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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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January 20, 2004 
Vol. 1, No. 40

  Playground politics
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Editor's Note: This article is the fourth of a four-part series about Joan Chittister's recent trip to Israel and Palestine. To read the earlier intallments, follow these links: Treaties don't do it; Homes do, When stepping backward becomes a step forward, and Problem: When is smuggling not smuggling?.
Independence and autonomy survive generation after generation as arch American virtues.

We start teaching them to our children in kindergarten. The first time an American child balks at going back to school or begs a parent, preferably a father, to go with them because of fear of being pushed in the playground, more often than not they get good, American counsel. "You have to learn to take care of yourself," we tell them. "If anyone pushes you, you just push them back. Harder."

The teaching shows signs of having application at much higher levels later on in life, which is a sign of very effective teaching indeed. "Playground politics," I call it. "Defense," they call it.

Here's how it works: When someone collapses your towers, you go collapse their country, its electrical grids, its government, its water supplies, its economy. No justification necessary beyond "push harder." When the weapons of mass destruction you worried about aren't there, no problem. When there isn't -- and never was -- an imminent danger, don't let a little thing like that concern you. When the conspiracy of evil between your enemies and this government, as you argued, is not only missing but entirely bogus, don't worry. Just begin to talk about punishing the bully in the playground and you're safe.

Examining the history of public acquiescence to military involvement, one finds that we like the playground reason best of all. We buy it over and over again: We bought it in Vietnam, in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iraq. No logic necessary. No one questions -- if ongoing support for the war in Iraq is as high as the polls say it is -- why we shove some international bullies but not others.

It's the old "That'll show 'em, bring 'em on" argument. And it is, apparently, enough.

It makes us feel good. It renews our sense of American invulnerability even though nobody thinks we're invulnerable anymore, not even the people who do the pushing. We know that because they have given us a color code of anxiety levels to prove it. Which makes you wonder whether or not pushing back harder really solves anything.

Worse, it makes you wonder, doesn't it, whatever happened to the "independence, autonomy and freedom" that playground politics purports to restore?

We're not the only people who respond like this, of course. But with our high-tech weapons and our high-tech profits, we do it bigger and better and on a far larger scale than most. At least shock and awful seems to work until our laser weapons prove to be useless in the fight between helicopters and shoulder-fired missiles, or between canister bombs and tanks without a target, or between the uprisings of the people and a rising of the deficit that threatens to make the money run out before the insurgency does. Which, given the size of the new deficit, it apparently is.

Then we need something far more meaningful than the perception of defense to defend us, something far more powerful than hate to bring us peace. What we surely do not need is more of the same.

But there is hope. I have seen it happen, so I know it can. In the midst of chaos, some people refuse to add to it.

In Israel, the apartheid wall that will lock one people inside an artificial area to keep bombs out of another artificial area is rising quickly. This week it began to separate the Arab section of an ancient part of Jerusalem itself from the remainder of the city.

The wall is clearly an attempt at invulnerability, too. People all around the world are watching the spectacle of its construction, some in disbelief, others in horror, all of them in confusion. Sensible, temperate people wince at the thought of walling in an entire population -- but, they reason, if it stops suicide bombings of buses and malls and restaurants, it may be the best thing to do. For everybody's sake, right?

Some past columns: "From Where I Stand"
Sept. 23, 03 With Isaac and Ishmael in mind Joan Chittister's first encounter at a checkpoint
July 1, 03 The common cry: Let my people go Two women Joan Chittister met at the Woman's Partnership for Peace in the Middle East
June 24, 03 Unleashing a power such as the world has never seen The first meeting of the Women's Partnership for Peace
Sept. 30, 03 Don't forget that it's your wall, too An earlier trip to Israel and Palestine
But there are drawbacks to the search for invulnerability. The bombing may stop but the hatred deepens for other reasons. Now, while the wall is still being built, old Arab women are climbing over the wall to get to the markets, but it won't be long before the wall is too high, too wide, too wired to attempt anything like that anymore. The checkpoints, the borders that separate families will get more difficult to cross. Then the seething will still go on, of course, but hopefully it will be contained in its own territory. Hopefully.

Yet there is one dimension of human life that seems to go on long past physical ability. Human memory is the long, long excursion of the heart into the past. It passes down from one generation to the next, from the Crusades to the Twin Towers, from Ishmael to Arafat, from Isaac to Sharon.

There is only one thing that can cure someone of a bad memory, and that is to put a better one in its place. All the time the tanks are rumbling and the bombs are exploding on each side of the wall, there are people there making other memories on which the future might well feed.

Leila, a blind Palestinian women, a therapist, goes in and out of Gaza making friends with Israeli border guards as she goes. She tells them stories, sings them songs, smiles at them in the internal brightness of her darkness and refuses to hate. At the same time, the Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of Israeli rabbis who are devoted to stopping the hate and so stopping the war, make friends with Arab families, rebuild the Arab homes bulldozed by the Israeli army, and pick the olives that will sustain the families of Arab farmers who are separated by the Wall from their olive groves. They do Arab work on the Israeli side.

Love, the scripture tells us, is stronger than death.

From where I stand in a roomful of Israeli and Arab women who want to work together for peace, it becomes clearer every day that love is also stronger than walls, stronger than bullies, stronger even than the people who push back harder.

Now if we would only teach that to children in kindergarten, we might not have such a hard time later convincing the people who start the wars to make the world safe for democracy that playground politics are a very short-term solution to anything. Then maybe we would really be invulnerable. Then maybe we could really feel good again.

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