Children standing near the wooden boat on cracked earth. Metaphor for Global warming and Climate change. Photo: iStock
Children standing near the wooden boat on cracked earth. Metaphor for Global warming and Climate change. Photo: iStock

The Parliament of World Religions is considered the “oldest, largest, most diverse and inclusive global interfaith event.” It has convened six times since its illustrious inaugural session in Chicago in 1893.

The seventh Parliament is convening this year from November 1-7 in Toronto. Affirming its intention to draw “from movements of goodwill and cross-cultural respect that are embodied in the spirit of the interfaith movement,” the 2018 Parliament has chosen a laudable theme: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation and Change.”

With an estimated 10,000 attendees, this year’s Parliament provides a valuable opportunity to consider the root causes of global crises and approaches to sustainable change.

The natural environment, human communities and traditional cultures are collapsing all around us. Climate-change induced hurricanes, floods, droughts and biodiversity loss are realities. By 2100, an astounding 2 billion people are estimated to become “climate refugees.”

Displaced from their homes by the combined effects of climate change, poverty and political violence, caravans and boatloads of desperate people are seeking refuge across state borders. Instead of uniting to protect the Earth and humanity, extremist leaders, politicians and media are pitting people against one another along cultural identities.

This is not a new phenomenon. As Japanese Buddhist Hirai Kinzo pointed out at the 1893 Parliament, anti-Japanese actions were rampant in the US at the time. Hate crimes against immigrants, Jews, blacks and other people of color are again on the rise in the US and Europe. So are ethno-religious conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

Widespread mental disorders and the ready availability of weapons have made mass shootings a common occurrence in the United States. Internationally backed wars fought along ethno-religious lines have led to mass starvation and genocide in Yemen and other regions.

It is necessary to move beyond polarizations such as “us vs them,” “good vs bad,” and “liberal vs conservative” popularized by mainstream print and social media as well as academia. We must recognize how an “ego consciousness” promoting individualism, competition and domination has ascended at the personal and societal levels of nations, in ethno-religious groups, and in how humans relate to other animal and life forms.

While ego consciousness, domination and violence certainly predated the modern era, the contemporary world seems to be taking them to the logical extreme: human and planetary annihilation.

Despite their differences over the secular state and democratic norms, both conservatives and liberals uphold the corporate capitalist system. Even religious extremists opposed to US military and political power and Western culture are not averse to partaking in the global economy and Western technology to achieve their political goals.

However, when capitalism is unquestioningly accepted as sacrosanct, it becomes a form of economic fundamentalism. Convergence of economic and ethno-religious fundamentalisms give rise to complex social dynamics that obstruct “understanding, reconciliation and change” and the realization of the “promise of inclusion and the power of love” called for by the Parliament of World Religions.

Economic fundamentalism

Today, the capitalist economy integrates the entire world within one interconnected market and technological system that increasingly controls all aspects of life. A few large transnational corporations control greater shares of global wealth and resources and wield more power over people’s lives and the environment than most nation-states. So-called “world empires of the 21st century,” corporations have increasingly captured governments, multilateral and philanthropic institutions, powerful non-governmental organization and the mainstream media, compelling governments to adjust their policies to suit corporate interests.

For example, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “more than half of all industrial carbon emissions were released into the atmosphere since 1988, after major fossil-fuel companies indisputably knew about the harm their products were causing to the climate.” However, serious efforts to regulate the fossil-fuel industry or to find alternatives to market-based solutions to global warming have not been made even by governments considered to be progressive.

As transnational corporate control is consolidated in practically every sector, global economic inequality deepens. The Swiss bank Credit Suisse revealed in 2017 that the richest 1% have accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together.

Conservatives, liberals and individuals with different ethno-religious identities make up the super elite. However, the extreme maldistribution of wealth at both national and global levels has serious implications for the survival of people and global peace and stability.

Even the meager social-welfare services earlier provided by states are being dismantled by privatization and other corporate-led policies. As the state is displaced from its socio-economic functions, it is reduced to being an institution of patronage and a vehicle for maintaining law and order.

When economic crises worsen, ethnic and religious cleavages sharpen, escalating into conflicts and even large-scale civil wars. Divide-and-conquer policies of local and external elites play a significant role in the rise and spread of culturally based conflicts across the world. Most communities are not inherently antagonistic toward culturally different others. Many so-called ethno-religious conflicts are deliberately created and manipulated by vested interests.

Today, besieged states come to rely more and more on militarism and the buying of weapons from the rich arms-exporting countries. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are the primary weapons producers and exporters. The United States remains the world’s leading arms exporter; China’s arms exports have increased 38% since the 2008-12 period.

