There is a popular African proverb that says when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This proverb highlights the reality that too often while nations and powerful entities fight amongst themselves, the common people of the land suffer the most. It is a historical truth that those who make the decision to wage wars (military, legislative or otherwise) often have the least to lose. Sure, they may lose their prestige, position or power, but in the end their essential well-being and access to basic necessities are maintained. Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of those who are the instruments and casualties of war and political conflict.
Veterans: America's Suffering Grass
In the United States, a large number of veterans who fought in wars at the command of the political elite have returned home from the battlefield to a life of impoverishment and fickle social services.
Consider these statistics from the Center for American Progress:
Veterans are disproportionately homeless
- Nearly one in seven homeless adults are veterans, as of December 2011.
- More than 67,000 homeless veterans were counted on a given January night in America last year. More than 4 in 10 homeless veterans were found unsheltered.
- 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
Many veterans have trouble finding good jobs
- 30.2 percent of veterans ages 18 to 24 were unemployed, according to unpublished 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
- According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 2007 survey showed that more than one-third of employers were unaware of protections they must provide to service members, and more than half spent less than 2 percent of their recruitment budget on military advertising and/or did not understand the qualifications of military service.
- In that same survey, over half of all veterans were unsure of how to professionally network, and nearly three in four felt unprepared to negotiate salary and benefits and/or unable to effectively translate military skills.
Given these statistics, it's hard not to conclude that many of country's most brave and courageous men and women have been politically shortchanged and done a shameful disservice. Instead of being cared for as honored citizens, they have been funneled into the country's growing impoverished and working poor masses that are forced to take jobs with long hours, very low pay and little opportunity for advancement.
It is an American tragedy that many of those who have fought to protect the power and prosperity of our nation are rewarded with a life that affords them very little access to either.
This raises the questions: What does our faith say to those who find themselves in a predicament of suffering caused by powerful forces beyond themselves? What tools do the disinherited and disenfranchised of society have at their disposal to endure the harsh realities of injustice and inequality? How long will the suffering last? And does God care?
Jesus and the Grass that Suffers
In Luke 21:5-19, we find Jesus having a conversation with his disciples that may help us answer some of these questions.
Luke 21 begins with Jesus commending the sacrificial offering of a poor widow at the temple and declaring that the opulence and lavishness of the Jewish temple will one day be destroyed. Jesus further tells his followers that temple's destruction will take place as a result of the ensuing socio-political crisis between Rome and Judea. In light of this pronouncement, Jesus vividly offers warning signs to his followers so that they might be aware and ready when the time comes. Jesus says:
9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.
10 Then he said to them: 'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.'
12 But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life. (Luke 2:9-19 NIV)
It's easy to read these words and miss the fact that the events described will make life quite difficult for many everyday people whose names are not mentioned. The fact is many people will suffer greatly as a result of religious and socio-political conflict that is beyond their control. Jesus' disciples, like the many veterans and working poor of our time, will be the victims of events that are seemingly unavoidable and simply a part of the unfolding of time.
Yet, Jesus says those who suffer are not without hope. He says, if they "endure and stand firm, their life will be preserved." In effect, Jesus says to his followers though you will face events that are beyond your control, put your faith in a God that is in control. I imagine the disciples were both comforted and concerned by Jesus' words to them. Finding the courage to remain strong despite the looming threat of distress and despair is no small feat.
Nonetheless, Jesus is correct that the most viable option for the people that suffer like the grass under the feet of the fighting elephants of political dysfunction, corporate greed, geopolitical conflict, and social indifference is to find a way to endure and stand firm. But it must also be said that it would be wise not simply just to stand but to stand and fight in the hope that one day our world will be more equitable, just, and peaceable than it is today.
Questions for Reflection
1. Who or what are the forces in our society that has the most control over circumstances and events? Who suffers disproportionately as the result of the decisions made by powerful forces in society? Is it a moral imperative for our country to show more care for veterans and the working poor?
2. When you read Luke 21:5-19, what sticks out in your mind the most about the events that Jesus describes? Is it important to think about the unnamed and voiceless people who will suffer as a result of the unfolding events?
3. How can faith help veterans, the working poor, and the impoverished in the pursuit of justice?
For Further Reading
Smiley, Tavis & West, Cornel. The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. New York: Smiley Books Zondervan, 2012.
Mclaren, Brian & Padilla, Elisa & Seeber, Ashley Bunting (editors). The Justice Project. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.
Bacevich, Andrew J. Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (American Empire Project) New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013.
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