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September 30, 2005Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 30

 Now they see us as we are
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Karen Hughes went to Turkey and Saudi Arabia this week to talk to women about the blessings of having a U.S. presence in their lives. To the Turkish women, she extolled American democracy in the Middle East. To the Saudi women she promised that they would soon enjoy more participation in the social system.

The implication was obvious: Thanks to the United States of America, happiness was on the way. The effect of the speeches was shattering. Silence. No applause. No celebrations. Instead, Turkish women told her, "You cannot bring in war for the sake of peace. The United States cannot interfere in the democracy problem and solve it through war." And Saudi women -- who she promised would soon be able to drive cars -- told her that they were happy, thank you, and that they didn't need America to make their lives complete and that, frankly, they would be a lot happier if she just went home. It was a hard message to misinterpret.

I, on the other hand, was at a meeting of the Peace Council, an international group of religious leaders, at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. They were talking about the problems in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. They said that thanks to America they weren't happy at all and that being like America was not an ideal to which they aspired.

The Korean said that their president, who had run on a platform that promised independence from U.S. control, announced shortly after his election that his government had been extorted into being part of "the coalition of the willing" for fear that U.S. boycotts and tariffs would destroy the Korean economy.

The Taiwanese said that if it weren't for the Western model of security through force and the increasing intervention of Western arms traders Taiwan and China could develop peaceful relations.

The Indian said that it was U.S. capitalism that was destroying India: its economy, its value system, its culture. "We must revive a Gandhian system that makes us free of Western capitalism," he said, "and provides an alternative economic model to the world before this system destroys us all."

The Korean said, "Those who are the biggest criminals are known to be the great civilizers. They condemn the 'terrorists' but Blair and Bush who have killed thousands more are enshrined."

It doesn't really matter at this point whether you and I and the rest of the United States believe what these people are saying or not. It doesn't make much difference whether we agree with them or not. It's not even very important whether they are right or not. What counts is that this is their perception of us.

As far as the poor of the world are concerned, we are at the base of their problems. We have become the American Empire, which like the Roman Empire of old, is simply living off their resources, their slave labor, their tribute in cash crops and their future. We are the new economic colonialists who are sucking the economic blood out of them and destroying their cultures.

The problem is that perception is more powerful than fact. More than that, perceptions such as these are spawning small anti-U.S. movements all over the world.

Karen Hughes and I were both hearing the same thing: Whatever we like to think, the whole world does not really want to be American. They want to be themselves. The only difference between what Karen Hughes heard and what I heard is, that for some reason unknown to the finest minds in captivity, I was not surprised to hear it. The Bush administration, apparently is.

As the kids say, "They just don't get it."

There is no such thing as exporting democracy at the end of gun, no matter how much it is "for their own good."

The list of problems the delegates defined is a long one but an Indian swami put it most succinctly. The problem, the swami said, is 'the seduction of materialism." What he meant is that poor people around the world see American three-car garages on the television sets bolted to poles in the middle of their barrios and they, too, want one of the cars.

But the price of the car, they are coming to understand, is steeper for them than it is for us. It means that to get the car, it will be necessary for them to give up their culture. They will see their value system slip away. They will find themselves simply one more powerless piece in the economic-military empire that is the United States.

The question is: How could these concerns have become implanted in so many places around the world at one time - when our own image of ourselves is so different, so messianic? Maybe it was the imam from Sudan who explained it best. He looked at me with a kind of holy sadness in his eyes. "It was such a sad moment," he said. "Such a wasted opportunity. After 9/11, the United States could have said, 'We will not destroy others as they have destroyed. We will seek to understand why this happened so that it can never happen to anyone again.' "

He paused. "Instead," he said, "you became what you said you were not. And now we see you as you are. It is so disappointing; so frightening. In you we had hoped."

From where I stand, I figure we can stop claiming that force is democracy and forget about pushing international drivers' licenses for women and do what the women said: We can come home and take care of our own flagging cities, our deprived and uninsured poor, our overtaxed middle class and our declining school systems. Maybe then, if being American is such a good thing, people will want more than our cars. They might really want to be like America again.

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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