If you saw Bill Moyers’ show “NOW” tonight on PBS, you might have been thrilled, as I was, by the segment featuring Sister Joan Chittister. Wow! Every single word she spoke resonated within me so much. After a minute or two I realized I was standing up; standing at attention in front of the tv just listening to her speak.
So, why was I so impressed by this Benedictine nun from Erie, PA? As I’ve mentioned before, my relationship with religion goes like this: I know I can never again in good conscience “go back” into the comforting fold of the Lutheran church; maybe not of any church ..or temple …or mosque. I call myself an agnostic; I often feel like an atheist. I sometimes make laughing references to The Invisible Sky Fairy, a moniker that perfectly sums up for me the disenchantment I feel toward organized religion, which has so often and so deliberately misled people and used people for its own very earthbound purposes during these long centuries past.
All that being said, I hope the day never comes when I let my disillusionment turn me away from voices that speak truth to me, just because those voices happen to belong to ‘persons of faith’. This woman spoke truth to me tonight, and that truth feels so exhilarating, I’m just giddy. From the transcript:
MOYERS: Not in our lifetime has religion been this powerful a dividing line in American politics. You’d think that line was between Christians and non-Christians. But it isn’t. It’s a line between a particular group of Christians, a large group of Christians, who regard their version of divine truth as definitive and immune to challengeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and everybody else.
In that other category are millions of faithful Christians, among them is Sister Joan Chittister. She is a Benedictine nun who served as a prioress of her order for 12 years.
She’s a social psychologist, she leads a worldwide network of women for peace and runs a spiritual Web site. Sister Joan has a Ph.D., 11 honorary degrees and was the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Penn State. And that’s not all.
She is the author of 30 books, including CALLED TO QUESTION: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR, SCARRED BY STRUGGLE; TRANSFORMED BY HOPE, and this classic in contemporary spirituality, WISDOM DISTILLED FROM THE DAILY.
Sister Joan is also a regular columnist for the independent Catholic newspaper, THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER. [Read this week's column here.]
Welcome to NOW.
CHITTISTER: Thank you, Bill.
MOYERS: It’s always surprising to discover that nuns look like you.
CHITTISTER: Yeah, that’s right. Well, as in what does a nun look like?
MOYERS: I read a column you wrote a week before the election in which you said the election won’t be over when it’s over. Well, as we’ve just seen the Religious Right says it’s over. And they say they’ve won. What do you think about that?
CHITTISTER: Well, I think the word religion is being used very loosely in this day and age. I don’t think that is religion.
This whole notion that my truth is everybody’s truth, there’s something wrong with that in a world of differences.
MOYERS: I can hear them saying this. I can hear James Dobson and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say, “I was called by God to do what I’m doing.” You feel called by God.
CHITTISTER: I do. But I don’t feel called by God to impose my life on yours. I believe that I’m called by God to keep God a constant question in the human heart. I believe that anything that isn’tÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ that anything that uses God as an instrument of oppression on other people is not of God.
And I believe that their belief is a powerful witness. I just simply do not believe that it can be imposed on the beliefs of people who are witnessing to another face of God.
MOYERS: What do you mean impose?
CHITTISTER: Well, I believe that when, to have the voice of religion, to have the religious voice in the public arena, as far as I’m concerned, is very faithful to the intention of the founding fathers. Therefore no established church, no established church, no single church or tradition that monitors and weighs and measures everybody else’s attitudes, approaches or moral decisions. I believe that that’s absolutely essential especially in a pluralistic world where we’re all looking for the voice of conscience in our hearts. But when you take the religious voice and you turn it into a religion in the center of the system, do it our way, there’s something wrong with that.
MOYERS: But they are saying they’re acting from moral concerns. That they are trying to carry their moral values into the public square.
CHITTISTER: And so did the Puritans and the Prohibitionists.
It was exactly… they believed that their moral values should be carried into the public arena. And we did it. When the Puritans did it, they burned witches all in the name of God. When the Prohibitionists did it, they decided what you could and couldn’t discipline yourself to do.
MOYERS: But I don’t hear these people talking as harshly as that. They’re not going to burn you at the stake, although some of them might think you’re a witch right?
CHITTISTER: Well, yeahÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
MOYERS: Or pagan.
CHITTISTER: Listen carefully for the twigs.
MOYERS: They’re notÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ do you see them as extremists like that?
CHITTISTER: I do, in many instances. When you begin to use that kind of religious criteria and translate it into law, into God’s call for Armageddon, why are we in Iraq now? God apparently wants us there. Not my Jesus.
MOYERS: All right, then they would say, “We went to Iraq to overthrow a brutal dictator who was persecuting his own people and to prevent Iraq becoming a terrorist haven.” You know what they say.
CHITTISTER: Sure and we have a terrorist haven in Iraq right now. We don’t have the so-called dictator anymore. But if those are our criteria, then we’re going to be, for religious reasons, in a lot of other countries in the next 12 months.
MOYERS: Depending on the sources, Sister Joan, there have been some 37,000 civilians killed in Iraq, or maybe a 100,000. Why is abortion a higher moral issue with many American Christians than the invasion of Iraq and the loss of life there?
CHITTISTER: Could I ask you that question? Because that is the moral question that brings me closest to tears. I do not understand that, Bill. You see, I’m absolutely certain that some of the people that we’re killing over there are pregnant women. Now what do you do? Now what do you do? That’s military abortion.
MOYERS: Somebody said to meÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ that’s what?
CHITTISTER: That’s military abortion. Why is that morally acceptable?
MOYERS: Somebody said to me the other day that Americans don’t behead, but we do drop smart bombs that do it for us.
CHITTISTER: And that are not smart as we think they are.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
CHITTISTER: Well, what is this smart bomb stuff? We’ve still got a image in our head from 1991 of this little golf ball dropping down a furnace. It’s not working that way.
MOYERS: Dobson, Falwell, Robertson and a lot of secular pundits and columnists are saying that this election was decided by moral issues. Do you think moral issues were that decisive in this campaign?
CHITTISTER: Well, I don’t believeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ I’m not exactly sure that they were as decisive in the end. And I’m not sure that there’s any way we can measure that. But even if I say, “Yes, they were,” the fact of the matter is that they are some moral issues, they’re not all moral issues.
The fact of the matter is that they’re all in contention with something else which is also a moral value and also equally important unless you put it completely out of your mind or your heart. For instance, let’s look at the abortion question. I’m opposed to abortion.
But I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
Listen carefully for the twigs…