Realizing Religion's Power to Champion Change

By Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti

Parliament Trustee, Co-Chair, Parliament Women's Task Force

The following excerpt highlights the work of the Parliament and world leaders to recalibrate the religious contexts in which cultural practices carried out equate to human rights abuses. This section comes from the presentation, "Human Rights and Mental Health of Women in the Context of Religious Freedom.” delivered to the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam in 2013.

“What I hope and what I suggest is that religion is one of the great sources of the vision that produced the concept of human rights, that religion is one of the great mobilizers of human goodness and courage to realize visions of just and sustainable human societies, of many various cultural and religious forms. In the twentieth century, it was the charismatic religious leadership of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King Jr., and of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that provided the impetus for major civil rights movements. “The arc of the universe,” said King, “bends towards justice.” Indeed, we hope that it does.

Today there are many religious voices standing up to the more regressive and intimidating movements in the world of religion; among these are Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, and Desmond Tutu, along with many programs of an interfaith nature, many movements within religions, and perhaps most touchingly, many people of faith acting in accord with their consciences.

The Parliament of World’s Religions and other interfaith organizations increasingly provide a forum for more progressive religious voices and the development of shared visions. In fact, Jimmy Carter gave a groundbreaking address to the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions at Melbourne, after very publicly leaving his own lifelong religious home, the Southern Baptist Convention, when that church revoked its blessing on women’s leadership and declared that wives must be submissive to their husbands.

In his address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Carter said, “This view that the Almighty considers women to be inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or tradition. Its influence does not stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified. The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views and set a new course that demands equal rights for women and men, girls and boys.”

In response to Carter’s address, and under the leadership of Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the Parliament of the World’s Religions (of which entity I am a trustee) initiated a Women’s Task force, which I co-chair with Phyllis Curott for the purpose of “developing a multi-generational action plan to assure that the voices of women are heard at the vital nexus of women's issues and religion.”

Speaking of the seemingly needless regression in the world of religion, Desmond Tutu commented on the obvious advantages of including women in leadership, “In my own church, which decided only in 1992 that women could be ordained as priests and bishops, it was quite a shock to realise how much we had diminished ourselves in our ministry when we saw the difference women made. In this volatile time, when there is so much distress and dissatisfaction, we are wasting a huge source of talent and wisdom by not including women as equals in all aspects of life – whether in politics, business or religion.”[20]

I remain convinced that we must engage the world of religion in every way possible, first by recognizing its considerable power to mobilize humans to act courageously to realize the best in us, but also by legislation that protects the freedom and dignity of women and men from bad religion; by interfaith conversation, but also by conversations between the secular and religious domains, and of course by conversations within religious traditions. With regard to this last element, I think it goes without saying that changes in the traditions, including interpretation of texts, must come from within those religious traditions, though conversations across traditional boundaries may well be enriching for all parties.

Because I see the power for both good and ill in the world of religion, I was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2009, and I serve as a Trustee of the Parliament. I want to illustrate this dimension of my own life with a story: in my very small town, I was recently invited by a Roman Catholic group to participate in their charity walk. I put on my clerical garb, my black shirt and white collar, and I walked thus in the California heat; it was my simple and direct response about women’s leadership to walk among them attired in the symbolic garb of my role of spiritual leadership. The question of the day was what to call me, since “Father” is obviously not the right thing. This is the slow work, and it simply has to be done, village by village, charity walk by charity walk, YouTube video by YouTube video. There is so much that can be done simply be engaging conversations instead of letting the opportunities to do so slip by. I have added to my public and casual vocabulary the expression, “Hmmm, that’s not how I see it…” and have found that what I thought would be both tedious and exhausting is often both enriching and empowering. I’ve learned that often people listen if I will speak my truth, and that people will speak if I listen. As I said, this is the necessary slow work.

The Arc of the Universe does bend toward justice, I think, but the weight of our collective human will, expressed by attention and by action is necessary to that bending.”

Featured image courtesy of Bakersfield College President’s Blog


[19] Alexandra Toping, “Saudi activists face jail for taking food to woman who said she was imprisoned: Court finds women's rights campaigners guilty of inciting wife to defy husband's authority.” The Guardian, 5 July 2013

[20] Desmond Tutu. “Women, Religion, and Change,” The Elders Blog, 1 February, 2012. http://theelders.org/article/women-religion-and-change.

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