Though I knew most of the presenters at The Women’s Conference, Sister Joan Chittister was a new face. Her presentation turned out to be one of power and passion, as well as sobering in its message of how the wars we fight are destroying the spiritual fabric of our planet.
She’s been a voice for peace throughout her adult life as a Benedictine nun and has authored more than 40 books. As co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, and co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives with Rabbi Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Sister Joan carries her message on the need for positive change throughout the world.
If the question being proposed at this conference is, “Are we prepared for own personal development?“, then the next question must surely be, “What is the great purpose of our own personal development?”
She followed that question with an ancient monastic story in which a disciple asked The Holy One to answer the greatest spiritual question of them all, “Is there life after death?”
To which The Holy One replied, “The greatest spiritual question of them all, my friend, is not ‘Is there life after death?” The greatest spiritual question of them all is, “Is there life before death?”
While most of us would quickly state that there is, indeed, life before death, those who have become victims of conflict throughout the world might question how life is defined, as their suffering is great and the odds of survival is decreasing. The statistics for civilians killed in the midst of conflict tell a painful story, as the percentage has continued to increase during the past 100 years.
- In 1900, civilian casualties accounted for 5% of the war dead
- During WWI that figure climbed to 15% of wartime casualties
- In WWII the number increased to 65% of total war fatalities
- By the mid-1990s civilians comprised over 75% of the deaths
- Now, in the 21st century, over 90% of the war dead are civilians
In Iraq, for every soldier who dies there are 14 civilian deaths. Reviewing the past few decades, Sister Joan chronicled the millions who had perished around the world as a result of warfare and genocide, from Vietnam and Cambodia, to Bosnia, Rwanda and the Congo. Our lifetime has been an age of total war, and to a large degree, those who have suffered most on the civilian side are the women and children.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God”
Women and Children as Victims
The role of women in times of conflict varies. Many are destined to care for the children while their men go off to fight, while others, not so fortunate, are forced into sexual slavery for the sake of the warriors. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda alone, and such practices are going on today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
And it is these women, the victims of such physical, mental and spiritual violence, who are left to raise the children that these raping warriors leave behind.
The tragic point Sister Joan adds to this grief, is that the lives and the rights of these victims never get negotiated in the context of forming a final peace treaty. It’s as though they don’t exist, as though it never happened, as though everything will be all right once the fighting stops. But it’s never all right, and the effects are felt for generations to come.
The Tragedy of Religion
The role of religion in the context of warfare has been an issue for centuries. As Sister Joan explained, when we allow our religions to divide us, claiming that one particular religion is right, or absolute, “we stop far short of the devine, and we make our religions God, and our God puny, then we make our religions dangerous.”
That we can follow a religion which claims to represent God, then hide behind its scriptures as justification, and ultimately vindication, of the act of war, is at the center of so much that is wrong in the world today, and carries with it the responsibility for unimaginable levels of pain and suffering.
The result is that millions die, trillions are spent, and millions displaced, many of which end up in refugee camps. Camps in which the women and children are often further abused, sometimes by those assigned to protect them.
“The point is simple, violence has simply run its course. War, and the moral reasons we dogedly use to justify it, is now obsolete.”
How do we reconcile this paradox, or more importantly, how do we move beyond embracing a dogma which we use as justification for death, and instead seek a path that respects all life, regardless of nationality, or gender, or faith?
As a Global Patriot, how will you participate in the creation of such a world?