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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Actions, Words and Commitment

I love Sr. Joan Chittister. She's a Roman Catholic Nun and author of many wonderful, inspirational books which I practically devour after they arrive. 

Like the nuns of my youth, she challenges me to use the gift of intellect which God has given me and think through my beliefs. In doing so, she always strengthens my faith.

Her column, "From Where I Stand" in The National Catholic Reporter is not to be missed. Today's essay "Silence about the global treatment of women" was no exception.

In it, Sr. Joan questions the old adage "Actions Speak Louder Than Words". She is tired of platitudes. She is tired of token expressions. She wants commitment.

In writing. In legal documents.  In encyclicals.

She tells a story of a gathering in Africa of monastics and and swamis and pastors and ministers and rabbis and lay catechists and church officers where they had gathered to contemplate the spiritual issues that concern religious people of all persuasion.

On one particular day, the topic was forgiveness. Sr. Joan writes: "The plan was to hear from various traditions, particular regions, specific representatives about issues peculiar to the work they were each trying to do around the world to bring peace and justice between people of opposite persuasions, between people who saw the same world together, but differently. The storytellers were all people who were living in the midst of the experience of which they spoke."

It was the story of a Congolese woman which caused Sr. Joan to reconsider what she had been taught about actions and words. I know you can click on the link and read it for yourself, but the story is so powerful, I want to re-tell it here:

The first speaker talked hesitantly and in broad terms about the difficulty of forgiveness after a civil war in which neighbors who had lived side by side for years had suddenly turned on one another. There was, they said, no forgetting either the personal pain or the faces of the perpetrators.

Then, the speaker stopped for a moment. She had clearly sensed the lack of understanding in us. "Let me tell you plainly," she said. "Seventy thousand women and girls were raped in the Congo during the war. They are homeless yet. Many have starved to death. Many became pregnant and now the children they bore are orphans. I am one of those women. I am a Christian, but I could not forgive." She sighed and her voice rose.

"I will give you an example: One night, robbers came to a house and demanded that the man hand over his wife and daughters or die. He refused. So they began to cut him. They cut off his fingers and blinded his eyes. His wife couldn't stand it anymore. 'Take me and let him go,' she screamed. And they did. Then after they had gang-raped her and each daughter, they robbed the house and left."
She waited again -- for what felt like eternity -- before she went on, tight-voiced and loud. "Then the husband began to scream. He threw the wife and daughters out of the house. Those women had no place to go," she said. "No one, no one," she paused, "would take them in."

There was an audible gasp in the tent.

No one would take them in? I felt my arms get a little weak. No one? Where did they go?
The questions came from everywhere at once: "Why not? What are you talking about? Why, in God's name, did the husband put them out? Do you mean that the husband got angry at the wife?" The disbelief and incredulity in the group was palpable.

"Wait a minute," I called from the other side of the tent out of my own growing sense of agony. "What in that culture could possibly justify that kind of behavior -- from either the rapists or certainly of the husband?"

The woman raised herself up in the old plastic chair. "Men," she said, "must begin to believe that women are human beings. They must stop saying that women 'want it.' Because he believes that women want it; he threw them out. They all do. And the families that will accept the woman back refused to take the child that comes from the rape."

A dark silence hung heavily in a tent full of monks and ministers, catechists and keepers of ancient faiths for a long, long time.
As horrible as that story is to hear, the deeper horror is that it is not an isolated incident. It happens all the time - is happening now, even as we sit here, horrified to think that it has happened even this once to this one woman.

So, we can talk all we want to about ending violence to women and we can "do what we can do" to try to stop rape as a weapon of war, but unless there is some commitment to what it is we say we believe, there will be no change.

If we are committed to ending violence toward women, then we must be committed to speaking and acting as if we really believe that women are, in fact, human beings. Not objects to be beaten or raped. Children of God. Deserving of respect and worthy of dignity.

That takes more than changing laws - although that is important. It takes changing cultural attitudes. Which takes changing hearts and minds.  Which is what the church says we're all about.

I've always been challenged by what Sr. Joan has to say. Today is no exception. 

If we say we believe that every human being is created in the image of God, that includes women and children.  Patronizing and platitudes don't cut it. Programs have their limits.

We can talk the talk and even walk the walk but if we aren't fully committed, our words won't always match our actions - or our actions match our words.

Sr. Joan has this to say:
From where I stand, it seems to me that male "protection," paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose.

Isn't it time for us all to really be converted, to say the real Truth about women from our pulpits, from our preachers, from our patriarchs, until both they and we finally believe it ourselves? Then surely the actions that make it real will follow.
Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the Realm of Heaven". (Matthew 7:21).  I think I'm beginning to understand what he meant.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

I always am reminded, time and time again, when it is "oppressed vs. oppressor" or "minority vs. majority" it takes two. The oppressed or the minority has to say "no more" or "never again" and change by no longer accepting a certain treatment, and the oppressor or the majority has to have a change of heart. It almost never works when it's one sided.

The facts are clear. Men have to change how they see things in many of these cultures. But this won't happen if women don't talk or act.

It always takes two, and sometimes I feel the pain of the two edges of this. I can't change a single other person. I can only change myself and hope the other person gets a new insight that leads to a change of heart.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

irke - I think, if you or I had been in that room and heard that story first hand, we might feel as passionate about this issue as Sr. Joan.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I suspect you are right!

Anonymous said...

After reading all about the attrocities of men worldwide, and their persistent silence over the fact that men are waging brutal war on women everywhere, I decided to make a policy decision... maybe this minute... I stip all men of humanity, I declare them to be less than human, I take away their "Human" passport, until they stand up and put a stop to all of these attacks against women everywhere, until they end the war on women. --Turtle with an axe well sharpened for self-defense

textjunkie said...

This really makes no sense. Suppose they had killed the husband without the wife speaking up; would they not then have raped the wife and daughters anyway? Yet he lives, but feels no gratitude that they saved his life (maimed and blind as he is). How can that be? What did he want her to do, watch him die in pieces and then spontaneously die herself before they could rape her? I do not understand.

Anonymous said...

I do love Sr Joan. And I am glad she is calling attention to such attrocities. But, I do believe that their are good men in our midst. There are men that love their mothers, sisters, and daughters. Please lets try to remember the good men too.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - Absolutely! I just wish more of those good men would make a commitment to holding more of the bad men accountable.