National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Web address:

May 18, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 6

  The evil of naming people evil
"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 oozing out of every sentence he said on one TV channel, George W. Bush made the abuse of prisoners seem like an exercise in justice. You got the idea the Iraqis soon would be glad such a thing had happened. Bad as it might seem now, it was really a model of the wonderful things to come for them. They would see the new world at work before their very eyes. These abusers would, like their own Saddam Hussein, be hunted down and punished. The old days were over. Good times were ahead.

But even as he spoke, scenes of prison conditions in Abu Ghraib prison played on another channel. Obscene pictures of men humiliated by American soldiers were flashed across the screen for all the world to see. These men were abused in ways worse to a Muslim, an Iranian woman told me, than if they had been "beaten, burned or even killed." And "in front of women prisoners," too, she went on with great passion, in a culture "where men do not even go naked in front of another man."

How could we do this kind of thing under any conditions?

At Trinity Institute's 35th Conference, "Naming Evil," I got what I think is a large part of the answer. It is not a pretty one. But it is a warning to all of us who stand in the wake of other empires long eroded by the dust of history.

Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, a man who has been active in the international arena all his adult life, talked about the major evils facing the world today. He cited two.

"The politics of fear and anger and intolerance may force us into an artificial clash of civilizations."
-- Kofi Annan

First, he said, is the fact that "the politics of fear and anger and intolerance may force us into an artificial clash of civilizations."

The word "artificial" got my attention. We marched into Iraq for artificial reasons. And we now plan to leave for artificial reasons, as well, pretending that we have genuinely saved the country we are bringing to the edge of collapse in the process.

We went on artificial "intelligence" more than 10 years old to disarm people who weren't armed. We went to wreak punishment on a country and a government that had nothing to do with the injustice wreaked on our own. We went despite the fact that the rest of the world was trying to tell us we were wrong to go. And then we claimed -- artificially -- that despite the negative reaction of the United Nations to our insistence, we had the full support of a robust international coalition "of the willing" that turned out, on the battlefield, to be little more than the United States and England.

And why? For the same reason we were now found to be abusing prisoners. For the very reason Annan cited as the second greatest danger facing the modern world. We went under the banner of messiahship, to save the country from an evil dictator. "Once we classify people as evil," Annan continued, "it can lead us to do evil ourselves. In fact, we may easily think we are entitled to suppress them."

Exclusion, the demonization of an enemy -- the notion that one country, one people, one culture, can name another people evil -- is, Annan went on, "the moral equivalent of declaring war. ...We cut off dialogue. We absolve ourselves of any obligations to treat them as human beings."

And, of course, we did that. George Bush labeled three countries "an axis of evil": North Korea, Iran and Iraq. We were done talking, we said. We had no intention of negotiating for another minute. A country battered for years by sanctions would now be battered to dust while we touted a commitment to do a justice that would satisfy our commitment to vengeance. We would leave statesmanship to less powerful people. And why not? We are armed to the teeth. We can do anything we want. Who can stop us?

"A slippery slope," Annan called it, a slope that "can lead to murder, even genocide."

The Trinity Institute's conference, at another place and time in U.S. history, might have been no more than philosophically interesting. It was now a commentary on the morning paper. The truth is that exclusion and demonization -- our system is best; anyone who thinks differently is evil -- are suddenly the order of the day, masked as justice, strutting as virtue. And the American people buy it, the polls say. The war was a "worthy one," we insisted for months. And even now, for the most part, they tell us, we are proud of ourselves for the effort.

We question neither the consequences to innocent others -- more than 10,000 civilian deaths in Iraq so far -- nor the constitutional slippage they represent for our own fragile democracy, despite the fact that every military conflict since the Second World War, including Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, has lacked a formal declaration of war.

Finally, the eminent Islamic scholar Seyyed Hussein Nasr presented Islam's explanation of evil. Nasr, long a U.S. citizen, sounded perhaps the most telling blow of all at the conference.

For Islam, Nasr reminded us, inclusiveness is a religious charism. The Koran says that God created different races and religions "so that you will vie with one another in goodness." Islam, he pointed out, requires tolerance, not conversion.

Inclusiveness is a religious charism. The Koran says that God created different races and religions "so that you will vie with one another in goodness." Islam, he pointed out, requires tolerance not conversion.
No wonder then that the politicization of community, the notion that my norms are absolute norms, that my form of government is superior to all others, that my spiritual tradition is the only really acceptable religious practice -- the ideas behind both the Crusades and colonialism, incidentally -- created a massive reaction in the Islamic world that is only compounded by this present attempt to make another country in our own image and likeness.

So now, full of fear for their own community, Islam has its Taliban whose members distort the fundamental meaning of "jihad" -- meaning "spiritual warfare" -- to mean armed opposition. And we have ours. Neo-cons, we call them, who plan to save the world the American way. By force, apparently.

Well, maybe.

Or maybe we are just cementing this "artificial clash of civilizations," this cultural conflict for which there is no justification, for another thousand years.

From where I stand, exclusion, demonization and the politicization of social norms aren't working. Read the polls again. They tell us, whatever we think of our own virtue, how little we are thought of now, even by traditional allies who once admired our system and respected our ideals.

In a period of high times and great power and obscene presidential self-congratulations, the conference brought some sober reality to bear. It was a conference worth attending.

Webcasts and audio files of the conference talks are available on the Trinity Institute's Web site: Listen carefully. Our quality as a nation, our very future, may depend on it.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to:

Copyright © 2004 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111    All rights reserved.    TEL:  1-816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280