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In a World of Violent Disorder, Carrying the Agony in Hope

By William E. Swing


Written for the 639 United Religion Initiative Cooperation Circles in 84 countries, Bill Swing’s words in these difficult times resonate for interfaith activists everywhere.

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I could hear it in words of President’s Council member, Cissie Swig, who met with United Religions Initiative leaders in Jerusalem and wrote: “URI is needed now more than ever.” I could hear it in the voice of Global Council Trustee, Tariq al-Tamini, whose home in Hebron had been ransacked. I could hear it in the writings of Global Trustees, Bart ten Broek and Ari van Buuren who, in the Netherlands, were numbered among the mourners of the victims of the Malaysian Flight 17. I could read it in the email from Despina Namwembe, whose security guard, Mohammed Hassan, had just been murdered last month in her URI office. What I heard was agony. 

Agony is different than pain. Pain is personal, as in the pain I feel in my back. Agony can have a reach far beyond myself. I can be in agony as I witness and imagine great sufferings that others are enduring. At this moment the daily news floods our awareness with millions of people in excruciating agony and distress. Young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Families fleeing into bomb shelters in Israel while families are bombed in Gaza. Christians told to convert or pay a high tax or be murdered in Iraq. Muslims in Burma being horribly persecuted by Buddhists. Desperate children begging at the gates of the United States hoping for entry. Frantic people exiting Syria in almost 360 degree directions. “The whole world groans in travail...” Agony seems to be contagious and ubiquitous. I can certainly hear it in the voices of URI people around the world. 

So what do we, the people of URI, do with our agony? We resist the temptation to use it as a reason to unload vengeance on our natural enemies. Instead we carry our agony with restraint and hope while searching for others of competing loyalties who are carrying their agony with restraint and hope. We have an outrageous confidence that fit colleagues of all religions, indigenous traditions, and spiritual expressions can be found and together we can alter the arc of this world’s agony. 

How do we go about our task? Slowly and in small segments! One little Cooperation Circle at a time and each one a miracle of community in the midst of disunity! It doesn’t sound very impressive in terms of imposing an order on society, but in every corner of the world where URI has taken root, civil society has become more humane at some level and local problems have been solved or healed. 

The possibility of our revolutionary organizational design is being recognized by many unlikely voices throughout the world. For instance in a July 16, 2014 editorial in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman said, “When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a “strongman” isn’t what it used to be) leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable, source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values, and trust. Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order.” 

In my opinion, URI is on the right track, actually the only track that ultimately makes sense. Bottom line: people have got to learn to live together...from the bottom up. 

That’s it. That is the whole thing. After 1,400 years of blood feud between the Shia and the Sunni, why don’t they just learn to live together? Israelis and Palestinians, someday they are going to have to live together. The U.S.A. and Russia, someday they have to stop investing in destroying each other with nuclear weapons and instead have to invest in how to live together. 

In the midst of the insanity, someone has to model sanity. Someone has to demonstrate a better alternative. Someone has to nudge civil society toward its best promise. Picture Baghdad, today, in July 2014. ISIS with all of its raw fury is within measured miles. Inside the city of Baghdad, terror attacks are at a high not experienced since the first days of our invasion. And the elected leader of Iraq is teetering on being deposed, overthrown and forced to resign. Today in the middle of that city, URI has a Cooperation Circle entitled UR for Interfaith Dialogue and Peacemaking whose single task is to bring together Sunni and Shia leaders in an effort to arrive at a peaceful equilibrium. Therein lies the extravagant hope of URI in the face of seemingly intransigent enemies. 

 ”The whole world groans in travail.” It is hard for the feeling, thinking person to speak these days without genuine agony in his or her voice. Certainly this is true among the people of URI. Our task is to carry the agony in hope.