A joke amongst American, English-speaking Christians (and maybe English speakers elsewhere) goes: “How do you spell ‘prof-et’?” Is it p-r-o-p-h-e-t, as in the Biblical and contemporary leaders who listen for the still, small voice of God and cry out for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace, or do you spell it p-r-o-f-i-t, material gain? How do you spell “prof-et”? Your answer to this question will say a lot about you!
I speak as a citizen of the country that is the world’s largest seller of arms – by far. In 2016 alone the United States sold $42 billion in weapons to other countries. The US is responsible for one third of all weapons sales each year. Who is buying from the US? In 2017 the biggest customer by far was Saudi Arabia. The second was Australia, the third was the United Kingdom, the fourth was Israel. Italy was 11th. Norway was 13th.
We are selling arms to the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote several weeks ago, “Because we dislike Iran’s ayatollahs, we are willing to starve Yemeni schoolchildren” [Nicholas Kristof, NYT, Sept 25, 2018]. Our weapons not only kill and harm people who are literally hit by them, but they also kill and harm vulnerable people far from the sites of violent conflict. A devastating famine has come upon Yemen thanks to a civil war that has been made infinitely more lethal as arms sales to various actors contribute to the disruption of food production and distribution. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2017 report, “World military expenditure was estimated at $1.686 trillion in 2016, equivalent to 2.2 percent of global gross domestic product or $227 per person,” globally. Let’s consider for a moment what just a fraction of this money could have done to alleviate global hunger – if even a tiny portion of it went to Yemen.
It is obvious, but it does need to be said: weapons make conflicts more lethal. My friends at the United Nations tell me that the United States is creating Christian militias in Iraq and arming them. This can only have devastating consequences – first, it ensures that any future conflicts will be more lethal. Second, it pumps weapons into a society for use even before and outside of whatever “legitimate” conflict they are intended. Third, it increases the desire of other parties for weapons (perhaps we could sell to them as well?) and the whole situation becomes more militarized; and fourth, those weapons with the Christian militias will exist for the long term, endangering the welfare of Iraqis and then also those in the communities to whom these weapons might be passed or sold. In the 1980s, during the war in Nicaragua, the Contras, America’s so-called “allies,” were found to be using guns that had been first held by American troops twenty years earlier in Vietnam. Weapons stick around. One would think that the American experience of arming the Taliban decades ago would be remembered. American casualties in Afghanistan have often come from a weapon that was made in the USA, perhaps just miles from where a now-dead soldier is from. Perhaps his or her family members worked in that factory. Apparently the US has not yet re-thought the ridiculous idea that, as we say, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and about what devastating consequences come from arming those “enemies twice-removed.” How badly do we in the United States need to finally dismantle the false notion that giving away weapons to supposed friends – and that weapons sales in general – increases international security. Of course, the result is just the opposite, leaving everyone more vulnerable, including in the United States.
We are particularly challenged in these days, I think, by the fact that evolving weapons technologies further and further distance the victims of weapons from the user, making it easier to kill. We can bomb little boys on a school bus as they go on a class field trip and be nowhere near the scene. Not even on the same continent. We don’t need to reckon with their deaths, we don’t need to feel them, or ultimately to take responsibility for them. This technology only deadens our senses to the deaths of others and makes us more likely to kill again.
I’ve mentioned that the arms industry exacerbates other causes of human suffering and death such as famines. The arms industry also bears a huge responsibility for considerable environmental destruction around the planet. For instance, the chemicals used to scorch Vietnam decades ago still poison people born there now. The soil in which people grow their food is still toxic and causing birth defects and deaths. Whole forests are gone. Disarming the world is imperative for the survival of Earth and all her organisms.
But the building and selling of weapons earns some people money, and this is our most difficult obstacle to disarmament – at least in the US. During the Vietnam War, the General Electric Corporation netted $3 billion, and that’s in late-1960s dollars. The President at the time, Lyndon Johnson, was told by an advisor who had visited Vietnam that the war was unwinnable and unethical and should be ended, and Johnson said to the man, “I can’t end this war! My friends are making lots of money off this war!”
Today, President Trump has been working to ease restrictions on arms sales; he wants to close a trade deficit in this way and also keep China and Russia from taking America’s market share in the arms industry -- from taking our customers. Meanwhile, American populists are peddling a simplified understanding of conflicts, presenting false binaries of good and evil that leave out lots of subtleties and truths, and thereby increasing our moral willingness to use arms.
Populists also use the selling of arms as an argument for employing more Americans. Job creation is the primary domestic goal of Trump’s presidency. It is what he promised voters he could deliver for them, and I think he’ll do just about anything to keep that promise, because he has staked so much of the legitimacy and future of his administration upon it. Consequently, he’s ramping up arms productions and sales, and increasing our national financial interest in producing more arms. The organization that most strongly opposes efforts to disarm both the world and the American population (mind you, we have a tremendously armed citizenry) is the National Rifle Association (NRA), because they represent the companies who are making so much profit off of gun sales. They spell profit with an “f”!
Conservative American religious groups are falling in line behind all of this. It is the great responsibility of this political moment in the US and elsewhere for other religious communities to vocalize and otherwise demonstrate their opposition to putting profit before the lives of humans and of the planet. Religious communities are needed more than ever to lead the call for disarmament. The resources in all of our faith communities provide deepest support for the call for human well-being and uplift, for protest against violence, and for the insistence upon dialogical responses to our very real conflicts. In fact, religious communities may be placed as the most potentially effective actors on this. We can speak truth to power and, in some settings, we are the power.
In Christianity we speak of “Turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” – of turning our weapons into tools for cultivating food for the flourishing of the people. Followers of Jesus in the US and around the world have been quite vocal on this matter. Pope Francis has said, “This is serious. Some powerful people make their living with the production of arms and sell them to one country for them to use against another country ... It’s the industry of death, the greed that harms us all, the desire to have more money….The economic system orbits around money and not men, women. ... So war is waged in order to defend money. This is why some people don’t want peace: They make more money from war, although wars make money but lose lives, health, education.”
Pope Francis made the same point in his speech to the United States Congress: “Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.” Let me add that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has also been lobbying Congress to end conventional arms sales to Saudi Arabia, noting the contribution to the emerging famine in Yemen.
The denomination in which I am ordained, the United Church of Christ, has also spoken out to politicians and arms-makers. These words speak particularly to the proliferation of nuclear weapons: "We declare our opposition to all weapons of mass destruction. All nations should: (1) declare that they will never use such weapons; (2) cease immediately the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons; (3) begin dismantling these arsenals, and; (4) while the process of dismantling is going on, negotiate comprehensive treaties banning all such future weapons by any nation." The UCC has also called most forcefully for international agreements to limit military establishments and the international arms trade.
We need to spell “prof-et” as read in the Bible, with a “p-h,” as we prophetically work for the disarming of communities. The well-being of God’s beloved community and of our earth depends upon it.