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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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December 18, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 37

  When stepping backward becomes a step forward
"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

"One ought, every day at least," the poet Goethe wrote, " to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." I heard enough reasonable words in Israel and Palestine this last week to last me for a long while. But I've spent every moment since wondering if those words would possibly make any difference. I think they could; I'm not sure that they will. The problem is that they're too simple, too obvious, too true.

The group assembled in Jerusalem for a meeting of the World Council of Religious Leaders had about it the iconic air of sages and prophets. There were three swamis, two Buddhist monks, one rabbi, one Protestant minister and three nuns -- a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Catholic. Muslim imams, denied passage to the meeting, were conspicuous for their absence. It is possible that having been prevented from joining the group they gained, in the end, an even more powerful presence.

Absent or present, the council members represented over 5,000 years of holy books and spiritual texts and ascetic practices and meditation. But their talk was not about various meditation practices. Their talk was about the fruit of all that meditation.

This recently formed World Council of Religious Leaders had come to Israel and Palestine to assess, as wise and loving outsiders, what it was that religion itself could do to unravel the Gordian knot that blocks the coming of peace in the Middle East. The situation was delicate, the government said, and the meeting was inadvisable. The situation was urgent, the religious leaders said, and the meeting was imperative.

The women religious on the council, all co-chairs of the Women's Global Peace initiative, had already spent most of a week meeting with women from every dimension of Israeli-Palestinian society, listening to their experiences, trying to organize some kind of common cause among them.

The men had arranged for listening sessions later in the week with major figures in both church and government. The two different but parallel approaches made for a complete but confusing perspective.

The longer the week went on, the more complex the situation became. "Stop the occupation and we'll negotiate," the Palestinians insisted. "Stop the bombings and we will listen," the Israelis shouted back. The stand-off got clearer every day.

But every day, too, another message came through as well: This was not a religious conflict, people told us over and over again. Instead, this was a political conflict that lacked religious leadership.

The political issues were water and settlements, borders and security, viability and freedom.

The religious issue, on the other hand, was how to understand the spiritual dimension of the problem in such a way that it would become imperative for the traditions involved to share an ancient land between two ancient peoples.

For over 50 years now, while all the other conflicts in the world have flared and died out again, this one has raged on. The question is why? Because foreign powers both created it and fuel it? Because international bodies have no stake in its resolution and so fail to resolve it? Because the people themselves do not want peace? Maybe.

But the religious leaders, having listened to all the issues, had a different word to say about it. They called for the kind of spiritual leadership that would lead people beyond religious justification of irreligious behavior. A swami commented, "Religion and ethnicity, culture and spirituality have become linked. Religion must be free of these."

A monk said, "We must call the religious leaders themselves to become together the voice of peace. They must find it among themselves and then they must lead their people to it."

The rabbi said, "Jacob and Esau must kiss again."

The bishop said, "These are cousins; this is a family squabble and only the family can end it."

A nun said, "In the struggle between Jacob and the angel, Jacob was wounded. Scripture says that 'Jacob limped.' Unless both these people are willing to live with a few wounds, unless they both give up insisting on the politically ideal situation, this struggle will never end."

At first blush, the conversation might have seemed to an observer to be, at best, a series of pious platitudes to be tolerated but never taken seriously. After all, what kind of politics is politics based on spiritual values?

Then, an older, seasoned dharma master from Taiwan who has lived in political tension all his life rose to speak. He folded his hands across his chest and said, slowly and distinctly, to all the warring parties present "a few reasonable words."

"When two people coming from two different directions try to cross a raging river on the same log in the same place at the same time," he said quietly, "the two of them will meet in the middle and neither can pass." I thought to myself, "Well, that's exactly what we have here. This is the mother of all stand-offs. "Unless one of them backs up," the master went on, "neither can proceed."

But how do you convince one of them to back up, I thought to myself, when much of the satisfaction of the moment lies in winning the contest itself? Then came the Zen of the story.

"It is not easy to back up," the master sighed, "but it is the only way that both can cross the stream safely."

The real issue is not who is right and who is wrong, who got there first or who has right of passage. There is more than enough blame to go around in the Middle East. The real issue is not even the issues -- all of which are resolvable. The real issue is whether or not some one of the parties will let go of "rights" for the sake of care.

The answer may be becoming clearer every day. The people are already trying to back up.

In the office of Yossi Belin, one of the Jewish architects of the Alternative Geneva Accords, work on bringing the society at large into the discussion of terms is intense. At least 40 percent of each population, surveys say, already support the main ideas of the Geneva Accord: the recognition of the autonomy of both a Palestinian and Jewish state, the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, the renunciation of Palestinian "right of return" to original homes and territories, and the dismantling of the apartheid wall.

From where I stand, there is no doubt about it. After 55 years of war, the people have had enough of the stalemate. The only question left is whether or not their governments, in the face of so much popular support for the Geneva Accords, will, like the people, do the same.

"If the people will lead," the proverb says, "eventually the leaders will follow." We may discover any day now , while we "make the world safe for democracy," if that's still right. In the meantime, religious leadership and public support of the people's attempts to end a lifetime of madness is needed everywhere if the stand-off on this global log is ever to end.

(This article is the beginning of a four-part series on the way the lives of people are being affected by the political maneuverings around them.)

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