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Speaking Up for the Expendables

By the Rev. Howard Bess
July 10, 2010

Editor’s Note: There is a common thread connecting the teachings of Jesus identifying with “the least of these” to Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” to the Statue of Liberty’s inscription, “give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

But those egalitarian ideals have been increasingly lost in an era in which “free market” ideology -- justifying “winners and losers” -- prevails domestically and there’s a willful non-counting of dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians obscuring those whom Rev. Howard Bess calls the “expendables” in this guest essay:

I serve on the Board of Directors of Palmer (Alaska) Arts Council, which every year facilitates dozens of events featuring music, drama, poetry, films and art, including popular summer programs for children theatre culminating in the presentation of plays.

The first play of the 2010 season was entitled “The Amazing Mr. Fox,” with a story line reminiscent of “Robin Hood.”

Mr. Fox has been feeding his wife and family with chickens taken from the chicken house owned by a farmer, who is becoming angrier by the day. The chicken house owner vows to kill Mr. Fox and fires several shots at the crafty fox, shooting off Mr. Fox’s tail.

The lurking danger leaves the Fox family seriously hungry, and the family responds by digging a tunnel that comes up in the middle of the chicken house. The Fox family grabs chickens as fast as they can and escapes with their bounty. During their chicken grabbing, the sound tape plays vivid chicken squawking.
The play closes with a well-fed Fox family and a frustrated villain, the chicken house owner. And lots of dead chickens.

The production was cute and funny, and kids did a marvelous job of acting. After the final bows, I asked the director “Who stands up for the chickens?”

“The Amazing Mr. Fox” is a morality play, raising questions about stealing, conflict, even violence. After all, didn’t the farmer have a right to protect his property? Mr. Fox was stealing! But was Mr. Fox not simply doing what he had to do to feed his family? Was the farmer justified in declaring war on the Fox family? Similar questions confront thoughtful people in some way every day.
However, if we are going to ask ethical questions about the farmer and Mr. Fox, should we not also ask questions about the expendables in the play? The chickens, who are never seen in the play, only their squawking is heard.

The chickens remind us of another disturbing reality. It is not only in a children’s play that we find expendables. Expendables are with us every day.

Over the past two years, I have also been involved with our area Homeless Housing Coalition, which has done research on some very disturbing realities. The Coalition has identified housing homeless youth as the most pressing housing need in our area. 

As a category, they are referred to as “unaccompanied youth,” who have no permanent address and are not supervised by a responsible adult. They make up between 4 and 5 percent of the entire high school population. 

These homeless teenagers whom are counted by the Coalition do not include the additional hundreds who have dropped out of the educational system. The numbers do not include kids who are in foster care or in some sort of institutional setting.
When I first became aware of the large number of unaccompanied youth, I asked myself, “Why have I not seen these kids?” 

They are like the chickens in the children’s play. No one calls our attention to them. We may hear some of their sounds, but they are expendables. Life’s story line makes bare mention of them.

The same phenomenon presents itself on other real life stages, such as war.
I do not consider myself a classic pacifist, but I have become disillusioned with war. 

The practice of war, I believe, sows the seeds of the next war. Plus, killing the enemy is not working well for us. St. Augustine’s rules for just war are so flawed to make them useless in a modern world. Instead, they have become guidelines for justifying war rather than a restraint to the practice of war. 

Yet, my primary reason to oppose war in a modern world has become the “collateral damage” that is done. The loss of the lives of combatants in modern warfare is tragic, but the heaviest loss of life is not among the combatants.

The loss of American military men and women is regularly reported. Our news sources make a point to report how many of the opposition have been killed. Some reports include the collateral damage that is being done. 

But the collateral damage is not what the main story line is about. It is no more than the squawking of the chickens in the background. Non-combatants are the expendables in modern warfare.

And do not forget the expendables left at home. Remember the wives, children and families of the combatants.

In my life-long love affair with Jesus from Nazareth, I have pondered long about what made his approach to life so radically different. I have concluded that he was truly different because his primary interest was in the expendables of life.

His stories, his sayings and his actions identify him with what he called “the least of these, my brothers.”

How can a world be filled with people who identify themselves as Christians and still fail so miserably at living peaceful, loving, productive lives?

I suspect that typical Christians and churches are trying to figure out whether they should be on the side of the foxes or the farmers. But that is the wrong discussion for Christians.

Our real calling is to look out for the interests of the chickens, the expendables, as Jesus would have wanted.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is               

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