When profit-making and domination prevail over social, environmental and ethical criteria, production and marketing of harmful goods and services, such as the arms trade and fossil-fuel production, prevail, undermining the “inclusion” and “love” called for by the Parliament of World Religions.

Ethno-religious fundamentalism

Political forces that claim to fill the economic and emotional vacuums created by corporate globalization and militarism are thriving in many parts of the world. Access to employment, education, money and even food are routinely provided by hundreds of evangelical Christian sects operating in the global South and the former Soviet bloc.

Most of these sects have their origin and receive funding from well-organized networks of parent churches in the US. Fundamentalist Islamic groups, funded from the oil-rich Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, also provide basic needs to those willing to join them. Islamic schools in poor countries like Pakistan and Indonesia are “total institutions.” They look after the basic needs of students, inculcating in them a politically activist Islam that often equates faith with martyrdom.

Grassroots mobilization allows fundamentalist movements to influence the public arena politically to further their own agendas. Unlike Christian Liberation Theology, which mobilized the poor to fight for social justice and empowerment in Latin America in earlier decades, widespread evangelical Christian sects active among poor communities today are directing mass despair and anger toward inner salvation at the expense of efforts for social transformation.

Proselytizing sects thrive under poverty and dictatorship of brutal regimes precisely because they fail to challenge them. Thus religious fundamentalism can provide a social and psychological foundation to corporate globalization and militarism.

Unethical conversion using economic incentives and curtailing freedom of choice and belief are antithetical to the Parliament’s commitment to “movements of goodwill and cross-cultural respect that are embodied in the spirit of the interfaith movement.” Hindu luminary Swami Vivekananda pointed this out at the inaugural Parliament in 1893:

“Christian brethren of America, you are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the souls of heathens … what have you done and are doing to save their bodies from starvation? … During the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger but the missionaries did nothing. They come and offer life but only on condition that the Hindus become Christians, abandoning the faith of their fathers and forefathers. Is it right?”

The influence wielded by externally funded Christian charity groups and NGOS and by pan-Islamic Wahhabi and other forces create suspicion among local religious communities. Fears over their physical and cultural survival have given rise to Hindu and Buddhist mobilization against Christians and Muslims in South and Southeast Asia. While aggression must never be condoned, it is necessary to examine how poverty and powerlessness have engendered such outcomes.

In the West too, dissatisfaction and resentment associated with rapid socio-economic and demographic changes have been mobilized largely against cultural others and much less against tightening corporate economic and technological control. In the past few decades, white nationalism has succeeded in shifting the political spectrum to the right in both the US and Europe.

Class-based politics such as union organizing is giving way to identity-based politics and popularity of xenophobic political leaders and neo-Nazi groups. Liberalism, with its own focus on identity politics and neglect of structural transformation of the economic system, is partly to be blamed for this turn of events.

Toward justice and compassion

The alternative to the ego-consciousness rooted in the psychology of fear and “self vs other” mentality is a universal consciousness grounded in the truth of unity within diversity. Goodwill and inter-cultural respect called for by the interfaith movement honor the universal consciousness and its ethics of generosity and partnership.

When applying this higher consciousness to policymaking, unbridled corporate growth cannot be accepted as inevitable. Ethical, social, environmental and cultural criteria can be introduced into corporate decision making. The global economic system has to be transformed so that compassion and social justice prevail over extreme greed and selfishness.

Fossil-fuel combustion, production and distribution of weapons and violence in the media need to be regulated. A just and sustainable economic system that satisfies basic human needs for food, water, shelter, education and health care, including mental health, is essential for curtailing anger and resentment that is spreading ethnicity- and religion-based violence everywhere.

This transformation requires citizens to take collective action to democratize political and economic institutions through socially and environmentally responsible investment, civil disobedience, and changes of consumption patterns and lifestyles. Electoral campaign finance reform is most important, especially in the US. Transformation comes ultimately from an inner awakening to the reality of interdependence and a dedication to the alleviation of suffering of all.

“Let one not deceive nor despise another person, anywhere at all. In anger and ill-will, let him not wish any harm to another. Just as a mother would protect her only child with her own life, even so, let him cultivate boundless thoughts of loving kindness towards all beings. Let him cultivate boundless thoughts of loving kindness towards the whole world – above, below and all around, unobstructed, free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing, walking, seated or lying down, as long as he is awake, he should develop this mindfulness. This, they say, is the divine abiding here.…”

– The Buddha, Metta Sutta (Discourse on Loving Kindness)

(This article is excerpted from the author’s presentation at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions)

Asoka Bandarage

Asoka Bandarage PhD has taught at Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown and other universities. She is currently distinguished (adjunct) professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy and many other books and publications. She serves on the advisory boards of the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, Critical Asian Studies and the International Buddhist Association of America.

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