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Iowa, Ted Cruz, and the Evangelical Identity Crisis

Ted Cruz ended last night with a yuuuuge victory over Donald Trump in Iowa. (Sorry, had to do it!) Religion played a big role in Cruz’s victory. The New York Times reports that Cruz’s victory was “powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians.”

For his part, Cruz reaffirmed his connection with his evangelical supporters by invoking divine favor upon his victory. “God bless the great state of Iowa! Let me first say, to God be the glory.”

But I can’t help but feel uneasy about the God proclaimed by Cruz and his evangelical supporters. That’s because, when it comes to their evangelical faith, they have an identity crisis.

The word “evangelical” has a specific meaning and history. It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good news.”

Evangelical has become a distinctively Christian term, but during the first century it was used predominantly by the Roman Empire. In fact, when Caesar sent his armies off to conquer new land in the name of Roman peace, Roman soldiers would announce military strength as the “Gospel according to Caesar.” Rome waged peace through violence. In his book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley states that,

In the Roman world, the “gospel” was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the “savior” who had brought “salvation” to the whole world. The peoples of the empire were therefore to have “faith” (pistis/fides) in their “lord” the emperor. Moreover, Caesar the lord and savior was to be honored and celebrate by the “assemblies” (ekklesiai) of cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus.

Now, a good Bible believing evangelical will instantly recognize the politically subversive language of the New Testament. In the face of Roman military that brought the good news of “peace” by the sword, the early Christians delivered an alternative message of good news that claimed “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Make no mistake, their evangelical message was political. They sought to reorder the world, not through Caesar’s military strength, but through Christ’s nonviolent love.

The early Christians subverted Roman violence through their use of language and their actions. They claimed that the good news was found not in Caesar, but in Christ. Christ, not Caesar, was the “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. People were to have “faith” in him as their “lord.” Jesus was to be honored and celebrates at assemblies, which would become known as churches.

But for the early Christians, words weren’t enough. They took Jesus’ command to follow him seriously. Jesus didn’t lift the sword to defend himself against the violence that killed him, and neither did his disciples lift their swords. Rather, they continued to challenge the Roman Empire’s “good news” of achieving peace through violence. The disciples claimed that true peace could only be achieved by following the nonviolent way of Jesus, whose evangelical message commanded that his follower love everyone, included their enemies, including those who sought to persecute them. In following Jesus their Lord, the disciples were murdered, just like their Lord and Savior.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years to last night in Iowa and we discover that Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters have an identity crisis. They claim that Jesus is their Lord with words, but not in action. Cruz promises to “carpet bomb” America’s enemies. He promises to beef up the American military, a military that spends roughly the same amount as “the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined.” The U.S. military is already the strongest military that the world has ever seen.

René Girard wrote in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End that Christians must make a decision about violence because Christ has left us with a choice, “either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

Christianity is non-belief in violence because it believes in the one true God who on the cross responded to violence not with more violence, but with nonviolent love and forgiveness.

“To God be the glory,” a victorious Cruz proclaimed to a cheering crowd in Iowa. But I can’t help but wonder – what God is Ted Cruz and his evangelical supporters talking about? Because “Hey! Good News! We just carpet bombed the hell out of you,” sounds a lot more like the gods of ancient Rome than the God of Jesus Christ.

As long as evangelicals proclaim faith in Jesus as their Lord, but continue to believe in violence as the way to peace and security for the United States, they will suffer from an identity crisis. And rightfully so, because that combination is not the Good News.
Photo: Ted Cruz delivering his victory speech after the Iowa caucus. (Screenshot from YouTube, ABC News)

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Hillary Clinton’s Emails, Donald Trump, and Moving through Scandal

Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay claims that the Justice Department is preparing to file charges against Hillary Clinton for mishandling of classified information in her emails. Delay said in an interview, “I have friends who are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict.”

I don’t know the veracity of Delay’s statement. Nothing would surprise me during this political season. His statement could be a complete fabrication made to cause more drama in a presidential election season already filled with enough drama, or an indictment could happen tomorrow.

Clinton’s email scandal isn’t going away any time soon because Republicans will keep bringing it up. Delay guaranteed as much, claiming that if the attorney general doesn’t move forward with an indictment, she will be put on trial. “One way or another, either she’s going to be indicted and that process begins, or we try her in the public eye with her campaign. One way or another, she’s going to have to face these charges.”

I don’t want to scapegoat Republicans for bringing up the scandal. Democrats have called for similar indictments of their Republican counterparts. Many have insisted that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and former CIA directors be charged with crimes against humanity. Hillary may have her email problems, but the Bush/Cheney administration is plagued by torture reports.

Whether it’s emails or war crimes, both sides are scandalized by the other. What we often fail to see, however, is that scandals have a paradoxical nature to them. We may despise or condemn those who we think cause scandals, like committing war crimes or being sloppy with allegedly classified information, but deep inside we are also attracted to them.

René Girard has a helpful way of explaining the term scandal. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard states that the more a scandal “repels us, the more it attracts us.”

In other words, the more we hate our political rivals, the more we are attracted to them. What attracts us to them? They have the things that we want – success, power, and prestige. The very things we want is what they have, and because they have the things that we want, they seek to prevent us from taking those things away from them.

Republicans are both repelled and attracted to Hillary Clinton because she has the successful political career that they want. Scandal is driven by this form of rivalry and resentment. Underneath the obsession with Clinton’s email is a resentful feeling of superiority – that where she failed, we could have succeeded. As Jeremiah Alberg points out, “… what drives scandal is the secret thought, ‘I could have done it better.’”

