The Ecology of Mass Love

Posted August 14th, 2012 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

How do you answer a hate-filled mass-killing?

So this is what happened in Oak Creek last week: thousands of Sikhs from all over the U.S., Canada, India, and elsewhere descended on the small town of Oak Creek, population 35,000, joined by thousands of people of many races, ethnicities, and religions. Peace vigils were held, a community forum with city and law enforcement officials, more vigils, hundreds of interviews with families of victims, a mass education on the religious faith of those targeted, and a funeral open to the world, where even food and water were served to the thousands.

Visitation and funeral, August 9

All that and more.

How do you respond to violence this horrific, this personal and intimate, yet playing out in the mass media, all eyes on you, measuring every emotion, taking in every word spoken?

Talk about rising to the occasion…

Last post we reflected on the ecology of mass killing, the ferment in which the kind of hate fueling the shooter, Wade Michael Page, is nurtured, stoked, the cultural and economic roots, the commitment to arms and violence that permeates the mainstream culture right now. Page did not emerge out of nowhere and, try as we might, we cannot cut him off from the rest of us. He is as much part of humanity as you or I.

The Sikhs of Oak Creek refused to cut him off. The Sikhs of Oak Creek took this moment and transformed it into a Great Teaching for this nation about themselves and about how love and community can overwhelm hate and violence.

At the City of Oak Creek gathering last Tuesday night, Amardeep Kaleka, son of the temple president, Satwant Singh Kaleka, who courageously wrestled with Page to try to stop him and was killed in the attempt, told the crowd gathered under the trees in a city park, “We don’t have enemies, and because of that we don’t just represent six members of the Sikh community; we also represent seven members of the human community.”

Amardeep Kaleka addresses the Oak Creek community, August 7

I could not believe what I had just heard. I gasped, as did others around me. Some began to weep.

At a community forum the following Thursday evening, US Attorney James Santelle broke down during his opening remarks. He said: “We look forward to a time when joy returns to your community.” Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards commented that he had been very aware of the Sikh community, however, “I’ve learned a lot this week about Sikhism. I’m a little ashamed that it took this for me to learn these things.”

“We have bigots and haters in our community, yes, but Tuesday evening we saw our real city.” Saying that it was time to address the hate that also resides there, Edwards went on, “hopefully we can set an example,” not just locally, but for the nation.

During the question, answer, comment time, one of the Sikhs made note of the fact that at the same time as this attack occurred, a mosque was set ablaze in Joplin, Missouri. “What do we do about the atmosphere in which these acts take place?”

What do we do indeed. Sikhs have been the victims of more than 700 hate crimes since 9/11, and those are the ones reported. Another Sikh got up to share that a friend of his was approached the day after the mass shooting by a man in a pickup truck who pointed his finger at him like a mock gun, pulled the fictional trigger, and said, “This is not over.”

You feel these things like a wound. Most of us white folks have no idea what it feels like to live with that kind of bigotry as part of our daily lives. In a radio interview last week, Amardeep was asked about the many “soft” attacks he had experienced living here. He remembered an incident when he was in 5th grade, his hair long (Sikhs do not cut there hair ever), and how several boys attacked him in the school hallway, dragged him into the girls’ bathroom and told him he could come back to the boys’ bathroom when he cut his hair.

Imagine a lifetime of such incidents. Imagine being an African-American male and being pulled over by police, forced to go spread eagle on the hood of your car while cops grope and search you, for the crime of being – African-American male.

US Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the funeral, Aug 9. He gets death threats, too.

Now imagine the challenge we face in this country as we rapidly become, in the space of another three decades, a minority white nation. People like Page feel very threatened about the disappearance of the white race, or at least of its cultural dominance. He called brown-skin people “dirt people,” and whites hanging out with them “traitors to their race.” As a culture, as a nation, what are we going to do about that?

The Southern Poverty Law Center says that one of the things driving the recent increase in hate groups is the election of an African-American president. Again, what as a culture and a nation are we going to do about that?

