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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 April 29, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 5 

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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.

The Liberation of the Spirit

By Joan Chittister,OSB

The man I saw on the late night news last week looked like anything but the revolutionary type.  A professor, maybe. A bank manager, perhaps. But not your garden-variety revolutionary. But he is. And he should be. And we should be listening to him, I think, because he has something to teach us about the human spirit in an age of unbridled might, thoughtless pragmatism and money. Or as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “The human spirit will endure infirmity but a broken spirit who can bear?”

The man’s name is Martin Sullivan and he directed — or had directed, that is — an agency most people didn’t even know existed. Sullivan was chairperson of the “President’s Commission for Cultural Property.” Martin Sullivan is definitely not the kind of person we are accustomed to hearing from on CNN prime time. The difference is that Sullivan had just resigned from his position on this obscure little committee. The reason he gave the administration — and then the public — for his withdrawal from the commission was the failure of the United States to protect The National Museum of Iraq.

To refresh our memory, the National Museum of Iraq harbored artifacts of civilization that began in the area of Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago. Within 48 hours of the fall of the Hussein government, 50,000 of those art pieces and artifacts had been carried away by thousands of looters. Missing, officials said, were a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era of 3000 BC, a sculpted head of a woman from Uruk, one of the region's greatest cities 4,000 years ago, and a collection of gold jewelry of the same age. The loss of such indicators of the history of humankind approaches the incalculable.

“This means nothing to Americans,” Sullivan said, “but it is the record of the human race. ... These things did not belong to Iraq, they belonged to the world.” His point was clear: the museum was more than a national treasure, which would have been bad enough — it was universal property. It was a chain of information about the cultural development of the human race that had been destroyed in one of humanity’s lowest moments. Worse, no one — not the Pentagon, not the administration, not the U.S. soldiers on site — had cared enough to protect it.

The Pentagon had been warned about the value of the items by scholars all over the world. The petitions for protection had come from around the globe, Sullivan said. But, according to The New York Times, an American tank sat 300 meters away and did nothing while thousands poured out of the building carrying the treasures of the world away in laundry baskets. Sought out by museum curators, soldiers came and shot into the air for 30 minutes and then left. When they did, the looters returned; the soldiers did not.

So, ashamed, outraged, depressed, Sullivan resigned his post.

“But why?” the reporter asked. “After all, it’s done now. What good will your resignation do?” And Sullivan gave the answer I haven’t been able to forget. He said something like this: “Yes, it’s too late to do anything for the museum itself. But I have to know that I did everything I could to make people understand how terrible this is. It should never have happened. It didn’t need to have happened.”

CNN moved on to bigger and better stories: murder investigations and the weather and scenes of American triumph on the streets of Iraq. But I couldn’t forget Sullivan — the man who stood by another set of human values right to the end.

And I couldn’t forget either the fact that we had managed to protect the oil fields. We glowed over the fact that only five wells had been lost. We had even managed to get water to the fields in case of oil fires there, though we couldn’t get water, we said, to the people in the city of Basra.

From where I stand, the three vignettes — the looting of a museum while we stood by, the guarded oil fields, the water that went for oil wells but not for people — are all too clear a demonstration of U.S. values. It’s hard to believe that all of this is “liberation” of the human spirit.

But as long as there is left in the nation one man the quality of Martin Sullivan, there may still be hope for us.

The Talmud teaches that the miracle of the Red Sea is not that the waters parted. The miracle of the Red Sea, the rabbis taught, was that the first Jew walked through it. Only then did the rest of the Exodus community follow suit. Only then was the revolution secure.

If there are people among us yet with human spirit enough to care more for the preservation of human history than its destruction, we may even complete the revolution of spirit this country clearly needs. 

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