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February 9, 2006Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 32

 When is a cartoon not a cartoon?
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

The group that gathered after the film club presentation last night was a mixed one, young men and old, married women and unmarried women, native born Irish and a few expats from around the globe. A group such as that can cover a lot of territory when the subject matter is controversial and concerns run high. This movie, I was sure, certainly qualified on all counts.

The movie on tap, "Vera Drake," is a period piece about a kindly woman who spends a good deal of her life "helping girls get out of trouble" by inducing spontaneous abortions.

Set in England in the 1950's, it is easy to see the struggle of the courts, the laws, the people there to deal with so complex, so important a subject. I had no doubt whatsoever going into the film that the discussion afterwards would certainly focus on both the politics and the morality of abortion -- pros, cons, concerns, questions. Ireland is a Catholic country, after all. What else would they talk about? I was wrong.

Bridie Keating's has got to be the tiniest pub on the planet. Six people crowd it. Ten people make it impossible to hear yourself think and Bridie, the publican, who has owned this little place all her life, brooks no nonsense on the territory. But last night there was no problem at all, either with noise or with excitability. The huddle of eleven people were far more into sober listening than they were to talking all at once.

But they weren't talking about "Vera Drake." To my eternal surprise, that topic they dismissed quickly, no religious overtones to it at all.

Instead, they were talking about the wisdom, the justice, the problem of publishing sketches that offend. They were talking about the furor raised around the world by a set of editorial cartoons printed in Denmark that show the prophet Muhammad as a global incendiary bomb just waiting to go off.

But as they debated the role and limits of free speech, the difference between moderates and extremists in this day and age, I found myself remembering the U.S. election of 1960, Richard Nixon vs. John F. Kennedy. Whether most of the world realized it or not at the time, the tension in the United States between Catholics and Protestants was not much different then than it is now between the Muslim world and Western secular democracies. Literature spewed out of everywhere ridiculing Kennedy's Catholicism, impaling the church of Rome, vilifying all of Catholicism everywhere, at all times.

If a Catholic were elected president of the United States, the brochures raged, the very independence of the country was in danger. The pope would rule the nation. Protestants would lose their civil rights.

A cartoon titled "The Whore of Rome" warning the country of the inevitable Catholic prostitution of the democratic constitution of the nation accompanied every mailing.

No doubt about it: These publications were designed to raise the emotional pitch of the campaign to the point where issues simply disappeared from the table. These things were institutionalized fear tactics at their best.

I remember feeling hurt by them, embarrassed by them, angered by them.

People didn't go to the streets quite so easily then. There were no demonstrations mounted, no flags burned, nobody burned in effigy. But down deep, the firestorm burned just the same.

It isn't that there wasn't a certain kind of truth to everything they said. All of us -- we and they -- could have learned plenty about the history of Catholicism, both pro and con, if only we had all been willing to listen.

The question that went unspoken, however, was whether or not those cartoons and those mailings were really the best that freedom of speech had to offer any of us at that time? Most of all, are they now?

Is it really acceptable, really democratic, to abuse freedom of speech in order to guarantee it?

In the end, just as so many Protestants feared then -- and so many Westerners fear of Islam right now -- Catholics had outbred them, and the election of 1960 turned on a hair's breadth. It took Vatican II and its call to moderates, both Catholic and Protestant, to help repair the torn garment of U.S. Christianity. It took people of peace, for whom freedom of speech is not the freedom to yell fire in a movie theater, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

This time, in what is so clearly a clash of world views, a conflict of religious norms, the churches must lead the healing, not fuel the fight. This time every church in America, every church group in Europe, ought to be thinking about how to form alliances with Muslim groups and create study groups with mosques. There is too much at stake to let fear drive us all to death.

A Western news photographer caught the sign being carried by one of the young Muslim demonstrators who had come out to vent his rage at what he saw, not as freedom of speech, but as the West's ridicule of the Prophet. It read: "Muhammad is our prophet. Mussa (Moses) is our prophet. Isa (Jesus) is our prophet. Be aware and sensitive." Good idea.

From where I stand, it seems to me that we should forget the Alamo and its call for vengeance for a while and remember Archduke Franz Ferdinand again. One irresponsible shot by one national extremist after decades of tension, centuries of seething, left the whole world embroiled for almost 75 years. Cities were ruined, millions were killed, more millions were displaced.

I think I understand why the people in the pub, even in Catholic Ireland, spent so little time discussing "Vera Drake" and so much time discussing a cartoon: Abortion, whatever any of us think about it, is still a personal moral decision. It is not imposed on anyone. No one has to do it. War, on the other hand, is another situation entirely.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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