Total arms sales among the world’s 100 largest defense contractors topped $398 billion in 2017 after climbing for the third consecutive year. Notably, Russia, one of the countries with the fastest growing militaries over the last decade, became the second largest arms-producing country, overtaking the United Kingdom for the first time since 2002. The United States’ position as the top arms-producing nation in the world remains unchanged, and for now unchallenged.
The article goes on to list the top 20 defense contractors, a list topped by Lockheed Martin:
Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, the largest defense contractor in the world, is estimated to have had $44.9 billion in arms sales in 2017 through deals with governments all over the world. The company drew public scrutiny after a bomb it sold to Saudi Arabia was dropped on a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 boys and 11 adults. Lockheed’s revenue from the U.S. government alone is well more than the total annual budgets of the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency, combined.
You know who else is profiting from war? You. If you invest your money through organizations like Thrivent Financial.
According to data gathered by dontbankonthebomb.com (a project of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate ICAN and PAX), Thrivent Financial, as of early 2018, had a total of $297 million invested into the military industrial complex. These companies include BAE Systems (which builds fighter-bombers, combat drones, nuclear submarines and nuclear missiles), Huntington Ingalls (which builds aircraft carriers), Lockhead Martin (the world’s largest defense contractor who builds, among other things, the Trident II DF nuclear missile), and Orbital ATK (which produces missiles, large-caliber ammunition, grenade launchers, and warheads).
Thrivent Financial is a Fortune 500 not-for-profit financial services organization headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Appleton, Wisconsin and founded by Lutherans. Of course, the major financial service organizations (Berkshire Hathaway, Allianz, JP Morgan Chase, etc) are awash in war profiteering as well. Call me old-fashioned, but I expect more from organizations who link their mission exist to help Christians “be good stewards of the gifts God has given them“.
Are you, by investing with Thrivent Financial unwittingly participating in war profiteering?
Thrivent started as a Christian mutual aid organization but is now a Fortune 500 company making profits from death. How does this square with Jesus’ call to love our enemies, welcome the stranger, and serve “the least of these.”
To take a step towards challenging Thrivent Financial, add your name to these petitions on Change.org or CodePink.
There remain many open questions. My point here isn’t so much to defend a radical read of Scripture as much as it is to give a sketch of the possibilities. We read Scripture in ways that support authoritarianism because we learned how to read Scripture in authoritarian contexts. Once you start pulling the loose threads, you begin to find the whole authoritarian fabric unraveling. For sake of brevity, I’ll address the two most commonly raised passages against Christian radicalism.
The first is Romans 13, where Paul tells his readers to “submit to the governing authorities”:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
When interpreting this passage, there are several things that one must keep in mind:
1) This passage occurs immediately after Romans 12, where Paul challenges his readers to bless persecutors, live peaceably, never avenge, feed enemies, and overcome evil with good. By clear implication, the “governing authorities” are persecuting enemies whose evil needs to be overcome with good. Given that Paul is likely drawing directly from Jesus’ teachings, it may be best to interpret the call to “be subject” as an application of the call to “turn the other cheek.” It is not a call to mere obedience or happy citizenship.
2) Jacques Ellul suggests “the passage thus counsels non-revolution, but in so doing, by that very fact, it also teaches the intrinsic nonlegitimacy of institutions.” In other words, the very fact that Paul has to argue, in light of enemy-love, that the people should forsake (violent) resistance reveals that the “governing authorities” are, in some sense, worthy of revolt. Just like Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek recognizes that, under normal circumstances, one would hit back. To refrain from violence is a testimony to the the Roman Christian’s goodness, not the goodness of Rome.
3) Some scholars have (rightly) challenged translating the Greek word tasso as “instituted.” Rather, they argue that a better translation would be that the authorities are “restrained” by God. Therefore, Paul could be advising his readers against revolt since God is already restraining the rulers.
