THE EASTER story is one of persecution, death and darkness on one Friday long ago, and of resurrection and triumph the following Sunday. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Martin Luther’s great hymn of the Reformation reflects the alternation between despair and hope that fills this story and that still defines the condition of much of humankind. Luther wrote of God as a fort, as protection, “a bulwark never failing.” And yet, the hymn continues: “still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.”
Last Sunday a man armed with cruel hate and several guns killed three persons outside a Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park, Kan. The accused has a long history of racist and anti-Semitic activity, and some authorities noted that this can be a time of year — the season of Passover and Easter — when extremists commit acts of violence to gain attention or make some sort of warped statement. It’s possible that in this case the act had to do with the suspect’s extravagant admiration for Adolph Hitler, whose birthday is this month.
As it happened he killed only Christians; in fact, more than half the people who use the Jewish center’s facilities for one purpose or another are non-Jewish. On Thursday, the people of the community and others coming from greater distances gathered at the center for an interfaith service to honor the dead — who include a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather — in a demonstration of unity across lines that for so long divided much of human society.
Easter has, at times in the long and tortured history of Christians and Jews, been an occasion for bloody attacks on Jewish communities. To some extent, Christianity, and Islam as well, was shaped by arguments with, and attacks on, Judaism, an antagonism often grounded in fear, ignorance and misunderstanding. Luther himself launched vicious diatribes at the “false, lying Jews,” whom he accused of seeking Christian converts to their faith. His hymn speaks of “this world, with devils filled,” and anyone who follows the daily news of violence, oppression and massacre would see a certain truth to that description.
But the answer is not vengeance or division. It is a growing devotion to the culture of knowledge, mutual understanding and tolerance that has done much to lower barriers between peoples in this country and much of the world in the past century. That is the one victory over death that can be achieved by our hands. The words spoken at Thursday’s service by the community center’s president, Jacob Schreiber, constitute a simple seasonal message for everyone: “We all needed to come together to . . . bring into this tragedy God, heaven, peace and love.”
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