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The Parliament and URI Issue Joint #LoveAlert for #Kansas

Global Interfaith Movement Acts for Kansas on Holy Weekend

We, the global interfaith community, cherish the principle of shared humanity and champion the Golden Rule as the guiding principle of each of the world’s great spiritual and religious communities. We unite as neighbors in our call for harmony, compassion, and peaceful relationships everywhere.

Sunday’s tragic hate shootings in the Kansas City area urgently signal why interfaith cooperation must become stronger to ensure all people are exposed to the beautiful lessons we learn from each other in diverse communities.

We invite all people to join with the United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Parliament of the World’s Religions in coming together to amplify action for peace:

“The hearts and prayers of our interfaith and inter-cultural family go out to those affected by this terrible tragedy,” said the Rev. Victor H. Kazanjian, Jr., Executive Director of URI.  “Around the world, we affirm our promise to cultivate peace in the midst of difference, to promote enduring interfaith cooperation, and to show love in the face of hate.  May peace and healing find those shaken by this loss.”

Dr. Mary Nelson, Executive Director of the Parliament concurs, “in the face of violence and hate, we people of spirit and faith are challenged to proactively reach out in love and reconciliation.  Now is the time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

From Thursday April 17 through Sunday, April 20, we call for #LoveAlert messages to spread the goodness of interfaith cooperation around the world.

Ways to observe your solidarity include:  Fasting, lighting candles, and inviting your neighbors to your interfaith community events.

Use our tools to overcome hate! The Parliament’s  Faiths Against Hate webinars  train interfaith advocates and URI’s Talking Back to Hate campaign’s toolbox is full of effective best practices in a variety of materials.

Interfaith cooperation is happening; we as partners in the movement for peace affirm that deep interfaith relationships bring everyone closer together to overcome fear and embrace others as neighbors.

By bravely speaking out and acting together, we at the Parliament and URI invite all to work with us to correct injustice and make peace possible for all.

 

Mahavir Jayanti Jain Holiday Celebrates Historic Teachings of Non-violence and Pluralism

Mahavir Jayanti is a holiday celebrated by Jains (Jainism is an ancient Indian religion) to observe the birth of Tirthankar Mahavir. Tirthankar is a liberated soul who has achieved Nirvana. Tirthankar established a fourfold Sangh, or religious community. The Sangh consists of monks, nuns, Shravak (laymen) and Sharvika (laywomen). He was the last of the 24 Tirthankars of this time cycle.

Tirthankar Mahavir and Gautama Buddha were both born in the state of Bihar in India. Though they were contemplatives of their time, neither of them had met the other at any time during their life cycle. Nonetheless, they both observed the same philosophy of non-violence.

Mahavir was born to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishla. He was born in 615 BC. When Mahavir was in the womb, the kingdom experienced more happiness as farmers harvested the highest amount of quality crops, businessmen realized more profits, and the overall atmosphere was one of peace and joy that kept on increasing.

Mahavir renounced his throne and kingdom at the age of 30. For 12 ½ years he left his kingdom and did his penance. He fasted for many days. (Jains observe the fast without any solid or liquid food for 24 hours. They may drink boiled water or go even waterless.) He would meditate for days and nights. He slept only for forty-eight minutes during this a 24-hour time period. During his penance, he observed silence so he could contemplate and achieve enlightenment. He attained enlightenment at the age of 42 ½.

Mahavir gave five codes of conduct to reduce Karma. They are:

• To practice non-violence in thought, word, and actions.
• To seek and speak the truth.
• To behave honestly and never to take anything that does not belong to you, even if it is unclaimed by anyone.
• To practice restraint and chastity in thought, word, and actions.
• To practice non-acquisitiveness.

His main teachings were Ahimsa, Anekantvad, and Aprigraha, meaning “non-violence,” “pluralism,” and “non-attachment.” Mahavir said that there is life in every living being. You do not want to hurt others as they have souls just like you. If you hurt other people they too will hurt you, either in this life or the next life. The cycle would never stop unless you break it. This is your chance in this lifetime while you are born as an individual to stop the hate cycle. You should see the pure soul like yours in others and spread love and compassion.

