Recently I had the honor of attending the Unifying Our Communities in Response to Hate Conference at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
This gathering brought together community stakeholders, government officials and law enforcement to discuss the “state of hate” and share ideas on how community members can respond to hate and bias. It featured: Rabbi Jeffery Myers from the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA; the Reverend Eric S.C Manning of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC; Attorney General Josh Shapiro; and Pardeep Singh Kaleka & Arno Michaelis, authors of Gift of Our Wounds, from Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
I wish to focus on Pardeep and Arno, and their movement against hate.
Some of you may remember Pardeep’s name. He is a member of the Sikh Gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that was attacked on August 2012. Six people died at the hands of violence, the worst race-based attack in the U.S. since the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Pardeep lost his father in the attack. Since then, Mr. Singh Kaleka has been a voice for forgiveness and justice.
In his own words:
I decided to respond to this tragedy with compassion. There is a saying in Sikhism, ‘Charhdi Kala’ which means ‘we move in relentless optimism’. Regardless of hardships in life, I’m optimistic about the future.
‘Charhdi Kala’ and compassion go hand in hand. Some people think of compassion as offering forgiveness and all is forgiven, but I think of it as a process, in other words I attach a purpose to what’s happening in life and appreciate the good things when they come.
On 5th August, there was a purpose to what happened. Someone came to our temple trying to divide us, saying that we didn’t belong and that we weren’t wanted in his country. With ‘Charhdi Kala’ the purpose of our response is to reach out, to include the other and say this will not happen again.
It was that attitude that led Pardeep to reach out to an extremely unlikely person: Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist who helped to start a gang back in the late 1980s that produced the August 5th Sikh Gurdwara shooter. Upon learning about Arno’s background and why he became a white supremacist, Pardeep was convinced that the two needed to work together. And so they have. The two co-authored the book The Gift of Our Wounds, sharing their stories and how such a hateful tragedy can lead to love, cooperation, and positive social change. Likewise, the two created the organization and movement Serve2Unite, a proven means of establishing a healthy sense of identity, purpose, and belonging that diverts young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shootings, bullying, and substance abuse, along with other forms of self-harm.
The organization has helped thousands of students from over 30 schools who have experienced human kinship while addressing a host of social issues, including homelessness, veterans’ issues, human trafficking, police-community relations, gun violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, Holocaust remembrance, and genocide prevention.
I mention this powerful story of hate leading to learning, compassion, and justice, because hate crimes are on the rise and sadly, many Christians do very little about it. And in some cases, Christians are even complicit in the hateful acts.
So allow me to ask two questions:
Who are the poor in spirit?
How do we respond to hate?
See, here’s the thing. Jesus of Nazareth, in Luke’s Gospel, was healing people. Who was he healing? Those on the margins. Those who were called unclean. Those who felt left out, targeted, forgotten, abused. And Jesus got flack for it. It wasn’t religiously kosher. It wasn’t religious enough. But why? Why did people, including Jesus’ own colleagues, criticize the healings? Because the system itself was unjust. Because priests and scribes and politicians and rich people benefited from the system. And they didn’t want to lose power.
So you can imagine that these words were inflammatory:
Blessed are those who are poor, hungry, sad, hated, excluded, defamed.
Woe to you who are rich, abundant, privileged, included, spoken well of.
Yes, wrap your minds around THAT.
Mind blowing for most. For Jesus though, this was justice.
The Sikhs and Jews and Black Christians and Muslims who are constantly attacked and targeted—they are blessed. The ones who are not—the U.S. White Christians, for example–woe to you.
This is Justice.
So who are the poor?
They are anyone on the outside—marginalized, oppressed, without food and basic necessities, forced out of their homes, refused work, abused, forced to deny their true selves, denied basic human services and rights, mistreated because of their gender, shunned because of who they love, ostracized because of their skin tones, defamed for simply how they look or how they live their lives. They are the poor in spirit.
And when they are attacked by hate and fear and ignorance, God always favors them. This is God’s bias. Because God is on the side of those on the margins.
And so, the second question. How do we respond to hate?
Well, for someone like me who is NOT the poor in spirit, my response is different. I have not had such horrific things happen to me because of the color of my skin, my religious background, sexuality, or gender. I am privileged. And so, my response to hate must look different. It is not enough for privileged people like to me to just not be hateful or to not participate in say, white supremacy or racism. No—I must do more. I must respond to hateful words and acts with compassionate words and acts—for those on the margins. I must stand with them when they are targeted, I must help them to pick up the pieces to heal when they are attacked. I must join hands with them to say: NOT IN MY TOWN!
I am moved by what Pardeep shared:
“We may not choose what happens to us, but we surely choose how we respond.”
Yes. We do choose how we respond. So how will we respond to hate? We cannot be paralyzed by it; we cannot be silent; we cannot be apathetic. We must, as Pardeep and Arno did, unite together to work for justice and peace and compassion. To paraphrase Arno from The Gift of Our Wounds:
Hurt people do indeed hurt people. When suffering is not treated with compassion, it spreads; when fear isn’t met with courage, it lies to us and disconnects us from our humanity; when ignorance is not countered with wisdom and understanding, it grows and solidifies.
Hate is only overcome with long-term kindness.