Signs of hope in the middle of anger and fear...
Throughout the summer, a number of projects have been developing: some are scraping and preparing the outside windows for painting, new signs and banners are being created for the front of the church, a summer choir is practicing for the South African Freedom Mass on August, 29 and a group of Sunday School parents and leaders have been working with me on ways to strengthen that ministry. In fact, you may have seen our ad in the Berkshire Eagle. We have also hosted a conversation/study group re: Christianity and Islam, participated in two river clean up events and conducted a silent auction to raise funds for schools for girls in Afghanistan.
I remind you of these various commitments for one reason: our faith calls us into action. There is no unitary form of action in our tradition - as you can see, turning the Word into Flesh in our time has many styles - but central to them all is hope. We live in an increasingly cynical and mean-spirited era. It may be no more cruel than at other times in history, but because we are bombarded by 24/7 cable television and other forms of social media, we are all too aware of the carping, complaining, and cruelty that shapes public discourse. Add to this the instant broadcast of the world's tragedies - from tsunamis to shoot-outs in Afghanistan - and it is no wonder many are weary to the core of their souls.
I recently engaged in a prolonged "internet argument" with a person who wrote the most vile and ugly things about the United States military, government and churches. In many ways he was right - there have been horrible things done in the name of God and country and they must never be forgotten - but at the same time there has been a great deal of good done, too. But all he could do was rant and demean. It broke my heart. I share this with you only because of his profound and vicious cynicism. It is all too virulent - and I believe people of faith have been called to an antidote to the hatred and fear. Saint Paul said that offering hope, light, and creative alternatives to the darkness looks foolish to those trapped in the despair of the world. In First Corinthians 1 he puts it like this beginning in the verse 10.
I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I'll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common... The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written, I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots."
So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness."
Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"?
Which is to say that we have been called by God to become "fools for Christ." Women, men, and children who live into the alternative of Christ's cross that embraces suffering with patience, seeks to find common ground amidst the carping and shares justice and compassion with the cynics so that real lives are healed. In a word, to be a fool for Christ is to give shape and form to hope in our generation. This takes community and support, it demands honesty and humility, too. As the rock and roll singer, Lou Reed, says: It takes a busload of faith to get by!
I give thanks for the way you are making hope visible in the world. I rejoice in the ways you are willing to wrestle with hard truths and move towards healing. I am humbled by your commitment to God and one another. The jazz artist, Herbie Hancock, recently released a version of the song "Don't Give Up" that reminds me of First Church at our best...
Later in the afternoon, I came across another sign of hope in this age of anger and fear: Nicholas Kristoff column in the NY Times entitled, "1 Soldier or 20 Schools?" It, too, is worth reading:
The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year alone than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War — combined. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service finds that the war on terror, including Afghanistan and Iraq, has been, by far, the costliest war in American history aside from World War II. It adjusted costs of all previous wars for inflation.
Those historical comparisons should be a wake-up call to President Obama, underscoring how our military strategy is not only a mess — as the recent leaked documents from Afghanistan suggested — but also more broadly reflects a gross misallocation of resources. One legacy of the 9/11 attacks was a distortion of American policy: By the standards of history and cost-effectiveness, we are hugely overinvested in military tools and underinvested in education and diplomacy.
It was reflexive for liberals to rail at President George W. Bush for jingoism. But it is President Obama who is now requesting 6.1 percent more in military spending than the peak of military spending under Mr. Bush. And it is Mr. Obama who has tripled the number of American troops in Afghanistan since he took office. (A bill providing $37 billion to continue financing America’s two wars was approved by the House on Tuesday and is awaiting his signature.)
Under Mr. Obama, we are now spending more money on the military, after adjusting for inflation, than in the peak of the cold war, Vietnam War or Korean War. Our battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to The Washington Post, the number of people with “top secret” clearance is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, a sobering report from the College Board says that the United States, which used to lead the world in the proportion of young people with college degrees, has dropped to 12th. What’s more, an unbalanced focus on weapons alone is often counterproductive, creating a nationalist backlash against foreign “invaders.” Over all, education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism. And the trade-offs are staggering: For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there. Hawks retort that it’s impossible to run schools in Afghanistan unless there are American troops to protect them. But that’s incorrect.
CARE, a humanitarian organization, operates 300 schools in Afghanistan, and not one has been burned by the Taliban. Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame, has overseen the building of 145 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and operates dozens more in tents or rented buildings — and he says that not one has been destroyed by the Taliban either. Aid groups show that it is quite possible to run schools so long as there is respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them. And my hunch is that CARE and Mr. Mortenson are doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.
The American military has been eagerly reading “Three Cups of Tea” but hasn’t absorbed the central lesson: building schools is a better bet for peace than firing missiles (especially when one cruise missile costs about as much as building 11 schools). Mr. Mortenson lamented to me that for the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year, America could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan. That would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.
The latest uproar over Pakistani hand-holding with the Afghan Taliban underscores that billions of dollars in U.S. military aid just doesn’t buy the loyalty it used to. In contrast, education can actually transform a nation. That’s one reason Bangladesh is calmer than Pakistan, Oman is less threatening than Yemen. Paradoxically, the most eloquent advocate in government for balance in financing priorities has been Mr. Gates, the defense secretary. He has noted that the military has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has diplomats.
Faced with constant demands for more, Mr. Gates in May asked: “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”
In the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised to invest in a global education fund. Since then, he seems to have forgotten the idea — even though he is spending enough every five weeks in Afghanistan to ensure that practically every child on our planet gets a primary education. We won our nation’s independence for $2.4 billion in today’s money, the Congressional Research Service report said. That was good value, considering that we now fritter the same amount every nine days in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama, isn’t it time to rebalance our priorities?
And as the day comes to a close, my mind turns to the Prayer of St. Francis - words of challenge and compassion and commitment rather than anger and fear - and offer them as yet one more sign of encouragement:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
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;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen