by David Oughton
From August 14 to 18, 2023, I attended a Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago. The gathering drew together more than 7,000 people representing about 100 countries and more than 200 different religious groups. Focused on the theme of “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights,” it was a very impressive event.
The first time that many religious representatives met with each other was at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Three of the goals of that gathering were to show “what and how many important truths the various Religions hold and teach in common,” to discover “what light Religion has to throw on the great problems of the present age,” and “to bring the nations of the earth into a more friendly fellowship, in the hope of securing permanent international peace.”
The president of that Parliament proclaimed: “Henceforth the religions of the world will make war, not on each other, but on the giant evils that afflict humanity.” But after two world wars, the Holocaust and other genocides, the Cold War with massive nuclear proliferation, and more than 80 wars since the end of the Second World War, many people representing many different religions realized the need for modern Parliaments in order to address our current global problems.
As a result, in 1993 many religious leaders in Chicago organized the first modern Parliament. The other modern Parliaments were then held in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, in Barcelona, Spain in 2004, in Melbourne, Australia in 2009, in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015, in Toronto, Canada in 2018, virtually in 2021, and most recently back in Chicago this year. I have been fortunate to participate in all these events.
The modern Parliaments are religious conventions that are open to anyone who is committed to learning about other religions and dialoging with people from other religions. Each day of the Parliament involves meetings, presentations, and panels about the beliefs and practices of different religions or about humanity’s most pressing problems: violence, human rights atrocities, poverty, racism, gender inequality, war and genocide, nuclear weapons, and environment degradation due to global warming. Leaders of various groups within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other religious groups gave speeches in the plenary sessions about how they think these global problems can be solved.
At the 2023 Parliament, there were more than 100 sessions or presentations each day, as well as many opportunities to attend different religious services. Many dances and songs performed by various religious groups were also part of this global experience. Every day a large group of Sikhs offered a free meal of traditional Indian food to large groups of participants. Everyone who chose to attend these langars was asked to follow the Sikh custom of removing one’s shoes and covering one’s head with a turban or a cloth.
There was a major emphasis at this latest Parliament on the Declaration of a Global Ethic. It was written by a group of scholars from different religions for the 1993 Parliament. The Global Ethic emphasizes a commitment to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life, solidarity and a just economic order, tolerance and a life of truthfulness, equal rights and partnership between men and women, and sustainability and care for the Earth.
These principles reflect the ancient commandments taught in some way by all of the major religions: “You shall not murder/kill, steal, lie, or commit adultery.” According to the Global Ethic, people from every religion or no religion can agree on universal ethical values such as nonviolent conflict resolution, honesty, human rights, labor rights, working against corruption in government and economics, working for justice, and protecting the environment.
Another document that was emphasized at recent Parliaments is the Charter for Compassion. This Charter is based on the Golden Rule that has been taught by all of the major religions in various formulations.
The Charter calls upon all to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion, to reject any interpretation of scripture that breeds hatred or violence, to teach accurate and respectful information about other religions, to appreciate cultural and religious diversity, and to cultivate empathy for the sufferings of others, even those regarded as enemies. Because of the modern Parliaments and other influential leaders and organizations, many cities around the world have declared themselves to be Compassion Cities.
Several sessions at the 2023 Parliament emphasized the need for a democratic world federation. One was led by Sovaida Ma’ani Ewing, a representative of the Baha’i Faith. She argued that war, climate change, mismanagement of natural resources, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and financial upheavals can best be solved by establishing collective decision-making institutions that can evolve into a democratic world federation of nation-states.
Many modern philosophers and religious leaders have realized that there will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. Furthermore, there will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.
I am convinced that the Parliaments of the World’s Religions are important forums for promoting world citizenship, compassion, and a global ethic for the global community. The world’s religions have a responsibility to build a secure foundation for these values so that a democratic system of enforceable world law can outlaw war and solve our global problems.
David Oughton, who holds an interdisciplinary doctorate in Philosophies and Theologies of Peace and Justice, has taught courses about the world’s religions at Saint Louis University.