Partners in Prayer and Peacemaking
An Interview with Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Rev. William G. Sinkford was in Tokyo in November 2006
to attend the ceremonies celebrating the centennial of the birth of
Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, the late founder of Rissho Kosei-kai. During his
stay, DHARMA WORLD interviewed him on the significance of self-examination by people
of religion in today's troubled world and the approach of the Unitarian Universalist
Association (UUA) to the religious diversity in American society.
We have learned from several websites of member congregations of
the UUA that self-examination is an important element in their
religious activities--in their ministries, education, peacemaking, and
so on. Could you describe the role that self-examination plays in the
UUA, as a measure of actions by people of faith?
The stereotype of Americans is that we are very action-oriented, and as
we are always busy it is hard for us to move into a space of reflection
and self-examination. Indeed, that stereotype is true to a certain
extent. I think it can be said that this characteristic accounts for
some of the success that the United States has had. But it is also one
of our great challenges. Like so many strengths, there is a downside to
it. Unitarian Universalists share that characteristic--we are deeply
American, and therefore self-examination is not the easiest discipline
for us. If anything, we err on the side of self-congratulation, rather
than honest self-examination. Changing this is one of our greatest
challenges. But Unitarian Universalist congregations always try to
include a space for self-examination and personal reflection in
worship. Some congregations call it meditation, and many congregations
call it prayer. For me, personally, it is in my prayer life that I do
my self-examination; that is the space in which I can be most honest
with myself and take the time to allow the best truth I can find to
enter my spirit. More and more Unitarian Universalist congregations are
taking advantage of that discipline. I think we have much to learn from
our international partners about what that space can mean, and about
the role that self-examination and prayer can have in our lives.
These days, I am thinking much about the truth and reconciliation
process that was used first in South Africa and now in Latin America
and other places. This process calls one into that space of truth, and
forces one to avoid self-congratulation and to accept the reality of
our history. So, for example, the oldest Unitarian Universalist
congregations in the United States are on the East Coast, in New
England. Many of our congregations have members whose families in
previous generations were very important in the slave trade, the
bringing of Africans to the United States as slaves. It would be easy
for those individuals and congregations to forget that past, to bury
the memory, but more and more of our congregations are actually taking
the time to remember their past and they are coming to learn that the
money that built some of our churches came from profits in the slave
trade. Thus, our congregations are using that truth to move into a
space of reconciliation, and they are asking themselves what they are
called to do as a result of their history. So it is a healthy
development for us, even though it is very hard to acknowledge the
reality of evil done in one's past.
Was there any visible resistance from among members?
Some. It takes the form mostly of fear, because some of the families
that are in our congregations today are families that, hundreds of
years ago, were involved in the slave trade. And for those families, it
is most difficult for them to look back, and they fear it. But most of
them are able to do it.
We believe that humility based on a keen awareness of the
vulnerability of human beings is at the root of all religions. How can
we emphasize that concept again in today's troubled world in which
That's a wonderful question. I wish that I had a simple answer.
Speaking from the Unitarian Universalist perspective, it seems to me
that if we are able to move beyond self-congratulation, then this can
allow us to enter the space where failure can be acknowledged. And if
we are not able to acknowledge failure, then we are caught in a trap in
which we believe that we should be perfect, and therefore we think that
everything we do is perfect. It is much healthier religiously to be
able to acknowledge failure. It seems to me that one of our central
purposes, and something that is very important to the religious
community, is to be able to offer forgiveness. Rissho Kosei-kai does
this as well as any religious group I've ever seen. We need to be able
to say that we are not perfect, that we fail. The religious community
can forgive us for that, and help us to forgive ourselves. Then we can
move forward. There is so much that the human community has to ask
When I was last in Japan in 2003, I had the opportunity of going to
Hiroshima and of beginning to ask the question of how the Japanese
people could ever forgive the Americans for having dropped atomic
weapons on their country. I think that is still an important question.
Right now, in the United States, we have an enormous amount to be
forgiven for. The invasion of Iraq is a tragedy, and it would be a very
healthy thing for the American people to acknowledge that it was a
mistake and to ask the world community for forgiveness. That's the
direction in which we should be moving.
With an increase in the number of immigrants of various religious
backgrounds other than Christian, America is now becoming a
multireligious country. What does religious pluralism bring to American
Another excellent question. America has become, we believe, the most
religiously pluralistic or diverse society the earth has ever known, or
at least one of the most diverse. There are not just Methodists--there
are Mormons and Muslims; not just Baptists, but Buddhists and Baha'is,
atheists and agnostics. Twenty-five percent of the American people
consider themselves "un-churched." So there is tremendous diversity,
both in belief and in lack of belief, within American society. And it
is a strain.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have learned some things about
pluralism, because in our congregations it is absolutely ordinary for a
liberal Christian to be sitting next to someone who follows a Buddhist
meditative practice, sitting next to an atheist, sitting next to a
pagan. That is normal for us, and we believe that we have learned some
important things. The first is that such diversity is not easy to live
in. It is much easier to live in a homogeneous religious community. But
we have also learned that enormous benefits can be gained from
regularly dealing with diversity--with pluralism--and this has to do
with how we approach the "other." It is easy to view the other as a
threat and a danger, and if we are able to move beyond that, it begins
to be possible to see the other as a blessing.
