The Religious Roots of Social Justice
Antifa’s defense among mainstream commentators is thin. Trevor Noah’s piece on the movement offered a watered-down explanation before branding them “Vegan ISIS.” Inaccurate and unhelpful. Cornel West credits them for saving his life in Charlottesville. I can attest to protesters putting their bodies on the line to protect marginalized and targeted communities — I’ve seen people do it with and without black bloc — and that is the noblest of acts.
This is the very purpose of the Sikh Khalsa, a historic army founded in the 17th Century by Guru Gobind Singh following the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Bahadur had laid down his neck to the Mughal king Aurangzeb in exchange for a guarantee that no Hindu or Sikh would henceforth be forced to convert to Islam. Their legacy is a beautiful marriage of dedication to Creator and to the cause of true social justice.
We cannot ignore the reality that hate crimes are on the rise in Oregon, and that we do not have to wait for a university study or a think-tank to show us the writing on the wall: racism and white supremacy are on the rise due to the political ascent of Donald Trump. The night he won the 2016 election, while others were leading marches and getting famous for it, I sat at my friend’s East Portland home and watched the protests unfold. None of us were happy about the results, so the live coverage of people expressing their anger in the streets was comforting.
I sympathized in so many ways. I was angry Trump had won, even though I had been calling it long before he started scaring the liberals who first mocked him, but I was more angry at the Democrats for rigging their own primaries to coronate military-industrial corporatist Hillary Clinton, who still lost. The broken glass and fires I beheld that night and on J20 gave me hope, first that I wasn’t alone, but also that these feelings — extreme though they might be — could be cultivated, transformed into a positive force.
The historic example I had in mind was less the Antifaschistische Aktion of yore, but instead the Khalsa. An armed body of saint-soldiers, the Khalsa are duty-bound to uphold justice. At a time where women in Europe and in the American colonies were getting burned at the stake, the Khalsa advanced the Sikh commitment to gender equality by being open to both men and women. The Khalsa commit themselves to the religious values of their Sikh faith: peace, optimism, contentment, detachment, and selfless service, while further pledging to adopt the Sikh dress code (the 5 K’s) and following at least four minimal ethical restrictions (rahit).
The 5 K’s, or kakars, are kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small wooden comb), kara (bracelet), kachera (drawstring boxers), and kirpan (knife). Each kakar serves a purpose. The uncut hair represents maintaining the purity of Creation. Sikhs comb their hair twice a day with the kanga, representing order. The kara, a perfect circle, represents the unbroken commitment between Creator and Creation. Unisex in nature, the kachera is meant to promote equality and dispel lust. The kirpan represents justice.
Beyond the meaning the 5 K’s have for the Khalsa, they promote the Sikh identity, one of an ever-ready servant of God. In Kamau Bell’s recent United Shades of America episode about Sikhism, Sikh Coalition social justice fellow Rupinder Singh shared that Sikhs are meant to be identifiable, as trusted community members who are obligated to help others in need.
The four prohibitions are against disturbing the natural growth of hair (men and women alike), eating meat, cohabitating with someone other than a spouse, and using tobacco or alcohol. One branch of the Khalsa known as Nihangs consume cannabis (in edible form) during their all-night meditations, but otherwise intoxication is forbidden.
While I don’t expect Antifa to cease shaving their beards, but I think we should all be meditating. The intense requirements and stipulations of the Khalsa, which is a lifelong commitment, speak to the greatest shortcoming of the Left in America: its inherent lack of a moral center. We’ll quote Martin Luther King, Jr., but how many of us would dare quote Jesus’ radical words about the difficulty rich people have acquiring salvation?
The closest the resistance in Portland ever got to making a pronounced moral stance was an early victory that remains unmatched. Shortly after Trump took office, he announced his Muslim travel ban. This sparked nationwide protests at airports, including PDX. A group of Christian supremacists, the Hell Shaking Street Preachers, had gained some notoriety in late 2016 and early 2017 for harassing immigrants outside their churches in the Portland metro area, and for regularly inciting hatred against Muslims. One of them got cold-cocked by an activist (at least three parties have stepped up to take credit) after getting hands-on with a group of Muslim women at the airport protest.
The man, a business owner named Grant Chisholm, ended up leaving town. A pro-Trumper in Lake Oswego shuttered his business after protests in the community. All of this came at a time when Portland was demanding its leadership take a stand against the Trump Administration. For a short period, it looked like the resistance (lower case, no hashtag) really would come out of Portland, and that we’d continue to set the tone for progressive politics in our region.
But then came Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer. Much has been said already about the man, his organization, and his uncanny ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth. A rundown of Patriot Prayer’s interactions with Antifa — Salem, Lake Oswego, Vancouver, Montavilla, June 4th, the Hillary Clinton event, continued protests through the winter, recent dust-ups on June 3rd and June 30th of this year — even just from a journalism angle begins to look like a rap sheet.
