Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Sikh Temple Shooting: A Dialogue on Unity and Religious Freedom

By Elora Kilian 
IFC Communications Intern

As the debate surrounding the HHS mandate, a law that will require all employers to provide employees with health insurance that includes contraception, continues to rage on, and in the wake of the horrifyingly violent acts that occurred in Colorado, August 5th’s Sikh temple shooting must cause us to pause and turned towards a renewed focus on our shared desires for freedom, safety, and community, and less on the perceived, surface-level differences that derive from ignorance.

As gunman Wade Michael Page, a military veteran with alleged white supremacy ties and “extreme radical views,” entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and opened fire killing seven worshipers on Sunday, the Sikh community has begun to cope with the tragedy in much the same way as Christian congregations have responded to the Colorado massacre.  They have come together to support their members and have shown a steadfast understanding for all those involved.  Just as the parish pastor has chosen to stand behind the family of suspected Colorado gunman James Holmes, Sikh leaders have “ urged followers of the faith to wait until the police investigation before making any assumption as to the gunman's motive.”(Wisconsin Shooting: Sikh leaders urge caution before police investigation)

There is an underlying desire for the freedom to practise our faiths as we please without the threat of insecurity and intrusion from others.  The same issue is currently being faced by the Catholic Church as it struggles over the debate of the HHS mandate that would cause some to act against their beliefs.

This is precisely why we “do dialogue”; to contemplate and separate our perceived differences from our actual differences, and find common ground in between.  From Leonard Swidler’s Dialogue Decalogue, “The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.”  

I think it is clear to most that Wade Michael Page was not exactly in touch with reality, and neither is anyone who participates in a hate crime.  He, like any others who have mistakenly persecuted Sikhs in the equally grievous effort to persecute Muslims following the 9/11 attacks, have fallen into a classic misstep that frequently occurs in interfaith interactions.  This is the assumption that national, cultural, or ethnic differences are the same as religious differences.

Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world.  Originating in Punjab (Northern India, now Pakistan), the majority of Sikhs are from this region and speak Punjabi.  However, there are 20 million Sikhs worldwide with approximately 10,000 western converts.  It is a religion based on deep faith with God, justice and truth, and equality for all.  Sikh customs are centered on the 5 Ks: Keshas (unshorn hair symbolizing spirituality), Kanga (small comb symbolizing cleanliness and refraining from an ascetic life), Kara (steel bracelet symbolizing attachment to Guru), Kacha (short breeches symbolizing moral character,) and Kirpan (ceremonial dagger symbolizing a commitment to social justice). (Sikhism)

This emphasis on outward symbols through dress have lent itself more easily to perceived difference and discrimination.  “Prominent Sikh leaders believe the violence against the Sikh community that began after 9/11 stemmed largely from prejudice against Muslims; Sikhs were confused with Muslims because most Sikhs wear turbans.”(Wisconsin Shooting Rattles American Sikhs)

But is that what this violence and hate is about, turbans?  Because others choose varying symbols and appearances to express their faith, does that make us so different?

Every society must make a choice about how to approach the diversity of faiths.  Some choose one faith to be at the center of society, others like the French secularity laws do away with religious symbols all together, and then there is the U.S. tradition of separation of church and state.

“In the Virginia stature that would serve as the underpinning for the constitutional protection of religious freedom, Jefferson wrote: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”” (Shooting at Sikh Temple Tests the Founding Faiths of America)

It is a recognition and embracing of difference.  Though we may choose different forms of expressing these beliefs, we all retain the right to have faith.  We need to realize is that any action taken against another faith only hinders our own right to believe. This can be summed up quite nicely with a description of the traditional Sikh ceremonies:

The high point is the final Ardas (prayer) observed by standing, folding hands and asking God's blessing for all humanity.  Worship is open to all and everyone is required to cover their head to pay respect to the Guru.”

We need to remind ourselves there is always the common thread of humanity that holds us together as one.  We owe it to all of our fellow humans to make worship open to “all and everyone” and we must “pay respect” to the different ways we choose to show this.

If you would like to take action and "learn to respect each other through a framework of experiential education, compassionate leadership, and intentional service"
, come out for the annual 9/11 Unity Walk co-sponsored by InterFaith Conference. It is an event that encompasses this belief that only by learning and supporting other faiths can we truly grow and protect our own. We hope to see you there!

Monday, August 6, 2012

After the ‘Dark Knight’: A Catholic Perspective on the Colorado Shootings

by Fr. Avelino Gonzรกlez-Ferrer

On July 20 Americans woke up and were informed through newspapers, or their favorite 24-Hour news channels, about the tragic events in Aurora, Colorado.  Aurora will now go down in history along with other places known for their massacres – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, etc.  The sad thing is that once all the media attention is over, just like the other tragic mass shootings, the majority of Americans and their government representatives will go back to business as usual.  Why? Because few in the mainstream media, few politicians (on both sides of the aisle), and few citizens desire to address the real issues that are generating the James Holmeses of the world.

What are these real issues? You have to dig a little deeper than the legitimate, although secondary, issue of the absurdly easy access to military grade assault weapons in American society.  We all know that no matter how difficult you make it for ‘high risk’ citizens to have access to these weapons, they will find what they want from the black market.  Well then… were do we look to solve this problem? It will take a comprehensive effort but a major part of it involves looking at the elements in American culture that are motivating this anti-social and anti-human behavior.