And so we find ourselves trying to outdo our rivals, competing for the same prize. We tend to deny that we have anything in common with our enemies, but underneath our denial, our mutual desire for power and prestige makes us the same. But we aren’t just the same in our desires, we also become the same in our actions.

That Democrats and Republicans seek to indict one another is a good example of becoming similar in our actions, but the scandal that is Donald Trump is another good example. Trump has scandalized not just the United States, but many throughout the world. In response to Trump’s suggestion that we ban all Muslims from the United States, Great Britain responded with perfect imitation as politicians suggested that they should place a ban on Trump. They were repelled by Trump, something they openly admitted, but as loud as they denounced his policy suggestions, they could not see that, in fact, they were mirroring the very thing they condemned. In fact, they were so attracted to Trump that they perfectly imitated him in the desire to banish people from their country.

There’s an ancient proverb that says, “Like a dog returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” That’s a good description of scandals. It’s inevitable that we will return to scandals like a dog returns to its vomit. Of course, we don’t just return to political scandals, but we return to scandals with family members, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. When we become scandalized, we drive a wedge between ourselves and others by refusing to admit how alike we are. Scandals may be inevitable, but the good news is that we can learn to manage them in three healthy ways:

First, when scandals come your way, don’t deny them. Don’t deny that you are repelled and attracted to the one who is causing scandal. Try not to blame them. Instead, ask yourself why you are repelled and attracted to this person. What is it about them that you want to have or to be? What do you admire about him or her?

Second, remind yourself that it’s okay to be repelled and attracted by your scandalous rival. Don’t beat yourself up for falling into a scandal. It’s okay. In fact, it’s human.

Third, find the good in your rival. Find ways to verbally affirm the good things that they are doing and seek to work together to accomplish those good things. Working with them builds a trustful rapport and the possibility for working together on the good things that you want to accomplish, too. Even more important, since we are more like our rival than we generally like to admit, finding the good in them means that we will also find the good in ourselves.

Jesus said that, “It is impossible that scandals should not come.” So, expect scandals to come. Instead of denying them or getting stuck in them, by following these three steps we can move through them. As we move through scandals, we find ourselves less scandalized, more forgiving of ourselves and others, and better able to work with others for a better future.

*Photo: Flicker, Marc Nozell, Hillary Clinton in Hampton, NH, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Presidential Politics And The American Soul

When I want to believe that America is a democracy — indeed, to feel so deeply this is so that my soul trembles — I turn to Martin Luther King, who gave his life for it.

He cried out for something so much more than a process: a game of winners and losers. He reached for humanity’s deepest yearning, for the connectedness of all people, for the transcendence of hatred and the demonization of “the other.” He spoke — half a century ago — the words that those in power couldn’t bear to hear, because his truths cut too deep and disrupted too much business as usual.

But what else is a democracy than that?

“Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. . . .”

Uh oh. This ain’t politics as usual. This is King standing in the oval office, staring directly into the eyes of LBJ, declaring that civil rights legislation isn’t a political favor but merely the beginning of a nation’s moral atonement.

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.”

These words were part of the stunning address King delivered — on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination — at Riverside Church in New York City. To read these words today, in the context of the 2016 presidential race and the mainstream media’s inevitable focus on stats and trivia rather than big issues, is to realize how utterly relevant this man and the movement he helped awaken remain today. To read King’s words in 2016 is to rip this man out of a sentimentalized sainthood and to bring him back to living relevance.

What he had to say to the political leaders of the time must not be reduced to a few phrases carved in granite; they must be heard anew, in all their disturbing fullness. I say this not because his “day” recently passed and I’m somewhat tardily “remembering” him, but because the 2016 presidential race needs King’s presence — his uncompromised wisdom — standing tough against the media and political status quo that is now trying desperately to mute the unapproved voices spurting forth in this campaign and pulling the electorate’s attention away from the approved, mainstream candidates they’re supposed to choose between.

Paul Krugman, for instance, representing the liberal wing of the status quo, came out for compromise and Hillary the other day, dismissing Bernie Sanders not out of a specific disagreement with any of his positions but because of a contempt for the “contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.”

This is how to make sure that a self-proclaimed democracy is really a faux-democracy, flawed, perhaps, but plugging along in the right direction and basically healthy, with its biggest threat not unrestrained militarism or unregulated corporate capitalism but . . . oh, universal health care. See, that’s radical.

I have yet to hear the status-quo media call the poisoning of the Flint, Mich., water supply, or the daily police shootings of young men or women of color — or the multi-trillion-dollar failure known as the war on terror — “radical,” but a candidate who wants to give a serious push for policies of social betterment (and calls himself a socialist) is radical. He’s purveying false hope, disrespecting the sacred act of political compromise and dangerously trying to establish, or re-establish, the precedent that the public should get what it needs, even if those needs override the quietly laid plans of the nation’s military-industrial consensus.

Indeed, that consensus is never asked to compromise or, good God, subjected to public scrutiny — except, of course, by radicals.

This brings me back to King’s Riverside Church speech, which had the audacity to be visionary, to challenge the United States at its deepest levels of being — which is something that ought to happen during a presidential race. King looked directly at the hell we were inflicting on Vietnam and called not simply for an end to that war but an examination of the national soul.

