STRUGGLING FOR THE SOUL OF ONE'S COUNTRY
If these statements were epigraphs, I would add a third, from a recently published book by Chalmers Johnson:
During February and March a year ago, before the bombs began to fall on Baghdad, I traveled down the East Coast giving a talk to university students and others entitled "Toward a Politics of Justice, Compassion, Sustainability and Hope." I'm afraid that in this talk I gave short shrift to hope. For then as now it has been difficult to find grounds for genuine hope. Virtually everywhere one looks one sees wars, ethnic strife, poverty and oppression, as well as forces of enormous strength—multinational corporations, powerful governments, including our own, the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization—striving for total economic globalization, which, in my view, will spell disaster for hundreds of millions in what we used to call the Third World. Our new century and our new millennium, one might say, have not gotten off to a very good start.
Thus I have to acknowledge that those feeling despondent about the world situation have ample justification for their despondency.
Yet there is another reality, one which offers support for a more positive vision. This reality was given a voice last year by the millions who demonstrated for peace. It has also been expressed each year since 2000 by a gathering, first of thousands but this year of more than a hundred thousand, of labor activists, representatives of indigenous groups, students, environmentalists and others who have met to share stories, strategies and plans for creating an alternative to the supposed inevitability of globalization. I refer to the World Social Forum, whose slogan is "Another World Is Possible." One of their key spokespersons is the novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy, who has said, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing."2 Though it requires a kind of leap of faith to embrace such a vision, I do believe that the human family is on the cusp of a great evolutionary move toward a planetary society that is more just, more peaceful, and more sustainable than our present world and that there are billions of Earth's citizens longing for such a world to come into existence.
I believe also that our country, once a light to the nations, "a city on a hill," is perhaps the greatest impediment to the realization of such a global society. I have in mind not only the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemptive war and its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming or the International Criminal Court or the Treaty on Land Mines or other efforts of the world's countries to achieve a more humane, more rational ordering of the affairs among nations. I am thinking of the psychological and spiritual condition of our people which makes possible such aberrant behavior. During the Vietnam War era someone, I think it was Senator J. William Fulbright, one of our truly outstanding twentieth-century statesmen, spoke of our nation as "a sick society." I fear that that is an apt description today. For in my view we are a country suffering multiple pathologies, chief among them a kind of love affair with violence and, among our leaders and many of our citizens, an addiction to militarism and to war. Sadly, like all addicts, we are also "in denial."
We are addicted to much else as well—to ceaseless, omnivorous consumption of Earth's limited resources and to the lies of politicians and corporate executives (perhaps this is less true after the Enron and related scandals) about the true condition of our society and the planet. In addition, we cling compulsively to our ignorance of the crimes our country has committed against the dark-skinned peoples of the global South, especially in the period since 1945. Like mischievous children, we pretend to a moral innocence which is not rightly ours.
I find it a delicious irony that an actor, Martin Sheen, who plays the part of the president of the United States in a TV series, The West Wing, tells the painful truth about our society when the actual resident of the White House appears to be severely challenged in the area of truth-telling. Here is what Sheen has said, in an interview published in The Progressive last July.
One may take exception to some of the particulars of Sheen's indictment but the evidence supporting his overall charge is too pervasive to be denied. Gary Kohls, a physician in Minnesota, provides some of the depressing statistics: in an average year "27,000 Americans commit suicide, a disproportionate number of which are gay teens"; each year approximately 85,000 Americans are wounded by firearms "with teens representing a disproportionately large number of the perpetrators and victims." Moreover, according to a HHS report, nearly a million children are reported annually to be victims of serious abuse and neglect.4 These are staggering figures, and one might have hoped that the record of drive-by shootings, hostage-takings, adolescent rampages that leave a classroom or schoolyard littered with the bodies of teachers and classmates, the accumulated Columbines of our society—one might have hoped that when combined with the evidence of societal dysfunction that the figures just cited provide there would have been a loud demand for a time of national mourning followed by a genuine national dialogue about the causes of the sickness that afflicts us. Of course, we do have from time to time debates in Congress concerning gun control. But I am talking about soul-searching, a genuine probing of the consciousness of this country in a quest for solutions to our appalling addiction to violence. But how do you tell a nation of almost three hundred million that it needs to initiate something like a national "twelve-step" program?
Since the sickness of our society is, at bottom, a spiritual sickness, any healing, to be efficacious, must be spiritual also. But I am not at all certain that the religious institutions of the country are capable of providing the necessary guidance and nurturing to bring about that healing. Too often they are part of the problem, too enmeshed in the dominant culture and too dependent upon the perks that culture offers to play the roles of prophet and healer that our times cry out for. I will have more to say about this matter in a moment.
