Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

March 24, 2005
   Vol. 2, No. 43

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A 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,
thought suppression is in the air

By Joan Chittister, OSB

A group of music educators has launched the National Anthem Project because they're concerned that Americans no longer remember the words to the "Star Spangled Banner." (, Sun. Mar 13, 2005)

Meanwhile, Robert Byrd, the 87-year-old Democratic senator from West Virginia, is concerned that Americans, even some senators, no longer remember the value of time-honored senatorial practices. In terms of which one of those two concerns is most important for Americans to remember if America is to maintain the spirit that makes it American, I'm with Byrd.

There's a move in the Senate right now to restrict the right to filibuster during discussions of judicial appointees. If you're tempted to assume that something as remote and obscure as the Senate rules of filibuster have little to do with the likes of us, think again.

In Colorado they want to fire a college history professor for comparing the workers in America's great World Trade Center, site of the infamous terrorist attack on 9/11/2001, as equivalent to the Germans who worked in Adolph Hitler's fascist war machine, supporting its policies, sustaining its operations. It is a shocking and painful use of language, true. It is an unacceptable image of the motives and goals that inspired these servants of corporate financial policies, surely. But is it treasonous? Un-American? Academically unacceptable? Should a professor be fired for raising such a comparison in a college classroom in a country where pornography is a protected industry and making people think is supposed to be one of the aims of the course? Unless, of course, the educational system is now to be nothing but a tool of the state. One thing is sure: A statement like that makes a person think.

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In the church these days, too, anyone who wants to talk about the nature of life, the stem-cell question, the definition of marriage, the human rights of homosexual citizens or the ordination of women is targeted for ecclesiastical sanction, accused of being a "bad Catholic," silenced on church property, threatened with excommunication, and made the target of right-wing pressure groups designed to save the world from the possibility of examining other ideas. Like curing paralytics on the Sabbath or raising women from the dead, I'm sure.

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

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The darkest moments of human history have always had silence on their side.

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. ( 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?

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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