What does normal mean? On August 5 in this violent, crazy summer of 2012, a lone gunman with strong white supremacist credentials showed up at the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire on worshipers he had never met. The national media have conducted poignant interviews on site. The dead have been laid to rest. Today is the day the temple returns to normal.
We will have to sort out the motivations for this hateful act as best we can, as the shooter too is dead. But our own healing, as a large, horrified community, cannot wait. Before we resume our normally scheduled programming, we must bear witness to this chaos before we become numb to it, for the sake of our own hearts.
The Sikhs of Oak Creek have displayed uncommon grace and generosity of spirit. Sadly, they have had lots of practice; since 9/11, Sikhs have been regularly singled out for hate crimes because of their ethnic attire. The women wear scarves; the men traditionally wear turbans. Ironically, they are not Muslims. That is of course irrelevant. They look different, and to someone with an automatic pistol, a dark past, some distorted thoughts about cultural conformity and vigilante justice, and poorly managed anxiety, Sikhs have been easy targets. What does it mean, to return to normal?
Sojourners blog described Wisconsin’s compassionate interfaith response to those who were directly attacked. At this morning’s service, the temple hosted busloads of visitors from places as distant as California, who were moved to be present, to lend emotional support. In lending our virtual presence, we too can embody empathy. The sense that we are ultimately connected, even online, seems to help protect us from despair.
We who only bore witness to the violence online, may not have the reassuring embrace of a Sikh gurdwara, or any spiritual community, with whom to make sense of our blur of emotions. When cruelty surfaces within the human community, we are all in need of clarity. How is such malice possible? Hate crime points to a pathology in the community itself. Who is at risk? This is a good time to take stock: where is it safe for you to be vulnerable?
Lots of research has been done, over the years, on the emotional impact of hate crimes on the larger human community. They leave distinctive wounds because they target strangers – and not random strangers, but members of a certain group with outsider status. Incidents like the one in Wisconsin can trigger vague anxiety in other minority groups, as a reminder of our perpetual vulnerability. In a study called Psychological Effects of Hate Crime, researchers report decreased inner sense of safety for any member of a minority group, whenever we hear the language of hate publicly expressed – toward any group. The article was written about hate crimes in Latvia. The need for emotional safety is universal.
The message of hate crimes is clear, notes the study: it’s nothing personal, but you don’t belong here. The work of healing of a community involves making it clear: oh yes, you do. We do. When a community collaborates to be clear about who it welcomes, our emotional resources are strengthened. When we offer support to any vulnerable group, our hearts resonate. The opportunities we find to express benevolence, support our individual spiritual journeys in unexpected ways. We become who we are, in community.
Groups have, throughout our history, clarified their identities by whom they exclude, regarding them as aliens or outsiders. But unlike ancient times, we are likely to live among people we find different, in a highly mobile, multicultural, multireligious world. In a violent era with a great deal of untreated psychopathology, we are obligated to reconsider the meaning of being an outsider.
The journey toward embracing of strangers is nowhere more poignant than among those who grew up hating outsiders, and whose heart was somehow transformed. The blog Life After Hate explores one person’s intriguing journey out of a hate group, encountering humanity where he did not expect to find it. It is a hopeful sign, that hate is never the last word.
In the Sikh community, grief is fresh. The benevolence that group expresses, even in this dark moment, is extraordinary. So may it be, one day, for the rest of us.