It is true that the cultural elements that produce these violent outbursts are complex, however, as any marketing student knows a well-crafted commercial generates millions of dollars for a reason.  And this is only after seconds of viewing. You can’t keep pumping society with endless hours of cable programing and feature films whose content is full of aggression, violence, murder, serial murders, and sadistic killings without serious effects on the general population. But more importantly, you can’t expect this programing to not have a profound effect on the emotionally disturbed few in society who are quickly becoming - not so few. Tragically, however, there is no sign this murderous dosage will ever be curtailed. Author and weekly columnist   Peggy Noonan recently wrote a thought-provoking article in the Wall Street Journal, “Noonan: Dark Night Rises,” that drives home this point:

The film industry isn't going to change, the genie is long out of the bottle. The genie has a cabana at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The movie market is increasingly international, and a major component is teenage boys and young men who want to see things explode, who want to see violence and sex. Political pressure has never worked. Politicians have been burned, and people who've started organizations have been spoofed and spurned as Puritans (

In his influential 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) Pope John Paul II spoke about the reality of a “structure of sin” in society fostered by powerful currents driven by greed and “efficiency” (that is, the desire to take the easy way out of tough problems) which has generated a “culture of death.”

In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today's social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable 'culture of death.' This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.

It may prove helpful to ask the question what is it in our society that motivates this ‘culture of death’ when the outcome is so tragic for many people. Perhaps a rhetorical question can help us here. What type of person will come out of a public school system where you can proceed from kindergarten to a bachelor’s degree in college without taking one course in ethics, virtues, or civics? Could the answer be an un-ethical, un-virtuous, and un-civil person? It seems that cheating on tests, lack of civility, and sexual misconduct is par for the course these days – that’s surprising!

Many would object to this line of reasoning by saying these subjects should be taught by parents not teachers.  I would say - “What parents (plural)?” According to a 2012 Child Trends Data Bank report (, “[t]he proportion of births to unmarried women has increased dramatically in recent decades, rising from 5.3 percent in 1960 to 32.2 percent in 1995.”  The estimate for 2010 was 40.8 percent. It gets worse for mothers with less education. According to an article in the New York Times white women with less than a four-year college degree have seen the greatest percentage increases in single parent births from 38% in 1990 to 60% in 2009! The ‘less than four-year college degree’ rate for Blacks and Hispanics in the same year was an alarming 86% and 58%, respectively    (

Ask any single mother and she will tell you how difficult it is keep the creditors at bay, feed her children, and make sure they are doing their homework.  There isn’t much more time, or energy, left over to engage in meaningful conversation about ethics, virtues, or morals let alone driving them to church, synagogue, or mosque when this is competing with sports. Many single mothers do a fantastic job raising their children in spite of the difficulties being a single parent, however, the statistics indicate that their children are still paying a price.  

According to the report mentioned above “[c]hildren born to unmarried mothers are more likely to experience instability in living arrangements, live in poverty, and have socio-emotional problems.”  This means that there are an increasing number of children in society with emotional problems and little ethical or moral discipline viewing highly aggressive and violent programing (videos, cables programs, and films).  Yet, the fact of the matter remains that regardless of whether you have both parents or not, there is a lack of formation in basic ethics or civil behavior across the board for all students receiving public (and at times even private) education. The fact of the matter is that we are generating thousands, if not millions, of potential James Holmeses and no one cares as long as consumers are getting their daily dosage of violence and gore; and executives are getting their fat checks from ticket sales.  The Gracchus line from the movie Gladiator is appropriate here – “He will bring them death - and they will love him for it.”

What does the Roman Catholic faith have to offer us in light of this seemingly bleak situation? The answer isn’t embracing a philosophy of life or a moral code – although this helps since even a baseball game must have rules and regulations otherwise it reduces to chaos – but rather embracing a person. And that person is Jesus Christ.  But what does it mean to embrace the person Jesus Christ? The short answer is to enter into relationship with him who has conquered death through his passion, death, and Resurrection and to be animated by his Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the Church recognizes that the mysterium iniquitatis (“the mystery of evil”) in the world can only be overcome by the greater mysterium fidei (“the mystery of faith”).  And the central mystery of faith revolves around the redemption of mankind through the victory of the Cross.

Pope John Paul II was a man who was no stranger to suffering. He lost all of his immediate family by the time he was just 21.  He suffered through the Nazi occupation of Poland and then a prolonged occupation by Soviet communists. His early adult life was filled with experiences of death, violence, destruction, and the reduction of the human person to a disposable object.  This caused him to spend the greater part of his life analyzing the roots of evil in order to discover how it can be overcome through Christ’s saving work. The results of this analysis was published in 2005, the year of his death, in a book called Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium.

The Pope concludes – “To those who are subjected to systematic evil, there remains only Christ and his Cross as a source of spiritual self-defense, as a promise of victory.”  Through the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God enters into solidarity with every victim in history and through his Resurrection he gives those victims the promise of ‘crossing the threshold of hope.’  It is this hope in eternal life through Jesus Christ that shatters the Dark Knight of the ‘culture of death’ for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4:15).