrs of Pittsburgh.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • I have been reading a biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer a German Protestant Theologian murdered by the Nazis. AND I have an essay on the religious tolerance website “Moral Foundation Theory” then click on the New Essays tab and scroll down through the October listings to find my essay. AND I read an article about the Psychology of Fascism.

    My point in my essay has been reiterated in both other pieces–for the fundamentalist (and this applies to Christian Evangelicals as well as fundamentalists of other religions and Fascists) OBEDIENCE is the greatest virtue and disobedience the gravest SIN. Obedience to God and ones particular church and its leaders, to nation and the president (except the last president because he was black and a Democrat and religious leaders said it was right to disobey him), to parent especially the male parent, and in the case of the non-religious to ideological group and its leadership. Obedience without question or challenge.

    SO it should be no surprise that “criticism of Trump is more objectionable than separating children from their parents.”

    I am an Atheist, a Democrat and very Liberal. For me blind obedience–especially that harms others– obedience that doesn’t question or challenge–is the greatest SIN.

  • Are you serious here? So is this about the tragedy that occurred, or is this just another hit piece where people can commiserate their hatred for Trump? Trump has been more pro-Israel, pro-Jewish than any president in the past few administrations. But I guess that does not make good press. The author mentions the separation of children from parents who enter the country without authorization. He fails to mention that that policy has been in effect well before Trump and has occurred in the past with past administrations. But, that does not make good press.

    The author also seems to believe (erroneously) that Trump and by extension his supporters do not abhor what has happened just as much as any other citizens. He outright states that Trump and his supporters “So far as some members of our community are concerned, criticism of President Trump is more objectionable than tearing children away from their parents.”. This is so outrageous a statement that it defies logic, as well as show how low people will resort. I am so sick of these lies, false innuendos that are NOT based on fact.

    What I find even more upsetting is how the author will use the tragedy of innocents murdered as a vehicle to not only to place blame on the president and his supporters, but uses it to go off on some tangential argument regarding refugees.

  • There is a mighty difference in not believing in God and hating God.

    Apart from the radical atheist fringe (Why do all groups have a radical fringe?), most atheists are indifferent to God and other folk’s belief in God.

  • Read your essay. I’m more of the opposite of the self describing last paragraph statement. I mostly agree with what you have to say.

    I don’t know that I would put blind obedience in the category of sin because I’m usually going to assume some sort of willfulness to things put into a sin catagory. That said, there can come a time when blind obedience can no longer claim blindness, at that point it becomes willful. Would blind obedience then be the greatest sin? Maybe.

    Rather than trying to identify greatest sins what if we tried to identify repentant and un-repentant behaviors. Or maybe drilling a little deeper than behavior, repentant and un-repentant attitudes. Repentant being the word used to describe a change from something that causes a known harm. I think that repentance takes the same kind of strength and resolve that you used in your essay to describe meekness.

    I’m evangelical, I appreciate the values of traditions and I desire to be aware of the needs for changes. l believe the speed of change is critical to obtain the best long term results of a change. I believe that kind of conservatism is a critically needed influence for liberal minded people.

  • 1. You have been misinformed, or better, have been misled by administration officials and the pro-administration media. Previous administrations did not have a policy of separating children and parents at the border; the claim that they did has long since been debunked. See 2. Trump has certainly given the Netanyahu government what it wants, and if you want to consider that more pro-Israel than previous presidents, so be it. The President has also, by word, deed, and dog whistle, encouraged the anti-Semitism embedded in the alt-right (e.g. his Charlottesville statement). 3. By saying “our community” I was referring to the Hartford Jewish community, and specifically to emails whose message was: “How dare you attack our President?” 3. The refugee issue is not a tangent. It lies at the core of current right-wing anti-Semitism. When the Charlottesville marchers chanted, “The Jews will not replace us,” they were giving voice to the idea that powerful Jews are seeking to bring immigrants into the country to replace white people. The evidence shows that Bowers was fixated on this idea, hence his preoccupation with HIAS and the “genocide” of his people. Refugee hysteria, fomented as a closing campaign issue by the President and his supporters, served as the proximate cause of the massacre in Pittsburgh.

