Anti-Semitism, Extremism, and Violations of the Sacred: A Reflection on the Tragedy in Pittsburgh

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

The United States, for all its principles and promise, its achievements and potentials, also has an underbelly. That underbelly comes in various forms: racism, sexism, classism. These ‘isms” rear their heads on a daily basis, but are most noticed when we suffer a tremendous loss or other tragedy in our country. This past weekend marked a tragedy and a loss that exposed the American underbelly and demonstrated that anti-Semitism persists in America.

Anti-Semitism has dated back to ancient times, and is most starkly reflected in modern times in the Nazi regime. But it is not limited to the East. Here in America, a place founded on principles of freedom and civil rights, Neo-Nazis and racist groups like the KKK also have existed. Indeed, they have thrived in the shadows of our underbelly for many years. But in the past few years, many have been stepping out of the shadows and presenting their racist perspectives and ideologies in a more public way. Some, like Robert Bowers, have even taken extreme measures of violence to express their racist ideologies.

Robert Bowers is accused of murdering 11 Jewish men and women in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, and will be tried in a court of law for his crimes. But Robert Bowers’ crimes go beyond taking the lives of 11 innocent people — his crimes strike against humanity and spirituality. His crimes include violations of culture and faith, within that personal, sacred space of worship, exposing worshipers to violence and extremism against their beliefs and culture.

It may be our most personal moment in a community context and the one that may need most protection against intrusion, and particularly violence.
— Sosamma Samuel-Burnett

Any time an individual, particularly a psychotic one, enters a public or private place and wreaks havoc that is of major concern to the community and country. But when that place is a place of worship, that concern rises to another level. Places of worship are at the core of who we are spiritually and culturally. They are sacred spaces where people can exercise their First Amendment rights, join in fellowship with others, and more importantly enter into worship with God. It may be our most personal moment in a community context and the one that may need most protection against intrusion, and particularly violence.

Sadly, this is not the first time we have seen violence in sacred spaces, particularly churches, and against people because of their race, culture, or beliefs. But this particular attack comes at a time when our political and cultural references of America are more divided than ever. It comes after recent harsh words and harsh actions by both Republicans and Democrats. It comes after combative and even offensive statements and tweets by the President. As long as our public discourse takes on such uncivil stances on people and politics, we will likely also allow our sacred spaces to be vulnerable. Trigger words can spark a flame of extremism that allows individuals, particularly the psychotic, to act in violation of all that is sacred in both private and public contexts.

I pray for the 11 lost lives, their families, and the Pittsburgh community. But I also pray that America take this tragedy and learn what we can from it. Take this opportunity to come together against the “isms” and speak boldly against them — not in a way that promotes greater extremism, but in a way that inspires appreciation and acceptance of the diversity of our people, the protection of the sacred spaces and places that connect cultures, and the value of all of our lives.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.