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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

October 7, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 28

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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.

Let's hear it for the irrational for a change

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"Our land is burning," Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi* said to us as we sat in his office in Ramallah. "We need angels of mercy."

But by the time I write this, angels will seem scarcer than ever in Israel, and Palestinians will be back in lockup again. The bombing of a restaurant on the outskirts of Haifa -- one of the most serious attacks to date on Israeli civilians by Palestinian guerilla fighters -- can only result in even more brutal retaliation. Since it happened on the brink of the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, that action almost guarantees that over 2 million Arabs -- old men, young children, pregnant women -- will all be blocked entry to whatever jobs, family, medical, professional or religious business they may have on the other side of checkpoints in Israel.

For those who believe that fear and force are the only answer to international conflict, there is reason aplenty for this latest round of attack and counterattack. The Palestinians --people without an army, people without a homeland, people without political power -- are striking back at a people who remember what it is like to have no army, no homeland and no political power. The irony is not lost on the rest of the world.

For Israelis, the issues are security and political independence. For Palestinians, the issues are security and political independence.

I have seen the frustration, the despair, the agony of both groups.

I have seen Israeli women cry over innocent friends who died in the middle of a bus bombing and I have heard Jewish families agonize over the national military service that is required of both their young men and their young women. I know that there is nowhere they feel really safe.

I have sat with Palestinian families in the midst of the rubble that once was their homes. The mother could not talk to us; she had become catatonic after the attack. The children clung to their parents, too traumatized, we were told, to go to the bathroom alone at night in their own home; the father, powerless either to protect the family or to avenge them, could only whisper his rage. I know they feel vulnerable and forgotten by the world.

I know that the infamous "Wall of Separation" now being constructed to wall the West Bank off from Israel, the checkpoints and permission system that reduce Palestinians to powerlessness in their own land, the illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, the struggle for water and the demand for the "right of return" of those Arabs who have either been forced off their land or taxed off their land -- I know that all these increase the tension and deepen the hatred on both sides, day after day after day.

At last count, there have been almost a thousand Israelis killed in random attacks and more than 2,400 Palestinians killed in reprisals. And nothing has changed.

What I do not know is why men do it. Men, they tell us, are by nature "rational." So, why do men keep waging wars when war never solves much of anything and only makes life worse for almost everyone? What is rational about that?

On the other hand, women are taught very early to believe that they are emotional not rational. Rationality -- this quality of men that renders males closer to God than women and ensures right thinking in the face of the emotionalism -- is lacking to women. Philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Claude Levi-Strauss have been certain of that forever. (Which makes everything else they've been certain of equally suspect, it seems.) The absence of high-level rationality, they have argued repeatedly, renders women unfit -- or, at best, inferior to their male counterparts -- for public office, for religious ministry, for civic service.

But what kind of civic service is it -- what kind of rationality is it -- that continues to feed young men, and now young women, too, to the war machine, to state-sponsored terror and guerilla warfare for the sake of a system that "solves" problems by creating more of them? More bitterness for the oppressed. More poverty for the despoiled. More cynicism for the masses.

Governments have for thousands of years suppressed peoples and called the simmering hatreds peace. We have suppressed blacks into slavery, Native Americans onto reservations, Jews into concentration camps and now Palestinians into villages behind a wall, and solved nothing at all. The blacks are still angry, the Native Americans are still demoralized, the Jews are still fearful of falling prey one more time in history to the killing instincts of their irrational "rational" enemies and the Palestinians are striking out blindly like wounded animals in underbrush for the right to be a nation with water and freedom and land.

But the fact is that there is no peace that comes with violence. Violence begets a violence which can go on for centuries -- as it has between the Croats and the Serbs, Islam and the West, Indians and Pakistanis, Protestant and Catholic Irish.

Maybe it is time for emotionalism to take over, for women as a class -- not as isolated tokens -- to be put on the presidential committees that plot war. If emotionalism is the ability to count the children who will grow up undernourished as a result of the havoc wreaked on civilian populations by the men of war, if emotionalism is the ability to weep over bodies left in the sun to rot, if emotionalism is the intelligence it takes to count the years of work and life lost, or to worry about the number of widows left after one side or the other runs out of ammunition, if emotionalism is the capacity to grieve for the number of once-handsome men now crippled in body and soul by the barbarism of what we call "modern warfare" -- then let's try that for awhile.

I am not saying that women can do better at the affairs of state than what we are all bearing now, but we certainly cannot do worse -- all the philosophers and theologians in the world to the contrary. In fact, maybe women are the angels the sheikh had in mind.

The philosopher Spinoza wrote, "Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice." From where I stand, we need a new state of mind. So much for the irrationality of the rational.

*Editor's note: Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi is the chief judge in Palestine and chairperson of the Palestinian higher council of Islamic courts.

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