Proceedings

The Power of the Interfaith Movement:

World Congress of Religions 2012 Proceedings

 

Friday

The Power of the Interfaith Movement:

Martin Luther King III addresses the World Congress of Religions 2012

 

Washington DC, Nov 30, 2012. On Friday November 30, the World Congress of Religions 2012 was opened by Dr. Pradip K. Ghosh commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda by calling forth the interfaith movement as a powerful force for solving social problems.

Dr. Ghosh, the convener and Chairperson of World Congress of Religions 2012 stated, “We are fortunate to gather a number of accomplished representatives from various religions for interfaith dialog. Swami Vivekananda’s ideals of universal acceptance will go a long way to foster peace and harmony among people of different faiths and beliefs.”

Keynote speech: Martin Luther King III

Mr. Martin Luther King III’s speech celebrated the visionary moral leadership offered by his father Martin Luther King and Swami Vivekananda. He called for unity and harmony, built upon the common ground of universal sacred values among religions. He provided personal examples of fostering forgiveness and harmony, and rejection of violence. Mr. King encouraged education on non-violence, including teaching conflict resolution and emotional literacy, and rejection of the culture of violence. Emotional literacy is necessary to deal with anger and frustration in peaceful and creative ways.

He called for millions to rise up and end the pollution of our planet in this decade, using non-violent principles and affirming kinship with all life. The stakes are high: we can learn forgiveness and non-violence or face non-existence. Embracing peace, hope, and love is the only way for humanity to survive and prosper.

 

Saturday

The Power of the Interfaith Movement:

Major Social Issues of Peace, Poverty, Women’s Rights, the Environment and Democracy

 

Washington DC, Dec 1, 2012. On Saturday, December 1, the World Congress of Religions 2012 featured a wide array of speakers commemorating the contributions of Swami Vivekananda to interfaith understanding, His visionary leadership was exceptional, particularly in bringing the East to the West at the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago. The powerful set of programs looked at the ongoing legacy of Swami Vivekananda and the current interfaith movement as it interfaces with major issues of the day.

Three sessions covered issues of peace through increased universal acceptance, the need for spirituality to quiet the mind and serve as the starting point for engagement with contemporary issues, and considerations of profound forgiveness as a spiritually transformative act. Women’s empowerment, through education, economic advancement and leadership was discussed as a crucial step in changing a whole set of social problems. Deep concern for environmental issues emerged as a theme, with calls for immediate action.

The first panel of religious leaders and academics outlined the contributions of Swami Vivekananda. The second panel continuing this work, offering heartfelt and important nuance on outgrowths of Swami Vivekananda’s work towards peace and oneness. The third panel focused on women’s empowerment, religious pluralism, peacemaking and ending hunger, including the importance of education and the feminine divine.

Each speaker throughout the conference is a master in her/his own right, whether as a religious leader, academic, or activist, so it is a challenge to do justice to their contributions in a very condensed form, particularly after they have condensed years of experience into brief 10-minute presentations.

The conference also highlighted the arts, and featured a concert on the opening night with beautiful singing and wide-ranging music performed by talented women and men.

Women’s performance of Indian classical dance was featured on Saturday, bringing the embodied blended spiritual, cultural and religious heritage of India to the conference in another beautiful form.

Session I Highlights: Swami Vivekananda and the Contemporary World

Justice Shymal Sen discussed oneness of the universe, universal belonging, love for humanity and openness to all.

Swami Atmajnanananda discussed Swamiji’s compassion, intellect, love, service, partnership with the West and message of acceptance, not mere tolerance.

Dr. Jeffrey Long, whose quoted writing ends this section, discussed Swamiji’s influence on many great thinkers and the total relevance of his teachings today.

Brahmachari Mural Bhai spoke about tolerance and harmony in the world.

Session II Highlights: Fostering Respect and Understanding Among Religions, Cultures, & Nations

Dr. Rajwant Singh promoted the idea that human co-existence demands a climate of mutual respect and religious harmony to favor peace between human beings and nations. God and spirituality is in each of us, and we can serve each other. He emphasized the point that women’s rights need to be fully recognized. Additionally, there is dignity and value in respecting the poor; God’s mercy resides there. Because of this, true warriors fight for the underprivileged. Dr. Singh encouraged us to be the change in our own villages and religious centers, which create the towns, which create the nations and world. We need to protect the earth, our only home. For example, working with www.ecosikh.org.

Dr. R. Drew Smith spoke from the African American Protestant tradition and of the visionaries who have shaped this heritage. As a believer in the ability of the private citizen to mitigate world issues better than the government, he discussed the tradition of ‘citizen diplomacy’ and some of its actors. Two aspects of citizen diplomacy are the actions by individuals to engage in interfaith cross-cultural bridge building and engagement in international global service.