In the interview just mentioned, Sheen says that the pathologies we suffer are the price we pay for the slaughter of people in the global South for which our government is responsible. Perhaps he is correct, for that slaughter has been awesome. Former CIA operatives estimate that in the low-intensity conflicts, CIA-orchestrated coups, outright invasions and wars that the U.S. has waged since 1945, as many as eight million people, mostly civilians, have been killed— a "third world war" some of these critics claim. Moreover, from Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Dominican Republic, to Iran under the Shah, to Nicaragua under the Somoza dictatorship, to Zaire, where President Mobutu robbed his country of hundreds of millions of dollars and murdered hundred of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women, U.S. support for bloody, rapacious regimes has not wavered.5
Then there's the Vietnam War, which still haunts this nation, a war in which American forces killed three and a half million Vietnamese and 150,000 Cambodians, dropping more tonnage of bombs on those lands than were dropped by the Allies during all of World War II.6 How does a country atone for such crimes, especially when millions of its citizens refuse to acknowledge that crimes were committed?
One is surely justified in also asking, How could our leaders expect to visit such destruction on the people of those lands without serious consequences here at home? It should come as no surprise that, according to some reports, more Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than the total number of U.S. personnel killed in the war, 58,000. 7 Nor should it surprise us that many of the men who have gone on a shooting spree in various parts of the country, terrorizing entire cities and communities, as in the case of John Muhammad, have been trained as killers and have honed their skills as marksmen while in the military. I would speculate that many of these men kill fellow citizens out of a deep, perhaps half-conscious rage at the country, and its presumably indifferent and uncomprehending citizens, who taught them in homes and schools and Sunday schools to honor human life, then sent them to Vietnam or Iraq to take human life.
Chalmers Johnson, in a late-nineties book entitled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, writes regarding the "profligate waste of our resources on irrelevant weapons systems" and of terrorist acts against U. S. installations "as portents of a twenty-first century crisis in America's informal empire, an empire based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others."8
Dominating and controlling other peoples, it seems, has become our nation's destiny. We've been at it longer than most of us would like to contemplate. General Smedley Butler, when he retired as commandant of the Marine Corps in the mid-thirties, wrote that for more than 33 years he had been "a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism," adding that he had taken part in the "raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street." We must give up, he said, "the Prussian ideal of imposing our wills upon other people in distant places."9 Imposing our will on others, unfortunately, has become such an ingrained habit among the elite who year after year staff the White House, the Department of State and the Pentagon, that I think it appropriate to call it an addiction.
In January I gave a talk at a local church which began with these words :"As children we are taught to love our country and that is proper, for there is much to love." To be healthy, however, love of country, like love of a friend, requires a certain restraint, a certain capacity for constructive criticism. Inordinate love of country, a love which tends to elevate the country to a semi-divine status beyond the reach of rational and ethical critique is, from the perspective of the religious traditions with which I suspect most of us are affiliated, idolatrous. And it is often apparent, I think, that those claiming for their country a righteousness which they deny to other counties, experience by their vigorous assertion of the goodness of their nation a kind of vicarious righteousness of their own. In the language that Christians have traditionally used, what they experience, I would guess, is something like a feeling of "justification."
For our times it may be critical to point out that such close identification between a nation and the individual citizen—the sort of thing that occurred in Nazi Germany—can have extremely deleterious consequences, among them a propensity to self-aggrandizement that includes an enormous degree of pride and rigid belief in the near-infallible correctness of one's judgments. A word we've often encountered recently in writings about George W. Bush and his administration, which describes the man and many who surround him more precisely than any other I can think of, is "hubris."
Extreme hubris, as the ancient Greeks believed, may be understood as a form of madness, and I do not think it entirely an exaggeration to suggest that some of the people providing advice and policy formulations to George W. Bush are a little mad. Two of these, David Frum and Richard Perle, have written a book entitled An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror10 in which they make such extravagant claims for the righteousness of America and for the prerogatives of George W. Bush in his campaign against evil regimes that they deserve to be numbered among those who have been unhinged by their sense of America's victimization following 9/11. Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Harper's, requires only two sentences to expose their folly. "Evil is a story to which not even Billy Graham can write an end; nor can the 101st Airborne Division set up a secure perimeter around the sin of pride. The War on Terror is a war against an abstract noun, as unwinnable as the wars on hunger, drugs, crime and human nature. . ."11 If Frum and Perle represent an extreme case of the addiction to the image of America as a "righteous empire," many millions more appear to share that affliction.
Another addiction which I believe greatly contributes to our distressed spiritual condition is our consumer lifestyle. We do well to remind ourselves that we North Americans constitute only 4.5 percent of Earth's population yet consume 25 percent of Earth's limited resources and produce 25 percent of the greenhouse gases and other pollutants contaminating Earth's atmosphere and ecosystems. If only one quarter of the total world population consumed at our rate, we would need four additional planets. Our habit of consumption is so grand, so lordly, so wasteful, and so indifferent to its impact on the Earth and on the rest of Earth's inhabitants, 2.5 billion of whom live on $2.00 per day or less, one billion of those on $1.00 per day or less, that merely to contemplate it seriously can make one's head swim.12 We North Americans, I think it is accurate to say, are Earth's spoiled children, snatching at anything we take a fancy to, assuming it is ours by right.
