Disunited Nations

Having just recited the United Nations Charter, two things come to mind. First, what a tremendous charter: it sounds so very wonderful. Second, signed 70 years ago this past June, it sounds very much like fantasy. The real United Nations has become a place where some people make sweeping speeches, while others blow off steam screaming at one another, and little if anything constructive appears to get done. Sounds a lot like the U.S. Congress.

Except, of course, it’s no joke. After two world wars and continuous wars in between and after, we are still a world divided and fighting … always, fighting. Killing. Why? Why??
No, I’m sorry to say I don’t have an answer to world peace to offer to you today. But I do think it’s important to take the time to ponder this – not every day, or we’d never get anything done, but from time to time. And this United Nations Day seems like a good time. We humans are a small, fragile, fear-filled race – afraid of almost everything, and most especially afraid of each other. We have been for centuries, millennia, indeed ever since we came down from the trees and probably even before that. We have banded together in tribes, trying to protect ourselves from “the other” and indeed creating categories of “other” faster than it is possible to track.

We’ve spoken here before about how every spiritual path has called on us, pleaded with us, begged us to come together. Jew, Sikh, Baha’i, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, I’ve quoted them all. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted Hiawatha before – the legendary Onondaga chief and founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. So today, let him speak for all of our spiritual leaders, throughout time. He spoke some five hundred years ago. Yet things have changed so little that it is as if he were speaking before the United Nations today. Perhaps only a word or two would change.

“My children, war, fear, and disunity have brought you from your villages to this sacred council fire. Facing a common danger, and fearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart, each tribe thinking and acting only for itself. … My children, listen well. Remember that you are brothers, that the downfall of one means the downfall of all.”

Today, facing a collapsing ecology and the most destructive weapons ever created, we remain disunited nations, paralyzed by fear, distrust and tribalism. The words of Hiawatha, as well as Jesus, Bahaullah, Muhammad, the Buddha, Hillel and so many, many others notwithstanding.

So what are we to do? What are we to do? This much wisdom I will offer you upfront. Despair will get us nowhere. Neither will a smug and passive optimism. But I do believe that if we will work, if we will rededicate ourselves to the hard work of love, compassion and community, we may yet make progress.

Too often, if we can’t solve something, we throw up our hands and give up. But for me, what we are called to is progress, not solutions. You’ve heard me speak of this before. Our problems are indeed big; but that doesn’t prevent us from nibbling at them. One of my new favorite quotes comes from a Rabbi of the second century. Faced with so much work, even then … so many difficulties, even then … so much to do, here is what Rabbi Tarfon tells us, “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.”

It is not up to us to finish the work, the difficult and daunting work that lies in front of our faces, but that does not give us a free pass to avoid it. It is within that context that I would like to share with you some of the work I encountered at the Parliament of the World’s Religions last week. It was and remains a source of great joy, of renewal and of optimism for me – as long as we will take up that joy, renewal and optimism, take it upon our shoulders as a yoke and do the work. It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to avoid it.

Some of the work being done is by a group that calls itself the Abrahamic Reunion. Palestinian and Israeli, Jew, Muslim, Christian and Druze this is a wonderfully interfaith group that eats together, reads scripture together and walks together, as an interfaith group, hand in hand, down some of the most troubled streets in the Holy Land. They call it that. Not Israel. Not Palestine. Not Israel/Palestine. The Holy Land. Remembering the Buddha and others, I don’t think it’s the only Holy Land on planet earth, but most of us know the violent and hugely troubled spot they refer to and call home. I was able to go to two of their three sessions.

It was inspiring and it was healing to listen to them share their common goal of love, community and mutual respect. I had not heard of them. Not surprising. Our newspapers and television “news” are filled with Netanyahu and violence, not the peacemakers. But the peacemakers are there. Risking their lives daily these men and women are indeed doing the work of justice and peace – in the face of Hamas, in the face of Netanyahu, in the face of a media that considers them unworthy of coverage. Still, they do the work. Daily. Inspiring. It was so inspiring to meet them and shake their hands.

