Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

October 14, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 18

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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, 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.

Religion is fast becoming the major civil question of the century

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From Where I Stand

Joan Chittister

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

In the heat of the Mondale-Ferraro campaign, in 1984, a local soup kitchen, concerned about legislation for the poor, put up a Ferraro poster. The reaction of a Christian church in the area was quick and hostile. If the poster did not come down immediately, the church said, they would cease contributing to the kitchen and bring public action against the tax status of the kitchen, as well.

Well, we have come light years from that time to this one. Now, one of the key credentials cited in favor of the nomination of a Supreme Court justice -- provided by the president of the United States himself to bolster the candidate's confirmation -- is the church to which the nominee belongs.

The Harriet Miers story is, without doubt, an important one. After all, it has implications for both the constitution and the country. The questions raised at a time like this strike at the heart of what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a human being.

Who is this woman? Is she capable of interpreting constitutional law? Is she a jurist or an ideologue, someone whose personal agendas determine her reading of the law? And what is the difference between the two? In fact, should there be a difference between our understanding of what is legal and what is moral? Are we safer as a nation because she is a card-carrying member of a church, or are civil rights, the Constitution, the nation more in jeopardy than ever? And, most recently, the question has become, apparently, does she go to church and, if so, to what church?

Whatever the answer to those issues, they are at best only the tip of the religious iceberg around the world. In fact, religion is fast becoming the major civil question of the 21st century. As the government now talks as much or more about the place of religion in public issues than the churches do, there is a decided change in the way creed and constitution interface. The government wants "faith-based initiatives" to find bread for the poor of this country so the government itself can cut back on domestic development programs in order to buy bombs and build bombers that will destroy the poor of other nations.

And it is not simply an American issue, a Christian issue, a fundamentalist one.

Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council opened the question of the role of religion in society -- perhaps unintentionally, perhaps unconsciously but, nevertheless, clearly. Religious orders were told to measure the renewal of their lifestyles by the amount of attention they paid to rediscovering the intention of the founder for the nature of the order, the human needs of their members and -- famously -- "the signs of the times."

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This renewed awareness of "the signs of the times" catapulted religious into the middle of a world in chaos. First, it dawned on religious communities that they should be running soup kitchens. Then, it became even clearer that they should advocate for minimum wage legislation that could make soup kitchens unnecessary.

Nevertheless, nothing essential changed. The whole notion that churches should be a moral voice for the voiceless -- as many had been in the labor movement, in the Vietnam War, in segregation, in immigration disputes -- remained well within the bounds of the separation of church and state.

Now, there is a change in the religious-civil climate. Now, in the name of religion, churches want to vet a candidate's position on moral issues rather than on their expertise in legal issues.

And, we have seen, the problem is not Christian alone, or American alone, or democratic alone. Now we have the Taliban and the Jihadists and the Zionists and Religious Right -- all of whom want their religious creeds to become the law of the nation. We have become a single-issue people.

So, Christians in Iraq worry that a Shiite dominated government there will limit the civil rights of non-Muslims. In Asia, some religions have been outlawed. In some parts of Europe, religion has become politically suspect. And, closer to home, fundamentalists here say, for instance, that government officials -- Supreme Court justices and presidents -- should rule that all abortion at all times is murder but that capital punishment, whatever its failures, is not.

Life is obviously not an absolute value for these people. On the contrary, the thinking seems to be that some people deserve to die and some people do not. And by virtue of what one group or another says is moral or immoral, we know who they are. We'll give everybody a chance to be born, but we will kill them when they do not measure up to what we say is godly.

But that's where the thinking gets fuzzy, if not problematic for those religious groups who say that there are some limited situations in which abortion should not be criminalized. They say it is the role of the churches, synagogues, temples and mosques to form consciences but that since the law does not require abortion of anyone, it should be written in such a way to make it possible for all religions to function within the law. It is, in other words, the same reasoning we use in regard to war. Some religions make conscientious objection a moral choice, for instance. The government is bound to recognize that. And they do.

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Nor is this simply an American question about the place of religion in society. I'm sure of that because this week I will go to Asia as part of an international contingent of speakers involved in the opening of the major Buddhist center in Taiwan. The topic is "Globalism and the Inner Spirit" -- or, translated into Western terms: The relationship between action and contemplation, between the spiritual life and the public life.

From where I stand, Harriet Miers is simply a symbol of a far deeper question in contemporary life, one which we all have a stake in resolving, one which is tearing at the fabric of the democratic society we say we are prepared to export.

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.
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