A Shooting at the Synagogue: What is a Faithful Response?

This article was originally published on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s website. As with articles published on Sacred Stories, it is meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

By Chelsea Langston Bombino

On the last Saturday of October, a man armed with an AR-15 style rifle and three handguns entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, yelling: “all Jews must die. ” The gunman took the lives of 11 Shabbat service-goers.

This act against God and man is hard to put into words. And even harder is to consider what our response should be – particularly as people of faith who recognize that this act occurred to people of faith. In the wake of this tragic act many questions remain. What is the right response from the Christian church? From those of other diverse faith communities? From individual citizens and family? How should policymakers, advocates and faith-based service providers respond? What about those who hold strong views on violence prevention or racial justice?

Equally complex is the question of the right roles and responsibilities of government with respect to reducing gun violence in the United States. Those on both sides of the gun rights/gun control debate face an especially polarizing environment that does not lend itself easily to collaboration. Those who advocate for religious freedom face a similarly challenging political and cultural context.

Attacks such as the one in Pittsburgh victimize people practicing one of the most fundamental expressions of freedom: the freedom to exercise religion in community. Faith-based organizations, especially those that defend religious freedom, may want to consider developing holistic, integrated responses to such horrific acts of violence against faith communities. Although the Pittsburgh tragedy is hard to fathom, faith-based organizations should prayerfully consider what they might learn and how they might prepare in every aspect of their organizational lives: understanding the public policy context, adopting best practices to reduce the risk of violence and considering their public response to such tragedies as these.

Public Policy

Many faith communities and advocates of religious freedom are horrified and heartbroken by the unthinkable acts of the anti-Semitic gunman in Pittsburgh last month. A diversity of religious and political voices have come out and labeled this mass shooting in a sacred space a violation of the 1st Amendment constitutional principles which are the bedrock to American civic life:

Vice President Mike Pence stated, “What happened in Pittsburgh today was not just criminal. It was evil. An attack on innocent Americans and an assault on our freedom of religion. There is no place in America for violence or anti-semitism and this evil must end.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ official statement reads: “When the security and religious freedom of our Jewish brothers and sisters is violated, we all suffer. Houses of worship should be safe, inviolate places for people of all faiths to join in sacred fellowship and seek communion with God.”

The American Jewish Committee, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, called on all Americans to exercise their freedom to assemble in holy spaces:  “Jews and non-Jews alike — should consider attending synagogue services this weekend. We’re calling it #ShowUpForShabbat. It’s a way of demonstrating unity and shared destiny, of saying ‘no fear.’”

Yet, despite public and religious figures overtly tying the murder of 11 innocents in a sanctuary to a violation of their fundamental freedom to exercise of faith, it remains unclear whether this language is meant to connote an actual, actionable violation of legal or constitutional protections for religious freedom. Clearly, the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue violated many other criminal and hate crime laws. When public voices call on the Pittsburgh shooting as a violation of religious freedom, their usage seems to transcend the confines of public policy and speaks to broader principles upon which we agree to live together in a pluralist civil society.

Communities of faith should consider the legal structures in which they exist, on a local, state and federal level, and make efforts to protect themselves. In particular, congregations and faith organizations should become familiar with local and state gun laws. Many communities of faith may consider whether the time has come to engage in conversations with public officials about public policy solutions to gun violence. Yet even if faith groups or the Trump administration speak publicly about gun control, the solution does not rest on government alone. A public justice framework asks all of us to consider how faith-based organizations, nonprofits, businesses, schools, civic groups and others can work together to address the systemic problem of mass violence in this country, which often impacts the most vulnerable populations.

Institutional Practices

Faith communities are never to blame when they are victimized by violence. They should, however, ask themselves how to cultivate places of worship that are safe and welcoming to their congregants and visitors, including the most vulnerable members of their cherished communities. This is why houses of worship and other faith-based nonprofits should consider how their spiritual beliefs call them to proactively prepare for times of crisis and disaster, including, but not limited to, acts of violence.

Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, empowers organizations in the faith-based sector to advance their sacred missions in every area of their institutional lives. To help faith-based nonprofits build their capacity to incarnate their sacred beliefs and missions, Sacred Sector offers resources through Standards for Excellence® Institute as a replication partner. The Standards for Excellence® Institute promotes the highest standards of ethics, effectiveness and accountability in nonprofit governance, management and operations. Sacred Sector encourages faith-based organizations to adhere to the Standards for Excellence® code of ethics and accountability for nonprofit organizations, which includes the following: “A nonprofit should have written, board-approved administrative policies that are periodically reviewed by the board. At a minimum, these policies should address issues such as crisis and disaster planning, information technology, communications and social media.”

