This piece was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on December 18, 2006. It headlined the UPI website’s religion section that day as well. A slightly shorter version of this commentary will air this holiday season on the Perspectives program on KQED FM, a public radio station in San Francisco.
Toward the end of the first week of Advent, when I should have been writing a sermon on the life and ministry of Saint John the Baptist, I found myself surfing the web to a site that gives a real time, running total of the cost of the ongoing war in Iraq.
The total cost of the war—some 350 billion dollars—is a number so large that it is emotionally meaningless to me, but I spent a good deal of time contemplating the speed at which the war’s tally increased by tens, hundreds, and thousands of dollars—amounts of money to which I can relate.
The counter moved too fast for me to get a good measure of the rate of war spending using the sweep hand on my wristwatch, so I used a more elementary and less scientific method, and here’s what I discovered: the United States’ taxpayers spend twenty thousand dollars on the war every time I take a breath.
Meanwhile, my daughter attends kindergarten at a public school in East San José, where most of the students are English language learners, and many are being raised in poverty. The school’s principal is having to decide between installing night-time security lights for the students’ safety and starting a library for the students’ education.
That’s a tough decision, but my daughter’s school is not unique, in fact, as inner city schools go, it is relatively well supplied. The school is staffed by excellent and dedicated teachers and the parents share a remarkable commitment to the education of their children.
In every major American city, public schools suffer from a lack of funding, and schools in rural districts don’t fare much better, yet the cost of funding excellent public education for America’s children living outside the privileged suburbs is a lot less expensive than is fighting a war.
I know enough about government budgets to know that money for wars comes out of federal coffers, while education is funded by states. Furthermore, the fact that we are spending an alarming amount of money in Iraq doesn’t necessarily mean we have the money. The same American children whose schools are seriously under-funded will someday be given responsibility for the tremendous debt that daily is being incurred by the war in Iraq.
It is, nonetheless, helpful to compare the cost of the war in Iraq and the lack of funding for public education in America. It says something about who we are as a society that we’re willing to spend an unimaginable amount of money we don’t have to fight a war we didn’t need to wage, all the while feigning helplessness and claiming fiscal impotence when faced with the relatively small challenge of funding public education.
I’m not an expert on matters of war and peace. I have lots of opinions on the subject, but I really don’t know when or how to bring our troops home from Iraq. I do know that this is the holiday season, and the Christmas present I’d like is for our nation’s leaders to stop the war for a breath or two, and send the dividend of that respiration to East San Jose. I know some students who could use a library.