Climate change, indigenous peoples a focus at Parliament of the World’s Religions

by Marie Venner

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Since its centennial celebration in 1993, the Parliament of the World’s Religions has met every five to six years around the world. On Monday, the parliament wrapped up its most recent world meeting in Salt Lake City, returning the event to the U.S. for the first time since that ’93 gathering, held in Chicago, also the site of its first gathering in 1893.

Participants to the parliament expected to number 10,000 and represent 80 nations and 50 faiths. It has always been a very large gathering, regularly running from 6,000 to 9,000 participants. As part of this year’s five-day interfaith assembly (Oct. 15-19), the parliament held sessions on religious dialogue and produced six declarations, addressing issues of climate change; hate speech, war and violence; income inequality; the human rights and dignity of women; emerging leaders among the world’s youth; and indigenous peoples.

The practice of producing joint declarations reaches back to the parliament’s past, including the ’93 assembly, which drew up Toward a Global Ethic. Initially drafted by Hans Kung and eventually signed that year by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Toward a Global Ethic made commitments to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life; solidarity and a just economic order; tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and equal rights and partnership between men and women, in addition to harmony among religions. Reading the text today comes across as almost a prelude to Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

The declarations emerging in Salt Lake City prominently addressed climate change and the rights of indigenous people.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement, of which I a member, participated and spoke on the importance of the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for curbing average global temperature rise. The 1.5 degrees mark, though stiffer than the 2 degrees Celsius figure commonly cited by the United Nations, has been studied by scientists, and endorsed by Pope Francis and a group of nine bishops from four continents bishops during the U.N. climate talks last December in Lima, Peru.

In the declaration on climate change, the parliament said that climate change has already caused extensive, damaging impacts that will continue and become more extreme without changes to human behavior.  

“Earth is one interconnected whole. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves,” it read.

The declaration recommended action to move toward a post-carbon global economy based on renewable energy, while at the same time achieving “fair energy access for all” in order to eradicate global poverty.

“The future we embrace will be a new ecological civilization and a world of peace, justice and sustainability, with the flourishing of the diversity of life. We will build this future as one human family within the greater Earth community,” the declaration said.

Two of the notables speaking at the meeting on the plight of indigenous peoples were filmmaker and author Steven Newcomb and Chief Oren R. Lyons, Jr. A Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Lyons has won many awards and serves on the board of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Newcomb, whose 2008 book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery recently led to a movie on the topic, described how key legal opinions over the past two centuries, and even up through the last decade, have cited a series of three papal bulls commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery. These expressly authorized and “blessed” the seizing of the land and natural resources of the indigenous peoples of North and South America -- applying a model like that of Abraham and the Canaanites, pagans in the promised land. To this day, indigenous peoples in the U.S. are generally allowed to occupy but not own land, as they lack the same rights and consideration afforded to others.

Chief Lyons said "while they (the white colonialists) were planting flags, we were planting corn."

Newcomb emphasized that the planting of flags, repeating declarations and notarizing that this occurred “does not overturn thousands and thousands of years of cultural and spiritual interaction with our lands and territories and all our relations, relatives and all forms of life in ecological systems and waterways. These do not disappear. Indeed, they endure.”

More: “Doctrine of Discovery: A scandal in plain sight” (Sept. 5, 2015)

This year, the parliament as a whole has drafted a declaration calling for action on indigenous survival, which includes a call for the Vatican to publically repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. The declaration said the need for faith communities to stand and speak with indigenous is necessary for the “good of all humanity and the life of our Mother," taking action to be cognizant of ways in which our system perpetuates injustice.  

"'Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity,' therefore, will rest upon our collective actions," the declaration said, which must take place at all levels of society.

The declaration calls for commitments to action on and including:

  • recognition and respect of indigenous peoples’ rights to exist;
  • an end to the desecration of sacred sites;
    love of our earth, by demonstrating and expressing thanksgiving for all it provides;
  • rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery and Christian dominion;
  • and the end of violence against indigenous peoples.

In particular, the declaration calls for an end to violence and subjugation of indigenous women and all women, who instead should be honored “as the Earth’s expression of herself and her beauty of creation made manifest among us. Women are life-givers, healers, leaders, and so much more that is central to the wellbeing of any nation.”

Toward the close of the parliament, Paula Palmer, recipient of a 2014 regional U.N. Association-USA International Human Rights Award, led a workshop that developed out of a call to faith communities that came from two very different organizations -- the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the World Council of Churches, which both urged all people of faith to take a deep look at the Doctrine of Discovery.

Palmer has worked since the 1960s helping indigenous peoples across the world record their history and defend their rights and ecosystems. At the parliament, she conducted the 90-minute experiential workshop, which was developed by the Quaker community and has been conducted in many denominations of Christian churches around the U.S. It gently and concisely took participants through U.S. history and invites reflection on where we are from, on the land and spiritually.

The declarations, books, films and experiential workshops from the parliament, some of which can be carried back to home parishes, offer ways to share the experience, prayer and learning with others.

[Marie Venner is chair of the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board subcommittee on Climate Change, Energy, and Sustainability and former co-chair of the Risk and Resilience Planning and Analysis subcommittee. She is also a member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.]

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