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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 August 19, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 21

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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, Sr. 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.  Sr. 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.

Here's the question: Who's the real enemy?

By Joan Chittister, OSB

There will be a multiple-choice test at the end of this article. Read carefully.

When the lights went out from Manhattan to Detroit Aug. 14, I found myself thinking about two things. At first glance, they seemed totally unrelated. Even to me.

The first thing that crossed my mind was the memory of a conversation with Andrei Kortunov of the Institute of the U.S. and Canada Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. The second was a verse from scripture. Last week the two apparently isolated episodes took on an eerie kind of association.

The conversation with Kortunov took place in Moscow in the middle of the Cold War. We were a small citizen delegation from the International Fellowship of Reconciliation who had gone to the Soviet Union simply to see for ourselves what it was really like. Here at home, not a good thing had been said about the country, its people or its government for years. For anyone even to try to do so was the equivalent of treason.

The Soviet Union, we had been made to understand, was the eternally implacable and immanently dangerous enemy. It devoured for the sake of devouring. On that assumption we cut social programs of every ilk -- medical research, education, infrastructure -- to create the largest military budget in the history of the world. As a result, we were living at the end of a second-hand on the Doomsday Clock.

After all these years, I only remember one thing Kortunov said. It gave me great pause. "Distance enabled Americans to expect perfect security," he told us. "But with the launching of Sputnik, total security became a thing of the past for everyone. You fear the loss of that. We, on the other hand, have been invaded from the West seven times and fear always that it will happen again," he continued.

"You want to be invulnerable because you have always been invulnerable. And we want to be invulnerable because we have always been vulnerable. Until we both give up our fears, we can never negotiate peace. We all have to adjust to a new world."

His point was that fear and fear alone fed the Cold War.

Over time that conversation became a filter through which I came to understand better both the foreign policy and the social climate of the United States.

From that perspective, whatever a person thinks about the wisdom, the cause or the morality of the invasion of Iraq, it is at least understandable. Fear leads to maybe every time. Maybe these were the people who did it. Maybe even if they weren't, they might. Maybe if we have more weapons they won't. So, now we have created an even bigger military apparatus than before.

For years we cultivated a value system designed to vanquish external enemies. We chose for power and strength and domination. We sought independence and isolation and rugged individualism.

On the international level that meant that we refused to sign whatever treaties we didn't like, regardless of their effect on the rest of the world. We ignored the United Nations. We imposed the cash crop system on debtor nations, requiring them to grow for export whatever would bring in money to pay off loans to Western banks, whatever the effects on their own people from the loss of domestic farm products.

Then The Big Blackout came and prompted the second memory in me. This time the words were from scripture. The Gospel of Matthew warns that our enemies are "from our own household." I was brought face to face with the effects of our race for total security once again. Maybe as well as intimidating them, it is also killing us.

It doesn't take an external enemy to destroy a country. A country can do it to itself. Sparta collapsed under the cost of its military apparatus. Rome lost the Empire. The Soviet Union found itself in economic shambles. We are a country that, in the name of "smaller federal government," now lacks medical insurance for 44 million people, decent schools in the very inner cities we say we must revive, and a stable energy system for a country that literally runs on electricity. All those things cost money to develop, yes, but it's important to remember that it will cost us even more money if we don't. Lack of infrastructure affects business. Lack of schools affects business. Lack of health affects business. At this rate, it won't take terrorists to destroy us. We are more than on the way to doing that for ourselves.

On the national level, too, we enlarge welfare programs for the wealthy, which we call tax breaks. We cut back on welfare for the poor, which we call food stamps and subsidized housing. To pay for the military system it takes to assuage our gargantuan fear, we have ignored domestic needs for the sake of bigger and better weapons that didn't do a thing to avert either the fall of the Twin Towers or The Big Blackout.

Indeed, The Big Blackout warns us, our insatiable need for perfect security may be coming home to roost. An aging electrical grid, experts tell us, likely caused the Great Blackout. Now we are beginning to have to deal with the enemies within -- our own internal needs and a deteriorating infrastructure -- the ones we made ourselves by giving over our major resources to fear.

And therein lies the multiple-choice test: We have to choose between having a more destructive military and having a more developed country.

But if we give up trying to create the perfect military security system, that means we will need to cultivate another whole set of national values to function in this world. Force won't do it anymore. We will need to reach out to the rest of the world to be their allies, their partners, their companions on the planet. Not their taskmasters or their lords. Not their weapons suppliers.

We'll need to try cooperation and listening and respect. We'll need to develop interdependence rather than strut our intentions to dominate.

From where I stand, it looks like we might even have to go back to serving French fries.

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