Since Trump’s election, Patriot Prayer has organized rallies across the Pacific Northwest. Their name sounds harmless, and their first few events were themed around very “Patriotic” ideals, such as a March to Defend the Flag and a Pro-Trump Rally. Activists on both sides got arrested for little skirmishes, mostly centered around stealing (and then burning) flags or — in light of the infamous Based Stick Man, a violent felon on the Right who became famous for breaking a pole over another person’s head — sucker attacks. Patriot Prayer appeared at the April 15th march in Berkley last year alongside white power groups like Identity Evropa, confirming their link to street violence at these rallies.
An unknown, anonymous threat to the organizers of Portland’s 82nd Avenue of the Roses Parade for welcoming Republicans and right-wing groups led to its cancellation, and instead Patriot Prayer organized a “March for Free Speech,” just two days before Portland’s chaotic May Day 2017. That day was notable for introducing Portland to Jeremy Christian, who was kicked out of the march for waving around a baseball bat, seig heiling, and dropping the n-bomb.
A month later, he had slit three men’s throats on the MAX after they had mobilized in defense of two Muslim women Christian was harassing. In his first court appearance, before he even got situated in the dock, Christian blurted out, “Free speech or die, Portland, you got no safe place! This is America, get out if you don’t like free speech!” Scanning the room, he loudly proclaimed, with the conviction of an Al Qaeda video, “Death to the enemies of America! Leave this country if you hate our freedom! Death to Antifa!”
Jeremy Christian was radicalized by Joey Gibson’s messaging, which at the time centered around promoting “free speech,” wherein you can say whatever you want about whoever you want so long as you’re not a Commie, and demonizing Antifa. Just a week later, Gibson and company staged another Free Speech rally on June 4th, and the community turnout was inspiring. A few bad actors prompted a police crackdown that involved flashbangs, pepper spray, and several occasions where my friends and I stepped into a crowd to successfully prevent a stampede. We were prepped to act as medics and ended up helping a number of citizens — children, mothers, the elderly — flush their eyes after getting pepper sprayed.
That was my last day in the streets until the George Floyd protests of 2020.
Maybe the details of these dates will matter someday. What has become clear is that participants are selective in looking backward and tragically short-sighted in looking forward. People caught up in the heat of the moment keep forgetting that the sun is going to rise the following day. It feels like a series of escalating dares has put us into a situation where we could very well have two groups of Americans pointing guns at each other.
Chris Hedges is a thinker I admire a great deal. His arguments come from a spiritual background, something I’ve found to be disturbingly rare among Western leftists, but it is a quality he shares with Cornel West, Sister Helen Prejean, Dick Gregory, Vandana Shiva, George Harrison, and Fred Rogers. Hedges’ criticism of Antifa was what changed my thinking on the subject permanently.
As a leaderless, faceless movement that holds no political power, the only investment Antifa has with their community is this thing called moral capital. Antifa’s position on community self-defense and self-policing gets lost in the shadow of violence. The endorsement of violence without any other community investment squanders that moral capital. The Khalsa’s moral capital, by contrast, rests in their dedication not just to their faith, but to all good people of faith who are suffering oppression. The Khalsa’s philosophy rests in the Sikh scripture, regarded as a living and eternal guru, the Guru Granth Sahib. The holy text of the Sikhs also includes hymns by Hindu and Muslim saints, making it the world’s first interfaith religious text.
Beyond the philosophy is the real, documented evidence that Antifa vs. Alt-Right is justifying the expansion of a surveillance/police state. It is time for anti-racists to organize in ways that are sustainable and meaningful before we let our passions consume us. The descent into mutual violence and aggression is dark ground.
Groups organizing in the name of hate should be extinguished, but this doesn’t extend to everyone who voted Republican in 2016 or who thinks Capitalism is just spiffy. I know I won’t be changing the minds of these people, with whom I disagree, by calling them Nazis, insulting their wives, or calling for the guillotine. It is never too late to talk. We don’t have to become Platonic lovers with people who voted for Donald Trump, but we actually do have to get along. Chances are they aren’t fond of white nationalists, either.
If the efforts put into social media feuds, insular groupthink, and performative activism were directed into purposeful direct action and coordinated volunteer efforts with existing, funded organizations, our community would look a lot better. Just in my personal life, away from the front lines, I’ve encountered racism within ISKCON Hillsboro and the Pacific Green Party. Expose it, oppose it, and then keep moving forward. Maybe the Alt-Right wouldn’t see a city choking on self-righteous hypocrisy that it can so easily victimize.
To that I offer two conclusions:
No matter how righteous the struggle, if you pursue it through an unrighteous means, you will lose every time. Read Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita and ask yourself how literal the “fight” will be for you.
When the universe offers you the chance to question and assess your values, no matter how difficult the process, take it.
Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh