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"It is what it is?"

by Berry Friesen (December 29, 2015)

Most of us living in the West take pride in having a realistic approach to life.  “It is what it is,” we say about the situations in which we find ourselves.

Our patterns of speech disparage those who fail to reflect a proper realism.  “They have their heads in the clouds,” we say; “they don’t have their feet on the ground.”  A person who believes things that are inconsistent with “reality” is described as “delusional.”An individual with severe mental illness is described as having experienced “a break with reality.”

Of course, “reality” varies across cultures and across the centuries.  This simple fact reminds us to be careful not to assume the same uniformity in our social world as science has taught us to expect in our physical world.  Yet that assumption can be difficult to resist, especially in an era like ours when the scientific method has demonstrated such universality, global travel and communications have knit aspects of the social world into one culture, and the forces of imperialism render irrelevant so many important differences.

To put the problem another way, we easily make the mistake of assuming social reality is as subject as the physical world to immutable laws and principles.  This blinds us to what sociologists call “the social construction of reality.”  It obscures the fact “that reality is not fixed and settled,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it in Israel’s Praise:  Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology. 

The empire knows this and exploits it to the hilt.  During the first term of President George W. Bush,  Karl Rove, a close advisor to the President, explained to author Ron Suskind how this all works: “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Religion is equally comfortable with the view that social reality is created; indeed, one can make the case that when religion is at its best, it is all about creating a new world in which its highest aspirations are realized.  Of course, religion attributes this creativity in the first instance to its god. But the faithful are co-creators of this new creation, especially when engaged in the rituals and practices of worship.

As Brueggemann puts it, “World-making is done by God .  . . But it is done through human activity which God has authorized and in which God is known to be present.”

This insight brings into focus the contested ground between religious faith and the empire.  Each recognizes that social reality is not fixed.  Each claims the authority to create the social reality in which we live.  And to one degree or another, each proceeds to carry out its claimed authority.  Do we recognize their respective handiwork?  Do we participate in their world-shaping rituals and liturgies? How did we decide which has the higher claim on our lives?

If Not Empire, What? touches on these questions throughout.  It asserts that the very first written biblical text—the story of David and Solomon—attempted to unite the Hebrew tribes behind a Jerusalem-based clique.  Though much of the story was not true, it gave birth to a social, political and economic reality centered on a god who ruled his people through an earthly king and promised to make his people into an imperial power. The book of Exodus, the writings of the First Testament prophets, the teachings of Jesus and the letters of Paul attempted to correct the misrepresentation of YHWH found in the story of David and Solomon and to call into existence an entirely different social reality, what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” and Paul called “a new creation.”

In short, when it comes to social reality, we’re fooling ourselves if we conclude “it is what it is.”  Reality is constantly being shaped and remade by powers that claim the authority to do so. For each of us, the key question is which version of reality we are helping to create.

"Unto Us a Child"

by Berry Friesen (December 23, 2015)

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.  The government shall be upon his shoulder and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Christians understand this text to describe YHWH’s long-awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. But how exactly does he fulfill this ancient prediction—“the government shall be upon his shoulder?”

Jesus’ first disciples expected him to replace the Roman Empire with his own imperium of just laws and administrators.  Many Christians today make the same mistake, only they finesse it by setting Jesus’ reign far into the future when he will live physically on earth again.  Both groups follow conventional understandings of “government” as top-down rule.

Some Christians explain the Isaiah text by saying Jesus is YHWH and thus by definition the One who created, orders and governs the cosmos.

Still others are convinced this text is indeed speaking of authority on Earth here and now, but not in the coercive, top-down fashion we generally associate with the word “government.”  The authority in question is embodied by a child and it is not coercive. Parts of the Christian church, including the so-called peace church tradition, have through the centuries made a witness to the moral authority of non-coercive models of human organization.  A similar phenomenon is embodied in the informal resistance of the oppressed, as documented in the writings of James C. Scott.

If Not Empire, What? calls to mind this latter understanding of authority.  We read the text from Isaiah as looking ahead to the day when a significant part of the world will not work by violence, but by cooperation; by consent, not by coercion; by trust, not by fear. The text does not suggest government will become obsolete, but will depend on an authority greater than itself.  

Such thoughts must have seemed too good to be true until they became flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth, until they became visible in his life and self-giving death, until they became part of a subculture of people who remembered his sacrifice and joined his ascendant and ongoing witness.  

No, this way of Jesus did not achieve a once-and-done victory.   Yet he has decisively undermined the autonomy rulers once enjoyed.  Though their coercion and overwhelming violence remains intact, they have lost a divine imprimatur and now find themselves measured by standards from a competing realm, standards that always seem to erode their legitimacy.

Jesus has embodied a way that claims people’s loyalty, trust and devotion.  If rulers wish to claim the authority to govern, they must pay careful attention to his compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil.  Without the moral authority conveyed by his way of life, rulers will be perceived as bloody pretenders, here today but gone tomorrow.

What Isaiah imagined was that someday, the authority of rulers would depend on and be measured by qualities seen frequently in a child. In Jesus, this has been happening, slowly and inexorably.  It is why we rejoice at Christmas.

Why the Empire Needs Terrorism

by Berry Friesen (December 19, 2015)

Imagine a political entity that can constantly watch everyone and everything on Earth, listen to/read every digitally-transmitted message, reach into the safety of private homes anywhere and murder the people who live there, incinerate any military/industrial target with the flick of a switch, and fabricate slanders that are repeated publicly a billion times a day.