And these were just a few of the participants. There were so many, many others. It was truly exhausting. The Salt Lake City convention center was a huge three floor maze that the best of rats would have been lost in. It was an hour and a half presentation, then fifteen minutes to find your way through the maze to the next presentation. And then the next. And then the next. From morning into the night.

Cathy and I were there for four exhausting days. One plenary session as well as several presentations were devoted to income inequality, not as a political issue, but as a deeply spiritual one. Yes, we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And it is good to be reminded of this. “Me, me, me” and “more, more, more” may well be the way of Madison Avenue, but it is not the way of our spiritual teachings.

Other plenary and smaller sessions were on dealing with climate change as a spiritual issue – a moral obligation to our children and their children to leave them a good and habitable world.

A full day was devoted to the positive and important role of women in spiritual matters – including … gasp! … leadership. These were but some of the back to back to back sessions on spiritual matters as diverse as the people attending – some 10,000 people from more than 80 countries, representing over 50 spiritual paths. But the exhilaration of the four days more than made up for the exhaustion that we experienced. And it was on that fourth day that Cathy and I were privileged to give our presentation on “Spiritual Humility: The Faith of Interfaith.” And I’d like to share a little about that.

The first forty-five minutes of our presentation were spent talking about Interfaith as a faith and answering questions. Good questions. Questions that showed that people were not only paying attention but involved. During the second forty-five minutes, we offered an abbreviated Living Interfaith service and answered more questions. With an abbreviated service, those lucky folks got a five minute homily from me instead of a twenty minute sermon. You should have been there!

And I would like to share with you some of the uplifting things from that came out of the presentation. First, in a moment of reckless optimism, I prepared forty Orders of Service. We ran out! There were sixty people attending. A few people didn’t care for it, but the overwhelming majority were very enthusiastic. Afterwards, three people spoke to me about starting a Living Interfaith congregation in their city. They were more than serious, they were eager. I am quite confident that they will follow through. When I got home, there was an e-mail awaiting me from a fourth person, who had been at the presentation but hadn’t spoken to me. She’s already an ordained minister. And she wants to start a Living Interfaith congregation in her city.

My publisher was there. And let’s be honest, not just for me! Many of their authors, including my friends Jamal Rahman and Ted Falcon were there giving presentations. The publisher brought as many of my books as they reasonably thought they might sell. They sold out.

This is no endorsement of me. It is an affirmation of Interfaith as a faith. It is an affirmation that what we have been doing here for the last five years has indeed blazed a trail for others to follow – and they are following it. I know it hasn’t always been easy. Being first rarely is, particularly if it involves a paradigm change. But this indeed is an affirmation that now is the time for Living Interfaith to spread.

So we, here, each and every one of us are doing a part of the work of healing the world. Every time we come together to celebrate each other’s spiritual paths, we are doing the work of helping to heal the world. When I tell people how many spiritual paths are represented by our small group they are amazed. When I share with them that we not only honor each other’s spiritual traditions but indeed respect and celebrate our diversity they are floored. It is a new paradigm. It’s a new paradigm whose time has come.

That doesn’t mean we are free to stop. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a massive amount of work yet to be done – a daunting amount of work. Cathy and I came home from the Parliament a day early in order to attend the fundraiser for the Interfaith Family Shelter and support their important and so very much needed work. But understand, that because of what we do and our success in doing it, word is spreading. We are becoming, if we will stay with it, a movement.

Now, will Interfaith save the world? No. Is Interfaith “the solution”? No. Will Interfaith sweep the world, at last uniting the nations and bring peace and love and joy to this troubled planet? No. Darn! But Interfaith, and the spiritual humility that forms its core and foundation, can give us a way to speak to each other, to listen to each other, and at long last begin to disassemble the machinery of spiritual fear that has made the human race so vulnerable to violence and to hatred.

And what this wonderful Parliament of the World’s Religions, that brought together 10,000 people from over 50 spiritual paths from all over the globe, has shown us is that we can come together. We can listen to each other. We can share safe sacred space and do the work of healing that we are called to. May we continue to do so.

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