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Bani Dugal Addresses the Opening Plenary

Bani Dugal addressed the Opening Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Friends and distinguished colleagues, I’m pleased to be here at this opening session of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. And I bring you greetings from the global Bahá’‘í community. I will also note in passing that the original Parliament in 1893 saw the first public mention of the Bahá‘í faith in North America, when a paper written by the Christian minister, Reverend Henry Jessup, quoted a passage from the writings of Bahá‘u’lláh.

This year sees the Parliament returning to the city of its birth. And notably, this year will witness another important milestone, the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The Declaration and its progeny of human rights instruments have provided the international community with a normative framework that recognizes the inherent dignity of the individual and elaborates the rights and responsibilities upon which a peaceful society can be built. 

Articulation of this framework was a critical advance in the codification of global norms. It is central to our theme here today. A call to conscience: defending freedom and human rights. Yet, the challenge that has long confronted governments and communities alike has been translating these norms into lived realities for the peoples of the world. Movement in this direction requires tools of policy and procedure, but these alone, if devoid of moral and ethical commitment, cannot fulfill the promise of dignity, freedom, and essential human rights. 

A truly harmonious and constructive society can only be maintained by moral beings. It requires the application of conscience. Far from sterile abstraction then, ideals of conscience, freedom, and human rights reflect the aspirations of principled actors seeking to build a better world. 

Those ideals are defined in large part by a sense of common purpose, transcending one’s own concerns and interests. In this regard, it seems only natural that the world’s great faith traditions have consistently advocated rights-based principles such as the care for the sick, provision for the poor, liberation of the oppressed, and justice for the wronged. Beyond advocating admirable principles, religious communities at their highest have been instrumental in defining the parameters of what ideals such as justice, decency, and compassion mean in practice and look like in society. Religion has played a crucial role in securing their place in human consciousness and expanding their boundaries to larger and larger groups of beneficiaries.

Baháʼu’lláh wrote of this gradual process of widening the scope of affinity and care, noting that “ “In every age and cycle of God hath wondrous essence recreated all things so that whatsoever reflected in the heavens and on Earth, the signs of his glory may not be deprived of the pourings of his mercy.” 

Many today feel that religion is as much an obstacle as it is an asset in translating noble ideals into lived realities. Sadly, such views are not without justification. The name of religion has all too often been invoked in support of the worldly and the cruel. Yet, a future worthy of humanity’s highest aspirations is defined as much by qualities of spirit such as equality, solidarity, generosity, and justice, as it is by material resources such as technology and infrastructure. 

Societies that have disregarded the spiritual foundations at the heart of every religion have consistently struggled to address the challenges inherent in the narrowly materialistic concepts of reality. Ills such as the drive toward accumulation and acquisition, the exhortation of power and prestige, the forms of self-satisfaction, and ideal comfort. What these realities suggest is the need to devote attention to learning how religion can increasingly serve as a means to awaken and cultivate the high-minded and noble attributes latent in every soul.

Within such an environment, religious communities come to function as communities of practice where spiritual practices and principles and teachings are applied thoughtfully to the life of society for the benefit of all.

Within them, a process that enables increasing numbers to participate in the transformation of society and protects and nurtures them can be set in motion. This is central to the vision of the worldwide Baha‘i community and its understanding of how religion can support and inform the call to conscience in all spheres of life.

In that spirit, I conclude with the following words of Baháʼu’lláh, read in a previous iteration of this very space some 130 years ago on behalf of Reverend Jessup, “that all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers, that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened, that diversity of religions should cease and differences of race be annulled. What harm is there in this? Yet so shall it be. These fruitless strife, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the most great peace shall come.”

Thank you.

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