The United States has given the world the gift of noble concepts like democracy, and it has the potential to be a light to a hurting world. While appreciating what this country offers the rest of humanity, I refuse to worship this culture as though it were a god, incapable of doing any wrong.
When patriotism (my country right or wrong) replaces justice, we are in mortal danger of idolatry. Thus, it is because I believe the U.S. can be a force for good in the world that I confront and challenge its grievous sins. Only by demanding that this country lives up to the rhetoric it avouches can it be redeemed, becoming a pleasing vessel unto the Lord.
Martin Luther King Jr. was another American who believed that the inhabitants of this country were capable of establishing a “beloved community.” Still, as this nation’s conscience (prophet?), he held its people responsible for the sins committed against humanity, both within our boundaries and abroad.
It is the latter indictment I wish to explore. During a sermon preached at Riverside Church in New York, King accused the U.S. of being the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Although he was specifically referring to the war in Vietnam, we must ask if this accusation remains valid today.
According to the Library of Congress, the U.S. is the major world producer, distributor and supplier of lethal weapons, responsible for the death of so many of the world’s marginalized. In 2001 alone, the U.S. ranked first in the value of arms deliveries, totaling $9.7 billion worldwide. The U.S. share of all world arms deliveries was 45.6 percent, up from 41.6 percent in 2000. Additionally, the U.S. was the leader in arms transfer agreements, which were valued at $12.1 billion, representing 45.8 percent of all such transfers.
Should we do this? If we feel this is the right and noble action to take, are there ethical responsibilities and/or ramifications? And for those who claim to be Christians, how is the message of the Prince of Peace reconciled with a nation that claims to be blessed by God, yet allows the Prince of Darkness to triumph through deaths that come on account of wars and bloodletting?
Malcolm X, another conscience of the U.S. (prophet?), referring to the assassination of JFK said, “The chickens have come home to roost.” What he meant is that when we as a people export violence, we should expect violence to incarnate itself on our shores.
Take for example Osama bin Laden. When he and his gangs were killing Soviet soldiers in the 1980s, we compared them to our own founding fathers, referring to them as the Washingtons, Jeffersons and Franklins of Afghanistan.
The CIA provided millions of dollars in weapons and tactical support in the holy war against what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire.”
As long as they were killing 18 and 19 year-old Soviet soldiers, we hailed them as “freedom fighters.” But now that they have turned the guns (which we gave them) at the U.S., even crashing planes full of passengers into our skyscrapers, we call them “terrorists.”
As the Twin Towers came tumbling down, we asked the right question: “Why do they hate us?” Unfortunately our political leaders gave us the wrong answers–answers designed to mask the U.S. historical complicity in overthrowing governments, at times replacing popular leaders or democracies with brutal dictatorships that are kept in power as long as they protect and defend U.S. interests.
Our commander-in-chief told us they hated us because we had television, and because we elect our own leaders. (Ironically, our present president was appointed to his position by the Supreme Court after losing the popular vote).
The real reason they call us the Great Satan is because Satan is a ravenous lion desiring to devour the innocent. Were we also a ravenous lion in the 1980s when we sold materials to Iraq to build chemical and biological weapons to use against Iran? It isn’t hard to see why they would confuse the U.S. with Satan, the bringer of death.
If our rhetoric is one of being a nation grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, then how can we reconcile Jesus’ promise of providing “life abundance” (John 10:10) with our present role as the world’s supplier of weapons that provide abundant death?
We must, as a people, demand that our leaders live up to the convictions we espouse, lest on the Day of Judgment other nations rise up and bear witness against us.
Miguel De La Torre teaches in the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Mich. His column appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.