Jains believe that Tirthankar Mahavir’s philosophy and practice ended his cycle of life and death. He achieved Nirvana at the age of 72. Since then, several enlightened souls have expounded the philosophy of Jainism. One such exalted soul was Shrimad Rajchandra. Jains believe that he was the last disciple of Tirthankar Mahavir during His time. Shrimad Rajchandra greatly influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual philosophy.

Mahatma Gandhi adapted the practice of non-violence in political struggle and strategy. He observed Satyagraha, championing human rights and practicing civil disobedience to oppose unjust government orders. Gandhi’s practice ended colonialism in India and achieved freedom after 200 years of British rule.

Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence impressed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He practiced Gandhi’s method non-violence and challenged racism in America. Nelson Mandela also achieved victory against apartheid in South Africa.

Mahavir Jayanti will be observed by Jains around the world on Sunday, April 13, by observing special ceremonies in Jain temples. In the early morning of Mahavir Jayanti, Jains give a ceremonial bath to the statue of Tirthankar Mahavir. There are cultural programs with music and dance for everyone to enjoy the birthday of Tirthankar Mahavir. There is also a feast for the visitors of the temple. They give donations to the poor and needy. In many places in India, Jains donate money to release animals from the slaughterhouse and put them in Panjrapol (the animal house) where they are looked after till their last day.

There are no Jain temples in Waco, Texas. The nearest Jain temple is in the Dallas area. The temple is open to anyone wanting to attend Mahavir Jayanti. You can get more information about their program at www.dfwjains.org.

Sources: www.jainworld.com; www.times of india.com; Wikipedia.

Kirit Daftary is a past president of JAINA (Federation of Jain Associations in North America). There are 67 Jain Centers and a population of over 150,000 Jains in North America. He is also a board member of Greater Waco Interfaith Council and a trustee and officer of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Standing in Solidarity to Stop Hate in Wake of Killings at Kansas Jewish Sites

The Parliament of the World’s Religions shares the feelings of sadness and horror expressed universally in response to Sunday’s tragic attack at Jewish community sites in Overland Park, Kansas which killed three persons.

The Parliament of World’s Religions stands in solidarity with the Jewish community and the relatives of the victims.

In a letter to the convener of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, Sheila Sonnenschein, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid expressed hope that “as hate, anger, and fear is rising in our nation, the people of faith will rise with our loving relationship to translate negative energy into positive force for common good.” Imam Mujahid is the Board Chair of the Parliament of World’s Religions.

The attacker is allegedly a renowned former leader of the KKK hate movement with a history of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hate towards immigrants.

In the wake of the Nevada stand off in which more than 2,000 armed militiamen gathered to fight the Federal authorities and the attack on the Jewish centers, it is important for law enforcement to take appropriate action against the white racist movements.

Parliament Statement Reaffirms Nonviolence on Behalf of Dr. Arun Gandhi in Wake of Fort Hood Shooting

“The sad shooting incident in Fort Hood, Texas, is yet another example of how the culture of violence is destroying our humanity,” the Parliament of Religions said in a statement on behalf of Board Trustee Dr. Arun Manilal Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi warned the nations of the world to find civilized ways of resolving disputes or face extinction.

“Sending young women and men into combat to kill and destroy men, women and children and then expect soldiers to assimilate peacefully in their own societies is to say the least insensitive,” according to the statement.

The Parliament of Religions, an international interfaith organization based in Chicago, works to bring peace, understanding and respect among the peoples of the world.

The first Parliament was held in Chicago in 1893. In modern times Parliaments were held in Chicago, Cape Town, Barcelona, and Melbourne.

The Parliament is wedded to the philosophy of nonviolence in thought, word, and deed.

The Parliament extends its sympathy to the bereaved families and hopes that the United States, the only super power, will eventually lead the world in civilized moral behavior.

Parliament United Nations Task Force Forms to Enhance Relations, MDGs

Flags flying high at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
Credit: UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto

The Parliament of the World’s Religions is dedicating a new task force to move forward since becoming a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) associated to the United Nations Department of Public Information (UN-DPI) in late 2013.

The newly-formed The United Nations Task Force of the Parliament is now meeting to explore ways that the Parliament can collaborate with other NGOs to carry forward its mission, and to more fully integrate the Millennium Development Goals into its work overall.

Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Board of Trustees, is encouraged by the potential of this new Parliament initiative stating,

 

The Parliament has high expectation in developing a deeper relationship with the United Nations since it is one of the important guiding institutions for humanity. The Parliament’s UN Task Force is just a first step in the right direction. We are also looking forward to working with other interfaith organizations at the UN to enhance our desire to have better Intra-Interfaith cooperation.

 

Excited for the work ahead, the Parliament announces those comprising the United Nations Task Force of the Parliament of the World’s Religions are:

Dr. Kusumita Pedersen: Co-Chair of the Parliament UN Task Force, Board Trustee
Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti: Co-Chair of the Parliament UN Task Force, Parliament Representative to the United Nations, Board Trustee
Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski: Parliament Representative to the United Nations, Board Trustee
Rev. Phyllis Curott: Parliament Representative to the United Nations, Board Trustee
Ms. Sara Rahim: Parliament Youth Representative to the United Nations, St. Louis University Student
Mr. Tahil Sharma: Parliament Youth Representative to the United Nations, University of LaVerne Student
Dr. Aisha al-Adawiya: Founder and Chair of Women in Islam
Mr. Naresh Jain, Parliament Trustee Emeritus, Founding Member of Educare
Ms. Kay Lindahl, Parliament Ambassador Advisory Council Member
Dr. Mary Nelson (Ex-Officio), Parliament Executive Director
Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid (Ex-Officio), Chair of the Board of Trustees, Parliament of the World’s Religions

Dr. Kusumita Pedersen reflects that “between all its members, this task force has many years of varied experience of work in the NGO world connected to the UN.”

The Parliament supports the DPI in its aim of widening public knowledge of the UN, so watch this space for items about the UN and its multi-faceted work, and look forward to getting to know each of the Parliament Task Force members in the months ahead through profiles in our newsletter, features on Facebook, and activity reports.

Most recently, the Parliament Women’s Task Force was co-host of a parallel event to the 58th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women which was held March 3 – 15. On March 11,the gathering in New York City joined spirits world-wide for Remembering the Sacred Heart of Your Activism: An Evening of Prayer, Reflection and Inspiration convened by organizers Women of Spirit and Faith, Gather the Women Global Matrix, Millionth Circle, We Are Enough and United Religions Initiative, and more.

The Parliament as always shares a deep commitment to cooperation and commitment toward a just, peaceful, and sustainable world, and is gearing to offer many more opportunities to enhance work on these critical goals as 2014 continues.

Inspired By Our Foremothers in Seneca Falls, Women’s Interfaith Institute Breaks New Ground

In Seneca Falls, a “mecca for women’s rights advocates,” the Women’s Interfaith Institute is breaking new ground.

By Allison Stokes
Ambassador, Parliament of the World’s Religions

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Dr. Melinda Grube) and Attorney Nadia Shahram meet in Seneca Falls to talk on International Women’s Day 2014 —across religious traditions, countries of origin, and centuries! Photo by Dave Duprey

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The church in Seneca Falls had a For Sale sign in front with a “Price Reduced” banner across it. The structure, built in 1871, stood next door to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which was established to commemorate the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and to preserve the Wesleyan Chapel where the gathering was held.

This church would be an ideal location for calling public attention to the pioneering leadership of women in the Interfaith Movement. So it was that leaders of the Women’s Interfaith Institute incorporated as a non-profit, educational organization in New York State in 2002 in order to raise funds for a deposit to purchase the late 19th Century Wesleyan Church.

An appeal letter went out to potential donors, and their response was heartening. Many agreed that the site would be perfect for an organization whose mission is “Women supporting women of diverse faiths in generating spiritual leadership, scholarship and service.”

Contributions large and small came in, and in 2003 we purchased the church. As far as we are aware, the Women’s Interfaith Institute’s home in Seneca Falls is the only structure in the U.S. dedicated to promoting women’s interfaith (or multi-faith) efforts.

Seneca Falls draws visitors from all over the country and the world; because it is a destination for persons passionate about women’s rights and human rights, it provides an ideal context for the Institute’s work of bridging boundaries– whether religious, racial, ethnic, cultural– that have traditionally divided people. We seek a more inclusive human identity.

