We live in a culture of violence. From entertainment to the streets, we alternately celebrate and decry the level of violence in our society and respond to it with an increased - and increasingly militarized - police presence.
Our family recently abandoned cable TV when Time Warner, the local cable company, decided to get into a dispute with the local NBC affiliate and stop carrying their signal until their dispute is resolved. We don't really know who is responsible for the dispute and very few people really care. The result was that cable TV stopped carrying the channel that broadcasts the Green Bay Packers' games just days before the first preseason game, forcing cable TV subscribers to watch the game on Telemundo and listen to the broadcast on the radio. You might think that wouldn't be a bad alternative. The problem is that radio runs on a five second delay, resulting in the play being over on the television before the play by play on radio even begins. If you aren't familiar with Wisconsin culture, interfering with our ability to watch the Packers is slightly less popular than cable TV in the Vatican deciding not to cover the Pope. We researched our options and found that we could buy an antenna, subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, have more options than we did on cable TV and still save $75 a month. Goodbye cable TV!
Fresh with excitement over the new and old movies and television series I could watch I saw that one of my childhood favorites, Adam-12, was available. I chose the first episode of the first year, and there it was! What I couldn't fail to notice was the lack of flack jackets and M-16 rifles. They were also carrying revolvers instead of semi-automatic pistols, but if memory serves that may have been because semi-autos were a later development. They spoke to citizens with dignity and respect, in the clipped minimalist phrases typical of a Jack Webb production. Watching the program, which in its day won awards for realistically portraying police life, was stepping into another time, a time when the idea of "to protect and serve" didn't mean "occupy like the Marines." Don't misunderstand, I believe that in today's climate every police officer should have all of the protection they can get, including bullet proof vests. What I cannot help but wonder is if our government's history of responding to violence with violence hasn't in large part contributed to the perceived need for increased militarization of the police.
As I write this President Obama is prepared to attack Syria because it has allegedly used chemical weapons on its own civilians. Those are serious accusations that seem to be true. The United Nations is doing what the United Nations does best - wringing their collective hands and asking for more time. Experts, as well as civilians living in Syria, report that the Syrian government has done what cowardly totalitarian regimes everywhere seem to do and placed government and military installations in residential areas in the belief that such a practice will cause decent people to think twice before attacking because of the certainty of collateral damage - and such practices should make decent people think twice and even three times before attacking. Apparently, our government is not comprised of decent people.
One of the five Buddhist lay precepts cautions against the heedless use of intoxicants. The other four caution against killing, lying, sexual misconduct, and stealing. It has been said that the precept about heedless use of intoxicants is there because intoxication increases the likelihood of violating the other four precepts. Is there anything more intoxicating than power, and can we see that our government's misuse of power inevitably leads to lying and killing? What's more, can we see that it is absolutely insane to attack another country while knowing with certainty that because of the placement of their installations such an attack will kill countless civilians in order to punish them for killing their own civilians? At this point the murder weapon becomes irrelevant, because whether we are talking about nerve gas or a cruise missile the truth is no civilian should ever encounter either!
This leads me to a question I have been pondering for some time, but which would not make a popular Facebook post. The question is, "Can a person who claims to be religious or spiritual join the military without abandoning their spiritual or religious values?" Of course it is a loaded question because our "all volunteer" military preys upon the economically disadvantaged, promising them vocational training they can use should they survive their enlistment both physically and psychologically intact - something that is far from guaranteed and that recruiters are loathe to mention. The truth is that many "volunteers" see no other choice but to "volunteer." What of those who do have a choice, the officers? I was shocked at Erin's Marquette University reunion to speak with a man who graduated Air Force ROTC from that fine, Jesuit institution and now does drone target selection for the Air Force. I have to say, and others may freely disagree with me, that I do not find his occupation worthy of product of a Christian institution.
As we cavort around the world interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations, back at home the violence we freely distribute abroad is alive and well in our cities - and not just on the streets, but in private homes in the suburbs. Domestic violence is pandemic, as are sexual assault, child abuse, children resolving problems on elementary school playground through physical violence, and just about every other form of violence you can imagine. Veterans return home from combat with PTSD, street gang members also have PTSD from the violence they have experienced and witnessed, and we seem to always have more than enough money to create more victims at home and abroad but never enough money to treat them. We have money to kill, but not to build up, feed, educate, or employ. We are a morally bankrupt nation.
We need to find a way to teach our children a new way. We can no longer rely on our education system, churches, or government to do the job. We need to teach them that violence is unacceptable, and that there are no exceptions to that rule. Adults need to pull the phones out of their ears, shut down the computer, turn off the television, and decide that their greatest responsibility is raising children who know they are loved and who are taught basic moral and ethical values. Those of us who are older need to help young adults do this, because the truth is that many of them were not raised knowing they were loved and many of them grew up in a culture of domestic violence and street violence. They will need our help to learn that they, too, are of value and bearers of divinity.
This will require spiritual institutions that don't hide inside four walls and only attend to those who venture inside. This will require spiritual institutions that are more concerned about people than money, which would represent a 180 degree shift for most of our churches. This will require spiritual institutions that are willing to step out, take risks, and see their primary mission not as one of evangelism but rather as one of healing. Many will fall short of the task and simply disappear into irrelevance. Others will take their place, and that is how it should be. There is for everything and everyone, a time to die. Others are born to replace them. This is the great social justice challenge of our time. Who will rise to meet it?