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Special Report

Future religion: oppressor or liberator?

Capetown, South Africa

The great irony, the great vision, perhaps, of the third convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions is that it took place in South Africa, that place where, in the name of God, an entire people had been dispossessed, denigrated and dehumanized.

Slavery, white people theologized, was God’s will. The problem for contemporary religion is that all of this theologizing, fashioned on the basis of color alone, took place not in the 13th century, not in the 16th century, not as an act of modern warfare, but as a condition of political life in our own times -- in 1948 -- just as the Western world was celebrating its liberation of Europe from Nazi oppression. It happened while, as equally religious people, the rest of the world stood by and watched.

Just as great an irony is that the very people who were enslaved, denigrated and diminished here because of the color of their skin say that it is religion that sustained them.

Clearly, the question for religious people everywhere is what role did religion play in both the oppression and the liberation of indigenous peoples? And most of all, what role should religion play in any social arena?

Wearing the face of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, it is religion that came again to Capetown from around the world, not only to reconsecrate the ground of District Six, a symbol of oppression under apartheid, but to look at what religion has to give to institutions everywhere whose policies affect the quality of life around the world. All South Africa and District Six, in particular, became a metaphor for religion the oppressor and religion the liberator in the world today.

District Six, a community of colored, black and mixed race people in a suburb of Capetown, became a symbol of the depth of the cruelty of South Africa’s racial policies. This land, the government declared in 1966 after two decades of apartheid, was “a disease-infected slum.” As a result, the homes of 60,000 people were razed and families forcibly displaced by the Group Areas Act of an apartheid government and its rigid segregation program. Then, swept clean of its racial undesirables, the land was reclaimed for South Africa’s white minority. “I was born and lived here all my life,” an old black South African woman said, standing there in the middle of barren ground at the opening ceremony of the parliament. “I am 80 years old and I want to die where I was born.” This was a religious meeting that did not open in a church. It opened in the middle of an empty field, under a hot African sun, listening to the voices of this world’s dispossessed. Was this religion or was it social action? Or are the two the same?

I looked around the crowd of torch-bearing, drum-beating, praying participants at the opening ceremony of the parliament while church bells rang and banners declared the sacred scriptures of every religion on earth and religious leader after religious leader gave benedictions in languages I had never heard and I asked myself, “Are these the crazies and the clowns? Or are these the saints and the visionaries of our age? And how would those of us who consider ourselves outside any of those categories ever know?”

The parliament, a longtime idea but an only recently reorganized conference of universal religious traditions, met in Capetown, South Africa, Dec. 1-8, replete with 6,000 disciples, ministers, clergypersons, devotees, adherents and scholarly figures from all over the world and from every recognizable religious tradition. I have seen them all in living color: They came in Sikh turbans, Buddhist robes, Japanese kimonos, Zoroastrian caps, Jain mouth guards, Native American beads, business suits, saris, dresses and clerical collars from six of the seven continents of the world. The parliament is only the third such gathering of religious professionals in one place with one agenda since the calling of the first parliament in 1893.

Unthinkable thought

Given the context of the times, the notion of bringing religious figures together in common cause at the end of the 19th century was, at best, a rare if not unthinkable thought. The religious arena at the turn of the century was, for the most part, a highly doctrinaire arena, and the social world in which it was embedded was not only just as chauvinistic as the religions themselves but politically unsettled as well. As a result, a second parliament was not called until 1993, 100 years after the first gathering of the group in Chicago. The third parliament, the current Capetown conference, came in response to repeated recommendations of the participants in Chicago for more “regular” meetings. The implication is clear: For some people, at least, given the context of our times, the failure to bring religious figures together in common cause is, at best, a shortsighted if not unthinkable thought.

There are various conclusions that can be drawn from the erratic but newly resurgent history of the organization. Chief among them may be the fact that it is not a matter of spiritual reflex or established routine that 6,000 members, ministers, theologians and philosophers of the many and varied religions of the world meet together anywhere. In the final analysis, in fact, the most important thing about the meeting of the parliament may well be that such a meeting happens at all. Diverse religious traditions, most of which make some claim to having a monopoly on exclusive truth, have historically cherished distance more than they have celebrated diversity.

