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The Parliament of World’s Religion was held on American soil for the first time in 22 years. Held in Salt Lake City, Utah, thousands descended on the mountain filled desert in search of interfaith dialogue, multi-faith exploration and the opportunity to teach others about their religion.One of the major themes this year was violence, hate speech and other issues that specifically impact women; all of which are important and need to be addressed around the world. It is also customary for the Parliament to host forums addressing some of the current issues that plague the local land of that year’s host country. To the surprise of many guests, the issues of the brutality and militarization of police, systemic racism and the killing of Black and brown peoples at disproportionate rates were not given focus as one of the prominent issues within the United States today. As one of the leading causes of violence and hate perpetuated in this country, it appeared to be treated as a minor issue or not an issue at all in the landscape of this year’s Parliament.
Of the many workshops held over the 5 days, only two workshops clearly focused on the plight of Black people in this country. One of those workshops was a “Moral Monday” sermon, and another that was a panel held on Sunday night at 5:15 pm.
This panel had three Christian ministers who have been involved in the movement for Black lives and racial justice. The three included: Rev. Michael McBride, Rev. Jim Wallis and Rev. Francis Davis. They referenced the horrible statistics of Black people killed by some form of law enforcement, and the rise in Black liberation protests that have awoken young Black people to the fight for justice.
The audience appeared to have about 200 to 250 people present with over 20 Pagans and Polytheists in the crowd. Several Pagans in the audience submitted questions to the panel to address the murders of Black Trans women in 2015, and to highlight the other marginalized faiths that are also involved in the justice movement for Black people. There was a short video shown of recent incidents and protests that left many audience members visibly emotional. This can be viewed below in the linked recording of the event, occurring about 23 minutes into the video.
I reached out to several Pagans and Polytheists, who were present in the audience, to gather their reflections on the panel and to seek clarity on what might have brought so many of them to this one single event on the program. I asked three questions:
Do you feel having a BLM discussion at the Parliament was important and why? What were you hoping to get out of the panel? Why do you feel it is important to have space for this topic to be explored in faith communities?
“The Black Lives Matter panel was one of the most important conversations at the Parliament. On a basic level, it is critical to keep pushing these truths because without doing so black lives will only continue to be disregarded, targeted, and vulnerable. And the more these concerns get out to diverse religious communities, and the more that we put justice at the center of our conversations…
“On a fundamental level, I attended simply to show up and put my white body in that room, and to continue to listen to voices that help me “stay woke.” I was also grateful to Pagan leaders like Thorn Coyle and Elena Rose for pushing the speakers to give voice to trans lives and non-Christian activists, as well as to the organizers somewhere back along the line who clearly laid the groundwork with the ministers on stage that lead them to publicly and clearly acknowledge that queer & trans lives matter.
“One of the key themes I heard being raised by indigenous leaders at the Parliament was the importance of listening to our ancestors, as well as the importance of thinking about how our actions affect the future. As a Pagan, these are concerns that I share, and for me this means making reparation for the violence committed against black and brown bodies by some of my ancestors by working for a more just and equitable future for all of our descendants. That means supporting Black Lives Matter.”
“I have so much to say on the topic of Black Lives Matter at the Parliament. I’m very glad the panel happened, because this discussion is important to all communities, and now is the time that the energy of this movement is poised toward making change. That said, we needed much more than what was offered. We needed multiple panels, teach-ins, sit-downs, and presentations. We needed systemic, personal, and community racism denounced at every plenary because it weaves through all topics: climate change, women’s lives, indigenous rights, and spiritual service.
“That didn’t happen. The “Pagans in the #BlackLivesMatter” movement panel I put forth was rejected. I therefore figured that there would be more programming on the topic than there was. The panel that ended up happening – with three Christian men on the stage – felt almost like an afterthought. Good things were said there, though two Pagans – myself and Elena Rose – had to challenge the speakers. We weren’t the only ones. I’m not disrespecting the three men who showed up to lead this panel. They are committed activists and do great work. What I am critical of is the entire lens through which the topic is viewed by those holding relative power: Clergy means Christian; Two Black and one white cis men is diverse enough; Scheduling the one thing specifically dealing with Black Lives Matter on the final full day of the conference, overlapping the gala music and dance performance, was acceptable …. I’m not OK with any of those things.
