Editorial: War is much more than conflict now— war is social annihilation

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 25, Spring 2002
by Joan Chittister

War means the displacement of the innocent, the destruction of the beautiful, the defilement of the holy and the disfigurement of the souls of the young—wounds from which the human spirit never wholly recovers.

What we defeat we destroy, true, but most of all we destroy something in ourselves at the same time. What we do to one another gouges out the centre of our own lives. To napalm children is to blister my own soul. To pulverize a nation like Afghanistan in just 43 days, to turn a country to ash in minutes, is not to make life cheap, it is to make life vulgar.

To bomb an innocent people, an illiterate people, a destitute people into tent cities on foreign borders—babies in their bellies and old people on their backs—is obscene. To reject the cry to deliver food to people living on vegetation while we eat carrot cake—while we boast that we are not targeting civilians—is to shift the moral question away from terrorism to the integrity of bombing.

War has become the pitting of one group of invisible combatants against another group of defenseless noncombatants and cannot therefore possibly be called ‘just’ by any theological measure, here or anywhere else.

To refuse restraint—to subordinate focused search and capture missions, stronger financial strategies, heightened international intelligence work, increased domestic security to carpet bombing and cruise missiles—raises serious moral questions about the effect of localized force on tiny cells in international terrorists somewhere else!

To refuse nonviolent means of conflict resolution, to set up commissions and committees of war chiefs and warlords, military advisors and consultants, and have not so much as one member of the peace academy, not one expert in nonviolent conflict resolution at the table, not one refugee, not one woman who will be the real victims of such ‘justice’ is to determine the outcome without asking the question.

To refuse to sign protocols that would set up a world court and then wonder why there is no world coalition when justice is needed most, to take away civil rights of privacy, law, and citizenship in the name of protecting civil rights, to practice fascism in the name of democracy is to mock what we say we stand for. It is to destroy by our own hands what we say we are securing.

How can we possibly convince them that their violence is bad but our violence is good if we keep justifying the decimation of peoples in the name of God?

Then religion and spirituality part company. Religion is about institutionalism and, history teaches, is often used in the service of the state, for the preservation of the system, on behalf of establishments grounded in the God who is spirit but determined by its voices who are predominantly male and so only half of the image of God.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is about enlightenment, about seeing the world as one. Enlightenment is the ability to see beyond all the things we make God, and find God.

We make religion God, and so fail to see godliness where religion is other—though goodness is clear and constant in the most different of people, in the remotest of places.

We fail to see the presence of God in other nations, particularly non-Christian nations.

We make personal security God and fail to see God in others’ needs on those bleak and barren days when life seems fragile and our own future unsure.

We make human color and gender the color and gender of God and fail to see God in the one who comes in different shades and other forms, though our scriptures are clear about equality and our theology is sound.

We separate spirit and matter as if they were two different things, though we know now—from quantum physics—that matter is simply fields of force made dense by the spirit of energy that is the base of everything. We are one with the universe, in other words. We are not separate from it or different from it.

And we are not above it. And we are in it—all of us and everything—swimming in an energy that is God. And so we are not separate from one another—or different from each other either. We are, each of us, simply one more sliver of humanity seeking to become more human—trying to be Godly—nor can we ever be it either by diminishing ourselves or by degrading others.

To be enlightened is to see behind all the forms life takes to the God who holds them in being. Enlightenment sees, too, behind the shapes, icons and language, that intend to personalize God to the God who is too personal, too encompassing, to be any single shape or form or name.

Enlightenment takes us beyond our parochialisms to the presence of God everywhere, in everyone, in the universe. It ignores colour. It disdains gender. It releases gifts and listens to voices not its own, precisely because they are not its own.

To be enlightened is to be in touch with the God within us and around us—in ourselves and in others —more than it is to be engulfed in any single way, any one manifestation, any specific denominational or nationalistic or sexual construct, however good, however well-intentioned that kind of benign ungodliness may be.

God is radiant light, blazing fire, asexual spirit, colourless wind. God is the magnet of our souls, the breath of our hearts, the stuff of our lives. God is no one’s pigment, no one’s flag and no one’s gender. And those who certify their God under any of those credentials make a new idol in the desert.

To be enlightened we must let God speak to us through everything —and everyone—through whom God shines in life. It is a practice in many monasteries of my order as we process into chapel for prayer to bow first to the altar, yes, but then to turn and bow to the sister who is walking in procession with us. The meaning of such a monastic custom—a gesture common to monasticisms around the world, in fact—is clear: God is as much in the world around us, as much in one another, as on that altar or in that chapel. The great ecumenical mind, the great contemplative spirit, the great peacemaking heart magnifies the meaning of that gesture to the level of the universal. It makes visible, demonstrable, present and overpowering the goals for which all religions—Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim— exist.

This is an extract from an address by Sr Joan Chittister November 2001. Read the whole speech at http://eriebenedictines.org/benetvision/merton.html

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