April 03, 2011

Living by the Sword

In Jim Douglass’ recent work, JFK and the Unspeakable, he writes in great detail about JFK’s turn toward peace and how it led to a great rift between the former president and the military industrial complex. In the book, Douglass shares from one of Thomas Merton’s writings:

“Our weapons dictate what we are to do. They force us into awful corners. They give us our living, they sustain our economy, they bolster up our politicians, they sell our mass media, in short we live by them. But if they continue to rule us we will most surely die by them.”

Thomas Merton, a highly revered spiritual leader, saw something very sinister happening in the world. As World War II ended and the arms race of the Cold War began, Merton saw nothing but doom ahead. Military spending across the world increased sharply. More weapons were built, more workers were employed to build them, and more resources were diverted from other sectors to accommodate the arms buildup. This caused large amounts of people to become reliant on war for their family’s survival.

The year is now 2011 and we are living in a nation where unemployment has skyrocketed but the military is hiring and spending significantly more than it did during the Cold War years (even after accounting for the inflation rate). The DOD is the nation’s largest employer, touting a workforce four times as large as Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million employees. We are spending over 54% of our nation’s discretionary budget on the military while education gets 6.2% and health gets 5.3%. Our nation is also the biggest spender when it comes to the military, accounting for 46.5% of the world’s total military spending while the next top 10 countries combined for only 20.8% of the world’s total military spending (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Yearbook 2010).

Aside from financial concerns, many young adults are joining the military today for economic reasons. They need a job with benefits to provide for their family; they need a way to pay for college; they need a way to pay for training to become a pilot; or they would like to be able to travel the world. Recruitment brochures highlight these perks but downplay the physical and emotional cost that comes with taking another life. At Cherith Brook, there are many we love who have been unable to cope with the horrors of war and now struggle with addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. Also, our neighborhood high school is a military magnet school and for many students is the only obvious path towards a college education.

As more and more Iraq and Afganistan veterans show up at our place for a shower and a meal, it is becoming apparent that a new path must be forged. We are now dying by the very swords we have made, and more and more families are being ravaged by the pain of losing sons and daughters because of war.

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, spoke adamantly about how all people should be able to practice the Works of Mercy in their jobs. Meaning, all should have occupations where they are not contributing to war, exploitation, oppression, and destruction of life, which is the antithesis of the Works of Mercy. Working toward this vision of a society without war can seem overwhelming or foolish to some, but we are in desperate need of a new way forward. To help break us from the hopelessness that sets in when thinking of how to affect positive change in society, below is a modest proposal for how to “build a society where its easier for people to be good.”

A woodcut entitled Peaceable Kingdom by Fritz Eichenberg

1. Get out of debt
Students in the US have an average of $24,000 in school loans, households in the US have an average of $8,100 of credit card debt, and 80% of Americans are living with debt. These three statistics spell disaster for many. Because the majority of Americans are living in debt, two things happen. First, businesses are granted the opportunity to “lord it over” their workers. If the majority of the labor pool is in debt and desperately seeking gainful employment, businesses gain an unfair advantage over the workers. From low pay and no benefits, to longer work weeks with no vacation, businesses can do what they want and expect to still have many people applying for positions at their company.

Second, debt puts the worker in a precarious situation. If an indebted worker feels an injustice has been committed in the workplace, the realities of possible termination and long lines at unemployment weigh heavily on someone who wants to address the injustices they face. The worker is forced to decide between taking on multiple low-paying jobs to make ends meet or risk losing everything because the employer decided to replace all the workers who thought they were being treated unjustly. The worker ends up being enslaved not only to his or her debt but also to the employer.

When we come out from under the burden of debt, we are freer to be men and women of conscience. We are freer to speak up and act out against the many injustices in the world because we are no longer enslaved by debt.

2. Join a community
We live in a society where aggressive competition runs rampant. Nations compete in arms races, economics, and education. Individuals compete in the workplace and in politics. This kind of competition does nothing but tear communities apart and create conflicts like the Cold War. In order to create a more lasting peace, we need to recapture the practice of collaboration and camaraderie. Pope John XXIII, in his famous “Pacem in Terris” Encyclical, states:

“Everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from men’s minds. But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today’s world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust.”

This was written in 1963, when both the Vietnam War and the arms race with the Soviet Union were escalating. The world was anxious and fearful, and not much has changed. From high unemployment rates to the “War on Terror,” people are still being beat down by fear and a “dog-eat-dog” workplace. What better way to counter all this fear and competitiveness than by living in community.

