In This Together

Jewish Light Editorial

Violence against the peaceful practice of religion harms us all.

The desecration via arson of seven places of Christian worship in St. Louis and Jennings over a two-week period in October is not only a crime against the direct victims — members of the church and their pastors — but against our society’s commitment to honor and protect religious observance.

As of our publishing deadline, we don’t know either the names or motives of the perpetrators, but we do know that one of the most important American principles is the right to peaceably pray in any way that doesn’t inflict harm upon others.

So other than reporting by news organizations, where’s the regional and national indignation? Where’s the show of support and solidarity for our brothers and sisters whose spiritual lives are being ripped asunder?

We’ve seen many in our society rail against things that they claim interfere with the free practice of religion. The Affordable Care Act, for instance. It has been the target of religious groups, corporations (Hobby Lobby, most notably) and individuals who believe that the requirement of providing family planning medicine is an unacceptable intrusion into religious practice.

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We’ve seen others bemoan the decline of religious participation by the next generation of young adults. The Pew Research Center and others have done rigorous statistical reporting about the challenges of maintaining robust religious institutions in today’s world.

So our question is, where are all those voices when actual houses of worship, places for prayer, are under attack?

The Rev. Rodrick Burton of New Northside, one of the seven local churches affected, had the same question, apparently. As reported in the Washington Post, Burton said he visited all seven of the churches and is disappointed that churches throughout the community have not come together.

“People should be standing up and saying, ‘Hey I’m with you,’” he told the Post. “I’ve been surprised at the apathetic response. To me, it’s very telling, very disappointing.”

We are pleased that the Anti-Defamation League has taken a firm and loud stand against the violence and on behalf of these churches. And given that these are predominantly African-American churches, any and all avenues into investigating the potential for prosecution under federal or state hate crime laws should be taken. As the ADL itself referenced in a press release, the Church Arson Prevention Act is in particular a useful federal tool by which those seeking to injure persons or harm property associated with places of worship, based on ethnic or racial bias, can be charged and prosecuted.

But the issues are not even remotely only racial in nature. Faith-based institutions of all stripes do so much to build and maintain fabric in our communities. They serve as places for congregation, solace, joy, welcome, community improvement and much, much more. If you drive through a city and region like St. Louis you will find as many or more churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other similar types of buildings than almost anything other than drug stores and fast-food outlets.

As Jews we have been the targets of physical destruction and hate-based targeting against our facilities so many times, the Jewish Community Center in a Kansas City suburb in 2014 and the shooting at BSKI in St. Louis in 1977 being only a couple of the many examples.

But we are really all one in this endeavor to assure the safety and security of places where people pray. Kudos in particular to our local Jewish Community Relations Council for encouraging members of our own community to attend church at one of these religious institutions as a show of solidarity and support.

A dozen people from our Jewish community attended services Sunday at one of the victimized churches.

If this is just another news story — if we let it slide as just another installment in the ever-changing 24/7 news cycle — we will be guilty of turning our backs on those for whom these churches serve as critical pieces of fabric for caring, nurturing and honoring people’s spiritual selves. And that’s just not a good and neighborly thing to do.