Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Global Economic Ethic - Medicine for a Sick System

I had the good fortune recently to hear eminent theologian Dr. Hans Küng present the principles of the newly launched manifesto titled "Global Economic Ethic - Consequences for Global Businesses" at the Parliament of the World's Religions. Küng has been a champion of global ethics work for decades and was the principal author of the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic statement developed at the 1993 Parliament. The Global Economic Ethic grows out of that work and is also a response to the recent economic collapse.

Küng argues that the recent collapse resulted from three related failures: the failure of markets to correct their own problems, the failure of institutions to perform their duties, and a widespread failure of morals. This shocking set of failures demonstrates the need for ethical guidelines in the economic world; to a great extent the crisis was caused by a failure of ethics.

We do not need to invent these ethical guidelines, according to Küng. They already exist in the great religious and cultural traditions of the world. In their simplest form, these principles boil down to two overarching imperatives: the principle of humanity, that every person must be treated humanely, and the principle of reciprocity, also known as the Golden Rule. (Take a look at my earlier post to read about Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion based on the Golden Rule.)

Based on these two foundational principles and the 1993 Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, Küng argues that all economic activity needs to abide by four practical core standards:
1) Respect and support of human rights
2) Fair and responsible labor standards
3) Protection of the environment
4) Working against corruption in all its forms

These are principles that can be adopted by all people and nations, whether religious or not. Dr. Küng emphasized that globalization requires a global ethic. There is hope that because of the recent failure of economic systems, the door may actually be open for these ideas to be taken seriously. The failure of ethics has now been shown to have far-reaching and disastrous results. The full text of the declaration can be found at

In his response to Küng's presentation, Dr. Dipak Jain, professor and former dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, called for a new definition of sustainable capitalism: profits + people + planet. Dr. Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University raised the idea of a "greed line" (to parallel the poverty line), a level of wealth above which no one needs to rise. Attendees smiled at this idea, although we did not think it likely to be implemented.

These proposals, along with Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion and Rabbi Michael Lerner's call for a new bottom line (new post on this soon), show that there is palpable interest in the air for a rebirth of ethical commitment in the economic world. It is has become clear that greed, corruption, and regulatory failure do not work, not even for the affluent. Perhaps what really works after all are the age-old values of honesty, fairness, truthfulness, justice, and human rights. What a refreshing idea! Do you think it could possibly work?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dalai Lama Closes Parliament with a Call to Action

The Dalai Lama, who has a kind of rock star status at this event, closed the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions on December 9 in Melbourne. The aging spiritual leader was playful and self-deprecating at first, then became extraordinarily serious in his remarks. He called on the leaders of the world's diverse faiths to act together to address the pressing problems of war and climate change. He said we must not just gather together but also act together; otherwise people will say we just went home and went to sleep.

The spiritual leader urged the participants to develop a common ethic of compassion and mutual respect. Peace of mind cannot be purchased in a store; it must be developed within. We need to pursue a sense of peace within our own traditions, then move out into the world to spread that peace. Meeting together to share our experiences is a crucial part of this process. No one group can do this work alone.

The Dalai Lama made a particular point of saying that our shared community of compassion must include people who are not religious. He noted that China is not a religious country but must be drawn into the shared community of compassion. His call to compassion resonated powerfully with the Charter for Compassion proposal of Karen Armstrong and the Global Ethic work of Hans Küng.

The words of the Dalai Lama strongly reinforced the core message of the Parliament, which was that while our beliefs and traditions are delightfully different, our problems are shared in common, and the core teachings of our traditions are strikingly similar. We need to work with that core of shared values to bring a compassionate response to the pressing problems that threaten our ability to survive on this planet. This may sound like a simple message, but it is a striking turnaround from the all-too-common antagonism of the world's religions.

