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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

March 30, 2004
   Vol. 1, No. 50

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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.

Hope is dancing when you can't hear the music

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"Hope is the pillar," Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century, "that holds up the world." It's a nice thought, but it worries me.

Almost everyone I meet these days is depressed about something. It isn't that they don't have grounds to be concerned. It's just that there are two things that are worrisome about depression. The first is that it's contagious. The second is that it can lead to despair. And that's what troubles me most.

In the first place, it's hard not to succumb to a public disease that has both truth and history on its side.

I talk to people, especially women, who are discouraged about their place in the church. And they have a right to be. Women simply find themselves invisible there, at least in all the ways that count. They are left out of the theological loop, out of the sanctuary, out of the language.

The fact that the church continues to make declarations of innocent patriarchy -- "We simply don't have the authority to do anything about it. Blame God, not us" -- only makes the situation even more incredible.

Other institutions, more and more every day, include women in decision-making, in administration, in public recognition. There are 34,000 certified pastoral ministers in the United States, most of them women and only 3 percent of them women religious. Of these 34,000, fewer than 5 percent are employed by the church, according to CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Most of those serve in religious education programs only, although we have 2,929 parishes in the country without a resident priest. For many women, it becomes daily more difficult to relate to the very institution that taught them their worth but now denies it.

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What's more, the clear message that even to question the theological consistency of such things is akin to sin brings back echoes of centuries of past intransigence: No, we won't listen to Luther. No, we won't listen to Galileo. No, we won't listen to the "witches." No, we won't listen to the abused. No, we won't listen to women. No, we won't listen. As if living on Mount Olympus hasn't already been tried by another set of gods -- and failed.

People are depressed, too, about the failure of the United States to join the rest of the human race. We withhold our national signature from major international treaties designed to control pollution and bring war criminals to the bar of justice. We invade countries "for their own good" and then wonder why anger, suspicion and derision of U.S. democracy are building up everywhere.

We hold the world ransom to our money and refuse to fund health programs that fail to meet the political agendas of whatever administration happens to be in power at the time. We refused HIV/AIDS medicines to Africa for years. To poor nations, we send genetically modified seed, which they cannot produce for themselves, to keep them dependent on us even for their food. Finally, we threaten the world with our superior firepower and do little to help them develop the very things they need to achieve political stability.

We tell ourselves that it is we who hold up the rest of the world. But according to the Council on Foreign Relations, though the United States provides the greatest amount of real money, it ranks 22nd out of the 22 major foreign aid donor nations in per capita giving. It is hard to match that kind of parsimonious contribution to our magnanimous self-image. In fact, a survey by the University of Maryland found that most Americans think the United States spends about 24 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid, a figure that is 24 times the actual amount. Meanwhile, whole nations starve and die.

People are even depressed about the decline of civic institutions in the United States itself. In the last three years, we have lost basic constitutional protections of privacy and major civil rights.

Politicians aren't trusted anymore. Worse, the citizenry simply assumes now that their government is lying to them. We call it "spin," but the results are the same.

Even the vaunted U.S. voting system itself was shredded in the presidential election of 2000. So bad is the U.S. reputation for honest and corruption-free balloting that Pax Christi, USA intends to sponsor foreign monitors to oversee key voting precincts in Florida in the hope of restoring credibility to the U.S. electoral system and authenticity to its leaders. I remember when it was we who were sending people to Haiti to do that. But they were still voting by thumbprints, and the ballots carried pictures and party symbols rather than words to enable the illiterate to identify candidates.

No wonder people leave the churches, leave the voting system, lose faith in the country and its political parties.

So, we have plenty to be depressed about, right? Despair is clearly the order of the day, right? I don't think so.

The reality is, in fact, very different from the figures.

Thirty-five years ago, the subject of the role of women in the church was barely a question, let alone a matter of contention. And the human rights of women, in general - an issue now squarely on the world agenda -- was unheard of in most of the world.

The question of civil rights was only a whimpering, simpering thought in 1965 in a country that took civil rights for Caucasian Americans for granted but considered civil rights for African Americans a threat.

The notions of globalization, the greening of the globe and global interdependence were more science fiction than political science.

Everywhere now, in every hamlet of every country in the world, the subject of the equality of women, the stewardship of the planet, the illegality of pollution and the interdependence of the community of nations simmers and burns and flames and sets fire in the heart of the human race. The disenfranchised of the world may still be disenfranchised, but they are -- to paraphrase George Herbert -- dancing to a music we cannot hear; it's called hope.

From where I stand, this is no time to give in to despair. No, the changes have not yet fully come. But change is already here. The whole world is beginning to barter and bargain and demand a better life and a greater vision. Of course, forces of reaction are aligned against it. There is too much power, too much money, too much encrusted arrogance at stake to suppose there wouldn't be any reaction. But the tectonic plates of culture have already begun to shift. Minds of entire generations have begun to change. The dreams of children around the world for their futures, for their rights, for their options have already begun to rise.

This is no time to spread the disease of depression, to give in to despair, to pull out of the process or to settle for silence when questions should be asked.

We can delay change, of course, by ceasing to challenge the powers arrayed against the deliverance of the world from the residue of racism, sexism and economic imperialism that continue to taint it. But change is already here and we cannot possibly stop it.

Hope is the dream whose time has come, whose dance is already real -- even if some of us cannot hear the music.

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