On These Shoulders
When Elie Wiesel visited Hiroshima, he asked, ‘Am I looking at the past or at the future?’
Today it is hard to sense the depth of fear in the seventies and eighties that the MAD policy of safety through Mutual Assured Destruction could result in global catastrophe. That we are alive to give thanks to those who campaigned so actively against nuclear weapons is evidence of the considerable success of their efforts – even if so much remains to do to rid the world of all nuclear weapons.
Homer Alexander Jack, who was the moving spirit in the formative years of the World Conference on Religions and Peace (WCRP) – now Religions for Peace – comes high in the ranks of anti-nuclear heroes.
Homer was born in the middle of World War I in 1916. Although his doctorate was in biology, he decided to become a Unitarian minister.
Even as a student at Meadville Theological School in Chicago, he was campaigning to stop the U.S.’s entry into World War II. He was equally vigorous in his opposition to racial segregation. Indeed, from 1960 to 1964 he served as executive director to the Congress of Racial Equality and to the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) – both of which he had co-founded.
Homer Jack’s lifework was to serve the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) – now Religions for Peace. WCRP’s birth came in 1969. But it was conceived in a telephone call in 1962 between Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Rabbi Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York. Both were convinced that religions needed to come together to work for peace. With growing support, a National Interreligious Conference on Peace was convened in Washington in March 1966. The papers were edited for publication by Homer Jack, a member of the secretariat.
The 1966 gathering hoped that a world interreligious conference on peace could be held the following year: this was overly optimistic. Instead a preparatory symposium was held in New Delhi in 1968, and the first World Conference on Religion and Peace met in Kyoto in October 1970. Homer Jack had made a world tour to ensure participation by a wide range of religious leaders. Yet even before the second WCRP at Leuven/Louvain, Belgium, in 1974, he admitted that the secretariat was still having difficulty identifying leaders of the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim worlds.
It was at Leuven that I first met Homer Jack. I was immediately aware of his energy, which not all the delegates could keep up with, even though the cost of the assembly, as Homer told them, was $4,000 an hour. I was impressed by his amazing knowledge of people and of the issues involved in the search for peace.
Although the focus and structure of WCRP and the World Congress of Faiths is different, Homer and I saw each other as colleagues, and I knew that he would say exactly what he was thinking. We really did have ‘free and frank exchanges!’ He was impatient with religious titles and in his letters addressed everyone as ‘Dear Friend.’ I did the same for a while until I discovered that some email programmes immediately consign such messages to spam.
Homer ends his history of WCRP with a characteristically honest assessment. The audacious vision of those who founded WCRP was “to engage all world religions everywhere in peacemaking and peacekeeping activities.” WCRP, he wrote, had not lived up to this and had remained a modest organization which had had some successes. Writing in 1993, he felt WCRP’s reaction to the Gulf War crisis had been weak for at least four reasons, which leaders of any interfaith group today may still wish to ponder.
Board members had come to see themselves as representatives of their religion and were less willing to take risks than the early leaders who acted as individuals. Second, the leaders had little detailed knowledge of the history of the organization. Third, the adoption of a holistic definition of peace “may have diluted the organization’s focus and urgency.” “Attention to everything from apartheid to Zionism” had meant that WCRP had lost sight of “the war against war.” The fourth and final deterrent to prophecy may be the very professionalism all organizations seek for sheer efficiency. He was also aware of the danger of interreligious dialogue becoming an end in itself, instead of “focusing on religions working together for peace.”
Homer ends the chapter on ‘Vision’ by recalling Albert Einstein’s call in the fifties for a world government – nothing less. Einstein saw that the advice and criticism of genuinely supranational organizations were especially valuable since a prophet is not listened to in his own country. Homer warned that it is not sufficient “for those of us who are old to dream stale dreams.” His own closing vision, that “the abolition of war should be the highest priority for WCRP today,” should perhaps still be the vision of all who share in the interfaith movement. It was the vision of those who convened the first World Parliament of Religions.
Homer died as gatherings to mark the centenary of that Parliament were being held in Bangalore, Chicago, and other parts of the world, but not before he had handed on that original vision.
In 1989 Homer Jack was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize. But Martin Luther King’s appreciation of him in 1959 is perhaps the most fitting tribute to him. “Homer Jack is certainly one of the most dedicated persons that I have ever met. He combines the fact-finding mind of a social scientist with the great insights of a religious prophet.”