In our innocence, most of our citizens have no idea that there is any connection between our affluence and the poverty and suffering of the 2.5 billion struggling to survive each day on what we blithely hand over for an ice-cream cone. But there is a connection and those of us who care about justice and fairness should remember and do our best to teach others that fact. Many good people—students, priests and nuns, labor organizers, farm laborers, and others—have died in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, and Columbia so that the we can have bananas, copper and oil at rock bottom prices.
This may be difficult for many of us to accept, but I believe it is essential for anyone struggling for social justice, peace and preservation of the Creation to recognize that the economic system which has made possible our enormous affluence and our technological superiority, capitalism, is also increasingly a major threat to the Creation. For capitalism recognizes no limits. But limits are real, as real as human mortality or our sorrow over the end of a love affair or a marriage. Today a thousand enormous corporations control the destiny of the human species and all other Earth species; and their exclusive emphasis on profits and such practices as clear-cutting mountainsides and monopolizing the use of natural resources, as Coca Cola is currently doing with water in parts of India, are jeopardizing the very foundations of life on Earth.13
Paul Hawken, co-author of Natural Capitalism, leaves no doubt as to the role of these corporate interests in undermining the interests of the rest of us. Hawken is not opposed to business; in fact, he has started businesses and written a book about the process. It is huge multinational corporations, with their narrow focus on profits and their paucity of imagination about the way in which all elements of the created order are parts of an interdependent system, which threaten the Creation. He cites the meeting in 2000 at the Hague regarding climate change. There four governments—Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.S—"managed to reduce a conversation about the fate of the world and the future of energy into concepts like 'restrictions' and 'protecting our way of life.'"14 And, of course, these governments were fronting for oil and coal and gas and auto companies. This meeting provided clear evidence that the multinational corporations cannot deal in a sane fashion with the crises of global life in the 21st century.
Ecological sanity and social justice, Hawken implies, are like Siamese twins. One without the other is unthinkable. Every time a square mile of rain forest is clear-cut; every time drilling for oil occurs in the habitat of indigenous people; every time a dam is built which destroys wetlands and floods rivers where fishermen have for centuries gained a living—each time this sort of desecration of the environment takes place, human suffering is increased. And, says Hawken, it is to the alleviation of suffering that our attention should be directed.15
And here, I would suggest, is where we, those of us who are motivated by faith and by the ethical imperatives of our faith traditions, come in—or should come in. My wife and I recently returned from a visit to Central America, and while in Guatemala I made a trip with a group of young persons to the Guatemala City dump where hundreds of people survive on what they can retrieve from the leftovers and discards of the city's more fortunate inhabitants. An organization which calls itself Camino Seguro, "Safe Passage," provides each day one meal and classes for several hundred children who otherwise would spend their days sifting through garbage, eating whatever they can salvage, with no opportunity at all for education. I heard of some families, not so lucky, who live literally in the dump.
Also in Guatemala I saw a T-shirt on which were written these words: "To transform this world that surrounds us in such a manner that everyone can live at least with dignity." Let me repeat: "To transform this world that surrounds us in such a manner that everyone—todo el mundo—can live at least with dignity." That, I suggest, ought to be the goal, the mission, the passion of all of us who claim any sort of allegiance to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or to another religious faith. For me it is a source of indescribable sadness that the grand vision of the prophet Isaiah of a world healed, made whole, transformed in order to be a fit habitation for the human spirit has been reduced, in much contemporary Christianity, to "God loves you."
Over fifty years ago, Paul Baran wrote words which I take to be a kind of ultimate critique of our society and a key to our pathological state: "People steeped in the culture of monopoly capitalism do not want what they need and do not need what they want."16 We may agree that many people in our society do not need what they want, that, in effect, vast numbers are actually hapless victims of a system which works overtime and spends tens of billions to manufacture artificial needs. But can we agree on what they should want, what their true needs are?
