Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

December 30, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 25

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Joan Chittister

"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

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

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

Christmas parties for board members can be very uncomfortable, if not downright difficult. Nobody knows anyone very well. Once you've approved the budget for the year, what's left to talk about that's safe enough to risk in a mixed crowd? Finding something familiar enough to generate real conversation among people who come from so many different backgrounds and walks of life is no small feat. Better usually just to swig the tiny glass of sherry, finish the strange-tasting canapé politely and suddenly remember that you have to leave early to get to the store before it closes.

But not at the party this year.

At this Christmas party everyone -- whoever they were, wherever they were from -- began talking about the latest breaking news story on the latest White House scandal. Surprisingly enough, though, the overall tone of the conversation, unlike most political discussion in mixed company these days, was not argumentative. Instead, the general response was a kind of quiet dismay. Faulty intelligence, misinterpreted intelligence -- exaggerated, insufficient, decades-old intelligence -- was one thing. Spying on the American public in sweeping, unspecified, unmonitored fishing expeditions, however, was entirely another.

One woman put it this way: "Where is Monica Lewinsky when we need her?" Nobody laughed. The comment made the point: There are scandals and then there are scandals.

It's one kind of scandal when a president cannot control a need for sexual satisfaction. What the moral theologians have traditionally called "the sins of the flesh" -- as in "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" -- most often carries an overtone of human weakness, a lack of personal discipline or emotional maturity or psychological control of sexual impulses.

It's another kind of scandal when a president cannot control a need for power. Deceit, spuriousness, pride and calculated dishonesty fall into the category of "sins of the spirit." These are not confined to private or personal sexual behaviors. "Sins of the spirit" have to do with intellectual malice, with the cultivation of behavior and attitudes that attack the very ideals of the human community and pollute a whole way of being alive. This day's scandal yielded no ordinary political conversation. The group wrestled with the problem. Didn't the attack on the World Trade Center demand a more intense kind of intelligence gathering? Didn't the president have the responsibility to do this? Wasn't it imperative that it be done?

Yes, yes, and yes. The answers came easily, it seemed. Then what was the problem? A continuing discomfort hung in the air; something begged to be said yet. People put their eyes down and bit at the inside of their lips.

Then a woman dared the breach: "We may need to do this kind of thing -- but not like this. Not without legal permission, not without the approval of the Congress. Not in the United States of America. We elected a president. Not a king."

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The idea may bear remembering.

In Colonial America, "general warrants" -- declarations issued by King George III -- allowed British soldiers to search for smuggled goods in any house, day or night, without giving notice or warning. People were harassed simply on the suspicion that they might be breaking tax laws.

James Otis, a Boston lawyer and advocate-general of the Boston vice-admiralty court, mounted vigorous arguments against these "writs of assistance" on the basis of rights long-granted in English common law. Nevertheless, given the court's sympathy for the Crown, Otis lost the case. So, he resigned his position in the government on the grounds that he could not defend what he believed to be legally groundless and wrong.

After the War of Independence that followed, the new nation wrote into its Bill of Rights the Fourth Amendment or the right of American citizens to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects."

Now, in our time, that security is being threatened again. Wire taps, electronic eavesdropping in public places, monitoring the e-mail of U.S. citizens -- everything we ever accused Soviet Russia of doing and then some -- have been authorized secretly, without "reasonable cause," in great sweeping disregard for the public at large. And, as in any government with tendencies toward monarchical privilege, it is being defended as "good for the country."

But what is not good for the country is any branch of government that has the power to ignore the other two components of a system of checks and balances. What is not good for the country is to shred the Constitution in the name of personal authority. What is not good for the country is to make democracy a sham by excluding the representatives of the people from the kinds of decisions that render powerless the people whose power this government is supposed to protect. What is not good for the country is the kind of presidential precedent that, under the guise of defending the country, begins little by little to destroy it.

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Any appeal to fear in order to justify the unjustifiable destruction of civil rights is what we really need to fear.

Yes, yes, yes, indeed, to protection, to surveillance, to security. But not outside the laws of this country, not beyond them, not despite them.

The most dangerous thing about the present moment is that the citizens of the country -- made comatose by fear -- may not see the danger in this kind of precedent-setting attack on the history, the tradition, the people and the Constitution of the United States.

It may behoove us to remember that so engrained were the notions of civil rights in English Common Law that tampering with them lit the spark of revolution here long before now.

From where I stand, history is clear: King George III made a serious mistake by imposing general warrants in 1761 -- good as he thought them to be for the sake of the country at that time.

No, it wasn't a sin of the flesh that turned the country against him. It was a sin of the spirit. It was the kind of pride that makes autocrats. Maybe someone should warn any modern pretenders to that throne against trying that kind of thing again.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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