September 19, 2007
One of the many stories that could be mentioned in this regard comes at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Just before Jesus was capitally punished by the Roman Empire, he gave his followers an unequivocal lesson about violence that we can ill afford to ignore today.
When the authorities came to arrest Jesus, the apostle Peter did what most of us would do under similar circumstances. He drew his sword in defense of the life of his friend and teacher — who he also believed was the Son of God — and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.
For Christians still wedded to the just war theory, a more “just cause” for the use of violence in all of history is hard to imagine.
Jesus responded, however, not with approval, but by emphasizing once again the centrality of love, even for the enemy, to his teachings. He rebuked Peter, saying: “Put your sword back in its sheath, for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”
The key word there is “all.” Jesus was not only condemning Peter’s violence in that moment some two thousand years ago, but explicitly issuing a warning to anyone, anywhere who chooses violence.
This story should make Christians in this country uncomfortable, because no other nation is currently taking up the sword with more zeal or recklessly wielding it around the world than our own.
The Democrat-led House of Representatives, for example, recently passed a $460 billion defense bill for 2008, which did not include the $142 billion that the administration is seeking to continue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the coming year.
Adjusted for inflation, this level of military spending has not been seen since World War II. Looked at another way, the astronomically large figure of $460 billion by itself, when broken down equates to us spending as a nation more than $14,000 a second, every second of the year, on “defense.”
And if that weren’t enough, in May Congress authorized another $100 billion to fund the war in Iraq just through the end of this fiscal year this month, after of course stripping any mention of that pesky timetable for the withdrawal of troops out of the bill.
So much for the “will of the people,” who clearly voted last November to end the war, or the notion of an actual opposition party.
To fully understand the enormity of our defense budget, however, it must be put in context. Despite making up only five percent of the world’s population, the United States spends almost as much on weapons and preparing for war as the rest of the world combined.
This has bought us the first truly global empire, physically manifested in a vast network of military outposts. According to the Defense Department’s official tally, the U.S. maintains 737 foreign military bases with troops stationed in more than 130 countries, and enough nuclear weapons in its arsenal to destroy the world many times over.
Not only are we living by the sword, but we are selling more swords than any other country in the world. The United States has in fact long dominated the international arms trade, but outdid even itself last fiscal year when it signed a record-setting $21 billion worth of weapons deals. And you don’t become the number one dealer by being too discriminating about your buyers. As an analysis by the World Policy Institute in 2005 revealed, a full 80 percent of the United States’ top 25 arms clients in the developing world were, according to the State Department’s own reports, “either undemocratic regimes or governments with records of major human rights abuses.”
We may not be able to produce a competitive automobile any more, but nobody knows how to kill like America.
This reliance on the sword has not come without a cost. By any indicator it has created a more dangerous and violent world. The “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq have turned a world that was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the U.S. immediately following the horror of September 11, decisively against us, and led to a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide.
Terrorism will not be defeated by the terrorism of war. Only love can overcome hatred and guide us down the path towards real security.
If Christians are to follow the calling that they all have to be peacemakers, demanding an immediate end to the war in Iraq and a new non-militaristic approach to combating terrorism that addresses its root causes is an urgent necessity. But, it is simply not enough.
As long as we maintain such a large military establishment, we are dooming ourselves to perpetual war. Therefore, central to any serious movement for peace in this country must also be an urgent call to begin significantly cutting our bloated defense budget. We must as a nation, like Peter, heed Jesus’ warning to disarm and put down our sword. Only then, when the U.S. takes this bold step off the road to destruction will we be able to truly divert our immense wealth and resources to taking care of our brothers and sisters in need.
As Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, astutely taught: there is enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s needs and war.