National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Web address:

July 1, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 14

  The common cry: Let my people go
"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

A new phenomenon called "The Lysistrata Project" ( is sweeping the United States. It brings with it a contemporary echo of an ancient insight. "Lysistrata," written by the Greek dramatist Artistophanes in the 5th century BCE, describes the resistance of women to the long-term Peloponnesian War. Tired of the violence, Athenian women take over the national treasury. What's more, they withhold intimacies until the men of the city state discover that love-making beats war-making. At first, Lysistrata, the heroine, finds it difficult to interest other women in the plan. But then, the women begin to realize that if they take a common stand, they can make a difference.

Now, centuries later, Lysistrata reading groups in state after state exist to revive both the play and the idea. Women, it seems, are banding together everywhere to become a voice for peace. In fact, I have just been with a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who are, like the Athenian women, coming together in the throes of the violence and at great cost. For them it is not an exercise or an experiment. It is a matter of survival.

I met two women in Oslo this month that I can't forget. We were all part of the meeting of the "Woman's Partnership for Peace in the Middle East," an outgrowth of the U.N.-sponsored conference of "The Global Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders" called by Kofi Annan in Geneva in September to add the voices of women spiritual leaders to the peacemaking process. I would tell you their names but it could be dangerous for both of them.

The first woman is Palestinian. She's not one of those passive looking victims of violence we see on the nightly news. She's young and straight and tall and very, very outspoken. She's also intense and distant. And very, very self-contained. She wears jeans and the hajib or traditional Muslim headwear for women, and she looks at you out of eyes that view you at a distance no matter how close you stand to her. She's a young Palestinian medical student. She loves her land but, in her own words, though she knows that "she belongs to the land" she does not maintain that "the land belongs to her." She is ready to make room for Israelis there but she is not ready to renounce her own identity.

The second woman is Israeli. She's also quiet and a little withdrawn but very, very poised. She knows the system and the situation and she is part of both. She is a long-time supporter of the peace movement as well as a long-time advocate of the Jewish right to an independent state. She stands between the Palestinian women on the one hand and the implacable extremists of both cultures on the other. She carries in her soul the image of a noble Israel and the memory of centuries of exclusion. What she wants for her nation is "the might of right, not the right of might."

These two women are on the same side of one of the most dangerously divisive moments in history. They both want peace; they both want to get it peacefully. But they come from cultures each of which feel under threat from the other.

These two women speak the same language but they speak it differently. They use the same words but they mean two different things when they say them. "Do you want to know who the suicide bombers are?" the Palestinian asks. "They are the children of the first intifada. They learned then that there is no other way for us to be heard." "Do you want to know why we have checkpoints?" the Israeli asks. "Because we are not safe without them."

The Palestinians demand the end to occupation and the dissolution of the checkpoints. They are prisoners in their own land, they argue, at the mercy of a repressive state. They are not a country of "terrorists," they say. They are simply people with no statehood, no government and therefore no organized armed forces with which to protect and defend themselves. They want one joint Israeli-Palestinian state that restores to them the fullness of the land and its resources.

The Israelis deny that they are "occupiers." They simply want security, they say. They see themselves surrounded by terrorists and at the mercy of an unknown enemy who comes in every guise and is three times the size of their own population. They want their right to independent statehood acknowledged.

It is an old standoff that has worn down the souls of both communities.

But these women are reaching out to one another across a common divide knowing that there are those on both sides who would call them traitors for doing so. They are the bridge-builders of a future that could change the world situation for all of us.

They talked truthfully to one another for hours. They listened to one another carefully. They even danced together in Oslo one night though they refused to have the picture distributed for fear of violent reprisals. Most importantly, they agreed to meet together again in a larger, more visible way -- a Woman's Summit of Israeli and Palestinian Women for Peace -- in Jerusalem itself in December. And they defined a common agenda that they say can create the climate for a better future:

They want integrated peacemaking activities for their children. They want support from the rest of the women of the world and intend to seek it through the internet. They want a media campaign for peace in the very face of war-making. They want common efforts to mark their common cause. They want to stand together against the inane contention that violence brings peace. They know better than most that violence does nothing more than give reason for the next war. They have had enough of war. And they want men everywhere to know it.

From where I stand, if the "Woman's Partnership for Peace in the Middle East" is any indication, Kofi Annan was right when he said, "The future of this planet depends on women." But then, Aristophanes clearly thought the same thing. For all our sakes, may the spirit of Lysistrata rise again and soon.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to:

Copyright © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  1-816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280