Scaling the Wall

By Pastor Brent McDougal

A man walked into a sanctuary, among a people who have worshipped a certain way and called on God by the same names for millennia. They entered seeking peace. They closed their eyes and prayed.

But this stranger to the community, someone who would have been welcomed at any other time, felt no peace and was not seeking peace. He only felt hatred — not because these worshippers had done something to him, like wronged his family, or stolen from him — but just because of who they were. They were Jewish, and he blamed the Jews. He hated the Jews. 

I’m really struggling with this question: how could someone have that kind of hatred in their heart and unleash it so violently?

It’s a soul question. I know there’s hatred and selfishness, just as there is love and sacrifice. I know that the tiniest of bitter seeds can grow into something poisonous. So much of hatred stems from disappointment, loss, hopelessness and fear.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder.” (James 4:1-2a)

So I understand that why hatred exists. But what conditions allow someone to do what he did?

I don’t know much about him, but there are three things of note.

First, he was isolated. “He lived in his own little world,” said one acquaintance. “Pretty much a ghost.” 21 guns were registered in his name, including an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns, which he used in the attack. But no one really knew him enough to see that clear warning sign.

“It’s very unsettling knowing all that stuff that was used to hurt those people was on the other side of the wall,” said one neighbor who lived in the next-door apartment. “I didn’t see any signs. I can’t even comprehend that he had that much hate and seemed so normal.”

The second thing to note is that he was filled with anger.

Online, he spewed murderous words. The social media network Gab allowed him to release a storm of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. He blamed these groups for his misery.

Finally, others encouraged his hatred. Gab participants fanned the flame.

Compared to 2016, the Anti-Defamation League measured a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States last year — incidents that include anti-Semitic literature and graffiti, bomb threats, and actual assaults. Hatred thrives in community, condoned and encouraged.

I don’t know what would have ultimately stopped this man from doing what he did. But I’m struck by the way that he lived: isolated, angry, and encouraged in his malice. His neighbors didn’t think there was a problem, but even if they had, would they have tried to get to know him?

Somehow, we have to get on the other side of the wall to short-circuit a failing, pained life that leads to unbelievable devastation.

What can we do?

First, we need to overcome our social fears and excuses. It’s hard to talk to a neighbor, co-worker or classmate that works hard to keep others out. But we need to pray and try to push through, especially if we have a sense that someone is on the verge of a crisis.

Don’t hear me saying that I am blaming the neighbor. All I am suggesting is that we need reclaim a culture of responsibility for one another. 

Second, we can reject anger, bigotry, and name-calling in print or social media. Disagreement is fine, but most of us have seen how quickly comments in a thread can devolve. At the first sign of vitriol, disengage. I wouldn’t suggest unfriending unless you just have to, because that can lead to further isolation. Stay calm, deescalate, or take a break.

Third, we can positively use our voices. Free speech means that people are entitled to speak their opinions, but not in such a way that incites violence. For Christians, the standard is higher. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) 

Protest non-violently if that’s how God leads you. Speak life and peace with every opportunity you have. Blessed are the peacemakers — those are the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Words matter. They can either tear down the walls that separate or build new ones. They can help us get over walls that seem unscalable.

Somehow we have to get to the stuff — and the person — on the other side of the wall. We have to act — for the sake of the person, your life, and mine.