Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Least of These

Abortion has been in the news as the Republican Party debates a constitutional amendment banning all abortions and Rep. Todd Akins squirms in the spotlight glaring down on his assertion that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.

I’ve set myself the goal of thinking and praying my way through important political issues of the season. This is one I’ve been dreading - but here it is.

I’ll start with a confession: as a young parent I participated in the March for Life. Our church at the time was the headquarters of N.O.E.L., National Organization of Episcopalians for Life, and our rector, John Howe, was the founder.

Several years in a row, I drove to church with our youngest child, loaded her and a stroller on a bus, and drove into D.C. to affirm my belief that fetuses are people, deserving of our protection.

Life was simpler then. Solutions seemed possible.

I still believe that fetuses are people, deserving of our protection, but I’m less sure that marches and slogans are the best way to make that point, and I’m not sure that overturning Roe v. Wade would take us where we want to go.

For me, this is a topic where justice, mercy, and humility collide, and I find myself grieving, repenting, and wishing I lived in a time that allowed sackcloth and ashes. I’d go find some.

Here’s what I grieve:

  • Political rhetoric that makes light of the experience of rape, that dares to suggest that some rapes are more worthy of sympathy than others.
  • Junk science masquerading as fact that somehow ignores the experience of an estimated 32,000 women with rape-related pregnancies each year.
  • The flurry of punitive and mean-spirited laws promoted, in some cases passed, with no clear justification: how many men who voted for transvaginal ultrasounds had any idea of what that might be like?
  • Attempts to limit access to contraception, cut food aid to mothers and children, limit early education.

Lennart Nillson, Life Magazine cover, 1965
But my grief goes deeper.
  • I grieve the death of over 54 million babies in the years since Roe v. Wade. Call them fetuses if that makes it less painful, but I know my own kids had personalities long before their due dates. 
  • At the same time I grieve the death of all the women, most of them far too young, who have lost their lives in illegal abortions. When I was first married, my neighbors, sweet aging sisters sharing a West Philly row home, pointed out a house across the street where they said an illegal abortionist had plied his trade for years. “Women died in that house,” they told me, sadly. 

Do we go back to the days of illegal abortions? Do we go on legally ending 800,000 lives a year?

Or do we stop and wonder why our culture puts so little value on life, finds unexpected babies so disturbing, has so little room for the unwanted, born and unborn?

The late Hispanic activist Grace Olivarez said:,
"Those with power in our society cannot be allowed to 'want' and 'unwant' people at will.... I believe that, in a society that permits the life of even one individual (born or unborn) to be dependent on whether that life is 'wanted' or not, all its citizens stand in danger." 
Just yesterday a seemingly innocuous column in The Economist described “the mommy track: the real reason women don’t rise to the top of companies:”

Brett Ryder, The Economist, August 25, 2012
[T]he biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organised you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours and the “anytime, anywhere” culture of senior corporate jobs. A McKinsey study in 2010 found that both women and men agreed: it is tough for women to climb the corporate ladder with teeth clamped around their ankles. Another McKinsey study in 2007 revealed that 54% of the senior women executives surveyed were childless compared with 29% of the men (and a third were single, nearly double the proportion of partnerless men).

Many talented, highly educated women respond by moving into less demanding fields where the hours are more flexible, such as human resources or public relations. Some go part-time or drop out of the workforce entirely.

And others, if a Slate article from last fall is to be believed, limit family size with abortion.

Here’s another note from the Economist column:
“Putting women in the C-suite is important for firms, but not as important as making profits; for without profits a company will die. So bosses should try hard to accommodate their employees’ family responsibilities, but only in ways that do not harm the bottom line.”
What I grieve most deeply? Somehow we’ve moved from being a culture that valued children and families and believed in protecting them, to a culture that puts profits first, as an inviolable priority, while the human needs of people are a distant, diminshing second.

