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Pittsburgh synagogue murders fuelled by propaganda

Intolerance, ignorance, fear and wilful and violent attempts at eradicating diversity is the great manifesto by which we seem to be living. Weekend killings in a US synagogue by an anti-Semitic gunman and the election of Jair Bolsonaro as the next Brazilian President — who has proudly and openly announced his support for torture and dictatorial rule and has promoted violence towards LGBTQ communities and first peoples — attest to a  growing dehumanisation among ourselves. “Where do these ideas arise and what are we called to do about them?” asks Frances Correia.

On Saturday 27 October 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers allegedly opened fire during a religious service and killed 11 people. An investigation of his social media profiles show scores of anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant posts. This is a clear example of how social media allows hate speech to flourish.

At the Jesuit Institute’s Winter Living Theology 2018 series one of the points made by Fr Brian Massingale, a visiting professor from New York’s Fordham Jesuit University, was that hate speech provides a fertile ground for violence. When we hear or make racist, anti-Semitic and/or sexist comments we dehumanise the other. In doing this we acquire for ourselves the legitimacy we need to be able to do things to others that we would never do were we to see them as human, like us.

Two of the major genocides of the twentieth century reveal the profound role that is played by the strategic use of hate speech. The Nazis dehumanisation of Jewish people begins with their anti-Semitic propaganda. Just over 20 years ago, we, in Africa, experienced the Rwandan genocide. It is now widely accepted that in the lead-up to and during the genocide radio stations and newspaper articles were used by Hutu extremists to dehumanise the Tutsi people. This mobilised Hutus in an effective campaign of violence killing Tutsis, people they lived with and with whom they had likely been friends.

Where do these ideas arise and what are we called to do about them?

I was doing some work recently with a group of teenagers. As I interacted with them I realised that some had been exposed to anti-Semitic propaganda. These were self-identifying young Christian South Africans. They told me very strongly about how they didn’t like Jews because of the intense persecution of Christians by Jews.

I found myself confused. What persecution, where and when did this happen? And how was it relevant to a group of young Africans?

Eventually one of them said, “oh it happened BC”. BC? Before Christ? There was Jewish persecution of Christians before Christ?

Aside from this absurdity I know that there are still churches who when preaching on the passion of Jesus emphasise that he was killed by Jews. Not strictly correct as the gospels tell us. He was in fact actually crucified by the Roman authorities.

In the years since the Holocaust, Christian teaching has had to take stock of the innate anti-Semitism in our tradition and, therefore, of our responsibility as Christians for the terrible act of violence that the Holocaust was.

As many Jewish — and other — commentators have noted, it was not only Jews that were targeted by the Nazi propaganda machine nor were Jews the only people sent to the death camps. However, it is true that a basic underlying attitude of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism by Christians provided fertile ground for the terrifying ideas of Nazism to arise.

As Christians we need to be careful about not allowing anti-Semitic ideas into our catechesis. We need also to remember that Jesus, Mary and the first disciples were all Jews. Indeed Christianity itself started off as a Jewish sect. Our scriptures and much of the practice of our own faith has its roots in Judaism. The Church fathers when talking of the Jewish people speak of them as “our elder brothers and sisters in faith”.

Today there are many extremist voices. The wonder of the internet, which allows me to track down obscure references and books in a moment, also allows me to find with ease others who are interested in what I am interested in.

The way search engines work encourages us to live in echo chambers. Some of these echo chambers are filled with violent hatred for anyone who is in any way seen as being different to me. We know there is a rise of Nazi-like thought again. It is clear from what he wrote online that Robert Bowers lived in such an echo chamber. He was filled with a profound fear and hatred of anyone who didn’t fit his idea of what it was to be ‘American’.

What does God ask of us now in South Africa? We live in a highly pluralistic society. We have an excellent constitution and we have good and, I believe, necessary laws about hate speech. But more is asked of us as Christians.

We are not called to live with the minimum level of tolerance. We are called to embrace the other. We are called to choose to step out of our own comfort zones and discover how God is at work in the lives of others.

The most profound way we can act against religious hate speech is to act, by praying for and meeting people of other faiths. We are called to grow a truly beloved community, where all are treasured and our differences of faith and practice are celebrated as the godly gifts they are.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Frances Correia
Frances Correia has worked as a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition for the last 20 years. She is a lay Catholic, married with children.

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