What story does our budget tell?

I am taking a creative writing class where we are learning how to discover and tell stories.  Last week, our professor passed out an excerpt from The Art of Creative Research where Philip Gerard encourages essayists to examine even the most mundane document, like a budget, for the story it tells.  He writes:

As an essayist, you love ideas and events and might balk at examining, say, a budget—yet a budget is a statement of the values of whatever organization adopts it, as well as an expression of hope that the future will turn out according to a given prediction expressed in numbers.  A budget is an expression of philosophy—ideas—and also a blueprint for future events.  It expresses an ethical stance.  It makes sense that we reveal our priorities by what we are willing to spend our money on—and how much: Battle tanks or famine relief? Affordable housing or a new sports stadium? A special education teacher or another administrator?  You just have to practice reading such a dry document and learn to tease out its inherent drama.  Once you have trained yourself to do that, you have essentially learned a whole new language with which to listen to stories.

This got me thinking. What story does my personal budget, my church’s budget, our national budget tell? What do we spend money on? What do we save money for? What is our ethic of debt? Does our budget reflect a value for others and others’ lives? Or is it just for ourselves? What kind of future does our budget predict? Is it a blueprint of hope?

My peace activist husband wants us to ask more questions about our national budget.  Dan keeps posting quotes like this on Facebook:

“Military budget is around $825 billion – more than the next nine nations put together (and those include China and Russia). U.S. debt is at $20.5 trillion. Just sayin…”

And this from the Washington Post:

The U.S. government will spend about $500 billion more over the next two years, the largest increase in federal spending since the stimulus during the Great Recession. The bulk of the extra spending would not be paid for, meaning the United States’ $20 trillion debt would get worse…More than 60 percent of the extra funding would go toward military spending.

The drama inherent in our national budget speaks to the fear and anxiety of our time. Clearly, we feel the need to protect ourselves. We need to arm ourselves nine times over the other guy. Clearly, we have faith in our weapons, but not enough faith to cap how much we spend on them. We hope our guns will save us, while also knowing deep down that they won’t.

This story is disturbing—especially when I consider all we could fund if our military budget was reasonable. Public Education. Health care. Housing developments for the poor. Community centers. Playgrounds and parks. Public transportation.

Capping our insatiable addiction to weaponry would alter our budgetary blueprint. It would also offer us a new national story—one I would be proud to tell.

[Feature Image: Simon James]

How to Be: Thoughts about Guns and the Value of Life

I made a mistake yesterday.  While waiting to catch my flight home from a board meeting, I joined a debate about gun control on a friend’s Facebook thread. I don’t typically participate in such debates via social media.  Our emboldened rhetoric behind the anonymity of the computer screen is, I believe, problematic. But I was a bored traveler, feeling, I admit, a tad self-righteous.

I did not know the people I was debating.  They were friends of my friend on Facebook.  I tried to choose my words wisely, tried to speak with respect.  But the debate was more about winning than it was about listening—each of us determined to have the last word.  I finally withdrew from the thread, not because I didn’t have more to say, but because the debate itself felt soul-sucking.  The weight of our gun-addicted culture became more than I could bear.

On the drive home from the airport, I tuned in to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.  Tippett was interviewing Rabbi Arnold Eisen on the life and legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a spiritual leader whom I greatly admire.  Towards the end of the interview Tippett read Heschel’s words aloud: 

In his essay, “Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation. We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive. We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being. We have forgotten the meaning of being human and the deep responsibility involved in just being alive. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ But that is no problem. We all want to be. The real problem, biblically speaking, is how to be and how not to be.”

Heschel’s words about life—the wonder, radical amazement, and mystery of sheer being—felt like balm for my wounds.  After listening to people defend our right to bear arms and our need for guns, I needed to hear from someone who valued life in this extraordinary way.  Heschel’s words also left me pondering, though. How should I be?  How should I not be?  Even as I asked myself these questions, I knew the answers.  I should be peace, I should be love, I should be for life, not against it, and be for all that honors the grandeur of God’s creation.  Fighting for peace in a Facebook debate where one side seeks to verbally conquer the other is counter-productive and hypocritical.  We are not going to heal our addiction to violence with more verbal violence.  So I will put this mistake behind me.  I will live more responsibly today.