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Breaking the Habit

Sermon – 12/04/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 1:1-8

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,”’
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

I have a rather absurd proposition for you this morning.  My proposition is this:  we have a serious addiction problem in our society.  Nothing absurd about that, we are all familiar with the various addictions that plague us:  alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, even food and shopping. We see the impact of addictions all around us—lost jobs, broken marriages, damaged children, drunk drivers, etc.  But I am not talking about any of that.  I am talking about an addiction, if true, is even more serious, more costly, more deadly.  I am talking about our addiction to war.

It sounds absurd to say we are addicted to war.  I know, because the first time I heard it I laughed.  I said, “that’s ridiculous.  How can one be addicted to war?”  The person who introduced me to the idea nearly 20 years ago is one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, author of such books as Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five.  Vonnegut knows a bit about war from personal experience.  He fought in the famed Battle of the Bulge in WWII and was taken prisoner by the Germans.  He was sent to a work camp where he made vitamins for pregnant women.  The camp was in Dresden.   It was there, on February 13, 1945, that Vonnegut witnessed the fire bombing that burned the city to the ground.

In 1984, the year Judy and I graduated from seminary and were ordained into the ministry, Vonnegut published an article in The Nation.  In the article he calls Alcoholics Anonymous the greatest “nurturing contribution” of the United States to the world.  He defines addiction as a habitual use of a substance that gives brief spasms of pleasure but in the long run is self-destructive.  And he notes that the 12-step method of AA has been proven to be successful with all kinds of addictions, from alcohol to gambling.  Then he says,

I now wish to call attention to another from of addiction, which has not been previously identified … I am persuaded that there are among us people who are tragically hooked on preparations for war. … I mean it.  I am not joking.  Compulsive preparers for World War III, in this country or any other, are as tragically and repulsively addicted as any stockbroker passed out with his head in a toilet in the Port Authority bus terminal … If Western Civilization … were a person … we would be directing it to the nearest meeting of War Preparers Anonymous.  We would be telling it to stand up before the meeting and say, ‘My name is Western Civilization.  I am a compulsive war-preparer.  I have lost everything I ever cared about.’”[i]

 

Is that absurd, or is Vonnegut right?  I used to keep track of all the statistics on war and military spending, but after a while, it seemed rather pointless.  Since the end of WWII we have had somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 wars around the globe with more than 40 million deaths.  The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute defines a major war as any conflict with more than 1000 deaths per year. By that definition, there are currently 19 major wars under way, 19!  The top 15 nations of the world now spend one trillion dollars a year on armaments.  One trillion per year equals 2 million every minute.

The prophets Isaiah and Micah talk about turning swords into ploughshares.  Consider what that one trillion might buy.  In the minute we spend $2 million on armaments, approximately 30 children die of hunger and related diseases around the world.  It has been estimated that just ten percent of the world’s annual military expenditures could provide health care  for all mothers, provide clean water for the two billion people who do not have it, provide basic health care for all the developing world, provide job training for 50 million youth, teach everyone to read and write, provide schools for 50% of the children in developing nations, save one million Africans from starvation and eliminate diseases that kill 15 million children every year.[ii]  A shift of even one percent could save millions of lives. 

We can measure the physical effects of the arms race, but what about the mental and spiritual effects?  In the 1930s, even before nuclear weapons were even conceived, Sigmund Freud wrote that people “have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last [person].  They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety.”  If that was true then, how much more true it must be today.

During the days of the Cold War, we called our defense policy MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction, in which we held each other’s cities hostage.  As our weapons became more accurate, however, we shifted our targeting to very specific military objectives.  The MAD doctrine was replaced with Nuclear Utilization Target Selection, or NUTS for short.  Isn’t a great comfort to know that the war planning of our country went from MAD to NUTS?

All statistics and strategies aside, is this an addiction as Vonnegut claims?  Here is how Anne Wilson Schaef defines addiction in her book, Co-dependence:  Misunderstood—Mistreated.  She writes, addiction is “an unhealthy and abnormal disease process, whose assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and lack of spirituality lead to a process of nonliving that is progressively death-oriented.”  I don’t know how much more death oriented you can get than MAD and NUTS.  “This basic disease,” she continues, “from which spring the sub-diseases of co-dependence and alcoholism—among others—is tacitly and openly supported by the society in which we live.”  Does that not describe our world and its propensity to warfare?

As I was first pondering the validity of Vonnegut’s claim, I came across another article, this written by a recovering alcoholic.  Jack Smith, is a senior associate for the Stanley Foundation, a private family foundation working for a secure peace with freedom and justice through the promotion of multilateralism.  He describes the characteristics of alcoholism and compares those to the dependency of nations on armaments.  Looking back now on his essay, I find it even more descriptive of the present realities today.  Because the examples he gives are outdated, I’ll leave them out and let you make your own connections to modern events.

Smith writes, “The similarities are striking to me. … As a practicing alcoholic, a scapegoat was easy to find when confronted about my drinking.  It was also common to blame circumstances for my drinking. … The other side is always responsible… It’s their fault, [not mine].”  Who do we blame for war?  Can you spell 9/11?

