What We Talk About When We Talk About Pittsburgh
Parenting all too often seems to be about doing things we really don’t want to do. We don’t want to discipline our kids. We don’t want to tell them they can’t have everything they want. We don’t want to make them go to the dentist. So when the Rooted Parent editor texted on Monday night and asked if I wanted to tackle an article about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, my gut response was “no.” I don’t want to talk about it or write about it, and I certainly don’t want to try to explain it to my kids. But we have to, because hatred must not be allowed to become the norm. The stakes are too high – for our kids and for our world.
There is only one word to explain the atrocity at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh: evil. Even at my relatively advanced age, evil is something I struggle to understand.
One of the first mass killings I remember was the Jonestown massacre in 1978 where cult leader Jim Jones led over 900 people to drink cyanide in a remote compound in Guyana. I was eleven years old when it happened, and I remember the horror I felt when I tried to imagine what it must have been like. I remember thinking that was thousands of miles away in another country. Surely nothing like that could ever happen here.
I doubt teens today feel quite as safe and isolated from evil as I did forty years ago. Instant connection via the internet makes the world seem smaller. Twenty-four hour news coverage focusing almost exclusively on divisive political rhetoric, crime, and disasters of any sort – natural or otherwise – make the world seem rather hopeless. Our kids get an unhealthy dose of evil and the misery it brings every day.
Which is why, even though we might not want to talk about what happened in Pittsburgh, we must. Constant and instantaneous exposure to the worst the world has to offer could easily desensitize our kids to the evil around them and leave them feeling helpless. We cannot allow our kids to believe that evil is something over which they have no control and cannot make a difference. That very indifference is the medium in which evil most readily grows.
So how do we talk to our kids about evil and the Christian response to it? First, we must be honest about the evil in our world. Then, we must be uncompromising in the love we show to others.
Evil is real and it is dangerous. The hatred and anti-Semitism that led the gunman to murder eleven people and wound six others is nothing new. It’s existed for thousands of years, and like all evil, it exists in two forms, each deadly in its own way. The most obvious is the overt, in-your-face manifestation of the Pittsburgh gunman – a history of hateful rantings toward Jews on social media and the eventual murderous act that followed. This form of evil is easy to condemn, and the condemnation is usually swift and universal.
But there is a second form of evil that that is equally destructive because it is less obvious, and it is one from which Christians are not immune. It is the evil of indifference in the face of hatred and discrimination. This is tricky territory for teens, because peer pressure is enormous and many would prefer simply to keep a low profile rather than speak out when they witness racist or anti-Semitic behavior. Laughing uneasily at an offensive joke may keep us from drawing attention to ourselves, but it also gives room for those offensive ideas to grow. We must impress upon our kids that it is wrong to be silent when confronted with hateful words and actions. As Christians, they (and we) are commanded to live as “children of light … and have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” (Ephesians 5:8,11) We have a responsibility to bring the light of God’s goodness and righteousness into dark situations. If we don’t, then who will?
We must also arm our kids with the incredible truth that even though racial, ethnic, and religious hatred still exists, it cannot win. This is sometimes difficult to understand when we see the results of evil in the world, and it is a natural response to ask why God would allow such horrific acts to happen. Remind them that Jesus himself was no stranger to hatred and injustice. It was that same evil that resulted in his death, but it was God’s goodness and power that overcame evil through Jesus’s resurrection and new life – life free from sin and evil and offered to anyone who believes and follows him. This truth is the hope that we as Christians offer to a despairing world. If our teens understand that the battle is already won and evil cannot have the last word, they are better equipped to be bold and intentional in confronting hatred.
Secondly, when we talk about Pittsburgh we must be uncompromising in love. The Tree of Life Synagogue is located in an area of Pittsburgh known as Squirrel Hill. This neighborhood is also, for those of us old enough to remember, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. It is where ordained Presbyterian minister and television personality Fred Rogers knew the mailman and the shopkeeper and the policeman and where he honed his message to children about what it means to be a neighbor. Few words in Scripture have sparked more discussion over their meaning than this one. The words “love your neighbor” may be among the first lessons preschoolers learn, but the question “who is my neighbor” is one that continues to be asked. Sadly, it is one that even Christians try to rationalize to suit their personal prejudices.
In the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a scholar’s question about how to inherit eternal life. The scholar already knows the answer – which includes “love your neighbor” – but his pesky personal feelings get in the way. There are some people he simply cannot love. He asks for clarification, and Jesus gives the example that cuts right to the heart of our sin. Your neighbor is everyone, even those you might have reason to despise.
It is a hard lesson to swallow. The hate-filled man who killed worshipers in the synagogue is our neighbor. And we are commanded to love him, even though he almost certainly would not love us.
So what does loving our neighbor look like for our teens? It looks like showing kindness to those who don’t reciprocate. Reaching out to those who are isolated and friendless. Defending the bullied or marginalized. And it looks like being respectful of everyone, regardless of their skin color, their religious beliefs or lack thereof, or their positions on social or political issues.
One striking similarity that the perpetrators of these heinous acts all seem to have is a lack of meaningful human interactions in their lives. They are loners, often bullied, friendless, and devoid of any emotions other than anger and bitterness. We cannot always see how our efforts to love others benefits them but far too often we see evidence of how not showing love hurts.
Parenting means hard discussions about topics most of us wish we never had to address. But how to confront hatred is a conversation we cannot afford to miss. Living as children of light and loving our neighbor are far more than just pretty words: they are the very weapons our teens must have to fight the battle over evil and demonstrate to the world Jesus’s ultimate victory over hatred and darkness.