|"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
Theres something intergalactic about hearing world news --
U.S. news -- in another country. Last week, for instance, I listened to the
news in Tokyo. In the space of 24 hours, I heard a series of dizzying
First, I sat in on a conversation in which Japanese friends spoke about
the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II and the effect
of that experience on immigrant Americans to this day.
Then, I heard CNN report that telephone records of tens of
millions of U.S. citizens had been turned over to the government -- the
largest example of domestic spying in the history of the country -- without
I watched as Senator Patrick Leahy held up a copy of USA Today
incredulous that as a senator he had to get such information from a newspaper
rather than from the administration and wondered aloud how we would ever
maintain the Constitution without the presence of the press in this
I heard a senator bemoan the leaks that allow such a thing
to happen, as if the leaking of constitutionally suspect activities was more
dangerous than the activities themselves.
I listened as Senator Dianne Feinstein remarked that we were on our way
to a major constitutional confrontation over the abuse of the
Fourth Amendment that guarantees Americans the right to
I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard Senator Arlen Specter, a
registered Republican and one of the most non-partisan members of Congress that
the U.S. has to offer, call for hearings to get the data the White House will
not provide the Congress.
And finally, in Japan, I sat as the Niwano Peace Prize Committee -- of
which I am an executive member -- awarded its
23rd annual Peace
Prize of 20 million yen (about $200,000) to Israels Rabbis
for Human Rights. While the world struggles to negotiate the tinderbox
tilt in world relations since the invasion of Iraq and the increase in tensions
in the Middle East, this group of 130 Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and
Reconstructionist rabbis from Jerusalem challenge their own government to honor
the rights of Palestinians as well as the rights of Israelis.
The Japanese are the only people on earth who have been decimated by the
only atomic bombs ever used against a people -- indiscriminately and
experimentally, not once but twice. These are people, as a result, who really
know what peace means and what modern warfare implies for the future of the
world. To sit as I did and watch the Japanese beg the human race to do better
-- as we ourselves fumble with force now, talk peace but do war -- had the
quality of an out-of-body experience.
Intergalactic. Berserk. Daft. Certifiably absurd. Or as the songwriter
put it years ago, When will they ever learn ...?
Yet, in our time, the cry for peace has come from every direction.
There have been those who have resisted foreign oppression, as Mahatma
Gandhi did in the attempt to wrest India from British rule.
There have been those who resisted national oppression as did Nelson
Mandela in the face of the apartheid government in South Africa.
There have been those who resisted social prejudices enshrined in law,
as did Martin Luther King Jr. in a segregated U.S.A.
There have been those who resisted gender discrimination, as did Wangari
Maathai in Kenya. (See
Oct. 22, 2004.)
There have been those who resisted religious intolerance as does Hans
Kung, anywhere and everywhere.
And now, this new icon -- a body of rabbis. In Jerusalem.
But why rabbis? Their answers are clear. They do it because of their
religious obligations to, as the Hebrew scriptures put it, the widows,
the orphans and the stranger.
They do it, too, because of their countrys constitutional
commitment to democracy and justice.
They do it because as Jews they themselves know what it is to be
As a result, these rabbis have risked their own public status in Israel
in for the sake of all of these things: for the integrity of the country, for
the religious righteousness of Judaism, as a monument to the memory of their
own families whose names are listed among the victims of ethnic tensions before
this one, and even in behalf of the rights of the stranger.
Finally, they persist in the face of criticism even by other rabbis, one
of whom appeared at the award ceremony intent on defending the government of
Israel from opposition to its Palestinian policies.
But the Rabbis for Human Rights remained true to their principles even
here. They disagreed with the political positions taken by the rabbi who had
insinuated himself onto the program but defended his right to differ.
Clearly the fact that such a group can exist in Israel, sue the
government, protect Palestinians and speak in another voice is itself one of
the clearest signs, ironically, of Israeli democracy itself.
In the midst of our own differences, despite the cacophony of the
morning news and what it implies about our own struggle ahead, such a ceremony
renewed the kind of hope this world needs.
After all, in the words of Bishop Gunnar Stalsett, Lutheran bishop
emeritus of Oslo and chair of the Niwano Peace Prize Committee, the
rabbis have managed to rebuild the homes of Palestinians bulldozed by the
Israelis army, helped Palestinians retain their farm land, harvested their
olive produce, planted or provided over 10,000 trees for Palestinian land and
joined a coalition of other organizations to oppose the Separation
Barrier that expropriates Palestinian land, cuts people off from their
fields and divides or surrounds village.
From where I stand, it seems to me that if a group of rabbis can do so
much to call their own country to be what it says it wants to be, surely we can
do the same here. Otherwise, if the international news that the Japanese and I
were watching together is accurate, its possible that in the name of
security, the bearers of democracy may well be the first to lose
it. Then we would really be insecure.
And that would be really intergalactic. Berserk. Daft. Certifiably
Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister,
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