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John S. Tanner: Today we are all Jews, African-Americans and Democrats

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 28.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 28.
Matt Rourke, AP

Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University-Hawaii President John Tanner is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

In January 1945, American Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who was in charge of about a thousand American prisoners at a German prisoner of war camp, was told to have all Jewish prisoners report in front of their barracks in the morning. Instead, Master Sergeant Edmonds ordered all the prisoners to stand together in front of their barracks. When the German officer saw them, he said to Edmonds, “They cannot all be Jews.” Edmonds responded “We are all Jews.” The German officer took out his pistol and threatened to shoot Edmonds. The Master Sergeant said, “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The German officer turned around and left. About 200 Jewish-American prisoners were spared.

In the past 72 hours, the country has been deeply scarred by three ugly, violent hate crimes: the mailing of more than a dozen parcel bombs to prominent Democrats and a liberal media outlet, the killing of two elderly African-Americans at a Kentucky Kroger store, and the horrific slaughter of 11 Jews peacefully gathered for Sabbath worship in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue — the deadliest anti-Semitic act of violence in U.S. history.

In the face of such revulsive, violent hate crimes, let us denounce these evil acts, mourn with those who mourn and reaffirm solidarity with those who have been targeted. The victims and intended victims are our brothers and sisters. Today, we are all Jews, African-Americans and liberal Democrats.

The answer to Cain’s cynical question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an emphatic “yes!” We stand in familial solidarity with each other. What great evils have been born of regarding our neighbors as alien to us rather than as our brothers and sisters! Cain’s primal murder has spawned a foul progeny of killings perpetrated by those who deny fraternity with their victims.

A core doctrine of my faith is captured in the children’s song “I Am a Child of God,” which was sung today in my congregation by children of all hues and many cultures. The message was particularly poignant and pertinent today. The children echoed what Paul declared to the Athenians on Mars Hill: that we are the “offspring” of God, our Heavenly Father, who created the human family “of one blood” (Acts 17:26-29). As Paul also wrote to the Romans, “the Spirit beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16).

We are all family. All men and women are “created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” — including the right to life itself. The principle that we are “made of one blood” is inscribed in the 1839 Hawaiian Declaration of Rights. It was also articulated by President David O. McKay at the founding of this university. We are family. One "ohana," children of the same God!

When any member of the human family is killed or harmed or hated, we all suffer. As John Donne said so eloquently hundreds of years ago when he heard death bells tolling while he lay gravely ill on what he thought may be his own deathbed:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The bells that toll across this land today toll for all of us. Today we must all consider ourselves Jews, African-Americans and Democrats.