Interfaith Resilience in the Face of Existential Threats

23 August 2023

URI Executive Director Jerry White presents at the Community Plenary of the 130th Anniversary of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Jerry at Parliament 2023

When I was twenty years old, I went on my first spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land and quickly learned that interfaith journeys can be dangerous.  While hiking in Israel, I stepped on a landmine.  The explosion blew off my lower right leg.  I later spent ten years of my life studying how individuals and groups can build resilience to overcome violent conflict and crises.

After working with nearly ten thousand war victims - amputees and other traumatized persons with disabilities - the hallmarks of resilience became clear.  No one survives alone.  We must have social support, including physical safety and belief in something bigger than ourselves.

Turns out, we need each other to find resilience in the face of threat.  Today, as I see it, we need to survive three looming existential threats: The threat of war and nuclear annihilation.  The threat of climate annihilation.  And one you might not have considered: the threat of youth annihilation.  Our young people are experiencing alarming rates of suicide, addiction, anxiety, and depression.  How many of you have heard one of your friends, kids, or grandkids say they don’t want to bring a child into the world?  This doesn’t bode well for our species if the rising generation has lost their appetite to procreate and recreate our world. 

We used to rely on faith institutions for our connectivity and community.  But religion is on the defense.  People are disillusioned.  And tens of millions of people who do believe or rely on religion are being persecuted, imprisoned, and killed, because of their faith and beliefs.  We call it “Religicide” – the murder of a religion, its followers, and the destruction of their sacred heritage and habitats.  Without the means to protect religious and spiritual life, the glue that helps bind people together, it will become increasingly difficult for humanity to summon the necessary resilience to survive.

Anti-religious violence is growing faster than any other category today.  It has become an epidemic, and we must build collective antibodies and immunities.  Simply by gathering together this week, strengthening interfaith networks globally, we are building resilience.  We also recognize that this kind of opportunity is increasingly rare.  This gathering would be prohibited and illegal under many authoritarian regimes who persecute religious minorities and deny their human rights.  All those lovely booths and interfaith displays in the exhibition hall would likely be torn down or burned to the ground in many countries today.

If this were China, could Uyghurs and Tibetan Buddhists participate?  If this were Iran or Jordan, could Baha’i or atheists convene?  If this were Myanmar, would the Rohingya, already denied citizenship, be allowed to share their stories?  Could women in Afghanistan host the Parliament?  How about Yazidis in Iraq, Coptic communities in Egypt, or Armenians in Turkey?  These groups face ongoing persecution – the denial of their freedoms and rights.  And let’s not forget that virtually all Indigenous communities worldwide struggle daily against extinction and cultural genocide. 

We need to wake up and rise up.  We must stand in solidarity with the survivors of religiously motivated violence worldwide.

The good news is that each of us can do something, because we already know the cure, as evidenced by scientific research as well as ancient wisdom.  The antidotes to anti-religious violence are found in religions and spirituality, in our very interfaith, interspiritual movement.  The latest research confirms there are three primary ingredients for resilience, thriving, flourishing – whichever phrase you prefer to call overall human well-being.  They can be boiled down to connection, protection, and creation.

We need social connection and community in order to flourish.  Like I said, no one survives or prospers alone.  To thrive, we humans need to reconnect and belong to something bigger than ourselves.

We need basic protection – this includes societal security with survival needs met for food, water, and shelter.  This requires a sense of psychological and physical safety.  The disease of violence is the real enemy, not your neighbor, or another religion or group. 

We also need creation – access to natural beauty and cultural creativity – to stimulate us on a regular basis.  We are all healthier when we are free to experience nature, to celebrate life with dance and song and sacred rituals. 

These ingredients for resilience and well-being are exactly why I joined URI as their Executive Director one year ago.  URI is known for being the largest grassroots interfaith network in the world with 1,100 community-based interfaith “cooperation circles” in more than 110 countries.  What attracted me most to URI is its vision – the prescient purpose and principles birthed by its founders, including Bishop Bill Swing and many of you interfaith pioneers here with us today. 

URI’s mission delivers the three essential ingredients for a flourishing planet.  The first is connection: We promote enduring daily interfaith cooperation.  We form cooperation circles, getting at least seven people from three different faiths to work together on local problems.  We are wired for community resilience and altruism.

The second ingredient is protection and security:  We are called to end religiously motivated violence in our lifetime.  This is indeed a tall order, but URI, working with all of our allies in this room, could potentially save millions of lives in the coming decades.  This is now possible by taking an evidence-based health approach to violence.  It turns out violence spreads like a disease.  It is contagious, but it is not inevitable.  Violence can be prevented community by community so that people experience greater security.

Finally, the third part of URI’s mission is to “create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”  To do this successfully, we must align with nature and promote ecological regeneration.  Truth be told, our Indigenous brothers, sisters, and friends have understood this for millennia.  We need to listen attentively to their voices to relearn this wisdom of interdependence – reconnecting people with spirit and nature.

Before closing, let’s take a moment here at the Parliament to appreciate and savor the precious freedom we often take for granted – the very ability to celebrate and learn about diverse faith perspectives without risk of punishment.  Here in Chicago, we can celebrate diversity and unity with impunity.

Let me reiterate that religion and spirituality are not the cause of violent conflict, as many project.  Instead, they are essential to respond to the authoritarian governments or autocrats trying to destroy religious minorities.

We do have numbers on our side.  Over eighty percent of the world’s eight billion people currently identify with some form of religion or spirituality.  We hope that may be turned to an advantage as we aim to grow a more robust and resilient interfaith network and movement.  We must reenergize and regenerate our ranks by engaging rising leaders and young persons who are craving meaning, belonging, and environmental impact.

What are some things we all can do as we go forth from this Parliament?

  • CONNECTION:  Build quality relationships with both your neighbors and strangers – showing hospitality and respect for difference.  Share in the joy of friendship and community.  Consider joining URI and forming an interfaith cooperation circle or volunteer for one of the many worthy interfaith groups represented here.
  • PROTECTION:  Urge our leaders (political, business, religious) to live up to their commitments to protect human rights.  Interrupt the spread of hate speech and lies by using media and technology responsibly to disseminate wisdom and truth.  
  • CO-CREATION:  Go outside and experience nature as often as you can.  You will stimulate creativity by aligning with nature and Mother Earth.  Explore diverse cultures, traveling outside your comfort zone.  Sing, dance, and celebrate beauty on a daily basis.

I want to express my deep appreciation to URI, to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and to all of you gathered.  More than ever, the world needs our interfaith and interspiritual networks to grow and prosper.  Thank you for this precious opportunity for us to join forces to connect, protect, and co-create new possibilities for resilience and flourishing on the planet.