For the past twenty-five years, I have been vitally involved with others in the founding of and in the development of the United Religions Initiative (URI). At our beginning, we asked, “how can we do our part to end religiously motivated violence?” We did not think that dialogue was our preferred means of addressing religious extremism. Instead, we focused on action. What can we do together? Doing, not talking, was to be our trademark. We began with the assumption that religious, humanist and tribal communities have raised up millions, perhaps billions, of moral and spiritually alert citizens throughout the world who want to cooperate in practical ways to make life better for all.
But how to do that? We had to create a purpose statement, establish principles, invent an organizational design while, at the same time, growing a global community. This took four years, and then we launched in the year 2000. Our highest purpose was not salvation but civilization. Our path was pragmatism at a grassroots level, not debate or resolutions by large assemblies. We set out to tap into this vast reservoir of conscience-driven individuals throughout the world and to make positive changes in locales and across the globe.
So how are we doing nineteen years later? In Europe, we have fifty-eight basic action units called “Cooperation Circles.” Around the world, we have over one thousand Cooperation Circles in one hundred and ten countries. What do they do? They set up URI interfaith blood banks, interfaith football matches, interfaith conflict resolution interventions, interfaith tree planting sessions, interfaith journalist meetings, interfaith film or music festivals and a thousand other venues. Personally, I am involved in a small Cooperation Circle called “Voices for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” and among our members is the former United States Secretary of Defense and a Secretary of State. (https/uri.org/prayer)
The interfaith movement has depended upon an emerging design. Let’s go back to the time in America when East Coast, mostly European, settlers got in covered wagons and made an arduous journey westward across the North American continent. At that time – in the mid 19th century – there were no such things as “interfaith activities.” This mostly Protestant pioneer group learned to “circle the wagons” in times of danger, but ultimately the wagon train moved West. Once they arrived at the Pacific Ocean, their religious landscape was shocking. Now immigrating Protestants were confronted by new neighbors – Native Indians with indigenous rituals, Spanish/Mexican Roman Catholic missions, Confucianism from China, Shintoism from Japan, Russian Orthodoxy and a large secular constituency that cared nothing about religion. Soon the new arrivals found themselves in an interfaith world but did not have an interfaith understanding of how to make the best of the new situation. So they just “circled the wagons” for a long time.
The tragedy of 9/11 was a pivotal moment in America regarding interfaith understanding. Most mayors of most large cities, after 9/11, got on civic stages and surrounded themselves with religious leaders of all traditions. The unspoken message was that “we now live in a nation where religiously motivated violence has become a reality. We can either go back to the old ways of siloed religious group or press on to a new day where we come together for the sake of our community.” This was an unconscious invitation to create a new interfaith reality.
URI is simply one manifestation of that new reality. Now, in most of Western society, schools are interfaith, sports teams are interfaith, city governments are interfaith! Large corporations are now being forced, by their employees of many faiths, to take into consideration the unique religious calendar dates and personal devotional habits of their employees. The secular world might be doing a better job of adapting to the new interfaith realities than religious faiths, some of whom have difficulty in granting respect to people of other faiths. Who knows! Interfaith is becoming a third party neutral that makes room for all aspects of civic life and all religions. Interfaith provides safe havens for people of differences to come together for the sake of the larger community.
But does all of this combat religious extremism? We will have to wait and see. Interfaith has to prove its worth in the real world where forces are at work to make one nation Christian and one nation Muslim and one nation Hindu and one nation Jewish and one nation Buddhist. There are also political forces that want to marry with religious forces to clamp a strangle hold on society and exercise ultimate power.
URI is “small potatoes” in this large picture of power. But I am convinced of two things. One – if the world is going to choose the healthiest path forward, it will need to have a robust interfaith presence. Two – small is just fine. Wars are not won with weapons dropped from airplanes. Wars are won on the ground, one village, one neighborhood, one house at a time. Even so, the ultimate defeat of extremism can only be won one village, one neighborhood, one house at a time. And that is where interfaith living comes in. URI’s investment is in harnessing the vast untapped potential of people of all faiths working together to create more vibrant communities.