The Women’s Interfaith Institute in Seneca Falls, New York was a dream conjured by Parliament Ambassador Allison Stokes and made come true by a town famous for women’s movement. Today it is the hub of programs trailblazing model relations across diverse religious women groups in the U.S., specifically building upon significant history of female leadership within the Interfaith movement chronicled by the Institute.
Photo: Madeline Hansen

During our ten plus years of programming, we have offered a variety of lectures, seminars, films, workshops, retreats, and celebrations as we endeavor to “bring peace to life.” Most recently we have been focused on learning about Islam and bringing Muslims and persons from other religious traditions together.

Programs breaking ground then and now

A grant from the New York Council for the Humanities made it possible for the Institute to break ground last spring (2013) in offering a “Muslim Journeys” reading and discussion group. We chose five books with stories about and by young Muslims: How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi), Acts of Faith (Eboo Patel), Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi), Minaret (Leila Aboulela), and Broken Verses (Kamila Shamsie).

Ten women gathered in six monthly sessions to share comments, questions, insights, reflections, personal stories, and (at the close of every meeting) refreshments. Because we came from different faith traditions, including Quaker, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic, our sharing was rich, and our learning from one another profound. We especially valued the perspectives of Busaina and Musawar, a Muslim mother and daughter in our group, who are from Pakistan.

This year in March, Women’s History month, the Institute joined with another non-profit in Seneca Falls,  the Women’s Institute for Leadership and Learningto offer a unique dialogue. The event, featured Buffalo attorney Nadia Shahram, an author, activist, and Muslim women’s rights advocate, in dialogue with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a convenor of the first women’s rights movement. Stanton was portrayed by Dr. Melinda Grube, an historian and adjunct professor who has studied Stanton’s works and life extensively, and uses her knowledge to bring Stanton seemingly to life. This remarkable discussion, entitled “Declaring Equality: Renewing a Legacy,” crossed religious traditions (Muslim and Christian), cultures (Iranian and American), and even centuries (19th – 21st).

Institute board member and former mayor of Seneca Falls, Diana Smith, observed that the remarkable conversation was between two legal minds though generations apart. Diana noted,

Both shared surprisingly similar stories of childhood experiences which served as inspiration to effect change, including the motivation to learn the law. Stanton was especially angered by the unjust treatment of women who came to her father for legal counsel, only to find that the law provided little protection or regard for women.

While Shahram’s legal expertise helps women improve their lives through the judicial process, Stanton suggested that in the mid-nineteenth century, that would not be possible. She said her father likely pushed her to learn the law not to practice it, but rather to help her identify how to change it.

The Institute’s upcoming program, to be held during Seneca Falls Convention Days on July 18th and 19th celebrates the first 1848 convention. Highlighting Muslim women’s experiences, the Saturday events have been conceived and planned by attorney Shahram and some her law students in Buffalo. The focus will be unveiling of “A Declaration of Equalities for Muslim Women” written on the model of the Stanton’s original “Declaration of Sentiments.” Nadia writes,

This document is a list of demands and sentiments that aspire to identify and amend laws which are discriminatory, oppressive, and prejudicial towards women in many Islamic countries. We are insisting on reformed legislation that is consistent with equitable human rights for women. Through these actions, we hope to contribute to the efforts of numerous individuals and organizations dedicated to the ongoing battle for progress and fair treatment of women throughout the world.

A detailed listing of the many and varied Convention Days 2014 events is in development – watch for a complete schedule soon to be posted on the official Convention Days website.

From the Ashes of a Fire, Interfaith Family in Seneca Hills Stands Tall

A number of the Institute’s programs are being held at the National Park next door, whose hospitality we gratefully appreciate. This is because five years ago, in March 2009, there was a fire above the ceiling in our Great Hall (former church sanctuary), immediately after renovations were completed. Caused by old, live, electrical wiring, the damage to the roof and building wasn’t so much fire damage, as water damage, necessarily caused by the fire fighters.

The challenge of recovering from this devastating event has sometimes been overwhelming. The donations of volunteer help, especially from Hobart and William Smith Colleges students, and of contributions to replace a roof that was only 5 years old, have been heartening. We are particularly grateful for a generous donation from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. With this we were able to complete the roof repair in August, just as President Obama stopped by to visit the National Park. (Secret Service agents ordered roofers OFF the roof during the duration of the President’s visit!)

