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Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton Addresses the Opening Plenary

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton addressed the Opening Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Thank you, and I promise not to take the entire eight minutes. So I’ll welcome the two dozen of you who are still here. I bring you greetings from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Chicago is the home of our main offices here. And I also acknowledge that we are on the lands of the Peoria, the Potawatomi, the Miami, the Kaskaskia, and the Kickapoo people who have been here from time immemorial. 

I was elected to this office 10 years ago today as a Presiding Bishop. And in the last decade, I’ve been challenged to respond on the basis of conscience to religious and religious conviction to crises such as the extra-judicial killings of black and brown people in the United States, from Michael Brown in Ferguson to George Floyd in Minneapolis to Breonna Taylor in Louisville. The white supremacist terror perpetrated against minoritized religious communities from the aftermath of the trauma of Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin to Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to Christchurch Mosque in New Zealand to Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. The public health crisis of other mass shootings from Overland, Kansas to Orland Park to Orlando to the South Side of Chicago. In the United States, we surpassed 400 mass shootings by the end of July.

The embrace of white Christian nationalism in the US and the attendant threats to democracy from Charlottesville to the insurrection at the US Capitol. The rise of other forms of religious nationalism globally, including India, where holy sites and houses of worship of religious minorities are being destroyed and women in the state of Minipar are being subjected to gender-based violence and in Israel Palestine, where the Palestinian people are facing dire repression, violence, desecration of their holy sites, and the expansion of illegal settlements, and where the very presence of Christians is at risk.

The pandemic of anti-black, anti-Asian, and other forms of racism and white supremacy in the United States and globally, the scourge of gender-based violence, the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate, these are all causes for despair. And when people despair, or when there isn’t hope, or when there’s this much uncertainty, people look for certainty, and this opens the door to authoritarianism. 

In many ways, authoritarianism tries to play on unity. What they really mean is uniformity, which can be used as a weapon to make sure people are controlled and stay in line. We in the Lutheran World Federation talk about unity as being unity in reconciled diversity. And this, I believe, is what the Parliament of the World’s Religions is trying to demonstrate and embody in our time here in Chicago this week. 

We’re talking about being people of conscience. And the word “conscience” comes from the Latin “conscienza,” at least in English, which means knowledge that you have not just by yourself, but the knowing of something with another person. So conscience and people of conscience are never individuals acting autonomously, but we form this work of conscience with each other. There is, in fact, an understanding in Lutheran theology that our conscience and our lives are lived coram deo, in the presence or at the sight of God. And there is a wonderful Irish proverb that says, “In the shelter of each other, the people shall live.” So with this presence and with this consciousness, we are able to be a people of hope, even in the face of despair, especially now in the face of despair. The very purpose of this Parliament is that we are the people who despite all evidence to the contrary believe in another way a way of hope and not despair. 

At the heart of Lutheran commitment to ecumenical and interreligious relations is the antidote to despair. As Lutherans, we believe that when we engage with each other in acts of love, service and solidarity we can change the world for the flourishing of all people, in all creation. The God who justifies expects all people to do justice, let us join together holding fast to our most deeply held convictions and creating space for those others. So that we can faithfully respond to the most pressing needs of our time with a counter-movement of cooperation and love and a sacred regard for all creation. 

For 130 years this movement convened by the Parliament of the World’s Religions has been a call to conscience. Today that call remains as urgent as ever. Will we heed the call? May it be so.

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