For World Interfaith Harmony Week, I attended a webinar on Peace and Non-Violence which was about building and maintaining relationships across different groups and bettering our relationship with the environment.
For the Columbans, Interfaith Harmony Week is a priority because one of the core motivations of Columban mission is to connect and encounter people from different backgrounds whilst expressing the good news of Christ.
The webinar, held on Tuesday 1st February consisted of three speakers who spoke about how their own initiatives are promoting and striving for peace between groups and communities from different backgrounds and for peace with the environment. The speakers were Samantha Cherian who works at the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, Marie Dennis who works on Catholic Non-Violence Initiative at Pax Christi International and finally Amandeep Kaur Maan, the chair of Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission and also the founder of EcoSikh. After each presentation, there was a brief Q&A session that welcomed questions from the attendees.
The first speaker was Samantha Cherian. Samantha works in conflict resolution specifically in the Christian-Muslim context and explores ways people can build bridges between people of different religions. Samantha spoke about the need for, and importance of, dialogue and action between groups in order to work together in tackling issues that affect us all.
Samantha began her presentation by talking about ‘The Sydney Statement’ which is “an interfaith charter created by Youth PoWR (Parliament of the World’s Religion) in collaboration with CCCMR (Columban Centre for Christian Muslim Relations)”. She described the Sydney Statement as a “blueprint on how to engage in Interreligious Dialogue.”
Samantha asked the question “why do people choose to be ignorant when there are blueprints like the Sydney Statement out there and ready to be used?” A question that anyone who is in the pursuit of peace and non-violence would ask themselves. She explored this question by briefly talking us through the Theory of Securitization and De-securitization, a theory coined by Ole Waever, a professor in International Relations.
The theory talks about how we justify our beliefs and actions by creating a ‘us’ vs ‘them’ scenario. This justification stems from self-preservation, something that we all seek. But consequently, these ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mindset creates as she said a “basis for conflict” and this conflict is strengthened as it creates walls and barriers which “block dialogue between groups and invites violence and discrimination”.
Inter-religious dialogue challenges these barriers and ideologies by affirming that self-preservation can still be maintained without resorting to violence and upholding an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mindset.
Samantha goes on to explain why the Sydney Statement is a good model for Inter-religious dialogue for 3 reasons: one, “it focuses on interconnectedness”, two it “can be practically applied” and three it “coherently promotes dialogue”. Samantha hailed the Sydney Statement as “unique” because of its practical applicability. Due to it valuing social cohesion, the promotion of peace and working together, people are able to unite with a common foundation to start with. This in turn helps all to tackle challenges and find solutions to the issues that exist today which affect us all in one way or another, irrespective of our differences. These issues are social and global injustices like racism and mental health issues and also environmental concerns. When we identify these commonalities and become part of the solution by engaging in dialogue, we thereby ensure our self-preservation.
The next speaker was Marie Dennis, the Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Programme Chair to Pax Christi’s ‘Non-Violence Initiative’. She spoke about the need for the Catholic Church to make non-violence a practice central to Christian faith. She stated, “The goal of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative is to move the conversations about non-violence, justice and peace from the peripheries to the centre of church teaching and from the peripheries to the centre of Catholic thought and action”.
Marie believes that the Catholic church should wholeheartedly adopt non-violent initiatives because non-violence is a spirituality, a way of life and a method of social transformation.
She shows that what happens inside the Catholic church can sequentially have an impact in the outside world. If conversations around active non-violence is adopted in Catholic theology, taught and learnt in “Catholic schools, colleges, universities and seminaries” and if peace and non-violence programmes are “integrated into curriculum, research and community outreach,” it would educate the Catholic church and make it easier for the church to apply non-violent tools to diffuse conflict before it becomes violent.
