A Response to the Wisconsin Shooting. Rev. Krista Taves. August 12, 2012.
Today’s service at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel:
Children’s Story “There is no Muslim. There is no Hindu.”
In honor of the Sikh community of Oak Creek and in response to the attack on their community last Sunday, our reading today consists of two Sikh prayers. Prayer is at the heart of faithful Sikh living. There are morning prayers, evening prayers, daily prayers, prayers for every moment of life. Although we will be hearing them in English, the prayers are offered in Gurmukhi [goor-moo-kee], a language that every Sikh must learn. Although we will speak the prayers here today, in the Sikh tradition they are sung. The purpose of the prayers is not simply to say them, but to be changed by them. There is a teaching in Sikhism, that you know your prayer is true when you feel lighter, more joyful, filled with integrity, truth, love, and hopefulness, and ultimately, experience yourself closer to God:
O Dear Lord, please, save my honor!
The fear of death has entered my heart;
I cling to the Protection of Your Sanctuary,
O Lord, ocean of mercy.
I am a great sinner, foolish and greedy, but not, at last, I have grown weary of committing sins.
I cannot forget the fear of dying; this anxiety is consuming my body.
I have been trying to liberate myself, running around in the ten directions.
The pure, immaculate Lord abides deep within my heart but I do not understand the secret of His mystery.
I have no merit, and I know nothing about meditation or austerities; what should I do now?
O Nanak, I am exhausted; I seek the shelter of Your Sanctuary;
O God, please bless me with the gift of fearlessness.
May the kingdom of justice prevail!
May the believers be united in love!
May the hearts of the believers be humble, high their wisdom,
And may they be guided in their wisdom by the Lord.
Glory be to God!
Entrust unto the Lord what thou wishest to be accomplished. The Lord will bring all matters to fulfillment.
Know this as truth evidenced by Himself.
This sermon is about how we save our honor when we are so frustrated with the injustices of the world that we are tempted to make ourselves into Gods to save it.
When I first heard about the shooting at the Sikh Temple last Sunday, my stomach hurt and I felt this bitter anger seep into me. “Another shooting,” I thought wearily. I thought about Aurora, Tucson and Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and the Amish School Shooting, Knoxville Tennessee, and other mass shootings that have filled the news. There are about 20 mass shootings a year in this country. And yet, even as my stomach hurt, I got in my car and went to the next commitment on my list, a pastoral visit, and while I sat in the living room of a member of this congregation, talking about some difficult things in their life, police were able to take down the shooter in Oak Creek. One more gun rampage had ended.
It seems that this is what we do. A mass shooting takes place, for a short while the 24 hr media make it their focus, and our lives continue on. Can our lives stop 20 times a year?
Every mass shooting touches some people more deeply than others. Perhaps there is a geographical connection. Perhaps it affected someone we knew. When a man opened fire in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, many of us were more shaken than we might have been if the shooting occurred in a mall in California. We took some precautions here in case the shooting resulted in copy-cat attempts. Our greeters kept an eye out for strangers, suspicious behavior and large bags. We kept our cell phones easily on hand so we could call Children’s Chapel and secure the doors between the sanctuary and the hearth room if needed. But that’s been 4 years, and the sense of urgency wanes and we started to feel normal again. Life goes on. I wonder if that’s what is going to happen in the Sikh community.
There is something unique about this shooting. The Aurora and Virginia Tech shootings were by socially isolated individuals deemed mentally unstable. The Sikh shooting was motivated by racial hatred and committed by an individual who was embedded in community that supported and nurtured that hatred. It may have been a white supremacist community, but it was community. He was no loner. There was a similar sense about the Knoxville and Tucson shootings. Both shooters were embedded in ultra conservative networks, whether in person or online. They were influenced by the writings of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other hard right leaders. They were embedded in social networks that identified liberalism as a form of evil that threatened the fabric of this nation. Many are suspecting that the burning of the Islamic Mosque in Joplin comes out of a similar hard right dynamic which also identifies Islam as a form of evil that threatens the fabric of this nation.
In Unitarian Universalism we talk a lot about the transformative power of community. The core of Unitarian Universalism rests in local congregations of committed members who say, “This is my home. There are my people. This is the community where I place my loyalty and where I seek to grow as a spiritual being so that I can live my values in the world.” Many of you bring your children here because this congregation shares your values of affirming diversity, equality of all people, and respect for the interdependent web of life. You need a whole community around you, so that you have a place for you as a person and as a parent to explore who you are as spiritual being and what kind of example you want to be to your child. And then your child has you, strengthened through this community, and they have more role models here than you can imagine, and friends your children’s age who share their values. This is all done through community – an intentional gathering of people with a sense of identity and purpose, providing a sense of belonging and acceptance.
What struck me in all the coverage of the Sikh shooting, is that this is how the shooter may have understood his community – an intentional gathering of people with a sense of identity and purpose, providing a sense of belonging and acceptance. He was embedded in layers of relationships in the white supremacist movement. His particular connection was through music, but it was only one layer of his connection. This movement is widespread and at many events there is children’s programming. Whole families participate in gatherings. There are readings, rituals, study and discussion, there are sometimes democratic channels of decision-making. The importance of belonging to a distinct community of like-minded people that strengthens you to live your values is strongly emphasized. What they offer and what we offer are similar. Identity, purpose, belonging, acceptance. They even sometimes use the word love. Of course, the love they are talking about is pretty exclusive. This is a love for people of a certain race, but they understand this love as the central motivator in their actions.
