"World leaders are listening to us and waiting to see what we have to say." Such was the rallying cry of Dr. William Lesher, Chair of the Parliament of the World's Religions, as he welcomed thousands of religious people from around the world to the opening plenary of the Council's 2009 meeting in Melbourne, Australia last night.
World leaders are listening carefully to religious people, but not always to these religious people. While religion has re-emerged as a visible and potent force in domestic and international politics, it is often the extremists, the self serving, and shrillest individuals and groups that dominate the religious narrative. Rabbi David Saperstein, a mainstay in American politics and one of the three keynote speakers, told the crowd that this had to change. The Rabbi insisted that it is the people at this gathering, and others like them, who must be the authors of new approaches to the world's challenges that reflect the values of what Martin Luther King, Jr. described as 'the beloved community.'
Rescuing religion from the sole domain of reactionary politics and theologies while simultaneously insisting that religious voices need to be heard within the political conversation are two important undercurrents within the Parliament. The list of participants from the United States is a who's who of religious leaders functioning within the political sphere such as Rabbi Saperstein, Rev. Jim Wallis, Sister Joan Chitister and Imam Feisal Rauf. They are joined by counterparts from other countries around the world including Dr. Sakena Yacobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning which provides educational opportunities for girls.
Dr. Yacobi reminded us that just to stay alive day after day is a struggle for the people of Afghanistan. In defense of Islam, Dr. Yacobi reminded us that it was her religion that helped her to to survive and equipped her with the compassion and determination to educate young girls to think critically, ask questions, stand up for themselves. Unfortunately, as Dr. Yacobi was speaking the audience couldn't help but be reminded that it is religious fundamentalists who are most opposed to her work and the young girls she is dedicated to helping. The great struggle of the 21st century is not between the religious and secular, it is among religious people themselves and how the power of religion will be harnessed in resolving conflicts and challenges around the world.
In addition to a celebration of religious pluralism, the Parliament is focused on areas of global concerns such as poverty, the environment, aboriginal peoples and peace and justice. There is no place for cynicism or nihilism in these halls. In an early panel on ending poverty it was repeatedly emphasized that for the first time in history the world has the ability to feed the entire population and to not do so does not indicate a technical failure but a moral one. The underlying assumption of the Parliament is that religion can be a positive force for moral suasion of individuals and society by providing a vision of a better world and promoting the necessary values of sacrifice, peace and compassion; and that the challenges that confront the world will not be solved without religious actors. In addition, the Parliament holds that no single religion is capable of solving global problems on their own and so cooperation among the traditions to solving common challenges is not only good, but crucial.
Outside the convention center stand the predictable four or five people with their "Jesus is the only way" sign; and beyond them are the tens of thousands of citizens who have no interest in the beliefs or concerns of the gathered community of the Parliament of the World's Religions. Yet for this week, the Parliament has convened adherents of many traditions who are eager to share their spiritual, artistic and moral riches with one another. As they gain a deeper appreciation for 'the other' and a renewed commitment to working across religious divides, they will hopefully have brief experiences of the 'beloved community' to take back to Jerusalem, Kabul, Washington D.C., or wherever they call home, to inspire them to do the hard work of making their positive religious voices heard in the effort to create a better world.