National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
?Signup Here For  Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 July 15, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 16

*Send This Page to a Friend    3Printer Friendly Version

"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.

I give up: What is Americanism?

By Joan Chittister, OSB

We are living at a moment of significant change. We are, as a people, becoming something new. The United States of America, the gentle giant, that watches wisely from afar, holding a light, opening a door to the world, may be becoming the United States of America, the avenging giant, who tromps through the world changing it into our own image. Whether the rest of the world wants to be changed or not. It is a crossover moment in time.

As a people, we are being measured as we have not been for years. This brings to mind something Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy."

The world wants to know who we really are -- international menace or mighty hero? Where do we -- as people and as a nation -- stand in this new pre-emptive-strike world we have created, if missing weapons and bogus intelligence are any hint that our military decisions rest more on assumptions than on data? The questions are everywhere, even among our long-term allies. And with good reason.

But right here at home the questions about who we are and who we are becoming abound, as well. Everyone, it seems, expresses some kind of concern about what it means to be an American now. Just as prevalent are the questions about what it is to be anti-American.

To some people, being against the war in Iraq is being anti-American. To others, being for the war in Iraq is being anti-American.

To some the Patriot Act is the height of American citizenship. To others, the Patriot Act is the antithesis of Americanism.

To many, being an American at a time like this requires total acquiescence to government policies -- or, at very least -- total quelling of dissent. To others, respect for dissent is itself the only true hallmark of the American way.

The two positions co-exist in uneasy truce these days. Clearly a piece is missing in the great Americanism puzzle.

Underlying such an understandable impasse, in a nation that was formed to be democratic and united at the same time, may be some even more important questions: What is the peace movement really about -- national discord or devotion to the Constitutional right to free speech, to protest and to the democratic way? Do we turn into a totalitarian monarchy during wars devised by a few at the cost of the many? Is that what it means to "support our president?" The questions are long in the making. They are also of the essence of what the United States is supposed to be about.

Indication of the seriousness of such a situation may lie in the symbols that surround it. The tension becomes apparent on the signs carried during peace demonstrations -- some of them calling for withdrawal from Iraq, others calling for American loyalty. The peace protestors' signs say, "Not in our name." Counter-demonstrators, veterans of other wars, military families, shout back "Support our troops."

And therein lies the problem. How do we "support our troops" and still oppose the war they're fighting? How doe we ensure that soldiers are not sacrificed either on battlefields there in the course of the war or in neighborhoods here when the war is finally over.

It may be possible -- imperative in fact -- to argue philosophically that dissent is loyalty. To maintain that dissent precludes national loyalty may, in other words, be specious. But, it appears, people clearly believe that one position does indeed rule out the other. The terms of the proposition approach the unambiguous: If we are "for the troops" we must be for the war. If we are opposed to the war, we are opposed to the troops. We are anti-American.

The tensions in which we live right now make for a dangerous future. The issue involves far more than the wisdom or morality of any particular national policy. What is endangered in the present situation is the very essence of what we say we're defending. What is really at stake is what it means to be an American.

Until these oppositions are reconciled, no one can be properly measured. Dissenters are called anti-Americans; supporters are called patriots. And never, it seems, the twain do meet.

In the meantime, from where I stand, the summons remains: "The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy." It's all about standing somewhere that does not erode the very ground beneath our feet.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to:
Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280