In every tragedy, there are the spiritual heroes, the ones who embody a Christlike posture even if they may have every reason to be consumed with fury and hatred. In the wake of the 2015 slaying of nine worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the relatives of the dead told the shooter that they forgave him and that they were praying for his soul. In Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman took the lives of 26 and injured 20 more last fall, the pastor preached the next week on the importance of forgiveness, and the community recently welcomed back with open arms the wife of the shooter.
Now there is Pittsburgh. In the wake of the senseless shooting that took the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers and injured nine more at Tree of Life synagogue Oct. 27, two members of the medical team that cared for the shooter’s injuries were Jewish. Dr. Jeffrey K. Cohen, the president of the hospital where the shooter was being treated, is a member of Tree of Life. He visited the shooter and asked him if he was in any pain. When Bowers asked the doctor who he was, he introduced himself.
“I thought it was important to at least talk to him and meet him,” Cohen told ABC. “You can’t on one hand say we should talk to each other, and then I don’t talk to him. So you lead by example, and I’m the leader of the hospital.”
It was reported that the FBI agent on duty said, “I don’t know if I could have done that.”
Truth be told, how many of us, in these days of deep division, partisanship and the rhetoric of “otherness,” could have? Our standards of decency and civility have so far evaporated that it’s almost shocking when someone behaves in a way that treats others — especially those who identify themselves as an enemy — with dignity.
We have heard repeatedly that there is no room in our society for hatred, bigotry and rhetoric that belittles the God-given dignity of another human being. But the fact is that we make plenty of room. We make room during election cycles, where it is profitable to target an enemy, an “other.” We make room with spiteful posts on social media and in comment boxes, where we can remain safely hidden. And we make room any time we condone the language of “us versus them.” We make room when we are passive, too — when we don’t loudly proclaim that violence is wrong, that being disrespectful to someone because of race or creed is wrong, and that killing in any form, from conception to natural death, is wrong. We must do better.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, we mourn for the members of Tree of Life, and we stand in solidarity with them, recognizing the special connection between the Jewish faith and Catholicism. As Pope St. John Paul II said when he made his historic visit to the Rome synagogue in 1986, “With Judaism … we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, you are our elder brothers.”
This is a time of great challenge for our country, but people of faith have the privilege of being able to lead the way. We are grateful for the courageous example of Dr. Cohen and the other individuals who have shown us what it can look like to rise above the status quo. It is time for each of us to join their ranks.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young