Friday, September 11, 2009

What Does it Mean to be Free?

A few days ago the date was 9-09-09, a fun date to write, but one that didn’t hold particular significance for most of us. A much more meaningful date in September occurred exactly eight years ago today. Significant not for the date itself, but rather for events that unfolded that September morning and even more so, for what has followed in the eight years since that date, September 11, 2001 is a date that most of us will long remember and a date that will forever mark a turning point in this country we call home. Or will it?…

Some of you have received an email from me every September 11 for the last seven years, upon each anniversary of that date that will forever live in infamy. For others, you have not received such an email until today as you are newer acquaintances, only recently joining the fold of those who receive my email reflections. There are certain dates upon which I feel compelled to take a few minutes to record some of my thoughts regarding the significance of historical events and their bearing upon our lives. Today is such a day.

But my thoughts today differ dramatically from some of the things that I have written in the past. Historically my reflections have primarily been upon honoring those who lost their lives on September 11 and taking action ourselves to make this world a better place. That is again the tone of this email, but the vehicle that I use may take some of you by surprise.

My life has changed dramatically in the past year. And as a result I have a different perspective than I have had in years prior. Yes we need to remember those who lost their lives. Yes we need to honor those who gave their lives as firefighters, police officers, and other rescue personnel that day.  Yes we need to commemorate those who have given their lives since in defense of our freedom. But I cannot sit idly by and not ask the question that is staring all of us in the face as we do so—What exactly have they died for? Freedom to do… What?

We speak of ambiguous ideals of freedom, but is that really what we are representing in this country? I am proud to be an American and I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to live in this country, but I also view that blessing as an obligation to use the wealth and resources that we have to better the world that we live in. And sadly, that is not the legacy that we have been leaving. 

We have the freedom to prosper, but the responsibility that comes with prosperity doesn’t seem to exist. I have read some numbers and statistics recently that greatly disturb me and have given me serious pause. Did you know that the richest 1 percent of Americans receive 15% of the nation’s annual income?  In the last twenty years the share of wealth of the rich elite in this country has increased by nearly 90%. Even more disturbing than this general number are the numbers concerning big business. In 1960 the ratio of the salary of the average CEO to the average American worker (after taxes) was 12:1. In 2003 that ratio was 301:1.  That is absolutely obscene. The poorest 20% in this country have had a negligible increase in wealth or position in the last fifty years while the upper 20% have amassed more and more wealth and resources. And those resources are being used for absolutely frivolous and counter-productive pursuits.

We have the influence and resources in this country to radically change the world. And yet we do not do so. Instead we pour those resources into our own selfish dreams and into an elaborate security system intended to protect our amassed wealth.

Our military budget is absolutely obscene. By 2006 the US military budget was larger than the next 25 nations combined. That money could be used to do so much good, and instead we use it to “secure” ourselves. And yet the terrorist threats continue to rise. When does it stop? When do we say we have enough? Historically…. We don’t. During the cold war the US and the Soviet Union amassed more than 70,000 nuclear warheads. It is estimated that since 1940 the United States has spent 5.48 trillion dollars developing nuclear weapons and the systems by which we can deliver them. And we have spent even more producing those weapons. And for what purpose?

Did you know that we had 450 Minuteman II missiles is silos in the Midwest poised for launch at the Soviet Union for more than thirty years? Many of those weapons and the silos that housed them have recently been decommissioned, but we still have more than 150 minuteman III missiles in the same region just in case. And now the US spends $100 million per day to keep such weapons poised and ready for a preemptive strike. Is that really necessary? Is that where are money, effort, and resources should be going?

But it isn’t just our own defense that causes us to produce weapons. We also produce them for the purpose of selling them to the rest of the world. Today the US produces 53.4% of the world’s weapons. In 1999 the US weapons industry supplied arms to 92% of the conflicts in process anywhere on the planet. Today that percentage is even higher. That includes many of the conflicts in Africa such as the war in Northern Uganda that Invisible Children has done so much to call to our attention. What is wrong with us? Do we have any since of morality or decency?

Rather than helping these nations to survive we sell them weapons to destroy themselves. Between 1998-2001 the US, Great Britain, and France earned more money as a result of selling weapons to developing countries than they gave those countries in aid. That is simply ridiculous!

It is those kind of numbers and those kind of facts that weigh on me so heavily today. And I can’t help but wonder what it is that this country truly represents. Yes we have done some wonderful things, but what legacy are we truly leaving? We consume far more than we should, we are destroying the planet, and we are destroying the people that inhabit it, all for our own selfish pursuit of what we think to be happiness.

And most of us completely miss the point of what life could and should be. I have spent the summer living and working in one of our nation’s National Parks. I can think of little that I would rather be doing. The National Park system has been called America’s Best Idea. I submit that such a claim is absolutely correct. The ideas of preservation, conservation, and inherent and intrinsic value that lie behind the national park idea represent a radically different mindset than the prevailing one in this country. On September 27 Ken Burns’ new documentary on the parks will premiere on PBS. It will be released on DVD on October 6. Watch it. I have a feeling that it will represent these values very well, and we would do well to heed the message that lies behind these values.

We need to fight for something worth fighting for. Not for the power to rape and pillage, but rather the responsibility to manage and take care of this world and its people. We are more than we have become.

And those of us that claim to be followers of Jesus have done little better, if not actually worse than anyone else. We focus on maintaining a system of “right belief” and largely ignore the much more significant issues of social justice, sitting apathetically by as participants in the theo-capitalist system that this nation has come to represent. I could go on about this for some time, but I think I will instead let Brian McLaren sum it up in two very simple statements.

First of all, “Jesus does not prescribe hell to those who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don’t express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their ‘personal savior.’ Rather, hell—literal or figurative—is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on their way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day” (Everything must change, 208). 

Sound like us? Earlier in the book McLaren also writes that this world and our nation will not change until, “instead of pursuing our own selfish dreams—whether they are individual, ethnic, religious, political, economic, or national—we seek for God’s dream for creation to come true, and we are restored to our place in God’s sacred ecosystem” (Everything must change, 132).

We are not fulfilling our purpose. And we are most certainly not representing the values that Christ stood for. It is not about believing the right things. It is about what we do with the time that is given to us, and how we treat our fellow human beings and the world we live in. We must let go of ourselves and find our identity in a higher cause if there is to be any hope of significant or lasting change.

I have not attended a church service since the beginning of May. That is a marked change for me. It has been very interesting to live in a national park and to not attend an institutional church. I have missed it, but at the same time, I have connected with God and been spiritually renewed in much much more powerful and significant ways.

John Muir once said that, “The more the hills and groves are cut down and hewn into cathedrals ad churches, the further off and dimmer seems the lord.” Those words powerfully echo in a world where we have lost much of the grandeur and wonder that once inhabited these lands.

I woke up this morning in the back of my truck looking out at Chimney Rock in what was once the prairie of Nebraska. Surrounded by the prairie land no more, the rock still stands as testimony to a land that once was, where people risked all to travel across the frontier in pursuit of a better way of life.

Perhaps today we need to embark on a similar expedition, only this time, instead of crossing the land in pursuit of a new place to live, we should rather cross the frontier of who we are in pursuit of a new way of living. Rather than using 9/11 as a catalyst for our “war on terror” perhaps we would do better to rethink the meaning behind those actions, to recognize what we are doing wrong, and to let it be the progenitor or a new way of living.  If we are willing to take the journey we may well find, like John Muir did when he viewed the natural beauty that surrounded him that, “new beauty meets us at every step in all our wonderings.” And there is nothing more valuable than the pursuit of truth and beauty.

That is a legacy worth living for.

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