Saturday, January 23, 2016

Parliament of World Religions: Report from a Lutheran EcoPreacher

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Ph.D.

Imagine being in a giant hall with 10,000 people from 80 different countries representing 50 different religions.  

Everywhere you turn, there are women, children and men wearing the distinct garb of their culture or faith.  They are intermingling, shaking hands, laughing, and embracing.  

No weapons or walls – just open doors and peace.  Women are no longer relegated the role of second-class citizens but are fully recognized for their power, leadership, intelligence, and unique individual gifts.  Earth is also given equal status – worthy of not only moral consideration, but lifted up as primary for our concern and protection.

Invited to join in a vocalization of the “ohm,” you feel the vibrations of a thousand vocal chords resonating in your own mouth, in the air around you, and right in the center of your chest.  

Later, Native peoples, so long pushed to the margins, lead a procession in full tribal regalia, their booming drums setting a beat that pulses through the air and into your heart.  Hundreds of rooms offer glimpses into other cultures, images of sacredness and holy rituals, and deep conversations about healing our relationships with Earth and within the broken human community. 

This was what I experienced for five days at the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City Utah, in October of 2015.  For that transcendent – as well as very localized – moment in time and space, I got a glimpse of what I and many others agreed is what we would hope to see in heaven (being careful to note that many of the attendees would not use this Christian term).  It filled me with great hope in the possibilities for humanity on this planet at a time when hope seems in very short supply. 

Not only was I honored to be one of the presenters at the Parliament, speaking about my book Creation-Crisis Preaching, and preaching a sermon as the character of water in the story of the Woman at the Well, but I also learned a great deal about other religions and gained appreciation and insights as well.  

One of the most important experiences centered around a meal called Langar, hosted by the Sikh community and served to the participants at the Parliament. 

Every day for five days, the Sikhs served us a healthy, delicious, vegetarian meal – all we could eat – for free.  

They served 6000 people each afternoon.  With our shoes removed and heads covered to show respect, we sat together on the carpeted floor, all on the same level indicating that everyone – no matter your skin color, economic level, gender, sexual orientation, body size, or religions – everyone is welcome at this meal. 

So I arrived home from the Parliament with renewed hope for humanity based on what I had witnessed for five days.  Peace, healing, reconciliation, cooperation and justice are not only possible, they are happening. 

Yet when started skimming through different websites and posts about the Parliament, I came across a blogpost by a fellow Christian who had attended the event and was alarmed by what she saw.  She accused the gathering of being a New Age effort to create one world religion and one world government:

“The Parliament of the World's Religions has an agenda and they are now very open about it. It is now an outright attack on the Christian church and the Word of God. They have decided they cannot have unity at all cost so they are trying something else: changing the doctrine of the simple Gospel of Jesus and Who He is. I was handed a booklet titled Global Ethic: A Call to our Guiding Institutions that stated: ‘The Parliament of the world’s religion seeks to promote interreligious harmony, rather than unity.’ (p.1)

Not only does the blogger contradict herself (how can the Parliament be seeking one world religion when it clearly states that they are promoting not unity, but interreligious harmony?), but as a Christian, I have to say that I did not feel attacked at all.  And I daresay, neither did the other Lutherans who also attended the Parliament.  
Lutherans gathered at the Parliament of World Religions 2015, including former Bishop Mark Hanson, top row, third from left.

Also, I did not observe any proposed doctrinal changes of the Gospel.  Rather, I came upon countless examples of people practicing one of the primary teachings of the Gospel:  Love the Lord your God (however each person understands and expresses that love), and love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mark 12:30-31).  Yet even this practice of love was looked on with suspicion by the blogger:

“The propaganda pushed at these sessions was love, love, love, but not for the Word of God. Peace, peace, peace, but only after divisive ‘Christians are put in their place,’ wherever that may be. Dialog, dialog, dialog; however, dialog is seen as divisive if you are a dogmatic Bible believing old patriarchal Christian. . . . ‘Love’ is pushed in all directions and is the end-all statement at all cost . . . In so many articles and leaflets I have read ‘love’ even if it means leaving your faith! Love becomes your highest priority. For all intents and purposes I will call them the ‘Love Bombers.’ It draws the desperate into their web of deceit.”

So what, exactly, does she think the point of the Word of God is, if not love?  If Jesus clearly taught us even to love our enemies (Matthew 5:33-34), then what was happening at the Parliament was clearly in accordance with God’s will.  

