Editor’s Note: Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., is a Roman Catholic priest and a religion commentator for CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
A friend texted me: “Feels like openly worshipping is like being a sitting duck.” Her text was in response to yet one more act of violence in a religious venue – this time, once again, in a Jewish house of prayer.
Sadly, the places we should feel safest have become venues we approach with suspicion and fear. It should not be so.
The shooting at Congregation Chabad in Poway, near San Diego, California, occurred on the last day of Passover and is being described as a possible hate crime. It is the second shooting and killing in a synagogue in six months in the United States.
But just consider that fact – hate crimes in houses of love. What could be more incongruous? It should not be so.
Last week, hundreds of Christians were slaughtered in churches in Sri Lanka. This month, three black churches have been burned in ten days in a single Louisiana parish. And, last month, scores were killed in mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.
But attacks in houses of worship go back even further in recent times. In 2015, nine African Americans were murdered in the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.
As a result, houses of worship are being forced to enforce security measures that rival airports. It should not have to be so.
Practically all major religious traditions are founded on the principal of love of God and love of neighbor. Acts of violence anywhere fly in the face of this principle, but ones in houses of worship do so even more heinously because they attempt to threaten the very reason worshipers have gathered – to share the two-fold love they feel called to embody and express.
The real threat to religious freedom is not the overreach of government or being forced to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The most serious threat to religious freedom is the instilling of fear in people of faith to freely gather to worship. The first letter of John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) John is referring to the love that is God, but for the word “perfect” he uses the active Greek verb teleios, indicating that it is not a finished or complete love but one that is continually moving toward perfection. That love and its potential seems lost in the face of the hateful violence permeating our society.
President Donald Trump tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers to all of those affected by the shooting at the synagogue in Poway, California. God bless you all.” Sorry, but that’s not good enough. This tweet comes two days after Trump’s speech to the National Rifle Association, an organization that has consistently opposed the banning of assault weapons, like the kind used in the synagogue shooting. Yes, it is people who kill – but often they do so using assault weapons that have no need or right to exist in civil society.
Of course, the banning weapons of mass destruction is not the sole solution. Attitudes of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism also must be purged from our hearts and civil discourse, and houses of worship must lead by being places of acceptance and inclusion. They must embody the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Lord knows, we could all use some rest.
Faith in action means we do something about the threats to our religious liberties. And violence is the real threat. People of faith must be joined by people of no faith to demand that our places of worship be returned to sanctuaries of respite and safety, where fear has no pew.
Rise up, people of faith and all others. Take back our truest and most fundamental religious liberty – to gather peaceably and in peace in our houses of love. May it be so.