There are many lessons we can take away from the tragedy at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek last Sunday. Today I would like to look at the issue of religious intolerance and its impact on violence. One of the comments contained in the television coverage of this shooting was that in New York City, at least, quite often Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims and so become the target of misdirected violence that was intended for Muslims. Mind you, violence for any reason is wrong, and I wouldn’t feel any better if misdirected religious violence were properly directed! It is an interesting point to consider.
It is curious that when a White man is the target of violence or commits a crime nobody exclaims, “I bet he was a Presbyterian, let’s get those dirty Presbyterians!” (Well, I do, but I bet I am the only one.) In fact, it was only Monday as more became known about the shooter in this case that it was discovered through his MySpace page that he was a white supremacist and the lead singer [sic] in a neo-nazi punk rock band called “End Apathy.” As an aside, I think we need to seriously take a look at anybody over the age of eighteen who still uses their MySpace page, though I do understand that for musicians there are reasons to use MySpace. We could get all upset and carry on about white supremacists ad nauseam, but if we never ask where white supremacists come from I believe we miss the point.
Western religions, the so-called Abrahamic faiths, have a strong tribal period in their history. According to the scriptural record, they share a common history up to the time of Abraham, who had two sons. His first-born, by his wife’s servant Hagar, was Ishmael who went on to become the father of the Arabic (Muslim) people. Later, Abraham’s wife Sarah gave birth to Isaac, whose descendants were the Hebrew (Jewish) people. Christianity later arose from Judaism. The days of early Judaism and Islam were days of tribal culture, with people banding together not so much in nations as in extended families or tribes – hence the “twelve tribes of Israel.” Survival was a matter of war and it was necessary to look out for the members of one’s own tribe and be suspicious of members of other tribes. The history of this period reflects the social reality of the time.
Fast forward to contemporary times, and we have the fundamentalist expressions of the three Abrahamic faiths often interpreting their scriptures literally. Most responsible scholars agree that such an interpretation is not only erroneous, but in the case of Christianity at least an invention of the nineteenth century. While I certainly am in favor of freedom of religion, I understand that when one looks at the cultural reality of our planet some four to six thousand years ago and elects to believe it is a command for all time given by God and so to be followed today, almost limitless problems ensue.
The Hebrew people, fighting for their very survival, ascribed their success in battle to both God’s instruction to fight and God having found them pleasing. When they lost, they believed it to be a sign that God was disappointed with them. To contemporary minds, that seems an appropriate primitive understanding for that time in history but not one that we would endorse today – unless you have painted yourself into a corner by electing to hold a fundamentalist religious perspective. Such perspectives also feed into basic (unexamined) human nature. We are more comfortable with people who are similar to us, which probably explains why all of my friends are so darned good-looking! I bet you were wondering about that! Seriously, when you couple dubious religious justifications with a psychological tendency to be suspicious of others all kinds of nonsense results. The Christian tradition is full of alleged religious justification for prejudice of every stripe. I believe it’s fair to say that every one of those alleged justifications were the direct result of tribal thinking. The irony in America is that while we consider our nation a melting pot, we apparently are only interested in a very white stew.
All of this would be only an interesting and unfortunate piece of history if it weren’t for the fact that both fundamentalist preachers and politicians of every stripe continue to exploit these tribal tendencies. Non-Christians are going to hell. Liberals and Conservatives castigate each other as lower order forms of life. Immigration policies reflect institutionalized racism, and victims of racism in turn paint white people with a broad, evil brush – even those of us working to end racism. It is a complex problem with deep roots in our very society, and solutions will not be easy but I would like to recommend a place to start.
Responsible people everywhere need to speak the truth that any religion that would disparage another religion in any way – including by saying that the goal or destination of its adherents is not valid – is abusive and creates division and discord. We need to say quite clearly that we are one human family, all inseparably interconnected and that when we see attacks like the one at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin we are witnessing an attack on every one of us – including the attacker. We are all diminished when any one of us is diminished, and we are all victims when any one of us is victimized. We need to say, teach, and live the truth that racist and other discriminatory behavior is wrong and that it diminishes the perpetrator as much as it diminishes its target. In our political discourse, we need to stop describing nations with whom we disagree as enemies. Domestically, we need to be clear that any person who refuses to help another person in need diminishes themselves in the process. Most of all, we need to teach these realities as applicable to all people regardless of their politics.
Can we see that the attack on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is also an attack on every other religion and on agnostics and atheists as well? Can we see that an attack inside a foreign nation is an attack on the United States as well? Can we see that when our brother or sister is hurt, we are hurt as well? We need to see these things, because they are reality. We need to see them, because not seeing them puts the future of humanity in jeopardy.