The question is: What's the difference?

by Joan Chittister

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

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.

This time, in the razing of ancient cities and the destruction of ancient artifacts, the world saw that kind of thuggery for itself.

First, the sight of it went viral. Then people began to comment on it.

It's difficult to tell which of those positions was more brutal: so proud of themselves were the vandals that they released a video to go with the atrocity. This destruction of the holy sites and artifacts of early societies, they argued, was the will of God. Of Allah.

On the other hand, so angry, disgusted, or frustrated were those who saw the video, there was not even a nod at objectivity. They made no attempt whatsoever to separate the actual perpetrators of the destruction from the rest of the culture from which such barbarism claims to have sprung.

Some of the respondents to the video wanted the vandals wiped off the planet. Others simply wanted to call them names. A number wanted them barred from the Western world entirely. But a few seemed to be struggling with the act itself, with the question of whether or not the destruction of artifacts is itself an amoral or an evil act.

The first respondent wrote, "It is just stones. Human life matters more."

Well, yes and no, I thought.

A second respondent wrote, "This is not far removed from the scenes following the US invasion of Iraq when their soldiers were either actively or passively involved in the systematic looting of museums in Baghdad."

Well, yes and no, I thought. At least that destruction did not advertise itself as the will of God.

But nevertheless, the question is a good one. Isn't it better to destroy things than people? Well, yes. And no. The fact is that there is more than one way to destroy a people.

The people under siege in Iraq, in what has been traditionally identified as the Garden of Eden, are caretakers of a culture almost 10,000 years old. The statues that were broken beyond repair were themselves sculpted over 7,000 years before the birth of Jesus and were more than 9,000 years old the day they were destroyed.

Now, they tell us, the ancient city of Nimrud is being plowed under. Nimrud, the site of the Tower of Babel, the seat of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. And so much more.

But without a culture, a history, a catalogue of art and music, a panoply of religious ideas and ideals to turn to in times of crisis and doubt, what are we as civilizations? Where do we go in the universe then to find our way and have it confirmed? What questions shall we ask, and where can we even begin to have them answered? What history of ideas shall we depend on to give us direction? To what ancestors shall we look for courage, for integrity?

In short, what is humanity without a history? What does it mean to try to become better tomorrow when yesterday has been reduced to a kind of public black hole?

To weld a relationship with another religion whose history we do not know, for whose culture we have no respect, is almost impossible. People without a history are people with no name, no background, no definition in time. And worse, to destroy one culture because you say your own religion demands it makes any kind of global peace impossible.

The political, social, cultural and religious effects of art and literature -- the only real ties we have with the past -- create a people's reservoir of guiding ideas. They determine the assumptions they bring to great human issues. Nevertheless, in one video, we have watched thousands of years of them succumb to the hammers of thugs.

Ironically, these plunderers hurt themselves and their own people most: They make thinking and rethinking impossible because they now have no history of change. And so they have no heritage either to learn from or to pass on to another epoch.

As a result, new generations are left in orbit to determine their own ideals, to avoid their own routes to nowhere. They are given only the signs of a religion stripped of hospitality, community, peace and moderation in the name of God. But without models of the godliness people pray for upon which to base their own interpretations later, what conclusions shall future generations draw from it? They see nothing but rigidity without the sense of community it takes to balance it, only a kind of submission that depends on force.

Without a sense of the past, life becomes monochromatic for everyone: There are no colors against which to compare the colors of plans and policies and principles emerging everywhere because there is no history of ideas against which to gauge them.

To destroy the past is to make the present our idol -- untried, untested, untempered by anything but the passions of the moment.

From where I stand, it seems to me that that's where we are now -- trapped in a moment of passion so great, nothing stands to survive it. Not the countries this so-called new caliphate has constructed out of hate. Not the heritage of this great culture, whatever this present revolution names it.

What worries me is that not even the cultivated public doctrines of the countries being swept into it -- ourselves included -- can possibly come out of such thuggery unscathed. All of us whose gifts to the world are art, music, literature, human rights and political philosophy are faced with a great question: Are those who have stooped so low to save this world from barbarism only closer to becoming barbaric themselves as a result?

After crushing whole villages at one time, using drones instead of scimitars to take the heads off civilians and their children, what shall we ourselves do then for standards? What will this do to the heart of our own country? To civility? To civilization? To religion?

Then who are the thugs?

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Joan Chittister's column, From Where I Stand, is posted to Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters