We want to know – it is what makes us human in part, that we desire to understand, to seek out information, knowledge and truth. In trying to gain information and understand the latest mass shooting in the USA, people have been brought face to face with the Sikh religion and trying to figure out why someone would walk into their place of worship and begin to kill people. Some people have wondered if it is because the killer confused Sikhs with Muslims; others have identified the killer, now named as Wade Michael Page, as a white supremacist, which he might indeed turn out to be, and so this was a hate crime against people of color, regardless of their religion. We do need to search for reasons and it is essential that we know what happened and why to the best of our ability, but I want to suggest that these reasons will all, ultimately, fail to explain the true source of this crime. If the killer had confused Sikhs for Muslims, it would not make this killing comprehensible, at least not at a deep level, for it would suggest, “ah, yes, some Muslims have been involved in terrorist acts, so if this man had a rage against Muslims, going into their place of worship and killing them would make sense.” But it does not make sense. It would be targeting innocent people of an entire religion for actions they did not commit. The hatred is still incomprehensible and the killer’s desire to harm people he did not know is still senseless, whether they were Muslims, Sikhs, or any other religion. Racism is just as incomprehensible, incorporating an irrational hatred of people different from oneself due to skin color. If that is the reason for the shooting of numerous innocent people, it does not make sense.
Still we need to know; we need to wonder about the killer’s background, his life, and his previous behavior. We want to know what made him tick and finally what made him explode. We want to know if anything could have prevented this crime or could help prevent another one in the future. We need to learn more about the Sikh religion, about the beliefs of the adherents, its history and its growth. Where did the Sikh religion originate? What sort of religion is it? What are its basic beliefs? We want to know so that we can understand who the Sikhs are and know them better, perhaps with the hope that it will stop any other terrorist actions or hatred against them. All of these are good things and all of these are necessary things.
But if, finally, the actions are irrational, how can we understand the irrationality of hatred and racism? From a Christian point of view, it starts with sin and it starts with us. We know that sin is a part of the human experience and that we are all marked by the irrationality of sin which draws us to the darkness of the abyss, the mysterium iniquitatus, "the mystery of sin," which attracts us even though we know we were created for good. We are drawn toward that which we know is not right by some darkness in us. The Apostle Paul talked about this pull of sin in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Whether he is speaking of himself personally is not significant, for what he outlines is common human experience. The powerful draw of sin does not absolve us from personal responsibility for our behavior, although the more we give in to sinful behaviors, the easier they are to perform again and the deeper we can be pulled into the depths. Sin is intoxicating, mesmerizing, and the source of delusion. Hatred starts to make sense; racism becomes justified.
It is why Jesus locates the source of murder in anger (Matthew 5:21-25). When we begin to reason ourselves into anger and hatred, to justify our behavior on the basis of this anger, we share in a chronic problem, inherent in the human situation, “the heart most crooked, beyond remedy” – Jeremiah 17:9; “a rebellious spirit and a heart of stone” – Ezekiel 36:26-27. This is the deep problem Jesus addresses. Without the purifying antiseptic of love, we can begin to dehumanize people on any number of levels: they don’t look like me; they don’t think like me; they don’t believe what I do; etc.
I have no idea how Wade Michael Page came to be a man who decided that his best course of action would be mass murder, but I know that the seeds of his actions started in a human being, more like me than different from me. And I know that the Sikh worshipers whom he killed were more like him than he could perceive. His vision was perverted and he became blinded to the truth: we are all part of one human family.
Education might not be the answer to sin, but it is a good place to start to begin to understand people we believe are so much different than us. Time spent with people of different religions and cultures might not seem like much, but it is a way of beginning to recognize our common humanity. I was lucky enough to grow up in Vancouver, a city which has a population of Sikhs greater than 150,000. I went to school, played sports and had a lot of friends and neighbors who are Sikhs. While I do not claim to know a lot about the religion, I came to know a lot about the people who sat side by side with me in math class, or lined up beside me on the football field. They were people, just like me.
A good thing we can do now, in light of these senseless murders, is to learn more about Sikhs and the Sikh religion particularly. University libraries will have good resources both online and in the book stacks. Take some time and check these out. From the Word Religions Online site accessed at the University of St. Thomas I gained access to articles on Sikhs and their religion. Here is an excerpt (the link to the whole article might require a UST library account):
The Sikh religion emerged at the beginning of 16th century CE in the Punjab, a territory hotly contested by Hindus and Muslims at the time. It aimed to find the truths common to both faiths, placing less emphasis on laws and rituals and soon emerged as a third, well-organized, Indian religious community.
Though raised as a Hindu, Sikhism's founder, Nanak (1469–1539), began his adult life in the employ of a Muslim, as was his father. A thoughtful and inwardly oriented youth, he spent periods each morning and evening as a young man in meditation. In his 30th year, his communion with the divine led to an intense experience of God in which he experienced God as the one creator. As a result of the encounter, he quit his job and gave away all his possessions. He began to proclaim his unique message that there is no Hindu and no Muslim. Sikhism would emerge as he began to articulate his message, drawing together what he saw as the best from both faiths. He shared the message in a set of hymns.
His message sought to discover what he saw to be the essence of the religious teachings around him. In the place of many religious acts, from praying on a prayer mat or living as a renunciant, he called upon people to cultivate the virtues these actions symbolized. For example, he suggested that the essence of asceticism was to remain pure amid impurities. He also called for a casteless society without distinctions based on the family into which one is born. He traveled from Sri Lanka to Tibet spreading his message, although Kashmir and the Punjab proved most receptive.
It makes you want to learn more doesn’t it? The founder of the Sikhs appeared to want to find the humanity common to both Muslims and Hindus, to bring people together.
The best thing we can do is continue to work on the sin in ourselves, which is not to imply that we are all on the verge of irrational and senseless acts, but that we can all harbor hatred in the recesses of our heart which we need to acknowledge and surrender to the God of love. We all need to be transformed. The way Christians understand this transformation is in love and in accepting and acting out the commands which Jesus gave us from his Jewish faith to love one another and to love God:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
And who is my neighbor? All people are my neighbors. And as those in the Sikh faith are today in great need and in great suffering, we ought to reach out to those in the Sikh faith, to let them know that we do not share this hatred and want to be good neighbors.I pray on behalf of all of the dead and the wounded, their families and friends and all of those impacted by their deaths, especially those who are Sikhs. I pray that the result of this horror might be a coming together of all people in a greater acknowledgement of our common humanity and a common desire to root out sin, especially in ourselves.
John W. Martens
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