You’ve just imagined the US-led empire.

Why would an entity such as that need terrorism?  Why might it bother to make patsies of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, two unknown and inconsequential people from San Bernardino, California?

As we think through how the world currently works, this is where we often get stuck. People find it perplexing to reconcile the grandeur of the empire with the ugliness of a terror attack. The leaders of this mighty power may be incompetent, vain, or tragically over-extended, but surely they have absolutely no need to kill innocent people at an office holiday party in San Bernardino.

So let’s go back to the beginning, 1945, when the US emerged from the Second World War as the righteous conqueror.  Next, it confronted and defeated Soviet Communism, transforming the US government and the economy in the process. Remember President Eisenhower’s 1960 warning about “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in “the military-industrial complex?”

With the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989, the empire lost its reason to be.  Yet it was so entrenched by then—in Congress, academia and the media as well as in the economy and Pentagon—that it could invent its own reason to continue business as usual.  Saddam Hussein served as a stand-in for a time, but post 9/11 a more enduring menace called “Islamic terrorism” has justified the empire’s violence, waste and diminutions of our liberty.

Now, ever-so-often, this newly emergent villain must make a vivid and terrifying appearance.

But really, does an entity as powerful and universal as the empire need something else for us to be afraid of?  Isn’t it enough that we regard the empire with reluctant awe?

Now we’re getting to the heart of it.  Like any other god, the empire desires our loyalty and our devotion.

This desire arises in part from practical concerns such as the empire’s need for millions of functionaries to reassure us, collect the taxes, operate the technology, manage the system, fulfill the defense contracts, staff the killing machine and do the dirty work.  How would people be recruited for these roles if working for the empire and working for the mafia were morally equivalent?  People would quietly begin to resist, stop paying their taxes, turn away in disgust.

But the empire’s desire also has a spiritual aspect.  This is what the writer of Ephesians meant when he referred to the ruling authorities as “cosmic powers of this present darkness . . . spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  The “heavenly places” where this threat intrudes is not some corner of cosmic space, but our human capacity for trust, loyalty and devotion.

To occupy the heavenly places—to be our trusted leader, not merely our jailer—the empire must win our hearts.

Problem is, the world’s consciousness has been infused by Jesus and his message of compassion and sacrificial resistance to evil.  Though most people do not self-identify as followers of Jesus, many around the world measure goodness by what they see in his life and self-giving love.

Thus, the empire’s challenge is not only to maintain its position as king-of-the-hill; it also must appear to be good.  Only then will we overlook its violence and greed and give it our loyalty and devotion. Only then will we regard it to be legitimate.

This is why religious leaders are so essential to the effort to resist the empire. The empire’s legitimacy depends on its moral standing.  When faith-based leaders give it a pass, they undermine our capacity to resist.

Is this making sense?  If not, go back and read the previous two posts.  There are reasonable doubts about the guilt of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, as there are about the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers and the Kouachi brothers.  Moreover, history provides ample evidence of the US using deception and terrorism to win our trust, not only overseas (e.g., its support for and half-hearted opposition to Daesh/ISIS), but right here in America.

We do not serve ourselves well by failing to ask, “Was San Bernardino such an event?”  

The Skepticism of the Wise

by Berry Friesen (December 15, 2015)

Writing for The Mennonite, colleague John Stoner recalls a familiar Christmas story from the book of Matthew.  “Roman King Herod asked the Wise Men to come back and tell him where the young child was, so that he [could] come and worship him.  The men, being wise, saw an undisclosed purpose in Herod’s edict and committed their act of civil disobedience by not coming back and telling Herod anything. For us the question may be, are we wise enough to look for undisclosed purposes in messages from kings and presidents?”

Following my previous post, I ask whether we are wise enough to be skeptical of the open-and-shut way officials are describing the recent act of terrorism in San Bernardino.

Generally, people in the US freely discuss long-past events where conspiracies served hidden purposes. One example of this is Iran.  In 1953, the CIA launched a campaign of violence and deception (e.g., bombing the home of a cleric and making it appear to be the work of Communists) to bring down that nation’s first democratically elected government.

Another well-known example is Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA used “psychological warfare and political action” (e.g., propaganda about the president being a Communist and hired thugs to attack civilians) to bring down its first democratic government.  

If enough time has passed, informed people nod sagely when these events (and others like them—see here and here and here) are recalled.  But many of the same people will mount a fierce argument about similar events that are more recent, such as the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine in February, 2014.  The thought that the CIA and US State Department engineered a coup that included the murder of police officers and peaceful demonstrators in the center square of Kiev is just unacceptable.

When the discussion shifts to domestic terrorism, people show even greater reluctance to be skeptical of their government leaders.  Thus, it may be true that our government occasionally arranges violent acts overseas, but here in America only “outsiders” would carry out terrorism, never public officials.

Yet the historical record does not support such naïveté.  For example, in 1962 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off on a plan to blow up an American plane over US soil and blame it on Cuban President Fidel Castro.  It was only opposition from President Kennedy that foiled the plan.

Federal law enforcement has a long history of using agents to pose as members of dissident groups the government wants to discredit.  These agents instigate criminal activity or engage in violence themselves, thereby giving law enforcement a pretext to proceed against the entire group.  This was a standard practice in COINTELPRO, the illegal FBI project that targeted civil rights, anti-war, labor and feminist organizations during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

A government agent played a decisive role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Emad Salem, working under-cover for the FBI, was at the center of the plot.  At the direction of his FBI supervisor, Salem provided the explosive material used in the assembly of the bomb rather than an inert substitute.  Six people died in that case of domestic terrorism; more than one thousand were injured.

