In Bombs We Trust

May 23, 2012

Squeezed in among their constant commentary on cutting spending and reducing the US deficit, republicans have sought out a drastic increase in military spending. The bill the GOP majority-led House of Representatives passed last week brings the Defense tab up to $554 billion.  Going even further, the plan Mitt Romney wants to implement if he gains the presidency would add $2.1 trillion to the US debt total. NPR recently reported on Pentagon officials themselves who were unhappy with the amount the GOP is wanting to add to their budget, saying it was an unnecessary increase which could upset the balance they had carefully worked out with their own current budget projections.

In the concluding chapter of his most recent book (“Speaking Christian”), Christian theologian Marcus Borg writes about the contradictions and conflicts in modern American Christianity. In a country that still overwhelmingly self-identifies as “Christian,”  there are some hard facts that dismay progressive Christian thinkers like Borg. Being “Christian” and “American” can, in Borg’s words, create a “very ambiguous situation.”

  We are the most Christian country in the world–and yet we are the world’s greatest military power. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we account for about half of the world’s military spending. We have over 700 military bases in about 130 countries. Our navy is as powerful as the next thirteen navies of the world combined. Not surprisingly, the United States Air Force is the most powerful in the world. More surprising is the second most powerful air force: the United States Navy. As a country, we are determined to be as militarily  powerful as the rest of the world put together. Though our national motto is ‘In God We Trust’ clearly what we really trust in is power, especially military power.  *p.235-236

Borg contrasts this emphasis on military power with the domestic policies that America has favored over the past 30 years which have resulted in not only the highest income inequalities and disparities separating rich and poor in our own history, but much higher than such gaps in any other industrialized nation as well. So as we have expanded and focused internationally on military might and strength, domestically we have favored tax and social policies which have only benefited the wealthiest people in the country. We as a nation have consistently grown richer, fatter, and more violent at the top end and over-worked, under-paid, under-educated and exploited at the bottom in a nation which overwhelmingly self-identifies as “Christian.”

Now, some quick points for clarification. We are not a “Christian nation.” No, this is not to invite an asinine debate over the religious roots of our country or its founders. The short and simple fact is that one of the most notable early details about the “American experiment” was that unlike the European countries many were fleeing when we became a nation, America steadfastly and intentionally structured things to keep Church and state separate to prevent rule by a particular church body or to have the head of the church also be the head of the state like most other nation-states at that time (I recommend  Noah Feldman’s “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem–and What We Should Do About It” , an excellent overview of the history of church-state relations in America).  And yes those that identify as “Christian” when polled about their religious affiliation may run the gamut of the entire Christian spectrum both in theology or ethics and in level of participation and seriousness with which they take that identification. Nor am I trying to make the claim that all Christians are–or should be–total pacifists, although pacifism is a strong thread throughout the history of Christianity and is still held serious by many important portions of the Christian body today. But what is an interesting observation from all of this, at least for me, is that though we may not be a Christian nation we are a nation with a Christian majority, at least for now at this time in our history. If those in this country who call themselves Christian take their religion seriously, how is that reflected in our political scene and the state of our communities today? Related to my last post, “What is Marriage?”, we’ve seen how some take their religious inclinations and make them felt in the political sphere. After North Carolina voted for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage some misguided “activists” celebrated by throwing parties with wedding cakes featuring the traditional groom and bride on top. Crying, praying, and holding vigils to urge on the defeat of equality and then celebrating afterwards is an embarrassment to American Christianity.  As I stated in my last blog, if those who advocate traditional marriage view marriage as a religious institution they should refrain from politically meddling with it and allow churches to decide for themselves, as most already have. Churches of every denominational stripe have factions ready and willing to perform gay marriages and unions yet a conservative body of other churches are taking to the courts to keep others from exercising their own religious freedoms. So it appears that gay marriage is the line in the sand where many Christians wish to hold their ground. I’ve heard those who feel this way express their support of traditional marriage as law relating to their religious beliefs as paramount because they see it as a duty they must work for so that God will bless this nation. Many feel that though church and state are separate, to allow a nation to lose it’s moral footing is an act of abandoning the duty a believer has to “love what God loves, hate what God hates.”  But why this issue and not the much larger issues of war, violence, poverty and inequality?  I believe it’s because the loud vocal opponents of gay marriage find it much easier to condemn something they are not a part of and have no inclination to be a part of; they see homosexuality as a sin and more importantly, they see it as a sin they aren’t tempted by and it is thus an easier target than a sin related to greed and tied up with economic issues that benefit them and would thus link back to them. Of course, there’s also the “ick” factor these opponents often have, rooted in their own prejudices.

