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November 22, 2005Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 22

 The heresy of national narcissism
"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

On the flight back from England yesterday, two fleeting memories played around the edges of my mind, small capsules of the entire Chautauqua interfaith conference "Building Civil Society: Faith, Diversity, and Pluralism," of which I had just been a part. There had, of course, been great speeches and intimate conversations among the Muslim, Jewish and Christian delegates there. But it was two tiny slivers of time, in the end, that really said it all. On the one hand, the two scenes were completely unrelated. On the other, they were intimately linked. And, by the end of the conference, they said it all in living color.

The first scene took place in a London taxi cab.

London cab drivers are a rare breed. They are, I have decided, part baby-sitter, part tour guide, part philosopher. They care about seeing that you get where you're going by the best possible route, in the best time possible, with the greatest amount of information. Mine simply would not leave until he was sure that I was really at the place where I was supposed to be. I wasn't.

London cab drivers are fountains of information about the city. "The best play in town is "Billy Elliot," my man said, "and you might get in if you just go to your concierge and have them call twice a day, every day, to check for tickets that have been released." I did just what he said and I got them.

They are also, as a breed, a rare type of political philosopher. They see people from around the world on a daily basis. The foreign is not foreign to them. To the average London cabdriver, the world is a small one, indeed. They spot international accents easily and they mine them with zest.

Without even asking where I lived, the cabby launched into the conversation: "Your President ga'e a speech the other night, you know. Did you 'ear wha' 'e sayed?" (I admit to having felt a bit of anxiety.) "No, what now?" I answered him, a bit gingerly.

The cabby threw his head back and laughed: " 'E sayed," and he wrapped his left arm over the back of his seat and turned around so he could look me straight in the face as he went on, " 'E sayed that World War II started in 1942! 'E did. 'E actually sayed that!" And then he added, for good measure, "For them maybe, but not for the world."

Just in case you're a George Bush American, the point the cabby was making, of course, was that World War II started, actually, on Aug. 31, 1939, with Hitler's invasion of Poland and was declared by England and France three days thereafter. By the time the United States got into the war, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thousands of Europeans had already died. By the end of the war four years later, between 40 million and 50 million people had died in the bloodiest war in human history. It is, in the European mind, no small date to remember in a nuclear age.

To the cab driver, Bush's statement demonstrated the ultimate in narcissistic Americanism. All time, all activity, starts here, the dates suggested. The message he got was a clear one: America is the only world Americans know. Or care about.

It's a sobering thought, indeed, this sense of detachment and distance from the pain of the rest of globe in an increasingly globalized world.

Which brings me to the second scene.

This one came from a Dutch rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Soetendorp, at the beginning of his presentation on "Faith, Diversity and Pluralism in Society." It brought me up straight in what might otherwise have been expected to be a very anemic academic moment.

The rabbi began: "I am a survivor child. My birth and the circumstances of my survival have forever determined my commitment to interfaith dialogue.

"When the Gestapo came for us, the captain looked at me -- a baby in a crib -- and said, 'What a pity this is a Jewish child.'

"But my father answered them: 'No, it is not a pity. He is blessed to be a Jewish child because he will not grow up a child of murderers.'

"The Gestapo leader was enraged. 'We will be back to take you in the morning. You are too dirty to handle now. Pack immediately.'

"But in those few hours, a pious Catholic family took me into their arms, hid me, raised me, saved me.

"So I am, you see, forever committed to interfaith dialogue. We need each other. Your faith is indispensable to my own. I understand very well what the Quran means when it teaches that 'to be good Jews and good Muslims, we must be good Christians.' We must each be the best of the other that we can be."

We simply do not have the luxury of national narcissism, of religious absolutism, of racial profiling and cultural stereotypes.

From where I stand, "faith," "diversity" and "pluralism" are only words to most of us. It's the London cab driver and the Dutch Rabbi who understand the real thing. It has something to do with the development of a world vision and a cosmic faith.

"Isn't it amazing," someone at the conference said. "All the religions of the world teach the same six basic concepts!"

I thought of the cab driver and the rabbi and smiled to myself a bit. "Amazing?" I thought. It's not amazing at all, is it, if we really believe what we say we do. After all, if there is only one God, why wouldn't that God be saying the same things to all of us?

Now if we would only join the human race, the community of nations, and listen.

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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