|Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand|
spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people
Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and
well-known international lecturer. She is founder and executive director
of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality,
and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the
Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sister Joan has been recognized
by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and
equality for women in the Church and society. She is an active member of
the International Peace Council.
* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.
In the name of freedom and goodness,
By Joan Chittister, OSB
In the Senate of the United States, that supposed guardian of U.S. civil rights, almost no one raised a voice against the invasion of Iraq for fear of being accused of being un-American. It was "a time of a war" -- though that "war" hadn't declared yet -- and the expectation was that at the first whiff of administration intent everybody had to "get behind the President." Lawmakers who questioned the idea, who did what lawmakers are supposed to do, were scorned in public, scoffed at on the floor of the House and Senate. Or, even more pointedly, were accused in election campaigns of being unpatriotic for thinking differently.
No doubt about it: We have entered a new phase of history. In the name of freedom and goodness, thought suppression is in the air. Now discussion has become dissent.
It is intimidation time in the United States of America. Everybody is expected to follow the flag bearer rather than the Bill of Rights.
It is inquisition time in the church. Everybody is expected to accept clerical answers rather than pursue Christian questions of conscience.
It is the period of the new McCarthyism, the rush to purify the soul of the nation by those who would do anything, however democratically impure, to achieve it.
The unwritten assumption is that to open for discussion what the ruling system decrees to be final is to attack or abandon the system itself.
Now the Senate is dealing with the same tactics. There is a move to outlaw the filibuster on judicial nominations. With it goes one of the few legislative tactics a minority has in response to government by majority. Once the majority has spoken, the thinking seems to be, no one may say another word. Called "the nuclear option" because it is designed to obliterate all dissent, the proposal threatens the only legislative tactic a minority can hope to maintain -- the power of its voice to persuade people to keep thinking about a question rather than rush to judgment about it. But suppression of discussion eliminates the very concept of "parliament." It requires government by fiat. (See Politicalwire.com)
At the same time, fortunately for us, there have also always been voices that refused to be silent, who over and over again cried out to us, in both church and state, to keep on thinking. These were voices like the martyrs of the early church who spoke out against the imposition of the state religion of the Roman Empire, Bartolome de Las Casas who traveled all the way back to Spain from Central America to debate in public against the position of the church that Indians were not full human beings, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero who spoke for the poor in a climate that exploited them as pawns of the rich, Dorothy Day who spoke for peace in a country bent on violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke for persecuted blacks in a white culture, Alexander Solzynitsin who spoke for freedom in the midst of Stalinist oppression.
Now I think we may have just heard another such voice. Senator Robert Byrd gave a speech last week, "A Cry to Freedom in the U.S. Senate," that could, if heeded, bring America, as well as the Senate, to the crossroads of the future. (www.commondreams.org) It could bring us face to face with the question, like we faced more than 200 years ago, of what direction as a nation we intend to go. We must decide now if the values that brought us this far are worth keeping.
Byrd says in opposition to the move to restrict filibusters on judicial appointments: "The curbing of speech in the Senate on judicial nominations will most certainly evolve to an eventual elimination of the right of extended debate. And that will spur intimidation and the steady withering of dissent. ... The ultimate perpetrator of tyranny in this world is the urge by the powerful to prevail at any cost. A free forum where the minority can rise to loudly call a halt to the ambitions of an overzealous majority must be maintained."
From where I stand, Byrd's warning is a statesman's call to state, church and educational institutions, however much power they have, to beware the power to suppress thought, to dampen speech. In the end, all that a move like that can really do is to destroy the very intellectual energy such institutions need to survive their own inevitable intellectual inertia.
I wouldn't worry too much about people forgetting the words to the national anthem. If we forget the processes that keep the tyranny of the majority from happening -- think carefully -- what will we have left to sing about?
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