“This,” he said, “I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

The war King was crying out against ended eight years after that 1967 speech, but the poison did not disappear from the country’s soul. There was no atonement, no real change, only, ultimately, a retrenching and regrouping of the military-industrial consensus. Thus, King’s words remain as urgent and prescient today as when he first uttered them.

“The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. . . .

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Would that Bernie Sanders spoke with such radicalism — or drew such a clear connection between social deprivation and militarism.

Beyond that, however, I must ask, in light of the words of Martin Luther King, what kind of democracy is too terrified, and too cowardly, to examine its own soul and reach toward values that are bigger than its short-term interests? And why do we not have a media rooted in these values and committed to holding politicians accountable to them?

Robert Koehler is an award—winning, Chicago—based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto. Available via Wikimedia. Public Domain.

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Star Wars and Theology Part 2: Overcoming the Myth of Good and Evil

One common critique of the Star Wars saga is that it holds a simplistic view of good and evil. For example, Star Wars makes it easy to tell the difference between good and evil. The distinction is as plain black and white. The Jedi are good and the Sith are evil. The Rebellion is good and the Empire is evil. Even the costumes point toward a simplistic understanding of evil – the Stormtroopers are white, while the main villains, Darth Vader and now Kylo Ren, wear black. And, of course, their humanity is hidden by the fact that they wear masks.

Unfortunately, this simplistic notion of good and evil doesn’t just exists in the movies. It’s alive and well in our culture today. Once we eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we think that we are the force of good in the world, thus, they are the force of evil. We then tell mythical stories about the evil other. These myths lead to radical examples of claiming to be good while scapegoating others.

The latest example of this patently false myth are the “evil” Muslims who are out to conquer the United States. Donald Trump, leading Republican presidential candidate, recently held a rally in South Carolina. In good mythical fashion, he turned to the dark side by accusing Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country of “probably” being members of ISIS. You know, because they are Muslims. In response to Trumps remarks about Syrian refugees, a Muslim woman at the rally stood up in silent protest as she wore a shirt that said, “Salam, I come in peace.”

Despite her silence, the crowd turned against her, shouting at her to leave by chanting, “You have a bomb. You have a bomb.” For his part, Trump claimed, “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred; it’s not our hatred.”

Trump and many of his supporters live in a mythical world. A world where the distinction between good and evil is as clear as the distinction between night and day, between Christian and Muslim. They are a force for good; whereas silent Muslims wearing “Peace” shirts are full of hatred. Of course, I can easily split the world into good and evil. As I critique Trump and his supporters at the rally, I risk doing to them the same thing that they are doing to Muslims. I risk making a mythical claim to be a force of goodness over and against their force of evil.

Fortunately, Star Wars offers us an alternative to that myth. The critique that Star Wars has a simplistic view of good and evil is false. Stars Wars constructs the myth of good and evil only to deconstruct it.

The deconstruction of the mythical understanding of good and evil emerges in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker goes to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda. As he runs and flips around the swamp-like forest with the little green alien on his back, Luke asks the mythical question, “How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Yoda replies, “You will know, when you are calm, at peace.”

But Luke discovers a greater truth about knowing the good side from the bad. The Force leads him into “The Cave of Evil.” As he enters the cave, he asks Yoda what’s inside. “Only what you take with you,” Yoda responds. Luke took with him his fear of the dark side; his fear of confronting Darth Vader.

A few moments after entering the cave, Luke has a vision of Darth Vader walking towards him with his lightsaber extended. Their sabers strike three times, then Luke slices off Vader’s helmet. It rolls to the ground, stops, and the mask exploded, only to show Luke’s face in the helmet staring straight at him.

In that scene, Luke discovered the truth about good and evil. In Darth Vader, the greatest symbol of evil in cinematic history, Luke sees himself. Even before he knows that Vader is his father, Luke learns that his identity is connected with Darth Vader. That’s because the evil that we see in the other is the evil that is inside ourselves. But we’d rather not see the evil within ourselves, so we suppress it by projecting it onto others. And so, at this moment in the Star Wars saga, Luke begins to discover that the distinction between good and evil is not primarily a distinction between himself and Darth Vader. Rather, the distinction between good and evil is a distinction that exists within himself.

Luke’s spiritual awakening is in the fact that he didn’t banish the darkness from within himself. He didn’t scapegoat the fear and evil within his own soul. When we do that, the fear and evil within only grows bigger and more menacing. Rather, Luke acknowledged the evil within himself. Later in the saga, after he slices off Darth Vader’s hand in Return of the Jedi, Luke stares at his own mechanical hand. Once again he becomes aware of the darkness within himself. He was able to resist the dark side not because he made a distinction between the good in himself and the evil in his enemies, but because he learned how to manage the darkness within his own soul.

Kylo Ren has a similar experience in the Force Awakens. He feels the tension between the light and the dark within himself, but manages it in a different way. Kylo holds his Grandfather’s helmet and offers a prayer, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the dark.” Luke and Kylo both feel the light and the dark within themselves. The difference is that Luke was able to incorporate the light and the dark. In doing so, Luke made peace with the darkness within. But Kylo felt tormented because he resisted the light that shined in the darkness of his soul.

The truth is that we are all a mixture of light and dark, good and evil. The great Russian novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn warned that, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Jesus taught this lesson, too. He asked his followers, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Jesus and Star Wars both challenge us with the difficult spiritual practice of examining the darkness that lies within ourselves. Taking the log out of our own eye is painful work; I’d much rather point to the speck of evil that’s in my neighbor’s eye. But Christianity reminds us that we are much more like the disciples than we are like Jesus. We learn from Jesus, but we are much more like the disciples who abandoned, betrayed, and turned against Jesus during his darkest hour.

