This past Monday, on a day meant to celebrate the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who continues to inspire so many of us with his call for brotherhood among all Americans, Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama had this to say:
"...There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
News of this speech, which has left many speechless (and not in a good way), began trickling in early yesterday. But before I could even begin to intelligently formulate a reaction, a funny thing happened...
"We are family. I've got all my sisters with me..."
Yes, the disco hit -- it began playing in my head, and it's been stuck there. Long, lazy summer days, choreographing roller skating routines in the backyard with my sister to that classic song. Aside from being just plain upbeat and catchy, the Sister Sledge top 10 tune has a great message that resonates universally -- the power of sisterhood and family.
And so I digress, but just for a moment, from the esteemed Governor and his statement. Being brought up in a traditional Hindu home, we celebrated the bonds of family, and especially sisterhood and brotherhood, every year around August. My parents hosted a multi-generation ceremony for the Hindu holiday of Rakshabandhan when we ladies tied rakhis or hand-made, sacred amulets on the wrists of our brothers with heartfelt prayers for his protection and well-being. The ritual always included distant cousins, and over the years, we even "adopted" some of our close male friends as honorary brothers.
Such "adoptions" probably aren't all too surprising for most Hindus because what fundamentally constitutes "family" in the Hindu world is quite expansive: Vasudhaiva kutumbakam -- the world is one family. It includes those related by blood, those related by marriage and those who we are tied to only by circumstance. But on a metaphysical level, it includes all of humanity, even all of existence. And why wouldn't it? After all, according to Hindu teachings, we are all kindred spirits in our shared divinity. We are all brothers and sisters, regardless of who our father or mother is and regardless of our race, religion, caste, gender, sexual orientation and all the other walls that seek to separate us.
Gov. Bentley, indeed, as an American you are entitled to your religious beliefs and clearly you were exercising your right to free speech when you aimed a pot-shot at your wayward, hell-bound not-brothers and not-sisters on Monday. But you are not Joe Citizen anymore. You took an oath, which, at least in spirit, demands that you serve equally the close to 5 million citizens of Alabama, including thousands of Hindu Alabamians -- attending Hindu temples in your fair state -- not to mention atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Pagans and more. Perhaps you got caught up in the moment, after all, you were in a church and you are a former deacon, but words are difficult to retract, but at least the hurt that can be caused by them can also be allayed by other words, like, "I'm sorry."
As a Hindu American, despite the fact that I find your remarks repulsive and intolerant, I recognize that the same Divine that dwells in me, dwells in you, and for that reason we are family. And as members of most families do to live in peace with one another, I respect the fact that you are on a different path, and I can only hope that someday you too will feel the same.