Dr Bharat Gupt reminded us that God is both male and female, which are only seemingly differences, born of our limited vision, of the same spiritual reality. We cannot simply take religious texts on face value through repetition: Religion must be experienced, which can animate and amplify religious texts. And religious ethics need to be interpreted anew in ongoing contexts. Dr. Gupt emphasized that we are all in a crisis of consumerism where our very life is unsustainable. Swamiji would emphasize this most of all if he were here today.

Sensei Stultz opened by telling the audience about one of his teachers holding retreats at Auschwitz. ‘There is a part of us that allows us to dehumanize people. Auschwitz is the world monument of that aspect. The first way to deal with that aspect is to remember—as the opposite of dismember. Remembering is putting back together what is taken apart.’

Can one really forgive evil? Sensei Stultz’s own experiences of serving in prisons and running a halfway house led him to see that we have a “childlike” view of justice that demands a sense of fairness that does not exist and causes us to fall short of the ideal, even when sentencing is dealt. He also reminds us that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. In some ways, forgiveness means “hearing witness to all aspects of ourselves,” both the good and the bad. In the Buddhist sense, this is an “awakening to oneness.” And Sensei Stultz wants the interfaith community to asks itself how our traditions help to awaken the world.

Environmental Crisis

The theme of the environmental crisis emerged throughout the day.

Dr. Gupt emphasized that the crisis of consumerism where our very life is unsustainable-and all people are actors in this crisis. Swamiji would emphasize this crisis most of all if he were here today.

Dr Rajwant Singh called for each person to be the needed change, starting in the village level, and building up to national and international levels to protect the Earth. He works through www.ecoskih.org.

Dr. Katherine Marshall said we can’t lose a minute in dealing with the environmental crisis- our young people are terrified.

Dr. Ramesh Rao suggested vegetarianism as part of the solution.

Dr. Katz said that Western consumer culture has us looking at the dollar cost rather than the spiritual costs, applying this analysis to environmental issues as well as to poverty and food issues.

Dena Merriam spoke passionately about violence to the earth, the killing of the sacred for which we need a change in the hearts and minds and actions of all people. The economic, the ecological are all interconnected, and shifts in our understanding of gender can transform these. Seeing women as fully human, seeing rivers as living energies rather than commodities, and seeing the divine in more than a masculine incarnation are all part of shifting to a collaborative human enterprise, out of the current model of domination.

Women’s Rights

The theme of women’s rights came up in every session, as it was an important part of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings and is crucial to his legacy. The imbalance and injustices of sexism are clearly a fundamental problem, one that needs to be redressed as a pre-condition for solving many other social problems. Many speakers acknowledged the need for more and better education for girls, leading to reduced birth rates, better family and community health, prosperity, and fuller civic participation of half the population. Also the depiction of the divine as male was called into question; embracing the feminine face of the divine is important on multiple levels.

Session III Highlights: Women’s Empowerment, Human Rights, and World Peace

Ms. Dena Merriam has come to see the imbalance in gender representation as a “symptom of a deeper problem. A problem of how we relate to a deeper source, the divine… Internally, we internalize the voice as a male figure.” We repress the feminine aspects of the divine. One example she gave was of a conference that recently took place in Saudi Arabia. Despite the hundreds of religious leaders, there were very few women present. “Many women came up to me and commented how it makes them feel to see a panel with no women. It has an impact on how women relate to themselves.” Merriam argues that without fixing such imbalances, we cannot truly address the problems in the world. All conflicts are ultimately symptoms of a “paradigm of domination,” whether that domination is religious, racial, or in gender imbalance. Both she and Dr. Ramesh Rao touched on the imbalance of interfaith and religious conferences and the dominance of Abrahamic traditions. Merriam also discussed anther form of domination: our consumerist attitudes towards the environment. “It’s not just a matter of buying less. Not as seeing the rivers as commodities, but as living entities. You don’t buy and sell your mother–your mother is what gives you life.”

Dr. Katherine Marshall discussed the intersection of religious involvement in international development and how we can increase involvement of women of faith. We can end poverty and we have the resources to do it. It requires a moral revolution, and all of us share responsibility. Some of the most exciting work done in the world is by women who are inspired by their religious faith. They bring different approaches, methodologies, and understanding of what peace is. There has been an “incomplete revolution” in relationships between women and men, and this is still an issue. Child marriage is a specific problem in which religious leaders play a specific role. Citing the UN’s minimum age for marriage at 18, she went over the benefits of delaying marriage for girls, their families, and their communities. Religious leaders perform the marriages. She is seeking 100 religious leaders to work with her to end child marriage, and welcomes nominations.

Dr. Ramesh Rao addressed the theme of religious exclusivism in interfaith dialogue and practice. He argued that those who “claim God for themselves” tend to contribute to human suffering by denying the rights of others to follow in their own traditions and spiritual quests. He went on to discuss “Predatory Proselytism,” or the exclusivist claims to God and the denial of these claims to others. He referred to on Swamiji’s ideas about pluralism and the conditions to foster it. He criticized those who attempt to say, “[your] god is not good enough for [you]”, as this type of thinking cannot allow our humanity to continue in a positive path. One need not invoke a personal label or association to make one’s point; the labels we commonly use in these discussions, such as ‘faith,’ are labels that might apply to some religious traditions while not serving other traditions that rely largely on knowledge and experience.

