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A New Year’s Reflection from the Chair

Written by Robert P. Sellers
January 1, 2017

Dr. Robert P. Sellers, Chair, Parliament of the World’s Religions
During these recent days of holiday celebration, the 19th-century English novelist and social critic, Charles Dickens, has once again been remembered through the thousands of theatrical and literary presentations of his beloved 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. But as fascinating as it might be to ponder what Dickens considered could transform an Ebenezer Scrooge into a kind and loveable person, it is instead another of the author’s most famous passages that frames my New Year’s reflection.
The novelist opened his 1859 masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, with this strangely contemporary description:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Penned by Dickens as backdrop to his story of wild differences between Paris and London during the French Revolution, these words could have been written to depict the extreme disparities in our nation and world at the threshold of 2017. For many people—the families of those killed or injured in war or terrorist attacks; victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault; refugees fleeing political danger or natural disaster; immigrants both legal and undocumented who fear for their security; the desperate poor struggling to find employment or working three low-paying jobs to survive; the addicted, imprisoned, or persons confined to psychiatric wards; the chronically or terminally ill; the youngest and most vulnerable members of society, so often exploited or forgotten; the self-doubters who constantly question their own worth; and minorities and the excluded who worry that they will never be fully accepted or live at peace–it is the worst of times, the season of Darkness, when nothing good conceivably awaits them.
Yet for others—those whose lives have not felt the touch of tragedy; whose wagons are hitched to a star; those for whom magical dreams do indeed come true; persons who live enchanted, celebrity lives, enjoying money, fame, and power; the winners who never are the losers; those self-assured souls who feel no need for confession or shame—it is the best of times, the season of Light, when everything possible lies before them.
Such stark inequity, such blatant disparity, such excessive dissimilarity is all around us!  Even more striking, perhaps, is the tragic truth that the majority of the world’s peoples are trapped in the worst of times.
It is exactly these oppressive circumstances that engage committed people of all faiths to extend compassion and care to the Other. Through their beloved prophets, sacred scriptures, hallowed traditions, and religious communities, people of diverse spiritual paths learn that because we are all interrelated in the Human Family we have responsibilities for the welfare of the earth and its inhabitants.
This life-affirming work is also the mission of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  Coming together as persons of many religious and spiritual traditions, we have committed ourselves to the extraordinarily important task of helping to create a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world, where hate speech, violence, and war are ended; where the wealth gap between the rich and the poor is eliminated; and where the nurture and protection of the earth are assured.  On behalf of all of these good people who have dedicated themselves to the Parliament’s global commitment for a better world, I wish for you and yours the very best of new years.
Let us join together to do all that we can in 2017 to bring help to the hurting through our acts of compassion and mercy. May we link our efforts, our gifts, and our wisdom garnered from our many spiritual traditions to accomplish what none of us could do alone: to make this new year, for people we know, the best of times, the spring of hope, and a season of Light.