The War Abroad and the War At Home
E x a m i n i n g t h e l i n k b e t w e e n US m i l i ta r i s m a n d v i o l e n c e o n US c i t y s t r e e t s b y D rick Boyd
In January of this year, I was one of 12 people who engaged in — and were arrested for — an act of civil disobedience against Colosimo’s Gun Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Our purpose was to protest the shop owner’s unwillingness to sign a code of conduct1 which would commit him to take steps to limit sales of handguns to “straw buyers.” Straw buyers are individuals (often spouses, friends, or family members) who purchase firearms for a small fee on behalf of other individuals (often individuals with criminal records) who in turn sell guns illegally on the streets. The vast majority of street crimes are committed by people using these illegally purchased handguns. In many states, such as Pennsylvania, no legal repercussions exist for straw buyers when guns are traced back to them after a crime. Straw purchasing is therefore a lucrative business, not only for the street vendors but also for the legal gun shops and gun manufacturers who can turn a profit without bearing any legal responsibility for how or why those guns are purchased. (The ironies of our January experience abound: The police who arrested us are the very ones who suffer most from the presence of illegal guns on our streets; the district attorney’s office, which brought the case against us, has testified in Harrisburg on behalf of the very laws that we would like to see passed; and Philadelphia, the city in which we were tried, has passed several good gun restriction and safety laws but has been prevented from enforcing them due to lawsuits brought by the NRA.) As a Christian from the Anabaptist tradition, I have long opposed the use of violence in resolving conflict and have frequently and actively opposed my government’s proclivity for military action as a primary method to deal with nations with whom we disagree. At the same time I have been troubled by the continuing violence that plagues certain Philadelphia neighborhoods. However, it has been only in the last few years that I have begun to see the clear and concrete connections between the wars we fight abroad — in places like Iraq and Afghanistan — and the war that wages every night on the streets of our own major cities. I have come to understand that as a Christian peacemaker I cannot work for peace abroad without simultaneously being involved in working for peace at home. My involvement in the action against the gun shop was an effort to integrate these two aspects of peacemaking.
“malady in the American spirit” The West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship peace group, of which I am a member, has published a booklet titled “High School: A Directory of Alternatives to Military Service for Philadelphia Youth.”2 While attending a protest against US involvement in Iraq a couple of years ago, I spoke about this booklet with some folks who lived and worshiped in one of
Opposite: Members of Mothers in Charge, an organization that speaks out against street violence, protest lax gun laws in Philadelphia. Photo by Harvey Finkle; HarveyFinkle.com
Above: Protestors gather outside Colosimo’s Gun Center. Photo by Kemah and Michael Washington
the most violent areas of North Philadelphia. They scoffed at my efforts to stop the war and criticized my opposition to military service for their young people.They went on to point out that violence at home was no different from the violence overseas, and that just as soldiers need weaponry over there, they need firearms for protection right here. It was then that I realized that my “peace witness” and my concerns about urban violence were inseparable dimensions of a common reality. While the deaths and casualties from our wars abroad are regularly recited, many citizens ignore the carnage that is taking place in many of our urban communities. As of this writing, the US Department of Defense reports that over 5,500 US military personnel have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.3 By contrast, approximately 30,000 people die from gun violence every year;4 more than twice that many are seriously wounded. In 2008, 332 people were murdered in Philadelphia alone.5 Nationally, urban violence is so prevalent that Dr. Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard School of Public Health has called it an epidemic.6 The always prescient Martin Luther King Jr. saw clearly the connection between the wars abroad and at home. In his “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, delivered April 4, 1967, King pointed to the diversion of government resources to fight the war in Vietnam — resources that could have helped the plight
of the urban poor. He called attention to the fact that the young men being recruited and drafted to fight came disproportionately from poor communities. He also highlighted the incongruity of his commitment to use nonviolence to solve problems on the domestic front while ignoring the use of violence in waging war overseas. King went on to say that the “war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady in the American spirit.”7 Today, the malady of which King spoke has metastasized into a deeply rooted culture of militarism abroad and culture of violence at home. In the public mind, war abroad and violence at home are distinct “issues,” and anti-war activists and urban workers usually find themselves operating in different realms. However, both US dependence on military means for resolving international disputes and urban violence are simply different symptoms of a cancer of violence at the heart of the American psyche.
