Originally published May 9, 2012 at 2:59 p.m., updated March 7, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.
Joan Chittister's voice fairly resonates with passion. Her broad smile belies a fierce intelligence and a barely disguised rage at injustice of any sort, especially over systemic injustices of poverty and the state of the world's women and children.
Sister Joan is a Catholic nun, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa. Now 76, Chittister is a best-selling author of more than 40 books on faith and spirituality, and she travels the world in her role as a spiritual leader and member of several organizations. She serves as co-chair for the Global Peace Initiative of Women, served on TED's Council of Sages, which wrote the Charter for Compassion, and is a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization representing the majority of American nuns. She holds a doctorate in speech communication theory from Penn State and honorary doctorates from a dozen more universities, including Loyola University in New Orleans, La., and Chicago, Ill.
When I received an invitation to be part of the audience for a D.L. Dykes Foundation's Faith and Reason taping in April, I jumped at the chance. Chittister would be speaking about her book "The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart" (Orbis Books, 2006, $18). I am not a Catholic, but I am inexorably drawn to faith leaders. True people of faith can provide ever-deepening insight into what it means to be fully human and engaged in the world while walking a difficult path of peace and compassion. I asked for a brief interview.
After hours of taping, Chittister walked with me to the room where we would speak. "I don't know if I have anything more to say," she quipped.
"I'm guessing you probably do, Sister," I responded. She proved me right.
One of the things that strikes me is the similarity of the message of all religions at their cores.
Of course it is (similar)! At (their) core, it's about these life issues, and the goodness comes out in every one of them. What each of them is talking about is how to live the good life. ... In 1993 at the Parliament of Religions, they had done a survey of the great religious traditions, and they found four items in each of those traditions—not just buried in them, but central to them: Thou shalt not lie; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; and thou shalt love rightly.
And love is the basis of all that, right?
Yes, of course.
In an interview you did with Krista Tippett (host of American Public Media's "On Being") many years ago, you said, "Feminism is holy." Can you expand a little bit on that?
Well, of course. What is feminism? It is the desire to create a society where all people function fully, equally and justly, together and as a people alone. Now, feminism is just the willingness to spend your life to achieve those issues, for women as well as for men, so that we are all coming to the fullness of both our spiritual and physical reality.
Now, that's what every religion is about, but over the eons, across the eras, over decades, culture has taken over and suppressed what is an inconvenient humanity. (It) has made "woman" the bearer and carrier of the culture, but in doing it, has suppressed the fullness of her own humanity. ... When people say, "I don't see how you can be a Christian and a feminist," I say, "I don't see how you can be a Christian and not be a feminist."
Everything that Jesus wanted, Jesus wanted for all of us. He doesn't say, "I want full development for men; now, for women I have another task." Do you see what I'm saying? The minute you put it in those words, you see the idiocy of it. This is a purely cultural imprecision, or restriction, of half the human race for the sake of the other half. It's that simple.
It seems that we're headed toward more misogyny in this country, not less. How did we get ourselves to this place, and how do we get ourselves out?
Two things: First, we need women of courage as well as men of conscience. Men know it's wrong—I mean, if anybody tried to do it to them ...
Certainly, it's not just women ...
Of course—any minority that we're building our comfort on. What are these great theological decrees about that can (proclaim) the notion that a creator God would give both women and men brains, but only give women brains in order to tease them by saying, "But we don't want you to use 'em!" I mean, It is so theologically deficient! It is so theologically absurd! It is so theologically unsound! There is nothing that you can use to prove that repression.
So we have to have women (who) cannot continue to accept it. It has to be called, everywhere it is and every time. Even if you find yourself forced into an unjust situation, you must say that it is unjust. And you can't just sit back and wait for every other woman in the world to say it for you.
Secondly, men must be willing to call their own systems. I heard it a little bit, on the air within the last couple of weeks when they had introduced that notion of what I consider rape. This notion ...
The transvaginal ultrasound (as a legislated requirement prior to an abortion to detect a fetal heartbeat in early pregnancy) ...
Yes! It was pure rape, and it was men who apparently don't have the guts to grab a woman in an alley at night, but had the distorted images in their minds to do this. It's just another way of raping a woman. I was absolutely sickened by it.