Somehow this thing called community has the ability to take the universal needs of belonging, identity, purpose and acceptance and use them for good or twist them for evil. Whether it’s a nation or a neighborhood, a church, a social group, or a family, whether it’s in person or online. I find myself reflecting on a slogan that I rather dislike, one often put out there by the National Rifle Association – Guns don’t kill people. People kill people – and I wonder if that slogan could be applied to the concept of community. Community can create the best of things and the worst of things. Community can be absolutely wonderful and creative; it can also be destructive and hateful. For the people inside them, they are often blind as to where they actually lie on the spectrum.
On Wednesday, four of us from Emerson Chapel attended a vigil at the Sikh Temple in St. Peters. The service was open to the public, but it was completely Sikh, they did not modify their rituals or prayers to account for non-Sikhs in their midst, and I was actually quite grateful for that. I wanted them to be who they needed to be for each other and I was grateful for the opportunity to be generous in my own heart. I was also extremely grateful for the large video screens at the front that offered translations of what was being said. The service was almost completely prayer. The leader at the front chanted the prayers, and the people in the congregation sometimes listened, and sometimes sang with. The prayers were very similar to the prayers that we offered here this morning.
What struck me in the service was the deep sense of peace. I saw sadness in many eyes. I also saw love as friends greeted each other on their way in. I felt a spirit of generosity. I can’t tell you how many times we were reminded by the women around us that there was a meal after the service. In the prayers, in the closeness of so many bodies sitting cross-legged on the temple floor, I felt a sense of compassion and deep humility.
I don’t know how they understood their prayers, because even the same words mean different things in different cultural contexts, but I wanted to try and feel the deeper meaning beneath religious language that was not mine.
In a Unitarian Universalist vigil, we would probably have held up the names of those killed. We may have focused on their lives and the tremendous loss to their families because there is a strong emphasis on the individual in our faith tradition and in western culture. This did not happen in the Sikh service. The focus was God. Praising God, reaching out to God, reverencing to God.
In the prayers, we sang that one cannot approach God only through joy, but also through suffering, so bless suffering, for it brings us closer to God, who is taking the dead and their suffering into his own self because all that happens on this earth is reconciled to God.
We prayed that it is not for us to forgive, it is not for us to avenge or to be angry because justice and forgiveness is God’s work, not ours. When we take these things into our own hands we fall prey to egotism, we are trying to be God and when we try to be God we separate ourselves from God, which is a spiritual death.
What I will most remember is the message that God never separates from us. We separate ourselves from God with our willfullness and our pride, with our wants and our attachment to material things. Even grief can separate us from God if we cling to it, define ourselves by it. In that separation is death, spiritual death, perhaps physical death. This death is not willed by God; it is a consequence of the separation that we choose.
As I listened to these prayers, I thought about all the shootings that we have endured in this country. Every one of those shooters made themselves into God; they gave themselves the power, and believed they had the right, to take life at their discretion. In this, they separated themselves from God and died, whether spiritually or physically, sometimes both. To use the words of the Sikh prayer, in their violence, they were trying to liberate themselves when the work of liberation is God’s. In the case of the Wisconsin shooter, he came from a community that had made itself into God, that considered itself the ultimate arbiter of truth and justice. It is this separation that led to his spiritual death and his physical death.
I even saw this egotism in many who professed their outrage at the violence. In the comments section of many online articles, people expressed joy that the shooter had been killed. Others said that they would have wanted to do it themselves if the police hadn’t been able to. People expressed their desire to torment those with racist beliefs. There was name calling and highly charged language. In this righteous indignation, these people too turned themselves into God, so frustrated with the injustices of the world that they tried to turn themselves into Gods to save it.
I believe that we are seeing in American culture an ideology that has made itself into God. It is built on pridefulness and judgment, fear, anger, retribution and division, where some people count and some people simply don’t. This ideology has gained in strength and is a major player in American life and politics. The vengeful wishes of those commenters is just as much a part of the violence as those who actually pulled the trigger.
What is missing here is humility, not the kind of humility that many of us were abused with in the fundamentalist religions of our youth, but the kind of humility that affirms life and yet holds life lightly. What I took home with me from the vigil is that the Sikh community did not, in the prayers they sang that night, make it about them. They offered their suffering, their grief, and their fear to the God they loved; they sought acceptance, peace, and forgiveness. They asked themselves to be restored to trust. This is true humility.
Any community is vulnerable to the temptation to make itself into God, even communities like ours that don’t have a unified understanding of God or any God whatsoever. We are vulnerable of making of our fears and anxieties the justification for placing ourselves in the center of the universe. The fact of the matter is that we are one with the Oak Creek Sikh community, and we are one with the Islamic Society of Joplin. We are also one with Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin. We are one with every individual who has taken a gun and mowed down a crowd of innocents. We do not have any more inherent worth and dignity than those whose divisive ideologies make our stomachs hurt and our hearts bitter. When we challenge those oppressive ideologies, which we must, we must always honor the human beings behind them, because the ideology and the person are not the same thing. To conflate the two is to do exactly what those shooters did – identify the worth of people by their ideas and beliefs.
The way forward, the way to peace, the way to healing and forgiveness, is through communities that live our oneness with all things. This is how we ensure that these senseless deaths are not in vain.
May it be so in this community, may it be so in our nation, may it be so in our beautiful and hurting world.
Amen and blessed be.