Ignorance should not be allowed to breed fear

Sunday, August 19, 2012

"For God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of self-control." (2 Timothy 1:7)

Fear is caused by many things: uncertainty, pain, danger, etc. Fear is also caused by ignorance. It occurs to me that this last kind of fear, the one born when we are terrified of somebody we know little about, may be the reason for a massacre two weeks ago today. On Aug. 5, a gunman walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in the home district of newly minted GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and opened fire. You've seen the news: six dead, several others wounded.

It may never be known why Wade Michael Page opened fire with a 9 mm pistol; Page took his own life after being wounded by a police officer. Page has been described as a Caucasian Christian "with links to an extremist group." At present, it seems like guesswork to pin down exact reasons for Page's maniacal shooting spree. He is no longer alive to tell them to a jury.

What we can say with confidence is that most of us don't know anything about the Sikh religious community. Sikhs are not Muslims, but Americans often don't know the difference. It's been suggested that the Aug. 5 gunman couldn't distinguish between the two either. Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, a Sikh man was shot to death; his murderer thought the man had ties to al-Qaida. The gunman's ignorance produced fear -- and that fear led to violence.

Most people reading this column have never met a person of the Muslim faith. It's a good bet virtually no one reading these words has met a Sikh, because there are so few of them on our shores. Most Sikhs live in northern India -- about 83 percent of the total. In the U.S., they make up just 0.002 percent of our population. It's little wonder, then, if you've never had the pleasure.

Sikh men often carry the surname "Singh" and may be visually identified by the wearing of turbans. If you've ever seen the musical "Annie," you'll recognize the turban-wearing Sikh character Punjab, who is the right-hand man of Daddy Warbucks. Sikhism calls on its followers to develop the so-called "five virtues," in order to reach Mukti -- meaning to reunite or merge with God. The five are: truth, compassion, contentment, humility and love. Those don't sound very different from the fruit of the Spirit, the qualities by which Christians are to be known to others: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

If there is a Sikh man or woman reading this column, I'd like to know you. If I have misrepresented your faith in this column, please accept my apology. My pledge to you is not to allow my relative ignorance about Sikhism to translate itself into fear. The person I regard as the Savior used to walk into a group of people and could smell the fear -- prompting him to remark, "Do not be afraid." Too many of us allow ourselves to be afraid for illegitimate reasons. Danger is legit, so is pain, so is uncertainty. But ignorance should not be allowed to breed fear. That apparently happened on a Sunday in Wisconsin a fortnight ago -- and we are all the poorer as a result.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is assistant director of marketing for Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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