I know what the Sikhs have done. They opened themselves to embrace and to be embraced by the world. As I sat in the Oak Creek High School gym during the long visitation last Friday watching the immense crowd slowly file in and pass by the open caskets of the dead, I was deeply moved by their courage in making this incredible gesture, very non-traditional and radical in many ways. I admired the many non-Sikh families who came with children and walked away weeping. I was moved by the strong support-community of the Sikhs, saw many grief-filled reunions as Sikhs from other cities and countries arrived and found old friends and relatives.

And not a word of hate or vengeance, not a word of retaliation.  What we were told again as on previous days was that the Sikhs would not close the doors of their temples because of this. The doors open on four sides, open to the four directions, a symbol of their openness to receiving people from all over the world, welcome to share their ceremonies and their Sunday meals.

Meals. Right. Food just appeared at these events. On Sundays, everyone who shows up gets fed. On the Monday after the shooting, up to 700 people gathered in the Sikh temple in a western suburb of Milwaukee – and everyone of them received food. And at the visitation and funeral service, after sitting in the warm gym waiting on the other thousands, suddenly young men appeared with bottles of cold water, passing them out to the crowd. A little while later, they came again with boxes of wrapped sandwiches and other food to pass among the throngs.

And all weekend long, as they conducted a 48-hour service at the temple, hundreds of people came by, prayed with them a while, filed in and out, wanting to reach out, to be witnesses, to offer their support.

Father and daughter, at the funeral

To the ecology of mass killing, the Sikhs offered an ecology of mass love, and thousands of us joined in. I see no other adequate response to hate (I mean, yes, for God’s sake, lets go back to being a civilized people and get all these guns out of our lives, but that doesn’t heal the hate). I see no other way to address the terrible racism that remains deeply embedded within this culture, what even the U.S. Catholic Bishops once called the nation’s “original sin,” then for us to love like this, to learn like this, to become even more vulnerable to one another, to allow ourselves to be moved and changed by one another, to let proximity and sharing and eating meals together wear down the walls of separation on which racism and ethnic hatred breed their hateful discontents.

We learned a lot about Sikhism. Among its core beliefs:

“A single creator sustains people of all faiths. All are free to practice their beliefs freely.”

“Every human being is equal in the eyes of God…”

“Sikhism seeks to create a just society. All Sikhs are required to contribute to the welfare of humanity.”

“The Sikh religion does not have a clergy. Each individual is personally capable of experiencing the Creator…”

“Sikhism considers no  place, day or time more holy than any other.”

At the big city gathering, Amardeep Kaleka looked out on the crowd and said: “We are one now. Now everyone is together. [This time] let’s go from here and do it right.” In other words, this time, let’s not leave this moment behind and forget what we learned here, what we lived together in the wake of this horrific event, and just go back to our old lives. Let’s get it right this time. Let’s really do the thing that needs to be done – remove these crazy, artificial barriers among us and celebrate our remarkable human diversity.

We’ll see if this lasts. Oak Creek is committed right now to getting it right. I know that right now, when I look ahead at the ecological challenges facing this world, the challenge of “getting it right” seems daunting indeed. We have to learn to live differently on this planet. We have to stop tearing up this human community in the same way we have to stop tearing up forests and farmlands, mountains and river valleys. We have to stop poisoning the human community with hate in the same way we have to stop poisoning the soil, water, and air on which our lives depend. We have to develop a deep, profound, sacred respect for one another as for all the sentient and non-sentient beings that are our relations.

This is the ecology of love. We got a taste of it here these past 10 days. Indeed, we feasted on it. Let’s see now if we can learn to care for it as we would the babe in our arms, the lover lying next to us in the night, the divine that resides within us in our deepest moments of contemplation, the blood that courses through our veins, the life force that gives rise and sustenance to all things.

Let’s see if we can do that…



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One Response

  1. Marylou Nunamaker

    Thank you for taking the time to write this very informative and healing article. Accept my sympathy for all those who lost a loved one, and let us pray for those who seek guns to express their hatred. May that need be replaced with tolerance and a curiosity to learn about others, and not harm them.
    Peace to all.