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When human nature tells us to get even, David Carlson and the Interfaith Forum of Columbus challenge us instead to get closer.
Carlson and members of the forum are the hearts and souls behind the Shoulder to Shoulder in Interfaith Witness movement, which calls for peaceful gathering of members of all faiths anytime religion is misused for violent or hatred-fueled purposes, rather than act in retaliation, or simply do nothing.
“This is a choice. This is how we choose to respond to so much nastiness done in the name of God,” said Lezley Ward, a member of the IFFC.
The movement is simple yet profound. It centers on the concept of a physical, public gathering — literally standing shoulder to shoulder with those of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. Carlson noted that treating one’s neighbor with love and compassion is a tenet of nearly all major religions.
“What binds all of us is the knowledge that the neighbor is sacred,” Carlson said. Physically standing next to them in solidarity reinforces that tenet.
Gatherings may then include a meditative silence, or attendees may verbalize their grief extemporaneously. Finally, the group will commit to giving messages of peace to all interested media outlets.
“The emphasis is on the power of grieving together,” Carlson said. “We can be a voice of compassion.”
Though simple and somewhat informal, the act of gathering asks people of all spiritual walks to move beyond simply tolerating people of other faiths, or passively mourning acts of terrorism in private, to accepting those of different faiths and standing up in opposition to violence in the name of religion.
“Tolerance is an unacceptable goal,” Carlson said. “You tolerate a headache.”
The seeds of the Shoulder to Shoulder movement were planted with Carlson, professor of religious studies at Franklin College, while he conducted interviews for his book “Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World.”
Upon the release of his book in 2011, Carlson was invited to contribute to a series of discussions about religion and diversity hosted by Columbus’ First Baptist Church last winter.
“There was so much energy in us all being together,” Carlson said.
This spring, when the group gathered to debrief on the experience, Carlson revealed his position paper on the Shoulder to Shoulder movement. He said Columbus’ unique multicultural makeup made it an ideal community in which to introduce the movement, which he hopes will spread globally.
“We hope it will permeate other communities,” said Christine Lemley, another IFFC member. “We think we can be a real force against terrorism.”
The group originally planned to debut the Shoulder to Shoulder movement to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but when a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Aug. 5, killing six people and wounding four, they knew it was time to act.
“Tragedy pushed us forward,” Carlson said.
On Aug. 7, about 30 Columbus residents gathered to mourn the tragedy in front of Columbus City Hall, including a Sikh couple who spoke movingly of their faith to the gathered crowd.
“America is supposed to have religious freedom,” Ward said. “It felt good to me as an American to extend compassion to them. To say ‘I am so, so sorry that happened to people of your faith.’”
Though the real challenge for many is not just extending compassion toward a religious or cultural group that has been wronged but also forgiveness toward the individual responsible for the wrongdoing.
“Forgiveness is a uniquely human act that is both powerful and positive,” Carlson writes in his position paper. “To forgive even those who commit acts of terror is to realize that they need our help in recovering their humanity.”
“It’s a huge spiritual task to be loving in spite of violence,” Ward said. “But it’s an important job.”
Carlson said the movement one day may expand to include seminars or conferences, but for now, the movement only asks its followers to model a more peaceful and hopeful future. “Our being together is a witness to what we think the future can be.”
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