by Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia
Originally published on September 23, 2013 in The Huffington Post
Today, I am a proud and purposed Sikh-American, providing leadership in key national and international interreligious organizations. At an earlier point in my journey, things could have gone quite differently.
In 1989, when I came to the United States to pursue my Ph.D. degree at The Ohio State University, I was confronted with a new sense of independence, and I was less confident about my faith. I questioned how it is that I would own my faith, if at all, even. I remember thinking, "do I even want to continue being religious?" After significant introspection and transformative experiences of encountering others, the answer came to me: "yes, I wanted to be a person of faith." But I asked myself a deeper question, challenging the faith which I had inherited: "what religious tradition should I be a part of?" With freedom comes responsibility.
It's difficult to be a religious minority and an immigrant. For many the tendency is to want to assimilate and adopt patterns of the dominant culture. But a local Catholic clergyman gave me some surprising advice amidst my searching collegiate years. He asked me to look even more deeply into the faith I had grown up in and asked me to come back to him only after giving my faith a much more earnest examination. He challenged me to articulate my own faith in public terms in the face of the religious diversity with which I was encountered. In the process I came to own my faith in a way that is deeper and richer than I ever imagined. With independence comes understanding of our interdependence.
Fostering mutual respect and understanding across religious boundaries is a fundamental need of humanity today. Religious differences are used as a wedge to instigate and maliciously spread conflict and violence. Working for peace starts with oneself. We have to know who it is that we are, and what the potential of our life in this world is. As we come to value our own journey of faith, then we can truly value the unique journeys of others. We can see each other for our common shared values, rather than the appearances of outward differences. We can't achieve peace with our neighbors, if we are not at peace with our self. With inward peace comes the foundation for outward peace.
Conflict and social change are inevitable realities, but violence is not. We have a choice of ways to deal with our differences. There are alternatives to violence at all levels by raising awareness about individual dignity, human rights, equality, and interconnectedness to one another and our environment. Prevention, intervention, and reconciliation must constantly be underway, lest we slip to our baser selves.
Whether we like it or not, some individuals will continue to perpetrate violence under the guise of religion or some other banner. My own faith community was taken aback again just over a year ago, when the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin suffered a heinous attack. The scab was pulled back again from wounds that were still healing in the post-9/11 era.
We cannot control other people's behavior, but we can control how we treat them to begin with and how we react to them when things "go wrong." Moreover, we can do it so many times and in so many ways as a society that we create and advance a culture of dignity, rather a culture of difference, discrimination, and derision. In short, we can act -- again and again -- in ways that make it so that it becomes socially unacceptable and even essentially impossible to devalue our common human spirit.
Every September 21st Peace One Day invites us to imagine just one day without conflict, weapons, or violence and challenges us to think "Who Will You Make Peace With?" I know the answer is "I will make peace with everyone, including those with whom I must vigorously disagree." But I also know that the journey to that position begins with working on me, my own faith commitment, and advancing the shared values which I have come to learn that we all have. It starts with "I will make peace with myself" before it can honestly say, "I will make peace with my neighbor, my community, my world." This year, why not consider what personal steps you will take to advance peace within yourself and within your world? You will never know just what life you might have saved.
Published with the author’s permission.