Sister Joan Speech        
    Page 1

    Sister Joan Chittister, Omega/VDay Conference, Sheraton
    Manhattan, NYC, NY
    September 11, 2004

    After the introduction by Elizabeth Lessor, Director of
    Omega Institute

    You know the secret to that is, that after Elizabeth
    introduces you, anybody will accept you.  It’s a gorgeous
    introduction but it does need some correction.  You won’t
    mind if I take a minute, would you?  I remember hearing
    another introduction about little Alice Taft.  She was in the
    second grade and had learned the fine art of self
    introduction.  So, on the day appointed for her debut, they
    say she got out in the aisle next to her seat, put her thumbs
    on the seams of her skirt and said, my name is Alice Bowers Taft.  My great grand daddy
    was President of the United States.  My grand daddy was a U.S. Senator.  My daddy is
    Ambassador to Ireland and I am a Brownie in the Girl Scouts.  Now, what you see kids is
    what you get.  Just one more brownie in the Girl Scouts, wanting to be with women like you
    that own who we are, honor our own insight, proclaim our own truths with both pride and
    confidence.  And so, in the course of thinking about women like you every time I sat down
    to work on this presentation, I found myself really grappling with two other stories.  

    The first story is about three men who set out to measure the height of a flagpole.  The
    first man stretched as far as he could to the top, but he couldn’t reach it.  So, the second
    one went and got a chair, he stood on it, stretched as far as he could, but he still couldn’t
    reach it.  So the third one got up on the chair, stood on his tiptoes, had the 2nd stand on
    his shoulders and stretch, but they still couldn’t reach the top of that flagpole.  Just then,
    a woman came along.  She saw the situation.  She thought
    for a minute and then she went over to the flagpole.  She
    took the pole out of its standard and laid it on the ground.  
    Then she took a tape measure out of a sewing kit in her
    purse.  She measured the pole from one end to the other.  
    She wrote the measurements on a little scrap of paper.  
    She took it over to the guy and gave it to him and walked
    away.  When she finally was out of earshot, one guy looked
    at the other and said, now ain’t that just like a woman.  You
    ask them for the height, they give you the width.

    Point.  Women see things differently, do things differently,
    and are affected by things differently than men.  Or to put it
    in another context, once upon a time, a Samurai warrior
    appeared at the temple of an old Buddhist Nun, wanting to
    know the difference between heaven and hell.  You
    wouldn’t understand if I told you, the old nun said to him,
    and he scowled and he hissed at her.  Anyway, you are too
    weak a man to practice it, the old Nun went on.  And the
    Samurai growled and stamped his feet.   You are clearly
    only the shadow of a man, the old nun finished, and she
    looked away.  The Samurai swung his sword out of its
    scabbard, whirled it around her head and brought it down, slashing down an inch from her
    neck.  She looked up at him calmly, and she said, that Sir, is the gate of Hell.  The
    Samurai stepped back, thunderstruck
    by the insight.  He dropped his sword in front of her.  He
    folded his hands over his heart.  He stepped back and he
    bowed to her, deep, deeper, deeply, all the way to the waist,
    and the old Nun said quietly, that Sir, is the gate of heaven.

    Point.  Women see things differently.  Women do things
    differently.  Women deal with things differently than men in
    this period of global history.  In fact, in this period of US
    history, in which religion has become more of a factor in
    politics, foreign policy and international relations, then it has been for over 500 years.  It’s
    important, it’s necessary, when you talk about women, power and peace, to look at
    women, religion and war, the counterpoint and the descant of those topics.  I have
    prepared these remarks, then, with three others in mind.  

    The first is Jonathan Swift, who says, we have just enough religion to make us hate but
    clearly not enough religion to make us love one another.  The second is Venizar Butos’
    insight that every dictator uses religion as a prop to keep himself in power.  And the third
    is Éamon de Valera in the Irish struggle for freedom that, quote, “Women are at once the
    boldest and the most unmanageable revolutionaries in a world where religion is being
    measured to justify a world at war, and women are being made the invisible victims of a
    globe in turmoil, and nations in spasm.”  On this important day, when violence turned into
    vengeance rather than into insight, and vision, let alone virtue, this reflection is a
    relationship between women and war.  And it means to ask, what role, if any, do women
    have to play in peacemaking, in a world that calls itself religious, but functions as if it were
    not.  The questions, then, are clear ones.  What does religion have to do with war?  And
    what does war have to do with women?  And what, if anything, do women have to do with
    peace?  Women around the world are, as a class, other than a few tokens here and
    there, excluded from the public arena and the process of peacemaking.  How is religion
    affecting that?  And finally, what does that have to do with you and me, here, wherever we
    are spiritually?

