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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

July 29, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 16

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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.

The fine art of rewriting history at election time: He did what?!

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"God cannot alter the past," Samuel Butler said, "but historians can." It occurs to me in the midst of the political convention season that we again may be rewriting history. The problem is that this time it is my history they are trying to rewrite -- and a presidency in the process of it -- and I'm not happy about it. In fact, I'm not sure that there is any such thing as "history" anymore if, as the present situation demonstrates only too well, it is forever interpreted for the purposes of the culture in which it is being told.

History, I have always thought, is one of the most formative of the liberal arts. It gives us a national self-image and those who do not measure up to national standards need not apply to be the national standard bearer. History implants in our souls the righteousness of a George Washington, the persistence of an Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

It teaches us our national values. No frontier, Davy Crockett and Florence Nightingale teach us, is too unattainable, too far away to reach, to closed to conquer. And we will.

It shows us our national errors and while we buy Indian trinkets to this day, we remember the "Trail of Tears" and weep a little ourselves for the innocent mistakes that litter our past.

It provides us with a global perspective of a United States of America that goes around the world liberating people, being Messianic, uplifting the downtrodden, whatever the lies we need to tell about Sherman's "march to the sea" or segregation to do it.

It may also, in other words, be our national fairy tale. I have begun in the past few weeks to wonder which history we will choose now: the truth or the fable.

John Kerry, a bright young man, saw the horrors of the war in Indochina, withdrew from it as quickly as possible and began to speak his conscience about what was happening in Vietnam and what Vietnam was doing to us as a people.

He is said to "flip-flop" on issues. But he didn't "flip-flop" then. Under pressure from every side, he continued to speak out against a war that was flawed in policy, gruesome in strategy and remiss in its standards.

We're told that he says what powerful people want to hear. But he didn't cater to political approval then. He didn't flinch. He stood up to a president and administration whose whole reputation was staked on the outcome of the war.

As a result, a young man whose future stood to be ruined for the doing of it, helped the entire nation own its truth, deal with its pain, face its error and support its troops by ending its ill-advised war.

Now, in the very lifetime of those who still bear the wounds, still visit the graves of those who fought the war the politicians lied about, that history is being subjected to a new and dishonest kind of revisionism, a fable of immense proportions.

Now, in a completely different social climate than the one that spawned the protests of the war in Vietnam, that kind of personal strength is being framed as "opportunisitc," "manipulative," "calculating," and "disloyal." It's being told as if one young man orchestrated his opposition to the situation in order to run for president 40 years later at a time when another fabricated war in another era would also become suspect.

But there are still those who remember the actual context of those statements of protest and testimony to the U.S. Congress. They know that the nation was deeply divided over a war that killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and resolved nothing in the doing. They remember a bitterly divided country. They remember only too well that speaking out against the war in Vietnam cost people their reputations, their friends, their futures. They know it was not the "political" thing to do. They know it was the brave -- and the right thing -- to do.

Now the subtle message seems to be that those soldiers who spoke out against Vietnam, the thousands of young John Kerrys in the country at that time who spoke their consciences when to have a conscience was considered "unpatriotic," were themselves the enemy. John Kerry, in other words, was "unpatriotic" and so not presidential material.

But those in this country who lived through that era know better. Our problem in Vietnam was neither the soldiers who went nor the students who didn't. It was not the soldiers who fought and then lost heart for the senseless killing who betrayed us. It was not the soldiers who went to war but then came back to tell us that those who sent them there were the ones who did the wrong that were the problem. It was going there at all that was the problem.

So which history is the real history? The one that makes John Kerry a war hero or the one that implies he was a national enemy?

Is it possible that those who did not live through those years, who are being brought up under a so-called "Patriot Act" that purports to defend us by sacrificing the very values for which this country stands, whose very questioning is being called disloyal, are the ones who stand to lose most from this kind of dishonest revisionism.

From where I stand, it looks to me as if we are on the verge of rewriting the sins of our history, and maligning a presidential candidate in the course of it, in order to justify the sins of the present. It may be time to remember what else is said about history before we succumb to the rewriting of it. "History," Jean Cocteau wrote, "is a combination of reality and lies. The reality of history becomes a lie. The unreality of the fable becomes the truth."

Choose one candidate over another we must, of course. But I would hope that the choice is made more out of concern for the entire national truth than out of someone's present political need to write a political fable.

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