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'By their military-industrial complex, thou shalt know them'

Recently I saw the film Charlie Wilson’s War, with Tom Hanks playing the title role. Be forewarned: The film has a little gratuitous nudity and the language is way too vulgar. But the plot line (based mostly on factual events) is compelling. It is the story of a U.S. Senator who works covertly with Israel and Saudi Arabia over several years to funnel a billion dollars to the mujahedeen freedom fighters of Afghanistan. His goal is to defeat the invading Soviet army by providing the mujahedeen with the weapons they desire. In the end, the freedom fighters win, the Soviets go home, and Charlie Wilson is given a prestigious award by the CIA for his determination and savvy.
At the very end of the film, Charlie Wilson is left to plead with the Senate Finance Committee for a measly appropriation to help build some schools in this newly liberated and very poor nation. His request is denied. To paraphrase one of the Senators, “Charlie, who gives a [blankety blank] about some schools in Afghanistan?” For his covert war effort, Wilson was given a half billion dollars. (The Saudis kicked in the other half billion.) But he was denied any funding whatsoever to help rebuild the infrastructure of this fragile and war-torn nation.
We are all too aware of what happened next. The void was quickly filled by the Taliban, al-Qaida, and Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan had become fertile soil for those who would do their mischief and the seeds of 9/11/01 were sown in abundance.
The film is a poignant reminder of just how inconsistent and short-sighted American foreign policy often can be. An opportunity to do lasting good in a nation that may have become an ally was squandered. We pulled out and never looked back, until it was too late. Seemingly we are happy to put up $500 million to fight a war but unwilling to “waste” a million dollars helping to build a better life for the people of that region. As the old folk song has it, “When will we ever learn?”
I recently read that the U.S. last year spent well over 50 billion dollars just on intelligence and surveillance. This year the Pentagon will spend close to 400 billion dollars for weaponry. And this figure does not include tens of billions more spent by other military-related agencies including the CIA and homeland security, or the costs of the Iraq War which will undoubtedly reach a trillion dollars in the not-too-distant future. Moreover, the procurement budget, which is where spending originates for new (and often unnecessary) weapons systems, rose almost 50 percent from 2002 to 2006.
At the same time, Congress was seeking to make cuts in school lunch programs and heating assistance for the poor. How powerful would it be if our enormous wealth was used to help drain the swamps of poverty, disease, illiteracy, envy, and hopelessness? As Kingdom people, this should be a top priority for all of us.
This year a Bangladeshi banker named Muhammad Yunus received the Noble Peace Prize for his work in micro-economics. This simple yet revolutionary concept places small loans (as little as $75) into the hands of poor people to help them start their own businesses. In countries like Bangladesh and India it has already been a huge success in generating income for families, building self-esteem, and giving hope for the future. Said one commentator, “This simple idea could do more for world peace than any military operation could ever do.”
I often reflect on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The sin of the Rich Man was not what he did but what he didn’t do. He failed to even notice, much less help, the one who was most in need of help. And for that, Jesus gives him a fateful and merciless word of condemnation for all eternity. I hope the same can never be said of the nation I love so much. But what are we to think when we propose an annual budget of more than three trillion dollars that boosts military spending to $515 billion dollars while dramatically cutting funding for both Medicare and Medicaid?
As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord who gave his all for the sake of the whole world, may we be motivated to think again about how best to fight the evils of this world. War and violence are not Kingdom principles. As M.L. King noted on many occasions, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” Our generosity as a nation is not the total answer to all the world’s ills, but when you are the richest kid on the block, you had better be willing to share in a very generous manner.
Perhaps the hymn writer said it best when he penned these lines:
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums,
But deeds of love and mercy,
the heavenly Kingdom comes.
If only we truly believed it.
Paul Harrington is pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, and a board member of Metro Lutheran.