In community, fear and competitiveness give way to collaboration and camaraderie. Instead of looking out for one’s self at the expense of others, people take personal responsibility for the community. Also, with all this newfound sharing comes new possibilities. Through the sharing of resources people are freed up to work less--allowing more time to foster a healthy community. People are then freed to inspire, challenge, and encourage one another--which leads to mutual trust. And that is the foundation of a more lasting peace.

3. Live below the poverty line
As stated earlier, 54% of our nation’s discretionary budget is spent on war while 11% is spent on education and health care combined. Martin Luther King, Jr. was prophetic when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” With the reality of our nation’s runaway military spending coupled with the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, it is becoming more apparent that we can’t pay for war as well as health care and education. Something is going to have to give in order to pay for it all. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait in order to bring about change in this arena.

The military’s budget comes largely from our tax dollars. Over the years, more and more of our tax dollars have been diverted to cover the rising cost of war. Individual and corporation income taxes, excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, estate taxes, gift taxes, customs duties, and savings bonds (formerly war bonds) are all taxes that have been and are still used for war. The way we can change this is through war tax resistance.

There are two main ways people have resisted over the years. First, individuals can choose to donate the percentage of their tax dollars used for war to any charity or justice organization they choose. Many will also include a letter to the IRS stating what they did, why they did it, and enclose the receipt for the donation that was made. Second, individuals can live below the poverty line to avoid paying federal income taxes, which is the primary tax source for the military. The good news is that if you are living in community it is significantly easier to live below the poverty line because of the sharing of resources. Either way, practicing war tax resistance is an empowering way to build a society that cherishes peace over war.

4. Craft Economy
The holiday shopping season with all its advertising repeatedly tells us that unless we have certain benchmark items then we are not worth much. Even children get in on the act, pressuring parents to go out and buy, buy, buy. Because of Mammon’s evangelists--advertisers--many shoppers turn into wild animals come Black Friday. People end up trampled on, beaten down and, in some cases, killed. All because we gave in to the god of consumption. If we are honest though, many of us are addicted to materialism even outside of the holiday shopping season. We want to “possess” lots of things that might grant us status or power, even though all of these things will break or rust or decay.

Because of our propensity for materialism, our stewardship of the earth has greatly diminished. We drive everywhere in cars, heat and cool our houses, buy everything wrapped in plastic, and play video games. In essence, we have isolated ourselves from nature. We throw away lots of things and watch it magically disappear, not knowing where it goes. We eat food from grocery stores and know nothing of the farms that grew it. We buy cell phones, clothes, and televisions and have no idea of the injustices that exist in the manufacturing of these items. Instead, we turn a blind eye to the harm being done to the earth because of our insatiable thirst for consumer goods.

These conditions have given birth to a war between man and creation. Deforestation, soil erosion, drought, pollution and food shortages are all signs of this battle. Thankfully, in our attempts to disconnect ourselves from the earth, we are reminded of our interconnectedness. Remember the tomato shortage recently? The weather wasn’t conducive to a healthy tomato crop so a massive shortage occurred, causing many restaurants to charge anyone who wanted tomatoes on their sandwich. Despite industry’s claim on our allegiance, we were reminded that even industry can’t prevent a crop from going bad.

In the book of Isaiah, a beautiful description of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. People will live in the houses they build, eat the food they grow, and the lion will lay with the lamb. There is a sense of justice and harmony between God and man, brother and sister, woman and creation.

All are in harmony, working together for an everlasting peace on earth. Our way to enter into that kind of harmony now is through local living and artisanry. Growing food, making gifts, and trading goods with one another does a couple of things to accomplish this. One, it is humanizing. In war, a very deliberate effort is made to dehumanize the enemy by distancing and differentiating “us” from “them.” This gives people the ability to destroy the enemy easier. Remember the Christmas Truce of 1914? Once the enemies came together to share pictures, food and stories, no one wanted to fight each other anymore. The same holds true for the environment. The more distance we put between ourselves and the natural earth, the easier it is for us to exploit and abuse it. By making the goods we need, riding bicycles, and growing food we decrease this distance and forge a new connection with the earth.

The other thing local living and artisanry does is put a face on economics. So much of our work and consumption happens inside large multi-national corporations. These corporations in many ways take on the role of god for us. They are entities that we enter into, get money from, buy goods from and produce for--which creates a dependency. Conversely, when we practice trading and bartering food we have grown, we realize that we need God to bring some rain so our crops don’t die. The intermediary has been removed and a dependence on God and neighbor emerges. It is empowering to know how to better a neighbor’s life directly, without the corporation acting as the central hub.

