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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 May 20, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 8 

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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.

Reading peace in the signs of the times

By Joan Chittister,OSB

In the last "From Where I Stand" column, I talked about so-called "religious" beliefs and attitudes that lead to war. Now I want to call attention to the kinds of religious witness that lead to peace. I do it remembering the words of Jesus, "You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times."

Two incidents raise questions -- challenges -- for us all. They also demonstrate the rising of a new world in the shell of the old. Most of all, they call religions and religious people everywhere to a new way of thinking about the world, about religion, and about what it means to be a truly religious person.

The first sign of the times that gave me a new measure of what is going on in what were once intransigent religious parochialisms took place in Tokyo; the second happened in Rome.

In Tokyo, the Niwano Foundation, a Mayahana Buddhist denomination of over 6 million followers, is devoted to making Buddhism effective in the world. As part of their commitment to world peace, a central Buddhist concept, the foundation has been giving an international peace prize of $150,000 -- second only to the Nobel Peace Prize in scope and value -- for the last 19 years. The project has been exclusively Japanese.

This year the foundation turned 20, the age of majority in Japan. To demonstrate that they had come of age, the foundation took a remarkable step. They dissolved their previously all-Japanese peace prize committee and replaced it with a totally international group of four women and four men. They didn't just talk about cooperation among religious groups; they did it. They witnessed to it themselves.

The committee that awards the Niwano Peace Prize is now composed of a Hindu swami, a Muslim religious scholar, a Lutheran bishop from Norway, a Swedish woman, a Thai Buddhist ordained nun, a Catholic lay woman from Italy, a South African Bishop, a Korean minister, and an American Benedictine nun. Now that's a sign of the times that calls us all to account. Why would they do that?

The mission statement of the group says simply that they are devoted to cooperation among religions. I couldn't help but wonder whether any of our own institutions or projects that claim to be devoted to ecumenism and global perspective would demonstrate their globalism by making their own operational committees inclusive, let alone non-sexist at the same time? Think carefully before you answer.

The second great sign of the times is Roman Catholic. We got a strong signal of what it takes to bring peace to the world from Pope John Paul II. In the months during which the world teetered on the brink of what could easily become a war between civilizations -- engineered by the United States, ostensibly a Christian country -- John Paul II raised a trumpet's voice in an attempt to avert it.

There is no crusader spirit in this pope. No desire to decry the "infidels." Nor does he simply give homilies about compassion. He is a witness of full-throated and clearly worded opposition. He sent peace envoys to Washington and Baghdad. He set up meetings with prime ministers and presidents. He begged the public and governments to refuse to be part of a travesty on the innocent in the name of the innocent. And as more and more stories leak out of the effects of war on people we say we have "liberated," it becomes clearer how true that is.

Thanks to the pope, analysts around the world say, Arabs do not see this war as a Christian, a Catholic, plot against their religious tradition or culture. They may see it as a capitalist plot, an economic ploy, an exercise in paranoia, a grasp at "unipolarism" in the name of God, but they cannot see it as having the blessing of one whose obligation is to do the will of God for all humankind. It was a glorious moment in papal history.

In these two acts -- a Japanese peace prize and a pope struggling to protect an Islamic state from Christian military force -- may lie the two most significant signs of the times our present world has seen. Why? Because these signs come from a culture that in Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered the worst attack on non-combatants history has ever known. It comes, too, from a pope who has known first-hand the barbaric effect of wars waged to eliminate the "evil" of being a Jew, a gypsy, a Pole, a homosexual or a religious believer. These are the people who know how useless, how obsolete, how immoral modern warfare really is because they have already lived through it.

These are "signs of the times." From where I stand, the only question now, as Jesus knew, is whether or not we are able to interpret them and respond accordingly.

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