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Poverty, Violence and Spiritual Wildfires

“They take advantage of that opportunity and they shoot into a crowd, no matter who they hit.”

The news this past weekend emerging from my fair city, Chicago, felt like news about wildfires sweeping across California: the sudden, hellish karma of climate change, that is to say, the gradual collapse of life-sustaining conditions on Planet Earth thanks to centuries of cluelessly exploitative human activity.

The news from Chicago was, of course, about gun violence: at least 74 people shot between Friday afternoon and Monday morning in a slew of unconnected incidents, including shots fired into large gatherings of people (at a funeral, at a block party). Eleven people were killed, including, in separate incidents, two 17-year-olds. An 11-year-old boy was among the injured.

Figuring in the totals from the weekend, so far this year the city has racked up more than 300 homicides, according to the Chicago Tribune. Something, as we all know, is out of control, in this city, across the country . . . and across the planet.

The above quote was from the Chicago Police Department’s chief of patrol, Fred Waller, commenting on the recent mayhem at a press conference on Sunday morning. His words, I fear, came out a little too easily. It almost sounded like an official firefighter spokesperson accusing the wildfires of moral degeneracy rather than discussing their cause and the needed social change – rather than discussing, for instance, the self-reinforcing feedback loops perpetuating human violence, just as a recent report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences addressed the feedback loops creating climate change and “Hothouse Earth.”

“In order to avoid the worst-case scenarios,” Common Dreams reports, “the researchers behind the study say that ‘collective human action is required’ to steer (the) planet’s systems away from dangerous tipping points. Such action, they write, ‘entails stewardship of the entire Earth System . . . and transformed social values.’”

I would extend this need for stewardship, this need to transform social values, beyond the biosphere.

For instance, as a report released last year by the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance points out: “Chicago is currently facing a devastating surge in lethal violence in addition to staggering rates of poverty across Illinois. Policymakers and community leaders are struggling with finding short- and long-term solutions to stem the violence and allow neighborhoods to heal. In the meantime, communities are fearing for their own safety and grieving over lost parents, children, friends, and leaders every day. The stakes for getting the solutions right could not be higher.

“Poverty and violence often intersect, feed one another, and share root causes. Neighborhoods with high levels of violence are also characterized by high levels of poverty, lack of adequate public services and educational opportunity, poorer health outcomes, asset and income inequality, and more. The underlying socioeconomic conditions in these neighborhoods perpetuate both violence and poverty.”

And this just gets at one corner of the problem – the inadequacy of our social stewardship. Poverty, you might say, creates spiritual wildfires. And the last time this country waged a “war on poverty,” it was also waging a war in Vietnam – inflicting unfathomable violence on the other side of the planet in what ultimately was a lost cause from every point of view except that of the war profiteers. The war profiteers won: More wars would come soon enough, but continuing to invest in the elimination of poverty was just too . . . uh, expensive.

So we’ve chosen, over the last half century, to perpetuate violence rather than take a complex, value-transforming stand against, or beyond, it.

“The United States spends more on its military than any country in the world – all while its politicians claim not to be able to afford measures like universal health care and free or low-cost higher education that are commonplace in other wealthy nations,” said Lindsay Koshgarian, program director for the National Priorities Project, as quoted by Sajjad Hussain. “At the same time, the U.S. military polls as citizens’ most trusted institution, above organized religion, the media, public schools, the courts, and far above Congress.”

This is ironic indeed, considering that we haven’t actually “won” any of the wars we’ve fought since the alleged Good War. Apparently winning is beside the point, even though all participants focus on it. War is the ultimate feedback loop: You define yourself by defining your enemy, then you kill the enemy, who now has no choice but to see you as the enemy and kills back. No one wins except war itself, which goes on and on and on.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the 2019 National Defense AuthorizationAct, approving a military budget of $717 billion, up a hundred billion from last year. And the real military budget is closer to a trillion dollars, when CIA and National Security Agency spending, among other things, is figured in.

What I hear in all this is the roar of wildfires and the words of Chicago’s chief of patrol: “They take advantage of that opportunity and they shoot into a crowd, no matter who they hit.”

We bomb civilians, killing them by the thousands, by the millions, to fight wars we do not win – because winning is not the point, or even possible.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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