But the good news is that like Luke never gave up on his father, Jesus never gave up on his disciples. He resurrected to give his disciples a new mission. That mission wasn’t to locate evil out in the world and destroy it. Rather, Jesus’ mission is to “feed my sheep.” The great adventure that is Christianity is not to fight violence with more violence, but to care for those in need and to love even those we call our enemies.

More about that in the next part of this series.

Images: Luke Skywalker after defeating Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (Screenshot from YouTube) and Kylo Ren praying to Darth Vader’s helmet (Screenshot from YouTube)

Other parts of this series:
Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure
Part 2: The Myth of Good and Evil

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Martin Luther King, Jr. – Justice, Love, and the New Jim Crow

In 1955, Martin Luther King found himself as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement that would start a revolution in the United States.

Rosa Parks ignited the Civil Rights movement when stood up to the segregation laws of Jim Crow that demonized black people and forced them to live in conditions there were inferior to white people. Parks was arrested after she claimed her inherent dignity by refusing to move to the back of a bus. Just a few days after her arrest, King, who had recently moved to Montgomery, was elected to be the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

For weeks after his election, King received threatening phone calls from anonymous voices. The phone rang throughout the night and as King picked it up he heard voices saying things like, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery!” (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 77.)

They were only threats, until one night. King was away from his home at a meeting for the boycott. His wife Coretta and their newborn baby girl were home. At about 9:30 pm Coretta heard a loud explosion that rocked their house. It was a bomb.

Word of the bombing reached the meeting. King saw people whispering secrets, as if they were trying to keep something from him. He went to three of his best friends and urged them to tell him what happened. His closest ally delivered the tragic news, “Your house has been bombed.”

The threats of violence suddenly became very real to King and his family. And he would deal with those threats throughout his life. He instructed those at the meeting to stay calm, go straight home, and adhere to their philosophy of nonviolence as they sought justice in the face of systemic racism.

King rushed to his house and found Coretta and their baby uninjured. Coretta was remarkably calm, all the more remarkable because the police commissioner, the mayor, and many white reporters had already made their way into King’s dining room. And a crowd already formed outside of their house to support the Kings and protest the bombing. Police were also in their yard, attempting to disperse the crowd, which, in turn, had begun to threaten the police with violence.

King knew that his love for nonviolence as a means to seek justice was at stake. He walked outside to his porch and calmed down the crowd. Then he delivered one of his many powerful impromptu speeches, saying to the crowd,

We believe in law and order. Don’t get panicky … Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that’s what God said. We are not advocating violence … I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.

I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. … For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us. (Autobiography, 80.)

This scene from Martin Luther King’s life tells us so much about the man. In the face of violent injustice, this great American hero set forth a vision of justice and love that was radical for his day, and his vision remains radical in ours.

King taught us that Justice and love go together. We often think that these two concepts are opposed to one another. That there’s a tension between justice and love. Love is nice, so this thought goes, but there are times when we need justice. Here, justice is seen as a form of punishment, as in a penal justice system.

This idea also affects our understanding of God. For instance, there’s an idea out there that there is a tension between the love and justice of God. My friend Michael Hardin says that if God is tense, then God should see a therapist.

But Martin Luther King resolved that tension. For him, God’s justice, true justice, didn’t mean punishing enemies. Rather, justice for him as he followed Jesus, was about reconciliation. Today we call it “restorative justice.” It’s a justice that restores individuals to themselves and it restores our relationships with one another. King wanted the persecuted and the persecutor to find healing. When we live into this justice that seeks restoration, healing, and reconciliation, King said that we live into the “Beloved Community.”

King also changed our understanding of love. For King, love wasn’t primarily an emotion. It wasn’t based on positive or romantic feelings for another. This isn’t a Valentine’s Day love. Rather, love is an action. Love is a verb. Love is a doing. Love refuses to imitate the hatred of our enemies, but shows the world an alternative way of being. When we live into that alternative, we know that we are living into a just love, what King called the Beloved Community.

I don’t know about you, but this form of justice and love is not easy for me to live into. And it wasn’t easy for Martin Luther King, either. He challenged America’s original sin of racism and when he did that the powers and principalities fought back. That’s because the violent oppression of racism was embedded in our nation from the beginning.

Fortunately, slavery ended in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. But unfortunately, the abolition of slavery didn’t abolish the sin of racism that continues to infect the United States with unjust social policies against African Americans.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains the pattern of racist structures that are still alive in our country. That pattern looks like this: we started with slavery, then moved to the segregation of Jim Crow, and now we have the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

The War on Drugs, started by Ronald Regan, targets African American men. Millions of black people have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes that many of them didn’t even commit. Once imprisoned, they become felons and, like the old Jim Crow laws, are denied basic civil and human rights.

The racism of mass incarceration is made more obvious by the fact that white people sell and use drugs at a higher rate than black people. And yet it is African Americans who suffer the unjust effects of mass incarceration. As the Huffington Post explains, “White America does the crime, black America does the time.”

Why? Michelle Alexander says it’s because of a political system that pits police against African Americans. When Regan waged the War on Drugs, drug use was actually on the decline in the United States. Police didn’t want to fight a War on Drugs because drug use wasn’t a major problem and was actually a distraction from more violent crimes.