4) Due to the nature of translation and the dualism in our modern imaginations (separating spiritual from political realms), we don’t often recognize that Paul’s language around the “powers” blurs the distinction between political and spiritual realities. When we read words like “authorities” or “rulers” or “powers,” Paul may be talking primarily about spiritual realities, political realities, or (most likely) both at the same time. This adds complexity to what would otherwise seem like a straight-forward challenge to be “subject” to the “authorities” because, elsewhere, such “authorities” are enemies to Christ.
5) It is a mistake to take Romans 13 as a universal message of how Christians everywhere ought to relate to government. Wes Howard-Brook states:
We can say, though, that whatever Paul meant to convey to the Christians at Rome in the 50s, it was not a general principle of subservience to imperial authority…we’ve seen how Paul’s letters regularly insist on attributing to Jesus titles and authority that his audience would certainly have heard as “plagiarized” from Roman sources…The most likely explanation of Romans 13 is that it was a message addressed to specific concerns of Roman Christians under Nero.
And so, from Paul’s perspective, the Christians in Rome in the 50s should not revolt. Rather, they should love their oppressors and leave wrath to God. This wasn’t because the Roman government was good, but because followers of Jesus are called to the way of love. Furthermore, God has restrained the authorities and will judge them.
Much more could be said about what such teachings could mean for us. At the very least, it encourages us to trust God and love our enemies. While Paul argues against violent resistance, his words leave room for nonviolent struggle. It would be foolish, I think, to extrapolate universal principles of governmental engagement from this passage. Nevertheless, once we understand Paul’s sentiments, we can better discern how to express the love of God in our own contexts.
Tied for the most referenced pro-Rome passage is Mark 12:13-17:
Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to trap him with his own words. When they came they said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and do not court anyone’s favor, because you show no partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But he saw through their hypocrisy and said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” So they brought one, and he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
Clearly they were trying to trick Jesus into publicly picking sides either would be dangerous. If he sided with Rome, he’d lose the support of the people. If he denounced Rome, he’d be a marked man. The fact that Herodians and Pharisees are working together against Jesus is telling; Jesus is so offensive that enemies have put aside their differences to resist him. What is remarkable about this passage isn’t so much that Jesus is clever. The implications of his statement are remarkable.
Are the implications that we should be Augustinian, creating a distinction between church and state? Or even separating them into two separate kingdoms with different claims as Luther or some Anabaptists have advocated? No. This is a very smart slap against Caesar without simply denouncing Caesar. By pointing to their coin (no good Jew should have a graven image like a coin in their pocket to begin with), Jesus is exposing idolatry and saying that such things belong to Caesar already, not God. If you’ve got any Caesar-stuff, it should be rendered accordingly. But what is God’s belongs to God. Or, to quote Dorothy Day, “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.”
Lest you think that such approaches to scripture are a recent innovation, I direct you to Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a 2nd Century bishop on the fringes of the Empire in Lugdunum, Gaul. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. In other words, he was removed from Jesus by two generations; he was a friend of a friend of Jesus:
The Lord himself directed us to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s,” naming Caesar as Caesar, but confessing God as God. In like manner also, that which says, “You cannot serve two masters,” he does himself interpret, saying “You cannot serve God and mammon,” acknowledging God as God, but mentioning mammon, a thing also having an existence. He does not call mammon Lord when he says, “You cannot serve two masters,” but he teaches his disciples who serve God, not to be subject to mammon nor to be ruled by it…
In other words, Irenaeus believed that the thing we should render Caesar is our renunciation. Caesar’s lordship is comparable to that of mammon 11. He is only your lord if you are his slave.
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Gospel of Luke (and its sequel: Acts) isn’t an ethereal philosophical text. Luke doesn’t deal with wealth and poverty abstractly, rather in Luke we see poor people and wealthy people engaged directly.
We learn in this passage that it is seemingly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom, for probably a number of reasons including the simple truth that the kingdom belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20).
