Over the past few days, our entire city and most especially the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, has been dealing with the shock of the killing of 11 innocent lives while inside the Tree of Life temple on the Jewish day of Shabbat (sabbath).
For the purposes of today, I only want to focus on one unexpected but important exchange I had with one of my grandson’s regarding this incident.
I asked Jack, who’s a seventh grader, what if anything was said about this terrible attack in his school or his church. He shared that some things were said, but not with much detail. I then faced the decision about whether or not to drop the issue or try to, in some way, offer an attempt at explaining what might be behind such an awful event.
I began by saying there is no easy answer to the question of ‘why did this happen to these innocent people?’ However, the fact that there’s not a simple explanation does not exonerate us from doing our best to provide some sort of context and perhaps an historical, fact-based response. To say nothing is to leave the door of understanding wide open to nearly every kind of exploitation including political ones that were very quick to be embraced by those with a personal or ideological agenda. We shouldn’t let that happen.
My conversation with my grandson started with a willingness to acknowledge that there is indeed the presence of good and evil in our world which our Bibles talk about. This evil is not just something in another part of the world but in our own nation, our own communities and even in our own hearts. To obscure or minimize this truth is to leave the next generation without any kind of moral compass and therefore, more likely to be deceived and perhaps even destroyed by this evil reality.
“Jack”, I said, “God has a very real enemy in our world. He’s called the Devil or Satan and Jesus himself acknowledged this repeatedly throughout the gospels. One of the most profound examples of this is in the gospel of John 10:10 where Jesus says ‘the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy;’ and that’s exactly what we see happening in this situation in our own city. An evil presence came into a place of worship and stole the peace, killed the people and sought to destroy faith in God. That’s his goal, his objective. Though he very often covers it with a mask of something much more appealing, if we take that bait make no mistake, we may lose all that we desire in this life and beyond.
I explained to Jack that the “thief”, the “evil one”, has always been at war with God and, in particular, with the people God chose to be His people – the people of Israel, the Jewish people. Jack knew historical facts about the Holocaust, but I think it was a bit of a sobering reminder when I explained that just a few short years from when I was born, the Jewish people suffered unimaginable persecutions, violence, suffering and death – not by the thousands but by the millions – and for no other reason than just being a member of the Jewish family of faith. I reminded Jack that the shooter of the 17 people in the Tree of Life synagogue kept on declaring loudly and irrationally “all Jews must die.” What had they done to this man? Nothing in particular; they were just determined to be ‘unfit for life itself’ just because they were…Jews.
“Jack, this would seem so terrible, so impossibly beyond hope except for one other truth found in the same verse in our Bibles, John 10:10b; ‘I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’” I explained to Jack that the context of that verse made it clear that it was Jesus speaking to all Jewish people and those who believed in Him and His sacrificial death on the cross for their lives as well.
The most difficult part about all of this is trying to explain that something very real and tangible, that is the loss of life itself, is controlled by something equally real but not visible at all. As difficult as that may be for us to understand with our minds, it’s an important principle to begin to explore even with young people. The sooner they can discover that the true power of life is not in the things that we see and control, but in the things that are not seen and that greatly influence us, the more likely they are to understand how our world actually works.
All of us who call Pittsburgh our home should feel encouraged, blessed, and thankful for the overwhelming outpouring of love, the sharing of grief and mourning, and the many promises of support to all of those directly affected by this tragedy. However, where do we find the strength to go on, the balm to heal wounds not just of the body but of the soul and perhaps most important, the power to overcome the evil that we have seen right here in our city? The only power great enough to overcome this evil is not found in a legislative process, a patch on a uniform, or a proclamation such as ‘hate has no home here’. As good as all these things may be, they lack the inherent power to make any change.
The power for true and lasting change comes from the same One who said just a few verses later in John 10:27-28; “my sheep listen to my voice; I know them, they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
That’s the promise of God’s eternal security. Perhaps this verse in Acts 10:38 says it even more powerfully. The Apostle Peter, the apostle to the Jews, states how “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the Devil, because God was with him.”
The only antidote to such unspeakable evil, is an unimaginable power, the power of sacrificial love of the son of God, who gave his life to rescue us from such horrible events.