It’s been a year since the mass shooting at the El Paso Walmart. The Austin American-Statesman published the following as an op-ed on Sunday, August 18, 2019.
In the four years since declaring for the presidency, Donald Trump’s tongue and fingers (on Twitter) have spewed divisive and sometimes hateful words to a worldwide audience. It has helped him amass a fervent base of supporters, even though his approval ratings are the lowest for any president of recent memory.
The hyper-partisan political divide in this country pre-dates the Trump presidency, yet the 45th president intentionally stokes the fires of division while striving for a second term. He treads upon the same path as did previous American politicians who leveraged this nation’s original sin of racism to gain and maintain a grip on power: Andrew Jackson, Ben Tillman, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond.
Mass shootings in America also pre-date the current presidency. But Trump’s words to describe immigrants and immigration – invasion, criminals, infestation – helped create the environment where a disgruntled twenty-one-year-old from the Dallas area drove to El Paso and opened fire at a local Walmart, killing twenty-two persons – mostly Latinx. In an online rant posted just prior to the massacre, the white male shooter parroted the president’s language, writing: “This attack is in response to a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
El Paso – on today’s site of its sister city, Juarez – was founded in 1659, more than a century and a half before Stephen F. Austin came to establish an English-speaking and slave-holding settlement in what was then the northeastern part of Mexico. Spanish, alongside indigenous languages, was spoken in this territory – now called Texas – long before English ever was. I wonder if the El Paso shooter knows these historical facts. I imagine the president doesn’t and would label them, if he encountered them, “fake news” as they run contrary to his invasion narrative.
The renown Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke these three words – “words create worlds” – to his students and to his own daughter, raised in the post-Nazi world. The wise rabbi based his teaching on the first chapter of Genesis wherein God’s words create the world of light, seas, land, and sky.
Heschel was born in Poland in 1907. The Nazis would eventually kill his mother and three of his sisters. The Gestapo deported him from Frankfurt, Germany in 1938, where he instructed adults in the Jewish faith. His escape from the Nazis to America was facilitated by his giftedness in writing and teaching.
He eventually settled in New York City, where he instructed seminarians – future rabbis – to be public actors burdened with the responsibility to speak out against social injustice. The Holocaust, he knew, was originally created with words – words of hate, blame, and propaganda seeking political power and advantage. Only after these words inflamed public sentiment, did the Nazis construct their crematoria and concentration camps. Words create worlds, for better and for worse.
In 1963, Heschel shared the keynote speaker stage at an ecumenical religious conference on religion and race in Chicago with Martin Luther King Jr. They mutually recognized a prophetic connection and became confidants. Two years later, Heschel walked arm-in-arm with King as they led thousands on a civil rights’ march from Selma to Montgomery. This historic march marshaled the political will President Johnson needed to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Heschel later said, “When I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.”
King was an African American and Protestant minister, and Heschel was a European immigrant and Jewish rabbi. Different, yes, but they shared a common calling to bring justice to the oppressed by opposing those who create, cause, and maintain injustice. Their words – conversations, prayers, sermons, speeches, and writings – have an edifying effect yet today, helping to uplift liberty and promote justice for all, building on the egalitarian structures created by the words of great Americans who came before: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Brandeis, Susan B. Anthony.
It was hoped that the current president, when assuming office, would become more “presidential” by scaling back his volatile and divisive rhetoric. He’s not done it, and as both supporters and resisters can see, he’ll not change his ways – or his words – anytime soon.
Words create worlds. After four years of invective words from Trump, it’s time for those of us who oppose him to work as hard as we legally can – whether for impeachment or reelection defeat in 2020 – to change the narrative for the better, and with it, the world we now live in.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”