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The United Religions Initiative

A Few Opening Vignettes
In 1990, at the height of the Intifada, I was with other members of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Peace in the Arab sector of old Jerusalem. We had been visiting Israeli military and political leaders, and refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, and Gaza, including the Jibalya camp, where the “uprising” had started. I was stunned to come upon a vicious fight between two young Arab boys that was broken up by an older boy, who said to them in Arabic, “Save it for the Jews.” This illustrates to me how tenaciously enmity is transmitted through the generations.

I was invited to research and write what turned out to be a chapter entitled, “Anglican Attitudes and Behaviors Concerning War,” in an Anglican Ethics text book edited by Paul Elmen, The Anglican Moral Choice. The gist of it is that Anglicans are second to none in being for peace in peacetime, and for war in wartime. This illustrates the unfortunate tendency of religions to sanctify violence.

More specifically, In mid-October 1997, after hundreds of Algerian women and children had been brutally massacred, a Paris newspaper received a fax from people claiming to be the perpetrators of this. It said, “We are that band, with God’s permission, who kill and slaughter, and we will remain so until the word of religion has prevailed and the work of God is raised high. . . We inform you according to our faith . . . no dialogues, no truce, no reconciliation.”

There was no voice raised anywhere in the name of a religion, or of religions, to condemn the allegedly godly brutalizers. This is an example of religiously sanctioned terrorism.

One needn’t exhaustively detail the other venues in the world where religious difference is a causal or aggravating factor in the dehumanization of children, women, and men. A few of the more familiar of these are Bosnia, Chechnya, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, East Timor, and Afghanistan. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently said, “In Uganda, a group calling itself The Lord’s Resistance Army conducts an insurrection including the kidnaping of children, the rape of little girls and the murder of women, all in the name of their messiah.”

At any moment throughout the world today there may be as many as 50 “armed conflicts” of all sizes going on. 110 million people have been killed in this century as a direct result of wars. At the beginning of this century, about 5% of those killed in wars or conflicts were civilians;continued on page 4by mid century 50% of those killed were civilians (women and children in the majority); by the century’s final two decades, the civilian percentage of all people killed in wars and conflicts was between 80% and 90%– this primarily due to the easily, and profitably, sold light weapons purveyed throughout the world by arms merchants.

In January 1997, 44 conflicts were under way in 39 countries, about a quarter of these have been going on for more than two decades — and almost 2/3 of these involve the use of child soldiers under the age of fifteen.

People think the nuclear arms problem is solved. But our own country and the former Soviet Union are headed toward nuclear weapons stability in 2003, when each side will have 3500 nukes each, for a total explosive equivalent of 440 pounds of TNT for every man, woman, and child presently living on the planet. The entire world’s nuclear stockpile represents over 700 times the explosive power used in the 20th century’s three major wars. Anyone growing up in the “cold war” years would likely know of the role played by vociferous Christian pulpiteers in fueling this build-up, and the frequent failure of other Christians to challenge it.

The social costs of global military spending are enormous. Worldwide 2.15 billion women are anemic; 1.3 billion people live in abject poverty; 750 million go hungry every day; 11 million children die before age five; 885 million adults are illiterate.

Our own country’s military budget approaches $270 billion annually. This is about 85% of the 1976-90 cold war average (when we had an enemy supposedly worthy of us) and is greater than all military spending by the other major military powers on the planet combined.

The peace, reconciliation, justice, and forgiveness affirmations within the world’s moral heritages need to be brought to bear concretely upon the powerful political and unprecedented military forces of our time. The images, symbols, and stories contained in the treasure chests that are the world’s religious heritages have never more been needed than at the end of the bloodiest century in history.

About Religion and Religions
J. M. Yinger defines religion as “a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with ultimate problems of human life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human aspirations.” So far, so good.

