|Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand|
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.
* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.
Who will weep for the cemetery of innocents?
I read one Memorial Day speech after another this weekend, from one end of this country to the next. Every one of them was incomplete. One question went unanswered, in fact, unasked, in all of them: What are we supposed to do when the numbers of war dead continues to climb? How does a person handle so much death by cable television?
The macabre list is growing beyond belief. It touches every part of the population, and in slithery, menacing ways touching even those seemingly unaffected by it as well. Day after day the stories come in.
More than 20 civilians killed in a brutal massacre in Haditha. Not by them but by us as U.S. Marines turned on civilians -- women and children among them -- to avenge the death of one of their own, to compensate for their accumulating frustrations and losses.
Two more journalists join the more than 120 reporters and commentators already killed in Iraq, another headline reads. And this, in a country where, we were told, the war had ended, the mission -- whatever it really was -- was achieved, and the people were liberated.
Almost 18,000 U.S. soldiers wounded, the government finally tells us, more than 10,000 of them seriously -- meaning disabled for life.
Almost 2,500 U.S. soldiers have died while their children wait at home for fathers to return, while their wives are pregnant with the children the fathers will never see, while their parents find themselves bereft of sons and daughters they never dreamed they would outlive. And all of them with nothing but a triangulated flag to cling to for comfort, for the future.
Thousands and thousands of anonymous Iraqis -- whom no one counts and no one names -- shot, bombed, missing, gone. Some of them under the rubble. Many of them in the graves. Unending files of them fled from the cities they loved while just as many more are left in their villages or city centers helpless, unemployed, simply waiting for the next act of insurgency, the next massacre. By somebody. Anybody.
Indeed, the traumatized stare into space on both sides. They have had too much stress, too much horror, too much loss, too much unending, relentless, agonizing fear to go blithely on in the face of such horror, pretending that it does not exist.
Those symptoms have a name, of course, to denote the scarred and shattered and dead of soul. Posttraumatic stress disorder they call it, meaning, of course, the agony that comes from having seen the inhuman, having done the inhuman, having been part of the inhuman.
Like the young soldier assigned to carry the little girl with the bobbing head to a body bag while, he reports, his comrades cleaned up the evidence of the massacre in which she had been killed and her brains dripped down his fatigues and spattered his boots.*
Then the emotional crippling comes. In the dark this time. Where they will suffer alone all the rest of their lives.
And what about the rest of us?
We have three choices, it seems.
First, we can become totally desensitized to the mayhem around us and the devastation it has left in its wake.
Dinned day and night by TV replays of real life war strikes, life becomes one large unending Nintendo game for us. Reality becomes just like the software we buy so our children can shoot at digital figures who never bleed, never cry, never look us in the eye before we shoot them.
The second choice, of course, is simply to turn away from it, simply unwilling to engage with it anymore. After all, in the end, when all the talks are finished, all the petitions are signed, all the political campaigns over and the votes tallied, it is out of our hands. Better to watch a soap opera, better to drown our conscience in situation comedies. Be positive. Be hopeful. Trust.
But there is a third choice, more true to the spiritual tradition that bred us, more cleansing of our psyches, and, in the long run, more effective. We can, with the second century monastics of the desert, rediscover the power of the gift of tears, the sense to recognize and unmask the tragedy of evil in the society around us and the sense of powerlessness within us that enables us to ignore it, to take it for granted, to accept it.
We can, as Christians, begin to regret, to repent, to decry, to grieve the evil.
The beginning of compunction is the beginning of new life, George Eliot wrote. Remorse is not nothing. Grief is not useless. It changes the heart of a people. It cautions them to think better, to think in new ways, before they are once again tempted to bomb and beat a people into submission, into freedom. It makes them new -- and eventually the society with them. One person at a time finally learns to feel. Its called soul.
Its possible that we are now approaching the margins of the human condition. We are drowning in insensitivity. We are escaping into escape.
We have lost the capacity to weep ourselves into the fullness of our humanity.
From where I stand, it seems to me that until we are willing to face what is happening in our name in this society, to regret it, to own the agony of it, it will go on. We will go numbly on, totally unaware of the diminishing effects of this culture of violence on both them and us.
We will go on in our time heaping up a cemetery of innocents and, on Memorial Days to come, call ourselves good for having done it.
* From a CNN interview with Susie Briones, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones. Ryan Briones told the Los Angeles Times that he took photographs of the of Iraqi civilian victims in Haditha and helped carry their bodies out of their homes as part of the cleanup crew sent in after the Nov. 19 killings.
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.
For information about Sr. Chittister's other work visit her publisher: Benetvision
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