Today’s news shows synagogues, churches and mosques under attack. On June 17, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Church burnings occurred afterwards (and have occurred at other crisis points). February 14-15, 2015, A gunman killed a Jewish man on security duty during a bat mitzvah celebration, and wounded two police officers in Copenhagen, Denmark. terror bombers killed at least 23 people when they attacked two synagogues in Istanbul.
On June 26, 2015, ISIS has claimed responsibility for an apparent bomb blast at the Shiite-affiliated Al-Sadiq mosque in Kuwait’s capital during Friday prayers, leaving at least 25 dead and more than 200 injured. About a week later Boko Haram terrorists killed 140 people in Nigeria, including 97 people in several mosques.
As places of peaceful worship come under attack, two questions must be answered: Are events like these only modern occurrences? And is there a tradition which will help us grieve losses in our communities and around the world? Crises in places of worship are almost as old as worship itself. The first great loss took place shortly after the beginning of time when Cain intruded Abel’s time of offering to commit the first murder in history. Simeon and Levi put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword as they were recovering from circumcision. These attacks came out of jealousy and revenge.
First Samuel chapters three and four explain why three priests died in the Tabernacle of Israel. In the Bible, there is a major theme of people’s sin and God’s judgment. A message given to Samuel by the Lord explains judgment for Eli and his family. Amos 8:12 says that the lack of a word from the Lord is equal to a “curse.” Judgment here on Eli and his family is the result of disobedience.
One reason Synagogues, Churches and Mosques are attacked is to declare war on a unique God. Unlike polytheistic societies, which have many gods, Israel’s God was their ruler. This God is more powerful than a king or earthly ruler. God gave his people have the freedom to have Him as their authority, not humans. God’s character includes freedom from the dominion of a state power. God’s rule kept the misuse of power by human politics at bay. This is evidenced through Gideon, who said, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you, Yahweh will rule over you.” (Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, v. I(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 76-78. See also Judg 8.22.)
Throughout the Bible God uses his servants, who desire to follow him and keep his ways. He hates sin. He forgives, but desires those whose hearts are focused on Him. Both Samuel and Eli were servants of the Lord. Even though God judged Eli’s family, the priest remained faithful in his training of Samuel. His response to Samuel after he communicated God’s message “expressed the respect and humility proper to one to whom God is speaking (your servant) and a willingness to listen.” Samuel, a servant of God, grew in wisdom & stature in the temple. Because of Samuel’s heart, as opposed to the sons of Eli, God changed His promise about the priesthood by giving it to Samuel, who was faithful and humble. God wants people whose hearts are turned to him to be his servants. He wants his people to remain faithful to him, as he is to his people. God uses different methods to speak to people; he wants us to learn how to listen. We live in a society today in which the word of God is rare. We hear about its occurrence in other countries, where it is spreading and people are coming to faith in God. We live in a society similar to Samuel’s day, where some of the priests are even sinful – they simply are taking for themselves and “modifying” the rules given by God.
God wanted to govern his people in liberty, but the people wanted a king. God knew this would happen. He had provided prophets and judges, but at this point the disobedience of the people had caused a period of silence on God’s part. God has given us freedom, and we should live in that freedom. Faith gives people the ability to be priests and to talk directly with God, like the prophets. God did not speak directly with David, although he is often seen as the “star” of the Book of Samuel. We need to be careful not to let our eyes grow weak like Eli, whose “spiritual sight” grew weak.
In the light of current attacks, a teaching of the Jewish people tells us to keep our “spiritual sight” bright. On a Spiritual Fast which occurs the ninth of the Jewish month of Av (July 25-26, 2015), the Jews remember more than five tragedies which happened to their people. These include two destructions of the Temple (by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC and by Titus in AD 70); the crushing of rebellion and plowing under of the Temple; and a bad report from ten of the spies who entered the Promised Land. Also, we are told the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE; in 1492, Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand ordered that the Jews be banished from Spain; and Germany declared war on Russia, effectively catapulting the First World War.
Jewish people deal with the crisis by looking to God. They mourn and fast, and read the book of Lamentations for perspective. On Tisha b’Av, people sit together, listen to sad but poignant history poetically retold, and come closer together. They go without many daily activities, sharing a bond which allows them to stand when times are challenging.