A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 26, 2012
Zechariah 7:8-10 GNT
I was quite saddened, and perhaps you were too, to learn of the hate crime shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 5. The shooter, Wade Michael Page, a deranged neo-Nazi white supremacist, took the lives of six innocent people. We have learned that Page was deeply involved in the underground “hate rock music” scene. Ever since then, I have been mulling over this tragedy in my mind and trying to discern how best to address it. And I firmly believe it needs to be addressed, for a number of reasons. This senseless shooting strikes at the core of cherished values and securities, both personal and communal.
One cherished value is the freedom to assemble for public worship without fear of harassment or harm. At first thought, we might say: Well, this was an isolated, senseless shooting by one deranged man. Why does this affect me, and what can I do about it? But how could we forget that only four short years ago a deranged gunman entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, killing two and wounding a number of others? Are we here at the United Church any safer than they were? I am not trying to cause undue alarm. But as someone from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, stated, “In the society we live in, it could happen anywhere, any time” (USA Today, Aug. 8, 2012). Such white supremacist hate groups as Page was involved in are more prolific than we might think.
But also, when the freedom of any religious group to assemble without fear of violence is in jeopardy, the freedom of all us is in jeopardy. And if for no other reason than that, the Sikh Temple shooting should concern us. The recent shooting at the Sikh Temple brought back sad memories for the Tennessee Valley UU Church members. And as the minister of TVUUC stated, “When a sacred space is violated anywhere, we feel it everywhere.” And it should be noted that the Sikhs are innocent victims who have done nothing wrong. They had simply gathered to mediate on God and to serve others.
Another consideration has to do with how each of us views unfamiliar religions different from our own. None of us—I am sure—would ever even think about committing violence against someone of another religion. Most of us here, I imagine, abhor such an idea. At the same time, and while we might not want to admit it, we might have a subconscious fear or dislike for those of other religions. We might not wish them harm, but we might not want them moving their place of worship into our neighborhood either.
I have been watching with interest the slow progress of the building of the Muslim mosque in Murfreesboro. Many in Murfreesboro have fought the construction of that mosque tooth and nail. The mosque has been the subject of a lawsuit, arson, vandalism, and a bomb threat. In a sense, many residents of Murfreesboro have said, “Not in our neighborhood!” What is it that causes otherwise good, reasonable, likable people to get so up in arms over the construction of a place of worship? Could it be a combination of fear and ignorance? We tend to fear what we do not know. And so our thinking may be, Anything Muslim must be associated with terrorists and in cahoots with Al Qaida. And Sikhs, because of the turbans that the Sikh men wear on their heads, are too often equated with Muslims, which is a clear example of ignorance. There is no connection between the two. And violence against Sikhs has risen in recent years, even though they are in no way connected with the Muslim extremists who were responsible for the tragedies of September 11, 2001.
Well, this recent incident drove me to learn more about the Sikh religion, and I must confess that I was pleased with what I learned. There are about 25 million Sikhs worldwide, making it the fifth largest organized religion in the world. An estimated 500,000 Sikhs live in the US who gather in approximately 120 temples. Sikhism is a religion that originated in the 15th century in South Asia. It holds that there is one God, that all humanity is one, and that religious divisions are manmade. The term “Sikh” has its origin in a Sanskrit term meaning disciple, student, or instruction. Sikhs believe in the equality of humankind, the concept of universal brotherhood of man, and One Supreme God which is real and immanent and can only be experienced in creation. The guiding principles of the Sikh faith are Truth, Equality, Freedom, Justice, and Karma. Visitors of any religious or socio-economic background are welcomed to their Temples and services, where food is always served to people of all origins. A communal meal often follows their services, and anyone who wants to eat—Sikh or not—is invited to eat. On the day of the shooting, women were in the Sikh Temple kitchen preparing the communal meal. Ironically, protecting the religious and political rights of all people and preventing discrimination is an integral part of the Sikh faith. So in light of all of this information, it is even more a shame that a shooting had to happen in such a place. As I noted above, such should concern all of us.
Now, obviously my aim is not to try to convert you to the Sikh religion. But rather, to help all of us have a greater understanding of another religion.
Because the reality is America is a nation of religious diversity; it always has been. As Jon Meacham points out in his book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, contrary to those who want to return America to being a “Christian nation,” the historical evidence suggests that America never was a “Christian nation,” “but rather a place of people whose experience with religious violence and the burdens of established churches led them to view religious liberty as one of humankind’s natural rights” (Meacham, p. 84). Meacham goes on to say, “the Founders lived and consciously bequeathed a culture shaped and sustained by public religion, one that was not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist but was simply transcendent, with reverence for the ‘Creator’ and for ‘Nature’s God’” (Meacham, p. 233). As President Teddy Roosevelt stated, “If there is one thing for which we stand in this country, it is for complete religious freedom and for the right of every man to worship his Creator as his conscience dictates. . . . Discrimination against the holder of one faith means retaliatory discrimination against men of other faiths,” Roosevelt said.
The world has gotten too small for us to live in ignorance and fear. We no longer live in homogeneous communities like many of us grew up in. The religious landscape in America gets more diverse as each year passes. Meacham contends that “reverence for one’s own tradition is not incompatible with respect for the traditions of others. . . . a true Christian ought to be more interested in making the life of the world gentle for others than he should be in asserting the dominance of his own faith” (Meacham, p. 237, 243). I am reminded of those powerful, timeless, and universal words from the Hebrew prophet Zechariah: “See that justice is done, and . . . show kindness and mercy to one another. . . And do not plan ways of harming one another” (7:9, 10). We can only hope and pray that someday it will be so.
Well, can we hope for a better world, free of ignorance and violence because of religious differences? As Jon Meacham concludes, “Can religion be a force for unity, not division, in the nation and in the world? The Founders thought so, and so must we” (Meacham, p. 237).
Ending on a happy note, on Sunday, August 12, hundreds of people gathered at the restored Sikh Temple where the shooting took place, speaking of redemption, unity and strength. As I understand it, it is not in the Sikh frame of reference to lash out in anger, or to seek retaliation, or to hold a grudge. Though their religion and mode of dress might be foreign to us, on the principles of not lashing out in anger, or seeking retaliation, or holding a grudge we should agree. As TVUUC minister Chris Buice observed, “Although we may have different ideas about God and we may have different ideas about faith, we have the same ideas about love, about peace.” Or to put it another way, in the words of a familiar cliché, “Can’t we all just love one another and get along?” Amen.
Knoxville News Sentinel, Aug. 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 2012.
Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Random House, 2006.
Time Magazine, Aug. 20, 2012.
USA Today, Aug. 6, 7, 8, 2012.