When the challenges we face seem particularly tough, we recall Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her sister suffragists, and the obstacles they faced. Few lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote. As Stanton wrote, they were “sowing winter wheat,” not necessarily expecting to see the fruits of their labors.

Allison Stokes

We in the Women’s Interfaith Institute are inspired and encouraged by these pioneering foremothers, even as we feel that in similar, though different ways, we are breaking new ground ourselves.

Allison Stokes is Founding Director of the Women’s Interfaith Institute. The organization was incorporated in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts in 1993, and continues there. This article profiles the programs and founding ten years later of an affiliate, Women’s Interfaith Institute, a sister group in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York.

Parliament Women’s Task Force Announces Tibet House Partnership Presenting Multi-Religious Speaker Series

The Parliament of the World’s Religions Women’s Task Force is excited to announce its participation in the Multi-Religious Speakers Series on the Sacred Feminine and the Vital Nexus of Religion and Women’s Issues organized in partnership with the highly esteemed Tibet House in New York City.

Program speakers featured in the series will be accessible to women around the world through the Parliament Webinar Series later in 2014.

The series will premiere with Ukranian spiritual teacher Nadia Reznikov hosting an advanced Tantric and Shamanic workshop for women at Tibet House April 4 and 11.

More information on the Tibet House schedule and how to register for the premiere event is available here. 

Nadia Reznikova

Nadiia Reznikova or Nabhasvati (“Shining”) is an extraordinary spiritual practitioner and teacher from the Ukraine who is making her first appearance in the United States at Tibet House. She has developed a system of tantric, shamanic, and psychotherapeutic practices for women which can produce immediate and dramatic improvements in emotional balance, joy, relationships, physical health, and inner and outer beauty. The practices are designed to naturally and powerfully elevate mood and energy state, enabling even new students to manifest desired changes within, as well as in their relationships and environment. These simple, daily practices have been proven effective tools of spiritual transformation for women of all walks of life and in all areas of life. Her shakti energy has been found to be directly transformative by many, and at the same time Nadiia teaches daily practices which may be done by students on their own.

Celebrating Compassionate City Council Resolutions Passing in Atlanta


The Parliament wishes to share congratulations on the unanimous resolution voted by the City Council of Atlanta, which became official on February 12, 2014, declaring:

“…BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT THE CITY OF ATLANTA IS DESIGNATED A COMPASSIONATE CITY.”

This encouraging progress for the Charter for Compassion comes this week from the Parliament’s Faiths Against Hate partners in Atlanta, championed by by Chair Emeritus Rev. Bob Thompson and a collective of three major interfaith organizations in the greater Atlanta area.

After launching the Compassionate Atlanta campaign to create a compassionate circle of cities February 2 at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center, the Atlanta City Council passed the following resolution, and is encouraging surrounding municipalities to follow suit.

The principles for the Charter for Compassion stem from the very elements of the Golden Rule, which is endorsed through the world’s traditions in the Initial Declaration Toward a Global Ethic drafted in collaboration by the planners of the 1993 Centenary Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago and the daring German Theologian, Hans Kung.

Seeing the progress of the Charter sway governments and transforming global society city by city is a sign of a changing world. It is of the utmost importance for all invested peacemakers to capitalize this spirit in the work to heal hate and advance a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

Congratulations to the city of Atlanta and each campaigning locality being bold, brave, and visionary.

We salute you!

 

 

 

Tahil Sharma and Sara Rahim to Represent Parliament at United Nations-DPI Youth Body

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was honored by receiving outstanding applications to represent us at the Youth Representative program of the United Nations DPI-NGO body for 2014. As the UN works to implement its post Millennium Development Goals agenda, these young leaders stand to implement action aligned to the Parliament’s mission of creating a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

We are pleased to announce the representatives selected are Ms. Sara Rahim and Mr. Tahil Sharma.

