Pluralism is a Wound

by Christopher Cantwell

I was going to write about something else. For weeks I had planned to write about the reluctance of public historians to seriously contend with religion, which I've been ranting about on twitter for a while.  But then Sunday's shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin happened. Suddenly, my interest in the more mundane controversies of American religious life seemed trivial by comparison.

I'm sure most of you are aware of the facts. The news is everywhere. Indeed, writing four days later as I am seems almost an eternity in this information age. The story has already moved far down the Huffington Post's thumbnailed hierarchy of worth, and most other news outlets have returned to covering the Olympics. But I'm still unable shake Sunday's attack. Unlike the Aurora theatre shooting, which was carried out by an individual that appears to have been driven by his own instability, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin's attacker was, according to the FBI, politically or racially motivated. Again, the news here is almost old hat, but bears repeating. Wade M. Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran with a long history of involvement in the white supremacy movement, walked into the Temple moments before its services began and opened fire. Page first confronted a handful of priests, including the Temple's sixty-five-year-old founder Sadwant Singh Kaleka. In an act that some say saved the lives of many, Kaleka challenged Page with his Kirpan, the blunt ceremonial knife some Sikhs carry as a reminder of their duty to protect the oppressed that then became a literal weapon of defense. Kaleka's attack was futile, but the noise from the multiple shots it took to stop him were enough to send others in the temple into hiding. Page would go on to kill five other Temple members before dying himself in a gunfight with police.

The response to the attack has been typical, if appallingly sparse. Some have taken the approach of viewing Sunday's attack as a national tragedy, an affront upon America's principles of religious freedom that should affect us all. "Today, we are all American Sikhs," writes filmmaker Valarie Kaur over at CNN. Others, presuming Page confused this temple of Dastar-wearing Sikhs with a community of turbaned Muslims, look upon the attack as further evidence that Americans badly need to take more religious studies courses. "Ignorance breeds hatred," writes Jana Reiss with the Religion News Service. "Hatred breeds violence." But in an important counterpoint to all of these nationalistic or cosmopolitan responses to Page's naked violence, Amardeep Singh, an Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University, asks whether the ability to distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims, or an appreciation of America's commitment to religious freedom, could really stem the fear one may have to the embodied markers of racial or religious difference. "Whether or not that target was actually the 'right one' was beside the point for the Oak Creek shooter," Singh writes.

It's that both [the Dastar and the turban] have the potential to provoke a kind of visceral reaction by these marks of religious difference worn on the body. Sometimes that reaction is simply a sense of discomfort or confusion, easily allayed by a winning smile or a comment about the local sports team or the weather. Sometimes, however, that negative reaction runs deeper and can't be readily resolved.

As for me, I've been reflecting upon Sunday's shooting in light of the ongoing "Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America" program I head up at the Newberry. As part of a summer workshop I've previously blogged about, Martin Marty gave an evening lecture reflecting on the nature of America's historic commitment to religious pluralism. An observation that at the time impressed me was Marty's celebration of the conflicts inherent to America's religious diversity (and you can listen to or download Marty’s lecture here). Pluralism, Marty argued, embraces the productive tensions of diversity. It’s when we offend out of ignorance, are embarrassed, and apologize that we grow both individually and collectively. At the time I could relate. That moment you have an observant Jewish classmate over and order only pepperoni pizza? I’ve been there. And I apologized and I grew. But in the face of the unabashed hate on display in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Marty’s rather positive perspective on America’s religious past seems almost too innocent. Sure, America has not succumbed to the kind of religious wars, ethnic cleansings, or mass genocides seen throughout world history. But what good is progress when we have to compare the United States to early modern Europe, the third world, or Nazi Germany to see it?

I don’t really have an answer. Like Singh, I’m both heartbroken and speechless at Sunday’s tragic attack. But I also can’t help but wonder, how do we, as scholars, educators, and advocates of American religious history approach and address such incidents as well as the larger issues of hate and misunderstanding they reveal? How do we utilize our classrooms, research, and writing to create spaces that recognize and understand the fears and vulnerabilities of a Wade Page while simultaneously diffusing them? Again, I don’t have an answer. But I'm eager to have conversations that can suggest answers. In the end, I hope that we’ll some day reach a point where my most pressing concern is the lack of good articles about religion in the Public Historian.


Anonymous said…
Chris, great piece. I think recognition and understanding are good first steps but I worry that they don't in an of themselves have the power to reconcile the growing tensions that modern pluralism is bringing us. As Marty points out we have long had a "commitment" to pluralism (born out of understanding) but as you point out we are from from really living well with difference. This is why, as I recently mentioned in my blog, I've started reading Rethinking Pluralism, by Adam Seligman and Robert Weller. They take a very different, action oriented approach to the problem of pluralism. I'm hoping others will join me in reading this book as well, particularly now when the problem it addresses seems so timely.
Anonymous said…
That should that that we are "...far from really living well with difference." I'm a wiz with typos and other mistakes. Maybe a champion even.
Anonymous said…
This country has had ethnic cleansings from the beginning. On all the white supremacy websites they are saying the white race claimed this continent, everyone else (even the natives) have to leave. In the past 100 years its let up a little but this country was founded on wasps rounding up everybody else. There were a lot of nazi sympathizers here during WW2 because the dream of the elite here was also for a eugenicly pure white race and even the rural poor whites were sterilized here.
KMJ said…
Excellent, troubling essay, as are the comments. I wish that World Religions was a required course in American high schools and that, in lieu of a final exam, each student would attend an unfamiliar religious service, interview one of the participants afterwards, and then give a class report on it. Such an assignment is often given in college courses on World Religions (I used it myself for 2 years in teaching at a junior college in SW Michigan and students responded with enthusiasm), but given this country's many problems with pluralism and/or "Otherness," it would make more sense to start this process earlier.
Unknown said…
Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I like how you parse out diversity, pluralism, and difference in your comments, Per. It's always important we define terms in these discussions. I also find myself in partial agreement with Anonymous' point, but from a different angle. The experience of Native Americans suggests that this country has been rooted in religiously-inflected ethnic cleansing. But I think Anonymous presumes too much of a coherent motive. And to KMJ, I had the same assignments in college. I wish high schools would pick it up too. But one can imagine the PTA fights.

Finally, I had actually signed on to share this new op ed in the NYTimes which makes many of my same points in a more expanded fashion.

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