“I’m glad that #BlackLivesMatter was present at the Parliament. But I wish that I hadn’t felt the need to stand up and shout those words at the closing plenary, because they had been left out. And I wish that my words hadn’t been swallowed up by the vastness of the hall.”
“Given the ostensible world stage of the Parliament, it was important to have the event as an option. I am disappointed that there were as many empty seats there as there were, and that from what I could tell, most of the attendees were Americans from mainstream religious traditions, but I’m also glad that there was a definite Pagan and polytheist faction there as well, and that not only did the efforts of some of our people in terms of activism get recognized (even if it was because of well-timed and well-asked questions from those very people), but also that the contributions of trans* People of Color in #BlackLivesMatter got named in front of everyone, and that Rev. McBride specifically stated that he and other Christian leaders have had to “sit at the feet” of these trans* activists to learn from them about the struggles of queer people of all stripes.
“I was hoping for two things. First, just to hear more about this movement, the stories and voices that have been made prominent by it, and to learn more about it. To my knowledge, there is no visible presence of the movement in my locality, and I’d have to go to Seattle to participate in it, which I can’t do without major difficulties at present. I feel this was certainly something that I came away with as a result of attending the panel. Second, I was hoping to get some further ideas on how I might be able to support the movement from a distance. I think I also gained that as a result of the panel.
“I also think, as a polytheist, that our traditions have a great deal to teach and share in terms of how our basic theological ethics–dealing with individual Deities on a reciprocal relational basis–also extends to how one can best deal with the diverse humans with whom one comes into contact, and the basic ideals of hospitality, respect, and celebration of diversity and inclusiveness which polytheism requires are good things for all people of all religions to value and hold both dear and to the utmost in their dealings with others. While those of us who are polytheists or Pagans of various types do not suffer now as much as People of Color and indigenous peoples still do as a result of these things, especially if we are white, nonetheless the continued marginalization of, ignorance about, and disrespect towards our religions that is alive and well–even at the Parliament–is based in these same notions, which have not been properly acknowledged by the leaders of major hegemonic monotheistic religions of the world, nor by the political leaders of diverse world governments, including that of the United States, as being the basis for this continued license to dehumanize and commit violence and other atrocities toward People of Color.Dr. Gwendolyn Reece
“I think it was absolutely important and was disappointed that it was not in a more prominent time slot. The reason that I think it is so important is that this is an international gathering and although racism is a larger and more universal topic, this session addressed the more focused topic of state-sponsored violence against Black people who are a vulnerable minority in the United States and this issue needs international attention. Part of what we know from the work of groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and so forth is that in addition to citizens trying to hold their society and their governments accountable, there is an important and powerful role that can be played by international communities demanding accountability from a sovereign state. So, we need to combat racism in all of its guises, but in the very immediate we need to stop the state-sponsored violence and mass incarceration of Black people in the United States and we need increased international pressure to hold our governments (local, state, and federal) responsible.
“I honestly went in with open expectations and a willingness to be moved and changed rather than with specific expectations. I can tell you that what I found most powerful in the panel were two different things. First, although I have been really striving to be informed about and engaged in BLM and have participated in demonstrations and have heard some of the leaders, in those contexts they are putting forth a platform, which is the appropriate strategic action and I support it. What I had not heard before, though, were the kinds of descriptive stories about the specifics of the backlash and the film that they showed was more graphic, upsetting, and powerful than I had seen in the media.
“Although what was shown in the film was shocking, painful and upsetting to watch, I needed to see it. I needed to see it in its horror. You know, they rarely actually show the moment someone actually dies on the news. I think it was spiritually important to watch and bear witness.
“From my particular perspective as an Hellenic Pagan and a citizen of the United States (and as a priestess of Athena and Apollon, the duties of a citizen are sacred to me), I have a moral responsibility to act. Aristotle talks about the virtue of gentleness as being in right relationship with anger. If you have too much anger, then you are irascible. But in situations of injustice and atrocities, situations like the horrific violence perpetrated against our citizens of color by the people who are supposed to be the sacred guardians (the correct role of the police) if you are NOT angry, there is something morally wrong in your character. Sometimes to be gentle is to be filled with rage. In a society that mistakes placidity for gentleness, I think that we need spaces to explore, develop and harness holy anger.”