Mary Meehan, an antiwar activist in the sixties, self-described liberal feminist, has been writing about abortion for over thirty years now. Last summer, she explained “Why Liberals Should Defend the Unborn”:
“Defending those who cannot defend themselves has long been the pride of the left. When no one else would do it, liberals and radicals stood up for the little guys and the little gals: day laborers and domestic workers, abused children, African Americans and other minorities, elderly patients with dementia, the poor, the unloved and unwanted, the down-and-outers. The unborn are the most defenseless members of the human community. Others can cry out for help, and some can defend themselves, but unborn children cannot.”
Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman describes two kingdoms: the Pharoic kingdom – empires of power worlds of oppression, violence, anxiety, myths of scarcity that keep us all in line. (His examples? Ancient Egypt and Babylon, corporatist America.)

And then there’s the prophetic kingdom, the kingdom of God – world of promised plenty, empire of welcome, place of peace where all are wanted. The challenge, as a follower of Christ, is to make the prophetic kingdom visible, while surrounded, held captive, by the kingdom of Pharoah.

Abortion is sign and symbol of the Pharoic kingdom: violent response to those tiny usurpers who would steal our rights, upend our systems, spread our scarce resources even thinner, trip us on our way to the top.

But it’s only one sign of the kingdom, just one more symptom, set beside scapegoating of the poor, imprisoning the addicted, stockpiling weapons, arming ourselves against intruders.

Wendell Berry, in Common Dreams, laments:
We cling in our public life to a brutal hypocrisy. In our century of almost universal violence of humans against fellow humans, and against our natural and cultural commonwealth, hypocrisy has been inescapable because our opposition to violence has been selective or merely fashionable. Some of us who approve of our monstrous military budget and our peacekeeping wars nonetheless deplore “domestic violence” and think that our society can be pacified by “gun control.” Some of us are against capital punishment but for abortion. Some of us are against abortion but for capital punishment.
One does not have to know very much or think very far in order to see the moral absurdity upon which we have erected our sanctioned enterprises of violence. Abortion-as-birth-control is justified as a “right,” which can establish itself only by denying all the rights of another person, which is the most primitive intent of warfare. Capital punishment sinks us all to the same level of primal belligerence, at which an act of violence is avenged by another act of violence.
What the justifiers of these acts ignore is the fact—well-established by the history of feuds, let alone the history of war—that violence breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in “justice” or in affirmation of “rights” or in defense of “peace” do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation.
Meehan Reports
Will you see me again at a future March for Life?

I’m not sure. Although I'm interested to see that the march continues to grow, with a younger, wider demographic every year.

From what I read of history, any attempts to impose the kingdom of God through political power end badly. And yes, lives are lost every day that abortion is legal, but the losses accrue, not from permissive laws, but from our misguided values and priorities and the belief that somehow we’ll be better off if we can rid ourselves of those we don’t want, think we don't need. We have no idea what we're losing, no idea the lasting harm not only to ourselves, but the children we do choose, and the culture we leave them.

So how best to affirm the kingdom I believe in?

I’ve been wrestling with that in the years since those marches two decades ago. I believe I’m called to live in a way that puts people over profit, that affirms children, families, life together over stuff, reputation, privilege. I look for ways to stand by the most marginalized in my own little world, to let them know that to God, to me, they are valued, worthy of time, help, resources, respect, and love.

And when it comes time to vote?

I’ll be looking for candidates who have a big picture view of the value of people, the value of family, the value of the least, the smallest, born and unborn, wanted and unwanted.

This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith: What's Your Platform?

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Justice, Mercy, Parasites?

Justice is this ache,
This lingering limp, this –
Silence echoing.
   (Kensington, July 2010)
Thinking about prisons for last week’s post led me to thoughts of poverty and from there, to reflections on the neglected instruction of Micah 6:8:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.
In our current political discourse, I listen longingly for mention of justice, or mercy, or any hint of humility. Complex issues are dispatched with emphatic sound bites. Any attempt at nuance or suggestion of uncertainty is ridiculed as weakness.

The only justice imagined is retributive justice: Give them what they deserve. Lock them up and throw away the key. Send them back where they came from. Make them get a job and stop freeloading on society.
Who are “they”?

And does justice really consist of ridding ourselves of “them” as quickly and completely as possible?

