06/29/2010 03:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Georgetown/On Faith: Holy Boldness of Women

By Katherine Marshall

"Women are the boldest and most unmanageable of revolutionaries," Sister Joan Chittister said last week.

Especially religious women. Set against the sorry sagas of errant priests and male church leaders reluctant to confront past and present misdeeds, stories about the courage and stamina of women religious leaders offer a breath of fresh air.

Religious women are rarely seen as ardent feminists. Many religions have worked to keep women in the background. Today, however, many of the most thoughtful and determined advocates for women's rights and empowerment come with strong religious links.

The same is true where peace is concerned. A quiet, often invisible group of women with strong religious ties is working relentlessly for peace in many corners of the world. There are some efforts to link them so their voices and impact are amplified, including the Global Peace Initiative for Women, which Sister Joan co-chairs. But these networks are still fragile and limited.

Sister Joan acknowledges that religion can put moats between women, with a "theological acid" that makes religions puny and dangerous. Many feminist groups look askance at religion, including women who lead with a spiritual face or voice. But women's quests can be seen as profoundly spiritual, whether or not they are labeled that way. Bridging the moats needs first and foremost some better knowledge and understanding.

It's interesting to look at the deep roots some women's religious communities bring to their work for peace. The Benedictines, for example, worked over the centuries of the Middle Ages to reclaim Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. That was a time of great insecurity. People were not safe on the roads or in their towns. Soldiers and policy offered no safety. Benedictine monasteries served as safe havens, or hospices, each one no more than a day's ride from the next. In the chaotic Europe of the time, the monasteries were the anchor and the sign of peace at every level.

So, "if you are a Benedictine, peace is on your mind", Sister Joan asserts. Benedictines take a vow of stability, not of chastity and poverty. They have a life long commitment to a particular community in a particular place. That sense of community is how Benedictine nuns see themselves and their social and civic responsibilities: it is in their DNA.

In Northern Uganda, Central America and Central Africa, many of the glimmers of hope that peace can be built, the stories of selfless courage in countering organized violence, involve nuns.

But it is not just Catholic nuns. Buddhist women are among the most creative peacemakers across Asia. In Kashmir, women are working to build peace on fading memories of a deep but threatened inclusive culture. In northern Ireland, women first breached the barriers that stood in the way of peace.

And in the Middle East, women's groups that involve Muslims, Jews, and Christians seem to have a much needed willingness to reach across divides, to see humanity in the "other". They can see the perils of wounded memories and fractured communities and can envisage a community where diverse communities can live together in peace.

Women need to be far more central in thinking and action about peace, whether it is combating gang violence in a city or the horrors of wars in the Middle East and Africa's Great Lakes region. Violence hurts women and families most of all, but it's perilous to cast women in victim roles. Recognizing their actual and potential leadership roles is at least as important. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women's roles in conflict prevention and peace is an important step, though it needs to be carried from words to action.

And in this effort, the theological and cultural moats that have separated feminists in many places from women whose drive and motivation is inspired by their faith need to be filled and crossed. There is too much good will and inspiration on both sides to let ancient unease block new alliances.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

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