“I expected black lives matter to be a fairly prominent topic at the Parliament, and was surprised to find that it was barely present. The Parliament of the World’s Religions potentially has the power to bring people together to work on mending the world. At the Parliament, we were encouraged to look at the pain, injustice, and tragedy in the world directly with an eye to taking action informed by our spirituality. Given this goal, I wonder at the virtual absence of BLM at the Parliament.
“I was there to hear stories of those on the front lines. I was there to hear voices that bolster the will to continue the work. I was hoping for more than was offered, and I worked to be grateful for the work of those on the panel despite their sometimes flawed representations.
“As soon as I got home and reconnected with the news stream, I discovered that Black churches were being burned again. Religious people aren’t the only ones that work to change the world, but they often have infrastructure that is needed for taking action. Faith communities are often a place to regenerate and to heal before re-entering the fray. Without a place of solace, activists can lose heart and clarity of thought. Dialogue leads to relationships that lead to solidarity. Faith communities need to join efforts to rebuild what hatred destroys.”
“Black Lives Matter is the biggest theological debate happening on this continent right now, in the sense of an argument about meaning and the implications of meaning. Literally, we’re arguing over whether or not the lives and bodies and stories of Black people are worth the same as, matter as much as, are as precious as the lives and bodies and stories of other people. We’re having a national–and to some degree international–debate about what a Black body means and what that meaning demands of us as people in community. This isn’t a legal or scientific argument; it’s a matter of theology, of symbol and metaphor and value and most especially of who is worthy of love, worthy of protection, worthy of grace, worthy of justice. Where better to wrestle with the issue than in religious communities– especially considering how many religious communities have been at the frontline of the struggle?
“Black Lives Matter, as a movement, is a lot of things, but one of the things it is–even in the most secular sense you can dig up–is a question of morality, faith, theology. Do we, or do we not, listen to and have faith in Black people? Do we, or do we not, have moral obligations to our Black neighbors? These questions are written in enormous letters all over our public discourse right now. Any religious movement that wants to be relevant to our civic life has to at least address those questions, to acknowledge them and offer an answer. If a religious movement is claiming to speak to the state of community, it has to answer to the call Black Lives Matter has put forth. If a religious movement is claiming to say something about what matters about a human life, it has to answer the exposure here of massive, systematic dehumanization of millions of people. If a religious movement is in the business of caring for the people who come to it, of proclaiming compassion, it has to reckon with the terrible damage done to so many by white supremacy, unequal treatment under the law, murder with impunity, police misconduct. It’s not just vital, it’s simply not optional any more; pretending away this cultural moment, pretending away the call it represents, is the worst kind of abdication of responsibility.
“So, for all that, I was eager to see a discussion of Black Lives Matter at the Parliament of the World’s Religions–a whole international host of people who claim to be moral authorities, to be leaders of communities, to be seekers for the answers of what matters in the world, people you could expect to have fruitful conversations about big moral and theological questions. I wanted to see, if we put our Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Indigenous heads together–if we got the Jains and the Heathens and the Unitarian Universalists in a room and lit the spark–if we could come up with better answers, or at least an agreement to act together in the name of justice and restoration. The US faith communities needed to see that the eyes of our colleagues around the world were on us in this place of crisis; the international leaders needed to see us grappling. The Parliament was an opportunity for us to have the conversation with survivors of the fight against Apartheid and with people who had no idea any of this was happening, to get outside perspectives and inside perspectives working together, and my hope was that it would happen in front of the many thousands of people attending the summit. This year’s theme was about reclaiming the heart of our humanity–what better way to do it? “
“Hearing the direct witness of the speakers was a key aspect here. As we know, media messages are a cacophony that in some (or many) cases actively attempt to distract people from understanding the events and issues around BLM. Pastor McBride was brilliant in his descriptions of what happened at Ferguson and his personal growth through working with the young leaders of BLM there. I wish more could have heard his words. His and the panel’s personal transformation in confronting the violence against black bodies is inspiring, and the Parliament could have provided an even louder amplifier for them.
“The Parliament’s sessions can educate those from other parts of the world who may not be exposed to the issue. The Parliament’s purpose is to spark discussion and cooperation on the important matters that affect us across our traditions. BLM is surely a topic important enough for major programming. More could have been provided here, I believe.