But Regan was determined, so he provided financial incentives for police departments to arrest drug offenders. The federal government payed police departments for every drug arrest the police would make, but “Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, not even for violent crimes.” (New Jim Crow, 77). Regan got his drug war, and every president since has continued the demonic War on Drugs. The police aren’t bad in this scenario; they are caught up in an evil system, in the powers and principalities of the world that need to be transformed in the name of justice.

Why the emphasis on African Americans? Because they don’t have a defender. Tragically, that’s what continues to make African Americans easy scapegoats in the American social system. Imagine if millions of white people were incarcerated at the same rate as black people for nonviolent drug crimes that they may not have even committed. Because white people have social power, the white community wouldn’t stand for it. But the black community, which has been marginalized, disenfranchised, and demonized from the very beginning of American history, doesn’t have that kind of power.

Now, it’s easy for white people of good will to start feeling guilty or powerless or fall into denial when it comes to the massive racist systems of the United States. But those feelings aren’t helpful. What is helpful is to find ways to work for justice.

There is hope because there are things we can do. Stand up against the powers and principalities that lead to oppression. Name the forces of evil, including the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex. Seek friendships with our African American brothers and sisters as we share our lives together and walk hand in hand, seeking a more just America. Listen to their stories without becoming defensive when we hear the truth about racism. Read African American authors, particularly Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

We can stop racist jokes and comments when we hear them. We can keep talking about how racism infects our culture, especially as we continue in this presidential campaign that has been charged with racism against African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. We can confront gentrification and redistricting that benefits white people and pushes black people further to the margins of American society. We can participate in political campaigns and vote in ways that confront racist policies of our past and of our present. We can claim that black lives matter because for too much of our history we’ve claimed that black lives don’t matter.

And in all of these things that we can do, let us work together to follow in the spirit of Christ that breaks down the hostile barriers that divide us against one another. And let us heal that divide with the bridge of love and justice that is called the Kingdom of God, what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

Image: Flickr, United States Mission Geneva photo stream, Martin Luther King Day, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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The State of the Union: Spiritual Wisdom to Heal the Political Divide

There was much to appreciate about President Obama’s speech last night. I also think that Nikki Haley’s Republican response was commendable on many levels. Both put forth a vision and a hope for renewed political cooperation, and they even repented in the ways they and their parties have contributed to the politics that have greatly divided the United States.

Governor Haley suggested some good spiritual wisdom about the loud political noise that has spread throughout the US, “Often the best thing we can do is turn down the volume,” she said. “When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Ah, yes, if we could just turn down the noise and listen to one another, even to those we call our political enemies, the world would be a radically different and much better place.

In a similar manner, President Obama modeled for us the spiritual practice of repentance. He repented of his part in propagating political divisions. “It’s been one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he stated. “That the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have been better to bridge the divide.”

To listen better. To repent of our participation in systems that breed rancor and suspicion. Those are deep spiritual practices that will heal the politics of our nation.

Unfortunately, I fear that both Obama and Haley aren’t leading us far enough with their messages. In order to heal our national political divisions, we do need to listen. We do need to repent. But our problems are bigger than national politics. We need to heal our global political divisions. And to do that, the United States needs to have the courage to listen and repent on a global scale.

But instead, Obama and Haley offered the same old solutions to our global problems. In the face of terrorism they both claimed that the solution is not listening to our enemies, nor repenting of our own violence, but that we should be more violent. While Obama boasted that the United States already has the greatest military the world has ever seen and spends more on our military budget than the next eight countries combined, Haley stated that if the Republicans held the White House, “… we would actually strengthen our military.”

But military violence isn’t working. The more violent we become, the more we sow the seeds that produce more violence against us. The anthropologist René Girard taught us that violence is mimetic, or imitative. It’s human nature to respond to violence with more violence, but as Girard warns, the reciprocal exchange of violence for violence isn’t working to keep us sage. “[V]iolent imitation is the rule of the day,” writes Girard in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End, “not the imitation that slows and suspends the flow [of violence], but the one that accelerates it” (13). Violence is accelerating because we live in truly apocalyptic times. Weapons of mass destruction are easier to make and nuclear weapons threaten us with global annihilation.

If we want a future, we need to stop threatening our enemies with violence. Instead, we need follow Governor Haley’s advice and start listening to our enemies. Maybe if we listened to them, we would find the truth.

The truth is that our enemies, even those we label as “terrorists,” do not hate us because of our freedom. Rather, they are frustrated because of many American policies – policies that, following President Obama, we should repent from.

In a dig against Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Obama said that our answer to terrorism shouldn’t be to “carpet bomb civilians.” I agree. That would be disastrous for so many reasons, including the fact that to kill innocent civilians would be an act of terror. It would make us just like the terrorists that we condemn.

But that’s exactly what President Obama has done during his presidency. Drone warfare has terrorized civilians and created a breeding ground for recruiting terrorists. As this Huffington Post article states, “Nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target. U.S. drone strikes have killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.”

My colleague at the Raven Foundation, Lindsey Paris-Lopez, takes it a step further in her Open Letter to President Obama: End the War in Afghanistan,

Principled journalists have long published atrocities regularly committed by our military. These atrocities are rightly called acts of terrorism and war crimes when committed by others. The practice of “signature strikes”, assigning death sentences from afar to people whose identities are unknown based on patterns of their behavior, assumes that life and death judgments can be made without knowing a name or having a conversation. It puts the lives of Afghan citizens into the hands of a military that has been trained to dehumanize them (as killing without knowing someone’s identity is the very epitome of dehumanization). But our military goes beyond killing those whose behavior may reasonably be deemed suspicious, and targets people caught in the act of helping their fellow human beings. We kill rescuers. We attack mourners at funerals. And in one of the most callous, dishonest policies imaginable, we have effectively demonized the entire male population of countries we purport to be helping by preemptively labeling all military-aged males killed in attacks “enemy combatants.”

