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Yesterday’s Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey was on the theme of peace. But, with the firing of Kim Jung Un’s ‘look at me’ rockets fuelled by the blood and sweat of his impoverished people, Russia muscling in on the chaos and suffering in the Middle East, and a record 20 million refugees without, food and shelter, a truly peaceful world still seems a distant dream.

I found the service and prayers at the Abbey, both moving and uplifting. In the Sikh view, prayers are essentially a charging of spiritual batteries to help us move in a better ethical direction. In this case, to a more active search for peace. And for this we clearly have to look beyond today’s policies of deterrence and containment.

Sikh teachings remind us that peace is more than the absence of war; it is a universal respect for the rights of others, and I find it hard to believe that this can be achieved by narrowly focussing on deterrent might, with its inherent dangers of an escalation of rival power. New technologies and new ways of killing make yesterday’s lethal weapons obsolete, not to be disposed of, but sold to developing countries, fuelling conflict in a world awash with arms.

A moving Christian hymn reminds us that new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upwards still and onwards, who would keep abreast with truth. Today’s strategic alliances, while providing a measure of mutual security for some, do nothing to prevent continuing human right’s abuse for others. Guru Ram Dass, writing of pacts and alliances made in self-interest, taught that the only pact or commitment worth making was to God to be committed and uncompromising in our pursuit of social and political justice, – not only for our side, but for all people; a sentiment that has its echo in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, while many agree with such sentiments, some political leaders find it expedient to overlook human rights abuse in what are sometimes called friendly countries. The great human rights activist and scientist Andre Sakharov, made clear his view that there can no lasting peace in the world unless we are even-handed on the abuse of human rights. Words we must take on board in our search for a more peaceful and fairer world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The news that Royal Navy vessels are to be sent to the Aegean to curb the activities of people smugglers has much to commend it, but for some, it masks the fact that many of those risking their lives and savings to clamber onto leaky and overcrowded boats are refugees.

Not so long ago the word ‘refugees’ conjured up images of innocent men, women and children fleeing terror. Today, the word refugee is sometimes interpreted as alien hordes, and tear gas and razor wire fences have been used to keep would-be refugees, including young children at a distance.

This morning’s decision on agreed controls goes to the heart of the moral dilemma of deciding whether refugee applies only to those fleeing a war or whether it can also encompass those seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as poverty in Kosovo, are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere, and not just in Europe.

As a Sikh, I applauded the initial welcome given to refugees fleeing from Syria. It was a welcome that resonated with Sikh teachings that, even in the height of conflict, we should never forget that we are all members of the same one human race and our highest religious duty is to look to the needs of others.

The crisis in Syria is linked to the wider turmoil in the Middle East following the second Gulf War.  The pro-democracy demonstrations, cracked down on in 2011, were followed by the emergence of ISIS with its brutalities and beheadings and the horror of bombs raining down on the long-suffering people of Syria, from all directions, including Russia, ISIS, the coalition allies and President Assad himself.  Who would not wish to leave? The inevitable exit of refugees has almost become an unstoppable tide.

The problem, now, in dealing with such large numbers is immense. The current tentative ceasefire in Syria is perhaps the best hope for their future, but there are very real difficulties in translating this to peace and stability.

Sikh teachings are not alone in emphasising our common responsibility to help those fleeing tyranny. I believe it’s important that any agreed system of controls on the grounds of expediency should not reduce our sense of our common humanity, or blind us to the importance of our values and ideals.

 

Today’s debate about the rights or wrongs of air strikes against ISIS, will be focused on what constitutes a just and proportionate response to ISIS atrocities in Paris and elsewhere. While much has been said and written about criteria that need to be met for a just war, less has been said about imperatives for just and lasting peace.

Syria, like much of the Middle East, is a cauldron of competing rivalries, not only those of Sunni and Shia Muslims but also smaller groups: Allowites, Kurds, Christians and others. While we would all like to see functioning democracies in the region, this is easier said than done. The history of the Middle East, and many other parts of the world shows that majority rule does not always equate to just rule. Majorities insensitive to the rights of minorities, can all too easily morph into tyrannies. What is important is, not so much the process of acquiring power, as the way power is exercised.

I was reminded about this at an event celebrating the birth anniversary of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who lived in the 19th century. He ruled over a vast area of northern India, including present day Pakistan. Although the Maharaja gained power through military might, he reached out to all communities winning both love and loyalty.

Totally illiterate, he spent hours as a child in the gurdwara, listening to Sikh teachings on respect for all communities. He was deeply influenced by the Sikh belief that that token respect for other ways of life is not enough, and that for true respect, we should be prepared to put our own rights and freedom on the line, in support of those of others.

The Maharaja kept this teachings close to his heart. There were more Hindu and Muslim Ministers in his government than Sikhs. He also gave generously for the upkeep and development of places of worship of all communities, bringing peace, stability and prosperity into a region that had been subject to factional rivalry, not unlike that seen in the Middle East today.