And then I heard a man say, "Well, I thought this bill was OK, but when I got home, and my wife said, 'You better not be (supporting this).'" He said it out loud and on television. This was a really important gift from both of them. He really accorded her the dignity of a thinking human being, and he listened to her. "My wife said, 'You better not have anything to do with that thing,' and I am changing my vote."
Now, every woman and every man in a genuine relationship must be prepared to do the same for one another.
I loved what you had to say about relationships and marriage (when speaking about the seventh commandment regarding adultery): that we have to clap for one another.
Yes, we have to clap for one another. When the relationship falls apart and deteriorates, ask: Which one isn't clapping?
I've done a lot of work on domestic violence, which is a horrible problem, and we're seeing the U.S. Congress now trying to defund the Violence Against Women Act.
Notice what happens in the new budget—on whose back will it fall? Women and children. Why? Because they have no advocates, and they have no real powerful voice. They are not going to take that money away from labor unions, for instance. They're not going to take that money away from men's sports in schools ...
Or corporate subsidies ...
No. Absolutely, absolutely. They've got to take the money away from people who have no power and no voice to make it clear what's happening in their lives. That's why it's so sick. I mean, if you want to talk about sin in your churches, just make sure you're talking about the right ones.
Amen. You work with many groups throughout the world. One of them is the Global Peace Initiative of Women. I seem to be stuck on women's issues, I apologize.
You should be. It's all right.
I have to poke at my women friends who say things like, "If women ran the world, we would have no more wars." Obviously, that's not true; there are plenty of women throughout history who have started wars. So tell me, what is the Global Peace Initiative of Women about?
In the first place, we have to realize that women have been kept out of leadership for so long that getting into those positions kind of required, at least unconsciously, that they looked capable and qualified to be "the same kind of leader" as men.
We may need exactly the opposite kind of leadership. And that is what does fall within what we have traditionally said were "women's" strengths. Whether it's gender-based or not, it's irrelevant. We have identified women as the relation-makers in the world. The reason you go to war is because you can't make relationships. So, the whole notion of whether women's leadership should be the same or different comes down to: It must be what it is. We are certainly lacking something now.
I always say, if women are just like men and you (don't) put them on committees, what's your problem? They won't destroy it. And if women are unlike men and you don't have them on committees, you will lose half the agendas of the world. And that's what we're doing when we make war: We make a man's war against men, and women die in the middle of it.
The Global Peace Initiative of Women is an attempt to bring together spiritual leaders from every single major religious tradition, basically women spiritual leaders, to go into areas of conflict and bring people together around the table, and to say, "There is no great religion on the planet that would justify what is going on here."
Within the last month, we had our 10th anniversary, so we had a major U.S. assembly in Nairobi to celebrate that. In conjunction with that, we took a hundred international spiritual leaders out to a conservancy in Kenya—to support one another, but also to evaluate, analyze and determine how we can be a planetary support network to one another. ...
One of the sessions in that conference included women from the Congo. It was the most heartbreaking, discouraging ...
These are women who have been raped ...
Seventy percent of the women of the Congo have been raped as an act of war. But the violation didn't stop there. When this one Congolese woman—there were four of them sitting there looking like African queens: beautiful, strong and certain. I think they looked at the rest of us from around the world and realized that we just weren't getting it. So she finally said, "Let me give you an example." In fact, I have written this for my own column for the (National Catholic Reporter) this week.
She said, "Let me tell you and give you an example." She said: "One night guerilla robbers broke into a house and demanded that the husband turn over his wife and daughters for their pleasure before they robbed the house. And he refused. So they began to cut off his fingers and his toes one at a time. And the mother, the woman, couldn't stand it. And she screamed, 'Stop! Don't hurt him any more. Don't hurt him! Don't hurt him! Take me.'
"So they did. They gang-raped her and both of her daughters. And then they robbed the house, and they left.
"And when they left, (the husband) said: 'Get out of this house. You have dishonored me.' And he threw his wife and his daughters out into the street, where they have been homeless ever since, without the support of other women around them."
I said, in the course of that (story): "What do you mean? Tell me what it is in that society that justifies that, that puts him in that position and says, 'This is the right thing to do' after he's seen what has happened to her."