STRANGER THAN fiction? In July, Mark Muller, owner of the car dealership Max Motors outside Kansas City, Mo., decided to deal with the decline in sales by offering a free Kalashnikov assault rifle with every new or used truck. Muller, whose business motto is “God, Guns, Guts, and American Pick-Up Trucks,” said of the promotion, “It’s extremely successful. There is a lot of worry about crime. We have a methamphetamine problem around here, and people just want to protect themselves.” (“US car dealer offers free Kalashnikov with every purchase,” Telegraph, July 19, 2009)
violence — an average of 16 per day. Furthermore, 42 percent of all deaths of African American youth ages 15 to 24 were homicides, and 90 percent of those homicides were committed with a firearm.9 Another 720,000 youth (ages 10 to 14) visited emergency rooms for violence-related injuries in 2006.10 In a study of gun-carrying adolescents, a group of public health researchers11 employed a disease-contagion model to explain the prevalence of firearms among urban youth. Just as the presence of one person with an infectious disease increases the likelihood of other people getting that disease, so too the presence of guns in the hands of young people prompts others to secure guns to protect and defend themselves against would-be predators. Using this model exposes urban violence as a social disease of epidemic proportions. Enter then the second phenomena — the fact that poor urban neighborhoods are major recruiting areas for the military. While military recruiters categorically deny that they recruit among the poor, a major reason that high school graduates choose to enter the military rather than attend some form of higher education is financial hardship.The military knows this and has designed recruiting strategies such as the Army’s “H2 Hummer Tour” and “Taking It to the Streets” programs specifically to target Latino and African American youth.12 Furthermore, a 2007 Associated Press report indicated that three-fourths of the troops killed in Iraq came from communities where the average income was below the national average, and half came from communities where the percentage of people living in poverty was above the national average. Thus, despite the military’s claims that it does not target the poor, it is clear that the military draws a disproportionate percentage of its recruits from low-income communities.13 Continued on page 20.
“Choosing” between two deaths This connection between the war at home and the war abroad manifests itself in two distinct but related phenomena. First, the culture of violence, most notable in our urban centers, is killing off our young people, particularly young people of color. According to Centers for Disease Control,8 gun violence is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24 and the leading cause of death among African American and Hispanic youth in the same age range. In 2005, 5,686 youth (ages 10 to 24) were killed by gun
Many of the women who protest on behalf of Mothers in Charge have lost children to the streets. Photo by Harvey Finkle; HarveyFinkle.com
It should also be noted that the military provides lowincome youth, especially among people of color, the best opportunity for advancement and escape from the ghetto. In 2002, the four military branches reported that African Americans made up 22 percent of the military population (compared to 13 percent of the general population).While the current percentage of Hispanic persons in the military is lower than the percentage of Hispanics in the general population, it is expected to grow significantly over the next 10 years.14 A study of young people ages 16 to 21 found that African American and Hispanic youth were favorably disposed toward entering the military.15 Military service is generally regarded
as providing opportunities for education and employment that are otherwise unavailable to economically disadvantaged youth.16 Furthermore, within the military itself there are significant opportunities for advancement based on merit not affected by race.17 Thus, the military clearly provides an attractive alternative to remaining in a neighborhood marked by poverty and violence. The irony is that in leaving behind the urban culture of violence, these young recruits simply trade one context of violence for another. While the accounts of those killed in battle is dutifully recorded, less reported are the thousands of veterans who return to their home communities emotionally
What’s Your Violence Quotient?
