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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)
  1. Mike

    You believe that God is all wise, all just, perfect, all powerful, omnipotent, all knowledgeable and knows the past, present and future. You know this to be true.

    A perfect god needs nothing, which means: God does not need anyone to believe in him. God would not be offended if you did not believe in him. And God certainly does not need to be worshiped.

    Why doesn’t your religion unite everyone overnight, whether you believe in it or not?

    Christianity, at it's very core divides people. You are either Christian or non-Christian. You are either in the club or not in the club. And it's moral to demonize nonbelievers. "Ha. We know the truth and all others have got it wrong. Which is why you need to believe. We have the ultimate truth." This is not a humble statement. "Don't mind me, I'm on an errand from god." How modest is that?

    Religion does not divide people? I can't tell you how many personal ads I've seen which require that their potential partner to believe in some universal god, or believe in a god or in a certain religion. How many Christian family members would question (or even try to stop) the marriage of their "Christian daughter" to a Muslim man or Atheist man?

    Remember? Christians claim the definition of an Atheist is an immoral person. Which is not a true statement. A perfect example of how Christians demonize non-believers.

    Why would an all wise god create an institution, religion, which by it’s very nation divide people as one of it’s moral precepts? How can you call your religion moral and ethical when at it's very core, it breaks up potential partners, partners, families, communities and nations? Why would a god give you a brain to think with but then tell you are not allowed to have an honest inquiry to your own faith?

    July 5, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  2. Lucy

    I worry about what the U.S. military does around the world, and why it does it. I have serious concerns about U.S. foreign policy. I believe that peace is patriotic. But on the other hand, I see the tremendous benefits the military can bring to young people with limited options. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have deeply scarred many of our military members - but what about those who got a lift out of poverty and got access to a sustainable and fulfilling career post-military - as a direct result of being in the military? I believe the solution is to have a "corps" of civilians with a peaceful, pro-community mission - pay them decently, train them well and "deploy" them to the areas of the world that need them the most. Invest the same level of seriousness and fervor that we currently give our military. And see what happens!

    July 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  3. seki

    The problem is the options are limited. When you graduate from college, you only have two options: college or military. Post high school vocational programs or vocational programs in high school are non existant. I go to a school that is part college and part technical school. The stories I hear from former war veterans and students who dropped out of community college. Both say they thought that by going into the military and going to community college would be a means to an end. Both were "jipped." High schools have to do a better job of educating students to be passionate about learning. We have to encourage students to think outside of wanting to be doctors, lawyers and have them stretch their boundaries to find careers in other areas. And other areas where they can AFFORD to be be educated.
    Note: I do not fault those who go military service. It is safer then hanging out on the streets, prevents them from going to jail and provide for their families. Don't dislike them for wanting to serve their country. Dislike our economy and schools for not thinking outside of the box.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
  4. lew

    If a kid can't read, it doesn't matter what college they go to. If a kid can't read, their only available option might be the Army of One ( I hate that slogan as it's untrue) Instead of pitting unions vs. taxpayers, schools would be better served by people just wanting to teach the kids the basics of school along with some basics with life. Parents need to be more responsible with their children. Kids have to understand the importance of school vs. the pop culture lifestyle, churches need to preach the gospel, govt. needs to understand that they can't do much in the arena of child-rearing, politicians need to stop trying to be everything to everyone, people need to understand that NOTHING is free. One person might get a free thing, but someone else still has to pay for it down the line. This is harder than bumper sticker slogans

    The average money spent on a public school education is 10K+- per PUPIL each year. DC ranks 3rd in spending, yet is among the lowest in terms of educational benefit. It's not for lack of money. It's not for lack of money in most cases either. It's for lack of other social issues. No dad's, no jobs, no prospects for jobs either because they're not doing life right in most cases.

    Unfortunately, it's a multiple pronged problem and Shane is trying to place it into one box. The military. Don't because it has NOTHING to do with the military. For every one story he comes up with you can point to hundreds of kids who went in as snotty nosed, punk, gang bangers who come out as respectable members of society and onto good jobs, good parents, etc...

