Sunday, November 30, 2008

Which reality?

The 2008 SOA vigil was a sobering event. The most profoundly moving part was a role call of the names of victims who have been killed in Latin America by graduates of SOA training. Several hundred names were read and for each name the crowd responded with Presente! As the role call continued, a massive funeral procession, more than 20,000 strong, made it’s way slowly past the fenced-off entrance to Fort Benning. As each mourner passed the gates they deposited a cross bearing the name of a victim in the wire mesh fence. The process continued for more than 2 hours and they only covered a small fraction of the more than 10,000 documented victims of US intervention in Mexico, Central and South America. These people’s lives are the price of keeping Latin America safe for Corporate America.

During the entire vigil, US military helicopters hovered overhead and police officers lined every foot of the street. This constant presence insured that Fort Benning, with its’ several thousand trained soldiers and its’ incredible variety of state-of-the-art weapons of death and destruction, would remain safe from the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who gathered outside the walls. Why were they so afraid?

Perhaps it can be summed-up using the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, who spoke at the beginning of the rally. Rabbi Lerner suggested that the SOA vigil represented a conflict between two realities. The current reality contends that we are born alone, helpless and afraid into a hostile world. There is a shortage of resources so we must compete for our very survival. Only the strongest can obtain the resources that are required for life, so we must support the powerful who will protect us from others and help us obtain the goods that we need for our survival.

Whether Rabbi Lerner realized it or not, he paraphrased the thesis of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that human life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” because each person would think they have a right or a license to everything in the world. According to Hobbes, this necessarily leads to each person being in a perpetual state of conflict with everybody else; or a condition he called the “war against all”. Hobbes framed the concept of a “Social Contract” in his masterwork “Leviathan (1651)”. This “Social Contract” theory, where citizens cede their natural individual rights to a powerful (read forceful and violent) sovereign in return for protection, is still widely accepted as the basis of civil society in the Western world. Interestingly, Hobbes also noted that the inevitable abuse of power by this sovereign must be tolerated as the “price of peace”.

While this fear-based reality may seem all too familiar to most of us, Rabbi Lerner went on to suggest that there is a powerful alternative view. He asked us to think our best thoughts about how the world could be changed for the better. Then he asked us to envision the convention center auditorium, which was full of people thinking these same positive thoughts. He called us to imagine the people who were already outside Fort Benning who held the same positive and loving thoughts. Then the people of the city, the people of the state of Georgia, people of America, the entire world and all of this within a beautiful and amazing universe that is ruled over by a loving and merciful Creator. A Creator who gave us a world with more than enough for everyone if we take according to our needs and not according to our unrestrained desires and irrational fears. Of course this second world view must be taken mostly on faith. We see few expressions of this reality in the headlines of our daily newspaper. Nevertheless, I have personally witnessed expressions of this reality in rural Honduras, Bolivia, Jordan, Palestine and Indonesia. Places where people have next-to-nothing and yet are willing to share everything they have for the sake of a stranger in need.

So, what does this have to do with the drama that played out at the Fort Benning gates? Inside Fort Benning there were people armed with guns, airplanes, helicopters and tanks who have sworn to uphold and sustain an abusive power structure that provides enormous benefit for a privileged few at tremendous cost to the many. Most of these stalwart defenders feel justified in their position because they are certain that chaos will break out if the existing “social contract” is questioned. Outside the gates were people armed with faith, hope, love, joy and a certainty that the resources represented by the 1.0 trillion dollars of annual US “defense-related” spending could be better used to bring sustainable food, water and shelter to the people of the world. I suppose we truly do represent a serious threat.

What would happen if the vast majority of US citizens woke up tomorrow and refused to allow 50% of their hard-earned tax dollars to be spent on the military-industrial complex? What would happen if they demanded health care, improved education, a living wage and justice for themselves and the other citizens of the world? What if they chose to live in a world of faith rather than a world of fear?

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus started his ministry with these words - “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. I suppose we are so familiar with this phrase that much of the meaning is lost. Clarence Jordan, New Testament Greek Scholar and the founder of Koinonia, pointed out that “Repent” in the English translation comes from the Greek words meta and noeo. It is very similar to our familiar word metamorphose - where meta means a complete and utter change and morph means form or shape. By the same logic, metanoeo - “Repent” - means a complete and utter change in your way of thinking. If we all did this, wouldn’t the Kingdom of Heaven be a whole lot closer?

I know it won’t be easy, but would you ever imagine that a caterpillar could fly?

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