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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

June 24, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 11

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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.

Thinking can be a very dangerous thing these days

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Monastics are interesting, if not strange, people. They spend a large part of life sitting around thinking, comparing life as it's defined by the Gospel to life as it's lived in our time. Maybe that's why I've been one for so long: Thinking appeals to me. Except now. In this country. In this social climate.

Here, I am discovering, thinking can be fatal. You can be called "unpatriotic" or even "immoral" for doing it. Worse, you can get confused if you do too much of it.

I am discovering, thinking can be fatal. You can be called "unpatriotic" or even "immoral" for doing it. Worse, you can get confused if you do too much of it.
I do not think that questioning the way my government makes the American presence around the world felt in my name is unpatriotic. At least not if we are really the democratic nation we purport to be.

What's more, I do not think in this developing culture of death that voting in favor of politicians who demonstrate support for the broadest range of right-to-life issues rather than simply one of them is immoral.

So, given the growing tendency to require absolutism as the price of admission to the human race, let me make it clear:

First, I am opposed to terrorism -- meaning the targeting of civilians to achieve political ends, whether it's done by them or by us.

Secondly, I am opposed to abortion-on-demand -- meaning abortion as a means of birth control or an instrument of personal convenience.

Thirdly, I am in favor of any and all legislation that outlaws violence and supports life.

At the same time, I do not mean to imply that determining which policies and programs really serve those positions best is always easy.

I confess, for instance, that I am getting more and more confused by the day. Terrorists, we're told, target civilians and so are "barbaric" and outside the rules of war. But I am trying to figure out how it is that state-sponsored terrorism -- called military action -- is morally legitimate when the "collateral damage" of bombing electric grids wreaks havoc on civilians, leaves life barbarian for civilians, for months and years to come?

When the electricity goes off, it makes work impossible for civilian fathers, and cooking impossible for the mothers of sick children, and heating impossible for old people and babies. People die from these things, not that same day perhaps, but die they do.

A group called Iraq Body Count ( does what, according to Gen. Tommy Franks, we refuse to do. They tabulate daily the number of civilian deaths due to the Iraqi war. The latest numbers, depending on what's being counted, are between 9,436-11,317 dead civilians.

Does disregard for "collateral damage" by the world's military mean that might does, in fact, make right? That those who can afford armies can do anything they want to the rest of the world? That an army's violence is moral but that the resistance to foreign invasion by the poor and unequipped through guerrilla warfare is not? Does it mean that they are "barbarians" but we are not? I think about it and think about it but nothing clarifies. I find those subtle and slippery "distinctions" confusing.

And if that weren't bad enough, I happened to hear two news clips on the same program one day. In the first, Iraqi insurgents made the statement that they had beheaded American contract worker Paul Johnson because he "worked on Apache helicopters that the U.S. Army uses to kill Muslims." Tit for tat, in other words. Guilt by association. Those who support the invading force we will consider invaders.

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We learned from that, a U.S. official told us, "what kind of people these were that we were dealing with. They are barbarians."

In the next news segment on the same TV channel, George W Bush addressed U.S. troops at a stateside base. "After 9/11," the president reminded his military audience, "I announced a new doctrine: We will deal with those countries that harbor terrorists the same way we deal with the terrorists themselves!" Tit for tat, in other words. Guilt by association. Those who support terrorists we will consider to be terrorists, as well.

As far as I know, no government official called that plan barbarous. But it sounds to me as if it's the very same doctrine the insurgents have devised. Or maybe they learned it from us. See what I mean? Confusing. It's getting harder and harder to tell the cast of characters anymore.

We are militarily the most powerful nation on earth. We are waging war on terrorists everywhere and destroying civilian life while we do it. But every time we blast something else to smithereens, the terrorist attacks increase across the globe. Tell me again: How are we winning?

Finally, not one of the reasons for which we invaded Iraq, wounded almost 5,000 American soldiers, put more than 125,000 others under the kind of stressful conditions that will affect their mental health, their families and their relationships for the rest of their lives, and buried more than 850 of them in the process, has been able to stand up to the scrutiny of the world that told us not to do it in the first place. Nevertheless, we cling to the hope that, over time, "freeing" Iraq to be "democratic" will be enough to justify the present debacle. Democracy, we say, is what it's all about. It's democracy that we are going to impose everywhere because our power gives us the obligation to do so.

Does disregard for "collateral damage" by the world's military mean that might does, in fact, make right? That those who can afford armies can do anything they want to the rest of the world?
Yet when Paul Johnson was executed in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis attacked what they called a "safe-house," and rather than capture, arrest, bring to trial and prove the guilt of these particular men publicly, in a court of law, they simply killed everyone inside and pronounced the issue ended. We never said a thing, it seems, about a lack of democratic processes here.

It's thinking about things like this that confuses me: Did the last copy of the Constitution go down with the Twin Towers? Is the Bill of Rights buried with the Doomsday Book? Has Armageddon replaced the Gospel?

From where I stand, it looks as if we might again be engaging in the "most immoral of behaviors," as Bill Clinton now calls his sexual impropriety while in the Oval Office. We may be doing immoral things now for the same reason Clinton gives for doing them then: "Simply because we can." The very thought of it is pornographic. Which is what's really confusing. After all, Clinton was impeached for his lack of moral control. So where is Ken Starr now when we really need him?

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