Yes, this is history from the 19th century, but it contains fundamental truths that we would be wise to learn from. Reaching out to others in this way is not easy, but is possible, and to my mind, essential for true and lasting peace. We should give our full support to any group working in this direction.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 25/11/15

November 30th, 2015 | Posted by Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

When invited to a radio programme on the theme ‘what does God think of us, my jaundiced contribution was:’ If God had human emotions they would be of utter bewilderment and despair at the antics of the human race, coupled with a determination to keep us well away from any truly intelligent life in the vastness of Creation. Today, in the aftermath of the religion-linked massacres in Paris and Mali, this seems to be a bit of an understatement.

Such killings are nothing new. At the time of Guru Nanak, whose birth anniversary falls today, Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats in Europe and, in India, there was religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus. Why do our different religions with much to offer, ignore important commonalities and focus negatively on supposed difference and notions of exclusive access to God’s truth?

It was a concern close to Guru Nanak’s heart. In his very first sermon, he courageously suggested that the one God of us all was not impressed by our different religious labels, but by what we did for our fellow beings. The Guru devoted his life to stressing commonalities and questioning the validity of some supposed differences.

Today in our demographically changed world, while recognising and respecting genuine difference, there is an urgent need to counter the use of difference to justify hatred and violence towards others. The concern over the capacity of those working with ISIS to persuade young Muslims to leave the UK, to join fighters in Syria highlights the need to reach hearts and minds. I can fully understand the revulsion felt by those who say we should bomb ISIS off the face of this earth, but such statements, can be cynically used by extremist as ‘an attack on our religion’.

A letter in yesterday’s Times by nearly 200 Muslim scholars deploring terrorism in the name of Islam gives hope. They point out that there is nothing Islamic about the so-called “Islamic State” and no acts of terrorism, hate and violence can be justified. Distortion and misinterpretation can happen with many historic religious texts and is why, particularly in the context of today’s times, it’s necessary to stress the important commonalities with other faiths. In this, all who speak out in such a way deserve our full support.

Today is the anniversary of one of the most important events in Sikh history; the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the 5th Guru if the Sikhs. There are two important aspects of this anniversary: the circumstances that led to the martyrdom, and the traditional way it’s commemorated.

Guru Arjan was a renowned poet and scholar who lived at a time of acute religious bigotry- not very different from that in many parts of the world today. The Guru made it his life’s mission to replace suspicion and hatred between faiths with tolerance and respect.

Guru Arjan was the main compiler of the Sikh scriptures known as the Guru Granth Sahib. In it he included some Hindu and Muslim verses to emphasise a fundamental Sikh teaching that no one religion has a monopoly of truth. The Guru took this respect further by asking a Muslim saint to lay the foundation stone of the famous Golden Temple at Amritsar and also placed a door on each of its four sides as a symbol of welcome to all from any spiritual direction.

Such sentiments proved too much for the rulers of the day who taught there was only one true religion and the Guru was slowly tortured and killed in the heat of an Indian June.

In the traditional Sikh commemoration of the martyrdom, there is no show of anger or bitterness, but a simple remembrance of the Guru’s suffering by serving cool sweetened lime water or other soft drink to all who pass by Sikh homes or gurdwaras.

I thought of the Guru’s teachings, his martyrdom and the lack of bitterness while attended a huge political rally in Paris over the weekend as part of a delegation of parliamentarians from different parts of the world. The rally of more than 100,000 was organised by Iranians who had fled persecution in Iran. In an echo of Guru Arjan’s teachings, the leader of the rally, a woman Maryam Rajavi, spoke of the need for open democracy and freedom of belief for all faiths.

Many of the speakers had themselves suffered torture or imprisonment, or the loss of near ones at the hands of the present rulers, but there was no bitterness in their contributions; only a desire to move on. To me this gives us a glimmer of real hope in the otherwise all-pervading gloom of intolerance in our strife-torn world.

Yesterday, a Department of Health taskforce published a report recommending sweeping changes in the funding and operation of mental health provision for children and adolescents. The report follows a series of Times articles on a growing epidemic of mental health problems in children and adolescents resulting in a huge rise in children resorting to self-harm and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in schools.

Many are seeking treatment for mental health problems in hospitals, or worse ending up in prisons. In one of these articles, the columnist Libby Purves highlights the urgent need for parents, to re-set their priorities and recognise the ground realities of pressures on their children.

Her comments reminded me of a story of Guru Nanak meeting with a group of people in a mountain retreat searching for an understanding of God. They greeted the Guru with the words ‘ how goes the world below’ the Guru was not impressed and told the group that God was not to be found in the wilderness but in the service of family and wider society.

Today there’s not much wilderness left for retreat – selfish or otherwise – but it is all too easy to spend all our time on personal pursuits or lose, ourselves in the virtual wilderness of the internet to the neglect of those around. Worse, in the absence of comfort and support from parents, children may look to friendship, love and support on internet chat lines oblivious to the dangers of grooming, blackmail and the hurt that can be caused by on-line bullying.

While yesterday’s promise of enhanced provision will help, Sikh teachings and those of sister faiths suggest that the real remedy lies in the home.

Reflecting on parental responsibility, Guru Nanak reminded us that the birth of a child comes with an attached responsibility for the child’s care and comfort that continues even if parents split. It is the family rather than on the internet that children should share both triumphs and concerns and receive time consuming but necessary encouragement and support. Today, obsession with personal fulfilment has replaced a search for God. Our different faiths remind us that both personal fulfilment and God can be found in looking beyond ourselves to the care and support of those around us.

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