Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh Requires A Timeout From Writing About Football

10/28/2018: Normally I write about football every Monday and Friday--but the events of this weekend require a Time Out for things that are far more important....

"This is a case where if they had an armed guard inside they may have been able to stop him immediately, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him maybe.” --President Trump 10/27/2018

317 years ago today William Penn’s Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges established an idea of religious freedom in this new colony. He had come to the new world to flee religious intolerance and to worship free from the threat of persecution and violence.

Now the President of the United States suggests that perhaps some should have armed guards in our houses of worship. Pennsylvania was founded so that we would not have to live in a world like that.

Have we really fallen backwards three centuries? Are we a nation so barbaric and divided that our answer to everything is to arm ourselves for everyday living?

What follows is not a debate on guns because before anyone decides to walk the path of bigoted murder, something drives them there.

America’s problem begins with the poisonous rhetoric of our times, for hate-based violence in this nation is a fuse ignited in the mind.

Should we be surprised by the shooting in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh? Not really.

Just a little over a year ago men bearing torches marched in Charlottesville chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The next day a man ran his car through a crowd of people injuring many and killing Heather Heyer. In 2012 a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin was shot up. In 2015 a man walked into a Black Church in Charleston, South Carolina and began shooting and killing people.

Regardless of where you fall on the debate about guns, this much is irrefutable: a loaded gun is almost always pointed at another human being for one of two reasons: self-defense driven by the human instinct for survival or as an aggressive expression of power fueled by hate.

Before we have any meaningful debate over guns in society we have to have a debate over truth, and facts and the condemnation of people spreading lies—yes LIES—to further an agenda to gain power.

A battle for facts must include condemnation of phony conspiracy theories pushed by fringe elements and either promoted or allowed to grow by politicians. While some of us laugh them off as crackpots, these “truths” become fervently held beliefs for some when ignored and allowed to spread on social media.

The seeds of hate-filled lies sow discord in the fertile ground of angry people believing the perceived injustices in their lives were imposed by the “other”—“those” people who live, look or worship differently. Words of division provide ammunition in an ever escalating war that too often escalates to violence.

Certainly some will rebuke this line of reasoning by citing our nation’s Freedom of Speech. But our rights are not absolute and require a responsibility to use them in a way that does not incite violence or mass carnage.

We should look within ourselves and ask what we have done with our right to free speech.

Have we helped promote understanding to drive darkness from the hearts of men and women? Or have we given voice to that hate? Have we excused or ignored divisive or careless rhetoric that pitches us into competing and exclusionary racial or religious camps? Have we excused the voices of those dividing us for power by a belief that only our views, only our claims to some mantle of legitimacy are valid?

If we do not return to the roots of our nation’s founding on religious freedom expressed by William Penn and by the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson, we are doomed to failure as a nation.

I am fortunate to have an example in my own family history. On October 25, 1945 my grandfather Angelo Paterno gave a speech in New York City on religious and racial cooperation. During that beautiful speech of hope he said:

“My forebears have passed on to me a heritage. This treasured heritage

has been thundered down through the ages to them, and they have kept

it by their exemplary lives….

Stripped of all descriptive phrases and divested of its many

interpretations, Interfaith means just that: Do unto others as you

would want them to do unto you. This Movement should emanate from our

hearts. The propelling force will then be strong enough to enable us

to overcome all the obstacles placed in our paths.

We must have unity of thought. We must have unity of action. We must all act as

missionaries and we must preach to our fellow men, night and day, the

evils of this hydra-headed monster of bigotry. The forces of intolerance

and hate are on the march today. The seed of hate and discord is being

sown all around us. It is our task to indicate our worthy ideals into the warped minds of the weakling before this seed takes root.”

His words mattered. Long after he had died a part of that vision became a dream for my parents who helped raise millions of dollars to establish the Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla All-Faith Spiritual Center on Penn State’s Campus. Opening in 2003 it remains a home to dozens of Campus ministries serving students from around the world in harmony side by side. It is the largest center of its kind in the country.

The words spurred belief which led to actions by people to create an oasis of peace.

But the use of words and rhetoric and free speech cuts both ways. When people spew venomous language believe them.

Today’s America is a nation where leaders are willing to peddle conspiracy theories --or allow them room to grow if it helps get votes or motivate their base. Elected officials or anyone with a voice must forcefully condemn in clear terms divisive lies and the people who spread them.

But instead we have leaders adding to them or even worse giving them a sly wink or nod from the podium.

What were once “dog whistle” terms are now openly used to imply unproven yet “imminent” existential threats to stoke the most dangerous motivating element: fear.

How many times will someone be allowed to claim that Sandy Hook was an anti-gun hoax before being disavowed, isolated and condemned by every leader in this country? How many times will Anti-Semitic or racist remarks--both obvious or cleverly masked--be allowed before we as a nation condemn and isolate them?

We have lost sight of what true leadership is all about? We value the Bully Pulpit—with the emphasis on “Bully.” We shout others down, we cheer when our leaders make the most outrageous statements or distort the truth or even tell straight out LIES to divide us.

And we who blindly believe them, we who lack the intellectual curiosity to look at one another and discern the truth from the lies being told to us, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We are getting the low-quality of leadership we deserve.

Leadership is not exercised by promoting division but rather by exorcising it. But what are we rewarding when we turn on the television? What are we rewarding on social media? What are we valuing?

We are valuing the very division that leads to this country’s growing political, ethnic and religious violence. The threat to this nation’s unity will thrive on our willful ignorance among and towards one another.

Our leaders’ words do matter, for words stir love or hatred or hope or fear in the hearts of men and women.

Fortunately in America at critical moments in our history, great leaders possessed the vision and maturity to understand the solemn and sacred power of the words they spoke. They knew they stood at a crossroads of all that had come before them holding the power to shape history towards justice and peace for all that will come after them.

Their words gave birth to aspirations and achievements the world had never seen before.

Today we do not have that leadership. Unless we demand better, unless we are willing to speak up we’ll remain lost in a dark wilderness of division and hate between religions and races and political parties.

The warning signs may yet seem distant but with each burst of hate-filled violence they draw nearer and nearer to all of us. We must resolve that if leaders will not truly act, we must demand better or change those who have stoked fear and encouraged the cracks between us for personal or party power.

The future must be in the hands of the vast majority who believe in the foundations and ideals spoken by and fought for by brave Patriots who gave birth to a nation where the everyday exercise of freedom from fear and freedom of faith did not require armed guards.

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