The Common Good
July-August 2003

The Things That Make for Peace

by Jim Wallis | July-August 2003

As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!" —Luke 19:41

As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!" —Luke 19:41

The war with Iraq was justified mainly on the basis of fear. Trappist monk Thomas Merton said it well years ago: "The root of war is fear." Since Sept. 11, 2001, our nation has been terrified, and with good reason. But I believe Americans are also hungry for peace. A recent New York Times headline read, "U.S. is Now in Battle for Peace after Winning the War in Iraq." What are the things that make for peace?

Those who now lead this nation believe that peace comes through unquestioned military superiority. Presidential words from aircraft carriers point the way. A new Pax Americana is now being offered quite openly in the aftermath of the military conquest of Iraq. Words like "empire" are being used in a positive way. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a leading proponent of American empire, claims that there is nothing wrong with dominance as long as it is for the "right values."

In 1997, an influential group of political and opinion leaders, led by Kristol and others, formed a group called the Project for the New American Century, proposing an aggressive foreign and military policy to enforce American interests throughout the world. Some of their members are now running the Defense Department. In their own words, they offer a clear vision of the things they believe make for peace. They write: "The United States is the world's only superpower, combining pre-eminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world's largest economy.... At present the United States faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.... If an American peace is to be maintained and expanded, it must have a secure foundation on unquestioned U.S. military pre-eminence.... And the failure to prepare for tomorrow's challenges will ensure that the current Pax Americana comes to an end."

MICAH, MY FAVORITE prophet on national security issues, had a different view. Micah says we will never beat our "swords into plowshares" until everyone has their own "vine and fig tree." Two millennia later, Pope Paul VI famously paraphrased Micah when he said, "If you want peace, work for justice." The insight that the possibilities for peace, for avoiding war, depend upon everyone having enough is a clear alternative vision. The insight is both prophetic and practical for us in these days. If the tremendous imbalances of this planet could be leveled out just a little, nobody would have to be afraid. It is the great imbalances and fears that lead to war.

The causes of war and terrorism are indeed complex, with multiple roots—including religion, culture, ideology, and politics. But the deep connections between conflict and injustice are at the center of the prophet's diagnosis. Ultimately, there will be no security apart from common security, and no national security that neglects domestic injustice. The prophets urge us to make the crucial connection between poverty and war.

It is now clear that the ongoing costs of the war with Iraq and the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy are leading to a crisis for America's poorest children. Indeed, America's poor were the first casualties of this war, as U.S. domestic needs were pushed off the political agenda.

Congress recently approved nearly $80 billion requested by the administration as the first payment for the war with Iraq. Then it agreed to a budget resolution containing billions of dollars in new tax cuts and increased spending for the military, while resources for important domestic programs are falling below the amount needed even to maintain current services in a deteriorating situation for the poor.

The consequences of these actions are becoming a silent war, felt most severely in the poorest parts of the United States, where low-income families are desperately clutching onto the bottom rungs of the failing economy. Virtually every state in America is suffering terrible budget deficits. But the Bush budget offers little relief for states and no solutions to the deficits except further cuts to critically needed domestic programs. The administration plans to replace Section 8 vouchers, which assist nearly 2 million families in paying rent, with block grants run by the states and with no guarantee of the needed funding. A recent General Accounting Office study found that nearly half the states have cut child care funding in the last two years. A state legislator recently told me that his state cancelled the last two weeks of school because of lack of funds, and more than a dozen people have committed suicide after their health care coverage was cut off.

And the IRS—according to one of the most incredible recent announcements—is planning to ask more than 4 million people who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit for stringent proof of eligibility (adding to forms that are already long and complicated). This proposal would directly affect working poor families and undercut perhaps the most effective bipartisan program for poverty reduction.

THE TRUTH IS that hungry people will go without food stamps, poor children will go without health care, the elderly will go without medicine, and school children will go without textbooks so that the taxes of the wealthiest Americans can be further reduced. The Senate finally passed the CARE Act by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, including the restoration of more than $1 billion dollars to the Social Services Block Grant program, funds that assist state and local social service providers. The same day, the White House announced it would oppose that funding. The budget priorities of the administration do not match its rhetorical promise of a faith-based initiative to reduce poverty.

The president's faith-based initiative is fast becoming a hollow program that merely provides equal access for religious groups to the crumbs falling from the federal table. The drastic state budget cuts will be acutely felt by faith-based service providers who will bear the brunt of increased poverty in their communities. Many people who run these programs feel betrayed, having to cut their budgets and lay off staff even in the face of growing needs.

The administration's priorities are a disaster for the poor and a windfall for the wealthiest, and thus directly conflict with biblical priorities. Budgets reveal our priorities as a family, a church, or a nation. In evangelical language, the proposed budget from the Bush administration is "unbiblical."

Two billion people—almost half the world—now live on less than $2 per day; 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, including half the people in sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody seems to pay attention to the fact that 30,000 children die every day from utterly preventable causes such as hunger and bad drinking water.

Another prophetic voice comes from British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who has called for a boost in global aid of $50 billion a year over the next 15 years. It would provide funds to build schools, hospitals, and sanitation facilities in the Third World, ahead of the 2015 U.N. deadline world leaders have set for cutting world poverty in half. Brown said, "What has happened in Afghanistan and elsewhere raises global issues on terror to which we must respond with resolution but also about the integration of the poorest countries into our global economy." All he's talking about is the developed nations designating .7 percent of GNP for this mission, up from .2 percent.

Globalization policies that give advantage to wealthy countries over the poor cannot simply be imposed by military superiority. We need a leadership for peace that sows the seeds of justice. I am convinced that the critical task of global poverty reduction will not be accomplished without a spiritual engine. That's why some U.S. church leaders are going to Great Britain in a few months to meet with Gordon Brown and Prime Minister Blair, along with church leaders there, to talk about what it would mean for the churches to push a new agenda. The prophets begin with critique and judgment, but they always end in hope. It is that hope, grounded in faith, that will lead to action for change and bring the things that make for peace.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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