The tone that comes through suggests subsets of less-than-wanted parasites, sucking life from an otherwise healthy body. The solution, of course, is to remove the parasites, through prison, extradition, vociferous outrage, or some strange, misguided hope that withdrawing food and funds might simply make “them” vanish.

Ayn Rand has been in the news: patron saint of some of our economic theorists, favorite author of popular politicians. Here’s an excerpt from The Fountainhead to set beside the Micah passage:
 “Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways—by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.
     “The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.
     “The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others. Others become his prime motive.
     “The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary.
     “The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism.
     “Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.
     “No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body. But the second-hander has used altruism as a weapon of exploitation and reversed the base of mankind’s moral principles. Men have been taught every precept that destroys the creator. Men have been taught dependence as a virtue.
     “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality—the man who lives to serve others—is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.”
Yes, it’s a long passage, but Rand wasn’t known for brevity. To summarize:
  • “Creators” matter. The rest are parasites.
  • Altruism is immoral. Selfishness is a virtue.
  • Service to others, forced, or voluntary, is repulsive. Live for yourself. 
  • Any restriction compromising the independence of creators should be opposed.
Somehow this all sounds painfully familiar.

Ideas have consequences. My college Western Civ teacher, Katherine Lindley, demonstrated the powerful influence of ideas through the middle ages, enlightenment, industrial revolution, two world wars. She reminded us again, during my senior Humanities seminar: ideas have consequences.  I indulged a blessedly brief infatuation with Friedrich Nietzsche, then repented, as we traced the idea of the death of God, the will to power, social Darwinism and the implications of unrestrained individualism through existentialism, fascism, Hitler.

Ideas have consequences. What we believe about individual worth, human value, service to others, justice, mercy, will shape our conversation, attitudes, policies, budgets.

So, here are some questions playing out in the national media:

Is it true that the “creator” faces nature alone, starts with nothing, produces his own success, needs only to be left alone, totally independent?

Is it true that some people – poor, slow, different, “other,” – are of no value, and survive only through exploitation of creators?

Is interdependence a vice? Independence a virtue? Altruism a grim mistake? Selfishness the highest good?

Here’s another Rand quote, currently echoing through our federal budget discussions:
“Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being - nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands and protection, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal and penalizes him for his virtues in order to reward them for their vices, which means: a society based on the ethics of altruism.” (The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism 1963 )
Is it okay to call groups of people parasites? Leeches? To suggest we’d be better off without them? To discuss possible avenues of elimination?

Should our society be structured to benefit “creators”, with little regard for “second-handers,” average workers, the unemployed, those not able to work?

Who do we reward? Who do we punish? Who do we protect? Who do we honor?

What happens when we scorn "the ethics of altruism"?

And what, exactly, is justice? Retribution? Redistribution? Restoration? Something beyond all three?

Is there a place for mercy? In our courts, our economy, our global trade?

Would we recognize humility if we saw it? Would we value it? Or stomp it down?

Thinking is hard work. Tracing ideas, envisioning consequences, finding sources, imagining alternatives.

I’ve been imagining a world where Ayn Rand wins. I don’t want to live there, but I see it pressing close on every side.

What does it mean, today, in suburban Pennsylvania, to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God?

Maybe it starts by refusing to call others “them.”

By insisting on the value of those least like me.

By turning the channel on rants that dehumanize.

By finding ways to hear the stories, share the concerns, shoulder the burdens of those who have never found a way to fit the current structure.

Maybe it starts with questioning philosophies and policies that favor selfishness over service and compassion.

Maybe it starts with understanding more deeply what the prophets meant when they spoke, again and again, of “justice.”
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.
               Zechariah 7:9
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
 to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
                       (Isaiah 10:1-3) 
This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith What's Your Platform?

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Remember those in prison

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Data Source: Source: Roy Walmsley, International Centre for Prison Studies,
“World Prison Population List (8th edition),” January 2009.
I’ve been working through topics that shape US party platforms, praying, as I start each week, about the topic that comes next. This week: Prisons. Prison privatization. Mandated sentencing. Prison labor.