Lastly, local living and artisanry slow us down. Whenever anyone commits to making and repurposing things, it takes time. We are forced to sit for hours when looming a rug or carving a spoon. Sure, we could buy it and save time but a mind shift needs to take place. Anytime we buy something that could have been made, it really is time lost--not gained. Anytime we give in to the snare of busyness and efficiency, we lose presence to the moment as well as time for solitude. This truly is time lost when we so desperately need that kind of time to foster a healthy heart, family and community.

5. Put your home in a trust
The Year of Jubilee is a pretty radical way to practice economics. In Leviticus 25:23, Moses relays this message from God to the people of Israel, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” In a society that has a strong sense of entitlement, this verse gives us a much needed shift in perspective. God reminds the people of Israel that the land is ultimately God’s so they are not to possess it.

A. W. Tozer, in the book called The Pursuit of God, puts fresh words to this Old Testament Jubilee practice. He calls it “the blessedness of possessing nothing,” and goes on to say that the benefit of possessing nothing is that we are then free to treat all we have as a gift. Houses, food, friendships and family are no longer possessions to be grasped tightly but rather gifts meant to be shared and cherished.

Along with possessing nothing comes a sense of freedom. I remember the time a fellow worker, Josh, was talking about how free he felt when he was riding his bicycle across the country. “It was just me, my bicycle, and the road.” I think Josh was practicing the “ blessedness of possessing nothing.” He spent two months of his summer being present to all that was around him while sharing conversations, meals and bike rides with others along way. Another way to engage in this Jubilee practice of non-possession is by putting your home into a trust. And don’t stop there! Invite others to share in this gift as well. When living in community, a shared household can be a beautiful thing because everyone who moves in is equally responsible for caring and nurturing the shared gift. Everyone then has the opportunity to share in both the joys and burdens of keeping up a place so many people call “home.”

6. Practice the Works of Mercy
Nothing could be further from participating in war than practicing the Works of Mercy. A longtime Catholic Worker, Rita Corbin, created a beautiful banner which contrasts the Works of Mercy and the Works of War. It highlights how diametrically opposed they both are to one another. In practicing mercy people feed the hungry; in war people burn crops and land. In practicing mercy people care for the sick; in war people inflict wounds and kill. War creates peace through fear of the other while mercy leads to a mutual trust built on love--which is fundamental for a more lasting peace.

Another way to look at the power of the Works of Mercy is to understand what the Matthew 25 passage meant in Jesus’ day. When Jesus speaks of feeding the hungry, think of how Jesus embodied that. He invited the poor, the ill, the sinner, the prostitute and the tax collector to the table. Jesus ate with them. They shared stories. They were welcomed. The Pharisees were outraged by this because it violated their clean/unclean laws. They were outraged because Jesus was eating with the “enemies” of the Jewish society. Jesus also exploded the conventional meaning of “neighbor” in his day. The parable of the good Samaritan is a prime example of this. A Jewish person is robbed and beaten and a Samaritan comes to help the beaten man while a priest and Levite pass right by. Samaritans and Jews loathed each other in Jesus’ day and yet he uses this parable to describe how to be a good neighbor.

What Jesus did was decrease distance from one another. Jesus intentionally brought together the rich and the poor, the “clean” and the “unclean,” all to demonstrate the way of the peaceable kingdom. He understood that making someone “other,” by dehumanizing another human, is to make war with them. It is to make someone our enemy. The Works of Mercy is the prescription offered for changing a people bent on elevating themselves over another, and by practicing mercy we undo the inner attitudes that lead to war and violence.

* * *

There are many ways to live differently - peaceably - in these days. The Catholic Workers, the Community of the Ark, the Bruderhof Communities, the Koinonia Farm, and the many monastic orders are all groups of people who are devoted to living life differently in the present day. These communities look different in the way they operate but are similar in that they are proof that we can live differently. St. Francis of Assissi once said, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” These are very empowering words for anyone looking to loosen the grip war has over them. It encourages movement, however small, in the direction one wishes to live. Then, by continuing to take small steps towards peace, the impossible will suddenly be happening and there will be no end to the possibilities of what can be accomplished.

It is imperative, however, to begin this journey now. In the midst of a turbulent time, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how he journeyed to the mountaintop and saw the promised land on the other side. Many people caught that vision and pursued it. Until we are willing to make the same step-by-step progress towards realizing a reality marked by peace instead of war we will never make it to the other side of the mountain - marked by peace, tranquility and freedom. Let us join together in the necessary work of “building a society where it is easier for people to be good.”

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