  • Sara Rahim

    Ms. Sara Rahim, will complete a double major in Public Health and International Studies from Saint Louis University this year. Sara’s passion for social justice expands to global health, interfaith, and refugee/migration issues. She has studied Arabic in Egypt, offered healthcare in Honduras, and spent a semester in Morocco, where she conducted a study on access to healthcare for undocumented sub-Saharan migrants. She later returned to Morocco to work with grassroots NGOs that focus on sub-Saharan female migrants’ health. On campus, Sara has spearheaded the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge for the past two years, while organizing student interfaith programming. Off campus, Sara has interned at Interfaith Youth Core coaching students to be leaders of interfaith action, and she has worked in refugee resettlement at World Relief. In the future, Sara would like to pursue a career in global health and international development, with a focus on communities in conflict, and she hopes to use interfaith as a tool towards sustainable development. 

Sara reflects, “Throughout my undergraduate experience, interfaith has always been a tool to build bridges across diverse traditions and to mobilize my community towards action. In the future, I hope to continue to work with communities in conflict towards building those bridges and improving access to areas such as health and education. Being able to represent the Parliament at the UN will allow me to live my mission on a national platform and engage with like-minded leaders towards building a global ethic.”

Tahil Sharma

  • Mr. Tahil Sharma, a senior who will complete his B.A. in International Studies and Languages at LaVerne University in California.

Tahil Sharma is working to obtain his Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish, with emphases in Japanese and International Studies at the University of La Verne in Southern California. Serving as an interfaith activist for numerous years, he is currently employed as the Coordinator for the Center for Sikh Studies at Claremont Lincoln University, under the Claremont School of Theology. His work in peace and community service has named him a Newman Civic Fellow for working with local communities on issues related to discrimination and prejudice, as well as issues of food insecurity.

Tahil reflects, “getting the chance to go to the United Nations means that I can take part in changing the way diplomacy and foreign relations are dealt with in our day and age. The context of culture and religion play such significant roles in our society that not recognizing and respecting them would create misnomers for the identity of numerous people. Declaring the value and necessity of inter-religious amity and cooperation would mean informing and bring the world together for the greater good of humanity.”

Congratulations to Tahil Sharma, Sara Rahim, and to the next generation of interfaith leaders who are rapidly advancing the interfaith movement beyond limits.

Greed: How Can Religions Address the Deepening Spiritual Crisis of Our Time?

 

Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President of SCUPE and Trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions speaks prophetically on the dangers of greed and the way spirituality can address these challenges.

The following is a synopsis of the Greeley lecture on peace and justice given by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana at the Center for the Study of World Religions of Harvard University on February 3, 2014. This lecture is a precursor to SCUPE’s Congress on Urban Ministry (June 23-26, DePaul University, Chicago) which will address the theme: Together, Building a Just Economy. Rev. Dr. Premawardhana is President of the Seminary Consortium of Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) , and a Board Trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

The unimaginable level of income inequality has become a serious public conversation and scholarly inquiry. President Obama has addressed it several times over the past couple of months, including in the recent State of the Union speech. The week before that, when some 2,500 participants from business, government, academia and civil society convened in Davos, they considered the Global Risks 2014 report which points out that this massive income gap is the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage to the global economy in the coming decade.

Immediately prior to the Davos meeting, Oxfam, the international organization that addresses issues of hunger, poverty and economic justice around the world, in its report said that the world’s richest 85 people control the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population, over 3.5 billion people. In other words, each of the wealthiest 85 has access to the same resources as do about 42 million people. These are incredible numbers. In his message, Pope Francis urged those who gathered at Davos to promote inclusive prosperity. “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it,” he said.

Last November Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or the Joy of the Gospel, where he connects evangelization with a strong critique of consumerism. In a section entitled “No to the new idolatry of money,” he points to its causality: one cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, he says, “we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The worship of the ancient golden calf,” he goes on, “has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Human beings are reduced to one of their needs alone, he says, and that is “consumption.”

The rise of plutocracy, where the super-rich increasingly control the political and economic processes that leave everyone else out is already a serious global problem. My concern is that in the United States we may be reaching a tipping point where laws such as Citizens United and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, both driven by big corporate interests, will tilt the playing field in favor of the super-rich for a long time to come. I believe that this is caused by greed, which – in both its individual and structural manifestations — is a spiritual problem.