I once helped empty an apartment left vacant by an aging hoarder. Each room was worse than the one before, each stack confronting me more troubling than the last. Roaches darted from every pile; holes in the ceiling dripped black tar. I had agreed without knowing the extent of the damage, and found myself dreading each next step on the way.

I’m beginning to feel a bit like that as I follow rabbit trails of numbers, dig through stacks of statistics. Part of me would rather not know: not know the extent of our culture’s obsession with guns, not see the staggering cost of our dependence on weapons.

And I would rather not remember, think about, acknowledge anything to do with prison.

For fourteen years my husband worked for a prison ministry and we knew, up close and personal, men and women who had done time. We had ex-offenders for dinner. I organized delivery of Christmas gifts to children whose parents were incarcerated. I listened to my husband’s stories of visits to prisons across the country, around the globe, and stood in worship with men whose first experience of worship and God’s grace took place behind bars.

I know from my own conversations, from my own friendships, that there is much that is broken in our correctional system. I know men who with a halfway attentive lawyer would have been released on probation, yet did significant time because the public defender systems of many states offer no incentive for genuine legal aid.

I know there is little effort made to give inmates tools to face reentry, little support given to those who leave prison with no safety net of family or friends.

And I’ve seen, first hand, the damage to families when a loved one is sent away, too far to visit, with no sense of justice done.

Remember those in prison.

As if you were together with them in prison.

As if you were the one ripped from your family, your life, and locked away until . . .

from Pew Center on the States Infographic
As I’ve inventoried the sad stories I've seen and know, I’ve also done some digging, and find myself grieving, and wondering, and praying. The reality is far worse than I knew.

Some simple facts:

The United States is the uncontested leader in incarceration. As of 2009, our incarceration rate (743 per 100,000) was almost eight times the average of Western European countries (96 per 100,000), more than five times the worldwide average of 146 per 100,000.

One in 104 American adults is behind bars. One in 33 is under correctional control (on bail, on parole, in prison or jail).

One in four of the world’s inmates is doing time in an American prison.

16% (350,000) of incarcerated adults are mentally ill. The percentage in juvenile custody is even higher.

3/4 of drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent offenders or in prison solely for drug offenses.

85 percent of all juveniles who appear in juvenile court are functionally illiterate. More than 6 in 10 of all prison inmates would have difficulty writing a letter, or filling out a job application.

Young black men without a high school diploma are now more likely to be incarcerated than employed. 

More than 2.7 million children now have an incarcerated parent. That’s one child in every 28.

I find these statistics alarming. Take the time to read them slowly. One in 28 children: that's an average of one child in every classroom. Multiply the misery. Then multiply the expense.

Yes, our move to lock up drug offenders, the mentally ill, illegal aliens, hard to manage juveniles is more and more expensive. Many states (like my own state of Pennsylvania) now spend significantly more on prisons than on higher education.

Even more alarming than the avalanche of jarring statistics and troubling graphs is the impetus spurring this explosion of expense and human misery.

Who benefits from locking so many people behind bars?

What motivates all the tough on crime rhetoric? The “three strikes/you’re out” slogans? The immoral mantra of “lock them up and throw away the key”?

There are books written on this, but here’s the piece that alarms me: a move to privatize prisons has introduced a financial incentive to increased incarceration.

Simple logic would suggest we’re all better off if prison populations are kept as low as possible.

But once corporations begin building prisons and looking at those prisons as an avenue to profit, that simple logic is swept away as the new prison-industrial complex presses politicians to sell prisons, to authorize private prisons, to guarantee prison populations that maximize profit.

Data Source: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.
(Graph: Prison Policy Initiative, 2010)
It’s hard to tease out cause and effect in a subject as complicated as crime and punishment, but any chart depicting prison populations as percentage of population show a relatively stable rate through the mid seventies. While Nixon’s “War on Drugs” led to a slight rise in the tide of incarcerations, the real change came in the mid eighties. In 1984, a number of Tennessee investors with close ties to the state legislature formed Corrections Corporation of America, (CCA), as a way to use venture capital, rather than public money, to build a new prison and lease the beds to the state. Since then, privatized prisons have been a tremendous growth industry, allowing correctional departments to add prison beds with lower up-front costs.