So while conservatives are drawing their line in the sand over issues like gay marriage, the political party they are most aligned with is working to increase military spending yet again. Here is where there is a glaring disconnect. If opponents of gay marriage are (as they usually are) biblical literalists, how can they take a handful of passages–an excised line or two from the Torah’s holiness code (removed from and ignoring the dietary, dress, and other cleanliness issues surrounding it), a missive or two from Paul’s letters, and a misinterpretation of one of the oldest pre-history myths in Genesis**–and fight the fight of all fights over gay marriage yet ignore the largest themes of Christian scripture and tradition and remain silent on unchecked military might and mistreatment of the poor? In the Torah (the Pentateuch for most Christians) there are the constant comments to look out for the stranger, for that one outside of the tribe; to protect them, to leave the back portion of your field for any that might pass by in need. Those today who say they stand against gay marriage as a nation so that God will bless them should take a cue from the Old Testament prophets who railed against the state (or the kingdom) when those who claimed to be the People of God abandoned their duty to the poor. Amos, Jeremiah, Hosea and the others didn’t really rail against Israel as a nation because of “social” issues similar to today’s issue of gay marriage, they railed against Israel and warned it would fall most often because once in power, power corrupted, and the people allowed the poor to go hungry, homeless and mistreated. The biggest sins throughout the Old Testament were justice issues, mistreatment of orphans and widows. Turning to the New Testament, issues of war, poverty and justice are clear throughout, most particularly in the person of Jesus (whom those who call themselves Christian are supposed to take their biggest cue from, by the way). By hanging out with his society’s “least of these” and outcasts, by advocating turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and from the Sermon on the mount to the constant concern for those at the bottom of the social and economic sphere, Jesus showed where Christian concern should truly lie.

I’m not saying we should abolish our military and I’m certainly not saying we should become a theocracy and invoke Jesus’ Kingdom of God as a national policy. We live in a religiously pluralistic society. America is more than the professed religious identification of its majority, and anyone who knows anything about religion knows that the bulk of that 80 percent or so who claim to be Christian in this country probably disagree on hundreds of issues, not only political but religious as well. What I am saying though, is that if this many people are Christian, why isn’t more being said about where our economic priorities lie? If this conservative faction of evangelicals is so concerned with gay marriage because of their faith, why are they not concerned about these other issues? If most of them belong to a political party that wants to increase our already huge military budget in a time of real deficit, why aren’t they speaking out?

We can have a strong military that is trained and ready for any defensive measure neccesary and for intervention to save lives and countries in times of crisis for a fraction of what we currently spend. Increasing the already too high amount we spend each year on defense at a time when we as a nation apparently don’t want to pay for grade-school children to have enough qualified teachers assisting them or after-school programs benefiting them, when we don’t want cities to offer public transportation for reasonable hours so that the working poor can hold jobs, when we don’t want to pay to ensure everyone can go to to doctor or hospital when they are suffering or sick or in need of preventive care is absurd. We as a nation should realize that taxes are simply the price we pay to live in a society. The problem shouldn’t be that we pay, but where that money is going. That is the justice issue that too many people ignore. We can keep paying the way we have in recent history, in a way that increases hostilities in the world, sets us up as agents policing the world, dropping drones on villages and often spending millions for small-scale computer updates for a fleet or two, and we can keep structuring our tax system to benefit a small portion of the already wealthy, or we can advocate common sense restructuring. We can use some of our tax money to increase education, provide services for troubled or at-risk youth, provide basic health care for those without it, and give the proper assistance to those who need it so that they can then do for themselves. Where were the tearful vigils outside of the House as they voted to perpetuate a violent domination system rather than make adjustments for positive, life-affirming change?

**I say “misinterpretation” because the Sodom story was really about hospitality as that was the main virtue of consideration at that time in that context. I say “pre-historic” because the fist 11 chapters of Genesis deal with a time before the “recorded history” that begins with actual names, times, etc., esp. of the Jewish tribes, leaders, etc. I say “myth” because most biblical scholars see these stories as holy myth, stories with layers and meanings that may be true but not historically factual. Beyond all that, the fact that the hero of this ancient tale is one willing to offer up his own innocent daughters to a violent and rapacious crowd so as not to offend the hospitality he had extended to the strangers (angels in this case) should give anyone who might invoke it for modern moral/legal guidance serious pause.

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3 Responses to “In Bombs We Trust”

  1. Jonelle said

    One of your best writings to date. Enjoy your reasoning with facts…refreshing.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Lights for dim days of ideas.

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