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June 25th, 2010
01:51 PM ET

My take: The economic draft

Editor's Note: Shane Claiborne is an author and activist and one of the architects of a community in Philadelphia called The Simple Way. Shane worked in India alongside Mother Teresa and has spent time in Iraq with the Christian Peacemaker Team during the recent war. His books include Jesus for President, Follow Me to Freedom, and bestselling Irresistible Revolution. Check out more at: www.thesimpleway.org.

By Shane Claiborne, Special to CNN

It’s been graduation season here in Philadelphia. Cars honking, people yelling, balloons everywhere … Folks in my neighborhood know how to celebrate a graduation, because it means that some teenager has beaten the odds, and triumphed over all the obstacles.

I live in one of the most economically devastated neighborhoods in Philadelphia, in the post-industrial wreckage with hundreds of abandoned factories and houses, and with a lot that is broken in our lives and in our streets … and in our schools.

I got to go to the graduation at Edison High School, where one of the high school kids I have mentored wore the cap and gown (and who is now receiving a scholarship to Eastern University, my alma mater) - a stellar kid named Michael.

It was a moving, roller coaster of emotion. The joy of it being the largest graduating class ever was tempered by the fact that the graduation rate in Philladelphia is only 57 percent, and even lower among the fellas … with only 2 of the top 20 graduates being male. Amid the delightful outbursts of "You’re the man" and "You did it girl," I got to talk with some folks from the high school.

Out of about 500 kids graduating in that class at Edison, around 40 will go to a four-year college and about 50 will join the military. That struck me. More kids in the graduating class will go into the military than will go to college.

I also learned that Edison High School holds another tragic record - the most graduates to be killed in the Vietnam War of any high school in America (54 kids), no coincidence that it is located in North Philly rather than the suburbs. Heaven forbid Edison end up holding the record for Iraq casualties as well.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said,

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

And as we see a bankrupt school system we can truly feel the blowback of the bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is that bumper sticker hope that a day will come when the schools will have all the money they need and the military have to hold a bake sale. It’s time for our kids to dream of another future than wars and rumors of wars.

I am reminded of a returning veteran from the Iraq War who told me of how financial difficulties compelled him to join the army. And then my young vet friend said, “We may not have a draft in America, but we have an economic draft… kids like me are joining the military because they see no other future.” And they are dying as they try to build that future. He ended up becoming a conscientious objector and being discharged.

In my neighborhood, military recruitment is very clever and selective – recruiters go door to door with military brochures that say: “They told you to go to college, they just didn’t tell you how… Join the Army.”

It occurs to me that those of us who are Christians and other people of conscience working to end war and violence (and build an “Army of None” as we like to say) have a tremendous burden of responsibility on our shoulders. We must create other ways for kids to go to college than military and ROTC scholarships.

I am excited to be alive today because I see people with imagination doing just that. Church congregations are creating “Alternative to Military Scholarships” for at-risk youth, and colleges like Eastern University are doing all they can to laugh in the face of a recession and create full-rides for kids like Michael because it is the right thing to do. It takes courage. I even heard of a suburban Christian mother speaking of her vigilant desire to “love her neighbor as herself”… and, for every one of her own kids she sends off to college she has created a scholarship fund for a kid in the inner city, and merges their lives and families together. How’s that for loving your neighbor’s kid as you love your own?

The valedictorian at the Edison graduation last week was a recent immigrant to the United States, who just moved here four years ago, ready to get his high school education. Now, after learning English and graduating first in his class, he declared before his colleagues, “The only limits we have are the ones we put on ourselves.” And the crowd roared.

I yelled too, with tears in my eyes. Part of me also hesitated, thinking of all the obstacles that stand in the way of some kids who seem to start at first base while other kids start on third. With a dropout rate of 42 percent, Philadelphia is in need of some fresh courage and imagination … lest the limits have the last word. I caught a glimpse of this courage at Edison. Now I guess we look in the mirror and ask what we can do to interrupt the economic draft and move the world a little closer to the one we dream of.

Meanwhile, give a little honk or a barbaric yelp next time you see a graduate.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shane Claiborne.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (32 Responses)
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    December 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  2. scott schmidl sr

    this guy is silly hippie ideological wimp who hasn't lived long enough to give much of an opinion on changing diapers let alone military..here's a little tid pit...1949 chins convinced the people to move out to the rural areas let them protect them in the cities so thry turned in their guns...60 yrs and 70 million dead later...communist china....your a fool shane.

    July 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  3. steve

    there are some arguments not worth having, because both sides miss the point and point of view means nothing then. bigger than the problem of college is a job useful to society after graduating. there are far worse things and far worse of a life one can have than joining the military, and serving in any capacity has its own rewards. the economy can not support such a military for long so i suggest the point is moot, and the best to hope for is let a kid have a little hope. i suggest it is no more or less good than college, for without jobs or an industry, is nothing more then a kid succeeding and learning to succeed.
    i have a bleak view of the country and the economy. i see very few jobs based on bettering each other, and what jobs and industry i see involves is MOSTLY taking from others or protecting from such.

    July 24, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  4. John

    Whackos everywhere. What is funny is CNN calls this the Belief section, yet is it every ash and trash of the Devil.

    July 10, 2010 at 12:01 am |
  5. MM

    Please check out Claiborne's website, bio and books before you use words like arrogant and naive to describe him.

    July 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  6. TIMBAP_PSE

    Many of my fellow classmates in the same graduating class are looking for a college to join rather than to decide which part of the army they should apply, which makes me a happy camper but a younger friend of mine has already decided to apply himself in the army i asked him why and he just simply replied that it was for the country. I thought to myself that I must be pretty childish but concluded that I just want to live more. My dad has been through some military training and persuades me and my siblings to join after high school; I've considered it because the commercials show that one can find a stable job after you serve several years. I'm still young and indecisive and i still have plenty of time but i the life college and continuing to study seems to apply better.

    July 5, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.