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March 3, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 2, No. 40

  Beware animosity masking as truth
"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

Four things happened this week that may be early warning signs of a society to come.

First, the Ten Commandments wound their way onto the Supreme Court docket for determination of the place of Christian objects on government property in a pluralistic and secular state.

Second, the European Union and citizens from the Black Sea to the Atlantic debated whether or not Muslim Turkey belongs in Christian Europe.

Third, my computer got infected twice.

The first time, computer viruses infected the system. It destroyed 4,462 files. It used my machine -- unbeknowst to me -- to transmit over 24 directories of pornography. It took seven days to reconfigure my computer. Even the technician claimed to be in awe of the amount of damage done.

It happened, he told me, because something got into the system that opened my computer to the remote transmission of destructive viruses. Trojan Horses, they call them, an obvious allusion to the Greek epic in which the Greeks gain entrance to the city of Troy by hiding inside the belly of a great gift horse presented to the Trojans as a pledge of peace. When night fell, they snuck out of the belly of the horse and opened the city gates to an attacking army. My machine, he said, was infected with four Trojan Horses corrupting everything I tried to do.

The second time the computer got infected, the destruction was even more dangerous. This time the attempt was not to infect the computer. It was an attempt to infect the soul of the operator.

This time the infection took the form of an article sent to someone else but redirected somehow to my inbox. It attacked Islam as "by its own definition designed to mobilize the masses, score political victories, subvert host governments and establish Islamic domination."

There are now between 5 million and 8 million Muslims in the United States. There are, then, at least as many Muslims as there are Jews, a people who also have a history of being scapegoated for everything from the death of Jesus to the great stock market crash of 1929. To be a minority is clearly a very dangerous thing.

At first, I skimmed the article and closed it out. Later, alarmed by the little I'd read of it, I decided to trace it to its source. The Web site from which it came calls itself "faithfreedom.org" -- the magic words -- and devotes itself, it says, to exposing the evils of Islam. Its banner reads: "Fight Islamic militancy, militarily and its ideology, ideologically. These are the two fronts of the war against barbarism."

The Web site claims to attract 150,000 viewers per month. My fear is that the figure may well be true.

It does not say what percentage of those viewers leave more repulsed than reformed by it.

Just as I know the Jewish community to be extremely generous and charitable people, I know Muslims to be spiritually committed and conscientious people. But I know a great deal more than that. I know that as a Catholic I have also been where they are now, the subject of public discrimination, cruel rejection and social barbs of all ilk and foul flavor. I remember people, the more serious the candidacy of John F. Kennedy became, picking more and more anti-Catholic filth out of the mailbox every day.

What's more, there was just enough "truth" in the accusations to make truth harder to find. Everywhere the particular was generalized.

A Catholic president, those pamphlets insisted, would be subject to the pope rather than to the people of the country. Catholicism, of course, unlike Protestantism, was a highly organized, hierarchical institution with the pope as its head and a history of theocracy. But the pope had nothing to do with political dictates in a democratic society.

Catholics worshipped statues, they said. And, yes, there were statues of the saints in every Catholic church. But they were there as reminders of that cloud of witnesses who had gone before us, not as substitutes for God whom, every Catholic child knew, was "pure spirit."

Catholics were suspect citizens, they said, and were committed to the Catholic church, not the constitution. Who could deny the history of religious wars that had marked all of Europe for a hundred years? But taking up arms for the church, though sometimes used to fuel a war -- even in modern day Ireland, had never been a tenet of the Catholic faith.

It is precisely this kind of material, selectively chosen and universally applied that is the foundation for both fundamentalism and public bloodshed.

Now someone is doing it to Islam.

But we all know that. So what's the difference in this case? Well, nothing really, except that I forgot to tell you the fourth thing that happened this week. This week I also began to review a bit of papal history in preparation for some upcoming lectures. When I read the letter about the militant and violent aims of Islam, I couldn't help but make some connections.

After his election, Pope Damasus, 304-384, the son of a priest, hired a band of rowdies to storm the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere where a rival faction had elected and consecrated the deacon Ursinus. Damasus' hired guns routed the Ursinians in a three-day massacre.

Seven hundred and fifty years later another pope, Urban II, called together an army to claim Jerusalem for Christianity. They called it the Crusades. By the time it was over, eight Crusades later, the Christians had killed an estimated 5 million people.

In Europe, both Protestants and Catholics did their share of burning heretics at the stake despite the fact that the Christian tradition required that they "love their enemies" and "do good to those who hated them."

On the basis of isolated pieces of history like that, Catholics were feared and hated and Catholicism as a religion was feared and hated, too.

Before we go rampaging off to blame the Muslim community for every lurid piece of Muslim history, whatever it is, it might be good to recall our own. We need to remember that there is more than enough failure to go around. Starting with us.

From where I stand, it seems to me that the letter I got in my inbox this week, unsolicited and unwelcome, is a kind of psychological virus. It pits the Ten Commandments against the Koran, one spiritual tradition against another, and it makes them political enemies. Once you let something like that infect your heart, there is no telling what kind of violence will come out of the Trojan Horse this time.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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