  • Thanks for taking the time to read my essay. Conservatism is a balance to Liberalism. I don’t see them as opposites BUT as compliments. This is the concept of Yin and Yang from Chinese philosophies, including Taoism. Compliments need each other, they fulfill each other they are NOT at war with each other. Conservatism can temper Liberalisms wilder ideas/enthusiasms AND Liberalism can help move Conservatives out of their comfort zone to experience new things.

    Dualism creates the concept of “us versus them”, all of those that aren’t like US–the good guys. So here Conservatism and LIberalism are constantly at WAR with each other, they are in competition with each other, each striving for dominance.

    You are right to question the role of WILL in all of this. And I am not sure where to draw a line or how to determine when someone is truly acting from a sense of “free will” or when they think they are acting as such but are actually controlled by hidden fears, angst, brain washing, base instincts (use whatever word you want).

    I am not a dualist so I understand our behavior is driven by three things. Nature, our basic genetic makeup. Nurture, how we are raised, the lessons drilled into us by parents, teachers, preachers. AND by life experiences. We know for a fact that some people are what are called neophiles–they are inquisitive, unafraid of trying new things, they dare to go and do what no one has done before. Some folk are neophobes–they are afraid of change, they like traditional ways, they dislike new experiences. Some folk are a bit of both, depends on the circumstances. This affects how they see the world, and how they behave in it.

  • Just reading the words of the terrorist, it’s more than merely difficult to escape the conclusion he was driven by hatred of refugees AND Jews.

  • No you did not. That paragraph makes a claim about obedience—one that I think is demonstrably false, but not summarizable as hatred of God, white men, and the U.S. I want to be clear about this. Your comment was a personal, ad hominem attack—and such attacks are above all what I’m determined to bar from this site. You are free to write a post saying that the claim she makes is nonsense and (ideally) providing some evidence to support your view.

  • In that case, it is simply baseless vituperation to turn “Atheist, a Democrat and very Liberal” into hatred of God, white men, and the U.S.

  • “Refugee hysteria has been caused by trump and his supporters….”

    So… while trump sent the word out to thousands of individuals in Central America to march in mass to the United States (3 weeks before an election – because he’s an open-border sort of guy) – his hysterical racist supporters are providing food, clothes, medicine, vehicles and CASH to assist these tortured souls north….

    Is that what you are saying? Trump has instigated the refugee hysteria?

    FYI – conservatives don’t dislike “powerful Jews”. They dislike George Soros because he is a leftist/ socialist who is using his billions to sculpt the world according to his view – not the citizens of the respective countries.

  • Trump is already telling panicky fools that if you don’t vote Republican you will be murdered by brown people coming in from the Mexican border. You have repeated the unhinged sentiment. Robert Bowers acted on it and committed mass murder.

    “his hysterical racist supporters are providing food, clothes, medicine, vehicles and CASH to assist these tortured souls north….”

    Bowers claimed the Jews were doing that. You just stopped short of repeating it.

    You dislike George Soros because you are directed to by white supremacists. It allows you to make anti Semitic conspiracy screeds without mentioning Jews, Zionists and International Bankers directly. Bowers simply made explicit what you appear too spineless to say.

    You have a lot in common with a right wing mass murderer.

  • You can’t read very well – I stated why I dislike George Soros.
    In addition, to believe that a bunch of poor, helpless refugees can gain access to vehicles, fuel, food, etc without help from some organizing party is crazy. It’s logistics 101.
    In addition, who told 7,000 people to grab their shit and start walking north? Was this a flash mob? A random event? I think not. The timing and logistics involved would state otherwise.
    Use your head man…

  • “most atheists are indifferent to God and other folk’s belief in God.” I wish that were more true. Comment threads on the subject of religion would then be a lot less cluttered.

  • That is the radical atheist fringe cluttering things up. The majority of atheists have no interest in religious websites.

  • Hey newsflash! Just in, Beto’s campaign staff are using campaign donations to provide pre-paid credit cards to Hondurans entering the US illegally.
    I thought it was soros funding the train; it’s actually democratic donors.

  • Deflecting from the subject to give me more of the panicky fiction is which inspired mass murder last week. You lie way too often to take an assertion of a news story at face value.

    Or to be more direct: Citation please.

  • I read it fine. You are just full of crap and citing the same garbage which inspired a mass murderer last week. You are simply following along the barely veiled anti Semitic appeals made when invoking Soros as the go to boogeyman. Robert Bowers was more honest about it than you are.