“I feel it was necessary to show up and be counted in support of BLM, even though it was clear that the issue was not a mainstream one for the Parliament (an aspect that I believe was a miss of a great opportunity on the Parliament’s part).
“Another was the chance to hear about the current state of the movement. This was covered well, both by the speakers on the local (Utah) and national levels and also by some of the commenters during the Q&A at the end – some great stuff there. It was heartening to hear the audience going beyond just listening to share useful information, which in itself demonstrates just how non-centralized the movement is.
“On a personal level, it is a sacred act for me to “do Maat and speak Maat” (that is, live and act according to the principals Maat embodies – Truth, Justice, Order, Compassion, etc). Every faith community has a version of these ideals to guide individuals in or very near its core beliefs and obligations. So it is only natural that we should be working both within and between our traditions to effect changes. Maybe not every person will be inspired for this particular issue, but by opening spaces for BLM, those people who are inspired can join and not only build bridges but provide a ‘wall of bricolage’ – a wall stronger and more resilient than one built of just one material.”
“I think it is especially important to have Black Lives Matter at the Parliament. If people of good faith trying to make the world a better place aren’t mobilized around this issue, then I would despair. I was interested to hear the story of Rev. Francis Davis, pastor of an historically black Baptist church in Salt Lake City. He noted that the African American population is about 2% in Utah – if he wants to get allies he has to reach out to the interfaith community to have a voice. And he has been successful in getting interfaith allies.
“I was hoping for a bit more analysis and more suggestions for follow-ons. “Black Lives Matter. Black Lives have been discounted. Here is the work that must be done.” People at the Parliament are supposed to make an ongoing commitment to make a difference in the world, fighting for #BLM could have been offered as a focus. [And not to be snarky, but I was hoping for a younger, more diverse panel. And that it take place earlier in the Parliament instead of being shoved to Sunday night.]
“The majority of people in the world look to a faith or spiritual community in their life. The core of most such traditions holds that people should be treated with dignity and respect; that fairness and truth are prime values. When there is so much structural imbalance and white supremacy present in our country, people of faith need to speak out, do the work, and dismantle the historic injustices. We need to work to make our vision a reality — of a world where all people, but especially those oppressed by the current system, can have prosperous, dignified lives as a welcome part of the community.
“I would also have liked more programming on the topic! We could share best practices and create a network of groups working within their communities. In San Jose, for instance, we are having Beloved Community meetings between the Police Department and community members (facilitated by clergy) … I would have loved to had a chance to hear what other communities are doing!”
* * *
Although the room was more than half empty on this Sunday night timeslot, the impact of this one panel brought some much needed dialog about the responsibility and intersections of our faith communities in the demand for justice.
I sat in that room, not as a journalist or columnist for The Wild Hunt, but as a Black, Pagan woman looking for more ways to understand the impact of spirituality in the equity movement. It felt rewarding and supportive to know that so many Pagans and Polytheists were also motivated to attend this isolated offering at the Parliament. There were parts of the video shown in the panel that were emotionally evoking. Hearing the passion in the voices of the speakers on the panel, and in the audience, was truly an indicator that we are pushing beyond disbelief and into action.
It was also heartening to see people building coalition together, asking the hard questions, and acknowledging the work that has yet to be done. Among the many concerns we have become more comfortable fighting against, issues of systemic racism seem to still challenge many in greater society and within the modern Pagan and Polytheist communities. Yet so many people came to listen and participate in this workshop despite challenging planning on the Parliament’s part; there is still so much to discuss and so much to do within this time and space.
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus added a profound thought in eir interview that I would like to close with it here because it leaves us to think about the role of interfaith work in the justice movement, and why it is important to work together to challenge the status quo of our intersecting communities. E said, “That #BlackLivesMatter even has to be said, and that religious leaders of mainstream religions even have to be reminded of this, demonstrates how very far from actualizing this recognition both religions and the general public are at during this moment in history. While making this more visible in a religious context is good and important, I am not certain that doing so will properly filter out into the general populace, either.”
Our communities have to continue to think on the importance of dialogue, and what is missing when Pagan, Polytheist, and voices of color are not included; And what is gained when we are at the table aiding in conversations that open up possibilities.
Below is the recorded livestream of the Black Lives Matter session at the Parliament of the World’s Religions