Category Archives: politics

Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting, five years on: We still refuse to admit ignorance can be deadly

This article was originally published at the Wisconsin State Journal.

Saturday marked five years since a white supremacist walked into a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek and murdered six innocent people who were preparing food. The shooter’s history made clear that while he probably hated the victims for simply having brown skin, he was also motivated to kill what he thought were Muslims.

The fear and anger he felt stemmed from ignorance of the communities he targeted. It’s a natural human reaction: unfamiliar things tend to provoke basic caution, and that caution can eventually morph into outright hatred. This is excellent programming for our ancestors avoiding sharp-toothed predators on the savannah a million years ago; less so for a fast-paced, globalized world where we encounter unfamiliarity on a daily basis.

Such deadly ignorance is far from unique, unfortunately. Balbir Singh Sodhi, another Sikh American, was shot to death days after the 9/11 attacks by a man who mistook him for the monsters who knocked down the World Trade Center. Khalid Jabara was murdered last August by his next-door neighbor, a man who missed no chance to refer to the Jabaras as “filthy Mooslems”. But Khalid Jabara was a Lebanese Christian. And on the eve of Passover in 2014, a well-known white supremacist and anti-Semite traveled to two Jewish community centers in Kansas on a mission to murder Jews. He killed three people — a Catholic and two Methodists, one of whom was only 14 years old.

We appear to be in an era where ignorance of the world outside our immediate experience can be claimed as a badge of courage and wielded like a cudgel to craft bad policy. It affects our society deeply. In the past year, ignorance of the “other” has led to Jewish cemetery desecrations, mosque vandalism, assaults on Sikhs, and a host of other dangerously xenophobic reactions.

But xenophobia isn’t exactly the right word here. The prefix “xeno” comes from the Greek denoting something “foreign”. Khalid Jabara wasn’t foreign. His parents fled a civil war to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 1980s and open a catering business. Balbir Singh Sodhi drove taxis for years before saving enough pennies to buy a gas station, and he was shot while planting flowers to beautify the property. The Sikhs in Oak Creek were preparing the equivalent of a soup kitchen: langar, a communal vegetarian meal that is served to anyone regardless of their religion. All those people were doing normal things integral to the American Dream.

The irrational phobias that we carry of non-white or non-Christian people are predicated on ignorance of our history. The United States has had diversity baked into its DNA from the get-go. We haven’t always been good at embracing pluralism, but the vision of a melting pot, in which diverse peoples and cultures each make unique contributions to the whole, has guided middle school social studies classes for a long time. It’s why dozens of civil society organizations have spent the past year and a half extending the Know Your Neighbor Campaign to every state in the country to build or strengthen basic relationships.

When we give up on learning about those outside our bubble, we do ourselves a great disservice. When we neglect to reach across lines of difference, we weaken the already taut social fabric of our country. When we let ignorance dictate our interactions, we doom ourselves to repeat the same mistakes.

It’s been five years since Oak Creek. Sixteen since the global war on terror. Seventy-five since Japanese internment. One hundred and thirty-five since the Chinese Exclusion Act. One hundred and eighty-seven since the Trail of Tears. Four hundred since Europe tore itself to shreds over which kind of Christian had a monopoly on divine truth.

And only half a year since we banned refugees from our shores, as if to say, “Your situation is impossible for me to understand. Please stay in a war zone.” Fear kills. Ignorance feeds it.

So visit a Sikh gurdwara in your community. Say hello. Ask questions. Experience the unfamiliar and find out that it’s not so different after all. And be sure to bring an empty stomach because they’re going to pack you full of food — and if your heart is open, they’ll fill that too. #America.

Terrorism, poverty, and violence

It’s not that poverty doesn’t move them, but more correctly it is an interpretation of poverty that radicalizes (and is itself radical).

When I started my studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, I made the mistake of joking with a German colleague. We were discussing “terrorism” as a theoretical construct and I parroted the oft-repeated line that views terrorism as an outlet to poverty. This particular interpretation (which, I must be clear, I do not believe), is that for people living in poverty, the promise of money, power, and most importantly, food, can drive people to do horrific things. My colleague’s response to my joke: “That’s bulls***. It’s a fortune-cookie truism, Tim. Too simple.”


We now know that petty criminals and regular foot soldiers are definitely susceptible to offers of money, guns, and stability. Look at how successful the Somali pirates are. They provide something to people who don’t have much. But we also know that many high-profile evildoer types are far from poor. Osama bin Laden has some kind of advanced degree. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were no strangers to the classroom. Much of the theory that surrounds extremism in all its forms comes from the halls of academia.

So it is with the Underpants Bomber [because I can] Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who certainly did not come from a life of poverty. For me, the quotation that begins this post is the most telling and complete explanation of the lure of extremist viewpoints in the modern age. Not poverty but an interpretation of poverty is the recruiting tool. I’m reminded of Archbishop Camara of Brazil, one of the central minds of liberation theology, who famously said:

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Just peacemaking

This might be a bit like stream-of-consciousness, but I don’t want to spend time re-editing this later. It’s a workshop on the just peacemaking paradigm.

Susan Brooks-Thistlethwaite (Interfaith Youth Core board member and former seminary president) gave us a brief history of the transition of the United Church of Christ into a pacifist church. The UCC already had commitments to racial and social justice, so combining pacifism was a short leap. From further conferences, a series of papers and documents about peace were released that not only promoted pacifism, but active peacemaking. At its simplest level, “just peace” means that more peace happens than war, and that people must work together in order to affect these changes.

“Just war” has abstract principles that people reflect on from many different perspectives, religious and otherwise. Likewise, “just peace” contains principles that are approachable from many different directions. They are not quite as abstract. In fact, they are what we call “practice norms”, or things that we must do. Katherine Schofield from Just Peacemaking in Chicago gave us the rundown:

  1. Support nonviolent direct action – strikes, boycotts, creation of safe spaces
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat – visible and surprising actions outside of slow bureaucracy, usually undertaken in a series of progressions
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution – active collaboration of parties conflict toward creative solutions
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and  forgiveness – direct religious vibes here, countries apologizing for past actions
  5. Advance democracy, human rights, and interdependence – promote solid human rights and human progress within legal frameworks
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development – cultivation of community growth and community organizations
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system – we can work together for a common aim
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights – these organizations can identify, prevent, and possibly intervene when necessary, but they also promote peace.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade – reduce guns, reduce conflict
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations – make resolution and peace a bottom-up initiative

Just peacemaking is focused on practices. It’s not about making declarations about how wrong “other” people can be. You can’t provide people with weak abstractions about issues that are costing human lives anywhere on the earth. “A conflict that cannot be named cannot be mediated,” said Brooks-Thistlethwaite. We have to figure out what things are before we can really tackle them. It makes no sense to grab at ethereal straws – it wastes time and can be harmful to the process of peace.

– For most societies, on a day-to-day basis, living in peace is the NORM. Institutionalized violence like racism, sexism, and homophobia might exist, sure, but it’s worth pointing out that the reality of peacebuilding is that it is very, very possibly because it is very, very normal.

– Don’t ask “Why isn’t it working?” Find what’s working, and support it.