How heartening it was to see Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians – traditions that each have a history of being in conflict with each other at one time or another – sharing the stage in panel presentations, enjoying music and dance, learning about each other’s cultures at booths and displays, and sharing meals together.  But this, too, was a source of consternation:

“The common theme throughout the conference was Muslims uniting with Jews, Catholics and Christians at all cost. Drop doctrine, drop all differences to join together for the common core of one world religion, and government - and everyone must be engaged in some sort of service to be accountable in healing the earth.”

Just to be clear – there is absolutely no possibility of there being one world religion, nor one world government.  Anyone who has worked in any substantive way in interfaith work, or at the United Nations, or in any joint international efforts will tell you – getting people of such varying cultures and religions to agree on anything is a commendable feat.  To get them to agree on one religion and government – it’s simply not a feasible task, nor one with any chance of achievement.  Nor should it be.  The point is not to make the world one monoculture of religion, like a forest with all one kind of tree.  The diversity of God’s Creation should be our first clue that the greatest strength of a community and humanity is its diversity.  And rather than seeing it as a reason for attack, finally there are folks who are seeing diversity as a reason for celebration, for learning, for healing.

So how is it that two people, both Christians, can go to the same place, see the same people, be exposed to the same events, hear the same encouragements toward love, compassion and cooperation and arrive at such radically different conclusions?

This difference in perception reminds me of the ending of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle. The book is the seventh and last book in the Narnia Chronicles, which is an allegory-as-fantasy series of children’s books that contain the Christian narrative set within an imagined world.  In the last chapter, the main characters find themselves in a beautiful field with trees after the last battle with the anti-Christ figure, Tash.   They marvel at what they see – a scene of peace, hope, and beauty. But they are confused by the behavior of the dwarves who do not appear to see the splendor all around them.  

They sit in a tight circle refusing to look around, or they bump blindly into the trees, cursing the beauty that is right in front of them.  No matter how many times the group tries to help the dwarves to see, their vision remains dark.  When the lion Aslan (the Christ-figure of the series) appears, he notes that that their prison is in their own minds and that their fear of being "taken in" keeps them from being taken out.

Similarly, the very things I and thousands of others rejoiced in and uttered prayers of gratitude and relief for, were the cause of nothing but consternation, suspicion, and fear for this Christian and many like her.  The beauty of interfaith cooperation on the most pressing justice issues of our time is not a sign of apostasy or heresy or the coming of one world religion, contrary to the author’s fears. 

Repeatedly emphasized throughout the Parliament was the need to respect each person’s religious expressions and convictions and to find ways to meet on ethical bridges in order to right the wrongs of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and eco-cidal tendencies.

And yet, this Christian ended her blogpost this way:

“I never felt so helpless, but I realized this is what the Lord meant the Way is narrow and few will find it. Christians are now seen as mean and unknowledgable (sic), even while warning those to get out of the fire. May the Lord Himself stifle their efforts and open the ears of those in our path for Jesus Christ. We need to witness now more than ever before, now before the door shuts and their time has run out.”

And there it is – fear for our (and her) soul, that an eternal fire of judgment awaits anyone who is not a Christian the way she believes Christianity must be practiced.  As social anthropologist Mary Douglas observed in her work, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, "Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience,” (4).  For that Christian blogger, maintaining the binary system of Christian/non-Christian and being sure to be in the right camp is the primary goal. 

Yes, the existence of thousands of different religions throughout the world is untidy.  But we have choices as to how we will approach this messiness.  According to Douglas, the tendency is to deal with the anomalies and ambiguities by assigning arbitrary categories, avoiding the messiness, labeling it as dangerous, or exacting physical control over it – including violence, if necessary.  We see examples of these tendencies every day – and they are not working for our planet or our human population.  The distance is short between imploring the Lord to stifle the efforts of peacemakers and the decision to take matters into one’s own hands and do the stifling by any means possible.  This is the path to terrorism, and it happens in nearly every religion. 

But there is another way.  Douglas notes that it is possible to see the anomalies and ambiguities as sources to enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of existence.  In other words, we can choose to see the "other" not as a pollutant and therefore a danger, but creatively, as a means by which our lives are enriched and our community expanded.

So, I, too offer my prayer to the Lord that he himself will encourage and multiply our efforts and open the ears of those in our path for the enemy-and-neighbor-love of Jesus Christ.  We need to witness now more than ever before, now before the door shuts and our time has run out.

Cheryl Gentle and Leah Schade at the Climate Action booth.
As my new friend, Cheryl Gentle, a woman who opened her home to me and my roommate (and also new friend), Diane Johnson, summarized:  

“The message of the Parliament was clear. We must work together ‘for a world of compassion, peace, justice, and sustainability.’ The solution cannot be one faith but must be interfaith. ‘The time is NOW and WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for!’”

Leah Schade and Dr. Diane Johnson, Organizational Consultant,

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