A little knowledge can go a long way in finding common ground
Capt. (Dr.) Tejdeep Singh Rattan (right) checks in a patient during the triage portion of an exercise at Camp Bullis, Texas. Rattan is the first Sikh allowed to keep his articles of faith while in uniform. (U.S. Army photo/Steve Elliott)
Posted 8/9/2012 Updated 8/9/2012
Commentary by Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Keith Muschinske
8/9/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Another shooting during another worship service, in another building truly meant to be a "sanctuary" in life, especially one isolated from such horrific acts.
I'm referring to last Sunday's killing of six at a Sikh temple just outside of Milwaukee, the city of my birth.
And while I pray no one who reads my words today has had even the slightest thought of wreaking such hate-filled horror, there is one discouraging connection to this killing event more than one of you has.
No, I'm not talking about the Army or any military connection.
And, no, I'm not jumping on board with those who think "if only someone in that public gathering (whether in a theater or shopping mall or in this case, a house of worship) was armed."
So, what's left? Sadly, the connection many of us share with this shooter is... ignorance.
But this is not simply the kind of generic ignorance of the uneducated.
This type of ignorance can find a safe haven within even the most intellectually gifted person.
This type of ignorance can be summed up in the following words from one of a number of news reports on the shooting - this one from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
"Many Sikhs have been the subject of hate crimes, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by individuals who confuse them with Muslims. 'We've seen a remarkable increase in violence against our community" after 9-11, said Kavneet Singh of the Sikh legal defense fund.
"Awareness of the confusion prompted the Islamic Society of Milwaukee to lock down its mosque Sunday morning, allowing only those known to members there to enter for Ramadan prayers. 'We are aware of the fact that ignorant people who seek to do violence against Muslims sometimes confuse Muslims and Sikhs,' said Islamic Society of Milwaukee President Ahmed Quereshi."
How about you? Could you distinguish between those wearing or expressing the faith of a Sikh and a Muslim?
Or is any male with a beard and turban not simply "automatically" a Muslim but a member of Al Qaida or the Taliban as well?
While serving as an instructor at our Air Force Chaplain Corps College (as it's now known), I had the privilege of traveling to Toronto for a week- long "world religion immersion" program.
We began each day with a class on one of a number of world religions - all practiced in Toronto - then went to a house of worship of that particular faith and experienced first-hand conversations with believers and the rites or sacraments or worship service of that faith.
One of those experiences - one that positively connected with several things I believe as a Christian ("Lutheran flavor") chaplain - was, indeed, at a Sikh temple.
Now, I could give you all the doctrinal or theological or scholarly ways a Sikh is different not only from a Christian but also from a Muslim, but I don't believe in focusing on differences between my beliefs and what anyone else believes, no matter what faith or no faith they profess.
Instead, let me share two things I chose to consider to have in common with Sikhs, going back to that memorable visit in 2004.
First, as a Christian, I believe God comes into my life in a special way through what Christians variously call "The Lord's Supper" or "Holy Communion" or "The Eucharist" or "The Mass" or "The Sacrament of the Altar."
As part of a Sikh worship service, the congregation (including all visitors) is invited to come forward and receive "prasad," which is a sweet pudding considered to be a blessing from "The Infinite Word of God."
I can relate to that.
Second, as a Christian chaplain, I often refer to Jesus Christ as did John, the writer of the Christian gospel bearing his name.
John calls Jesus "The Living Word."
For Sikhs, their sacred scriptures (called the Siri Guru Granth Sahib) are truly considered and treated as their "living word."
In fact, following the worship service I attended, that "living word" was literally tucked into bed for the night, in a private room off the main sanctuary.
Did that act speak to me as a Christian? Absolutely! Did I translate that Sikh practice into my Christian one and celebrate what I shared with them rather than focusing on the differences between my religion and theirs? Absolutely.
Do you have a choice to either focus on what you have in common with another person - whether that "other" is of a different faith or race or ethnic group or economic status - or to focus on your differences? I dare you to say no.
Will your focus eliminate the evil that leads to the killing of innocents, of truly peace-loving people like those in that Sikh community?
No, but you can indeed choose to take a step toward true understanding and acknowledgement (and, dare I say it, acceptance) of any peace-loving "other" (versus those whose ignorant hatred of the other fills their heart and leads to nothing but evil), instead of a step toward suspicion and misunderstanding and hate.
Which will you choose?
Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution? It is up to you.
One of the best resources I've found on "understanding the other" is a two-volume paperback book set called How to Be a Perfect Stranger (A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies).
These provide not only very direct and practical advice about visiting and attending the religious ceremonies of 38 different faith groups and Christian denominations, but deliver enough "theology" to gain a much better understanding of each.
For example, the chapter on Sikhism includes info on topics ranging from what to wear when visiting a service in their temple, what to expect during that service, what may be expected of you, how to address their worship leaders, and special "life cycle events" such as a birth or marriage ceremony or funeral.
There are 28 pages on Sikhism which, I am certain, will help your understanding of this religion even if you never have the opportunity to visit a Sikh temple.
But if you're interested in doing that as well, here (with the usual "no federal endorsement intended" disclaimer) is the website for the organization that still provides those World Religion immersion weeks in Toronto.
I can honestly say my week there was the most beneficial, most inspirational, most meaningful experience on the topic in my entire life.
For more information, visit www.worldreligions.ca.