A young man reacts Oct. 29 at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters

Peter Stockland: The power of hearts makes a better world

  • November 9, 2018

In a fine interview following the recent synagogue killings in Pittsburgh, Ottawa’s Rabbi Reuven Bulka offered wisdom that went far beyond the specific act of terrible bloodshed. 

Past even the horrifying historic echo of Jews being murdered for being Jews, deeper than the mad sacrilege of slaughtering the prayerful in a house of God, his words reminded us as Catholics — as people of all faiths and none — how limited are the things we can, and cannot, do as human beings. They directly answered a question about anti-Semitism. But they spoke from the profound religious sense natural to all of us. They served to warn less of the physical dangers that lie about us and far more of the spiritual risks we run by believing we can perfect every answer ourselves, without God.

“No matter how much we try, there’s not going be anything that we can do to stop a lone crazy from doing crazy things,” Bulka told Convivium.ca’s Hannah Marazzi. 

“To stop all crazies from doing crazy things? As much as we’d like it to happen, in no generation in human history have we been free from brutal murders,” he added. 

His sentences are a compendium of blunt countercultural honesty. Pro forma today, after all, is to pledge every effort to ensure such perfect measures are to guarantee such terrible violence can never occur again. 

No, Bulka says. It will happen again. We can count on it because of a thing called human history. For the rabbi, as for all observant Jews and Christians, such history goes back to the Garden and the Fall. It stretches to the very first human generation spattered with the blood of fratricide. 

People go crazy. Or stay sane but temporarily behave, for an infinite variety of reasons, in crazy ways. To believe we can stop crazies from doing crazy things is to deny history. It’s to deny the full reality of what it means to be human. 

Being called back to that reality, Bulka said, doesn’t leave despair, cynicism or abdication as our sole alternatives. Nor is being realistic an excuse to be placid or complacent, either. It is to accept the natural limits of political solutions and, equally, to accept our full nature as religious beings. 

The difference can be seen in two responses to the Pittsburgh massacre. Of course, there was a common response of horror and authentic sorrow for the lives lost and the pain inflicted on survivors. But then, in the rote pageantry of such heinous acts, one side immediately adopted the posture of public hectoring. 

Donald Trump was to blame. Lack of gun control was to blame. Systemic bigotry was to blame. The solutions — hey! presto! — happened to be the ones pulled from coat pockets of advocates engaged in eradicating one, some or all of the identified problems. The answer, in other words, was for the political class, manipulating the levers of State power, to do no less than put an end to crazy people doing crazy things. It was to stop bad things from happening to good people, which really means bad things happening to all people. 

By contrast, Bulka articulated a challenge for all who heard his words to go and do a good act for each of the murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue. It was not an appeal to the exclusive might of the State. It was a call on the extensive power of each human heart. Its emphasis wasn’t abstract projects, but concrete, specific, individual undertakings.

“There is a limit to what we can do directly (but) every good deed makes the world a better place. Just think small. Think about things around the corner.” 

Nothing there denies the necessity and the efficacy of democratic engagement. We pursue political solutions because we are, after all, political animals. But we are not only political animals. We are religious beings, seeking always the mysterious presence of God. It is our religious sense that keeps from falling into the pit of unreality that makes us rush about throwing solutions at the wall and hoping the State has the power to make them stick.

The religious sense, the religious reality principle, reminds us how our very first generation was spattered in murderous blood. That is our family history. Yet we go on in love, in beauty, in truth, ever approaching God. And that, too, is our history. 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and senior fellow with Cardus.)

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