In An American Holy Land: A History of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Bellarmine University professor Clyde Crews describes Bloody Monday, August 6, 1855: “Came the dawn of election day, August 6, the Know-Nothings [anti-Catholics] were in control of the single polling place in each [Louisville] ward. Those holding the yellow ticket of the Know-Nothing Party were admitted to vote; many others were not. Rioting quickly began, but . . . it is not clear who made the first aggressions.”
The mayor of Louisville led a committee into the newly constructed Cathedral of the Assumption on Fifth Street, searching for armed men and munitions. None were found. Fearing danger nonetheless, cathedral clergy hid the Blessed Sacrament in a nearby private residence. Shots were fired, and a canon from the courthouse lawn was turned on an Irish-oriented tenement. By the end of the day, at least 22 people were dead; most were Irish or German Catholics.
“Whatever the killers’ motives, we’re all vulnerable, particularly in the presence of firearms that make mass killings massive, in minutes.”
Bloody Monday was precipitated, Crews says, because of nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic fear that (1) immigrants, “often fleeing revolutionary or famine conditions,” were storming Louisville and the nation; (2) desperate for jobs, the newcomers often worked for wages much lower than “the unprotected salaries of natives;” and (3) most immigrants were Roman Catholics, adhering to a false religion demanding loyalty to a foreign monarch (the pope). On election eve, newspaper editor George Prentice urged Louisvillians: “Rally to put down an organization of Jesuit Bishops, Priests and other papists, who aim by secret oaths and horrid midnight plottings, to sap the foundations of all our political edifices.”
Does any of this sound familiar 164 years later? Nationally and globally, racial, religious, and immigration-related xenophobic sentiments fester into violence visited on “suspicious” faith communities, often in their sacred spaces. The March 15 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, illustrates the menacing ferocity and broad spectrum of such vehemence.
Amid the ceaseless epidemic of firearm-related mass shootings in the U.S. I’ve sometimes soberly jested that our family might just move to New Zealand where we’d be truly safe! That fantasy ended when 50 Muslim worshippers were gunned down by a 28-year-old immigrant-hating-white-supremacist while they said their Friday prayers. I must now admit that no place of worship in the world is truly “safe.”
People of faith, whatever the specific tradition, now confront a 21st-century global reality: Worship can get you killed, anywhere in the world. For years, bombings, shootings and other violent acts have brought death to mosques, churches, synagogues and temples in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, England and of course the United States. What seems a horrible rarity in New Zealand seems increasingly “normative” in the USA.
A representative American list, 2012-2018, illustrates the point:
Oct. 27, 2018: Pittsburgh, Tree of Life Synagogue attacked by an anti-Semitic gunman; 11 killed, 6 wounded.
Nov. 5, 2017: Sutherland Springs, Texas, First Baptist Church, a 26-year-old male, apparently settling family scores, kills 26 people, wounding some 20 others.
Sept. 24, 2017: Nashville, Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, a 25-year-old male kills one woman and wounds 6 others.
April 24, 2016: Philadelphia, Keystone Fellowship Church, a 27-year-old male is fatally shot during Sunday worship.
Feb. 28, 2016: Dayton, Ohio, St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. William B. Schooler, 70, is shot and killed by his 68-year-old brother as services were ending.
June 17, 2015: Charleston, Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 9 African American worshippers are shot and killed by a 21-year-old white supremacist as their prayer service ended.
March 31, 2013: Ashtabula, Ohio, Hiawatha Church of God in Christ, a 28-year-old man fatally shoots his father at Easter services, then shouts from the pulpit about God and Allah.
Dec. 2, 2012: Coudersport, Pennsylvania, First United Presbyterian Church, a 52-year-old music teacher shoots his ex-wife as she played the organ during worship.
Oct. 24, 2012: College Park, Georgia, Changers Church International, a 51-year-old church maintenance worker kills a 39-year-old layman who was leading a prayer.
Aug. 5, 2012: Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh Temple, 6 members shot by a white supremacist during a service.
While worship-based shootings are not statistically widespread, even a cursory reading of this brief list illustrates the difficulty of discerning where killings may occur. Attacks strike varied religious groups gathered in congregations rural and urban, large and small. Some are interreligious actions with one fanatic literally taking aim at members of a specific faith tradition. Others are personal or familial, while still others reflect hatred for an explicit racial or immigrant community.
“Faith communions . . . must refuse to let the killers win.”
Whatever the killers’ motives, we’re all vulnerable, particularly in the presence of firearms that make mass killings massive, in minutes. Given all that, what are we to do?
First, faith communions must take security seriously, perhaps following Jesus’ admonition to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” welcoming the stranger but exploring ways of protecting the faithful with intentional preparation. Active shooter training, perhaps.
Second, we must refuse to let the killers win. In a March 20 New Yorker essay, Jelani Cobb writes of the Christchurch and other massacres:
. . . decency these days requires the ability to stare barbarism in the face, repeatedly, randomly, intensely, without ever becoming inured to the ugliness of its features. Terrorism hopes to inspire fear and confusion, but its most pernicious impact begins the moment that people no longer feel either of those things but, rather, simply a grudging acknowledgment that this is the way we now live.
Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and other faithful are dying in our midst. We must keep the faith not only because it sustains us, but to ensure that they have not died in vain.
In the year 2019, whatever our religious commitments, let us agree that attendance at worship reflects a certain kind of courage. Indeed, courage lies at the heart of religious faith – the courage to pursue spiritual sustenance in community, to confront our sins, our failures and our need for grace. It is the courage to confront the Other, the Sacred, Almighty God as source for who we are and how we live in this world. These days, however, we confess that our decision to join in collective worship is itself a courageous witness because locally, regionally, nationally, and globally, faith communities, particularly at worship, have become – or at any moment could become – a killing field.
Amid the hatred, the rage and the violence, we’re still here, together, praying with all our hearts. Till time and Bloody Mondays are no more.