BLOGGERKatherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development. After a long career in...
Faith in Action tracks the activities of people of faith across the globe and across religious traditions, with a focus on development issues. Posts are originally published by the Huffington Post. Older blog posts appeared on the Washington Post's Georgetown/On Faith site.
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AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES: HINDU
Kaleidoscope of Religions
December 7, 2009
Every five years a gathering known as the Parliament of the World's Religions draws people from all over the world. It's happening now, this time in Melbourne, Australia. For seven days, a jam-packed schedule of events ranges from the ultimate and urgent to the personal and pragmatic. There's culture, politics, meditation, exhibitions, bells and, yes, some whistles. Monks mingle with Catholic priests, Hindu swamis with Zoroastrians and Sikhs. Atheists and pagans have their place. Just walking through the crowd gives a vivid portrait of humanity. And a sea of cameras capture the extraordinary scene.
My colleague Paul Raushenbush reflected on that very question on opening night. He revels in the fact that here, at the parliament, the truly moderate faces of religion can, for once, be heard. He credits the assembly with two accomplishments: "Rescuing religion from the sole domain of reactionary politics and theologies while simultaneously insisting that religious voices be heard within the political conversation"
Heard on what?
This parliament returns again and again to three topics: the injustice of poverty, the raging perils of climate change, and women's place in religious institutions and thought. Others might highlight other topics, especially the parliament's historic emphasis on peace and reconciliation, but the determination of large groups here to spur action in these three domains is striking. I also find it heartening.
Global poverty always finds resonance in religious discussions, but if you apply the priority test it's not often at the top of the agenda. So the large crowds turning out for panels entitled "Poverty must no longer be with us" and "Poverty in wealthy countries" is a marked change from earlier gatherings. Much more striking was the depth of discussion, wrestling with difficult topics like the implications of moving from charity to social justice, balancing the desire to help someone "with a face" with addressing systems and root causes. People came and listened and they want to act.
Climate change grips the parliament's audience, especially the young. The parliament is taking place so close to the Copenhagen summit that opens this week that an immediate question is what "message" to send there. Some people will travel from Melbourne to Copenhagen to provide their witness but plans are also afoot to make clear the deep concern of a wide range of religious voices: for example, there will be signed banners, a contest for "the question" to ask, and a group plea for action.
A "women's breakthrough" conference happened on the eve of the parliament, and the energy of this group of women's activists, religious leaders, and development workers spilled over into the parliament. The events on gender pulsed with passion and energy. The parliament has long challenged the "patriarchy" that has grown up in most religious traditions, and there are plenty of voices here declaiming the traditional biases within religious groups.
There's also a visible determination to act. Sister Joan Chittister is perhaps the parliament's most evident rock star (the Dalai Lama has yet to arrive) and her events are so mobbed that security people have their work cut out. Hers is one of many bold voices that essentially are saying: enough is enough, women to the fore.
Another fascinating element of this parliament is the strong focus on indigenous peoples. Their representatives often perform songs and dances at plenary sessions but they are also integrated into the intellectual fare. Perhaps the strongest theme here is recognition and respect.
And that effort at respect came through as a recurrent and striking feature of the official welcomes and opening speeches. In every case, Australia's representatives paid tribute to the Aborigines in language along the following lines: "I acknowledge the First Australians on whose lands we meet and the elders who greet us here, and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history." Imagine hearing that at a Washington event!
Australia's efforts to deal with the tragic legacy of its past abuse of the Aborigines is a strong undercurrent at the parliament. The country's interest in world religions includes indigenous spiritual traditions. "Sorry Day" in 1998, when the government and country apologized for their past behavior and resolved to change the way they deal with Australia's legacy in the present, is rarely far from the conversation. Australia's example of forthright acknowledgement of the past is justly celebrated as a noble example at the global level.
The parliament sees itself as part of a growing global interfaith movement. It celebrates the diversity of religions, always acknowledging that wide differences separate them. But it also builds on a conviction that there is a "global ethic", strong common values and ideas. What seems to be different here is a fresh determination to mobilize the energies and creativity that are so evident in this motley gathering for bold action, for every community, but still more for the planet. Here's power to them!