As of today, nearly ten percent of inmates are housed in private prisons run by a private industry that exercises significant influence over all aspect of our justice system.

According to a  recent Justice Policy Institute report:
For-profit private prison companies primarily use three strategies to influence policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships, networks, and associations. Over the years, these political strategies have allowed private prison companies to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration and thus greater profit margins for their company. 
The report offers detailed evidence of the cozy relationship between lawmakers, congressional staffers, prison industries, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a self-described “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators.”  A more recent Nation article   offers details about the influence of corporately-funded ALEC in ensuring growth in the prison industry:
ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. . . . ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country. . . ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators and CCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.
"We pause here to note CCA stock is up 340%
in the last 10 years; the S&P 500 is up less than 20%."
Even more troubling than the thought that private profit is behind our nation’s expansive prison population is the suggestion that prison labor has become a new form of slavery, providing even further profits for the prison industry and replacing good jobs here in the US, even outsourced jobs in other countries, with work done for just pennies an hour. The Nation article describes the legal maneuvering that made this possible; a Global Research report offers specifics:
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. . . Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call "highly skilled positions."  . . .
Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.
As the Global Research report notes:
Human rights organizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States. . . For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don't have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don't like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.
As I read report after report, I find myself staring out over my green backyard, enjoying the silence of my quiet study, wondering what it would be like to be locked away, to be working for pennies, to have no privacy, no freedom, no hope.

And I repent: of my own ignorance. My disinterest. My failure to remember those in prison. My naive trust that those elected to serve the common good are in fact doing that, rather than bending to pressure from industries where profit is the highest, sometimes the only, goal.

What do I take from this?
  • As I’ve said on every topic I’ve examined, industry money controls the conversation, shapes legislation, and drowns out the legitimate concerns of citizens.
  • Politicians who pass legislation ensuring expanded prison populations, or who promote fear as a tool to ensure votes, do a disservice to the truth, their constituents, and our already tight budgets. 
  • Christians who advocate a “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality need to rethink the meaning of grace, forgiveness, restoration, and what it looks like to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • As a free person, able to read, able to vote, I have a moral obligation to be alert, knowledgeable, and articulate about unjust incarceration policies, and I am without excuse if I don’t remember, pray for, and look for ways to serve those who find themselves in prison.
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Overcrowding in a California state prions; Wikipedia
This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Some Trust in Chariots

Google “dangerous defense cuts” and you might find yourself believing our nation is on the very brink of military disaster. If the Budget Control Act passed last summer goes into effect this fall, about $500 billion, or $55 billion a year over nine years, will be cut from the defense budget, on top of the $487 billion in cuts already planned.

Leave aside the fact that the defense budget itself won’t be cut at all – it just won’t grow quite as fast as originally planned. (Confusing? That may be the point). And leave aside questions of who would be responsible if those agreed-on “cuts” do take place.  

And set on hold the questions about just war, rights of nations to defend themselves, the role of the Christian in advocating peace, and just what Jesus might have meant when he said “Blesssed are the peacemakers”.

Consider, instead, this simple graph from SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a globally recognized think tank on armed conflict and disarmament:

Supporters of ever-higher defense spending find the graph offensive. Chinese soldiers aren’t paid as much as American soldiers. And if we’re going to be a superpower, we need to spend like one, right?

But how much are we spending? The official 2012 defense budget is $530 billion, but according to a recent Atlantic article, almost half the money spent on defense is squirreled away in other places: spending on nuclear weapons development ($18.5 billion), Homeland Security ($46 billion), the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans’ medical care, military aid to allies, interest on the military’s portion of national debt. The estimated total:  $986.1 billion in 2011.

The numbers make my eyes glaze over. But it’s impossible to talk about our national priorities without getting into numbers. Like the percent of GDP spent on defense (the graph to the left offers those numbers).