Even more disconcerting are the anthrax attacks that killed five and injured seventeen shortly after 9/11.  The anthrax came from a high restricted US government lab; thus, the terrorism involved at least one government agent in some capacity.  Moreover, another unknown party made an early attempt to blame a Muslim scientist for the attacks, thus suggesting a conspiracy.  Yet the FBI closed the case, saying it has been resolved by the 2008 suicide of its leading suspect, Bruce Ivins. The FBI makes this claim even though it has admitted the anthrax could not have come from the lab where Ivins worked.

The terrorism on 9/11 also would not have happened without the help of government agents.  Many of the alleged hijackers entered the US with visas provided by the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  According to Michael Springmann, head of the Consular office during the relevant time, he was under intense pressure from CIA officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants.

Two of the alleged hijackers lived in San Diego with an FBI informer after entering the US.  Although the CIA knew the two men to be terrorists and had long tracked their international travels and bugged their phones, it did not inform the FBI of any of this.

Given this history of activity by the empire, what does wisdom require? The same skepticism we see in the wise men in their encounter with King Herod.

What undisclosed imperial purposes might domestic terrorism serve?  That will be the topic of my next post.

Doubting San Bernardino

by Berry Friesen (December 10, 2015)

Do you have reasonable doubt that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed the mass shooting in San Bernardino on December 2nd?

“Reasonable doubt” is the standard the government must overcome when it accuses someone of a crime.  It is a rigorous standard, reflecting democracy’s skepticism of government’s proclivity to abuse its coercive power.

Accusations of “terrorism” are especially suspect because the definition is highly politicized, constantly shifting to fit the agenda of those who rule.  When someone is accused of “terrorism,” we must be especially vigilant—more willing to articulate our doubts, more willing to take them seriously, not less.

I’m not saying that until an accusation of terrorism has been proved in court, we should have reasonable doubts about guilt.  Common sense is operative here; when persons wearing suicide vests are seen shooting civilians on the streets and then blowing themselves to bits (as occurred last month in Paris), their actions speak for themselves, even though the government has never been put to the proof.

But the San Bernardino attack, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015 and the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April, 2013, was not like that. Instead, in each of these three cases, the act of terror was completed and the unknown perpetrators left the scene.  Thereafter, the police identified suspects based on “witnesses” and/or “evidence.”  Later still, the police located the suspects and commenced gunfire so intense that it was almost certain to cause instant death.

In this pattern, the police show little interest in gathering information from the suspects. Police exhibit little concern of mistaken identity or that the evidence of guilt may be mitigated or contradicted by other evidence.  Moreover, the police seem intent on killing the suspects.

I find this pattern alarming, and I’m not alone. Beyond the doubts raised by specific details in the unfolding of the events, the actions of law enforcement raise an additional doubt in my mind: why are they behaving this way?

Consider Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old college student accused by police of placing a pressure-cooker bomb in the crowd at the Boston Marathon.  A homeowner called the police after discovering in his yard a bleeding young man hiding in a small boat covered with a tarp.   Many police officers descended on the scene, confirmed the presence of a warm body under the tarp and proceeded to pump at least 126 bullets into the boat.  Dzhokhar was very seriously wounded by the onslaught; at least three of the bullets fired by police found their mark.

He was unarmed when arrested and had not resisted the police in any way.  Obviously, the police wanted him dead.  They had already killed his older brother, Tamerlan, in a shoot-out the day before. (Go to and search “boston bombing” for extensive coverage of the many reasonable doubts that Dzhokhar was one of the bombers.)

In the Charlie Hebdo attack, the highly-trained killers made their escape from the attack in downtown Paris.  Later that day, police found their get-away car and inside, an identification card "left behind" that led police to name two local laborers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, as the highly-trained killers.  The next day, the brothers were spotted and pursued; eventually they were cornered in a signage production business.

During the seven-hour stand-off that ensued, the brothers reportedly chatted with the business owner and a visiting salesman and allowed both to leave the building unharmed. Thereafter, the police assaulted the building with explosive devices and a helicopter. The brothers exited the building and were killed in a hail of gunfire.

In the San Bernardino attacks, one eye-witness reported to CBS News that she saw three tall, athletic men in black, military-style clothes enter the building and start shooting. Other witnesses reported two or three masked shooters (here and here and here), spraying gun fire. Still others said that amid the continuous gunfire, they recognized Farook's voice when one of the shooters spoke. No witness described any shooter who resembled the diminutive, 90-pound Malik.

Farook and Malik were pious, law-abiding parents with an infant child, living their dream in the USA. Farook had a good job, was liked by co-workers and had never caused problems for anyone. His name was allegedly given to the police after the assault by a witness who said Farook had unexpectedly left the event shortly before the assault began.  Farook and his wife died several hours after the shooting in a hail of police gunfire.  They were in a rented vehicle just a few blocks from their home, not far from the scene of the attack.

Much of the evidence of their “radicalization” has been produced by authorities from digital records. Apparently, it is assumed that no one but Farook or Malik could have created that digital evidence.

I am not saying that I know Farook and Malik were not the shooters, only that I have reasonable doubt.  The evidence is far from conclusive.  But the couple is dead and their guilt is assumed.  And the case is closed, or soon will be.

