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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

July 22, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 15

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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.

We are a 'Cabaret' nation, old chum

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"Cabaret," the 1966 Broadway musical and 1972 film based on Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," is set in the electrified city of Berlin just before Hitler's rise to power. It has always been one of my favorites. But this column is not a film review. This column is a call for concern.

The truth is that I always liked "Cabaret" because of the tension that lurks under the false gaiety of the music, the unspoken awareness behind the clown face of the cabaret's master of ceremonies and the crisp singing and high kicking of bargirl Liza Minnelli. Clearly something is skulking in the background of this otherwise happy scene that is threatening all their lives. You get the idea, too, that most of them know what it is. But they are all afraid to say it. So no one says anything. They simply go on singing.

I don't like the play very much now, maybe because I feel as if I'm on the brink of living it.

Last week I told you about a magazine in the United States (July 15, You will read this only here (unfortunately)) that had been warned by its lawyer not to publish an editorial round table on election issues. The freelance writers engaged to identify key concerns in the upcoming U.S. election apparently criticized the way those particular issues are being handled by the present administration. The lawyer indicated that such an approach might well be defined as partisanship or support for a particular candidate and so threatened the magazine's tax-exempt status.

I have begun to wonder about the real quality of freedom of speech in post-9/11 America.

This week Linda Ronstadt, pop singer and performer, apparently started a small riot in the Aladdin, a Las Vegas casino. Ronstadt did the unthinkable, I guess, by dedicating the song "Desperado" to Michael Moore, the filmmaker of "Fahrenheit 9/11," a clearly anti-Bush administration documentary.

An audience of gamblers, of all people, refused to take the risk of allowing the song to be heard, not because there was anything wrong with the song but simply because it had been dedicated to someone they don't like. They tore down posters, created a kind of stampede, demanded their ticket money back and otherwise interrupted the show. Ronstadt was conducted to the door in the midst of her contracted act.

I couldn't help but wonder about the degree of rationality that will be brought to an election in a country where, four months before the election, dedications begin to be banned.

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Last Sunday, I attended an ecumenical prayer service in which the preacher was trying to extol the benefits of listening to alternate -- note well: "alternate," not "opposite" -- opinions. She contrasted her own political beliefs to the apparent positions of a young woman seatmate on a cross-country flight who was reading a conservative version of current U.S. policies. Before the preacher could finish making her point -- i.e., that we have more in common than we realize, if we'll only listen to one another -- almost 200 people walked out of the service.

The next day these Christian churchgoers demanded back the money they had put in the collection basket and called for the resignation of the person who engages speakers.

I couldn't help but wonder what such Christians will do the next time they hear a reading from the prophets Isaiah or Amos or Jeremiah or hear a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

At the same time, this country has arrested its own soldiers for participating in prisoner abuse, excoriated its own CIA for providing misleading intelligence material, ridden herd on legislation that purports to defend the country by diminishing the civil rights of its citizens and provided police protection for dissenting groups -- from war protesters to promoters of women's rights for years.

It seems that we are doing better right now tolerating the Ku Klux Klan than tolerating the other political party.

It may be time for a revival of "Cabaret." We need to remember what happens when people are silenced in the midst of confusion. We need to remember that freedom of speech is only important when there is something important about the differences between us.

We may well be on a very slippery slope from difference to division.

People talked about the demonstration at the prayer service for days. Some people remembered that "they had had to sit through Ken Starr so why couldn't people listen to the other side, as well." Others talked about the rise of the "American Taliban." Most sat quietly and worried about what was happening to a country in which intolerance might well be becoming the order of the day.

The signs are everywhere: TV talk show guests and hosts don't really talk anymore. They simply out shout one another and interrupt points that need to be heard by us all. People band into disparate groups and demonstrate rather than discuss. Proponents of an idea carry placards but few read the statements of those who think differently so we can talk our way across our divides rather than simply widen them.

From where I stand, it seems that we may well be losing something in this culture that we need to revive again, along with "Cabaret." We need to do more now than simply go on singing. We need to remember civility. We need to understand that personal animosity is the cancer in the core of the discourse. We need to restore a culture of communication among us before we become the dictators we say we are resisting.

Editor's Note: "For Sister Joan Chittister, defiance is a form of obedience. And silence in the face of injustice is a sin." Thus begins a profile of Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister in USA Today. Read the story.

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