To this day, caution between denominations lingers. The protective attitude is in large part more muted now and even fading rapidly for many but still alive and walking in others, nevertheless. Two incidents demonstrated the currency of the tension for me with particular clarity. They were the framework of the parliament, but they framed the context of my own life, as well. The question became which of the two stories would dominate my own life and the life of faith in decades to come?

A pastor says no

The first incident involved Hans Küng, the noted German theologian and primary author of the parliament’s 1993 statement, “Toward a Global Ethic,” which argues for the underlying common ground that makes joint religious pursuits possible, whatever the particular history of a particular tradition. Küng, in the wake of the recently signed Roman Catholic-Lutheran accord on the nature of justification -- a theological question on which Küng himself had been long involved -- accepted the joint invitation of the Roman Catholic-Lutheran dioceses in Capetown to address the topic of the development of an ecumenical ethic. The plan was for Küng to speak in the local Lutheran church in conjunction with his other presentations to the parliament.

Küng opened his address in the church hall that night with what seemed at first to be a routine statement of gratitude to the organizers of the event -- the German priest from the local Catholic parish and the Lutheran bishop of the local Lutheran diocese -- for their invitation to speak under parish auspices. Then he hastened to explain to the audience, however, that the local pastor in whose church the address was being held, was not present because he disapproved of the parliament. “He wrote me a very nice personal letter,” Küng went on, “to explain to me that his absence has nothing to do with me as a person, that he likes me personally and appreciates my work, but that he does not approve of a Parliament of Religion and so cannot attend tonight.”

The ghost hanging over the concept of a Parliament of the World’s Religions had suddenly appeared like a stumbling old elephant in the attic whom everyone knows is there but no one acknowledges in polite company: Is any such thing as a Parliament of World’s Religions really possible, really religious?

The first incident made the situation plain: Parliaments of religion, for some people at least, raise the specter of indifferentism, relativism, infidelity and denominational treason. In these cases, orthodoxy itself is the goal of religion. The problem with this approach, history reminds us, is that it not only makes ecumenical interaction and cooperation impossible but it can easily actually create tensions between the religions themselves. It can become very fertile ground for “holy” wars.

Recollections of the experience of religious exclusionism permeated every gathering. Catholics referred to a period of formation when they were told that even going into a Christian church of another denomination to attend a marriage or worship with family members was considered to be sinful. Sikhs told of being denied the right to practice their religion in Muslim countries. Hindus told of being warned by Christian ministers on their “Feast of Light” that they had no light in them because they were not Christian and so would not be saved. Muslims talked about the Crusades. Native Americans and Africans told of forced “conversions.” Clearly, talking religion with religious people is like walking through a minefield in snowshoes. The parliament could hardly ignore the problem. Was the parliament an exercise in religious syncretism or a place of ecumenical heresy?

The parliament opened with a clear disclaimer and a certain goal: The parliament, Jim Kenney, its international director, explained, “is not an attempt at religious unity. It is at attempt at religious harmony.” Bishop Timothy Lyne, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and a delegate to the conference repeated the position: “The basic idea [of the parliament] is not conversion but sharing. It’s an opportunity to seek points of convergence.”

Peace among the religions, respectful understanding of other religious visions and common encounter for the sake of creative engagement with the critical issues of the times became the water on which highly committed delegates walked toward the common vision of a just, equal and peaceful future. Hans Küng put the matter directly: “I came to realize more and more,” he said, “that religion is a political issue -- not just an academic affair. It has many political ramifications. There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions and no peace among the religions without dialogue.”

A new kind of order

In the light of the clearly stated purposes of the assembly -- harmony, respect and engagement in the critical issues of the times -- what might ordinarily be called chaotic (800 programs in three different venues over six intense days) took on a new kind of order. Religions simply explained themselves. Jains, Jews, Sufis, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists gave workshops, seminars and major papers on the founding visions and fundamental concepts of each. Every morning religions held open prayer periods. Gurus taught meditation methods. Every day artists, dancers, filmmakers and photographers gave guided presentations on the religious vision and history of every religious tradition. Understanding became key to dialogue. Every noon hour, vendors offered full lunches of multiple ethnic foods. And under it all, critical issues -- world debt, nuclear disarmament, globalization, modern science, and ecology -- formed the backdrop for the presentation of religious wisdom.