Of course, if Farook and Malik were not the ones who committed this terrible attack, then those who did remain a threat.  And members of law enforcement would themselves be culpable for framing them. What possible motive could be suggested for such a betrayal? And aren’t such thoughts beyond the pale, especially in a case like this that is so important and is receiving such intense media attention?

We’ll pick up those questions in upcoming posts.  If we take them seriously, they can move us beyond simplistic understandings of the empire (e.g., “who else but our country should be king of the hill?”) to an appreciation of how the empire creates the specific social realities that make its authority indisputable, even invisible.

Obama's Dishonesty, Trump's Demagogy

by Berry Friesen (December 7, 2015)

In his nationally televised speech last evening, President Obama spoke reassuringly of a 65-nation, US-led coalition that will defeat Daesh.  He rejected the commitment of US troops to a new land war, saying such a response would only enhance Daesh’s reputation and recruitment efforts.  He promoted gun control and improved border procedures and asked us to remember that the vast majority of Muslims have nothing at all to do with terrorism.

In the wake of the December 2nd terrorism in San Bernardino, it’s easy to imagine a US President giving a worse speech.

Yet it was a deeply dishonest speech that failed to address the questions people are feeling.

People know intuitively that the growing frequency of terrorism is related to the bully role the US is playing in the world.  The US intervenes in the affairs of other nations to bring them into line with imperial purposes.  Toward that end, it engages in terrorism (e.g., drone attacks on civilians) and supports insurgent fighters that use terrorism to destabilize their targets (e.g., Libya, Ukraine, Syria).

It even supports terrorist organizations (e.g., al-Nusra and Daesh), though it also is careful to attack them too.

William Blum lists a few of the many uncomfortable questions the President is avoiding. Have a look for yourself.

Veteran reporter Robert Perry says Obama “suffers from the worst ‘credibility gap’ among the American people since Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on the Vietnam War or at least since George W. Bush on the Iraq War.”  Perry states:  “Increasingly, almost no one outside Official Washington believes what senior U.S. officials say about nearly anything – and that loss of trust is exacerbating a wide range of dangers, from demagogy on the 2016 campaign trail to terrorism recruitment in the Middle East and in the West.”

That’s right, President Obama’s dishonesty is fueling support for Donald Trump. Obama’s dishonesty and Trump’s demagogy work hand-in-hand.

Alas, it’s a mistake to pretend this is mainly about domestic politics. The people of Syria are suffering through their fifth year of continuous war. As Mel Lehman puts it at Common Humanity, “Has it occurred to anyone to ask the Syrian people what they want in the midst of the current horrors which are consuming that bedeviled country?”

Lehman goes on:  “Instead of helping us to look at Syria from the Syrian people’s perspective, our news media is telling the story from our perspective . . . It’s as if our Syria policy is one giant ‘selfie’ photo, with our large American face in the foreground and the millions of miserable and homeless people of Syria barely visible in the background.”

Meanwhile, the confrontation between the empire and Russia seems to be moving into Iraq.  This past weekend, without any advance communication with Iraq, Turkey moved troops and heavy military equipment (including tanks) to a location just outside Daesh-controlled Mosul in Iraqi-Kurdistan.  Of course, Turkey claims this is part of its war on terror, but that’s laughable given its generous support for Daesh in Syria over the past three years.  More likely, Turkey has invaded Iraq to protect Daesh.

Iraq has objected and said it will take the matter to the United Nations if Turkey doesn’t promptly withdraw its troops.  The US has indicated it has no problem with Turkey’s actions; indeed, the US is likely to have given Turkey the green light.  The prevailing view in Russia, on the other hand, is convinced the empire eventually will use Daesh against Russia.  This makes Russia determined to eliminate Daesh wherever it may be, before it reaches Russia’s borders.

President Obama has repeatedly promised Russia that Syria will be its “quagmire.” Increasingly, it appears that dire prediction may fit all parties involved.

Media Terrorism?

by Berry Friesen (December 2, 2015)

Think about the media coverage of the recent attacks in Paris.  The perpetrators used violence to make people in the West fear for our safety.  Did the media coverage keep the fear effect to a minimum?  Or unnecessarily amplify that effect?

Writing at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Adam H. Johnson helps us understand how violence “works” in today’s world.

“Terrorism—to the extent the term is useful—is a fundamentally postmodern crime. It requires two parties for it to be effective: the violent actor and the media. As I’ve mentioned here at FAIR before, blowing up a market 1,000 years ago, for example, before mass communication, would have been entirely pointless. To properly terrorize a population, the population must be aware of the threat, and to be aware of the threat relatively quickly, mass communication is required for economy of scale to be achieved.”

In a world filled with communication devices, the media cannot entirely avoid adding to the fear effect.  Johnson agrees that the media must report events of terrorism, but he insists it must stop using methods that sensationalize the events, prolong the coverage, or intensify the emotional impact with frightening images that accompany those events. And it should never report general threats of terrorism to come, which he calls “propaganda.”

Many have noted the expertise of Daesh’s communications, screen-ready for use by Western news outlets.   Johnson says:

“If the media really wanted to prevent the dissemination of ISIS propaganda, they could stop disseminating ISIS propaganda. It’s really that simple. Report the substance—‘James Foley Has Died,’ ‘ISIS Releases Another Propaganda Magazine’—but avoid the smutty details, the empty threats and, above all, the titillating visuals.”

But the mainstream media doesn't stop.  When we recall how it has performed over the past eighteen months since Daesh burst on the scene with its capture of leading Iraqi cities, smutty details, empty threats and titillating visuals have led the way.

How should we respond?

First, avoid the mainstream media.  It is enhancing the power of terrorism.  So shut it off.