The best advice for the future of America, indeed, the future of human existence, came last night from both sides of the political aisle. We should repent of our national and international participation in violent atrocities. And we should listen to others, even to those we call our enemies.

The state of the world is in peril. If we do not repent and listen, we will continue to be the very terrorists we despise. Even worse, if we continue down this violent path, we will resign ourselves to the extinction of humanity.

Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. The same can be said about the gun, the tank, the drone, and the bomb. We must find another way, the way of listening and repenting, if we are to survive.

Image: President Obama deliver his State of the Union, 2016. Screenshot from YouTube.

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Mike Huckabee at the Republican Debate on December 16, 2015

The Top 4 Myths about Syrian Refugees: Mike Huckabee and the Republican Debate

At Tuesday’s Presidential Debate, candidate Mike Huckabee had this to say about the Syrian refugee crisis:

If it’s such a doggone good idea to bring people here that we really don’t know who they are, and Obama thinks that we are being unchristian to not do it, I’ve got a suggestion – let’s send the first wave of them to Chappaqua, Martha’s Vineyard, and the upper east-side of Manhattan, and to the south lawn of the White House where we’ll set up a camp. Let’s see how that works out. And if they behave wonderfully, that’s fine. I want to say, I don’t want someone lecturing me about what it means to be a Christian that I should invite a potential terrorist into my backyard.

Huckabee is repeating a popular myth about refugees that only stokes the flames of fear that is spreading throughout the country. Here are four of those myths:

  1. Myth #1: “We really don’t know who they are.” We do know a lot about Syrian refugees. They go through a rigorous screening process. Jana Mason, an advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Time that, “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees are the single most heavily screened and vetted.” The process takes between 18-24 months and includes in-depth interviews of the refugees, reference checks of their home country, background checks for military involvement, and even biological screenings. Syrian refugees are the most scrutinized, with the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security all involved in the vetting process. We know who the refugees are.
  2. Myth #2: If they behave wonderfully, that’s fine. “If.” Such a little word that’s loaded with accusation. Underlying that word is an assumption that the refugees won’t behave wonderfully. But here’s the thing, since September 11, 2001, about 750,000 refugees have been admitted to the United States. As the Time article reports, during the last 14 years, refugees have behave wonderfully. “None have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges, though two – a pair of Iraqis in Kentucky – were charged with terrorist activities connected to aiding al-Qaeda.”
  3. Myth #3: Every Syrian refugee is “a potential terrorist [in] my backyard.” This is a clear example of scapegoating Syrian refugees. We could accuse any group of people as having the potential to be terrorists. The leading presidential candidate of the GOP has even suggested that we “kill innocent family members of terrorists.” And Syrian refugees are the potential terrorist? President Obama’s drone policies, which no presidential candidate criticizes, has missed nearly 90% of their intended targets. Those drone attacks kill innocent civilians, civilians that the U.S. then labels “enemy combatants.” But their only “crime” was being in the way of a United States military attack. Studies show that, “U.S. drone strikes have killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009.” But don’t let that bother you, it’s those Syrian refugees who are the potential terrorist.
  4. Myth #4: Lectures about Being Christian. What does it mean to be a Christian? Getting “lectured” by President Obama about Christianity clearly stung Huckabee, especially since a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll claims that 29% of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim. Ouch! But Huckabee, and many other presidential candidates, use anti-Christian rhetoric to propagate the myths above to create scapegoating distinction between “us” and “them.” Jesus calls his followers in an entirely different direction – to care for the marginalized, persecuted, weak, and the poor – to love and include them with radical hospitality.

René Girard taught us that myths are stories that we tell about our scapegoats. Those stories are based on demonizing them so that we can expel, lynch, and murder our scapegoats with impunity. That myth silences the voice of our scapegoats and covers over our own acts of violence and terror. The narrative that Syrian refugees are potential terrorists is a mythical story that needs to be challenged with the truth. We discover the truth by listening to their own stories. We will also discover the truth when we have the courage to take responsibility for America’s own violence. Our drone attacks and careless murder of civilians are examples of how we are aiding and abetting ISIS’s recruitment of terrorists. Violence breeds more violence. If we really want peace, we need to stop scapegoating Syrian refugees and take responsibility for our own acts of terror in the Middle East.

Photo: Mike Huckabee at the Republican Debate on December 16, 2015 (Screen shot from Youtube)

morally bankrupt

What Should We Do About Donald Trump?

Nothing.

That’s right. Do nothing. Stop talking about him. Ignore Trump.

I know what many of my fellow progressives are likely thinking, “But Adam, we have to do something about Trump! We have to stand up for justice and against his vile speech that is fomenting hatred against Muslims throughout the United States!”

I know. I get it. But there’s a huge problem in our strategy to be against Donald Trump. Every time we stand up against Trump he uses it to his advantage by claiming that he’s actually the victim of liberal political correctness. Whether it’s responding to his attacks on Hispanics or Muslims, it just adds fuel to his fire. He loves it! Heck, he even mocked a journalist’s disability – and somehow he gained in the polls!

We can’t win by being against Trump. We can’t win by shaming him. He has proven that he’s a professional shamer. He knows how to play the game by turning it against his accusers. First it was the Mexicans. Then it was a disabled journalist. Now it’s the Muslims. Who’s next? It really doesn’t matter because whomever he scapegoats next, his supporters will follow Trump down that path.

