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Marianne Williamson Addresses the Conscience Plenary

Marianne Williamson addressed the Conscience Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Thank you, thank you, thank you so much. What an honor to be here. And truly just hearing the words of James Lawson and all of the speakers actually, both of the speakers that preceded him, I’m happy to have the chance to add my words into the deep listening that they have already created. 

I want to begin by telling a story, something that happened to me when I was probably 15 years old. I had gone to Sunday school and after Sunday school would be on the Sabbath Saturday, we’re Jewish. And afterward we would go into the sanctuary and we would hear the rabbi’s sermon. And I heard the rabbi speak out against the Vietnam War. And I thought, “Wow, wow, temple can be relevant. Wow, religion can really lay it down. He’s this cool man after all.” And it really impacted me so much that I have never forgotten it. And a couple of days later at dinner, my mother made a comment to my father and she said, “Ooh, I hear the rabbi is in trouble.” My father said, “What happened?” She said, “Well, apparently at the service on Saturday he came out against the Vietnam War. And a lot of people weren’t very happy with that.”

And I learned a lot from those two incidents.

What happened on that Saturday morning as well as that conversation with my parents showed me how the world works. We all know what conscience is. We all know that small still voice for God. It is in all of us except a very, very, very tiny percentage of the world’s people who are apparently born without one. And the person who has no conscience is called a sociopath. A person who has no remorse or conscience or regret for shameful action is called a sociopath. There is such a thing as healthy shame.

But what those of us who are religious clergy or leaders or nonprofit leaders or whatever other reason brings us here today know the dirty little secret about how our country and our world operates. We have a socioeconomic political system that mitigates against the real expression of conscience. It’s one thing for us to say, “Oh, we need to care about the authoritarians who are at the door,” and we do. It’s one thing for us to say, “We have to worry about the strong men and the fascists who are at the door,” and we do. But what I believe is our greatest calling is to create a world where they couldn’t even get that close to the door. That’s the real problem.

Franklin Roosevelt said that we wouldn’t have to worry about a fascist takeover as long as democracy delivered on its promises. James Lawson was correct. Don’t worry about — you won’t have to worry about the strong man as long as you feed that hungry child. You won’t have to worry about the authoritarian as long as you make sure that people have health care, that people have food, that people have dignity, that people can work at one job, and when the Cardinals spoke about our worrying about environmental sustainability more, he’s right. 

But every clergy person here knows how likely it is in many cases that if you get up on a Sunday morning or Saturday morning or wherever your religious service is, and you speak about environmental sustainability, I know that there are people in this audience who would be told by a board member later, “Oh, you stay away from political issues now,” because there are people who give money to this church or who give money to the synagogue or give money to this ashram, and you know to them it’s all a hoax.

In other words, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else, this is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment in history. This is a moment when it’s not enough for us to say, “We really should be the conscience of the world.” It’s time for us to face how hard that is in today’s world. Have you really spoken out as a non-profit activist? Have you really spoken out as a religious leader? 

And I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, if you speak out as a political candidate, the institutional resistance to our daring to suggest that feeding a child is more important than corporate profits, that poverty in the global south is more important than corporate profits, that humanitarian and democratic ideals is more than corporate profits, ooh, you’re radical. And I would say that religion is radical. In today’s world, if we are to honestly not only take it in as an abstract concept, not only even take it in in our hearts, but take it in viscerally in our gut to really believe, to really stand, to really dedicate our lives to the idea that we must walk in mercy, we must walk humbly with our God, and we must love one another, is not to always be liked. 

The people pleaser in us must die in order for the genuine spiritual leader to live.

In a world where unfettered vulture capitalism has come to dominate the way our nations operate, we are living at a time where repudiating that and rejecting that is the great social, and I believe spiritual calling of our time. And if we do not take up that calling, there will be no keeping the fascists away. There will be no keeping the strong man away. If the people of Germany had not been so desperate, if there had not been great groups of desperate people, Hitler could not have been able to harness the power that he harnessed. As long as you have large groups of desperate people, you will have a fascist or an authoritarian or a strong man just licking their chops, waiting to come in. Because when people are desperate and people are damaged and people are vulnerable, they will go with anything that promises a better way. 

And so while one world is crumbling in our midst, another world is struggling to be born. And I believe that we are called to be death doulas to the old and birth doulas to the new. As spiritual and religious leaders, non-profit activists, any of us who are called by the great religious wisdom of the world, we are here to testify and bear witness to the crucifixion and to bring forth the resurrection.

We are here to testify to bear witness to the agony of the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and to be the Moses consciousness which will lead the world to the Promised Land. This is not a time for sissies. This is not a time for lightweight spiritual platitudes. And this is not a time for religious hypocrisy. This is a time for each and every one of us to say whether it was as in my case that I was lucky enough to hear Rabbi Melav who did not lose his job, by the way, or we have been inspired by any other religious, spiritual, political, or social leader. Let us be gone with any aspect of self or society that would shut us up.

We are here to love one another and we’re going to stand on that. We’re here to promote justice and mercy and love in our hearts for every man, woman, child, everyone, and for the Earth itself. And whether the world appreciates it, whether the economic order appreciates it, whether the political order appreciates it, whether our donors appreciate it, or whether any other institutional reality mocks us, derides us, or seeks to obstruct us, our success lies in the fact that we can look in the mirror and say to ourselves, including on the last day of our lives, “Damn, I laid it down while I was here.” 

Thank you very, very, very much. Thank you. Thank you very, very much.

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