The sad reality of our violence-saturated society is that we can have the above exchange with our kids and see no problem with it. Each day, we watch the news and see the escalation of violence. We see the brutality of war, but its distance negates its horror. We see distant images of revolution, riot, and unrest, but our own relatively lawful society shields us from any sense of personal threat. Stories about road rage, home invasions, kidnappings, abuse, and murder greet us with such regularity that we find ourselves yawning through the evening news. Our own doors are locked, our possessions safe.We eagerly await prime-time fiction or the coarse reality program that elevates voyeurism into armchair recreation. Blaming the entertainment industry isn’t enough, although we should continue to demand, at the very least, an ounce of integrity and sanity from them when they insist, for example, on marketing products to children far younger than their own rating system indicates (as when a toy representing a character from a PG-13 film shows up in a McDonald’s Happy Meal designated for children 2-10). Excellent grassroots efforts such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CommercialfreeChildhood.org) and Parents Television Council (ParentsTV.org) are great resources for holding the industries accountable. But on a more personal front, how can we put the PG (parental guidance) back into our interactions with our children if we haven’t first reflected on our own appetite for (or simply tolerance of) violence?
b y N adia P a u l W eer
A quick perusal of the shelves in any video rental store makes it clear that violence is widely accepted as a suitable form of family entertainment. Violence permeates our television, movie, and computer screens. Ostensibly to help us protect our children, rating systems exist for all these forms of entertainment, and the “P” in PG or PG-13 suggests that parents are actively involved in discerning what forms of entertainment are appropriate for the age and emotional maturity of our children. But in our busy lives we are often only too happy to abdicate that discernment process to an independent body. As long as the entertainment doesn’t earn an R rating, we think, “How bad can it be?” PG brings us advance notice of crude language, “thematic elements,” or mild violence. PG-13 indicates “mild” profanity, stronger violence, and sensuality. It falls to each parent to decide how crude is crude, how much profanity is tolerable, and where sensuality crosses the line of decency. But consider the following scenario, where our kids propose seeing a film with their friends. “What’s it rated?” we ask. “PG-13,” they respond. “But it’s just for violence.” “Oh, okay. Be home by 7.”
Taking inventory Are there areas of your life that harbor force over gentleness, a thirst for victory over the ability to be gracious in defeat, entitlement over consideration of others? What’s your VQ?
and psychologically scarred. The connection between the war at home and the wars abroad is not lost on the residents of poor communities. My numerous conversations with men and women from poor urban communities who chose the military route reveal that they are fully conscious of trading one arena of violence for another; yet it was a choice they willingly make. One Philadelphia pastor told me that the consensus among the mothers of young soldiers was that while they were painfully aware that their sons could die while in the military, death with honor in the military was preferable to death in disgrace on the streets or behind bars. The issue, the pastor stressed, was not whether
the young men would die, but how they would die. The mother of a boy dying in service to his country could hang his picture on the wall for all to admire, but the mother of a boy slain in a drug bust or gang reprisal would live out her days in disgrace.
A hope and a future As a Christian committed to the gospel of peace, I find offering mothers such a “choice” to be unacceptable and immoral. What is needed is a full-scale reassessment of the extent to which violence and militarism direct our actions and decisions on individual, social, political, and international levels.
Below are a few areas of life that merit examination.
process of playing with your loved ones? In organized sports, do you ever lose your temper with a coach or referee, your child or yourself?
Entertainment: What kinds of television shows, films, and computer/video games do you consume personally? Are you aware of the kinds of entertainment that your children enjoy? When you see violence in the media, do you process it with your children or let it go without comment?
Nature: When out in nature, do you encourage your children to observe plants and animals with respect and curiosity? How would you respond if your child stamped on insects or threw rocks at ducks or had “sword” fights with bushes?
Eating: Do the animal products you eat come from animals that are raised in humane conditions, or are the animals mistreated? If it would upset you to think of an animal suffering to supply your meal, do you prefer not to know about the origins of your food?
The heart of the matter
Interpersonal: How do you respond when wronged or inconvenienced, for example when made to wait by a shop clerk or when a possession of yours is broken by someone at home? Do your children ever observe you apologizing to or asking forgiveness of them or anyone else? Is name-calling tolerated in your life? How do you respond when your child calls someone “gay” or “retarded”?