I’m reminded of the saying “Figures lie and liars figure.” You can twist the numbers any way you want.

But some numbers don’t get much air time. Like $11 billion – the amount written off as “lost” in Iraq in 2007.

Or $60 billion: the amount “lost” in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. 

When you think about it, though, money not officially “lost” is often lost in other ways:

Billions spent on updating an aging nuclear arsenal that retired military officers say  should have been dramatically reduced decades ago.

Billions spent on weapons that don’t make it into production, or prove too expensive to build or maintain.

Billions spent to keep men and women stationed on over 1000 military bases in over 130 countries, many on bases left over from World War 2 and the Cold War. (Do we really need  200 base sites in Germany? 108 in Japan? 82 in South Korea?)

Billions given in military aid to repressive governments, so they can buy our guns and keep their citizens in line.

In a world where one out of six people lack access to safe drinking water, where 2.4 million children die each year from preventable diseases despite the availability of effective vaccines, who decides where our dollars are spent? And who benefits from those decisions?
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.  This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.  Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."  (Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 16 April 1953)
Eisenhower, a five star Army general and Supreme Commander of the Allied forces during World War II began his time as president deeply concerned about military spending. In his farewell speech eight years later he warned of the continuing danger of military influence:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. ” (Farewell Address to the Nation  January 17, 1961)  
Is our current American citizenry alert and knowledgeable enough to ensure that security and liberty prosper?

The more I read, the more doubtful I become. We repeat what we’re told, without wondering whose words we’re repeating.

Right now we’re being told that cuts to defense will endanger jobs and threaten our security.

Whose jobs? How many?

Are those jobs more important than those we’ve lost already?

And do all those billions spent really make us safer?

Columnist Robert Koehler, considering cuts to mail delivery service, notes:
"The proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, mental health services, environmental cleanup, National Parks programs and even, yeah, Saturday mail delivery are miniscule compared to the unmet social needs we haven't yet begun to address in this country, in education, renewable energy and so much more. But we're spending with reckless abandon to arm ourselves and our allies and provoke our enemies, and sometimes arm them as well, creating the sort of world no one (almost no one) wants: a world of endless war. . . .
"'National defense' is perhaps the most cynical -- and effective -- lie in human history, commanding the quaking allegiance of the populace over and over again, justifying virtually any activity, devouring the planet's resources, and ever failing to deliver the promised peace, indeed, delivering only the conditions for the next war. Few things in today's world are more unsettling than the fact that "national defense" still owns the country's politics, its budget -- and the minds of far too many of its citizens."
FCNL: Where Do Our Income Tax Dollars Go?
Is he right?

Does “national defense” own the country’s politics, its budget, the minds of citizens?

How many key staffers are recent employees of major defense contractors? How many hold stock in those corporations? How many expect to return to those companies after their time on Capital Hill?

Which legislators have received money from defense contractors? How much? With what expectation?

Why do legislators committed to a balanced budget cry foul at any hint of cuts in military spending?

Why is there such hot opposition to an international arms control treaty, an attempt to curb the flow of guns to countries where genocide and human rights violations are taking place?

In 2001, just weeks after the tragedies of 9/11, Wendell Berry warned against a false hope in violent retribution. In Thoughts in the Presence of Fear, he reflected on the false promise of military expenditure:
XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need something new to replace our perpetual “war to end war?”
XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.
XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable.
The discussion about national security, defense budgets, arms control, the safety of our nation, will continue, with more and more heat, less and less wisdom, through the months ahead.

What do I take from this?
  • As I’ve noted before: industry money controls the conversation, shapes legislation, and drowns out the legitimate concerns of citizens.
  • Politicians who say “it’s dangerous to cut defense” without clear discussion of numbers and possible options are not being honest with the American people.
  • Christians who promote ever-increasing investment in defense need to rethink their loyalties, the source of their safety, and the uncompromising witness for peace of faithful believers across the centuries.
  • As an agent of peace, and a citizen of the most powerful nation on the planet, I have a moral obligation to be alert, knowledgeable, and articulate about the dangers we equate security with dollars spent on guns.
This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.