And the more we stand up against him the more we feed his insatiable appetite for scapegoating.

But even worse, when we move against Donald Trump, we mimic his spirit of hostility. Here’s the thing, Donald Trump is against Muslims and Hispanic immigration. We are against Donald Trump. Both sides may think we are complete opposites, but we share at least one thing in common. Each side is devoted to a posture of being against the other. And that makes us very much alike.

In mimetic theory terms, this is called “negative mimesis.” It refers to a reciprocal relationship of negativity. Now, there are times when it’s important to be against something, but being against is a very dangerous posture to hold. We can get stuck in that negative posture and, because it is mimetic, that posture can start to infect every aspect of our lives. Spending so much time being against Trump can make us on edge; it can make us quick to anger and it can begin to affect our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Quite frankly, it’s dangerous to be against Trump, but more than that, it’s not enough to solve our problems. Paying so much attention to Donald Trump is distracting us from what matters at this moment in US history. In fact, our problem is the spirit of being “against.” In order to remedy that spirit, we need to emphasize what we are for.

The alternative to negative mimesis is positive mimesis. If the specific problem is that Trump is fomenting a posture of being against Muslims, then we need to create a posture that is for Muslims

So let’s start a movement that says Muslims are welcome here in the United States. Let’s seek friendship with Muslims. Let’s listen to what Muslims have to say. Go to a Mosque and talk with Imams. Follow or befriend Muslims on Facebook. You might start with Sofia Ali-Khan, who recently wrote this open letter to non-Muslim Allies that provides practical things we can do to support our Muslim sisters and brothers. I’ll leave you with her words:

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

I am writing to you because it has gotten just that bad. I have found myself telling too many people about the advice given to me years ago by the late composer Herbert Brun, a German Jew who fled Germany at the age of 15: “be sure that your passport is in order.” It’s not enough to laugh at Donald Trump anymore. The rhetoric about Muslims has gotten so nasty, and is everywhere, on every channel, every newsfeed. It is clearly fueling daily events of targeted violence, vandalism, vigilante harassment, discrimination. I want you to know that it has gotten bad enough that my family and I talk about what to keep on hand if we need to leave quickly, and where we should go, maybe if the election goes the wrong way, or if folks get stirred up enough to be dangerous before the election. When things seem less scary, we talk about a five or a ten year plan to go somewhere where cops don’t carry guns and hate speech isn’t allowed on network television. And if you don’t already know this about me, I want you to know that I was born in this country. I have lived my whole life in this country. I have spent my entire adult life working to help the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed access the legal system in this country. And I want you to know that I am devoutly and proudly Muslim.

I am writing this in response to a non Muslim friend’s question about what she can do. Because there is much that can be done in solidarity:

If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, call for help.

If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Don’t worry about mispronouncing it; she won’t care. Just say “peace” if you like. She’ll smile; smile back. If you feel like it, start a conversation. If you don’t, sit there and make sure no one harasses her.

If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.

If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.

Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.

Call out hate speech when you hear it—if it incites hatred or violence against a specified group, call it out: in your living room, at work, with friends, in public. It is most important that you do this among folks who may not know a Muslim.

Set up a “learn about Islam” forum at your book club, school, congregation, dinner club. Call your state CAIR organization, interfaith group or local mosque and see if there is someone who has speaking experience and could come and answer questions about Islam and American Muslims for your group. They won’t be offended. They will want the opportunity to do something to dispel the nastiness.

Write Op Eds and articles saying how deplorable the anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten and voice your support for Muslim Americans in whatever way you can.

Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media, that it is unacceptable and you want them to call it out whenever they hear it, on your behalf.

Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia, or will stand with Muslims—there is an awful lot of hate filling the airways, and there are an awful lot of people with access to the media and/or authority stirring the pot about Muslims. Please help fill that space with support instead. Post, write, use your profile picture or blog to voice your support.

Ask me anything. Really. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

I can tell you that in addition to the very real threat to their civil and human rights that Muslims are facing, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety. While we, many of us, rely on our faith to stay strong, we are human. This is not an easy time. What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you. Thank you for reading and bless you in your efforts.


Photo: Flickr, IMG_2567, by Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

immigration 3

The Anti-Christ Immigration Response of US Governors and the Kingdom of God

Christians are called to be a light to the nations. The world can’t wait any longer for us to live into that mission.

And make no mistake about it – that mission is political. After all, Jesus preached the Kingdom of God.

Kingdom. Of. God.

This is not simply a personal ethic. I often hear evangelicals and conservatives say, “God wants everything from us” and “God demands our all.” But somehow many also claim that “everything” and “all” doesn’t include our politics because Jesus only gave us a personal ethic.

The fact is that the Kingdom of God is more than personal. It is political, but it is a radically different kind of politics because it subverts the political status quo. From the beginning of human history, the political status quo has been run by the same dynamic – violence.

But the Kingdom of God subverts the politics of violence. Make no mistake: When Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God,” he was being politically subversive. He was charged with high treason, because in using that phrase he was directly confronting the Kingdom of Rome.

These two political realms function in entirely different ways. The Kingdom of Rome functioned with violence, terror, and exclusion. But this point is crucial: Rome wanted peace. In fact, Rome named its project the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, and wanted to spread it throughout the known world. Unfortunately, the only method Rome knew to achieve “peace” was through violence. As Rome conquered new lands in the contradictory name of the Pax Romana, it carried the sword and the crucifix along with it. And if anyone resisted, they would likely be killed.

