Friday, December 05, 2014

Something Extraordinary . . . Again

The current ecumenical effort to end human trafficking reflects the "new paradigm of relationship" that began over 100 years ago with the convening of the Parliament of the World's Religions.

Earlier this week, Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Orthodox leaders committed to the dignity and freedom of all humankind, gathered in Rome and signed a Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery. The Declaration was signed on December 2, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

“In the eyes of God, each human being is a free person, whether girl, boy, woman or man, and is destined to exist for the good of all in equality and fraternity,” states the Declaration.

“Modern slavery, in terms of human trafficking, forced labor and prostitution, organ trafficking, and any relationship that fails to respect the fundamental conviction that all people are equal and have the same freedom and dignity, is a crime against humanity.”

The religious leaders who signed the Declaration pledge to do everything within their power to fight for the freedom of all enslaved and trafficked persons with the help of their religious communities. With today's advances in technology, innovation, awareness and wisdom, the signatories said it is a realistic “human and moral” goal.

The coming together of religious leaders around the issue of slavery was organized in large measure by the Global Freedom Network. Last month, the Network's partner Walk Free released a report saying that 35.8 million people suffer in slavery, defined as the systematic deprivation of a person’s liberty, and abuse of their body for personal or commercial exploitation. Mauritania, Uzbekistan, Haiti, Qatar, India, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have the highest prevalence of slavery, the report said, while South Asia has the largest number of people in slave conditions: an estimated 17.5 million.

A "second Pentecost"

The recent gathering of religious leaders in Rome to address the problem of slavery has been described in many articles and news stories as historic, and in many ways it is. Yet it may well have not have occurred if not for another historic gathering that took place in 1893 – the convening of the Parliament of the World's Religions.

This gathering led to the establishment of many inter-faith organizations and initiatives, including the Council for a Parliament for the World's Religions in 1988. Soon this global interfaith movement hosted what Wayne Teasdale in his book The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World Religions describes as a "second Pentecost" – the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions. "The spirit was tangibly present" at this gathering, writes Teasdale, "prying hearts and minds open to receive the impulse of new vision."

Teasdale, who helped plan the 1993 Parliament, goes on to say that at this gathering "community was born among the religions. The spirit gave us a whole new paradigm of relationship in the existential experience of community, replacing the old model of separation, mistrust, competition, hostility, and conflict.

Teasdale provides an informed and helpful overview of the Parliament in The Mystic Heart. Following is an excerpt.

Most of recorded history chronicles thousands of years of isolation. Cultures of separation have clung to an exclusivist perspective that has left no room for other traditions. The attitude of exclusivity is both distrustful of other faiths and disrespectful of their insights and experiences. There is no basis for dialogue, let alone a bond of community.

One of the special historical moments of breakthrough, however, occurred in 1893 when the World's Parliament of Religions was convoked in Chicago. The Parliament met for seventeen days in September as one of twenty-four congresses of the World' Columbian Exposition, or world's fair. It brought the planet's religions together for the first time in the modern age. It wasn't completely inclusive: Native Americans, other indigenous peoples, and African Americans were excluded [as were women!], and only one Muslim, an American convert, was present as a delegate. But it had a profound impact, capturing the imagination of the American people and the world press. It reinforced the study of comparative religion and helped make Catholicism and Judaism mainstream in America, while introducing the Asian religions to the West, especially Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Zen.

Many early attempts to solidify the spirit of the Parliament in a permanent organization failed. But a number of organizations carried on the work, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the World Congress of Faiths, the Temple of Understanding, the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, and the United Religious Organization. Today, these groups collaborate on dialogue programs, and other projects of mutual concern.

In August 1993, the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, founded in 1988, convened the Parliament of the World's Religion in Chicago. Initially designed to commemorate the centennial of the first great Parliament, the founders quickly realized that they had an opportunity to contribute something more substantial – to address the critical issues plaguing the planet: the environmental crisis, social injustice, poverty, malnutrition, disease, the plight of refugees – 80 percent of whom were women and children – the need for better education in developing nations, and numerous other threats to peace.

It soon became clear that a permanent organization could help educate the religions, and the world, about the need to work together on these critical issues. From August 28 to September 5, 1993, the Parliament met at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton and the Art Institute of Chicago – both sites of the first Parliament – and other venues throughout the city. Nine thousand people participated in the 1993 Parliament, and the registration had to be closed three weeks before the event; there simply was no more room. The closing event in Grant Park on Chicago's lakefront attracted seventy-five thousand people!

Sessions ranged from the colorful opening to explorations on the the inner life, inter-religious dialogue, the dispossessed, contributions of the imagination, seminars on all the religions, spiritual teachings by great masters, academic symposia, dance workshops, twice daily meditation sessions, lectures on virtually every aspect of religious knowledge, forums dedicated to ecology, and more than a thousand other programs involving spiritual practice. In a bow to tradition, the 250-member Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders gathered for a three-day meeting at the Art Institute. These stormy sessions ended well when two hundred members signed the Parliament's document Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration), the first consensus by the world's religions on basic standards of ethical behavior.

The Parliament represented the most diverse group of people ever to meet in one place in the history of humankind. Before the event's eight days, I assisted in the planning and served on four committees. During the Parliament itself, I participated in a number of forums, including the Buddhist-Christian Monastic Dialogue with the Dalai Lama and in the Assembly. I hoped, prayed, and even knew intuitively that it would represent a turning point. But it greatly exceeded everyone's expectations, certainly the planners'. For me, the opening morning held a sign of its special significance. I was having breakfast with Samdong Rinpoche, the chief of the Tibetan Delegation and an old friend, and Rolph Fernandes, a Franciscan brother from Montreal. As I returned with a cup of coffee for Rinpoche, somehow the cup, saucer, spoon, and coffee flew into Rinpoche's lap! To this day I don't know how it happened. Samdong looked up at me without the slightest irritation, and with perfect calm said, "This is an auspicious omen!" And indeed it proved to be so.

Something extraordinary happened during the Parliament's days. The divine showed up and opened everyone, inspiring enthusiasm, mutual trust, receptivity, and a wonderful sense of joy, spontaneity, community, and urgency. We were not of one mind but of one heart. For me as a Christian, the word that best describes this historic moment is Pentecost: the birth of the Christian church, when the Holy Spirit opened the minds and hearts of Jesus' disciples, uniting them in a corporate mystical knowing that illumined their path during the fledgling years of the apostolic age. The Parliament represented a second Pentecost because the spirit was tangibly present, prying hearts and minds open to receive the impulse of new vision. Community was born among the religions. The spirit gave us a whole new paradigm of relationship in the existential experience of community, replacing the old model of separation, mistrust, competition, hostility, and conflict. By supplanting the approach responsible for thousands of wars throughout human history, this new paradigm has enormous meaning. The advent of community between and among members of differing faiths is without parallel; its opportunity is extremely precious, not to be squandered but carefully cultivated and applied to the task of building a universal civilization.

– Wayne Teasdale

Related Off-site Links:
The Aussie Who Inspired the World's Top Religious Leaders to Get Together for Extraordinary Meeting – Nick Miller (Sydney Morning Herald, December 3, 2014).
Religious Leaders Sign Joint Declaration to Eradicate Slavery – Catholic News Agency (December 3, 2014).
Parliament of the World's Religions to Host 2015 Conference in Salt Lake City – Antonia Blumberg (The Huffington Post, September 9, 2014).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In Search of a Global Ethic
A Return to the Spirit

No comments: