For Sunday August 7, 2016
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Isaiah 1:1, 10–20 or Genesis 15:1–6
Psalm 50:1–8, 22–23 or Psalm 33:12–22
Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16
Isaiah 1:15: "Even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood."
Just before my wife and I walked the "Way of Saint Francis" in Italy this summer, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published its annual report for 2015. Once again, the report shows that the United States is far and away the most militaristic country on earth.
The United States is the biggest exporter of weapons in the world — small arms, fighter jets, tanks, missiles, etc., accounting for about 33% of total arms sales. "We are the death merchant of the world, " said Lawrence Wilkerson, former Colin Powell's chief of staff in the Bush administration, in a March 2016 interview. The US government even has a program of grants and loans called Foreign Military Financing to help countries buy our weapons.
Seven of the top ten arms manufacturers in the world are American companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon. Such is the lucrative marriage between the military and the arms industry. War profiteering is very big and very good business for these companies.
The United States is also the biggest military spender — $596 billion in 2015, which was about 36% of total global spending, and almost three times as much as second place China ($215 billion). In 2015, the United States spent as much on its military as the next eight countries combined — our $596 billion compared to their $643 billion.
We're also the biggest military occupier, with a half million soldiers and dependents on a thousand bases in 175 countries around the world. That does not include numerous secret and officially nonexistent bases, or the tens of thousand of private contractors that do the bidding of the Department of Defense. Our own country is home to about a thousand separate bases in all fifty states.
Finally, the United States is the biggest regime changer in the world. In his book Overthrow (2006), Stephen Kinzer examines the fourteen times in the last century that the US has toppled foreign governments. Specialists will debate the complex nuances of outright coups, covert activities, mixed motives, and historical consequences, but by giving us the big picture Kinzer reminds us that America's geopolitics is hardly benign or altruistic. "No nation in modern history," he writes, "has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores."
Many Americans find such facts and figures reassuring, and a source of patriotic pride. Politicians promise to make our military even greater and stronger. We justify our militarism in many ways, most notably with comforting myths about America's benevolent intentions, exceptionalism, the glorification of war, and through government disinformation.
Many critics like Andrew Bacevich, though, have become convinced that our American militarism is not only broken but wrong. Bacevich has called our militarism "stupendously profligate" in terms of blood and money. Sooner or later, our permanent war economy will lead to our financial ruin.
Our military idolatry, he believes, is now so comprehensive and beguiling that it "pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies." We've normalized war, romanticized military life that formally was deemed degrading and inhuman, measured our national greatness in terms of military superiority, and harbor naive, unlimited expectations about how waging war, long considered a tragic last resort that signaled failure, can further our national self-interests.
Others point to the glaring hypocrisy of talk about domestic democracy and actions that promote foreign imperialism. Our invasion of Iraq has proven once again the idea of blow back, or the predictable but unintended consequences of war. Invading other countries has almost always radicalized extreme groups, fanned the flames of nationalism, and fomented anti-Americanism that has destabilized countries rather than strengthened them.
There are also the "opportunity costs" of militarism, that is, the potential civilian use of resources for things like health and education that have otherwise been lost to military violence. "Learn to do right, seek justice. / Defend the oppressed. / Take up the cause of the fatherless; / plead the case of the widow." So says Isaiah in this week's lectionary.
Walking the Way of St. Francis was so good in so many ways, one of which was that it helped me to see our nation as others do, and to think beyond the drum beat of self-justifications that you hear at home.
Christians in particular worship the "Prince of Peace," who among other things said "blessed are the peace makers," and told us to "love your enemies." We believe that God loves every country as much as our own nation, and that every person bears his image as his own child.
Reading the SIPRI report and walking the Way of St. Francis made for an uncomfortable juxtaposition. It made me think of the famous "Peace Prayer" of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), which my wife and I prayed out loud together every morning before we hit the trail.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.
We don't know the author of this classic prayer, and it was not until the 1920s that it was even ascribed to Saint Francis. By one account the prayer was found in 1915 in Normandy, written on the back of a card of Saint Francis. But it certainly emulates his longing to be an instrument of peace, reconciliation and redemption in our violent world. I'm grateful for that reminder.