Report from the 2018 Parliament of Religions

By Patrick Horn*

The oldest and largest interfaith institution, the Parliament of World’s Religions, convened in Toronto to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the inaugural event at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Over 8,000 people from 220 faith traditions gathered for seven days of dialogue, ritual, and music that celebrated diversity, inclusion, and a more peaceful, just, and sustainable society.

Speakers included Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, author Karen Armstrong, ecofeminist Dr. Vandana Shiva, and a thousand panel presentations on topics ranging from the environment to indigenous rights, empowering women and youth, and countering violence and hate.

Extending a Legacy

Some academics describe the first Parliament as a Protestant Christian event to which some non-Christians were invited. Native Americans were among those who were originally excluded. The star speaker was the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, whose opening remarks to the “Sisters and Brothers of America” received a lengthy standing ovation. He famously called for an end to irreligion, sectarian bigotry, and violent fanaticism. In 1993, the Parliament was revived, in part due to the efforts of initiates from his lineage, and subsequent events have been staged in Cape Town, Barcelona, Melbourne, and Salt Lake City.

The 2018 Parliament opened amidst tragic news from the U.S. of a mass shooting at a Pittsburg synagogue; during the proceedings, a gunman opened fire on a yoga studio in Tallahassee, and as the convention concluded, a deranged military veteran killed 12 people in a Thousand Oaks music club while 100,000 homes in the nearby community were evacuated due to the worst wildfire in California history. The Parliament’s message of peace, love, and harmony is an optimistic ideal that is much needed in these troubled times of climate catastrophe and social chaos, and the interfaith forum was buzzing with conviviality and a common aspiration for a more beautiful world. 

The opening ceremony featured a parade of indigenous tribes and words of welcome from local government officials. Plenary talks included video remarks from the Dalai Lama and activist Valerie Kaur. United Religions Initiative (URI) Executive Director Victor Kazanjian, Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis, and Rabbi David Rosen offered inspiration. Reverend James Lawson, theologian John Cobb, and educator Sakena Yacoobi eloquently addressed various morning assemblies. United Nations Youth Representative Sara Rahim emceed the Next Generation session, and the Unity in Diversity Choir led by Jack Lenz brought the audience to tears with a rendition of the popular song “Rise Up.” The musical selections were especially strong, from live performances from the Solaris Project, Red Sky, and others to the double album compilation of URI artists produced by Grammy-nominated legend Pato Banton. Swami Chidanand Saraswati humorously described the attendees as “high” on “lovey, lovey” and “juicy, juicy” and advised more “huggy, huggy.”

The Parliament also had a few incidences of tension that reveal the sometimes complicated and messy business of nurturing a pluralist community. There was a small protest when the opening plenary cut a Hindu speaker due to time constraints; police were called for extra security after threats to rush the stage. Despite the intention to develop youth leadership, the average age of participants was between 44 and 66 years old, and the cost of registration, travel, and accommodation is beyond the capacity of most students and millennials. There was a stark contrast between the indigenous women emphasizing relationship as foundational to peacebuilding and World Faith founder Frank Fredericks asserting that religious conflict could be solved by big data. Finally, the Parliament and the interfaith movement in general needs to reflect on whether uncritical acceptance is giving sanction to harmful groups: vendors included advocates of illegal drug use, a garish temple with idols of a sex offender, an exhibit glorifying what is widely considered an international criminal organization, and numerous booksellers whose commodity is less wisdom teaching that builds character and more superstition that weakens the mind. As professor Stephen Prothero observes, all religions are not the same, and it is dangerous to flatten and ignore differences. 

When Prophecies Come True

Perhaps the most auspicious moment during the Parliament was news that another white buffalo was born in fulfillment of Lakota Sioux prophecy. According to Chief Arvol Looking Horse, nineteen generations ago, his tribe was given seven sacred practices and a story about the transition between the ages. In a time of earth changes and global disaster, a white buffalo that changes color from white to yellow to red to brown would be born as a warning of imminent extinction, but also a sign of encouragement: if religions and people of good will unite then the collective effort would avert a cataclysmic destruction of the species. The first white buffalo “Miracle” was born in Wisconsin in 1994, and since then, there have been at least eight white buffalo that are not albinos. This can be a good time! 

* Patrick Horn ([email protected]) is an interfaith actor and public scholar. A member of RCC, he contributed an original song “Run River Run” to the United Religions Initiative music compilation.

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