Dr. Daniel Crosby – Thoughts from a Sikh Candlelight Vigil
August 10, 2012
At the height of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned just ninety minutes south of here and charged with disturbing the peace for inserting himself into the affairs of a community that was not his own. A native of Atlanta, King’s detractors questioned his decision to come to Alabama. When asked what he was doing outside of his home state, Dr. King replied, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
It is for a similar purpose that we are gathered here this evening, hundreds of miles from the site of the senseless murders that occurred just days ago. We are here because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are here because violence against one faith group is violence to the body of believers of all faith groups. We are here because doing harm to any of God’s children is doing harm to all of God’s children.
Recent studies suggest, and anecdotal experience confirms, that Americans are more politically and religiously divided than at any point in recent memory. There seems to be a decreasing consensus about what constitutes good and true behavior; what should and should not be. We make up our minds, form our camps, and surround ourselves with like-minded others, remaining blind to the views and struggles of “the other.” There is great danger in failing to understand the myriad ways in which we, as a human family, are all in this together. Of failing to understand that our foundational desires, the things we wish for our families and the prayers we offer to Heaven are so much more similar than they are different. As Pastor Martin Niemoller said in the wake of the Holocaust,
First they came for the communists,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left to speak out for me.
In the days following the shooting, the media has made a concerted effort to clarify the differences between Sikhs and the Muslims with whom they are often confused. I imagine that these efforts are well intended, presumably meant to protect Sikhs from further violence. However, they do so at the expense of another faith, which surely flies in the face of the egalitarian principles upon which Sikhism is founded.
It is a real human tendency to emphasize difference over similarity and to better remember the flawed than the sublime. This cognitive vestige is supposed to have the effect of protecting us from the unknown, but it often becomes warped and replaced with the sort of ill-considered hate that was the genesis of the crimes we mourn today. Instead of emphasizing differences, I would like for us to consider on this occasion, the great deal more we have in common –both good and bad. Every person in this room shares a desire to love and be loved, to be understood, to matter and to seek a life of meaning. Similarly, we all share a tendency to make rash judgments, protect our own self-interests and to fear what we do not know or understand.
Moments like this vigil are bought with an expensive price and are reminders to us that the gulf between the best and worst of humanity is great, and that the seeds of light and darkness live in each of us. It is the least we can do for those we commemorate today to reflect on these things and determine, here and now, that we will do everything in our power to advocate for a more inclusive tomorrow.
It is said of Abraham, the father of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that “his tent was open in all four directions.” Similarly, the Sikh gurdwara or “House of God” is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has four open doors pointing in the cardinal directions, symbolizing its openness to people from all walks of life. In the case of the Oak Creek gurdwara, it was just one such door that provided passage to a man with evil in his heart.
Cynics would say that such openness is archaic; an aspirational notion that no longer reflects our present, more dangerous reality. A relic of a bygone era. A weakness. The gospel of Matthew admonishes us to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,”to be watchful, but not hardened by our vigilance.
But as the Sikh community has shown us, just as the Amish before them, openness, trust and acceptance are never weakness. For those we lost in this tragedy, I can think of no greater insult than to shut the doors of our hearts and no greater honor to their memory than to continue a practice that appeals to the better angels of our nature.
As much as we might wish it were otherwise, much of what happens to us in life is beyond our control. However, as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
All too often, we exist in a sort of cruise control, hoping to breeze by with a minimum of thought or effort. Events like the Oak Creek shootings shake us from this complacency and require us to make difficult choices. Happiness exists along a continuum but tragedy is binary. Suffering strips us of neutrality and brings us to a crossroads where we will learn and grow or become jaded by the profound unfairness of what has occurred.
Each of us stands at that crossroads tonight and it is up to us to determine which path we will take. Sikhs close their worship with thanks to God and a blessing for the prosperity of all humanity. It is my wish, that even in a week where innocent lives have been lost, that we can all retain that hopeful prayer in our hearts. Part of that prayer is the phrase “Charhdi Kala” – may your spirit rise. A spirit that never tires of well doing and that does not despair or retreat in the face of great adversity. Such were the spirits of those we lost and such should be the pursuit of all gathered here.
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