International: A Look back at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions


In December 2009, Melbourne, Australia hosted the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a global dialogue of faiths. Sister Joan Chittister, longtime champion of peace, human rights and gender equality attended the Parliament and spoke with AWID to share her perspectives on what the Parliament proceedings mean for women.

AWID: What was the personal highlight of the Parliament for you?

S.J.C.: The Parliament of the World’s Religions is a living icon for which we all hope. It is a diorama of many peoples, all of whom express a different face of the Divine, all of them united in holiness, in common commitment to the entire human community, and all knowing themselves to be one in God. This was the highlight for me. Just watching this flow of goodness sweeping back and forth across the great foyer and down the halls of the Melbourne Conference Center was a kind of spiritual vision for me. To see this is to know that wars of religion are both a scandal and an impossibility and that the Parliament is a holy and necessary step to a future without religious wars or theocratic oppression.

AWID: What were some "takeaways" that stood out to you in terms of dialogues?

S.J.C.: I participated in a panel on "Sacred Envy." Each of us panelists was asked to describe what we loved about our own religion and about each of the others. Then we were permitted to ask one another the question that most plagued us about another of the religions represented there. It was an impacting moment to hear real questions asked --about freedom of religion in theocratic states or the connection between religion and politics, for instance—and answered without defensiveness and with real depth. It proved the possibility of real interfaith discussion when the discussants talk openly and honestly about the struggles of the faith rather than either defend or decry the concerns of the other. It modeled an important role for religious figures in the modern state.

AWID: "Women's issues" have been part of previous Parliaments and "women's leadership" was a topic area in this Parliament. How would you assess the attention paid to women, gender (in)equality and women's rights at this 2009 Parliament?

S.J.C.: Frankly, I was both amazed and heartened by the clear awareness at the Parliament of women's issues as a highly significant and defining dimension of authentic religious consciousness. To leave the spiritual role and significance of the feminine dimension of life out of our theological development and religious practice is to limit our consciousness of the fullness of the Divine. The Parliament's recognition of this was prophetic. Now we need to examine, if women are really valued by the great religious traditions of society, how it can possibly be that women are two-thirds of the poor, two-thirds of the hungry and two-thirds of the illiterate in the world? What is it that religion teaches that gives support to that kind of negligence?

AWID: Do you think that the role of the faith communities in bringing about gender equality has advanced in recent years?

S.J.C.: Sadly, I'm not sure that in most cases faith communities have really been at the foundation of gender equality in contemporary society. All sacred scriptures attest to the equality and spiritual value of women, but neither religious institutions nor the social critique they bring have done much for women over the centuries. Religion should be leading the struggle for gender equality, but in too many cases, secular institutions that have led the new consciousness. At the same time, where women have become spiritual leaders and ministers in religious systems, both religion and society have changed quickly and for the better. The role of women in religion attests to its authenticity. Conversely, when religious organizations fail to include women in discussions, planning and participation, it leaves God as the only total sexist on the planet.

AWID: The Parliament included a good number of women representing indigenous communities and communities from the Global South. How would you assess the North-South balance in terms of participation, dialogue and agenda setting?

S.J.C.: The North and West have set the religious agenda for centuries. As a result, a great deal of spiritual wisdom has been lost or repressed or ignored. The religious world of the North and West are highly organized and highly institutionalized. Their influence has been overwhelming around the world. Now it may be time to listen and to learn as well as to teach and to model.

AWID: One of the Parliament's goals was to address the role of religious communities in climate change efforts. How successful do you think it was?

S.J.C.: The emphasis on ‘green’ at this year's Parliament was timely, important and true to the ideals of creation enshrined in every religion. It gave the Parliament legitimacy in contemporary society that has for too long been missing in religion everywhere. We don't come together as a Parliament to bask in our rituals and readings. We come together to be a common voice, a common spiritual witness to the needs of human community. This year's agenda was living proof and inspired sign of that.

By Masum Momaya