In late July, while John Kerry sat across a table in Paris from Mohammed Zarif, chief Iranian negotiator for the Iranian-U.S. nuclear treaty, I and six other Americans from the Global Peace Initiative of Women sat across tables from some of the major religious figures in Iran. We were in Qom, the Vatican of Shia Islam.
This column is about religious thuggery. It's about people who are driven by a kind of primitive energy devoid of thought, philosophy, or human compassion. It is thuggery based on the purported directions of a God who they say destroys those who find spiritual wholeness differently than this God commands. It is thuggery justified by a distorted notion of religion. It is a religious thuggery that in this case distorts the very Islam out which of it claims to grow.
Commentary - I learned somewhere that “All spirit starts at the top.” The attribution may be apocryphal, perhaps, but in this case true, nevertheless. Tuesday, in fact, I saw the truth of that with my own eyes. Tuesday’s release of the final report on the apostolic visitation of American nuns launched in 2008 by Cardinal Franc Rodé, then prefect of the congregation for religious life, takes on a completely different tone than at its inception.
The headlines are confusing. The questions they raise are even more so. For instance, we "empowered" women, right? After more than 2,000 years, the Western world finally woke up, in our time, to the astounding recognition that women, too, were human. Almost. By 1922, most English-speaking countries, including the United States, finally allowed women to vote for political leaders. The struggle was a fierce one, and churchmen and politicians alike considered that breakdown in society to be simply the beginning of the decline.
Not too long ago, the world barely noticed nuns, and then only in some anonymous or stereotypical way. Now there is hardly an instance when the world does not notice them. The irony is palpable. When we looked like "nuns," we weren't seen. Now that we look simply like ourselves, everybody sees everything we do. Clearly, witness is at least as powerful as uniforms. And nuns have given clear witness to contemplation, equality, and justice these last years.
I remembered an ancient saying not long ago that smacked far too much of the present than it did of the past. "There are only two mistakes on the way to truth," Buddha taught. "One is not going far enough and the other is not starting." I knew right away that we're either on the verge of another mistake – or not. It all depends.
It's a simple story. Some would say “simplistic.” But it didn't feel like that to me the night it happened. I arrived at my destination in Australia on the last flight of the day. The program wouldn't start until late the next afternoon so, travel worn as I was, I wasn't really worried about either the land travel to come or my lodgings. After all, the sisters who were hosting the workshop would meet me at the airport. I would be in bed somewhere within an hour.
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