    There is another old story that bears remembering now, I think, if the answers to those
    questions are ever to make any sense.  The story says, of a disciple who says to a holy
    one, holy one, answer for me the greatest spiritual question.  Is there life after death?  
    And the holy one said, oh, dear friend, the greatest spiritual question of them all is not is
    there life after death, the greatest spiritual question of them all is, is there life before

    That question has new meaning now for women and religions whose world is on the brink
    of war, always flirting with war, for ever faced with the changing nature of war with its new
    barbaric talent for high tech extermination and its new disregard for the so-called mid-evil
    distinctions between competents and non-competents because that is exactly what war
    has to do with women.  At the turn of the twentieth century, according to UNIFEM, civilian
    casualties accounted for five percent of the war dead.  In World War I, the total number of
    civilians killed had climbed to fifteen percent of total wartime casualties.  In World War II,
    civilians were sixty five percent of the victims of war.  And by the early 1990’s, civilians
    were over seventy five percent of the war dead.  And now, today, here, in our world, over
    ninety percent of those killed in war are civilians.  And who knows it better than we do!  In
    Iraq, for every dead US soldier, fourteen other deaths, ninety three percent of the total
    casualties, US and Iraqi, are civilians.  And why are we surprised?  We’ve seen it all
    coming.  One million Armenians killed in 1915, five million Jews and another four million
    Poles and gypsies and gays between 1939 and 1945 on German territory.  Three million
    Ebo tribes people in Nigeria in 1969, three million Bengalis in Pakistan in 1971, three
    million Cambodians, by the Khmer Rouge between’75 and ’79, and then, after that,
    Vietnam, Kosovo and Rwanda and now Iraq and Afghanistan and Sudan.  It’s been the
    century of total war, an age of genocide of civilian slaughter, sixty million in the twentieth
    century alone!

    But what is forgotten today, what is un-noted, unmarked and un-memorialized, overlooked
    and un-mourned is that most of these dead, most of these civilians on whom war falls
    most mercilessly, most offenselessly are women and children.  A generation that has
    mechanized war, made civilians its equipment producers, its food producers, its weapons
    producers, organized entire societies around the waging of war, its scientists, its business
    community and even its universities, this generation, our generation, has managed,
    Quincy Wright says, in his epic work, A Study of War, that very act, to make non-
    competents, legitimate targets.   Our generation has blurred forever, the traditional line
    between civilians and soldiers.  We’ve made the whole world pray, only some of them
    armed and most of them helpless and most of these powerless women.  In modern
    conflict, Kofi Annan said, “women and girls, neither its irritators nor its perpetrators suffer
    its impact disproportionately.  They are specifically targeted to humiliate the men of the
    society, to breakdown their resistance and to achieve ethnic cleansing.  Steps must be
    taken,” he declared, “to end this culture of impunity.”  Clearly, the questions of war and
    peace, of life and death, now have new meaning.  For governments surely, religions
    certainly, for the health of all our spirits, without doubt, but for women most of all, life, not
    death, has always been the fundamental spiritual question of every great spiritual
    tradition.  Oh yes, quote, “let us live happily, without hate, amongst those who do hate,”
    the Buddhist Amapantas says.  Today, I put before you death and life.  Chose life Yahweh
    says.  Who is better in religion, the prophet teaches in the Koran, than those who
    surrender their purpose to God, while doing good to humankind.  In fighting, there is no
    wisdom!  It is only fools that fight, the Hindu Panchatantra tells us.  And Jesus says,
    blessed are the peacemakers.  

    But, if it’s true, that all religions seek the God of Light, it’s also true that life giving, not
    death dealing, has always been the particular province of women.  It is women who have
    born the sons their fathers send to war.  It is women who have buried the men whom their
    very lives depended.  It is women who have been left alone, babies in their arms, babies
    in their bellies, to deal with the madness that comes from the madness of war.  Indeed
    women have a place to fill and a stake to claim and a role to play in the world’s pursuit of
    peace.  It is women who are trafficked to satisfy the warriors.  From 250 to 500,000
    women were raped by marauding gangs of soldiers in Rwanda alone in 1994.  It’s women
    who are forced into sexual slavery and exploitation for the sake of the warriors.  The
    international organization for migration estimates that over two million women are trapped
    in war zones this morning and are sold across borders annually.  

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