    Let's not simplify and issue that can't be simplified.

    July 1, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  5. christianne

    living in okinawa for 3 yrs as a school teacher, teaching many military kids, i have nothing but the utmost respect for the military and it's great warriors. however i can agree with shane that the gov't pours way too much money into wars and weapons than needed, to the neglect of inner-city schools and students. at some point we need to balance the out-of-control military spending to care for the needs of those who are perishing in our own cities.

    June 30, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  6. drew

    I don't think the point of this article is whether or not the military has a purpose.

    I think the author is pointing to where the children who are beating the odds in his community end up because it is an overt symbol of continuing inequality in their lives. Not all who join the military join out of devastation- but the number of children who come from poverty and end up in the military is out of balance.

    It isn't fair that children who had to fight their way through school, endure often unsafe streets and unwelcoming educators find that their best option upon completing high school is to go out and risk their lives, yet again, to make gains for their families.

    Whether or not the military is a good option, these people need more choices than low-wage jobs or the risk of death for a chance to move up. We wouldn't accept it as a nation if 40% of our children joined the military, so why should we accept it if 40% of children from one neighborhood do? Their communities need their achivements, brainpower and potential at home to help rebuild community where it has been destroyed.

    June 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  7. scott schmidl

    I, also, am a graduate of Eastern University and I completely disagree with Shane Claiborne on everything that he believes. So please don't assume that all Eastern University students are as ignorant, naive, and wrong as this guy. Without a military the American people wouldn't last a week before many nations started attacking and killing us all until America was nothing less than a barren wasteland. It is absolutely necessary to have a military and because it's so strong is the reason why we don't get attacked on our homeland minus a few times that we have been attacked i.e. 9/11/01. However if you see the date it says 01 meaning almost 9 years. Without a military we would've been attacked again years ago.

    June 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  8. 0302

    Perhaps without the brave men and woman who willingly sacrifice to protect those who choose not to, the author would not feel as "excited to be alive today". It is people like the author, who prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of the world and those who would do him harm that I am most honored to protect.

    June 28, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  9. 0302

    protect those who choose not to, the author would not feel as "excited to be alive today". It is people like the author, who prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of the world and those who would do him harm that I am most honored to protect.

    June 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  10. RichP, easton, pa

    The schools can have all the money in the world, the unions will rip it off, the administrators will steal and the city will waste it. I'm also one of those graduates of the 60s, after woodstock, the year I graduated I enlisted and volunteered for vietnam, served my tour, got out, went back to school and re-enlisted where I stayed till desert storm. I have no regrets, I was not ready for college after high school as so many are not, I have two kids in college now and most of the kids out of HS who attend spend the first 2 years drunk as skunks, attending classes in pajamas. You want to improve the attendance records of the kids, start shooting the drug dealers out of hand.

    June 28, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  11. sissy_sue

    Claiborne is absolutely right. The trouble is, some of you are too busy wrapping yourself in the flag to see it. The military is a class society - with the rich going to West Point and becoming officers, and the poor being offered promises of betterment and a position on the front lines. Just as it was with the draft during the war in Vietnam, the rich have their deferments, while the poor do the fighting. Why do you think college costs soared out of sight during Reagan's administration and after? Because the rich dislike the poor bettering themselves with a "cheap" college education, and because the rich want to make sure the poor remain "cannon fodder" for their imperialist agenda.

    June 28, 2010 at 7:47 am |
    • Mike Texas

      As the son of hippy mom who ran away to a love-in in Frisco in the summer of 1969 (the same year my father was drafted into Vietnam) I am many things (see my above post) but I am not wrapped in a flag. I am a moderate neither a viscious patriot nor one who dispises my country.

