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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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March 3, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 46

  When beauty and ugliness come face to face
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote once, "When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, there arises the recognition of ugliness." I think I know now where he got the idea.

In Bangkok, echoes of Anna and the King of Siam still linger. Every morning, garlands of fresh flowers, strung only hours before, dangle from the pegboards of street vendors for passing motorists to hang from rear view mirrors and cyclists to sport on handle bars. In the afternoon, all the flowers in the city, it seems, are changed for fresh ones. Trees and bushes and vines drape the city. The people pause in the afternoon to drink fresh fruit juices on verandas and street corners everywhere. The place drips with beauty and is flush with calm.

The city of 12 million people moves slowly and quietly. The average round-trip drive to work takes 4 hours, bumper to bumper. But people even sit in traffic jams and swarm down narrow streets peacefully, no horn honking, no pushing and shoving. The average word can be 20 letters long here, too difficult to even think about without wincing, and it comes out sounding like soft rain on thin tin. People smile constantly while they serve you and no one ever says an outright no.

The present monarchy stems from a dynasty more than 220 years old, no bloody revolutions mark its history. There are no armed guards on the streets.

It is a beautiful country with beautiful people.

The choice seemed obvious. Where else would you go to hold the first of a series of regional summits on peace for world youth if not to an Asian nation steeped in Buddhist serenity that earns its money selling flowers rather than selling weapons.

But the sinister presence of these foreign weapons, the values they portend, the problems they create and the power they impose have already invaded the place. And they do not like it.

These regional conferences will culminate in Nairobi in October with the World Youth Peace Summit attended by youth from around the globe. Here in Bangkok, young leaders from the Asia-Pacific region set out to define what they believed were necessary elements of a peaceful world in our time. The initiative, a project of the World Council of Religious Leaders which emerged out of the U.N. Millennium Summit, is designed to involve young leaders in the issues militating against peace.

It may have been a waste of time. They already know. And they are not happy about issues like these.

We listened to their agitation. They listened for our responses.

"What does your religion contribute to averting war?" they asked us, the religious leaders of the generations before them. And I thought of Jesus and his command to "put away our swords" even in the face of sworn enemies. But I also thought of the Crusades and the wars of religion and a church that can outlaw condoms but can't bring itself to outlaw nuclear weapons.

"What does your religion have to contribute to the resolution of war?" they wanted to know of us. And I thought of the temptations of Jesus and how they teach us to put down the lust for power and property and status. Then I thought about all the pomp and circumstance of our clerical processions and the expectation of legal privilege and the accumulation of titles that mark both our past and our present.

"What does your religion have to contribute to healing the wounds of war?" they finished. And I thought of Jesus on the cross who refused to condemn his enemies or call for vengeance or demand retaliation. Then, I thought of the centuries of religious orders who have gone to the poorest of the poor everywhere on earth and stayed with them all their lives, with little support, and even less understanding.

But the young people want more than simply service and presence now.

They want economic justice and national sovereignty and international respect.

"We don't want one superpower to be the policeman of the planet," they said in a plenary.

"We don't want invasions and interventions in any nation without the agreement of the international community."

"We don't want 'free trade,' we want 'fair trade.' We want the products of small nations made available in the marketplace and we want them justly recompensed."

"We want harmful products off our island," a young Pacific Islander lamented. "And we want it out of our skies," he went on. "Our island is sinking into the sea now."

But, most difficult of all to hear, perhaps, one young Asian man said to me in the hall, "You expect us to believe that you are really a great democracy. Think of the millions of people who marched in the streets begging for peace. No one listened to them. Peace is not possible as long as the United States exists." The hardest part, and the most meaningful part of the conversation, maybe, was the fact that he said it kindly. And softly. And sadly.

I left the conference with more to think about, perhaps, than the young people did.

What have they seen in us as Christians?

Did the good we say we did by eliminating Saddam Hussein really begin to match the bad that was done around the world by invading his people?

And what about the challenge on their T-shirts? On the front of them, the T-shirt read, "Youth for World Peace." On the back, it said, "You can make guns? Can you make fathers for the orphans?"

From where I stand, it seems that this is a Christian question that may be too much for Christians to answer these days. Which might explain why Lao-Tzu also wrote, "When they all know the good as good, there arises the recognition of evil."

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