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi traveled all the way from Afghanistan to be present at the conference and discuss the issues with women’s education in her country. Education yes, but what kind of education, and at what level? Those who come to provide education tend to impose their views of what education is and what should be taught. These are not always productive of actually giving women and children the means to continue education and move into leadership roles. “[In Afghanistan] everybody wants their child to learn…. When they want their children to learn, they want quality of education. If it is not acceptable, not challenging their children, they ask questions. That makes me happy that they are doing critical thinking [and] not just sending their kids to school to send them to school. Now they want their children to really accomplish something.” Bringing the discussion back to the role of religion, Dr. Yacoobi mentions “religious fanatics” as using religion as a tool against women’s abilities to gain such education. Though the Koran says nothing about denying a woman’s education, “[religious fanatics] are saying that women should not get educated, [women] should sit in the house. And the women believe this because they cannot read.”

Dr. Solomon Katz spoke with a mission of increasing religious and interfaith participation in the struggle to end poverty and hunger across the world. While he acknowledges there are many areas of improvement, Dr. Katz suggests that our greatest challenge is to clarify our priorities. Instead of decreasing the number of people who have gone hungry in the world, the last five years have seen two food crises that have brought the number in hunger to over a billion people. And he argues that another billion are barely able to afford enough to eat, as well as an additional billion who suffer ill health effects from food they are able to consume. The role of religious leaders is important because the secular political process does not allow for sufficient long-term follow-up. Every religious tradition supports ending hunger.

Universal Acceptance

Dr. Jeffrey Long’s writing reflects on the current need for Swami Vivekananda’s teachings:

Swami Vivekananda’s ideal of universal acceptance, of diverse religions as being not so much contradictory as complementary, as forming distinct pieces of a vast jigsaw puzzle, as participating, each in its own way, in a broader, transcendent vision of the reality that we all share and inhabit, is even more relevant today than it was when he first articulated it, over a century ago. It has, fortunately, become an influential ideal, as the opinion polls suggest. But it is not yet shared by all. As long as there is religious bigotry and as long as violence is carried out in the name of religion, the need for Vivekananda’s vision will be pressing and urgent. This becomes all the more evident when one takes into account the destructive capacities that our ever-increasing technological abilities make available to an ever-widening pool of actors on the global stage. The urgent need to promote this vision of universal acceptance compels us, in Swami Vivekananda’s words, to, “Arise, awake, and stop not until the goal is reached!”

Keynote Speech: Dr. Condoleezza Rice

In the evening keynote speech, Dr. Condoleezza Rice offered her thoughts on the role of people of faith in making ours a better world. Hers is an example of a woman’s achievement in one of the highest offices in government, as well as in a successful teaching career. She reflected that the forward march of freedom and democracy is a moral issue. Democracy is the enshrinement of freedom, which must include all and must include protection from the tyranny of the majority. It is people of faith who often make sure that none are excluded. Her perspective is that governments cannot deliver compassion; that is the work of individuals and communities of faith.

 

Sunday

The Power of the Interfaith Movement:

Tulsi Gabbard Speaks on Spirituality, Yoga, and Service to Humanity

 

Washington DC, December 2, 2012. On Sunday Dec 2, the final day of the World Congress of Religions 2012 offered vibrant sessions covering spirituality and religion, and spirituality for health, peace, and selfless service. A wealth of terrific speakers is converging at the Washington DC Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for wide-ranging discourse. Tulsi Gabbard offered the keynote speech.

World Congress of Religions 2012 congratulated Tulsi Gabbard (D) on her election to the US congress from the Second Congressional District of Hawaii. Dr. Pradip Ghosh the convener of WCR 2012 said,” Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s election to the Congress is a welcome event as she represents the new generation of Americans to come to our nation’s decision making platform. She is so young and yet has achieved enough to be a role model for others to follow. She sure has a lifetime ahead of her to serve the people of Hawaii as well as our great country. We are proud to welcome her to the WCR 2012”.

Keynote Speech: Tulsi Gabbard

Congresswoman-elect Tulsi Gabbard said that, “Swami Vivekananda inspired Americans with his message of pluralism. I am honored and look forward to joining the delegates and speakers at the World Congress of Religions as we commemorate his 150th birth anniversary and look to better the world through the force of religion, spirituality, activism, and interfaith cooperation”.

Ms. Gabbard’s keynote focused on spirituality and service to humanity. Her track record of service is strong: she served in the Hawaii State Legislature at age 21, and is a decorated war veteran. She co-founded Healthy Hawaii Coalition, an environmental educational group. The first Hindu-American elected to Congress will discuss the role of her Hindu religion in centering her life and supporting her service work.