None of us lives completely without violence, but it is helpful to think more broadly about our tolerance for violence than simply checking the ratings of the films we watch. And it is important to examine our own lives before expecting our children to “play nice.” If they don’t see the adults in their lives reflecting on our choices, seeking to live peacefully with others, and offering love and forgiveness where rudeness, gossip, and grudges would normally grow, how can we ever expect them to choose peaceful rather than violent solutions to life’s circumstances? Ultimately, if we believe that nonviolent choices are the best, we must live accordingly regardless of the actions — and reactions — of others. Whether in our food choices or our game playing, we must each live in a way that rejects violence in both speech and action — an all-but-impossible goal that will certainly keep us on our knees in prayer! And that is a good place to be — in fact, it is the only truly “safe” place to be. For only through prayerful submission to Christ will we ever subdue the violence in our hearts and homes, our nation and world.
Playing: Are you known for being a gracious loser or a sore loser? Is your goal in a family game to win or to enjoy the
Nadia Paul Weer is the mother of 10 children. She holds a masters in theology and a doctorate in religious education.
Consumption: Do you think about the provenance of the products you buy and what kind of labor made them possible? Are you aware of which products are likely to come from sweatshop or child labor and which companies are being investigated and/or monitored by human rights groups? Driving: How do you react when behind the wheel? Would you want anyone outside your family to witness how you handle being cut off in traffic?
blessed are the peAcemakers A shortlist of organizations doing holistic work for peace
The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVPUSA.org) is an association of community-based groups offering experiential workshops in conflict resolution that reduce people’s need to resort to violence. Brought into communities, schools, and prisons, AVP workshops are designed to create successful personal interactions and transform violent situations.
Heeding God’s Call (HeedingGodsCall.org) is a campaign to prevent gun violence by helping local faith communities connect and organize advocacy campaigns to hold gun shops accountable for their business practices and to support gun violence prevention on both social and legislative levels.
The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (BPFNA.org) gathers, equips, and mobilizes Baptists to build a culture of peace rooted in justice and involving every area of their lives: personal (with God), interpersonal (between individuals), and social (between groups).
In addition to encouraging companies to conduct themselves as good corporate citizens, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR.org) hosts a “Violence and the Militarization of Society” group, which equips people to live and work in trust and cooperation so that all can grow to their full potential.
Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT.org) places violencereduction teams in crisis situations and militarized areas around the world at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers. CPT embraces the vision of unarmed intervention waged by committed peacemakers ready to risk injury and death in bold attempts to transform lethal conflict through the nonviolent power of God’s truth and love. Domestically, CPT works in the US and Canada as an ally to indigenous/aboriginal rights groups.
The Mennonite Central Committee USA Peace Education program (MCC.org/US/PeaceEducation) encourages practical and creative peacemaking in response to the militarization and violence of our community, economic, and political life; develops peace education materials and provides information on conscientious objection to military service and military taxes; and facilitates peace education and advocacy in cooperation with churches and groups such as the Center on Conscience and War.
J. Denny Weaver points out that war is at the heart of US civil religion and that there is a clear connection between preserving freedom and the use of violence.18 Because of the unique American myth of the United States as a “Christian nation,” most denominations are so wedded to the freedomviolence connection that they not only fail to challenge the use of violence at home and abroad, but they also often actively support and bless it. Fortunately, a remnant of resistance has remained among the historic peace churches (Quaker, Brethren, Mennonite), as well as peace fellowships among major denominations, such as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and Christian Peacemaker Teams. However, various Christian groups are working to make the links between urban violence and militarism.The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility hosts a working group
on “Violence and the Militarization of Society.” This coalition of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish thinkers seeks “to address the culture of violence in our society in a holistic manner” and has addressed such issues as the marketing of violent video games to young people. The Mennonite Central Committee USA Peace Education program is developing resources to encourage creative peacemaking. One expression of that has been an annual “Packing the Peace” conference held in Philadelphia for urban youth, with training on conflict resolution and urban peacemaking. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) that has roots in the Quaker peacemaking tradition began by working with prison inmates and focuses on community building through relationships as a form of transformative power. (See “Blessed Are the Continued on page 39.