      The military offers far more social mobility then the civilian world and you can move much higher in our culture through the armed forces then you can from education alone. I have many freinds who have moved from severe poverty to enlisted and then to officer. Additionally their have been tons of, CEO's Congressman, Senators, and I would bet a President or two who have done just that. From poverty to wealth and power through enlistment and hard work...colleges wish they had the military's ability to produce successful people.

      And you still ignore the nobility of just being a simple soldier. Your average grunt on the ground is not "cannon fodder" as you like to say, but a god shaping the fate of all of human history to come. When they fall in combat he/she does more to change the world by dying then most people do by living.

      June 28, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • Sean

      sissy_sue, you clearly have no idea what you're talking about. First of all, why the need to characterize those who simply disagree with you, i.e. "wrapping yourself in the flag"

      Second of all, "the rich" go to West Point? Do you want to know how much money it costs to attend West Point if you're accepted? Zilch. Zero. Nothing. $0.00

      Last, many officers are on the front lines and many enlisted are not.

      June 28, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  12. Sean

    As a Paratrooper in the US Army, reading this editorial brought a few words to mind. The words ignorant, naive, condescending and insulting are among them. Regardless of how you feel about the current wars, or wars in general we still have to have a mililitary. I don't think any reasonable person would disagree with this, and yet your goal is an "army of none." There are a great deal of benefits to serving in the military, and I'm wondering why you consider it "tragic" when a students (along with their *parents*) decide they want to take advantage of the training, education benefits and life experience of the military.

    Unless you subscribe to notion that we need literally no military at all, you should be commending them for volunteering to do a job that is tough, involves a lot of sacrifice, and one that you yourself wouldn't dare do in a million years.

    June 28, 2010 at 6:52 am |
  13. Daniel

    Of -course- there is a "poor draft". And education is the number-one incentive offered by the military in its recruitment.

    June 27, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  14. Brian

    The author of this column is extremely anti military. I would love to live in a world where a military was not needed, but until that day, defending the nation is nothing to be looked down on. Kids from high school should do what they can to contribute to society. Not everyone was born into wealth, not everyone had the simple way.

    June 27, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
  15. Mike Texas

    War is a natural state for apes, including humans. We have it and will continue to have it forever. Being a warrior is as great a calling and as great an accomplishment as being a scholar (though I think soldiering is more noble).

    I have been, and continue to be, a soldier and a scholar holding both degrees and combat decorations. I enlisted to make my life better; happy to fight and I earned my degree while a man of war. I was broke but would have enlisted anyway because I was honored to serve my country. The military gave me a means to an education and the wars gave me the chance to directly affect the world and the course of all humanity. In the wars I did things that will echo for centuries (see saving and ending lives); your typical college graduate will at most buy a tract home and breed another generation of tract home owners (best case scenario).

    Most college graduates just want to serve themselves and snobs like the author of this article think they are fulfilling a more noble pursuit then the soldiers who give up some much because they value their society above themselves.

    Make no mistake the best and brightest wear a uniform not a grad cap.

    P.S.
    Southern revisionism is annoying... The southern rebels violently attacked the United States because they knew their "right" to enslave blacks was coming to an end. They felt they had a state right to oppress slaves and they went betrayed their country for it.

    June 26, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  16. Adam

    No war huh? I'm sure your Jesus was against WWII. I'm sure he would have rathered Hitler continue to kill and torture innocent jews. I'm also sure Jesus is disappointed in the American Civil War, which resulted in the abolition of slavery. Yes war may be bad, but to have the naive perspective that it is unnecessary may be exactly the reason your schools have such low graduation rates. It is completely absurd to think that a nation does not need a military. Pump all the money you want into a school, without a military to defend the nation, those schools and their children won't last very long. And don't you dare disrepect the men and women who have stood tall in uniform by implying that military service is less honorable than college. Some of the finest leaders we have in our nation today, both in politics and in business, are products of our military.

