Mistaken identity

Houses of worship ought to be the safest places in America, but history shows that religious identity has always been a dangerous marker in the United States.

By Bill Leonard

A case of “mistaken identity”-- that’s what the authorities called the killings at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., only days after the mass murder of 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Mistaken identity, the police believe, was the reason that a man with connections to various white-supremacy groups entered the temple on a Sunday morning and started shooting turbaned men and sari-dressed women, perhaps thinking they were Muslims.

Motives are indeterminate since police killed the shooter, but not before he wounded an officer who was aiding victims. Mistaken or not, the murder of innocent religionists is evil.

Founded by 15th century Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Sikhism numbers over 30 million adherents anchored in prayer, love and peace. Theirs is a distinct belief system, an identity profoundly symbolized in the way they dress. Sikh men give witness to their faith through the “Five Ks,” distinguishing external signs including uncut hair covered by a turban.

On that terrible Sunday in their sacred place, Sikh identity became a matter of life and death, not because they had chosen martyrdom, but because it was thrust upon them in a country where religious liberty prevails and where churches, temples, synagogues and mosques should be the safest of places.

The murder of the six Sikhs forces those of us who claim a particular faith tradition to ask: Just how dangerous is religious identity in 21st century America? Are we all marked for assault, not simply by what we believe, but also by the “distinguishing marks” we reveal when we gather for worship?

Truth is, religious communities have never been completely safe in the United States. Colonial Baptists were jailed, exiled and beaten by godly Puritans. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, including founder Joseph Smith, were killed in the “Mormon Wars” by those who mistook them for a devilish, unwelcome sect.

Roman Catholics were gunned down in a variety of places including the infamous Bloody Monday on the streets of Louisville, Ky., in 1850. (Such history is particularly ironic in 2012 when the Republican candidates for President and vice president are a Mormon and a Roman Catholic, respectively.)

In 1963 a bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four little girls in their Sunday school class. Their faith was personified by their Sunday “church clothes” and by the color of their skin.

In 2007 a gunman murdered worshipers at the Sunday service of the New Light Church in Colorado Springs. In 2009 a physician was shot in the foyer of the Reformation Lutheran Church, Kansas City. This August a Joplin, Mo., mosque burned to the ground, its second fire this summer. Arson is suspected.

These actions compel us to recognize that even now, on any Friday, Saturday or Sunday, one hate-filled, armed maniac can threaten lives in any of our sacred spaces.

The Sikhs also remind us that in a pluralistic society, religious distinctiveness is essential yet not easily confused. Identities we thought would protect us in this world and the next can easily be misunderstood or scorned all together.

These days do we all need some outward and visible sign, some public witness that distinguishes our faith commitments in the world? I recall an Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem when our group of pilgrims distributed ashes to each other outside the Church of all Nations on the Mount of Olives.

Later, walking alone in a Jerusalem market amid people who made their religion known through turbans, hijabs, kufis, kippas, crucifixes, clerical collars and cassocks, I suddenly realized that the ashes on my forehead identified my commitments in ways I don’t make so public at home.

My Baptist-born hesitancy about public displays of religiosity or accoutrements of piety was undone by the sense that I was a follower of Jesus and needed to declare myself outwardly in the literal marketplace of one of the world’s most religiously public, religiously hazardous cities.

That lesson returned last week with the witness of the Sikh community in the aftermath of the terror. The murderer may have mistaken their identity, but they have not. They know who they are and will continue to pray, love and dress accordingly. The son of the martyred temple president remarked that “if it has to be us that kind of ushers in this age of peace though, so be it.” I’d hope for such courage should a shooter come to my church.

Years ago I read a story from Uganda during the brutal reign of the dictator Idi Amin when a mission society wrote to Anglicans there: “What can we send you? Your archbishop has been murdered; your parishioners assaulted. What can we send you?” And the word came back: “Send 150 clerical collars.” You must understand,” the message read, “our people are being rounded up to be shot. They must be able to spot their priests.”

These days, in the land of the free and the home of the exceptionally well-armed, we’d all better know who we are, by faith, both internal and external. Real religion is dangerous. Make no mistake about it.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.