appeal. Kris Allen’s pastor, Brandon Shatswell, told the reporter Lang that he understands the “moral balance” his worship leader must assume for his antics, “especially after Paula Abdul gushed ... that Allen was ‘adorable/sexy’ and Cowell teased the smiley newlywed for introducing ‘the wife’ so early in the competition.” Pastor Shatswell, at least, has no problem with this.“He’s a good-looking guy ... [and] I was aware people were going to notice that,” he admitted. “If it gains him votes and favor, then I’m all for it.” What is the real idol worshipped here? Self-expression. Even though many contestants and their fans are content to cover their bodies (what part of their bodies that they do cover) with brand names, they insist on self-expression as their primary right. Ours is a culture where the self and its needs are placed above all others, and the means to selfexpression — especially spoken and written English — are subordinated even further. In the realm of popular music, a certain set of body postures, facial expressions, vocal inflections, and melodic manipulations have come to represent a soulful self being expressed. For the Christian, two risks present
themselves when entering this particular realm of “the worldly world”: inauthenticity and presumption. For Kris Allen, say, to go from leading worship to singing Michael Jackson — or even the National Anthem — on TV bestows upon him a certain authenticity. I think behind Brokaw’s brushing-off of criticism is the misguided effort to show the world that Christians are just like everybody else, a harmless subset of tattooed and toothy singers who just want to have fun. Such ingratiating integration of called-out ones, especially for those in their teens, often leads to more confusion than confidence. To what gods are their hopes, dreams, and desires being directed? Those of popularity and cleverness? It’s hard enough for kids to keep their identity rooted in Christ without their adorable/sexy worship leader singing in an overblown talent competition. The presumption is that the Holy Spirit, that A&R man of the Trinity, follows ambitious Christians into whatever temple of self-expression they wander. The Spirit follows no one. Such foolishness is what Karl Barth warned against when writing of a church that “presupposes [the Spirit’s] presence and action in its own existence ... as though it had hired
The War Abroad and the War At Home continued from page 22.
him or even attained possession of him.” Or worse, such presuppositions fuel an unconscious effort to Christianize such secular pursuits. So we have Christians belting hymns to lust and loneliness with the same intensity as they offer praise to the Almighty. And there is only one vote that matters. Gokey’s pastor, Jeff Pruitt, said at the time, “Honestly, we believe it’s in God’s hands. Danny is in a place in his life that he is trusting the Lord with everything .... He prays ‘Lord, I will go as far as you want me to go.’”Apparently that was as far as Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” In her book Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy reminds us that the job of television is “to terrify and disgust us so that we’ll keep watching in horror.” In that case, all is well. Another season of American Idol will bring its usual desecration of all this music-loving Christian columnist holds dear, sending me in search of theological ear-plugs. Created in God’s image we are; but not all of us are created in the image of Aretha Franklin.” JD Buhl is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia area.
in the mountains of Afghanistan, what is stolen is not only their lives but also their future. Young people need more to show for their lives than a flag-draped coffin or an altar of flowers and teddy bears on a street corner. Christian peacemakers must put as much effort and ingenuity into addressing the causes of violence at home as we do into challenging the wars abroad. To focus on one while ignoring the other is to ignore the incontestable connection between the two. n
Peacemakers” on page 22 for more information on the groups mentioned here.) Efforts like these need to be deepened and expanded to involve people of faith in efforts to address militarism and urban violence at their cultural core. To do so is to live as people of hope.The prophet Jeremiah spoke into a particularly desperate situation in the history of ancient Israel. Like so many of the urban poor today, the exiled Jews of Jeremiah’s day saw little hope for change in their circumstances.Yet Jeremiah came proclaiming that God had promised them “hope and a future.”When young people die or are maimed, whether on the streets of an American city or
(Editor’s note: due to space limitations, the endnotes for this article have been posted at esa-online.org/Endnotes.) Drick Boyd is an associate professor of urban and interdisciplinary studies at Eastern University, Philadelphia, Pa.
Christian peacemakers must bring as much focus to America’s urban violence as they do to its military exploits overseas.