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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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March 23, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 49

  Have these people got an idea for you!
"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

"Democracy," H.L. Mencken wrote once, "is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage." The problem is that the monkeys know that without them there's no circus worth talking about.

Never doubt for a minute that the Kerry-Bush debate over whether or not the rest of the world is really actively involved in this year's presidential election is real or not. People around the world are not only interested in this election, they are as bluntly intent, as desperately involved as any voting citizen of the United States that I have yet to see. In many ways more so.

I was riding an elephant in Thailand, for instance, when an Asian-American woman bobbing up and down in the saddlebasket next to mine, clearly aware that I was American, too, called over to me. "I voted for Bush last time," she shouted. "I'll never make that mistake again. This year my candidate is 'Anybody but Bush!' " The Thai handlers in the elephant stalls nodded gravely. It didn't seem like the place for a nuanced discussion but I got the point.

In Bangkok, at the Asia-Pacific World Youth Summit for Peace, a group of young Asian and African delegates crowded around me to make something clear: "Whom are you going to vote for in November?" they demanded to know. "And why?" They were there because they wanted to bring peace and justice to the world and starting with us seemed to them to be the only way to do it.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, at the conference Religion, Gender Equity and Economics, the representative from South Africa said at the opening reception, "What are you Americans going to do to the world this time?" And before I could even try to reply, she went on, "We are the people who should be voting in your election. After all, your president affects our lives more than he does yours."

Editor's Note
Chittister wrote about the conference, Religion, Gender Equity and Economics, and the youth peace summit in earlier columns:
  • Is feminism a mob or a movement?
  • Religions have some repenting to do
  • When beauty and ugliness come face to face
  • And all of this happened in a month when U.N. inspectors said clearly that the invasion of Iraq with its thousands of innocent dead was not justified.

    It happened when Bush's now resigned "anti-terrorism czar" Richard Clarke said that the president insisted on linking Iraq to Al Queda even though our own intelligence community told him there was no connection between the two.

    It happened while the Spanish were picking up debris and counting the dead they incurred for being identified with the U.S.-British coalition that did the invading.

    It happened in the period when seven more U.S. soldiers were killed in the aftermath of the invasion that wasn't over when it was over.

    Drip. Drip. Drip.

    Little by little, the whole world has become involved in the invasion of Iraq, in the global anxiety fueled by Iraq, in the anger unleashed by Iraq. Their world is tied to our world, to us, and they are beginning to want a say in it.

    Now a group called "The Interreligious Engagement Project - A Network for the 21st Century" under the leadership of executive director Jim Kenney is about to give it to them. The IEP describes itself as "an organization dedicated to assisting global religious and spiritual communities to ... address critical issues relating to social and economic justice, ecological sustainability and the promotion of cultures of peace."

    This time they are doing it by creating A brainchild of Cetta Kenney, Jim's wife, is a Web site designed to enable people around the globe to let the world know how they feel about policies that affect their lives but over which they have no control.

    The first issue will release for global response is the U.S. presidential election. Any person anywhere in the world who wants to register his or her feelings about who should be president of the United States is invited to cast an electronic ballot on the Web site, the results of which will be posted daily by continent, region and country.

    The question, of course, is whether or not this kind of global response will be seen as "outside interference" by those who fear to hear what the rest of the world thinks. Two major issues erode the strength of such an argument.

    First, we love to talk about spreading democracy. In that case, now is certainly a chance to do it. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more creative addition to the concept of democracy than this one could be. People who never get to voice their opinions about anything political in their own countries will be invited to respond to ours. And, how quaint, we'll be able to hear them without having to invade them to show them how democracy works. (Of the 14 countries to which the U.S. sent troops between 1990 and 1993 for the purpose of establishing democracy, only four retained it 10 years after U.S. withdrawal.)

    Second, if we have the power to impose on other nations and cultures what we think is good for them -- our style of education without our money to implement it, our form of government without our legal system to effect it, our ideas of law without our understanding of their values, our genetically engineered seeds without their ability to create their own, and our jobs without our wage scales, pension packages, and fair labor standards to enable them to make a decent living doing them -- we have the responsibility to give them a chance to tell us what they think about it.

    From where I stand, this little project points to what may be missing in our foreign policy and our international relations. People hear us talking democracy here and functioning independently everywhere else. If we won't listen to their leaders, we must start listening to the people. If we listen to the rich and powerful in every country, it is time to listen to the poor and powerless, as well. Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, "Democracy is based on the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people." Well, here's a chance to prove it.

    I intend to send a copy of this column and the URL for the Web site to every group, institution and person on my foreign mailing list. If democracy means as much to you as our government says it means to it, I invite you to do the same.

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