First and foremost, I believe, we need a vision, a picture, if you will, of what a society fit for human beings would look like. No rigidly structured blueprint, mind you, no infallible Marxist prescription for creating a workers' paradise, but a set of ideas and principles on which a more just, compassionate, peaceful, and sustainable global society might be built. "The Earth Charter," which is the result of the collaboration of dozens of people from various nations, religious traditions, and nongovernmental organizations, provides such a set of ideas and principles.17
Secondly, I suspect many of us need help in being rigorously honest with ourselves. We probably need to confess that we, like most of our fellow citizens, have been infected with the virus of consumerism. Our obscene opulence protects us so thoroughly from the pain and indignities that are the daily lot of the other two thirds of Earth's inhabitants, that it is very easy to slip into the habit of thinking that the world and all its wonders exist only for our pleasure and satisfaction. The result is often, I think, a process which is known as infantilization, not a mental and emotional condition conducive to responsible action. Add to this what Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, has identified as "the inertia of affluence," the reluctance of most of us to make the kinds of radical decisions that are necessary if the Earth is to be spared catastrophic ecological damage in the decades ahead, and you have a prescription for disaster.18
I have five grandchildren. Like the people of Samoa and other island nations in the south Pacific, my wife and I have begun to write letters to our grandchildren asking their forgiveness for the destruction of the Earth that our generation and our children's generation are causing. The Earth they will inherit, with possibly thirty percent of its animal and plant species driven to extinction by mid-century, will be a vastly diminished and far less beautiful inheritance than the one received by my wife and me.19
Third, if we wish to be true to our religious heritage, whatever that may be, we will probably have to acknowledge just how compromised most of our religious institutions have been by a relatively uncritical acceptance of our dysfunctional culture. Colman McCarthy, who once wrote for The Washington Post and now teaches peace studies at universities and schools in the Washington area, captures beautifully the contradictions in which we who are believers now find ourselves. Soon after 9/11, George W. Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress and ended with these words: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them. . . May God grant us wisdom and may he watch over the United States."20
McCarthy comments: "Two Roman Catholic cardinals, a Methodist bishop, a rabbi, and an imam rose to applaud Bush's war talk. It wasn't the God of peace—the God of forgiveness, of mercy, of reconciliation, of love—they invoked, but the God of War, who blesses America and its military arsenal of Cobra attack helicopters, F22 Advanced Tactical fighter planes, B-2 bombers, and nuclear missiles . . . ." No one representing the peace churches—the Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren—was present,
Even those who may not agree with a totally pacifist response to violence might consider the proposition that much religion in the U.S. has been hijacked by apostles of aggression, domination, and violence—in short, by militarists guarding the empire—and thus the choice for Christians, and I speak as one raised as a Christian, seems to me to be between Christ and Caesar. Hence as we struggle for the soul of our country, we are also struggling for the soul of our religion.
Most of us have so little experience of "speaking truth to power," to use the Quaker expression, that it may be quite difficult at first to summon the needed courage. But if we wish to be faithful to the principles of our faith, we must do our utmost to find that courage.
A fourth point. Those of us who are Christians need, I believe, to recover the prophetic legacy of the Hebraic faith out of which our faith grew. We need, specifically, to recover the centrality of the passion for justice that the Hebrew scriptures enjoin upon us. Arthur Green, in These Are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life, speaks, I think, for Christians as well as Jews when he writes:
Spreading our basic moral message—that every person is the divine image. . . . requires that Jews be concerned with the welfare, including feeding, housing, and health of all. The Torah's call that we "pursue justice, only justice" (Deuteronomy 16:20) demands that we work toward closing the terrible gaps, especially in education and opportunity, that exist within our society and undermine our moral right to the relative wealth and comfort most of us enjoy. . . . 22
Commenting on recent efforts to recover ancient Jewish spirituality, Green says, "If you try to create a closed world and lovely Jewish piety and build it on foundations of injustice and degradation of others, Isaiah and Amos will not let you sleep."23 We who are Christians can say the same, though we'd want to add the name of Jesus: Isaiah and Amos and Jesus will not let us sleep.
And now a final point. Those of us struggling for the soul of our country will be aided by an emerging global spirituality which transcends all national and ethnic differences, all religious distinctions, all barriers of class, economic background, and gender. This nascent spirituality, deeply rooted in that passion for justice about which Green writes, as well as in the longing for a more peaceful and more sustainable world to which I alluded earlier, finds expression in a variety of movements and events. Surely the emergence of the World Social Forum, with all its sophisticated understanding of the current geopolitical situation and its commitment to a genuine "new world order" designed for the benefit of all of Earth's people, not just those who heretofore have made the rules governing "all God's creatures," signals new possibilities for a spirituality based on global cooperation, mutual respect, and the shared excitement of a struggle for a noble goal. This other world, of course, is the people's alternative to the world envisioned by the officials of the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the World Bank, and the multinational corporations, a world where the interests of the people always take second place to the interests of money and power.
The final section of "The Earth Charter" concludes with these words: "Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life." 24 If we are fully committed to the creation of a world where these principles are not just utopian ideals but a reality for all our brothers and sisters on the planet; and if we make the restoration of the Creation and the establishment of a society where everyone can live at least with dignity a constant preoccupation, as natural for us as breathing, then, I submit, the spirituality for which many of us long will probably take care of itself.
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