The Parliament of the World’s Religions Calls for Social Action: Indigenous and Other Voices Talk about the Impact of Climate Change

by Christine Muller

The original purpose of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, first held in 1893, was to promote interfaith understanding. But, since the second Parliament held in 1993, it has increasingly broadened its scope to include the immense global problems facing humankind today. The Dalai Lama, whose health prevented him from attending in person, said in his video message, “Prayer is good for individuals. Actions are good for the world.” The 2015 Parliament was clearly a call to action, specifically in the areas of income inequality and poverty; war, violence, and hate speech; and climate change—three major topics discussed in the plenary sessions. The other plenary sessions were dedicated to women, young people as emerging leaders, and indigenous people, giving a voice to people who are often not heard.

Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, who lives on the Cheyenne Reservation in South Dakota and is the chief of all three branches of the Sioux tribe, said that “Religion is often focused on the past but should be concerned with pressing contemporary problems,” reminding one of the words by Bahá’u’lláh: “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh CVI: 213). Imam Omar Suleiman, Director of the Islamic Learning Foundation-Texas, shared the same thought in even stronger terms “Get away from narcissistic spirituality!”

The call for social justice was raised passionately by many speakers and was reflected in the Parliament’s Declaration on Income Inequality and the Widening Wealth Gap:

In January 2015 Oxfam International issued a report warning that by 2016 the world’s wealthiest 1% will control as much of the planet’s assets as the other 99%. In the United States, over 80% of economic growth since 1980 has gone to the richest 1%. These problems are most acute for the billions of people who live in the poorest nations. According to the World Bank, over one billion people live on less than $1.25 per day and two billion people live on less than two dollars a day. People this poor live at or below the edge of disaster, replete with hunger and other terrible living conditions.

Robert Henderson, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, a member of the Parliament Board of Trustees, and president of the Philanthropic Division of Baharicom Development Company, pointed out in a break-out session other hair-raising aspects of the lack of social justice: “Half of black people under twenty-three have been arrested” and “in Texas, you can vote with a gun permit, but not with a student ID.”

Chief Francois Paulette, of the Dene people from northwest Canada, reported that in Northern Canada there used to be abundant clean water and forests. Tar-sand exploitation now pollutes the water and emits large amounts of greenhouse gases. One could feel his pain when he said, “Stomach cancer increased among people living along rivers. We cannot eat fish anymore. Your way of life is destroying my way of life.”

Throughout the Parliament the indigenous people were very outspoken about the urgent need to protect nature. In the words of Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere, a Tohuna and a teacher of Kura Huna, the traditional mystery of the Maori, we must “respect mother nature and have a sacred regard for creation.”

But indigenous peoples were not the only ones speaking out about protecting nature. Canadian climatologist and Evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, spoke both in a plenary and a recorded breakout session “Let’s Talk about Global Warming.” In this excellent talk she reminded us that CO2 increased 43 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and methane almost doubled. The impacts of the resulting warming of the earth are now evident in climatic changes everywhere. She said that “Australia had to add a new color to their temperature chart: 54°C.”

Dr. Hayhoe also explained that the frequently used phrase “much of the warming of the earth is caused by humans” is incorrect. The fact is that “more than 100 percent of the warming is caused by humans; we should actually be cooling.” She said that “scientists are cautious in their estimates and are erring on the side of the least drama. Therefore, scientists have not been alarmist, but conservative in their statements and projections for the future.” In the plenary session, she said “Climate change impacts all other social problems; for example, it increases the risks of water contamination, and contributes to failed states.”

Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, a shaman, healer, and storyteller from Kalallit Nunaat, Greenland, implored the participants:

Have you heard about something called climate change? Have you? I don’t think so. How can you know about climate change if you have not been to my country. Greenland is ground zero for climate change. This is the first place on earth where we feel the impact of how you live in the United States of America. And the way you live has not been very good. It is as though the people of America have forgotten that they are the caretakers and custodians of Mother Earth.

