Joan Chittister: Sin and ‘The Good Life’

Sr. Joan's recent lecture in Boston was cut short due to a false fire alarm.
I like Joan Chittister’s understanding of “the good life” and the wages of sin. Personal piety is important because it keeps us grounded in God. But we are grounded in God only so we can spread the good news to the world in which we live. Spreading that “good news” means consorting with those who society deems as “sinners.”

In American society, it is socially unacceptable to be poor. To be poor calls into question the great American “bootstrap myths” and the myth that market capitalism can advance humanity, and that myth that a system of American democracy that allows for an unfettered market will create a stable economy. What’s “good news for the poor” in this context is, indeed, revolutionary.

When Pope John XXIII talked about “the signs of the times,”–poverty, nuclearism, sexism–I began to read these new signs with a new conscience and with a new sense of religious life in mind. Most of all, I began to read the scriptures through another lens. Who was this Jesus who “consorted with sinners” and cured on the Sabbath? Most of all, who was I who purported to be following him while police dogs snarled at black children and I made sure not to be late for prayer or leave my monastery after dark? What was “the prophetic dimension” of the Church supposed to be about if not the concerns of the prophets–the widows, the orphans, the foreigners and the broken, vulnerable, of every society?

We prayed the psalms five times a day for years, but I had failed to hear them. What I heard in those early years of religious life was the need to pray. I forgot to hear what I was praying. Then, one day I realized just how secular the psalmist was in comparison to the religious standards in which I had been raised: “You, O God, do see trouble and grief…. You are the helper of the weak,” the psalmist argues (Psalm 104). No talk of fuzzy, warm religion here. This was life raw and hard. This was what God called to account. This was sin.

When the Latin American bishops talked about a “fundamental option for the poor,” I began to see the poor in our inner-city neighborhood for the first time. When Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. finally stood up in Birmingham, Alabama, I stood up, too. I was ready now. Like the blind man of Mark’s gospel, I could finally see. The old question had been answered. The sin to be repented, amended, eradicated was the great systemic sin against God’s little ones. For that kind of sin, in my silence, I had become deeply guilty.

I had new questions then but they were far more energizing than the ones before them. I began to look more closely at what “living a good life” could possibly mean in a world that was so full of suffering, so full of greed.

I began to realize that “a good life” had something do with making life good for other people. Slowly, slowly I began to arrive at the oldest Catholic truth of them all: all of life is good and that sanctity does not consist in denying that. Sanctity consists in making life good for everyone whose life we touch.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Joan Chittister: In My Own Words, edited by Mary Lou Kownacki

Our New Organizer-in-Chief

I caught indy journalist and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman at D.C.’s Green Festival yesterday. She reminded the still-deliriously happy crowd that the work of rebuilding democracy is just beginning.

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman

Calling Obama our new “Organizer-in-Chief,” Goodman said the election was won by a combination of community organizing and unprecedented fund raising. But the jury’s still out, she said, on the lessons learned.

The answer is in who gets listened to in the new administration. Will it be the big dollar donors who find an ear? Or will it be a new day for community organizations and the people they represent?

Goodman made the point that Obama will need organizers pushing from the outside – both in times when community leaders genuinely disagree with him, but also for the added power it gives the president when he knows millions are ready to take him to task should he wander astray.

And to prove her point, Goodman lifted up two women as models for the kind of leadership that we now need:

Rosa Parks. Contrary to the watered-down history that portrays her as a tired seamstress too exhausted to give her bus seat to a white man, Parks was a trained community organizer – trained, in fact, at the Highlander Center with Myles Horton. Goodman called her a “first-class troublemaker” and pointed out that it was Rosa who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched Dr. King into leadership of the civil rights movement.

Mamie Till. The mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched during a summer vacation to in Mississippi in 1955, Mamie Till made the strategic choice for an open casket at Emmett’s funeral. Because of a mother’s courage, photos in newspapers around the world showed the brutality of racism.

Our new Organizer-in-Chief needs a few “first-class troublemakers” like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till to lead from the grassroots. Tuesday’s victory was huge and necessary, but this campaign was won, not solely by Barack Obama, but by an electrified citizenry committed to change. To move this from a historic “moment” to a historic “era” will take ongoing commitment by that same citizenry..