Second, ask ourselves why it persists in practices that aid and abet terrorism. Certainly, a fearful public boosts ratings and profitability (not unlike an approaching hurricane keeps us all glued to our screens). But a fearful public also ensures support for growing military budgets and interventionist foreign policies, while distracting us from growing economic inequality and the failure of democratic processes.

This explains why the political elite are not talking about how the media are enhancing terrorism’s power.  Accomplishing their agenda has come to depend on us being afraid.

Third (and more difficult), foster the skepticism and resilience that resist the fear factor. Skepticism is difficult because it calls into doubt the truthfulness and intentions of respected people and institutions.  Resilience is difficult because the triggers of fear are beyond our rational control; emotion can easily overwhelm our best intentions.

This is where community is essential; resilience cannot be achieved in isolation.  So if you don’t have a community of support, find one.  And if you have one, make sure it is talking about the way the empire is using fear to further its agenda of domination and control.

Is This Incompetence?

by Berry Friesen (November 28, 2015)

Here in the US we have been observing our annual days of “thanksgiving” for life’s blessings and mercies.  Part of this holiday’s charm is how unscripted it is, thus leaving space for families and friends to create their own liturgies of celebration.  High on my gratitude list this year is that World War III has not erupted, notwithstanding Turkey’s ambush earlier this week of a Russian plane over Syria.

Outside the mainstream media in the West, the consensus view is that powerful elements of the US government joined Turkey in planning this provocation.  Turkey would not have risked so much by itself.

After all, the Russian jet was following a flight path announced in advance to the US and had emptied itself of its cargo of bombs. If it entered Turkey’s airspace at all on its return flight, it exited again within less than twenty seconds.  When attacked, it was not in Turkey's airspace nor a threat to Turkey in any way.

Aside from high-risk moments such as these, the key variable for those of us living in one of the countries making up the imperial coalition is whether or not we perceive the actions of our government to be morally legitimate.

On that count, there is some basis for encouragement.  People in the West have begun to notice that the US-led coalition isn’t nearly as serious about defeating Daesh as it is about getting rid of Daesh’s foremost opponent on the ground, the government of Syria.

What’s more, people have begun to grasp how this two-faced approach has greatly extended the length of the war, thereby increasing the suffering of the Syrian people and the likelihood that Syria will never recover.

More people also are noticing Russia is very serious about defeating Daesh.  Yes, it supports the reorganization of the Syrian government, but only after the Salafist threats (Daesh, al-Nusra, etc.) are rolled back.

Yet despite these signs that Westerners are beginning to find their ethical bearings and have started to see through the fog of propaganda, the fact remains that at least in the US where I live, people are very reluctant to stop giving the empire the benefit of the doubt.  Many call the Obama Administration incompetent, US policy confused and US actions incoherent.  But even after Iraq and Libya—military interventions conducted under false pretenses that left relatively successful societies in utter ruin—few describe US actions as evil.

Until more of us are willing to move from “incompetent” to “evil,” the empire will carry on. And the list of countries driven into chaos—Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen—will continue to grow. That’s because the empire is not a benign structure doing the best it can amid the uncertainty and tragedy of life; in the words of the last book in the Bible, The Revelation to John, it is a beast devoted to devouring and destroying.

But to my friends and neighbors, talking this way is reckless hyperbole.  It is not perceived to be a serious attempt to describe reality, but a distortion reflecting the subjective state of mind of the speaker.

In response, then, we must focus on the details of the empire’s operations—the banality of evil, if you will.  This tends to get tedious, but it is the only way to bridge the chasm.

So let’s consider one example—the oil Daesh steals from Syrian wells and sells at discounted rates. It receives an estimated $1 million-$4 million per day in revenue from those sales. It uses the money to extend its reign of terror.  Why has the US-led coalition not stopped Daesh’s oil trade?

In February 2015, the United Nations Security Council passed unanimously Resolution 2199 condemning all trade with Daesh and other al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups.  Yet the trade in oil has persisted, growing during the past year from 30,000 barrels a day to 40-50,000.  Through a raid on the compound of Daesh’s chief financial officer, Abu Sayyaf, the US has clear and undeniable proof of links between Daesh and senior government officials in Turkey to facilitate the oil smuggling.

Over the first fifteen months of its air campaign to bomb Daesh, the US-led coalition conducted 8,000 bombing flights.  Yet Daesh’s oil smuggling operation continued to grow.  This changed on November 21 when US fighter planes bombed 100 tanker trucks used to transport the stolen oil into Turkey.

Why did the US suddenly start bombing oil tankers?  At the November 20th G20 summit meeting in Turkey, Russian President Putin illustrated his remarks with satellite photos of a miles-long convoy of tanker trucks stretching from Daesh-controlled territory into Turkey. Putin's picture revealed the utter hypocrisy of the US-led coalition.

Here is Indian commentator M. K.  Bhadrakumar’s assessment.

“The really shocking thing is that the United States didn’t move a little finger . . . to stop [Daesh’s] oil business. If the Russian pilots could spot the [Daesh] convoys stretching for miles heading for the Turkish border day in and day out, how could the lone superpower’s satellites have missed it? Of course, the Obama administration damn well knew. But it chose to look away. Period.

“Just think of it: [Daesh] has killed American nationals and yet the Pentagon has been ordered to handle the [Daesh] with kid gloves! President Barack Obama waxes eloquently about his determination to ‘degrade and destroy’ [Daesh], but the Pentagon is under instructions not to disrupt [Daesh’s] oil trade! This is cold-blooded statecraft.”