Amid much inspiring pageantry, the 2009 Parliament came to an end. All of the participants I talked to said that they had been profoundly moved and were ready to go home and find ways to make a difference.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Obama Team Meets with Interfaith Leaders

Barney Zwartz, Religion Editor of the Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age, reported on December 10 that members of the Obama administration had met privately with about 100 religious leaders at the Parliament of the World's Religions. The meeting took place behind closed doors, and included Peter Kovach, State Department Head of Religious Freedom, and Mara Vanderslice, White House expert on religious affairs.

The Obama team members were primarily interested in listening to the concerns of the religious leaders. They asked the leaders three questions: What should the Obama administration do? What should it not do? What intermediate or long-term suggestions did the interfaith leaders have for the Obama administration?

According to today's front page report in The Age, the Obama people listened carefully and were extremely well received by the spiritual leaders. The Parliament sessions have repeatedly emphasized concerns about war, climate change, the status of women, and the needs of the poor. The meeting with the Obama team members was viewed as an extremely positive and hopeful sign that the American superpower may also be genuinely concerned about these urgent problems.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stories of Women in Leadership

At the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona, there was real concern that the voices of women were not being heard. Presentations and panels were too often male dominated.

This time around, at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, there have been far more women on panels and also a wealth of programming related to the role of women in religion. It is fascinating to listen to the stories of women from diverse traditions as they struggle with patriarchal systems. Almost every religious tradition on the planet is going through a process of gradually including women fully in leadership roles. It is a necessary if sometimes painful evolution.

Dr. Linda Lyman, of Illinois State University, is one of the dynamic women leaders presenting at this year's Parliament in Melbourne. In her interactive workshop, "Personal and Professional Journeys of Women Leaders: A Worldwide Dialogue," Dr. Lyman told the stories of twelve women of diverse nationalities, ethnic heritages, and family backgrounds who all became significant leaders in the field of education. She then skillfully identified the common threads in their stories, how they survived economic hardship, cultural bias, glass ceilings, and balancing family with career to forge strong and meaningful professional lives.

In the small group interaction following her presentation, one could feel the resonance of these stories with the women in the room. Whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jewish, women immediately understand these stories and feel both the pain and the inspiration. Their journeys embody many of the same themes. Many of the participants expressed their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Lyman for telling these stories and encouraging other women to stay on the path toward full equality in religious leadership. Even the men got the message too.

There is a different feel in the workshops being led by women. Feelings are honored, stories are told, connections are quickly made. It is not that men cannot do these things. We can, but our experience is often that women lead us in these paths with great skill and sensitivity. We all need these qualities in our communities, and we need them at full strength and with full empowerment.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Future of the Interreligious Movement

A 27-year-old Buddhist monk, when asked how he was feeling at the Parliament of the World's Religions, replied "overwhelmed and overinspired." There is so much going on here, and one has to make such difficult choices about what to do, that it's actually stressful.

As the week progresses, it seems like there are two major ways of looking at interfaith dialogue. One is to want to be as inclusive as possible and therefore not to enter into disputes about sensitive social or political issues. The emphasis, as Executive Director Dirk Ficca says, is on relationships, not issues.

The other major point of view is that the human community has urgent needs and that action is needed right now, action that will inevitably ruffle some feathers and make some people unwilling to participate. Rabbi Michael Lerner and Sister Joan Chittister of the Network of Spiritual Progressives are prophets with this sense of urgency.

Exactly the same issue of how to approach interfaith dialogue is present in Unitarian Universalist congregations and other religious communities. And in some ways, both views are right.

The Street Theology of Anger

Here is a photo of Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the incoming Chair of the Council for the Parliament. He gave a fascinating talk on why young Muslims are drawn into what he calls a "street theology of anger." Particularly in Afghanistan, these young people have never known any reality other than war.

Dr. Mujahid asked us what we would do if someone injured us or our property. Most of us would call the police. He then asked what we would do if we had no phone with which to call, or if the police were actually good friends of our attackers. And what if there were no elections to get rid of the corrupt police chief? What would you do? Such is the reality of the people of Afghanistan.

(In the photo above, some of you may recognize Lynnda White, who is asking Dr. Mujahid to come and speak in Peoria. He said yes!)

