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Spiritual Growth

Not Yet Arrived: A Reflection on the Oak Creek Shooting

By Glory E. Dharmaraj

We are not strangers to violence, be it religious, economic, racial, gender or domestic. In a study conducted by a team of researchers at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Policy, the scholars report that 302 cases of domestic terrorism occurred during the decade after the September 11th attacks. The recent violence at the Sikh temple at Oak Creek, Wisconsin is one such tragic incident.

Each violent occurrence has its own particularity. This one has multiple victims – all of them immigrants – who had gathered to worship with their families and friends. This violence against the innocent has religious, ethnic and economic dimensions, even though we do not fully know what exactly motivated the vehemence against the Sikh community. But we can all learn something out of this forbidding act.

The violence at Oak Creek, I am convinced, is an example of the veil of ignorance and fear of the other that blinds right-seeing.

When the event was unfolding, I was visiting the emerging, burgeoning churches in India. When this tragic news was broadcast across the country, both the Sikh community and others were struck with absolute disbelief. Initially, there was a lot of speculation on TV and chat rooms. But the major national newspapers gave a balanced analysis of the event. Most of them insisted that it was a random act by a deranged man.

Personally, I wanted to know more about the reaction of the Sikh community. So I flew into Mumbai, and met with the leaders of one of the largest gurudwaras (Sikh temples) in Andheri, Mumbai.

Spending an hour with the president and three other leaders of the gurudwara, I sensed a deep hole in their hearts. Jaspal Singh, the acting vice president of the temple and the spokesperson, said that the only thing that they could offer was prayer for the souls of the dead and support for the victims’ families. He also said that the governments on both sides must investigate. “Such a thing should never happen again to any faith community.”

For the question of what exactly might have motivated the killer to go on a rampage in a temple, Singh again responded that it was not a religious motive. He paused for a moment and then said it was not racist act either. It was economic jealousy towards the immigrants who made it in the U.S. He named it “success-jealousy.” There was no rush to conclusions.

During the course of the conversation, I also learned that each Sikh temple had a general body and a ladies’ committee who all stand in solidarity with Sikhs everywhere. The latter does programs for women under a president of their own. 

Being with Others

The Oak Creek incident and the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, the very next day are tragic reminders that we have not yet arrived at the place of being with others. Religion and ethnicity may act as identity-markers that separate human beings. Worship centers in Oak Street and Joplin, sacred spaces for Sikh and Muslim immigrants respectively, have become tragic spatial markers.

When difference and ethnicity become dividing forces, I am reminded of theologian Letty M. Russell’s distinction between two different understandings of difference. Russell lifts up clues for resisting “essentializing difference,” and claiming “liberating difference.” It is time to build on life-giving differences while resisting narrow understandings of human differences that set barriers in our journey.  

The Oak Creek tragedy and the burning of the mosque in Joplin call for participatory engagement with our vulnerable immigrant neighbors. Anything short of this will perpetuate the veil of ignorance that covers our eyes.

A mural in the highest point in the dome of the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress shows a beautiful woman who represents human understanding. She pulls the veil of ignorance from her eyes. There are two cherubs by her side. One holds a book of wisdom and knowledge. Another encourages the viewers in their struggle toward perfection. We in our faith community have to embody “prophetic neighboring” and “welcoming of strangers” during times of change and uncertainty. Failure to do so will continue to blind our two-fold vision of love for God and love for neighbor.

The Foreigner Within Us

Taking stock of the milestones of achievements in religious, racial/ethnic understandings which are liberating, it is vital to make sure that tragedies such as the Oak Creek massacre never occur again. “Never again to anyone,” Jaspal Sing reiterated. It is also imperative to recognize the stranger within ourselves. It is time to come to terms with the foreign and the strange within ourselves, and accept these as part of our unconscious.

Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst and a writer, points out the need for identifying the stranger within ourselves and accepting the foreignness in ourselves. She says, “The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners.” Integrating the stranger within us may help integrate the foreigner in our community. This may help develop the needed capacity to connect with others in an increasingly divisive world. We live in a globalized world, a borderless community. We will never know who our neighbors will be tomorrow. We are called to be merciful neighbors and a caring community. Let us:

  • Amplify the cries of the victims;
  • Stand in solidarity with them;
  • Make efforts at being with others;
  • Study the root causes of migration;
  • Take time to understand various religious beliefs;
  • Create spaces for interfaith communities;
  • Stick to the core teaching of Christ that we love God and our neighbor.

Glory E. Dharmaraj, Ph.D. is director of spiritual formation and mission theology for the United Methodist Women.

Last Updated: 04/08/2014

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