Yes, think about all those images of Daesh atrocities on our screens.  And then ask why the US-led coalition has been protecting Daesh’ oil smuggling operation. The conclusion is inescapable:  the US-led coalition has wanted the war in Syria to continue.  Had it desired an end to the carnage, it would have supported the peace plan of United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan in June 2012.

And no, this is not due to incompetence; it is something far worse, what the Bible calls evil.

Reframing Daesh, Syria

by Berry Friesen (Nov. 24, 2015)

(Updated below)

The political elite frame discussion of the terrorism in Paris and the war in Syria by two consensus views and two matters for debate.

The first consensus (beyond debate, in other words) is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down.  The second is that Daesh (pretentiously called “the Islamic State”) must be violently crushed.

The first issue we are encouraged to debate concerns what mix of violence the US should use in crushing Daesh.  The second is whether the US should deny admission to all Syrian refugees on the off chance that a few are terrorists.

How should Jesus-followers season this discourse?  We could simply add our two cents, assuming the matter has been framed accurately and constructively.

Or, we could be the “salt” Jesus asked us to be by reframing the discussion. Here's a start.

1.  The current policy of suppressing terrorism by use of overwhelming force is a failure. In 2000, the year before the so-called war on terror was launched, the number of deaths worldwide caused by terrorism was 3,329; by 2014, terror-realted deaths had increased nearly ten-fold to 32,727.

2. Nearly all “Muslim terrorists” subscribe to the Wahhabi strand of Islam. This strand takes the traditional Sunni mantra "One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque" as a mandate to impose conformity on all others (including Muslims of Shia or Sufi persuasion), even if that requires the use of violence.  Moreover, Wahhabism seeks to replicate the purity of an ancient era when the Prophet Muhammad ruled from Medina.

Today, Saudi Arabia—a close ally of the US— is the primary promoter of Wahhabism. Ending Sunni terrorism will require a change in Saudi Arabia.

3. The US has engaged in an extensive effort to take down the government of Syria and break it into pieces.  Planning toward this end was underway already in 2002 and became US policy in 2006.  Amid Arab Spring demonstrations in March 2011, the plan was implemented covertly by inserting snipers into the crowds.  After Syrian authorities responded harshly to the murders of numerous police officers and soldiers, insurgents within Syria took up arms against the government.

Western media generally call it a civil war, but 20-30,000 foreign fighters from across North Africa, Europe, Central Asia and the Arab world have flocked to Syria to join the fight. For Syrians loyal to their government (and most Syrian are), it is an invasion, not a civil war.

While publicly supporting United Nations efforts to end the war in Syria, the US has pursued its plan to take Syria apart.  Reports in major US newspapers during the spring of 2012 described an extensive war-making effort coordinated by the U.S. and involving huge amounts of direct assistance to the insurgents from US allies in the region. That effort continues yet today.

4.  With regard to Daesh, it’s important to acknowledge that already in 2012—when Daesh did not yet exist—the US expected “a Salafist principality” to take control in eastern Syria.

An August 2012 Pentagon intelligence report identified “al-Qaida in Iraq and fellow Salafists” as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” Most importantly, it stated that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” supported the Salafist effort to take control of eastern Syria.

Buoyed by the US-led network of supporters, events proceeded as predicted by the Pentagon report.  In April 2013, radical jihadists from Iraq merged with al-Qaeda in Syria and took the name “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL).  In the latter half of 2013 and early months of 2014, Daesh seized control of eastern Syria and established Raqqah as capital of its global caliphate.

Despite the many expressions of alarm about Daesh over recent months, it continues to enjoy state support.  Funds continue to flow from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Turkey’s border continues to be open to the truck convoys that resupply Daesh and export its oil. Weapons sourced to the US and Israel continue to make their way to Daesh.

What is wise policy in this crisis?

First, we must oppose the media-driven spiral of violence that makes Daesh so much more important than it is and enables it to attract an endless supply of money and recruits.

Second, we must demand that the US stop using Daesh to mask and implement its imperial agenda to dominate and control other nations.

Third, the US and its allies must stop all support flowing to Daesh.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit,” Paul wrote in the assembly in Colossae (2:8). As we apply Paul’s words, we can help reframe the national conversation about terrorism and the war in Syria, a vital step in moving events there toward peace.
For up-to-date coverage of the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian fighter plane over Syria
go to Moon of Alabama (including comment section) or RT.  For analysis critical of the empire, read this Tony Cartalucci essay urging Russia to resist responding to Turkey's provocation. For analysis of what Turkey may have been trying to accomplish, see this James Carden essay. For a point of view critical of US President Obama's response to the provocation, see this Robert Parry essay.

Speaking Good News

by John K. Stoner (November 18, 2015)

(Part 2 of a conversation with myself about the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ)

1.  Then a Kingdom  
What is the central message of those who follow Jesus?  We can answer by using the words of Jesus:

"The time is fulfilled,
the kingdom of God is at hand,
and believe the good news."  Mark 1:15

2.  Now an "Empire"
In the culture of Jesus' time the word "kingdom" summarized how power was understood and organized in the world. "Kingdom" described how human capacities were perceived and mobilized to run the world a certain way. Today the word "empire" is a more accurate description of how human resources are mobilized to run the world. So as Jesus' followers should we not be announcing that "the empire of God is at hand," or, given the wildly conflicting meanings of the word "God," that "the empire of Jesus" is coming into the world?

