Reflections on Pittsburgh

This past Saturday we witnessed the horrendous mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This terrible incident came on the heels of a series of pipe bombs sent to former Presidents, political figures, celebrities, and news organizations, targeting those of a left-leaning political viewpoint. As the United States is ramping up to the midterm elections next week, we’ve seen an increase in violence and divisive rhetoric throughout the American culture, a violence that erupted in the murder of 11 innocent people in Pittsburgh. As your pastor, I want to take a moment to offer some reflections on the times through which we are living.

I want to begin by stating in no uncertain terms that the kind of violence we saw this weekend, and the thinking that gives rise to it, has no place in the Christian faith. The attack in Pittsburgh was the deadliest anti-Semitic act in U.S. history and, while the gunman in Pittsburgh was not operating from any stated “religious” motivation, the fact is that anti-Semitism has cast a long, dark shadow over the history of Christianity. Descriptions of the Jewish people as “Christ killers” and as those who have been rejected by God due to their disobedience have created a deeply-flawed rationale in the Church that has resulted in a shameful history of violence against Judaism. As a follower of Christ and a pastor, it is important for me to say that anti-Semitism in any form is contradictory to the Gospel. Our belief is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, who has not set aside the Jewish people, much less given the Church reasons for violence against Judaism. As we read in Ephesians, Christ came to break down the wall that divides Jew and Gentile, and to reconcile the two in one Body. Also, as Paul states in Romans 9-11, God has not set aside the Jewish people; in fact, he makes it very clear that the Gentiles have been grafted onto the tree of Judaism, and so Gentiles must not boast. In other words, our faith is deeply Jewish and our reconciliation with the Jewish people is essential to what it means to live out the Gospel.

This violence arises from a virulent disease that marks the sinful human heart and has long stained the Church: the desire for power over others. The Scriptures tell us that violence is a result of our striving to exert dominance and superiority over others for the sake of establishing our own supremacy. We see this from the beginning of the story of humanity, in the account of Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy and a longing for superiority. This desire for power over others is clear in the overt violence of a gunman taking innocent lives in a Temple, but it also occurs in the subtle ways that we attack others through angry thoughts or rhetoric. This is why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, redefines murder, not simply as killing another person, but as being angry at another person. For too long, the Church has been entangled in this desire for dominance in the world that has led her to justify violence and seek a position of power that has too often played out in political nationalism and xenophobia. This disease has brought attitudes of racial and religious superiority into the Church, attitudes that so disturbingly twist the Gospel of God’s self-giving love into its opposite.

Over the past few years, I have regularly turned to the theme of Sabbath in my preaching, teaching, and writing, a theme that arises from God’s relationship to His world, and especially to the Israelites. One of the things I have come to understand about Sabbath is that it is, at its core, not about physical rest, but about human dominance. In other words, God doesn’t institute Sabbath because he’s worried that the Israelites won’t get enough sleep, but as a permanent reminder to Israel that she is not to pursue power over her own life or over the world. YHWH alone is the Sovereign Lord of life; humans are not. God institutes Sabbath as a continual reminder that we are to rest in His love and provision and not strive for control. As we accept God’s love for us, as we accept His Lordship over us, the restless human heart that strives for superiority can find Sabbath peace with God and with all our neighbors. As such, the power pursuits that lead to violence, racism, and other forms of supremacy are antithetical to the Church’s vocation and are necessarily at odds with and a perversion of our call to be a Sabbath people.

The calling to be a Sabbath people must shape the way we engage with the world around us. And so, we must understand that whatever our earthly political viewpoints, however we plan on voting in the midterms, whatever political principles we hold dear, as followers of Christ we are called to live at peace with all people. Human political interests create no justification for the Church to pursue any power that seeks supremacy over others, whether ideological, religious, or racial. As such, we are called to reject violence and dominance in all its forms. Instead, we are called to be a Sabbath people whose citizenship is in Heaven and who trust in Christ’s grace to root out the racism and violence in our own hearts and in our church community so that we might offer Christ’s Sabbath hope to the world around us.

This coming Sunday at Central, we will continue our series on Ecclesiastes. The passage we are coming to, Ecclesiastes 4, calls us to face the reality of oppression and injustice in the world. Through this passage, we will be invited into Solomon’s lament for the broken world in which we live. I invite you to come this Sunday morning, at either 9 or 10:30, and join us as we explore with Solomon the way we, the Body of Christ, are called to embody the hope that is ours in Jesus as we engage with a broken world of violence, oppression, and division.