    June 26, 2010 at 9:13 am |
    • KeithTexas

      I am sure Jesus was disappointed in all war. As people of conscience we may be able to justify war but that does not mean that God is on our side. By the way you might read a little history, the civil war was fought over States Rights. Slavery was brought into the political arena in order to muster more support in the north. Lincoln was having a difficult time getting soldiers and the South was close to victory. Making the war about slavery saved the Union by getting more people to support the war effort in the north but, it wasn't started over slavery.

      June 26, 2010 at 10:34 am |
    • Brian Smith

      it is a fact well known and widely documented in the news that more graduates this year chose to go into the military then college of the workforce because there isn't any money to go to college and there aren't enough jobs to sustain their parents let alone them. whether you are for or against a large defense, the military as the only job choice isn't really the military that we necessarily would like. unfortunately as well, many of these students will realize they aren't cut out for the military and spend a large part of their enlistment trying to get out.

      June 28, 2010 at 6:51 am |
    • George-Oregon

      Very well stated. Without a military at the ready, we can only imagine the world if Hitler had prevailed, or radical Islam took over the world. I have no high school diploma and because of my military training I am in the top 1% of the taxpayers in the US. A college degree today definitely doesn't guarantee a comfortable lifestyle. More valuable is a practical skill and a willingness to work hard at what you do.

      July 24, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  17. JT

    I can assure you the overwhelming majority of veterans, myself included, do not view our time in the service as a result of failed economic policy or a last ditch grab at the American dream. Philadelphia may not be the land of opportunity you have in mind, but it is a far cry from the war zones of today were I saw a woman dosed in gasoline and set on fire for preparing a meal not to his liking while the men in her tribe stood by and did nothing.
    Perhaps some day mankind, and not just a smattering of men, will come to the realization of the terror and outright stupidity of war and we will see your "Cookies for Bombs" sale come to fruition. Until then keep up the good work mentoring young kids and refrain from waxing philosophical on the plight of America's youth for your article exudes a naivete of the dark side of this world and those that stand on the thin line between your hopes for a better tomorrow and religious fanatics who would return mankind to the dark ages.

    June 26, 2010 at 1:42 am |
  18. CM

    I also feel compelled to add that a college degree means jack squat anymore. For most, it's a waste of time and does nothing more than saddle the student with enormous, in some cases impossible to repay, amounts of debt. The focus shouldn't be on getting these high school grads to college, it should be on making sure a hs diploma actually carries with it some useful knowledge and skills. It's time we stop pretending it matter whether or not a kid can scan a poem and bring back things like shop, home ec, and home finance.

    June 25, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  19. CM

    "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."

    Too bad most American Christians are among our biggest war-mongers, due to their belief that the US is some sort of holy land (the city on a hill motif) chosen by God to impose his will on the world.

    June 25, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  20. KarlMind

    There should be no doubt that a military draft is merely a modern form of involuntary servitude – a practice which, along with slavery, was justifiably outlawed in the US long ago. That having been clearly stated, it is misleading to compare the choice of voluntary military service as a means of economic advancement as being any more dangerous than many other professions open to those without a college diploma.
    With the important exception of temporary war theatre deployment, employment in the military is no more dangerous than employment in one of many careers in heavy industry. What is objectionable is not the choice of military service itself, but that military service is the only perceived alternative to the pursuit of higher education for young high school graduates such as the author described.
    Let us please not forget that there are numerous – and highly successful – job training and placement programs for young people, for those both with and without high school diplomas. Granted, the success of these programs depends on the existence of jobs needing to be filled, but such is the case for college graduates as well.
    It certainly would be preferable for the military to be filled only with those who chose to be there out of a sense of patriotic duty. It would also be preferable for every profession to be filled only with those who chose the profession for the love of the work. But since neither scenario is likely, an 'economic draft', with the opportunities it provides, is certainly preferable to the involuntary servitude of a universal draft.

    June 25, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • DFL

      The draft has not been outlawed – merely suspended – all men still must register with the Selective Service System upon turning age 18, and Congress could easily reinstate the draft at any time.

      July 24, 2010 at 9:05 am |
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