This position was affirmed by an advisory body of the World Council of Churches, the Churches’ Commission on International Affairs (CCIA) when it met in March 2009, in Matanzas, Cuba, about six months after the global financial crisis hit. Its working group on Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation made three important affirmations.

First, they identified the cause of the crisis as unbridled greed, and declared it as a form of violence. “[T]he accumulation of wealth and the presence of poverty are not simply accidents but are often part of a strategy for some people to accumulate power and wealth at the expense of others. As such, greed is a form of violence which, on personal, community, national, regional and international levels isolates and injures us.”

In offering the provocative comment “greed is a form of violence,” the CCIA is connecting a word—violence— which it knows evokes a sense of strong condemnation, with a word that it believes is equally condemnable –greed, and advocating as robust a reflection on greed as the churches have had on violence. Indeed, churches, like other institutions caught up in systems of structural greed, find its reflection on greed muted, and its advocacy on behalf of economic justice compromised. A “greed is good” doctrine, popularized by the fictional character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street, and daily and forcefully asserted by some Fox News and CNBC commentators, as well as proponents of prosperity theologies, therefore goes largely unchallenged.

While many religions address greed, it is important to recognize that today’s structural greed is almost unprecedented. A new robust and self-critical reflection that pertains to today’s realities, by all religious authorities, I suggest, is therefore urgent.

The WCC has engaged such a process over the past several years. Its program Poverty, Wealth and Ecology has engaged economists and theologians in dialogues that have now resulted in a proposal for a new financial architecture released in Sao Paulo, in October 2012. One interesting feature of this is the inclusion of a “Greed Line.” If there’s a poverty line below which a person can be said to be in poverty, there must be greed line, above which a person can be said to be greedy!

Second, they recognized greed as a spiritual problem requiring spiritual interventions. Christianity alone does not have the resources to address this problem, they said, and affirmed that religions over centuries have deeply reflected on the question of greed and have significant wisdom to offer. They specifically identified Buddhism as having a sophisticated reflection on greed and its disastrous consequences, about the value of simplicity for the lay community of disciples, and renunciation and voluntary poverty for the monastic community.

Affirming the value of having its internal reflections lead to interreligious engagement, the WCC together with the Lutheran World Federation convened a Buddhist-Christian consultation in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2010. Buddhists from several countries and a variety of traditions engaged with Christians from a variety of traditions in a consultation entitled “Buddhists and Christians engaging structural greed.”[1] The resulting statement, “A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed” has helped to move Christian and Buddhist communities to deeper common reflection and action.

Third, it identifies the need to listen to the voices of the poor. “We acknowledge that in our various positions of leadership we are not always well-placed to hear the voice of the oppressed, of indigenous people, of women, of the disabled, of refugees and displaced people, of the poor and of the most silenced among us.” We who gather around theological tables, religious leaders and scholars, because of our social standing as educated, middle class elite, do not have access to the conversations that are going on among those who are poor in our communities.

This is a difficult but critical question. Prof. Harvey Cox of Harvard University, in a 1980 Christian Century article entitled “Theology: What Is It? Who Does It? How Is It Done?” addressed this question. The elitism is understandable, says Cox, given that the minimal conditions for doing theology include the ability to read and write, familiarity with the received tradition of concepts and categories, sufficient leisure to reflect on these, and the power to get one’s ideas published or otherwise heard. Are theologians prepared to take the next step, he asks, beyond the self-critical awareness we now have, for example, of how the rhetorical conventions and cultural symbols of any period shape even its most original theology, to a recognition of how the pervasive ideology of the dominant class influences the theology it produces?

So, how do you dialogue with those who are poor? One of my mentors, Aloysius Pieris, offers us an insight from his Sri Lankan context. In Asian Theology of Liberation [2]  he insists that an authentic Sri Lankan theology must undergo a double baptism, in the Jordan of its religious diversity, and the cross of its grinding poverty. These two axes of religious diversity and poverty are basic facts of the Sri Lankan context. Dialogue, he says, is more than an academic exercise done in religious seminars organized and financed by western agencies, by people who do not have their feet on the ground. It is not an abstract concern, but a daily existential experience; never merely an intellectual exercise, it is a moral commitment. Pieris’ analysis suggests that if we want to engage in dialogue we need to incarnate ourselves in the context. Not only does it require a double baptism of immersion, it requires us to engage core-to-core with the other religious partners.