Perhaps it is Luke’s assumption that there are no innocent independently wealthy people. Rather, Luke’s approach to poverty and wealth must be understood in light of Jubilee. According to the Hebrew Jubilee (which at the very least informed Jesus’ approach to economics), if someone has amassed wealth, it would be seen as INTRINSICALLY stealing from the poor. And, as such, it would have been unjust. Take a look at Leviticus 25 to read more on what God was going for with the Jubilee.
I’m not advocating that Christians practice Jubilee exactly as understood in Leviticus 25 (and elsewhere). I don’t believe we should just cut-and-paste the Torah into our contemporary Christian lives and try to live it out as-is.
Nevertheless, when Jesus begins to call people into the Kingdom of God, he raises the bar on Jubilee, rather than watering it down. If you read through Christ’s teachings on wealth and poverty, it becomes apparent that Jesus wants people to live in an ongoing practice of Jubilee. The early chapters of Acts show this in practice. And we can also assume that, given early church practices and teachings on wealth and poverty, they extended their Jubilee-inspired economic practices to aliens and stranger who were, in Leviticus, excluded from Jubilee.
Whenever I talk about Jubilee, people push back. Especially if they have money. The modern USAmerican understanding of justice is quite different than the justice of Jesus. Nowhere can we find in Jesus’ jubilee vision that a wealthy person needs merely to give alms to be justified, since wealth comes from the Land, and the Land, which ultimately belongs to God, is granted to God’s people. In light of this, the wealthy aren’t called to mere charity. Charity doesn’t get at justice. Even when Jubilee ceases to be rooted in the promised land, it is still assumed that, in Christ, everything belongs to the Lord and should, therefore, be redistributed to those in need as an act of justice—not as an act of “charity.”
Before I dive back into the story of the Rich Young Ruler, I want to make a quick statement about an understanding of Jesus that often gets in the way of a healthy reading of Scripture.
We often use Jesus as an example of the downwardly-mobile. It is assumed that, in Heaven, Jesus was kinda wealthy…and that he left that all behind to slum it with the poor folks. But Jesus isn’t simply someone who decided to serve the poor. He was poor. He didn’t speak as the affluent who advocates for the poor—he spoke as a representative of the poor. I wonder if, to Jesus, it was a more condescending act to address the poor or to address the Rich Young Ruler? Maybe he looks at everyone the same—but I wonder if he held more pity for the Rich Young Ruler than he did for the poor Lepers he sometimes healed.
Whether Jesus addressed the wealthy or the poor, his goal was to call folks into a righteous relationship with God and neighbor. Jesus’ sermons and acts serve to convert the marginalized into human beings. His are acts of liberation for the oppressed and the poor.
But what of the rich and the powerful? In this encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, we see the way that they are to enter into the Kingdom. They also need to be converted into human beings.
If the poor become marginalized and dehumanized because of oppressive power and the crushing weight of social, economic, and religious systems, then the ones who wield that power and create or support those systems also become dehumanized, but in a different way.
In fact, if you read through Luke/Acts carefully, it becomes apparent that Luke isn’t simply rejecting the wealthy (it is valid to believe that Luke himself was wealthy at some point), but is instead deeply interested in the salvation of the wealthy, which requires them to divest of their wealth.
But let’s get practical. What is, ultimately, the goal of the wealthy divesting of their wealth? The goal is to share possessions—which is what we see in the early chapters of Acts. When wealthy people come to faith, they are to share everything with the poor, who receive it. But the poor and the wealthy don’t then go their separate ways, rather, they live as family. The goal of downward mobility isn’t mere charity, but solidarity.
To Luke, and to Jesus, Mammon (money) is like a false God who woos away the Rich and keeps them from being a part of the People of God. Mammon isn’t a neutral thing—it is a perilous tool that can either purchase solidarity or serve as a wall dividing the wealthy from the poor.
So, like the Rich Young Ruler, we USAmericans are being asked to embrace the Christian Jubilee.
So, given the way the early Church ran with Jesus’ economic vision (which was inspired by the Hebrew Jubilee), how should we live?