As all Christians know, that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Why was Jesus killed? It wasn’t because he said, “Hey guys. I’ve got a personal ethic here, let’s all just love each other! Look, bunnies. Yay! Aren’t they cute!”

No.

Jesus resisted the Kingdom of Rome with the Kingdom of God. But let’s be clear: Jesus subverted Rome in the most subversive way possible – he stood up for justice with nonviolent love. Jesus knew that Rome wasn’t the real enemy. As one of his earliest followers stated, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The real enemy wasn’t Rome. The real enemy was the anti-Christ – the forces of evil, hatred, and violence. So here’s the crucial contrast:

Where Rome sought to terrorize, exclude, and kill their enemies, Jesus taught us to love our enemies in the way that Jesus loved his enemies, with self-offering love and nonviolence. Yes, Jesus, along with the prophets before him, stood up to political, economic, and religious injustice. He named it. He confronted it. He resisted it.

But why didn’t Jesus ever kill in the name of peace and justice, like Rome did? Because he knew that violence and exclusion would make him just like his enemies. He would become the enemy twin of those he opposed. On a personal and political level, mimicking the violence, hatred, and exclusion of our enemies makes us exactly like our enemies. And so Jesus offers the only alternative – renounce violence by loving your neighbor, who includes even your enemies.

René Girard makes this point while quoting Jesus on love in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:

Since violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result (of peace):

And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:33-35).

In the face of terrorism in France and throughout the world, those who follow Christ can have only one response – resist violence with nonviolent love.

In the face of refugees fleeing countries torn to shreds by terrorism, those who follow Christ can have only one response – resist the urge to exclude refugees by showing them gracious hospitality that lends without hope of receiving anything in return.

If we choose any other personal or political ethic, we aren’t living by the Kingdom of God. We deny God and worship at the feet of the anti-Christ. And Jesus had harsh words for those who claim to follow him but refuse to live by the love, nonviolence, and radical hospitality of the Kingdom of God:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father. On that day, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.”

For those of us living in the 21st century, that prophetic warning is as important as ever. If Christians are serious about following Jesus and being a light to the nations, then we must follow Jesus by living into his personal and political ethic. Otherwise we become just like those we call our enemies.

If the governors of the United States exclude refugees who are fleeing from the violence of ISIS, then that act of exclusion by the United States makes us just like ISIS. But it’s actually worse than that. If we are honest with ourselves, we in the United States will admit that ISIS is just like us. We are the violent models that ISIS is imitating. We are the ones who, like ancient Rome, have been spreading “peace” and “justice” through violence. ISIS is simply mimicking our methods. If the United States really wants to lead the world into a more just and peaceful future, then we need to change our methods in fighting for justice from violence to nonviolent love.

Because if we continue down this path, we will ensure ourselves a future of apocalyptic violence. And Jesus will say to us, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers.”

But fortunately there is a clear alternative. Jesus calls us to love. That love is risky and can be scary. That’s because love doesn’t guarantee security, but neither does violence. The point for Christians is to not be run by fear, but by love. To follow him means to trust that as we live into the Kingdom of God we can show hospitality and lend to everyone in need, without expecting anything in return, because we know that there will be enough for everyone.


 

Image Copyright: adrenalinapura / 123RF Stock Photo

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Lindsey and adam 1

Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 4 – The Politics of Terrorism and the Politics of Jesus

The Discussion:

MP3

 

Show Notes*

How should we respond to terrorist attacks in Paris?

Nearly 90% of people killed in American drone attacks were not targeted. American violence is terrorizing the Middle East, labeling all “unknown people it kills as ‘Enemies Killed in Action,’” but they are often civilians. (The Intercept: The Drone Papers: The Assassination Complex.)

Last Thursday, the United States killed “Jihadi John” in a drone strike, killing the man responsible for beheading Western journalists. (In the discussion, Adam mistakenly said he beheaded monks. That was a different ISIS group.) The Huffington Post wrote, “Britain said the death of the militant would strike at the heart of the Islamic State group.” Tragically, killing Jihadi John didn’t stop ISIS from striking back. The mimetic nature of violence reveals that violence is imitative and it escalates. Jesus gave the prophetic message that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” We are experiencing the horrific pattern of escalating violence at work.

The logic of terrorism hopes to get a violent response in return for violence. That way terrorists can continue a narrative that they are actually the victims of Western aggression. In striking back, we give terrorists exactly what they want.

The Politics of Violence and the Politics of Jesus

Our violent political message isn’t working. Francois Hollande, President of France, said, “We are going to lead a war that will be pitiless.” He vowed to show “no mercy.” For Christians, this is in stark contrast to the Kingdom of God that Jesus invites us to living into. In the Beatitudes, Jesus claimed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Just as violence is mimetic and will lead to a future of more violence, mercy is also mimetic. In other words, violence only ensures a future of violence. Mercy is our only possibility for a future of mercy and peace.

Negotiations alone won’t work. We also need reparations. So, what is a better solution to terrorism than responding with violence? Girardian Jean Michel-Oughourlian provides the answer in his book Psychopolitics,

Instead of spending astronomical sums on arms, let us spend instead on roads, hospitals, schools, houses, businesses, to create jobs and so on. Instead of financing war, let us purchase peace. (page 23)


*You may hear sounds in the background. That’s Lindsey’s toddler, which is also the reason for Lindsey’s side-glances.

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