|By Joan Chittister, OSB
What a couple of weeks this has been!
First we got a presidential veto of legislation designed to enlarge
embryonic stem cell research capabilities which begins a major moral discussion
for us all.
Then we got the continued pummeling of Lebanon -- men, women and
children -- in retaliation for the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers and
with the tacit blessing of the United States for the doing of it.
Finally, were getting signals that Syria might be next in line for
U.S. chastisement, no questions asked, no excuses acceptable, no holds barred.
Whatever that implies.
And, on top of all of that, British officials and U.S. Pentagon generals
warned of the rising threat of civil war in Iraq. British commanders called the
next six months crucial to the outcome of the war we started there.
Which translated means that more lives will be lost.
So what are we to make of all of that? What has happened to the world as
we knew it? Has the United States lost its way in the world? And if so,
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For years weve been saying, Its the economy,
Stupid. And I figured they must be right. Living immersed in the urban
poverty around me, I never even thought to look any further for an answer.
After all, its world poverty that so often leads to wars. Give people
financial security and well all be more secure, right?
But it didnt happen. Instead, things got financially worse and
they got militarily worse, as well.
Obviously, the answer to todays social struggles was even bigger
than poverty. So, someone else analyzed it differently for us: Its
the American Dream, Stupid, they said. And that seemed to make sense,
too. If we could just get to the point again where we all concentrated on
living out the dream that had guided U.S. policy for so long, life would be
normal again, right?
But, though we have talked about the American Dream in every election
for years, society simply goes on deteriorating -- here as well as everywhere
else. The poor get poorer. The middle class has stalled. Patriotism has become
militarism. Economic success has become corporate greed. And, most troubling of
all, morality has become particularized -- which means that some of the Ten
Commandments are being taken seriously, but some are not. Some morality is
being politicized; most is not.
Evolution and cloning and same-sex marriage and abortion have become
legislative hallmarks of U.S. morality. Torture and preemptive war, lack of
universal health insurance, disregard for the care of the elderly and the
welfare fraud of the wealthy (called tax breaks) are called social
issues, not moral problems. Yet all of those things have to do with the
quality of life, the dignity of life and the sacredness of life.
Obviously, the dream is getting muddled.
Obviously, the problem is not simply the economy now, not only the
diminishment of the dream. The problem now is that Its
We are living with two different moral systems. As a result, we are
confused as a nation about who we are and what we do and why.
For instance, the White House announced recently that the president
vetoed the bill that would have allowed embryonic stem cell research because
he thinks murder is wrong.
True, the next day, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow changed the
language to say that what the President really meant to say was that stem cell
research involves a destruction of human life.
But the situation only proves the point. We are into terminal
The administration presents itself as moral -- as pro-life
-- but what does that mean?
The words change from day to day.
The ideas change from day to day.
The policies change from day to day.
The explanations change from day to day.
Unfertilized microscopic cells are called innocent life. The
25,000 Americans they stranded for days in Lebanon under siege are not, it
Innocent or mentally challenged prisoners on death row are not
considered defensible at all.
The 14,000 Iraqi citizens killed since January -- by us, because of us
-- in this great war of liberation, are, apparently, not lives worth
The people who die from the weapons we so blithely provide to countries
around the world under the guise of foreign aid and
security are not.
The babies in the United States that are dying from lack of proper
medical care because of lack of universal US medical insurance are not.
The adults whose lives will be shortened because they cant eat
well, live well or die well on the present minimum wage are not.
There is something inconsistent about all of this, something so skewed
at its moral base that we cant even begin to talk about it
Its not that embryonic stem cell research is itself a clear-cut
moral issue and should automatically be acceptable. In fact, there are lots of
reasons to question it -- both one way and another.
Can it add to the quality of life of those innocents who are already
living in great pain or disability? It certainly seems so.
But, on the other hand, will it also lead to laboratory
pregnancies for the sole purpose of harvesting embryos for research?
Surely it could.
Will it lead to pregnancy for hire? Its naive to say it
Could it lead to petrie dish experimentation designed to produce
monsters as well as healthy life? Of course it could.
Will it lead to black market activities for cells -- as is now the case
with organ transplants? More than likely.
But thats not the point. The point is that when you are making
life and death decisions on the basis of what life is innocent life
and what is not, you are treading a very fine line. In fact, you are stretching
what has now become an extremely tenuous concept, the very definition of life
From where I stand, it seems that it is time to stop the glib answers
and face the real question: What exactly is life? Is it only
potential life that must be absolutely protected, that is the only
really innocent life, or must the same standards apply to the
living? And if so, what does that mean to our economic policies, our foreign
policies, our social policies and The American Dream of life and
liberty for all?
Until we answer these questions, how can we ever possibly arrive again
at any kind of stable and universal moral standardsno matter what we call
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