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May 5, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 1

  Left or right, madness is still madness
"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

In the late '60s, as a graduate student at a major university, I watched the hippies in the country flout all manner of institutional norms and thought they were all teetering on the edge of madness. Now 45 years later, I'm watching the world's radical fundamentalists, our own included, do the same thing and I'm inclined to think they are teetering a bit, too.

The problem is that both groups have total sincerity on their side. Because of both groups the rest of the world is being forced to give serious thought to what they are saying. Both groups help the rest of us clear our heads about what we have either taken for granted or aren't even conscious enough to think about.

The hippies demanded that we take the war in Vietnam seriously, examine its implications, look carefully at the slim thread of legitimacy to which it was tied when all the rest of us were saluting on command. They questioned the very morality of war and America's messianic self-image in an era plump with the notion of American innocence.

Today's radical fundamentalists, who are on the other end of the social and religious spectrum from the hippies, are making us think. Unfortunately, this time we're not being led to think about how to deal with the future. We're being required to think now about how to avoid returning to a past where some kinds of people, some ideas, some other ways of being human were unacceptable, in some cases even illegal.

We're not thinking about the nature of excessive far-left individualism now, we're thinking about far-right extremism in religion. We're trying to tell one kind of religion from another.

Three incidents make the situation all too clear.

In the first, according to the March 19 edition of The New York Times, 12 IMAX theaters in Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas decided not to show the science documentary "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" because it mentions evolution. In fact, IMAX theaters in those states have declined to screen several IMAX films due to their evolutionary content. The problem is that IMAX caters to museums and science centers where, it is assumed, a student ought to be able to find all present explanations of multiple scientific problems: like the number of galaxies in the universe, perhaps, or the notion of a universe of universes or the possibility of life on other planets.

Spokespersons for the company say the decision was made on the grounds that the movie's comparisons of DNA in deep sea creatures with that of human DNA could offend religious sensibilities in the area concerning evolution. "Blasphemous," 10 percent of the film's preview audience of 136 people called it.

As a result, students from religious traditions, including Roman Catholic, that accept the notion that evolution is at least one explanation for the way God created the world, will not be able to see this presentation on sea creatures in the museums and science centers of these states. Whether or not the company will also ban films about creationism on the grounds that they will offend other traditions is unclear.

In the second instance in which religion figures -- and does not seem to figure, at the same time -- President George W. Bush interrupted a vacation to fly back to Washington. The urgency lay in the need to sign an order of Congress requiring a delay of 23 judicial decisions authorizing the removal of a feeding tube from a woman who has been, at very best, comatose for 16 years and declared to be in a "persistent vegetative state" by a bevy of neurologists. "The most important thing," Bush said, "is that we err on the side of life." A very religious sentiment, indeed.

But this same George Bush, as governor of Texas, presided over the execution of 152 capital punishment cases, deaths far from "natural" and rife with legal mistakes. In fact, in 1995 George Bush supported passage of a law that shortened death-penalty appeals and so risked an even greater loss of innocent life in the process. Erring on the side of life did not seem to be quite as urgent then.

Finally, the use of force in Iraq on the basis of poor intelligence gathering, on information over a decade old and in spite of the conscientious disapproval of the rest of the human community, raises the religious question again. This groundless invasion of another sovereign nation and the uncounted, unreported and callous loss of innocent life -- both adults and children -- that has followed from it was not a call to "err on the side of life." Instead, it is called "a noble venture."

Thanks to the radical right, we are now forced to ask ourselves what kind of religion it is that stops people from thinking and calls it a good thing?

What kind of religion is it that "errs on the side of life" in some cases but squanders life pitilessly in others?

What kind of religion is it that honors the conscience of some but not of others, that sets out to make the conscience of some the law of the land and dismisses the conscience of the rest as unsound?

From where I stand, it seems to me that religion that can stamp out the right to conscience in one instance and impose it in another is very close to being irreligious itself.

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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