I went to a candlelight vigil last night, hastily organized after yesterday’s horrific massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. About 150 or more people gathered at a small park in my California hometown, not a bad turnout for a short-notice event announced on Facebook just hours earlier, on a night when the Los Angeles Dodgers were playing in the World Series, and about a depressing incident that happened 2,424 miles away.
We all stood there with candles in the warm evening, only bright Mars breaking through the clouds, experiencing the awkwardness of seeing friends and neighbors, some of whom we saw just the other day, others whom we haven’t seen for weeks, but all of us at a gathering that was about something awful. Something ghastly. We were self-conscious. How much should we smile? How much should our faces be somber? There were many hugs and pats on backs, perhaps in part because we simply needed the consoling contact, and perhaps also because, for a moment, we didn’t have to show each other our faces with whatever is that just right amount of happy-to-see-you versus this-is-so-sad. None of us want to get good at this. That would be much worse than being temporarily awkward.
The prayer offered by a local Christian minister was brief and beautiful, light on religion, heavier on Humanistic ways to respond to hate, to violence, and to division. (Or was that just my own take on it, seen through my own Humanist lens? I don’t know for sure.)
Speakers from secular organizations that work against bullying, bigotry, and gun violence spoke with passion and resolve. There were candidates running for local, state and federal offices who made brief remarks — not about politics, just about their own human responses to this hateful atrocity and to the fact that it is not far away, it is not long ago, it’s happening all around us every day, but with less terrifying severity. We are inundated in hatred. We are drowning in it.
At the end, two rabbis from different congregations spoke, both of whom struggled to keep their voices from breaking as they related their personal experiences with murderous violence, bomb attacks, gun attacks, things that happened not far away, and not long ago. But they both called for shalom, which means more than “peace.” It also means harmony, wholeness, completeness. “Wholeness” was what appealed to me at that instant. I feel so chipped and cracked by the events of the last two years. Thank you, Rabbi, for wishing me wholeness. I hope it comes. (I’ve been using plenty of psychological superglue, spackle, and Bondo practically every day lately.)
More than one of the religious speakers last night and more than one of the politicians who spoke mentioned that we are of many faiths and of no faith. That additional inclusive phrase was so remarkable, stunning, and thrilling when it was uttered by the newly-elected President Barack Obama during his first inauguration. But last night, each person said the sentence smoothly and naturally, without any tone suggesting that the last phrase should be particularly noteworthy. The whole sentence, “We are people of many faiths and of no faith,” is becoming standard and expected. That’s a good thing. That’s the kind of “but of course,” take-it-for-granted inclusiveness that we want, and it’s slowly growing.
Of course we have a seat at the table. Of course Councilman so-and-so or Congresswoman so-and-so will meet with you. Of course your atheist group is welcome to help at the soup kitchen. We are all not just members, but participants in this society.
Although the evening’s vigil was primarily about resisting and responding to anti-Semitism, I came away with a tenuous, fragile sense of hope for shalom, for the bringing of wholeness to our society, not just for Jews but also for atheists and everyone else. When we fight hate and bigotry against our religious category, we need to fight hate and bigotry against all categories. And in the struggle, we need be sure that we’re not practicing hatred ourselves.
(Image via Shutterstock)