“An addict is irresponsible; effects from drug usage cause poor judgment.”  Was our nation led into war on the basis of good judgment?  No comment.

“Addicts become judgmental of others when unable to control the world and its confusion.  Convincing people to adopt my values and to behave according to my standards was exhausting, unproductive work.  People would not allow me to change them, so they were fair game on which to vent my volcanic frustrations.”  How familiar is that?

“Addicts are also insecure.    Personal experience proved that drugs only gave me a false sense of security.”  Do all of our war preparations provide true security or false security?

“Addicts are self-centered.  The world revolved around me, I thought.  Everyone should cater to my needs.”  We do not expect the world to cater to us, do we?

“An addict falls prey to warped spending as the disease progresses.  … [A] higher percentage of scarce dollars are devoted to feeding the growing drug dependency.”  Here’s one more statistic to ponder.  While I believe this is a global problem, that the U.S. by far is not the only country addicted to armaments, the hard truth is that nearly half of the global military expenditures from those top 15 countries comes from the U.S.  At $455 billion, we spend more money on war preparations than the next 14 countries below us combined.  Adjusted for purchasing power, since it is cheaper to build a tank in China than the U.S., and we still spend more than China, India, Russia, France, Britain and Germany combined. 

“A final comparison … relates to people I call ‘enablers,’ persons who aid the addiction process through silence and inaction.”[iii]  In other words, Smith is talking about us, the silent public.  You probably won’t recognize the name of Norman Kember, but remember these words he wrote:

Personally it has always worried me that I am a 'cheap' peacemaker.... talking, writing, demonstrating about peace is in no way taking risks like young servicemen in Iraq. I look for excuses why I should not become involved.[iv]

 

Kember was taken hostage in Iraq last week.  He is one of the members of the Christian Peacemakers Team scheduled to be executed on Thursday if the demands of the hostage takers are not met.  What excuses do we have for not becoming involved?

If Smith and Vonnegut are right and we, western civilization in particular, are addicted to what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, then we must treat it as an addiction.  Just as will power alone cannot stop alcoholism, so to political will is not sufficient to stop this addiction.  The genius of 12-step programs is the recognition that addiction at it’s root is a spiritual disease.  War addiction, therefore, must be treated in the same way, as a spiritual affliction.

We must begin the road of recovery by recognizing first of all that we have a problem and second of all that only by relying on a higher power, not on our military might, can we solve the problem.  Building bigger and better weapons will ultimately only result in bigger wars not more peace. Only by placing our faith in the power of God can we free ourselves from the dangerous, intoxicating power of military weapons.  We must develop strategies for confronting the compulsive behavior with the aim of bringing it to an end.  We must examine our own involvement in it, ways in which we have become co-dependents.  Lastly, we must educate ourselves and others on the reality of this addiction.

While I was Present of City Club a few years back, a retired teacher came to us with one of those pie-in-the-sky dreams.  After touring much of the U.S. in his retirement, he noted how often he found monuments to war heroes and how rarely to the peace makers Jesus called blessed in the Sermon on the Mount.  His dream?  To build a monument in Eugene, Oregon, dedicated to the 22 American citizens who have received the Nobel Peace Prize.  City Club became one of the first groups in town to endorse the idea.  Former Mayors Jim Torrey and Ruth Bascom have agreed to be our honorary co-chairs.  A location in Alton Baker Park and a design by a local firm have been secured. Just before Thanksgiving we learned that Spirit Mountain has awarded us a $50,000 challenge grant. We only have $450,000 to go! 

Sponsors of the 22 recipients, which include such notables Americans as Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter, are being sought for $5,000 each. A major component of the monument will be a curriculum for classes of various ages to educate students on who these recipients were and what they did to receive the Nobel prize. The Nobel Peace Monument will be the first of its kind anywhere in the world and I believe is just one small step we can take to educating ourselves and recognizing the problems created by our dependency on war preparation.  My dream is to have the following inscription on one of those plaques:  “’Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.’  Matthew 5:9 from the members of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the heart of Eugene.”

The Gospel of Mark opens with people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem coming to hear John preach in the wilderness.  I suspect that is a slight exaggeration on Mark’s part, or what we call an hyperbole—a literary device to make a point.  The entire nation is in effect brought to the river Jordan to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sin.  In other words, we are all in this together.  It is not just individuals who are invited to repent, but nations.  While I would hope that our country would lead the way, it really isn’t about us.  It’s about the addiction, it’s about global military expenditures, It’s about tribal wars and international disputes, it’s about Iraq and Darfur, Palestine and Kashmir, it’s about repentance and forgiveness, it’s about refugees and malnutrition, it’s about learning to trust God and not military might, it’s about the people of God preparing the way of the Lord.  

It’s about the beginning of the Good News.  It’s about time for it to begin now.



[i] The Nation, January 7, 1984.

[ii] See John Turner, The Arms Race:  Modern World Issues Series.

[iii] “Addiction to Arms”, Jack Smith.  1987 pamphlet from The Stanley Foundation.

[iv] Sojourners weekly e-mail, November 30, 2005.

 


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