Paul Carus Award

Last night the Parliament presented the Paul Carus Award. Paul Carus, of LaSalle, Illinois, was one of the founders of the 1893 Parliament and tried for the next thirty years to organize a second Parliament. After his death, his family endowed a yearly $100,000 award for a person or group that is doing outstanding interfaith work.

This year the award went to an organization called IFAPA, or Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa. They are a coalition of eight major religious groups in Africa who have joined together to try to prevent wars on that continent. The gentleman at right is a member of IFAPA. We had the pleasure to meet him and converse briefly with him in French, our only common language.

Charter for Compassion

There is also a major movement here to support the Charter for Compassion, a global ethics statement developed by Karen Armstrong. For more on the Charter for Compassion, see my earlier blog post on that subject.

All good wishes to my readers! Please comment if you wish.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Seeking and Finding the Sikhs and Others

The Parliament of the World's Religions is the place to meet people you don't usually see. These youth from the Sikh religion in India were friendly to me and let me take a picture with them. Their faith involves worship with long and melodious chanting. One of them held my hand as we were having our picture taken, which was a wonderful experience. There are many Sikhs here with their distinctive turbans and flowing attire. It was the Sikh community that generously provided free meals to all of the Parliament attendees in 2004 in honor of their 400th anniversary.

These two young adult women, Dolna and Carmen, have a radio show for young people in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are interviewing people to find out why they are attending the Parliament and what they hope to accomplish here. We met them in a little café near our hotel while we were having breakfast. It turns out that my wife, Diane, has heard a segment of theirs on NPR! Another intriguing coincidence. Meeting people that we feel some kind of connection with is starting to feel like the norm.

Several of us attended a workshop yesterday that presented the idea that dialogue is a healing treatment for depression. The presenters defined depression as a kind of isolation, a loneliness, that needs communion with others to be overcome. I wonder if that corresponds with our experience—that community, relationship, listening, and dialogue lift our spirits. I think this experience is part of the reason we gather in communities together. Because it feels good!

This last community you see is a dinner gathering of Unitarian Universalists from England, Australia, and the United States. Friday night was a night when different religious groups gathered with their own communities. We UUs went to a fabulous buffet-style restaurant where all the food is prepared by cooking school students. It was a delightful blend of culinary consciousness and friendship.

This morning Diane and I heard a singing group of two women called Ruby. They filled an hour with moving songs that were all Rumi poems set to music. They worked with a Sufi scholar to create the translations and then set them to music. Exquisite!

We are doing well despite jet lag and various computer hassles. This afternoon I am going to a workshop on how Islam gets used to lure young people into violence. There is much more to do and learn than any of us can take in. Wish you were here!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Making Connections - Life in Interfaith Land

Today is December 3, at least in Melbourne, Australia. I think it's still yesterday in Illinois, where I live. Eight members of our church, along with thousands of other folks from all around the world, have traveled to this appealing and welcoming city to meet each other, share our stories, and make connections that we hope will have lasting and healing effects. Officially this gathering is called the Parliament of the World's Religions.

We have already been experiencing the delights of meaningful coincidences, or synchronicity as some call it. Our nearly eternal flight from LA to Sydney was full of people traveling to the Parliament, but we were truly blown away when a young man we met purely by chance in the Sydney airport, who is not involved at all in the Parliament, turned out to be the son of an Interfaith Alliance friend of ours back home. Then this morning in an apparently random coffee shop in Melbourne, we sat down next to another UU minister who is also here for the Parliament. Here are Tracy from New Jersey and I doing our email and blogging side by side. These are delightful and intriguing experiences.

The Parliament opens this evening and we will be there. There is no place else I would rather be at this moment. It's partly just fun, but it's also a rare opportunity to get to know people who are usually not part of my daily life, people who live far away and practice different faiths but with whom I share more in common than the surface differences would suggest. Each such meeting opens up a new spectrum of opportunities that lead in ways we cannot foresee, but which offer much hope to us as individuals and as a lovable but contentious human family. We are grateful to be here.

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