The women got very quiet for a minute, and then they looked at all of us, and the spokeswoman said (through an interpreter; they're French-speaking): "For this to stop, we must, men must understand, first, that women are human beings. And second, that no, they don't want (to be raped)."
Now, those are two ideas that I heard very clearly, expressed with a great deal more dignity than when I was a little girl. ... We're still calling prostitution a "woman's" profession. It's never been a woman's profession. It's not a woman's profession. It's men that pimp it, and men who take profit from it, and men who take pleasure in it. It isn't women who are trafficking girls to the Super Bowl in the United States for the pleasure of the men who go for the sport. It isn't women who are smuggling little girls, stealing them off the streets, buying them from poor parents who think that the daughter has been taken to school in a city. (The men are) putting her in a truck and selling her to some man on the street, or worse, keeping them for themselves. They're hiding them in walk-up apartments in New York City. And we're sitting here in the United States saying, "Well, 'those people' may do that, but we don't." No.
GPIW is a women's group that is trying to be a spiritual presence for all the major religions in the issues of our time, together. It's a model of women's spiritual leaders coming together to say, "No, this isn't a white issue, it's not a Western issue, it's not a Catholic issue, it's a women's issue around this world."
And all of you, if you are all spiritual leaders, you men as well as you women, why are male spiritual leaders not speaking to these issues?
Obviously, you are an activist on many social fronts ...
I don't consider myself an activist.
I know you didn't consider yourself a feminist, either.
Well, yes. (laughs)
"What is a Feminist? / A Feminist, my daughter, / Is anyone who thinks or cares / To take in charge her own affairs / As men don't think she oughter."
That's Alice Duer Miller, 1939. And all of a sudden, I knew I was.
For me, an activist is anyone who speaks out against injustice.
Well, I guess so, yeah. If that's the definition that people are using, then yes, of course.
I can only speak for me.
I mean, I don't run groups, or anything like that.
No. But one of the things you brought home in this morning's taping is that if we fail to put our faith into the historical context in which it began, then we skew it, and we bastardize it, and we profane it.
Well said. That's exactly correct.
In that sense, Jesus was an activist.
Yeah. That's right. Yes, very good.
So, as a woman of faith, as a monastic, how do you see your role and the role of other people of faith in the world?
It's a simple one: To see injustice and say so, to find the truth and proclaim it, to allow no stone to be unturned when it is a stone that will be cast at anyone else. It's just that simple. There is nothing institutional, organizational, political about it. It says: "Where I am, you may not harm these people. You may not deride them; you may not reject them; you may not sneer at them, and you certainly cannot blame them for their own existence."
I've devoted my life, consciously, to issues of injustice as a voice for their good, so that I, myself, do not forget that they are standing there crying.
Find more information on Sister Joan Chittister, her work and writings, at http://www.benetvision.org. Visit the Global Peace Initiative of Women at http://www.gpiw.org. Read or listen to Chittister's 2006 "Speaking of Faith" interview with Krista Tippett at http://www.tinyurl.com/cpaojdv.
Reining in the Nuns
Recently, American nuns received a knuckle-rap from Rome. On April 18, the Vatican issued a statement saying that members of the LCWR (where Chittister is a past president) not only are running counter to the church's stance on homosexuality and its boys-only priesthood, but that its "radical feminist themes (are) incompatible with the Catholic faith." The wayward sisters dared to disagree with the bishops in public, "who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals," the statement said.
Never mind that nuns are responsible for doing the bulk of the church's heavy lifting in schools and hospitals and in caring for the world's hungry and needy. For focusing on poverty and economic injustice instead of abortion and same-sex marriage, the Vatican is cracking down, and it is putting a man in charge of reining in all those misguided females.
The American people, it seems, are siding with the nuns. Nicholas Kristof, of The New York Times, spoke with Chittister after the Vatican's statement. She was working at a soup kitchen when he reached her, he wrote, and said Chittister was "worried at first that nuns spend so much time with the poor that they would have no allies." The support, she told him, "left her breathless."
"It's stunningly wonderful," she told Kristof. "You see generations of laypeople who know where the sisters are—in the streets, in the soup kitchens, anywhere where there's pain. They're with the dying, with the sick, and people know it."
Chittister doesn't strike me as someone who will shrink quietly back into her habit on Rome's command. This is a woman with work to do.
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