The question, however, is even more complex. There is plenty of dialogue that goes on in poor communities. Poor Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and those of other religions often live in the same communities, share each other’s concerns and needs, and reflect with each other about their fortunes and misfortunes and the ultimate meanings of day to day events. The difficulty for us middle class theologians and dialogicians is that we have no access to that conversation. Many difficulties, including those of communication and building trust become serious obstacles when we try to listen to that dialogue.

So, is there any hope for theology or interreligious dialogue? According to Pieris, there is no alternative but to engage in voluntary poverty, which for religious people, he reminds us, is a positive value. We must struggle against forced poverty, but voluntary poverty is a spiritual calling we must embrace. Some of the greatest saints and revered gurus in religious traditions, he reminds us, were people who renounced worldly comforts and pleasures. Some entered the monastic life, others such as Gandhi, became engaged in issues of social justice.

For those of us in religious leadership or theological academia, who assumed that theology can be done in the comfort of the seminary and its library, this is a problem. Indeed, for most of us, whose perceptions are colored by the dominant economic ethos, and where the desire to reach higher in the economic ladder is the positive value, voluntary poverty does not make sense. Therefore, Pieris asserts that it is simply not possible for people with such a middle class mindset to really understand and appreciate those who are poor, and recommends that those who engage in the disciplines of theology and of interreligious dialogue undergo a conversion, and undertake the baptism of voluntary poverty themselves.

This is what SCUPE does. We put our students into the streets of the city, to its local communities, to areas of concentrated poverty, where we teach our students to listen to the questions, struggles and stories of pain and laughter. We bring those questions together, subject them to deeper analysis, and then ask what scripture and tradition have to say about these questions. Indeed, in the margins our students have seen dialogue burst into argument, controversy and creativity. There, it never stays a mere dialogue, but moves quickly to action. At the margins people are conscientized, they strategize, organize and move in to light a fire under their leaders. Indeed, when religious or political leaders do not have the courage to do the right thing, it is the organized people at the grassroots who are able to hold them accountable.

A useful hermeneutical key to this conundrum was offered in November 2013, at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. It’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism issued a new statement on mission entitled Together Towards Life, which turned all previous understandings of mission on its head. “Mission from the margins invites the church to reimagine mission as a vocation from God’s Spirit who works for a world where fullness of life is available to all,” it declared. In other words, mission is not to those who are a poor as we always thought, rather, mission is from those who are poor and marginalized to those at the
privileged center.

This is a profound statement. Those of us at the privileged center, the theologians, the religious leaders, the pastors and teachers, the middle class elite, are the very ones that need to be missionized. It says to us powerfully that those who are hungry today have something important to teach us about economic justice, about life and its meaning, and about the importance of sharing and community. Those who are working two or three jobs at minimum wage and have kids to take care of at home also have something important to teach us about faith, because at the end of the day they still have strength left to say their evening prayers with the kids. Those who are suffering climate catastrophes, such as the recent one in the Philippines have something important to teach us about climate justice and about life’s fragility and resilience. When we are able to deeply comprehend that, we will discover that our questions are different, our answers are different, and more than anything else, our attitude towards life and our lifestyle will be different.

What happened in 2008 was a result of unbridled structural greed. It was violence that was perpetrated against massive numbers of people around the world. But the religious communities’ voice was muted. We were conflicted because we too participate in that structural greed. Given today’s context it is critical that the religious communities’ voices be powerful and resilient. But in order for that to be so, we must allow those in the margins to teach us, missionize us, and indeed, convert us.

The Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana is President of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago. Originally from Sri Lanka, he was most recently the director for the Program Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches (WCC), a worldwide fellowship of 349 Protestant and Orthodox churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to moving to Geneva, Premawardhana served as the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches of Christ, based in New York.

[1] Martin Sinaga (ed.) A Common Word: Buddhists and Christians Engage Structural Greed (Lutheran University Press, 2012)

[2] Aloysius Pieris, Asian Theology of Liberation (T&T Clark, 1988, 86)