This time last week was a dark moment in our country’s history. In the span of three days. Law enforcement apprehended a would-be serial bomber who had been targeting critics of President Trump, a racist went on a deliberate shooting spree with the intent of killing innocent black people – murdering two in a grocery store in cold blood, and then an antisemitic gunman massacred 11 people as they prepared to celebrate havdalah – or the prayers marking the end of the sabbath. To lead a powerful discussion on how to approach such violence – violence perpetrated by trio of men who identified as white – LSTC professor Klaus-Peter Adam offers to us this reflection on the morning before shabbat. Multilayered and honest, he struggles – as so many of us – to make sense of last week’s horrid killings through his own personal experience as well as the wisdom of Jewish scholarship. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
The massacre in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Sabbath ended the life of eleven members of a Jewish congregation as they were gathering for prayer. This shooting, targeting a vital Jewish neighborhood in Pennsylvania, is one of the fiercest attacks against the Jewish community in the United States.
Mass shootings, largely by white males, evoke the experiences against minoritized people that, I initially thought, were simply political extremism – but over the last two years events like this have turned into the political new normal. It is truly a terrifying sign for this country that these attacks have now reached a synagogue – and I say this as a German American Lutheran theologian and grandson of a Nazi party member. It signals the country’s level of venomous hate has risen to such a point that antisemitism is now lifting ugly face again in this country.
The but especially the fact that this attack happened at a synagogue during a Sabbath service hits a particularly open nerve in this country. First, this attack took place at a moment in history when minorities in the United States find themselves exposed to multiple forms of discrimination. The parallels in the discrimination against Jews and African Americans have been widely noted – especially by W.E.B. Du Bois. When Du Bois saw first-hand the destruction of Polish Judaism on a visit of the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1949, Du Bois concluded that the hateful acts against Jews in Nazi Germany could not be considered an isolated phenomenon. He saw them in the context of “the perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice.” (The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish Life, May 1952, 14-15.)
The second reason why the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend hits a nerve is its timing. It happens around the anniversary of the intersection of undercurrents of racial hate that undermined the communities of Germans under its right-wing, fascist dictatorship. In these Fall days Germany remembers the context of hate and prejudice that erupted in the so-called November pogroms against Jews. This year we will be remembering the 80’s anniversary of the so-called Kristallnacht – “the night of broken crystal glass” – on November 9, 1938; the night the November-pogroms began. In order to instill terror in the German Jewish population, synagogues were burnt down their synagogues, Jewish homes were vandalized along with schools and businesses, Jews were arrested in mass while almost were killed outright 100.
The shattered crystal glass of the synagogues was meant to demonstrate how the government intended to treat Jews should they choose to stay in the country. This nationwide bullying in 1938 followed a well-orchestrated plan to fuel hatred against Jews. The November pogroms were part of a broad, systemic anti-semitic affront in which the violent outbursts against Jews followed on the heels of aggressive ridiculing hate-instilling propaganda that included iconographic references to the cliché of the rich, ugly, hook-nosed Jew, known from traditional European antisemitism, and by then wide-spread in many media.
Yet, what lesson will the shooting of Pittsburgh teach me this year? While the gunshots in Pittsburgh are not part of a politically-sponsored, systemic anti-semitism, they echo the very sentiment of publicly proclaimed hate against minorities. The shooter from Pittsburgh subscribes to white supremacy.
Tellingly, he is an isolated 46 year old deranged male, who had bought into the homespun anti-semitic rhetoric and the hate that is vastly present in right winged websites. In its own way, it is similar to the continuous hateful rhetoric against minorities which culminated in the killing of Jews in 1930’s and 40’s in Germany. The Nazis conveyed to citizens that hatred against Jews as the necessary step that would pave the way for the process of establishing a racially pure body of citizens and a better society. Their repeated racial slurs and discriminatory practices would become the fabric of hate into which the Holocaust, labeled “the final solution” of the problem of the Jews, would be woven into the everyday work of administrators and functionaries in German society on every level – and the strategy was terrifyingly effective.
And this same strategy of infusing hate also works in our days here in the US: the bloodbath in the Tree of Life synagogue coincides with a series of attempted onslaughts on Democratic politicians earlier that week. All of the targets were outspoken critics of President Trump and the sender was another emotionally challenged, estranged white male, equally motivated by right-winged hateful propaganda, Cesar Sayoc.
The fatal violence of the frustrated white male haunts me personally as well – the confluence of one’s own personal hateful attitude with hateful sentiments in the collective – because it has roots in my own family.
In the 1930’s in the southwest German village of cabbage farmers, Bernhausen, 10 miles south of Stuttgart where I grew up, my paternal grandfather, Karl (1902-1985), had bought into the vitriolic hate of the Nazi propaganda. In 1934 Karl became the movement’s village leader. The son of an impoverished family of farmers, he had been one of the frustrated, economically strained “Arian” males in post-World War I Germany, who found themselves in their twenties suffering through unemployment and economic hardship that they perceived as part of the collective humiliation imposed through the 1918 Treaty of Versailles. Nazi propaganda skillfully instrumentalized the frustration of disappointed males to spark a mixture of personal and national hate against the unfair retaliatory despair of an entire generation. Their conspiracy theory called for a collective hateful revenge against a national insult imposed by an imaginary conspiracy of global Judaism. To my grandfather Karl it was attractive to channel his frustration through the nationalist, racist, hateful ideology of “Arian” supremacy.
And because of this, many questions arise: Why are white men more susceptible to hateful ideologies and tend to act out their hate in mass shootings? What attracts them to fall for racist hateful violence and to indiscriminately target individuals if they belong to the group of their hated enemies?
What is it specifically about the frustrated white male loner that makes a racist hateful leadership attractive and that motivates to publicly declare on social media, as the Pittsburgh shooter did: “screw the optics, I’m going in”? What is it about the multi-ethnic society that drives their sense of superiority to an extent that makes them want to extinct the others? Yet, as the shots of Pittsburgh echo throughout the nation in the homestretch of an exhausting and bitter political season that has seen rising levels of vitriol and threats of violence, a more pressing question is:
What is an alternative narrative capable of countering the rising hatred in this country?
There is hardly one single answer to the problem of how to undo the harm of hatred sparked by the ideology of nationalism or of white supremacy. But ancient Jewish law presents a quite insightful explanation about the mechanisms and the trajectory of hate in humans. The legal thinkers point to the roots of an individual’s deeds in one’s intentionality. They consider the intent to commit an action as equal to carrying out one’s plan – hence, hateful thoughts will eventually be carried out by hateful deeds. The wording of the 9th/10th commandment “you shall not covet” precisely captures the flow from the mental planning of theft and its implementation as an organic interfusion. In the process of taking agency, humans think, plan and subsequently act out their intentions.
In the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:21-28 Jesus points to this mechanism of the human brain in which intentions permeate actions: Like any other action, hateful actions will originate in one’s heart and mind. They have long been premeditated. Actions are merely the outside of long term thought processes. It is in our mind where we will have to reject hate. And, only if we actively reject our hateful thoughts and teach love instead, only if together as a civil society we will develop strategies to convince the frustrated white males among us to give up their hateful thinking that permeates social media.
Only then, will we be successful in ending the violent outburst of hate among us.
Klaus-Peter Adam is the Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.