Later in his talk he said that “You cannot stop the melting of the big ice. It is too late.” He told the audience that in his youth the ice was more than 5km thick, but

now that I have become one of the elders, 3km have melted away. That’s in sixty-eight years. And all that frozen water has become liquid and is now in the ocean. Greenland’s ice will raise sea level by seven feet. This will happen whether we believe it or not. And it upsets me so much when people say, poor polar bear, there will be no ice for her. But don’t worry about the animal world. It’s you, you, you, who must be the hope. If not, most of us will perish.

He called on the ancestors of the indigenous people of America to help us realize the need for change. “Stop talking. Take action.” He ended his talk with a prayer to the Great Spirit.

It is clear that the way we treat the environment cannot be separated from social justice. There is really only one big crisis, which is both social and environmental. Rabbi David Seidenberg, the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World, expressed this with the following words: “You cannot separate the injustice between people and with the earth.”

Chief Arvol Lookinghorse said, “We are at the crossroads—unite or perish.” American lawyer Jonathan Granoff, a screenwriter, lecturer, and President of the Global Security Institute, pointed in the same direction saying, “Nuclear weapons, climate change, and poverty are global issues that demand global cooperation.”

Founder of the Center for Peace and Global Governance and Wilmette Institute faculty Sovaida Maani Ewing presented the path to global cooperation in her session entitled “Building a World Federation: The Key to Resolving Our Global Crises.” She creatively explained the concept of a world federation as delineated by Shoghi Effendi in words that were very accessible to the interfaith audience. She said that humanity is in its final stages of a turbulent adolescence and that we cannot afford to be depressed. [Click on https://www.youtube.com/user/WilmetteInstitute to listen to a Web Talk by the same name that she recently gave as part of the Wilmette Institute’s twentieth anniversary series.]

Robert Henderson also provided a hopeful message in his presentation “The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue.” He said that there has been a significant rise of a sense of interconnectedness and that the power of spiritual principles has been demonstrated in response to atrocities. He said that ordinary people are doing extraordinary things.

Peter Adriance, from the U.S. Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs, moderated an interfaith panel on “The Great Transition: The Critical Role of Faith-Inspired Efforts for Climate Action.” The goal of the panel was to show diverse ways in which faith groups are contributing to the “great transition” toward a healthy climate and sustainable world and how each of us can play our part.

I [Christine Muller, Wilmette Institute faculty and secretary of the Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light] spoke first about “Transforming the Heart with Education,” reporting about the educational efforts of the Bahá’í community with the Wilmette Institute course Climate Change and with the study circles using the interfaith course of the International Environment Forum “Scientific and Spiritual Dimensions of Climate Change.” My presentation highlighted practical actions and acts of service by course participants.

Patrick Carolan, Executive Director of the Franciscan Action Network, then spoke about the recent Encyclical “Laudato Si’—On Care for Our Common Home.” He explained that all encyclicals in the past were letters the Pope sent to his bishops who sometimes shared them with the Catholic community. The recent encyclical on climate change, however, is very different, for it is addressed to “every person living on this planet.” Laudato Si’ describes in depth the urgency of eradicating poverty and mitigating climate change. It shows how the two problems are inextricably related and that they are moral issues central to people of faith.

Reverent Fletcher Harper, executive director of Green Faith and the third member of the panel, talked about national and international interfaith actions. His presentation culminated in a moving account of the One Earth, One Human Family climate march to St. Peter’s Square in Rome to celebrate the release of the papal encyclical.

The efforts by faith communities are the first steps toward the necessary profound change. Speaker after speaker, from all over the globe, talked about the fact that we need spiritual development that takes our focus away from the ego and points it toward the common good. Chief Arvol Lookinghorse demanded that we “put individual and institutional ego aside.” Fourteen-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a singer, songwriter, actress, and environmental-rights activist and a member of Tla’Amin First Nation who grew up along the shores of Salish Sea in British Columbia, reminded the Parliament’s participants that “changing the world means changing our communities.” And Imam Omar Suleiman challenged us to “consume less, waste less, and share more.” We all must play our part.

The wide diversity of human beings both in terms of ethnicity and religious background at the Parliament made their unified call for action to work for social justice and a livable planet very powerful.

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