In the language of my tradition, to meet another person is an
opportunity to meet God, to meet the divine spirit. And so the benefits
are enormous. Getting from here to there is not easy at all. And in the
wider culture of the United States, we are finding that more, rather
than fewer, disagreements are popping up.
There is a serious conversation that is being led by the fundamentalist
Christian community that claims that the United States is a Christian
nation and that it was the intention of those who founded our country
that it always remain Christian. Now, of course, that doesn't leave any
space for Buddhists or Baha'is or Taoists, or any of the many other
religious traditions that are part of our society.
Did you know that Unitarian Universalists believe that we actually
invented American democracy? Some of the founding fathers of our
country were Unitarian, including Thomas Jefferson, who framed the
language of the separation of church and state. So, we believe deeply
that no single religious point of view should become required in our
political life. We also believe, however, that it is very important
that religious faith, religious belief, inform how we behave as
And one of the great values of the long-standing friendship between
Rissho Kosei-kai and the Unitarian Universalist Association is that we
believe all religious people of goodwill will bring to the public
square the same qualities of openness and respect that we try to model
in our relationship. This is a difficult time in the United States
religiously; we have not yet made peace with this. But I believe that
we must move into a space where we can understand our differences to be
blessings and not curses. If we are not able to do that, then I fear
that the future is quite bleak.
What are some of the focal points in the present activities of
the UUA? And what are some of the specific activities in which the UUA
and Rissho Kosei-kai can cooperate?
The friendship that Founder Niwano and Dana Greeley [1908-86, the first
president of the UUA] were able to form was very important, I know, for
Unitarian Universalists, and I believe for Rissho Kosei-kai members, as
well. That friendship and the coming together of those two religious
organizations made possible the World Conference of Religions for
Peace, which our two religious faiths were instrumental in founding.
Today that organization is carrying out brilliant work in bringing
together Inter-Religious Councils and identifying areas in which
religion can be a voice for peace, rather than a voice for violence. So
I would point to that first.
I can also think of other areas of cooperation that are very hopeful.
We have been cooperating for decades in support of the International
Association for Religious Freedom [IARF]. One of the things this
organization has done best is develop a young adult network. This means
that we are actually training a group of young adults who have
experienced the blessings of interfaith and justice-making work.
Recently, Rissho Kosei-kai's peace foundation, the Niwano Peace
Foundation, has been helping the UUA by supporting some of our work in
India, particularly the Self-Employed Women's Association, which is
doing groundbreaking work for the poorest of the poor. That's a
cooperation that I would love to see expanded. "Justice" is a concept
that is very important in the United States, and I know that it is less
important in the Japanese culture, but whether we call it the making of
justice or the movement toward harmony, there is work to be done out in
the world that I think we can partner in.
The other thing that I would point to, because it has been so important
to me, is the opportunity to continue to educate each other; it has
been such a blessing for me to spend time with the Rissho Kosei-kai
leaders and the leaders of the Japanese Liaison Committee [JLC] of the
IARF. I hope that I have begun to gain an understanding of how they
have given meaning to their lives and what their traditions mean to
them. And I hope that I have been able to communicate a bit of who I
am, and how Unitarian Universalists find meaning and how our tradition
informs our lives. It has been a huge gift. And I hope there will be
opportunities for more Unitarian Universalists, to engage with members
of Rissho Kosei-kai and the JLC abroad. It's a blessing when we can
travel overseas to meet one another, but now that there is a
significant Rissho Kosei-kai presence in the United States, I hope that
we will be able to create a relationship between our congregations
there. I think there are many opportunities for us to continue to
The priorities for the Unitarian Universalist Association now are many,
but let me point to a few. You may know that we have been very active
in the Save Darfur Coalition, working to end the genocide in the Sudan.
That partnership will continue, and there is much more yet to do,
because the killing goes on. Our work on marriage equality, equal
rights for gay and lesbian persons, is an ongoing priority for us, but
there are two additional new priorities that I would name: one is that
our General Assembly, which is our annual decision-making body, last
year approved what we call a "Statement of Conscience" on global
warming. So we as congregations will be working to find ways to address
the issues of environmental sustainability, and much of that work needs
to begin at home. Our congregations need to look at their own
practices, but we also need to be working at the policy level
nationally. I think our congregations see that the way we are living is
ultimately not sustainable, and we need to find ways to reduce our
impact on the earth.
The other priority, which I believe offers another opportunity for us
to collaborate, is the study action issue that our congregations will
be working on for the next three years: peacemaking. Our congregations
will be called to think about, reflect on, and pray for peacemaking in
their own lives, and ultimately in the world. And I believe that there
is nothing closer to the center of the Rissho Kosei-kai way of being
religious than peacemaking. It certainly was a central focus of Founder
Niwano's work. So I hope that there will be ways that we can
collaborate as that process moves forward.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2007 issue of Dharma World.
Copyright (C) 1997-2012 by Kosei Publishing Co. All rights reserved.