By William Swing
ENGENDERING GRASSROOTS ACTIVIST CONNECTIONS
It is a gift to help people imagine in a different way. The United Religions Initiative (URI) provides that. We look at the thirteen-hundred years of hostility between the Sunnis and the Shias and imagine a time in the future when they will disarm in weapons and arm in an embrace. We imagine the time when Protestant Christians and Roman Catholic Christians in Northern Ireland will have a parade together down the streets of Belfast instead of conducting Marching Season parades of hate and enduring historic hostility. We imagine a time in the Middle East where the Jewish people will have their land acknowledged while the Muslim and Christian Palestinians have their land recognized.
Instead of the often told story of one side selecting David to fight in a winner take all while the other side selects Goliath, URI imagines David and Goliath meeting to figure out how Philistines and Israelites can share the same land and worship different Gods.
Imagining the Impossible
Think the opposite. Imagine the impossible. If there is a United Nations, why can’t we figure out how to have a United Religions? If religions play a role in prolonging wars, couldn’t religions play a role in ending wars? If the devout are praised for laying down their lives for destruction, why can’t we honor the devout for sacrificing themselves for the sake of peace?
The word “martyr” means “witness.” Typically a martyr is accepted as someone who dies for his or her faith. Bears witness by dying. But what if he or she witnesses by living, not for the victory of one faith, but for the compatibility of all faiths to abide together in the same land? A new kind of martyr.
A little child can look around and say, “So many wars are caused by religious faiths fighting each other.” And the child can despair. It seems that this is the way things have been, are, and ever will be. Yes but…! Along comes the United Religions Initiative and declares that the opposite is imaginable, thinkable, doable, inevitable. Peace among people of differing religions can be discovered in millions of settings, small and large, throughout the world. Just start with a contrary imagination and begin to live into the impossible. Life is full of surprises, gifts. URI is a surprising gift.
Interfaith Activism on the Ground
Another way URI is a gift has to do with the way international interfaith work is carried out. Between 1893 and 1993 international interfaith work primarily meant large gatherings of people sitting in auditoriums watching and listening to famous religious leaders of various traditions give speeches. The array of robes was spectacular, and the mere sight of the wide variety in one place together was almost a miracle to behold. That was considered the height of international interfaith work. The audience would go home astounded while the religious leaders would go home satisfied. Mission accomplished.
In a sense, the conference, the assembly, the summit pretty well defined the work, though these generalities are far too broad. There was indeed more going on, for instance great efforts around religious freedom and mobilizing important religious leaders to work in interfaith contexts to address difficult issues. But even these depended upon the great international interfaith conferences to inspire the troops and build the necessary constituency. This made the great assembly fashionable and standard fare.
The large outlay of money needed to fund these gatherings meant that very few could function in this arena. If you had lots of money, you could afford to carry on international interfaith work. If you didn’t have money, you stayed home and talked to anyone who would listen. Of course, a rich and ambitious religious leader or a king or well connected host could burst onto the international interfaith scene. But they are few in number, and anyone who dares to enter this arena faced the potential of going bankrupt and out of business.
Then along came URI, as a gift. No connections. The tiniest amount of money and soaring debt. The backing of no religious leaders. No media attracting assemblies. Lots of resistance from religious and interfaith leaders. And not very articulate in describing what unique gift it would one day bring to the table. And yet … its genius came from the emerging community of grassroots people. Not from the conference, not from wealth or the favor of religious hierarchs with abundant treasuries.
Its genius came from the emerging community of grassroots people all over the world. Before there was a URI Charter, there was a community of people yearning to provide the world with an international interfaith opportunity for grassroots people, near and far, to create a new culture of peace, justice, and healing.
Yes, there was a conference to sign the Charter. And yes there have been two, small global assemblies in thirteen years. But these gatherings were dedicated to action rather than talking. No audience. No stage upon which religious leaders could speak. Just the spontaneous URI grassroots leaders getting together to compare best practices and build networks. And operating on a shoe string;600,000 URI members and 37 employees. Not much money changing hands.
In Rio de Janiero, Brazil, at URI’s first global assembly, I thought, being the founder and president, that the troops would like to hear from me. I would give a speech. But the staff made sure that didn’t happen. We were there to work, not to hear big speeches. In Mayapur, India, at the second global assembly I tried again, only to have the staff nix the idea quickly. With the exception of a bruised ego I came to understand the wisdom of a grassroots mentality rather thana hierarchical mentality. (Being a bishop for 27 years conditions one in another direction.)
There has never been anything even close to resembling URI in international interfaith history. In so many ways URI proves to be a daily gift to civil societies, but at its core URI is first of all a gift to grassroots people of all faiths, indigenous traditions, and spiritual expressions throughout the world.
What’s in a Name?
URI is led by a misleading title. United Religions. Those words in the title turn off so many categories of people. Those who don’t like the United Nations. Those who think that the title is ridiculously arrogant. Those who worry that religions will create an unwieldy bureaucracy. Those who shudder at what might happen if religions ever unite. Those who fear that a new religion is intended. With so many instant critics with such valid reservations, why adopt such an audacious title?
Because URI never wants to abandon the central assumption that religions somehow, someway have a common vocation together to aid civil society. That is our due North. United Religions is not something that will ever exist in a big building in New York. It exists wherever it can, in whatever configuration. As a matter of fact it is best that a United Religions is small at first with lots of self-organizing experiments. In time, with myriad trials and errors as well as best practices, a body of United Religions understanding will emerge. A significant part of the world will recognize that religious enemies have become productive friends, and when that kinship dawns, the world will not be stuck in the ancient paradigm that expects religions to destroy each other. Then healing can begin. The kind of healing that can only happen when the custodians of the Sacred confer legitimacy on their competition.
Once into the realm of the custodians of the Sacred, what are the boundaries? Does the Sacred extend beyond religion? Of course. That is why Indigenous Tribes must be included in the United Religions. They have a spirituality which is sometimes older than religions. They should be invited to the table. What about the “spiritual but not religious” people, the agnostics, the atheists, the ethical humanists? The artists? Do they have any sense of the Sacred? Of course. Well, under what kind of title should they be included? How about under the misleading title of United Religions?
You don’t have to be religious to be in the United Religions. You just have to be in solidarity with all of the custodians of the Sacred who want to stop the killing in the Name of God and who want to create a fresh culture of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.
URI as gift offers a title which, though misleading, prompts a game-changing thought, i.e., that all peoples of the Sacred can discover a kinship and change the world for the better.