L. Roger Owens: Discerning how to act after the Tree of Life attack
Skyline in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. iStock / Cole DeLancey
A seminary professor in Pittsburgh learns from Quaker wisdom how to respond to the recent synagogue shooting.
I was emptying the dishwasher, mindlessly wiping mugs and setting them on the counter, when our 14-year-old son thumped up the basement stairs and appeared in the kitchen, cellphone in hand, shock on his face.
“Have you heard?” he said.
I had heard. Forty minutes earlier, a radio broadcaster had interrupted the show I listen to on Saturday mornings as I clean the kitchen: active shooter, synagogue, Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Nine miles from our home.
These things happen in other places, I thought. Not in neighborhoods I walk through, neighborhoods where I Christmas-shop and buy shoes and eat macarons with my kids, neighborhoods where my friends live.
We didn’t talk about it, my son and I. Swallow difficult emotion -- that’s how I was raised. Break eye contact and get back to drying dishes. There would be time for talk later.
But I did change my routine the next morning. Usually when I wake up, I pour my coffee and then head to the green La-Z-Boy in the basement where I pray. I recite psalms, read Scripture, listen to God in silence. That Sunday morning, I brushed aside my routine and sat on the chair in our kitchen next to the radio. The developing story of yesterday’s horror was my text for meditation.
I prayed with the news, not to blithely offer my “thoughts and prayers,” but because I knew that whatever shape my own response might take would come from discernment.
It would come after listening for the voice of God in the cries of the bereft. It would emerge from the cracks in my heart that was breaking with theirs.
Responding to tragedy is not easy these days. There is so much of it. Some is acute -- a mass shooting, a 500-year flood, a racist demonstration. And some is chronic -- the resurging bigotry and xenophobia that have never been absent from our country, the steady destruction of the environment, the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Yet whether the tragedy is acute or chronic, two conditions can hamper a faithful response.
The first is paralysis. The proliferation of injustice can feel so overwhelming that we throw up our hands in despair. What difference does my action make? we wonder.
The other is burnout. Every day, I receive email from dozens of good causes asking me to raise my voice, give my money or change my lifestyle. If I responded to them all, as I would love to do, I’d be exhausted in days.
I’ve learned from the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly -- the author of the spiritual classic “A Testament of Devotion” -- that there is another way: discern the action that is right for me, the response that is uniquely mine.
In the summer of 1938, Kelly traveled to Germany to give a prestigious lecture at the yearly meeting of Friends. He spent two months there and witnessed firsthand the persecution of Jews. He addressed German Quakers wondering how to respond to the Nazi government, how to love well their Jewish neighbors.
He reminded them of a central practice of Quaker spirituality: discerning a concern.
“We cannot carry all burdens,” he told them, “or die on all crosses, desperately as they need to be borne and suffered.”
But we can discern how God’s cosmic concern for the world can become particularized in our own lives and communities. That’s what it means to discern a concern.
“Again and again Friends have found springing up a deep-rooted conviction of responsibility for some specific world-situation,” Kelly said.
Elsewhere, Kelly describes a concern this way: God “speaks within you and me, to our truest selves, in our truest moments, and disquiets us with the world’s needs. By inner persuasions [God] draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing [God’s] burdens in us.”
Discerning a concern is liberating. Trusting that God is leading others to their own “few very definite tasks,” we are relieved of the belief that we must alleviate every pain, right every injustice and respond to every expression of hate. We are inoculated against burnout.
At the same time, when we discern a concern, we are delivered from paralysis. There is a response that is ours, a responsibility that arises out of God’s working through our own unique gifts and limits, passions and particularities. There is something we can do.
Sometimes, a concern shows itself immediately. After the Parkland school shooting, my wife organized our local congregation to write letters to state and national representatives advocating for stricter gun laws. She’d already been writing these letters but sensed an inner persuasion to widen the effort. She spoke with our pastor, designed flyers for the bulletin, made announcements in worship -- and three weeks after the shooting, our congregation prayed over several dozen letters placed on the altar table.
Just as often, a concern comes to us more slowly, requiring us to make ourselves available to sense those divine persuasions, especially in situations of confusion and pain.
When I stood up from praying with the radio, where I allowed myself to be “disquiet[ed] with the world’s needs,” I didn’t have a plan to tackle anti-Semitism in America. But I began to realize where I could use my influence to make a difference. I began to discern my particular tasks, the first of which was talking with my children that morning.
The following week, during my four classes at the seminary where I teach -- just 2 miles from the Tree of Life synagogue -- I made space for students to name their anger and grief, their fear and resolve. Some students were new to Pittsburgh; others had Jewish relatives and ties to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. These moments of honesty and vulnerability didn’t solve hate and violence, but I believe that in the divine economy, they did somehow make a difference. And maybe they still do.
As the week went on, I learned about Solidarity Shabbat services on Nov. 3, in which people across North America were invited to gather at synagogues, community centers and homes to observe the Sabbath. I realized that I needed to be with my Jewish neighbors. I wanted to show my support for them on the first Shabbat after the shooting, of course. But I also realized that the fact that they were strangers to me was in some way part of the problem.
So that next Saturday morning, I worshipped at Adat Shalom, a synagogue 3 miles from my house. A uniformed officer guarded a locked door. I introduced myself to the woman who let me in, and she thanked me for being there.
As we worshipped, my conviction about my ignorance only deepened. How did I not know this synagogue was here? Why have I not met this rabbi? I recognized a couple of members of the congregation from events at our children’s school, but I didn’t know their names.
Sometimes, I guess, those “inner persuasions” feel like shame.
In some ways, it is a simple act, getting to know and learning to love well my own Jewish neighbors. But might this be the way I can participate with God in creating a future of hope and healing? Might this be a small step toward fashioning a world beyond hate? I’m beginning to believe so.
I will continue to discern as the weeks pass; I don’t know yet exactly what I must do. But I believe that if I allow myself to open to the pain of others, if I don’t hide from the horror, the concern God is birthing in me will continue to take shape.
As it does, I will be guided by the words of the Mishnah we recited on Solidarity Shabbat: “It is not your duty to finish the work; but neither are you free to neglect it.”