3.  To Save the World
It seems that the fulfillment of our lives depends--somewhat mysteriously yet quite relentlessly--on discovering that we need to turn outwardly to get ourselves organized inwardly. We need a purpose and task beyond ourselves.  Could it be that our creative task is to heal the world? To say "yes" to the good news that we mere humans can join in God's great project of saving the whole world (cosmos) through Jesus (John 3:17)?

4.  By the Cross
This would be a different way of running the world, a way which has its source and character in the being and will of the Creator God, and in untapped and ignored human capacities.  Jesus devoted his life and teaching to revealing this new way of living in this world. At the center of his teaching were these words: "Seek first the empire of God and its justice" (Matt. 6:33). And the great act of his life was to live in such a way as to risk and ultimately accept the wrath of the empire by crucifixion, because he sought justice for the victims of the empire's quest for invincible power. The cross of Jesus disclosed forever the bankruptcy of homicidal imperial power and intentions.

5.  Creative Power
For Jesus, this "empire of God" is about this world, and a new way to use human capacities and power to organize and run it, not about some other time or world.  But it identifies and uses a different form of power for the project--not the destructive powers of hierarchy, domination and homicidal force, but the creative powers of empathy, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are human abilities, gifts of the Creator God, as real and innate as the human certainty that 2 + 2 = 4.

6.  For Healing the World
We live in a damaged and challenging world.  The rich and powerful oppress the needy and weak. There are conflicts to be resolved and we're afraid of people we perceive to be enemies. How can we achieve a just sharing of Earth's resources? There is an ecosystem to be understood and loved if we are to survive. So what is our way, what are our resources, for meeting these challenges?  The empire of the world says "Destroy the opposition, by whatever means necessary."  Jesus says, "Seek the unity of community with everyone, for you are a part of everyone and everything.  You can live in this world in a new and nonviolent way. The way forward is by healing, not destroying."

7.  By Reconciling Enemies
Jesus voices this truth most dramatically with the words "love your enemies." This is the first command, or imperative, which Jesus speaks in the gospel of Luke (ch. 6). He says to us and to all, "Consider your response to the person or group that seems most other and alien to you, not a part of yourself, and make that response a nonviolent one of seeking the restoration of relationship."

8.  Through Nonviolent Love
This is not a way of escaping this world into another world, or avoiding the difficult task of making this world work, but another, creative way of living in this world and making this world work.  And so we invite people into the church community as a nurturing home for learning and practicing Jesus' nonviolent way of running the world.

9.  In a Living Community
The church is meant to be a representation, flawed but real, of the human vocation as defined by The Human One, Jesus. He invites us to repent, that is, to change our minds and adopt this creative new way of thinking about how to run the world (Mark 1:15). This is the "empire" of Jesus, a community of peace.  And it is good news!

Being Good News

by John K. Stoner (November 14, 2015)

(Part 1 of a conversation with myself about the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ)

To reach new people and interest them in Jesus' way, we need to start by being interested in how people do their lives--what gives meaning to their lives, what they are trying to do in and with their lives--not start with how we do church.

In fact, when we seek to clarify and state the emerging "vision" of our church, we probably should not start with questions about how we "do church" (music, worship, preaching).

Why? Because that starts with a definition of church as what we do for an hour on Sunday morning, and if you start there, no amount of saying afterward that church is not the building and four walls, it will remain centrally the building and four walls and one hour.

Not many people either inside or outside of church spend much time planning or organizing their lives around what happens at church on Sunday morning.  Other things are more important to people.  So we need to start with those other things.  This approach cannot be dismissed as "market driven"--that's a deceptive name for what is going on here.  There is such a thing as reductionist, market driven approaches to church growth; this is not that.

My assumption is that people are just trying to live their lives a little more successfully.

First, this means that they are not obsessing about whether or how they can go to heaven rather than to hell when they die.

Now, I hear your snicker: "My congregation is not about that, and has not been for a long time." Good for you! But I ask, "Has your congregation done a good job of defining what it is about, since it is not about that?"  Because that is the central image of church and the message and business of church in America. Period.  Do you agree?

So we are saying, are we not, that church is about how to live life (not how to get to heaven) fundamentally?


We are essentially agreeing with the person who said, "The way through this world is more difficult to find than the way to the next world."  And we agree with that person because we think that's really what Jesus was saying.

When Jesus called himself "the Way," he was saying most centrally that he is showing the way to live this life successfully--not the way to the next world, but the way through this one.

When Jesus called himself the "Truth," he was talking about the truth that accurately describes how to run this world successfully--what really works in raising children, in dealing with failures and reverses, how to respond to deprivations, injuries and hurts at the hands of others, and where to find some joy in the everyday experiences of life.

When Jesus called himself "the Life" he was talking about experiencing life every day, or at least some part of the day, as exciting adventure, joyful living, rather than as discouragement and death--death delayed, warmed over, or whatever.

So people are just trying to live their lives a little more successfully--or successfully at all.

Do we care if that is working for them?  Do we want to hear them talk about how that is going?  Are we (individually and as members of a local congregation) ready to join their walk through life in costly ways?

In all of this, I do assume that people need some help, not only in living life successfully as they define success, but they need some help in defining what real success in life looks life.  This, of course, is touchy, delicate, and sacred.  Can we learn to have meaningful conversations about the good life with people?

The community Jesus had in mind is designed not only to help you meet your goals--it also has something useful, and important, to say about what your goals should be and what real success would look like.  But to repeat, this is mainly about how to get through this world, not about how to get to the next one.

