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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

November 26, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 30

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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.

I give up: Who stole the rest of the commandments?

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Mark Twain, it is said, had a friend who was a hypochondriac. Every month he wrote to Twain complaining about his latest ailment.

One month he detailed the discomfort an eye infection was causing him.

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The next month he wrote about the pain he was suffering from an earache.

The third month his letter brought Twain up short. “Sam,” the letter said, “remember how I wrote to you two months ago about an eye infection? Then, I wrote to you the next month about my ear infection. Well, this month I have both an eye infection and an ear infection. Can you imagine anything worse than an eye infection and an ear infection at the same time?”

And, we’re told, Twain wrote back by return post and said, “Yep. Arthritis and St. Vitus Dance.”

I’m beginning to think that our problem right now is that as a country we have a touch of arthritis and a bit of St. Vitus Dance. More to the point, our present symptoms aren’t new to us either.

Political schizophrenia is part and parcel of the history of the United States of America. If anything, it may be a hallmark.

Two factors, seldom mentioned outright in modern history but often eerily present, commonly cowering around the edges of public conversation, nevertheless, constitute an undercurrent in U.S. history.

One of our historical ailments is Puritanism; the other is Isolationism. One exaggerates personal piety as a sign of spiritual integrity. The other makes us a world unto ourselves, the largest island in the world, unassaultable and unassailable, safe from intrusion and airily independent of the rest of the world with all its petty discontents, all its "entangling alliances." We are, isolationanism implies, unique; we are impregnable.

Between the two of them, the U.S. teetered back and forth between the literalist’s definitions of biblical morality and the politician’s commitment to insularism or American disregard for the positions and problems of the rest of the world.

Puritanism, after all, was born intent on making all of England Puritan. As God’s elect, the Puritans argued, they had the duty to direct national affairs according to God’s will as they interpreted it as revealed in the Bible. Puritanism gave us censorship laws, Sunday closing laws and Sabbath regulations, the prohibition of some forms of secular entertainment and the rejection of drunkenness, a form of piety that drove the rise of Prohibition and the development of vagrancy laws against alcoholics.

Isolationism went even further. It assumed U.S. uniqueness, superiority, invulnerability and distance, not to mention disdain, for the affairs of the rest of the human community. We were a world unto ourselves, like no other, untouched by and uninterested in the concerns of other parts of the human community.

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Together, these two strains in the American story, confirmed the country’s moral superiority and international distinctiveness. We were different. We were special. We were pure. We were morally, politically preeminent to the rest of humankind. Special. Superordinate. Olympian. Autonomous.

One of these issues or the other has routinely marked our development in the past and, if this era is proof of anything at all, they are with us still. In fact, this time it looks like both have raised their hoary heads at once.

The country elected George Bush, we’re told, because of his commitment to moral values. Their moral values.

But that’s where it gets fuzzy. What values are we demonstrating? And are we demonstrating them because some moral values are more moral than others? How do we know? And who says so? And what happened to other moral values when we weren't looking?

“Moral values,” it seems, has become an American codeword for any dimension of life that has to do with anything remotely associated with sex: reproductive legislation, scientific research on stem-cell regeneration, gay partnership contracts and television censorship standards. And, no doubt about it, those questions surely demand attention.

But what is happening to the rest of the Christian value system in the meanwhile? The standards, it’s clear, are disturbingly uneven. Who deleted the rest of the commandments?

Exit polls conducted during the election reported that people were more concerned about jobs, income, war and terrorism than they were about personal moral issues. Or to put it another way, what happened to political concern for "Thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods, thou shalt not kill"?

“Saving Private Ryan” was cancelled by 66 stations for fear of FCC reprisal but we can look at the obscenity of real war and not be troubled.

We are incensed about the rising tide of violence in basketball and hockey and football and baseball but we fail to see it as only a microcosm of the violence we have unleashed on a national scale in Iraq.

We claim the right now to practice imperial isolationism, the right to do what we want, to anyone we want, anywhere we want to. And all of it without the wisdom and support of the community of nations who were more right in their more benign assessment of the situation in Iraq than we were in our head-long intent to invade it.

Now the "dictator" we did the world the favor of eliminating is just one in a string of them. Our isolationist promise, as the unilateral moral monitors of the globe, to wage "pre-emptive" war any time our moral standards require it now pits us against ourselves, as well as the rest of the world. Will we invade someone else now and, like the Roman Empire before us, exhaust our own resources, both real and spiritual, in the doing of it?

We are so concerned about abortion but seem not to realize that what we have already aborted is the rest of our moral value system. What is happening to a real concern for the full spectrum of life issues, the full scope of biblical morality, once so well defined by Cardinal Joseph Bernardine, if only some parts of life are worthy of protection?

From where I stand, it occurs to me that the very fact that the country goes on talking about the struggle over moral values may be telling us that the issue is anything but resolved. The new Puritanism and the new Imperial Isolationism, the arthritis and St. Vitus Dance of this period, may not only not have resolved the subject but may even be making us more confused about it than ever.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line.
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