It was a smorgasbord of intellectual fare. It offered depth and continuity of material in science and world affairs. At the same time, though it showed awareness of the questions of feminism and human rights, it offered only limited scope and information in these equally crucial areas. It was, nevertheless, a rich attempt to do what has been little attempted: to bring religion as religion to face the issues of the times. It brought to bear the religious wisdom of every tradition on every question. It was the beginning of understanding, the dawn of respect, the advent of hope that what we see on television in East Timor and the Taliban and in America’s hate crimes is not the whole religious landscape of any of us. The question is, Who cares and so what?

A common wisdom

The Parliament of the World’s Religions is distinctive neither for its concentration of economic power nor for its clear organizational value. It binds no religious group to anything. It represents no international ecumenical accords. Other international meetings of scholars, governmental representatives or economic institutions, for instance, have regularly been more centralized, more powerful. Many have even been larger.

The fourth international U.N. Conference of Women held in Beijing in 1995 attracted 40,000 women from around the world, most of whom had some official affiliation with previously organized groups, all of whom worked almost exclusively on behalf of women somewhere.

Capetown, on the other hand, managed to summon a mere 6,000 mullahs, imams, swamis, priests, theologians, nuns, ordained women, pastoral assistants and ministers of all ilk and stripes who, if anything, were at first glance far more diverse than alike. Size has little to do with either the effect or the influence of this kind of meeting, however. In fact, the essential difference between the two meetings -- the parliament and the women’s conference -- is far more than numerical. Like porcupines, who in the words of the wag, make love “very carefully,” religious figures have a lot to worry about in the mixure of orthodoxies.

When women arrived in Beijing, on the other hand, they came in large part with what was already a common mind. When the religious leaders came to Capetown, they came with three certainties only: first, that religion was as much capable of being a world problem as it was of being a solution to world affairs; second, that the globalization of problems must ultimately involve some globalization of solutions; and, finally, that religion has a common wisdom, a common ethic to bring to bear if religion can possibly transcend religion itself for the sake of faith.

Religion is perhaps the slipperiest, the most diffuse, the least defined of endeavors. Commerce operates out of a profit motive, science out of wonder, the arts out of emotional expression, government out of a need for order, education out of the will to grow, voluntary organizations out of social responsibility, international organizations out of a need for global collaboration. But religion? All we really know of religion is that it functions on behalf of the will of God as it is determined by those who are not God. When that will is understood to be the growth of all of humankind, there is nothing more sublime. When that will is defined as the advantage of one part of humankind over another, there is little that is more disillusioning. It is the perennial struggle between orthodoxy for its own sake and the practice of the will of God for the good of the world. In the hands of those who are more religious than spiritual, it can have disastrous results. But when religion transcends religion for the sake of the other, it brings with it for all the world to see a glimpse of the goodness it talks about.

The second story that framed the Parliament for me gave testimony to that dimension. Nelson Mandela, unlike the pastor who feared the effect of a Parliament of the World’s Religions on the authenticity of his faith, did not stay away from the parliament. On the contrary, despite the fact that other international engagements had been on his schedule for months, he canceled them, he said, in order to attend the parliament and address an assembly that held no political advantage for him whatsoever. Why? “I changed my plans,” he said, “because nothing has been more important to South Africa than religion. When no one else would educate us, treat us, help us, the religions did. All religions. Religious people gave us the tools we needed to help ourselves and supported us in our struggle. Religion sustained us through all the years in jail. Religion is a mighty force.”

I thought of the pastor who would not come to the parliament for the sake of his religion and of a president who did because of it. I knew that the story of the parliament was the choice for each and all of us of one story or the other.

Coverage of the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions: http://sistersofsaintanne.org/capetown

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, a regular NCR columnist, was invited to chair the final session of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999