Economic Nun-Sense

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Wanted: Members to participate in an economy where resources are shared and your unique contributions to community – from art-making to teaching to food preparation – are honored and not commodified or prioritized hierarchically. Where the focus is on justice and sustainable living for all – not the irrational escalation of the GDP. Healthcare, housing, ongoing education, and other fringe benefits included. PS – smart babes strongly encouraged to apply!

They are fierce, fun, and serious. And some of the smartest women we’ve ever met.

FranciscansAdrian DominicansSisters of ProvidenceBenedictines—these nuns have been intimately involved in Chicago’s social justice movements for over five decades. Labor organizing, anti-death penalty advocacy, civil rights agitation, services for women who are survivors of violence, international solidarity movements—the sisters march with banners, boo the military, document police brutality, and stand vigil.

Rarely flashy (except when throwing fake blood on cop cars), their work is all too often the glue that holds together many of Chicago’s social justice organizations, including 8th Day Center for JusticeGrace House, and Deborah’s Place. In the last few decades, these women have stepped up to fill the void when the state has simply withdrawn services, and to offer some semblance of a safety net. Not out to buff up resumes or receive accolades, they recognize that justice work sometimes entails honoring the full humanity of our brothers and sisters in the most inhumane of contexts.

The nuns from the orders we are most familiar with are predominately white women in their late sixties and seventies, anti-war and feminist, who live outside of hetero-patriarchal scripts. Most non-cloistered orders are considered to be laywomen by the Vatican and therefore in possession of some political and economic autonomy from Rome.

They support themselves (and their many innovative projects) through communal funds—each gives according to her ability and receives according to her need and commits to living life through the principle of voluntary simplicity. It is a socialist model that works not through forced sameness but through mutual respect and a shared commitment to justice and equality, and through a deep recognition that exponential private accumulation is neither a recipe for happiness or a sustainable model. Some orders, through collectivizing their resources, have developed successful models of investing in community-based organizations—not for profit, but to support local communities.

So, much to the delight of our respective and overlapping posses, we are trying to join up—at least to become non-vowed associates. After our last visit to a Dominican “mothership” (convent) last summer, where we met the sister working with SEIU to unionize Catholic hospitals, the tenants’ rights lawyer, and the chaplain in federal prisons who advocates for religious rights for Muslim incarcerated men, we began pestering our nun friends to let us be a part of their community. Or, at the very least, to continue to talk to us.

Why? The list of material benefits—healthcare and disability? education? access to the goddess walk on the grounds of the mothership!—is nothing to sneeze at when rights, resources, and public spaces are offered to a diminishing and elite few. But, we also think we have a lot to learn. There are so few models of women-organized economic systems that challenge the prevailing destructive and individualized logics of capitalism and white hetero-patriarchy. And, there are preciously fewer models that seek to consistently relearn how to act collectively to further economic, racial, and gender justice.

Sure—there are issues. While both of us probably would have been the wiser if we had chosen celibacy at different times in our lives—fewer bad tattoos, for example—we wonder about celibacy as an organizing principle. But we know that sexualities are formed through (and in resistance to) hegemony, and at minimum, the nuns remind us of the powerful and subversive tactics of separatism and refusal.

And yes, justice work that is focused on service providing is a central cog in the neoliberal non-profit machine, an “industrial complex” or shadow state that, yes, can inhibit revolutionary movements. But, at the end of the day, the most vulnerable among us still need food, shelter, advocacy, and resources.

And, of course, there is the small problem of the Vatican (which doesn’t seem to us to be anti-war, and is decidedly not feminist or pro queer). But whose lives are not contradictory? Who doesn’t have to work for (and subvert) the man—whatever outfit he wears—robe, suit, or uniform?

As the economy continues its downward flushing spiral, re-imagining lives and communities and ways to resist is imperative. And the sisters are doing it for themselves, and, more often than not, working for justice for the rest of us. ◊

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