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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 May 13, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 7 

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"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.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Religion: One part solution, one part problem

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Most of the mail I get is in response to something I've written. Most of it is very enlightening. But every once in a while someone writes something that touches a nerve, makes me draw breath, worries me. It gives me a rare insight into what may really be going on -- underneath -- in society. This week I got a letter that reminded me again what Jesus is dealing with when he teaches, "Those who are not against us are with us."

The letter read in part:

This past month "The Monastic Way" talked more about Buddha than about Jesus. The first commandment of God is "Thou shall have no other gods before me for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God" (Exodus 20:3). What you have done is a sin and you need to repent before the Lord. Would it not have been better to use the space to glorify God and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ? Did Jesus ever talk about Buddha? I pray that God convicts you. In Jesus name I pray.

The writer was responding to a small publication I write called "The Monastic Way." It's a very simple monthly reflection guide that is usually structured around a single theme or a scripture or a contemporary question that forms the basis for the daily comments that follow.

This year "The Monastic Way" deals with common questions like "Is Guilt Good?" Or "What is Sanctity?" or "What Is the Simple Life?" Because they are pervasive human questions and because the world is a technological village now, I decided to concentrate on religious similarities in response to these issues rather than on the different ways each religious tradition lives out those answers.

Given the present world situation with its history of religious wars, its current deep suspicions and fears, and our almost universal lack of cultural understanding of anything but Christianity, I wanted my readers to realize how other religions thought about these things.

So, it's true, I have been using materials from other traditions as well as our own -- from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism -- to illustrate the profound insights in every human heart about basic human and spiritual values. I wanted to make it clear that what we teach as the will of God for all of humankind is also taught in every other great spiritual tradition.

Unfortunately, history certifies that an essential respect for these traditions often gets lost in the maelstrom of political competition and power games. In fact, a kind of distorted religious fervor is often used to justify war.

Religion has been a staple of political oppression from the time of the Crusades. Even now some respected Christian leaders are still calling Islam an "evil religion" because it breeds terrorists, or Catholicism a "foreign power" because of its religious center in Rome, or Hinduism "polytheistic" because of its thousand names for God, or Judaism " "perfidious" because they blame Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. What's worse, they consider those positions to be God's position.

That's why this particular letter concerns me. It makes me wonder how much of the "Holy War" tradition still lurks in the Western heart? Because if it does, it's very "unchristian."

I answered the letter, of course. I wrote back to the reader suggesting that he read, instead of the Monastic Way, the document Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time") that says "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions." Which means, of course, that something is. In fact, more than four-fifths of the world go to God in ways other than Christian.

I reminded the letter-writer, too, that the apostles had also tried to turn away from the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite woman, and the Roman soldier, since each of them represented a different tradition, were considered unclean, were thought to be enemies and infidels. Their commitment, they were sure, was to Jesus alone. None others need appear.

But," I wrote, "we who witness know how Jesus felt about the kind of discipleship that attempted to cut him off from the love and faith of people and places he saw as sincere or valuable. In fact, the scripture says, "He rebuked them."

Finally, I promised to pray for him, too. But not that he would be "convicted." At least not as he understood it.

I will certainly pray that you can come to see the world as God sees the world. But it's a dangerous position: You will come to love and trust everyone as the God who made them does.

It occurred to me later that it may be much harder being committed to life everywhere than it is being condemned to punishment.

I haven't forgotten the letter or the questions it raises in a dangerous world. How much is ignorance of the other our greatest enemy? How much of God's greatness have we reduced to a tribal icon -- our own? How much have we concluded, like the apostles, that those who are not with us are against us instead of what Jesus wants us realize -- that those who are not against us are with us?

From where I stand, it seems clear that religion has a great role to play in the coming of world peace. After all, God knows, religion has contributed a great deal to world suffering.

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