News of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh hit me like a punch in the gut. The attack, in which eleven worshippers were killed and two more injured, was the most deadly against Jewish Americans in our history. It reminds us that the ancient hatred of Jews lives on in the hearts of some.
As I absorbed the news, two thoughts bubbled up in my mind. The first concerns anti-Semitism. In my view, the place of anti-Semitism in the Gentile imagination in the West has been very much diminished. Zionist Christianity is ascendant in many evangelical circles. After World War II, the Catholic Church embarked on a sustained dialogue with Judaism. At and since Vatican II, the Church has made clear statements about the enduring importance of Jewish life within God’s redemptive plan.
These and other changes have made a difference. The casual anti-Semitism I heard voiced on occasion during my youth is now very marginal. But Saturday’s massacre forces us to confront the fact that it still exists. And it can be deadly.
In a culture shaped by the Bible, the Jewish people, however marginal in demographic terms, inevitably occupy the imaginative center. This is how the Old Testament depicts the people of the covenant, the chosen people. As we know, Jews have often become objects of obsessive concern for Christians, who project onto them responsibility for Christianity’s failures.
Given the history of theologically motivated anti-Semitism, I can understand why some of my Jewish friends quietly cheer secularization and its undermining of the cultural dominance of Christianity. But I’m afraid what comes next won’t meet their expectations. Even as the explicitly Christian content of our culture diminishes, the imaginative architecture remains intact. In the modern era, Jews remain lightning rods, thought to be at the center of a global conspiracy of one sort or another. The terms are now not theological, but cultural and political.
In my view, we can best fight anti-Semitism by emphasizing the deepest truths we share in common, not the least of which is the commandment to love the Lord, our God, with all our hearts, souls, and minds (Deuteronomy 6:5), and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). We are united in our desire to build what Paul VI called “a civilization of love,” which is why the murder of the Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh was also an attack on the Jews’ “younger brothers” in the faith, Christians who worship the God of Israel.
A second thought came to my mind this weekend. As I write in the upcoming issue of First Things, rage is returning to our society. For the most part, its manifestations are verbal. Blows were struck during the Kavanaugh hearings last month. We all felt the violence, not just of what Kavanaugh was accused of doing to women, but of the forces assembled to prevent his appointment to the Supreme Court. President Trump throws verbal punches. The notion of “The Resistance” draws upon martial imagery.
In an atmosphere of intensifying political conflict, unbalanced and extreme personalities find encouragement to do terrible things. The unhinged man who sent bombs to prominent Democrats seems to be that sort of person, as is, perhaps, the shooter in Pittsburgh.
The rhetorical violence of our political struggles is unchecked by our permissive culture. To a degree perhaps unprecedented in history, we emphasize self-expression as the highest good. To realize this ideal, we downplay moral limits. We celebrate transgression as liberating. No responsible person believes that murder is permissible self-expression—but the atmosphere of permission does little to hinder unbalanced people from hatching wicked plans.
I fear that future conditions will be only more favorable to violence. There are historical reasons why the temperature is rising. They have to do with the passing of the postwar generation, which consolidated around a bipartisan consensus that lasted seventy years. That consensus is eroding. A more ardent progressive agenda is emerging, one that is impatient of moderation. The same is true of anti-establishment populism of the sort Trump encourages.
Americans are a welcoming people. At our best, we’re interested, solicitous, and eager for friendship. Given our national character, I’m optimistic about our ability to keep anti-Semitism at bay. In 2018, 99.9 percent of Americans regard the Pittsburgh murders as pure evil.
I’m also hopeful about our divided country. Of course there will be agony after November’s midterms, regardless of which party prevails. Vast sums will be poured into future elections. Pundits will rant. At some point, all but the most saintly of us will say things we regret. A very few very bad people may do terrible things. But we don’t have a history of resolving our political differences in the streets. As a country, we’ll find our way to a new consensus.
That’s the future. Today, we rightly mourn the eleven killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Let us link arms as Christians and Jews, bearing witness in our loyalty to each other, a loyalty that does not deny our profound theological differences, but holds forth the possibility of unity in our divided country.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.