Marie spoke about “two major catholic church-wide efforts” that are providing opportunities to integrate non-violence initiatives and conversations within the Catholic church. The first effort she mentioned was the development of the Laudato Si’ Action Plans which she said will “help churches around the world to realise the future and vision by Pope Francis”. As we know, Pope Francis’ promulgation urges us to pay attention to the cry of the earth and the suffering of our biodiversity incited by violence, and how it affects us all because we are all intrinsically interconnected. The second effort of the Catholic church Marie mentioned was the Synod on Synodality, which she said will “create a space where the whole Catholic Church can come together, listen to each other [to] work through the practice of non-violent approaches.”
After her presentation, her Q&A session welcomed questions and opinions on what the speakers presented. One poignant point made by an attendee was about the reasons why most people choose violent approaches. Their point centred around the origins of violence and how often, the people who perpetrated violence were often from backgrounds where they themselves experienced abuse from a young age. I think this was an honest and important point made because it shows us how complex the fight against violence in society can be, due to the entrenched trauma experienced from young. They also made another important point about violence perpetrated in the Church itself such as physical, emotional, pyschological and sexual violence and in our fight against violence, it is important that the church notices its own hand in the perpetuation of it in some cases.
Marie’s response was discerning and insightful as she first mentioned the Catholic church’s understanding of the many roots of violence and the multidimensional face of violence. She mentioned that “development of spirituality” is an important factor in preventing violence and adopting a way of life that includes attention to the trauma of violence many children experience. There is violence against the individual and violence against the environment which all have a knock-on effect” and said this is why the “Synod on Synodality is very interesting because it is an “opportunity for the church to look at, and discuss, the root problems of the deep violence that have been perpetrated by members of the catholic church, both clergy and others”.
Ellen Teague, from the Columban Justice and Peace Media Team asked “where have you seen non-violent strategies working?”. Marie pointed to the public school system in Washington D.C. where “children learn to be accountable and how to deal with trauma in a way that doesn’t alienate them”. She also referred to the “application of restorative justice in the prison system” in order to help ex-offenders choose non-violent approaches in the face of tension which in turn ensures peaceful communities.
The final presentation was by Amandeep Kaur Maan who is an Environmental Manager, Chair of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission and member of ‘EcoSikhUK’, an interfaith response to combat climate change. She was interviewed by Mauricio Silva the Columbans Britain Inter Religious Dialogue Coordinator.
Amandeep spoke about her Sihk faith and the abundance of scriptures where the Guru’s spoke about nature, our connection to it and our duty towards it. In scriptures, the Guru’s would talk about living in harmony with nature and how being in nature was a way of experiencing the presence of God.
In the context of non-violence and peace, Amandeep spoke about how Sikhism focuses on building peace with the Earth and how connected human beings are with the environment. She said, “when people talk about violence against the Earth, we forget that the Earth is so connected to people”. So in caring for the Earth, we are also caring for ourselves. One of the events EcoSikhUK were able to participate in was with “Canal & River Trust” which took people down to the canals and areas that people wouldn’t normally access due to limited access to green space. In essence, EcoSikh aims to raise awareness of the beauty of the planet through the aid of scripture which encourages us to recognise the connection between people and planet.
As a Faith in Action Volunteer, I really appreciated being a part of this webinar and hearing what the speakers had to say about the importance of peace and non-violence. Participation in the event gave me deeper insight into some of the work that the Columbans take part in. I particularly appreciated hearing about the Sydney Statement as it is something I have never heard about before and which I learnt, provides a profound blueprint on how to dialogue with people from different groups and work together to fight issues that affect us all.
The values that World Interfaith Harmony Week uphold remind me of one of my favourite Gospel songs “I Need You to Survive” written by the Gospel legend, Hezekiah Walker.
The Chorus goes;
“I pray for you, you pray for me,
I love, I need you to survive,
I won’t harm you, with words from my mouth,
I love you, I need you to survive”.
The song displays that interconnectedness and social cohesion that we should strive to establish and the desire to see each and every one of us happy and thriving.