WASHINGTON, D.C. — Volunteering at her parish, St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis, Beatrice Parwatikar helps people through the lengthy process of gathering documents necessary to obtain an official photo ID from the state of Missouri.
The people she meets have all kinds of needs: Health care, housing, food assistance and more. The ID will help them access necessary services.
Her thoughts often turn to their struggles and the stringent requirements they must meet for getting the ID card and again for almost any sort of assistance.
Parwatikar admitted she often wonders why in a country with so much human need that hundreds of billions of dollars are routinely approved for the country’s military forces and nuclear weapons arsenals. She points to the $777 billion authorized for the military under the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act and wonders about the priorities of government policymakers.
“What happens is that when you’re working in the community and seeing people in such need, what are we considering security?” Parwatikar asked during an interview with Catholic News Service. “Security is people able to have their basic needs met.”
Parwatikar, a Pax Christi USA ambassador of peace, has publicly questioned such expenditures for years. She discussed them at a workshop during Pax Christi USA’s 50th anniversary conference in early August.
The workshop summarized the work of the Catholic peace organization’s revitalized Bread Not Stones campaign that is calling for a deep rethinking of the ever-growing Pentagon budget and seeking ways to prioritize human needs and other threats to human life, such as climate change, in federal spending bills.
The organization originally launched the campaign in 1999, but it was set aside after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Members chose the group’s 50th anniversary year to resurrect it.
Parwatikar has zeroed in on the $813 billion in proposed military spending in President Joe Biden’s $1.59 trillion 2023 budget sent to Congress. It includes $130 billion for research and development, $56.5 billion for air power platforms and systems, and $40.8 billion for sea power, including nine battle force ships.
She expressed disappointment that after Biden sent his budget to Congress, the House Armed Services Committee added $37 billion for the Pentagon while the Senate Armed Services Committee boosted military spending by $43 billion. Members of both committees have said the add-ons are needed because of inflation and growing threats from Russia from China.
“When you’re working down at this level (in my church) and I look at somebody dreaming of nine battle (force) ships, it’s hard,” Parwatikar said.
The Bread Not Stones campaign is designed to “change the narrative on what it means for a country to be strong,” said Jean Stokan, another of the organization’s ambassadors of peace.
“In our estimation, security should not be about military security or military strength. It’s just a moral issue. Our budgets are moral documents. It shows where your priorities are as a country,” Stokan, justice coordinator for immigration and nonviolence for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, told Catholic News Service.
The campaign’s immediate focus extends through the November election. It seeks to begin raising awareness in parishes, schools and local communities about the amount of military spending — about 52 percent of discretionary federal allocations — as Congress debates the 13 appropriations bills that comprise the fiscal year 2023 budget this fall.
Congress faces a deadline of Sept. 30 to pass the measures. If not, legislators are expected to adopt continuing resolutions to keep the government running until the full budget is set.
Advocates such as Stokan and Parwatikar acknowledge that the military economy is entrenched across the country. They realize that military bases and defense contractors are located in congressional districts nationwide, leaving members of Congress loathe to cut spending if their district will be affected.
Undeterred, Stokan and Parwatikar maintain that Bread Not Stones, with its emphasis on prayer, study and action, can be a starting point for people of faith to begin to understand the importance of shifting some of the Pentagon budget to address mounting human needs.
Pax Christi USA’s effort is but one in an array of secular and faith-based organizations that are seeking to raise awareness of how the military budget absorbs a large percentage of tax dollars.
The Franciscan Action Network, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and others are echoing calls from nongovernmental organizations such as the National Priorities Project of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on the issue.
Lindsay Koshgarian, program director of the National Priorities Project, which analyzes military spending, called on the country to “redefine what our national security needs to be doing” as a step toward reducing the military budget.
“We need to pull back from the vision of national security where the U.S. has to be the military all the time everywhere around the world,” she said.
Using data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Koshgarian’s project found that U.S. defense spending in 2021 totaled more than the next nine countries combined. China, India, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea spent $776 billion on their militaries, compared with U.S. spending of $801 billion, according to the data.
In comparison, military expenditures in the world’s remaining 144 countries totaled $535 billion, the data show.
To counter the claim that military spending must increase annually in response to external threats, Tom Cordaro, another Pax Christi USA ambassador of peace, said the Bread Not Stones campaign is inviting people of faith to join in a “week of action” Sept. 19-26.
A downloadable toolkit — www.paxchristiusa.org/bread-not-stones-2022 — developed for the week provides information on conducting legislative visits at local congressional offices followed by a public action such as a gathering outside of a food pantry or shelter where information about — and the impact of — federal expenditures can be shared.
Sept. 26 is the birthday of St. Paul VI, who during his papacy in the 1960s and 1970s, Cordaro said, “was able to connect the human development of people as being an integral part of creating peace in the world.”
The week coincides with the Catholic Nonviolence Days of Action Sept. 21 to Oct. 2 and the Season of Creation coordinated by the Laudato Si’ Movement that runs Sept. 1 to Oct. 4.
All of the events are designed to promote human life and dignity, representatives of the sponsoring groups said.
In the case of Bread Not Stones, the message being developed is more than facts and figures, Cordaro said, noting that prayer and Scripture will be a vital component during the week.
In addition, the toolkit includes discussion guides for parish groups and homily aides for pastors who wish to incorporate campaign themes at Masses the weekend of Sept. 25-26.
“Hopefully we’re touching the heart and soul in a way where new thinking might take root,” Cordaro said.
Parwatikar conceded that the work ahead is immense, given the tens of millions of dollars military contractors spend to lobby Congress. She acknowledged that it will take creative means to build understanding of how the dollars spent on the military means less money for other concerns.
“We need to help people start connecting the dots,” she said, “and to accept that we don’t have to pay for everything the military says to us.”