Love your Sikh Neighbor

The “Golden Temple”, is the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism, located in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India.

What should American communities look like, and how directly should they be responsible for providing for the poor and needy?” This is the crux of Emma Green’s excellent article in The Atlantic about the church’s response to President Trump’s proposed budget; which includes major cuts to social services directed towards the poor, children, sick and elderly.

Beyond the biblical imperatives to care for the poor, orphan, and widow, one of the key questions shaping what “American communities look like” from the Christian perspective is, how are we going to respond to the growing animosity towards our South Asian immigrant neighbors?

Jesus’s neighboring-command is clear, it’s the second greatest commandment; behind only recognizing the Lordship of God himself. Mark 12:30, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The imperative to love our neighbors is built on the Imago Dei. This concept is woven throughout the Bible implicitly (Psalm 17 & 139) and explicitly (Genesis 1). It means all humans are made in the likeness of God with unique characteristics compared to all other created things. And critically, the imago dei persists within humans in-spite of The Fall (James 3:9).

So, as the cultural animosity towards certain people groups in our country has grown violent in recent months, Christians have a clear theological foundation to intervene on their behalf: all of our neighbors, whatever their beliefs, are made in the image of God and therefore deserve our love and grace.

To love our neighbors well, we need to hear their stories, learn their history, and find ways to honor the Imago Dei within each person. This is particularly true, and challenging, of people or groups we don’t understand.

At present, no group personifies this need more than the Sikh community. While Sikhs have lived in America for more than 100 years, they remain unknown to most Americans, including American Christians.

To better understand this dynamic, I reached out to Simran Jeet Singh, he’s an Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University, and a Senior Religion Fellow at the Sikh Coalition. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation conducted via email.

(Simran Jeet Signh, PhD.)

Q: For those unfamiliar with the Sikh faith, could you — briefly — describe what Sikh’s believe?

A: Sikhs believe in a single Divine force that created this world and resides within it. For us, the entire world is permeated by the Divine, and we aim to see and honor God in all that we encounter. Serving humanity is prayerful action, and standing for dignity and justice is living a life of love. Service, justice, and love are the core values instilled by the Sikh tradition.

Q: What region of the world do Sikh’s originate from?

A: The Sikh tradition was founded about 500 years ago in the Punjab region of South Asia. Punjab has a rich history of religious and cultural diversity, and at the time of its establishment, the region was primarily composed of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist communities. The Sikh homeland of Punjab is currently divided into two major parts — about half falls within modern-day Pakistan, and the other half is in modern-day India.

Q: Sikh’s have a strong community ethic and also seem to be very entrepreneurial. These values fit well within America’s view of self; how does the Sikh community view itself in America life; progressive, independent, conservative?

A: Sikhs have been in America for more than a 100 years now, and, like any other community, Sikh Americans represent a rich spectrum of social and political perspectives. Generally speaking, Sikhs believe deeply in the importance of justice and equality, so the practices of social contribution and community service can be seen among Sikh communities across the country. Sikh Americans have also been targets of discrimination due to their unique, visible identity, and they continue to play key roles in the preservation and procurement of civil rights in the US.

Q: In America, Sikh’s are often mistaken as Muslims. Why do you think that is?

A: Despite it being the world’s fifth largest religion, most Americans have never even heard of the Sikh religion. This is a problem of religious illiteracy in our country. Given the unique visible identity of Sikhs, which often includes brown skin, turbans, and facial hair, Americans who don’t know any better see their Sikh neighbors and presume them to be Muslim. This perception largely has to do with problematic stereotypes of how Muslims look. It’s a racialization of identity — and these misperceptions mean that many communities in addition to Muslims are targets of Islamophobia. The deep-seated prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment often translates into violence against anyone who appears to be Muslim. The fact that Sikh identity is perceived to overlap with stereotypes of Muslim identity has meant that Sikh Americans continue to experience an immense amount of anti-Muslim hate.

Q: As a result of rising Islamophobia, Sikhs have been violently attacked. How has the Sikh community responded to such violence? And, what can non-Sikhs do to support the community?

A: While Sikhs remain frequent targets of Islamophobia, the Sikh American community continues to stand in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers. We believe that no one should be attacked for how they look and what they believe, and we refuse to throw another community under the bus to save ourselves. Our ethic of standing for justice compels us to stand with those who are being marginalized. I urge other communities to do the same. We will not move beyond systemic problems like Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia until and unless we all stand together.

In Jeremiah 29:7 God speaks through the prophet to say, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This predates Jesus’ neighboring-imperative in Mark 12 by 600 years! In the middle of Babylon, full of people who didn’t look, talk, or believe like them, God implored the Jews to seek the welfare of their neighbors.

As modern Christ-followers the same is true for us; our welfare is connected to the welfare of the cities in which we live, not just that of our fellow believers.

In an era of travel bans, border walls, and an “America First” foreign policy, our call is to look beyond these false securities. Instead, we have a clear and simple mission: love our neighbors.