The potential of an assembly like the Parliament of the World’s Religions — where I spoke last week in Salt Lake City, Utah — is its ability not just to celebrate religious diversity, but also to provide the opportunity to get to the heart of urgent matters that people of faith must address.
The banner on the stage read, “Reclaiming the Heart of our Humanity.” And one might wonder, at an interfaith gathering like this one, why the organizers devoted a major plenary session to the issue of income inequality. Surely it’s an economic issue, as our systems structure wealth towards the wealthy at the top. Clearly it’s a political issue, as wealth and the wealthy shape and control our politics.
But if you believe that every human being is made in the image of God — imago dei; if you believe that every individual person represented in economic statistics is a child of God; if you believe that in nearly all religious traditions, loving your neighbor as you love yourself follows directly after loving God; and if you believe, regardless of your conception of God, that human beings are all brothers and sisters tied together, then income inequality is a spiritual issue, a moral issue, and a religious test of our belief.
A great example of this from my own Christian religious tradition is the story of the Good Samaritan. Here’s a man robbed and mugged, left by the side of the road — just as so many today are “mugged” and left behind by the global economy. Various religious leaders pass him by on the other side of the road, refusing to lend their aid. But then a person from a different culture, ethnicity, and race does stop and does help. He risks his security, his resources, and his time to lift this beaten man up to a new life. That Samaritan exemplifies what a neighbor does, says Jesus.
However, there is some good news regarding global inequality. A few weeks ago, writer Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a New York Times column that extreme global poverty has been cut in half in the last twenty years. This is one of the greatest stories that does not get told nearly enough.
As a result, women and girls are being educated at rates never before seen. Girls reading books are a greater threat to men wielding guns than other men with guns: in the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do. And fewer children (though still far too many) are dying of preventable causes — in 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5. This toll has since dropped by more than half.
The dramatic decline in extreme poverty reflects the UN commitment to cutting poverty in half by 2015 in its Millennium Development Goals, as well as global markets and movements involving people of all religious traditions, that have helped raise many families out of poverty. Religious participation has been critical to progress on key issues of human dignity, like debt transformation, HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention, global agriculture development, medical care, and reducing hunger and poverty.
Now, nations at the UN have just pledged to finish the job — making a commitment to Sustainable Development Goals that focus on ending extreme poverty worldwide by 2030. For the first time in history, experts in this field are now saying that ending extreme poverty is finally possible. And when we reduce poverty, inequality can be reduced as well.
But economic growth, by itself, is not enough to end extreme poverty. That growth must be directly aimed at ending poverty, as World Bank President Jim Kim said in his video address to the Parliament. Strikingly, both the World Bank and the UN are saying they now have the “evidence” of what works and doesn’t work to end extreme poverty, but they don’t have the moral authority or the constituencies to generate the political will to make this crucial and moral goal happen — and faith communities do. And that’s why these institutions are seeking alliances with us. There is a great opportunity here for religious communities.
Of course, some inequality will always be part of the human condition and our societies. But as inequality has become so stark, it is time for people of all faiths to exercise our prophetic mission and energy, calling for the kind of equity, fairness, and justice that our faiths require of us. It is time for us to require serious political accountability from our public leaders.
I believe we can address inequality through three core issues central to all faith traditions: human dignity, stewardship, and the common good.
A commitment to interfaith dialogue is important, but not simply for its own sake or to admire each other’s diversity. Interfaith dialogue should be in service of these three goals, especially for the sake of those who are the most vulnerable in our society and around the world — exactly who our faith traditions agree we should be most concerned about.
This will be the true test of a moral global economy. We convene our religions to celebrate diversity. Can we also convene our religions to help end extreme poverty by 2030 — and end shameful poverty in the United States? That would certainly be a goal worthy of a Parliament of World Religions.