By Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.
Before last week, when you said “Orlando” people usually thought about Disney or one of the other theme parks in the Florida town. Now the name recalls the largest mass shooting in the nation’s history: 103 shot, 49 dead, several still in the hospital in various stages of recovery.
The response was huge. Displays appeared that proclaim only love can heal. Forty-nine crosses made by a volunteer with names of the deceased are on display.
Some responses brought people together. Gay sons and daughters, straight parents and siblings, people came together with love and compassion. Labels temporarily disappeared. It was ‘our family’ that got shot up by someone consumed with hate and false religion. Other responses were predictable: ban Muslims, attack and distort their religion.
All this in the midst of a toxic presidential election that will only get worse until it is over added fuel to the fire. I was on vacation when the shooting happened. Details came out in bits and pieces in initial reports on television: a terrorist shot up a night club, 22 dead, possible hostages. The fact that Pulse was a gay club only came out much later. These were young people having a good time falling victim to a hate consumed terrorist. As reporting developed, a picture emerged. This terrorist specifically targeted and vented hate in one place the gay community felt safe.
Among notable responses to this, I want to applaud Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg Florida, who made three points. First, he said, that “Our founding parents (note the inclusive language) had no knowledge of assault rifles which are intended to be weapons of mass destruction. In crafting the second amendment to the Constitution, which I affirm, they thought only of the most awkward of pistols and heavy shotguns. I suspect they are turning in their graves if the can only but glimpse at what their words now protect. It is long past time to ban the sale of all assault weapons whose use should be available to the armed forces.”
His second point is also worth reflecting. “Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breed contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people… Those men and women who were mowed down early yesterday morning were made in the image and likeness of God. We teach that. We should believe that.”
His third point is also very important. “Responding by barring people of Muslim only faith from entering the country, solely because of their stated faith until they can be checked out, is un-American, even in these most challenging times… There are as many good, peace loving and God-fearing Muslims to be found as Catholics or Methodists or Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists. The devil and devilish intent escape no religious iteration.”
He concludes by saying that his three points must be taken seriously by society or we can expect more attacks such as this one in Orlando.
What is courageous in his statement is his condemnation of this horrendous act as a hate crime or act of terror aimed specifically at the gay community. We are called to love and support one another on this journey. This love and support cannot come with judgment. It cannot come with demands. We must offer it freely and abundantly. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in good times and in times of tragedy.
Bishop Lynch also points out that many prejudices and hatreds find material in religion to justify their views. He mentions that when the imam spoke to repudiate this atrocity, there would be attempts to find religious roots in this. Bad people often use religion to justify their wickedness, but singling people out for victimization because of their religion, their sexual orientation, their nationality – this has to stop also.
While we live in very polarizing and violent times, we also live in a time of opportunity. The Orlando atrocity, on top of everything else, should wake people up that it is time to stop all this. Our love could be just the thing that turns someone else away from his or her prejudice. Our compassion could be the key to opening someone’s heart.
Our country is at another crossroads. Many of us thought that these old hatreds and prejudices were things of the past. They are coming back when we need leadership that can bring all of us together, not insulated by labels, but united by common humanity and love of peace. When America responds like that it can be a light to the nations.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)