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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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June 24, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 24

  Unleashing a power such as the world has never seen
"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

Everybody wants to know, in a world ravaged by war, what can possibly be missing in the multiple attempts being made to stop it. Israel and Palestine, for instance, have been embroiled in negotiations for at least 50 years. So why does the violence go on?

Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, points to the voices invariably absent in every set of deliberations: the voice of spiritual leaders and the voice of women.

Like you, I have been reading about the tension, suffering and competing claims for land and power in the Middle East. This week I walked into the middle of it and saw both women and spiritual concepts in action.

This first meeting of the "Women's Partnership for Peace" will not make the headlines it should. After all, it was not about starting violence, it was about stopping it. And I know of no place where peacemaking sells as many newspapers as rock 'n' roll, money or sex -- never mind murder. So this conference won't get much attention. At least not yet. But it could change the world. While Ariel Sharon, Mahmoud Abbas and George Bush were deciding whom to bomb, blast and terrify next, Israeli, Palestinian and other religious, politicians and businesswomen from the international community held their own meeting in Norway. The choice of site was itself significant: Women were setting out to revive the spirit of the Oslo Peace Accords that are in danger of being scrapped by the men in the conflict.

The very notion of the meeting raises eyebrows. How could such a thing be happening? Why would it be happening? What do women have to do with war? Answer: Women have everything to do with war.

It isn't true that women do not go into combat, that women are spared the barbarisms of war. Women go into combat in the worst way: They go unprepared, unarmed, and unasked whether they really want to be defended defenselessly or not.

Women, who have nothing whatsoever to do with the planning of wars and the making of wars and the declaring of wars, have everything to do with the losing of wars! Women are the booty of war. Their bodies have become an instrument of war. Their children have become the fodder of war. Their homes have become the rubble of war. Their daily struggles to live have become one of the horrors of war and their futures have been left shattered in the shambles of war though they have nothing whatsoever to say about the raging of wars.

Instead, they die from its bombs and bullets. They die in large cities and small villages for lack of food. They die from lack of water or they die from drinking water filthy with human feces.

They die in tent cities without medicines, without clothing, without sons and husbands and hope. Or they live raped, ravaged and beaten. And they die seeing their daughters in the same circumstances -- helpless to avoid it, powerless to stop it.

Oh, yes, when all the warriors have finally left their battlefields, women are left in the ashes of war and the cemeteries of anguish. If truth were ever told, war falls hardest, longest, cruelest on the backs of women.

Indeed, women must have a role, not only in the reconstruction of societies already ravaged by war. More than that, women intend to take a voice until they are given a voice in the development of peaceful alternatives to war.

But it is not simply the experience and agendas and values of women that are not being heard. It is also the spiritual wisdom of the world's spiritual traditions that are suppressed in favor of the dictates of power and profit.

In 2000, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made the comment that without the collaboration of religions, peace was probably impossible.

Surely the history of the world confirms that insight. Religion has been at the bottom of almost every major conflict the world has ever known and, according to a U.N. report, to over half of them even now. Truth claims on all sides, absolutism made divine, political issues masked as theological differences, theological differences justifying exclusion or domination have wracked the globe. Indeed, do wrack the globe. And continue to wrack the globe. It's an old story.

The Crusades divided the Christian and the Arab world; the Wars of Religion divided Europe; tension between Hinduism and Islam lie at the heart of the division between India and Pakistan; sectarian convictions divide Iraq itself, religious differences still mark the lines of division in Northern Ireland, and religious figures in the United States go on spreading religious rancor at a time of intense political tension. Islam, they argue, is an "evil" religion, intent on the destruction of the West, the United States, Christianity. It's an awesome charge against an entire body of religious believers, most of whom have never made a hostile move against anyone, let alone in the name of religion.

However benign and enlightened the world may now claim to be, the fact remains that politicians use religion as a fan to inflame the ire of people who have too many daily worries to even think about arguing politics but who will gladly die to preserve their religion.

At the same time, the forgotten reality is that every religion teaches peace and respect for the other. And that truth has a way of seeping up and spilling over into the human psyche even when religions do everything they can to avoid it. For instance, "mixed marriages" -- the union of Catholics and Protestants, who, it was said, were divided by an irreconcilable theological gulf -- is now a given in every Christian culture. Christians and Muslims have lived in peace in every country in the Middle East and in the West, as well. In fact, one-third of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live outside a Muslim country in peace and in tune with the laws of the country and the people of other religions around them. Mosques and temples, churches and synagogues face each other on every corner in every part of the world now. In peace. With respect.

Nevertheless, in the name of religion, radical fundamentalists of every stripe have gone on arguing the union of God's will, the purpose of civil society and their own theological views. Christian states have persecuted other Christians as well as non-Christians. Theocratic states have excluded non-believers from the body politic. We have all sinned.

Obviously, religion itself is not really the problem. But, from where I stand, until religion is part of the answer, until religions everywhere refuse to be used to advance the very secular ends of power and greed and control and domination that the secular world seeks, then religion will continue to be the hot ashes under every conflict.

In Oslo women brought both dimensions of life -- the feminine and the spiritual -- to a new level of meeting point. Next week, I'll tell you what happened. In the meantime, remember this: The British poet Mathew Arnold wrote, "If ever the world sees a time when women shall come together purely and simply for the benefit of (hu)mankind, it will be a power such as the world has never seen." I think it may be beginning to happen.

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