by Rev. Sam
When I heard about the shootings at the Tops in Buffalo, it became personal. When my wife Philomena, infant Andrew and I lived in Buffalo, we shopped at Tops. We lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Northeastern Buffalo. Our family could have been in a Tops when such murderous racist violence occurred. It didn’t feel far away but something that could have happened to us.
Such is exactly the process of terrorism. Almost all of us use grocery stores. Some of us use grocery stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Some of us choose to shop in those stores to support them as a defense against urban food deserts. The statistical probability of being hurt in an attack on a grocery store is vanishingly small for anyone. Yet the goal of terrorism is to exert control over a population of people through these seemingly random attacks but targeted against your identity group.
This is the contemporary decentralized terrorist strategy. Terrorism takes advantage of free speech in our country, to foment hate and grievance in a highly emotional way. It stimulates those lone wolfs, those on the fringes of society, those with violent mental illness often yet to be identified such as the shooter in Buffalo, to come up with their own plans to take action. And tragically, the Internet has turned out to be an extremely effective tool to spread hatred and motivate harm.
There has been much in the news about “replacement theory.” It is white supremacy in its most obvious and unvarnished form. I’ve been dismayed to hear it so openly discussed and the racist dimensions explained in a way that could send the haters to the Internet to learn more. But on the other side, maybe pointing to the vile content and dog whistle references to it by political candidates running for office can expose this radicalization process so it can be stopped. The basic idea of the theory is the fear of white power being diminished by those who are not classified as white. It promotes fear of the changing demographics of this nation that will eventually mean that whites will be a minority. They want to stop that transfer of democratic power to non-whites by whatever means necessary. And what worked in the South in the past was the terrorism of Jim Crow. Think of random shootings in Black neighborhoods, places of business and shopping areas as a stand in for lynching as one source of terror.
Hate is an amazingly powerful force in humanity that can be activated very easily. Someone stealing “your” parking space, cutting in line, using insulting words, can trigger rage and causes a person to do what they would never do in their rational mind. This is programmed into our brains through our evolutionary process. And it has worked to keep human beings alive for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet in the interconnected world we now live in full of people who don’t look like “us” and don’t act like “us,” people we don’t know and will never know, it is an evolutionary trait that needs to be selected out of the gene pool.
Thankfully we have a countervailing force that has evolved to encourage us to love our neighbors rather than kill them. This tribal urge to protect and support those who are like us helps us transcend our self-interests for the good of the whole. This is another evolved trait that could grow in today’s world to include those who are beyond our tribe and share so much of our humanity. This is the challenge of the major world religions to bridge differences and show us how to live in peace with each other.
The hate that terrorism breeds can only lead to destruction and violence. The bonds that hatred can build narrows the experience of love rather than expands it. It divides the world into us and them, dehumanizing those outside the group that then quenches the remorse for the harm it causes. No world with peace and harmony can arise from this kind of thinking. In the extreme, it can only lead to mutually assured destruction, the definition of evil.
Thankfully there is another way. World religions agree that love is more powerful than hate and fear. Love builds stronger bonds that save rather than harm, build up rather than destroy. And one of the most powerful ways to activate love for people who appear to belong to a category of people unlike us, however “us” is defined, is to get to know them. To activate the power of love, we need to connect with the humanity and the needs of the person we are tempted to put in the “them” category. When I recognize the humanity in me also lives in them, when I recognize that we both share the same basic human needs, love becomes accessible.
That love is anything but automatic however. It still requires me to let go of my grievance and hate. It still requires me to open to connection and appreciation. And sometimes it requires encouragement to do this work from those around us we respect and admire.
Toward that end, let us learn a little about a few of the people who died or were injured at the Buffalo Tops so we can witness their humanity and honor their memory. (taken from this ABC News article)
- Ruth Whitfield was a devoted caregiver to her husband making sure he was well cared for in a nursing facility, washing, ironing his clothes, making sure he was dressed appropriately every day.
- Aaron Salter, a retired Buffalo Police officer, was killed after he confronted the gunman. He took on a responsibility to protect the customers and the employees in the store. His actions saved lives as he went towards the gunfire.
- Deacon Heyward Patterson spent the final years of her life teaching children as a beloved substitute teacher in the Buffalo School District and was heavily involved in her church community.
- Missionary Pearl Young was a worshipper and loved God. She loved her children, her family, and her Good-Samaritan COGIC church family, a true pillar in the community.
- Katherine “Kat” Massey was a civil rights activist who worked tirelessly to improve Buffalo’s Black community, Massey wrote for local publications the Buffalo Challenger and Buffalo Criterion, and that she often wrote letters to The Buffalo News. “She was unapologetic about making sure our community was not ignored,” said former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, “We lost a powerful, powerful voice.”
May it be our commitment to building Beloved Community that inspire us to denounce the path of hate and support the path of love to bring justice, equity and compassion to a world where it is sorely needed.