Growing Strong By Destroying Others:
To the "Notable Men of the Foremost Nation"
For Sunday July 22, 2007
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Psalm 52 or Psalm 15
A few weeks ago at dinner my son announced with mock sarcasm that he had "just contributed 6 to another fighter jet." He then explained that he was referring to the federal taxes withheld from his summer paycheck. A few days later the non-partisan Congressional Research Service reported that America's burn rate for our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is billion per month, way more than the .7 billion per month only one year ago. Since September 11, 2001, Congress has approved 0 billion for the two wars.
The prophet Amos wrote 2,800 years ago, but reading him this week felt like a blast of cold, clean air. Might he speak to America's militaristic empire today?
Amos lived during the reign of the renowned king Jeroboam II, who reigned forty-one years (786–746 BC) and forged a political dynasty marked by territorial expansion, aggressive militarism, and unprecedented national prosperity. The citizens of his day took patriotic pride in their religiosity, their history as God's favored people, their military conquests, their economic affluence, and their political security (4:5, 6:13, 9:10).
Amos starts with a foreign policy briefing that reads like an ancient version of the Nuremberg Trials. His affidavit charges Israel's enemies with horrific war crimes. Damascus "threshed Gilead with sledges of iron teeth." Gaza "took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom." Tyre sold their prisoners of war into slavery and flaunted international treaties. Edom "stifled all compassion" and pursued its enemies with "unchecked rage." Ammon "ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders." Moab "burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom's king." Amos's audience would have smugly cheered and jeered at his denunciation of these atrocities—mutilation, scorched earth campaigns, slavery, depopulation, ethnic cleansing, global treachery, torture, and flagrant degradation of your victims.
But Israel had overplayed its hand. They misread the signs of the times. Convinced of the nobility of their own nation and of the inferiority of foreigners, they found it impossible to understand how others saw them. They considered their country superior in every way to the "axis of evil" that Amos reproached. Under Jeroboam Israel developed an exaggerated sense of exceptionalism which they invoked to exempt themselves from universal standards that applied to their own nation as well as to their enemies.
Like the minority report of an alternative news source, Amos spoke to their national delusions. He was the consummate outsider who preached from the lunatic, pessimistic, and unpatriotic fringe. He was blue collar rather than blue blooded. He was neither a prophet nor even the son of a prophet, but instead a farmer from little Tekoa, about twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem and five miles south of Bethlehem. The cultured elites of his day despised Amos as a redneck. Furthermore, he was an unwelcome outsider. Born in the southern kingdom of Judah, Yahweh called him to thunder a prophetic word to the northern kingdom of Israel.
Amos might have been a farmer, but his prophecy bristles with a withering critique of Israel's entire culture. He describes how the rich trampled the poor; how the affluent flaunted their expensive lotions, elaborate music, and vacation homes with beds of inlaid ivory; fathers and sons who abused the same temple prostitute; corrupt judges who sold justice to the highest bidder; predatory lenders who exploited vulnerable families; and religious leaders who pronounced God's blessing on it all.
With Israel at the peak of its power, and having many good reasons to believe that no disaster could befall it (9:10), Amos preached a counter-intuitive and culturally subversive message.
To the country's disbelief, he said that they were no different than the pagan nations with their war crimes (9:7); before God they were equals. He spoke to average citizens in general, but also to the nation's leaders in particular—priests, judges, financiers, and state bureaucrats,"the notable men of the foremost nation" (6:1). Amos compared Israel to a basket of summer fruit that was not merely ripe but close to rotten (8:1).
I imagine that few people listened. In a paroxysm of rage and in defense of Jeroboam, Amaziah the priest ran him out of town (7:7–17).
Still, Amos announced the end of Israel's empire. That end came quickly. In 725 BC the Assyrian king Shalmaneser occupied Israel for three years, crushed the opposition holdouts, and then deported its population (2 Kings 17). In twenty-five years Israel went from being a regional power under Jeroboam II to a failed state under Shalmaneser.
Could American empire fail like Israel?
Or like Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, China, Austro-Hungaria, and the Ottomans—all of whose imperial ambitions crashed in the last hundred years (Johnson)? Or like the twenty case studies of societal disintegration studied by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse? Crawling through the tunnels of the pyramids at Giza, sitting in a coliseum in Turkey built 2,000 years ago, and visiting churches hewn out of rock 800 years ago in the desert of Ethiopia, I've often wondered what will befall America. At 230 years young, we're barely a blip on the graph of world history.
If Amos were among us today, what would he see, and what would he say? Some critics have already begun to perform an American autopsy. Many of them diagnose imperial militarism as our primary malignancy.
Unlike ancient empires, says Chalmers Johnson, American imperialism consists not of conquered peoples or territories but of military bases. The Pentagon's Base Structure Report says that America deploys about 500,000 military personnel and dependents to at least 725 military bases in 153 countries (there are 192 member states in the United Nations). The real total is probably close to 1,000, since the BSR figure doesn't include secret bases or officially "non-existent" facilities. America houses 969 bases in all fifty states, and a politician who tries to close one of them commits political suicide. In any one year, reports Cullen Murphy of Vanity Fair, American forces will conduct "operations" of some sort in 170 countries.
Our federal budget reflects the stratospheric costs of globalized state violence. According to the National Priorities Project, 28.5% of every tax dollar that you send to Washington goes to the military. But it's even worse than that because much of the Pentagon budget, and all of the CIA budget, is secret to all but a few legislators. Education receives 4%, housing 2%, veterans benefits 1.7%, and the environment 1.4%. In 2005 the United States accounted for 48% of the entire world's military spending, down slightly from 2003 when we spent more on the military than the rest of the world combined.
Patriotic and self-serving propaganda insists that American militarism exists to spread freedom and democracy, protect ourselves and others, relieve suffering, and keep peace. Sometimes that's true. But others point to our predatory economic policies as the ultimate rationale for our global hegemony. Call it "militarized state capitalism" (Chomsky) or "global military-economic domination" (Johnson), America projects its overwhelming military might to assure uninhibited economic access. This week's Psalmist makes an evocative connection between great wealth and great violence: "He trusted in his great wealth / and grew strong by destroying others" (Psalm 52:7).
Economists warn that American militarism is unsustainable. Political scientists point to unintended but entirely predictable blowback—nations reap what they sow, says Chalmers Johnson. But America's global militarism is not only imprudent because it's impractical; it's wrong in principle because it's immoral. Christians, who subscribe to the epistle for this week that God created all things and intends to reconcile all things through "making peace" through his Son Jesus (Colossians 1:16, 20), ought to find the scale and scope of our militarism appalling.
For further reflection:
* Who might be today's "notable men of the foremost nation" (Amos 6:1)?
* Contemplate Psalm 52:7, "He trusted in his great wealth / and grew strong by destroying others."
* Consider this week's epistle, that God not only created "all things," but that He intends to reconcile "all things" through "making peace" in Jesus (Colossians 1:15–28).
* In what sense, if at all, is America a failed, rogue, outlaw, and terrorist state (Chomsky)?
* Can you hazard a guess what America might be like 100 years from now? And in 200 or 500 years?
* On American empire see the trilogy by Chalmers Johnson: Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006); Noam Chomsky, Failed States; The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2006); Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism; How Americans are Seduced By War; and Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007).