Demilitarizing America: Turn-Around Time?

"The Army Commander will choke on his power,

“The archer will not hold his stance…

“Nor the Imperial cavalry save their lives.”

                  (Amos 2: 13-14)


Why did Amos, who challenged Top-Down super-wealth and power, the 1% of his own society, focus on the military of his time?   What do his fiery words mean to our own generation? 

The new year we are entering seems an appropriate time to examine the deeper issues of the work we need to do.  As we do that, specific moments of horror like the Newtown Massacre and the Sandy Superstorm can help us understand the deeper crises we are facing.

 Let me begin with the way in which “military” weapons and modes have distorted our civilian lives and on occasion – most recently at Newtown – have shattered us.

The front-page epidemic of mass gun murders and the unseen epidemic of one-on-one gun murders (11,000 a year –- 30 a day!) is both symptom and cause of a self-destructive militarization, “violentization” of America.

Do the Newtown murders at long last stir the rising tide of Sorrow fused with Anger into a new amalgam we might call Determination? –- Does it portend at last the beginning of a turn-around from our long day’s journey into nightmare?

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia – dogged defender of assault weapons, obedient follower of NRA and the coal companies that are dynamiting the mountains that made delightful and beautiful the very state he lives in – has done overnight what Jews call tshuvah.

It’s usually translated “repentance,” but the original Hebrew means “turning” –- turning one’s life from arrogance and domination toward more compassionate, caring behavior.

Turning toward God, in fact –-  the aspect of God named YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath and Interbreath of life. The web that we all weave each other into.  The God that Jews say is ONE: Not “one” versus three, or ten, or a thousand – but the ONE we have no patent on, no copyright. The ONE Who is All.

The ONE, indeed, that could not live without our differences –- just as a living ecosystem depends upon the differences of its species to weave its wholeness.

Our differences, said the ancient Rabbis, are the way the Infinite shines into time and space. Every different face of God is unique not despite its root in the ONE, but because of its root in the ONE. Our differences, said eight-year-old Yonit Slater, are like the differences between the pieces in her jigsaw puzzle – waiting to be fit together into a community that would be like God.

If we are ONE, whence come the brutal acts of Adam Lanza? It is precisely when our society militarizes itself both physically and emotionally –  treats uniqueness as a danger to be destroyed rather than nourished, and puts multilethal weapons in the hands of anyone and everyone – that a deeply withdrawn and quirky person  becomes a murderer.

It takes both the deeply troubled person and the dangerously trouble-making weapon to make mass murder

The demilitarization of America requires facing both.

It requires tshuvah, turning, by our whole society.

Was Senator Manchin moved in the depths of his heart by seeing the small dead bodies of those six-year-olds, the inconsolable wails of their parents and grandparents?  Or was he moved only in the accountings of his head, as he counted up the changing votes around his feet?

I hope the former AND the latter – for the latter would mean the country is moving into tshuvah, not just the Senator.

“The demilitarization of America.”   What would it mean?

It would mean a massive reduction in the amount of money we spend upon –—-  the military!

No surprise that in a nation that spends trillions “defending” not itself but its global privileges – as much money as the whole rest of the world put together spends on its militaries –  the assault weapon would become a god, untouchable.

No surprise that when the country’s President sits alone without a judge or jury or defense attorney to condemn to death persons he has never seen (nor do their killers), some gun-idolators fire at targets infused with explosives so as to make a satisfying flash! and bang! when hit. Is it surprising that for a few it is even more satisfying if the target is a human being whose flesh erupts in blood and stink?

Do we see a problem in mass immigration across our boundaries? In a militarized society, we do not ask what is our part in driving the Mexican economy into disemploying farmers so that they risk everything to cross the border for a job. Instead, we erect a wall and shoot them.

In a militarized society, we send the price of even harmless drugs sky-high by making “war” against them, and then sell to high-profit drug lords the assault rifles they use to “defend” their illegal businesses.

In a militarized society, we respond to murderous terrorists not by seeking them out for trial in courts of justice and by helping to repair the broken societies that spawn them, but by shattering those societies beyond repair. Making more terrorists. Requiring more armies to destroy them.

In a militarized society, we imprison more than two million people  – most of then black or brown, most of them for nonviolent crimes, including possession of marijuana. (But we extol the use of alcohol, which fuels thousands of crimes of violence by its drinkers. Marijuana-smokers? Not one.)

In a militarized society, we treat the disemployment rate as a silent form of the military draft, refusing to make jobs of building railroads, erecting windmills, teaching the young, healing the sick, housing the homeless – but offering jobs in killing and dying.

In a militarized society, we treat the Earth itself as an enemy, burning its forests, using carbon dioxide and methane as our weapons of mass destruction to melt our ice, flood our seashores, dry up our ground water, parch farms into famines.

Each of these aspects of a militarized society we need to unravel, and weave threads of compassion and community into a different garment. 

Where do we start?  Everywhere and anywhere.

That is, any single one of these aspects of a militarized society is a legitimate target. (“Target.” Notice how military metaphors take over?)  So we get a number of single-issue groups.  Demand the abolition of assault weapons, or demand turning billions for the military into a decent railway network, or demand the end of draconian prison sentences  – and each single issue effort unravels one strand of ugly straitjacket. 

AND  –  it is also important to see and name the whole interlocking structure.   It is when we see and name the pattern as a whole that we can ask the question “Why?” Why have American politics and culture become so militarized?

I think the answer is connected to the multidimensional earthquake in which we live.

One response to that earthquake is seeking a place of immovability, of fixity. Militarization serves that desire. It may start from the top, hardening institutions of governance that had been more pliable, more responsive to the public will and to social change. (There is some evidence that in response to the challenge of the ‘60s to many established institutions, there was a conscious response by some powerful institutions to tighten the reins. See reports of the US Chamber of Commerce response to the Powell memo of 1971.)  But top-down hardening could not succeed without the acquiescence of frightened parts of the public, who make themselves obedient in the hope of finding safe, unmoving ground beneath their feet.

Another response is to “dance in the earthquake,” to make fluid the older official ideas and institutions. That impulse requires – using as a map the Four Worlds of Kabbalah – creating:

  • new time for deep reflection, laughter, love, and spiritual healing  (Atzilut, the World of sheer Spirit and closeness to the Infinite);
  • new forms of shared learning, artwork, and apprenticeship (Briyyah, creative intellect and art);
  • new participatory communities of care and compassion (Yetzirah (emotional and ethical relationship); and
  • new cooperative economic enterprises, even new forms of money (Asiyah, Physical Actuality).

These alternatives are what The Shalom Center has been trying to explore and encourage.  They are crucial to moving past the militarization of America; only if new forms emerge that can meet human needs in the midst of earthquake will the fear that supports top-down power and militarization begin to fade and a new kind of society emerge.