    Thank you for making the connection between Trump’s appeal to white fear and the motivation of Robert Bowers crystal clear.

    Btw the estimated numbers in that group are about half of what you claim. More people attend Josh Groban concerts, a group which is a far more serious threat to American society. 😀

    If you wanted to know about that group, try reading up on it from news sources. Trumps twitter account isn’t one. Again, you follow along with deliberate calls to panic issues by Trump. Just like Robert Bowers.

  • Maybe you should have addressed Parker’s patently false claims and fear mongering said in rebuttal to you above, instead of just letting me do it for the last two days.

  • if you, truly read the agenda of thee tree of life synagogue. then the more it becomes apparent, why the massacre was commanded to happen.

    the end result of betraying ELOHEEM, is always pestilence, plague, and famine. in fact it, would be better to never believe in G-D at all. than, to betray ELOHEEM after becoming a believer.

    forget about all your, other excuses for this massacre plague. it is about, extreme betrayal of ELOHEEM. nor is it wise, to pretend to believe in G-D when you don’t at all.

    disobedience to G-D, is the cause of all pestilence, plague, and famine happening here in THEIR physical world happening. if it, was not for this, we would be experiencing Heaven on Earth instead of hell and death.

  • I do not propose to fact check all claims made by commenters. I am not going to tolerate vulgar name-calling, as in, “You are full of crap” and “You have a lot in common with a right wing mass murderer.” I understand that Parker12 writes things you find highly objectionable. But if you can’t respond without such ad hominem characterizations, I am going to ban you.

  • The comments were originally directed at you and you didn’t want to address it and it’s obvious untruth. Oh well. The point of the article was to link the mass shooting with right wing rhetoric on refugees. My comment was inflammatory but on point. I stand by it. I make no apologies for it.

  • i am honored that you, would place me in the same current category as the prophets of Yesrael and the alleged as Jesus.

  • To put things in perspective, as opposed to giving in to bigoted manufactured hysteria concerning “rule of law” from a crowd ignorant of laws being enforced.

    First-time asylum seekers who cross the border not at ports of entry are committing a “Federal misdemeanor”:

    ” Asylum seekers would be prosecuted under section 1325(a) of the 8 United States Code (U.S.C.), which states that “improper entry by alien” is a federal misdemeanor with a first offense carrying maximum fines of $50 to $250 and/or a six-month prison sentence.”

    Some other examples of Federal misdemeanors considered as bad or worse, based on potential penalties:

    -Using Smokey the Bear’s likeness

    -Sending dentures in the mail

    -Cutting your own Christmas tree on Federal lands without a permit

    -Mailing a piece of paper with your office football or NCAA basketball pool brackets. (This is worse than illegal entry, as it carries a potential 5 years in prison)

    -Transporting fireworks over a state line

    -Trespassing in a National Park

    Obviously, these are heinous crimes which rightfully impel the Homeland to separate the vile conspirators from their children, and house these immature criminals possibly indefinitely until they either die in custody or are exiled into nobody’s custody.


    Who is really destroying America: the teenager fleeing gang violence in Honduras, or the man who killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue? Who is really the terrorist: the single mother who left Guatemala with her three children, or the man who is charged with mailing 15 bombs to President Donald Trump’s critics? Who are really the killers: the refugees seeking political asylum in the United States, or Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, or Nikolas Cruz, who gunned down 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida?
    What’s really happening is that Trump wants to spread the idea of an invasion so he can keep promoting his anti-immigrant agenda. His most recent policy suggestion is removing birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. This would be unconstitutional, and the president could not impose such a policy through an executive order, yet he successfully divides the country even further, siding with Americans who are anxious about demographic change.

    But the truth is that migrants are not the enemy. The real enemy of the United States is already here. He was born here. He doesn’t accept the fact that he lives in a multiethnic, multicultural nation. He hates outsiders. He hates people who are different from him. He is armed to the teeth. He is willing to use violence.

    He is the one we must fear. And he is not traveling with this caravan.

  • well true scripture, is not on your side. my return, is predicted every 6818 years in The Torah. so i shall be here, in always the next physical occurrence in The Torah. even if your, next recycle is your forth and last chance.

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