The Federal Department of Emergency Management (FEMA) offers valuable Resources to Protect Your House of Worship in case of an active shooter. In this way, the federal government may be seen by congregations and other faith-based nonprofits as a valuable partner in empowering them to prepare for preventing, assessing risk for and responding to such disasters. FEMA also provides technical assistance for interested faith communities in collaboration with other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These agencies also offer online educational opportunities, workshops, one-on-one support, written resources and other forms of training and guidance. Specifically in the situation of an active shooter, DHS offers resources for organizations on the following issues: profile of an active shooter, responding to an active shooter, training for active shooter, creating an emergency action plan and tips for recognizing signs of workplace violence.

Houses of worship and other nonprofits may also want to consider whether they could grow their capacities and improve their institutional practices in preparing for crisis situations by applying for a grant to enhance their security. The DHS Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) offers financial support to predominantly urban located organizations, including congregations, at high risk for an attack to support security enhancements on an infrastructure level, such as alarm systems, metal detectors, security guards, etc. According to FEMA’s resource page for congregations, “The NSGP also promotes coordination and collaboration in emergency preparedness activities among public and private community representatives, as well as state and local government agencies.”

Public Positioning

Faith-based organizations and congregations should be more aware of the negative associations many Americans have with religious freedom. Some Americans may question the commitment of certain faith communities to the principle of religious freedom when these faith communities remain silent about solutions to gun violence. They may see religious freedom as a hollow virtue when faith groups do not stand up for reform on a public policy level, even when members of their own congregations become victims of violence as they were exercising their religious freedom to worship. This may not be a fair assessment, but it is important for faith-based organizations to consider public perception.

In an article from left-leaning Slate titled “Trump’s Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting Proves He Doesn’t Actually Care About Religious Liberty,” Mark Joseph Stern accuses the Trump administration of quickly coming to the defense of those who make claims about LGBT nondiscrimination laws and healthcare contraceptive mandates. Stern claims the Administration is quick to protect religious freedom in these contexts, yet the Administration fails to protect the worshippers from a current wave of gun violence in houses of worship by working to pass gun control laws. This article comes up short on many fronts. It fails to acknowledge that Vice President Pence and other administration officials explicitly connected the Pittsburgh shooting to an affront to the free exercise of people of all faiths. Additionally, Stern equates the proper and only response in this case that stands up for religious freedom as passing tougher gun control laws:

“When faced with a spiraling crisis of shootings in houses of worship, on the other hand, Trump found a way to blame the victim. To the Trump administration, religious liberty does not encompass the right to worship without fear of being murdered by a madman with a deadly weapon.”

Despite the article’s bias and inaccuracy at times, it is especially important for faith-based organizations and their leaders to be aware of this viewpoint in the public square. Many Americans will believe that Stern’s article makes valid points about the apparent selectivity and inconsistency in defending religious freedom among conservative faith organizations. And, whether or not it is fair, there are certainly reputational challenges posed to the very idea of religious freedom when communities of faith are perceived as failing to take substantive actions following egregious acts of violence toward people of faith.

An Opportunity for Faith-Based Organizations

Congregations and religious organizations can and should pray for the victims and impacted community members in Pittsburgh. But this tragedy can also be a moment of opportunity for spiritual reflection and sacred action. Even small steps and beginning conversations are important. Faith organizations can consider a holistic approach to preventing and reducing gun violence in their own communities and in American society at large. Such an approach necessitates attention to at least three dimensions. Here are a few actions faith-based organizations may consider taking:

  • Learn the local and state public policies that may impact gun violence. Learn about the process for procuring a firearm and any restrictions on carrying, as well as the mental health supports available in the community. Learn about efforts by local and state governments to reduce gun violence and consider engaging local public officials in creative solutions. This can be done regardless of where faith leaders stand on issues like gun control.

  • Consider adopting best practices, such as writing a plan for your organization to follow in case of a crisis. Also consider engaging staff in trainings and other formal and informal activities that cultivate a culture of preparedness and safety. Your organization may also become familiar with trauma informed care in being prepared to address the emotional damage that such tragic events can create.

  • Consider how your organization can engage in positive public positioning after a tragedy like this. This may involve engaging in a multi-faith effort to care for victims, stand up against such heinous acts of violence or help rebuild a feeling of safety in sacred spaces. This is especially important for faith leaders who are public proponents of religious freedom.