On the larger scale, how religion become a central factor in the more aggressive business of contentious ethnic and national identity is impressively described by my friend Bruce Lawrence, using the Muslim countries as case examples. He wrote a wonderful book, Shattering the Myth, just out from Princeton University Press. Bruce considers the Muslim countries one by one as being defined by Islam, but Islam as shaped in response to Western colonial exploitation — which is difficult for Westerners to grasp, not having experienced the history of colonialism from the colonized vantage point.

Political-historical factors have shaped many world religions, and the religions have fueled many strife-making policies and actions. David Little, a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, writes in Belief, Ethnicity, and Nationalism:

“Hebrew Scripture, whether interpreted by Jews or Christians, the Qur’an, and some significant Buddhist doctrines and texts, for example, all provide the foundation and the inspiration for enlisting political and military power in the cause of defending and advancing certain sacred values and ways of life.

“And these natural affinities make understandable why . . . the modern state, even in its more liberal forms, readily takes on some sacral attributes and functions. Its memorials for fallen heroes, its ceremonies commemorating past glories and woes, its rhetoric of obligation and sacrifice ‘for God and country,’ all give meaning to the suffering and death of those defending the nation, and provide the nation a certain ‘transcendent’ continuity among its members, living, dead, and yet unborn.”

Thus, for example, it should be no surprise that at the end of a recent U.S. attack upon Iraq, Saddam Hussein said that the United States were the “enemies of God.”

You can see in other places the religious underpinnings of ethnic or nationalistic identity — for instance, Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which was initially predisposed to become a nationalizing force because of racism and anti-Buddhist intolerance on the part of Christian missionaries and British colonial authorities. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhism reinforces Tibetan cohesion against Chinese inroads there. In North Sudan the government, in some measure, is forced into strong Muslim identity by the history of overthrows when a more tolerant attitude was promulgated. In other words, religion frequently plays a significant role in ethnic and national identity and may readily intertwine with violence.

Of course religions are not only part of the problem. They are, or can be, part of the solution. Dr. Douglas Johnston of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies paraphrases world-religions expert Houston Smith: “For all their diversities, there are certain properties that most of the major religions hold in common: the premise that self-centeredness is the source of most unhappiness, that help is needed to overcome this condition, and that there is a ‘divine ground’ from which humankind has sprung and in relation to which one’s true worth is to be sought . . . Most importantly, [the world’s religions] also contain some version of the Golden Rule. These represent significant commonalities on which to build in promoting interfaith dialogue and the nonviolent resolution of differences.”

The point is that religions have been used for ill and good. Their commonalities are the basis of our hope that attempting to pull people together from the world’s religions for a world at peace is valid, and possibly essential. The United Religions Initiative intends to create ongoing forums, at both the local and the global levels, for problem solving and reconciliation between people of the world’s great religions. This has never been tried before. What has lately come to be called “peacebuilding” is enormously complex and elusive, and we believe urgent.

Some highlights of the most recent Annual Global Summit Conference Stanford University, June 1998
Hindu political and religious leaders from India and Muslim leaders from Pakistan gathered at Stanford. They stated that they could not be for peace in their own countries, immediately following May’s nuclear tests there, but they could work together for peace under our auspices. They worked hard for the entire week and produced an eloquent statement and a peace process that they have taken back to their countries. It was a spectacular thing to see.

It was the same with Christians and Muslims from East Africa: Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. They worked hard as a group on the regional problems that we have seen so starkly in media reports of the area.

Young people of the world’s great religions gathered to design an international, interfaith youth service project. What a gift to a generation that will appreciate structures to make the world a better place!

The Draft Charters of a new grassroots and global organization — The United Religions — are being developed and sent around the world for revision by our organizational design team. Our chief consultant is Dee Hock, founder of the international VISA card system. The VISA endeavor is based upon optimal local autonomy and initiative. It is ideally suited to work within different cultures, which is what we are trying to do as well.

The United Religions Initiative exists to bring people together from all the religions of the world, to create a world where no one has to die because of God, or for God, any more. Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung says, “There will never be peace among civilizations without peace among religions. There will never be peace among religions without dialogue among religions.” Our endeavor is to enable that dialogue.

Review & Commentary