Bull in the China Shop

Lincoln E. Steed January/February 2010

I will never forget my visit to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, in Amritsar, India. It was my first visit to that fascinating country and quite a few years before the Sikh rebellion and an Indian Army attack on the temple, the holiest site for the Sikh faith. Founded by Guru Nanak Dev (1669-1538), the religion is marked by strong monotheism and a militant approach to faith.

Before we were allowed into the temple itself we had to remove all leather from our bodies. That meant removing shoes and belts. It also meant walking barefoot along the public street for some distance before entering the temple courtyard and seeing the “pool of nectar” that surrounds the building itself. I once had a painful plantar wart likely picked up by going barefoot, and the paddle through debris affronted my senses.

The temple was as impressive in its own way as the more famous Indian tourist icon, the Taj Mahal. I’m told that it has been rebuilt after the military siege, but am glad I got to see it in its original form. The visit impressed me on a number of levels.

Going without a belt and shoes for a few minutes was at best a minor inconvenience. It did cause me to reflect on the why. Sikhism is not Hinduism—although it can be seen as a reform movement of sorts arising from that faith. It also can be traced to Islamic influences brought to India during the reign of the Mogul emperors. However, the respect for cows must come from Hinduism. Sacred cows wander most of the streets of India. The cow is not to be interfered with. And if a cow wanders onto your property, or into your shop, you must not restrict it, on risk of offending someone who sees it as sacred. The phrase “like a bull in a china shop” conjures up the mayhem that an unrestrained animal can cause. I can’t verify it, but it seems likely that the phrase came from the days of the English Raj, or rule, when this sort of scene played out.

Certainly India itself acted a little like the proverbial bull as it attempted to put down the Sikh separatist cause, which had illusions of establishing a Sikh state in the Punjab region. Maybe the army should not have been goaded into attacking the temple to root out militants. And once the rebellion was put down, the Indian government continued to tread the china underfoot by choosing to ignore the religious element in the conflict. Goodness knows there had been warnings. The iconic nationalist Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh militant. And not too long after the uprising in the Punjab, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by one of her Sikh bodyguards. It is, of course, a testament to the inherent stability of India that it survived that trauma and today still attempts to reconcile religious friction. But I sense in public statements from Indian officials, after continuing reminders such as the Mumbai bombing, that they understand the gravity of religious sensibility.

It seems incredible, but so many years after the shock of 9/11, the United States seems unsure about the role of religion in the conflicts that have followed. No, we are not at war with Islam, or any other religion. That would be not only foolish, but destined to create a greater bloodbath. But we are in conflict with a certain view of religion.

A few months ago now, Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. There is little doubt that he did this because he thought his religion demanded such action. What is amazing is how much was known of his mind-set before the rampage. It is almost as though no one wanted to break the china and hoped the threat would just wander away.

In the aftermath of the tragedy there is the now all too obligatory professions of disdain for his actions and reiterations of the mantra that no religion calls for such violence. I do note that President Obama correctly invoked a God who would not countenance such crimes.

And already we are back to talking about the danger as one of “religious extremism.” It is true that the Osama Bin Ladens of the world have what is obviously an extremist application of the religion they espouse. And at present the larger world is reeling from the acts of Islamic extremists. My point, one that I make gingerly, is that we are blinding ourselves to the real threat and laying the groundwork for the destruction of all religious effectiveness by casting things in “extremist” terms.

There never was a major religion yet that encouraged adherents to be a little committed. No faith with any lasting power minimizes its importance and says “Don’t take it too seriously—don’t change your life over these things. Be moderate.” Anytime that attitude creeps into a faith structure there will arise a reform movement or a new belief system.

I fear that in countering a virulent and pitiless form of religious fanaticism we are attempting to redefine all religion to a safe nominalism.

This magazine has staked a lot from its beginning on the principle of a separation of church and state. We have never believed in passive religion, nor have we held it to be of no interest to the state. But the state should never venture into defining what is true and acceptable religion, or indeed becoming a party to explaining a particular religious viewpoint.

A few years ago Pope Benedict unleashed more than he expected when he gave an address at Regensburg University in Germany and treated on the topic of violence in religion. Little noted were his remarks on violence in Christianity. Curiously, he tried to implicate the Reformer’s principle of sola scriptura as leading toward religious violence. In this regard, my best explanation for this is that he was taking a statist view that “freelance” faith is uncontrollable, since it is ideological rather than institutional. No doubt he sees the Reformation as regrettable.

The other violent statement he made in that speech was a simple inaccuracy. He said that early Christianity had violent tendencies until made rational by a process of Hellenization. Such a view ignores the fact that early Christianity was most unviolent—martyrs going peacefully to the lions were a reality until the church allied itself with Constantine and state patronage.

So this editorial is a call away from moderation, away from the middle road, away from inactivity. It is a call for religion to become faith, to become a faith that changes lives and reaches out in ways that change the world.

Violence will always be the toxic fallout from religion gone bad. Let the arm of the magistrate deal with bad religious acts as harshly as “nature and nature’s God” require. Let the state also commit itself to providing a safe environment for all faiths to coexist. But never let the state co-opt a particular religion and put a patina of excusability to even its most dangerous pronouncements. Let the state and society inform itself well on the tenets of all systems operating within its zone and be forewarned about the implications of Hale Bop, 12th Imam, or Secret Rapture. And may every civil system come to see that truly spiritual religious “activism” is the stuff of which we are made.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."