What is the Islamic State?

by Berry Friesen (November 14, 2015)

Today I join the people of France in grief and horror over the murder of scores of their friends, neighbors and family members in the streets of Paris last evening.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this atrocity. I take them at their word.

It is too soon to explain this event, but already Western leaders are describing how they intend to retaliate.  As we listen to their words, here is critical background to keep in mind.

1. A New York Times article from June, 2012 reported that CIA officers were operating in Turkey, helping to funnel arms purchased by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar across the Turkish border to Syrian opposition fighters.  Some of those arms originated in Libya from the pillaged warehouses of the Gaddafi government.

Already in the summer of 2012, Pentagon officials expected the emergence of something like the Islamic State in Syria.  A key intelligence report said “this is exactly what the supporting powers (Gulf Cooperation Council members and NATO members) want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”

The actual development of the Islamic State in Syria during 2013 and early 2014 was a project of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and Saudi ambassador to the United States from  1983 – 2005.  The Prince was a close friend of both presidents Bush, so close that he acquired the nickname Bandar Bush. In June, 2014. The Atlantic reported that “ISIS achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support.”

The Saudi role in launching the Islamic State is consistent with its historic role as the funder of Sunni terrorism.  A US State Department cable from 2009 said that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

2.  The US-led empire has regarded the Islamic State to be a strategic asset in the Middle East. President Obama, who in January 2014 dismissed the Islamic State as a serious threat, has repeatedly spoken of “containing” rather than eliminating the Islamic State.

This ambiguous assessment is reflected in the comments of other key opinion leaders. Speaking on CNN in January, 2014 about Salafist fighters in Syria, US Senator John, McCain said, “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar.” Former CIA Director David Petraeus said in March 2015 that “the Islamic State isn’t our biggest problem” in the Mideast, Iran is.  At the same time, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made the same point, asking if it wasn’t time for the US to directly arm the Islamic State in order to off-set the emerging influence of Iran.

Meanwhile Iranian news sources have repeatedly reported that NATO members are using air-drops to re-supply Islamic State fighters in Iraq and providing them with intelligence information about Iraqi military movements.

3.  In August, 2014, the US-led coalition began fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  The attacks have been ineffective; the Islamic State continued to expand its territory in both countries despite the occasional bombing attacks by Western nations.

Russia’s attacks since September 30, 2015 have been much more vigorous and have dramatically reduced the capacity and territory of the Islamic State in Syria.  Recently, forces fighting the Syrian government under the flag of the Free Syrian Army have begun cooperating with Russia, including the provision of intelligence information about where to target bombing strikes against the Islamic State.  If current trends continue, the Islamic State will be defeated in Syria within the next 3-4 months.

The Iraqi government has noticed the effectiveness of the Russian effort, and has begun working closely with the Russians in combating the Islamic State in Iraq.

In summary, Russian success against the Islamic State has confronted the US-led empire with the prospect of losing a key strategic asset in the Middle East, an asset that enables the empire to break targeted nations into pieces, remove leaders it doesn't like, threaten Iran and prepare battle-hardened mercenaries for deployment to other places in the world.

4.  The French and other members of the US-led empire are likely to respond to the terror attacks in Paris by becoming more actively involved in the war against the Islamic State.

Given the record to date, will that involvement serve to decisively defeat the Islamic State, or will it serve to preserve the Islamic State and frustrate the efforts of Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran?

The Last to Notice?

by Berry Friesen (November 10, 2015)

As I’ve tried to explain in the previous two posts, Jesus changed how the world works.

By his compassion, forgiveness and self-giving love, he offered the world an account of what makes life meaningful and how we can live with one another in peace.  Jesus deliberately enacted this new way in the relationships he formed, in the spectacles he created, in the rituals he initiated and in the very public way he died.

This new way of being human has proved to be powerfully attractive and its transformative energy is only increasing with time.  We find echoes of this attraction and energy in popular culture; in the way everyday people describe a good life and their dissatisfaction with counterfeits; in the inability of systemic values such as law, nation, religion and empire to maintain legitimacy and retain our loyalty; in the ever-shorter shelf-life of the empire’s propaganda.

As stated by Tony Bartlett, author of Virtually Christian and the writer whose insights have guided this three-part reflection, Jesus “wrested human meaning from its violent foundations and reprogrammed it as compassion, forgiveness, life and peace.”

Jesus’ impact is not only personal to those individuals who believe in him, says Bartlett, but over time has become cultural and public, impacting all of humanity:  “The message of Jesus [has] by now become part of our human fabric.”  It has changed what it means to be human.

Why don’t we see this?  The question is meant for those of us who self-identity as Christians, who claim to be following his way.  We so often look right past how Jesus has changed the world, focusing instead on what he accomplished for religious individuals in a future time and place.

Bartlett’s answer to this question takes us to John the Baptist, Jesus’s mentor and the man Jesus called the greatest of all the prophets.  John doubted Jesus was the one he had been waiting for because the Romans still maintained their power, as did the priests and scribes in the religious realm. John expected the coming of the empire of YHWH to be ushered in with the violence of superior force, much as Elijah had done it in ancient times.

When we say that Jesus changes human hearts, but that the world hasn’t changed, we—like John the Baptist—pay allegiance to violence as ruler of the world and the measure of all things.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ way of being human increasingly defines humanity’s aspirations. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Christians were among the last to notice?

Violence at the Center?

by Berry Friesen (November 5, 2015)

At the center of the story of Jesus is his tortured and violent death.  Jesus was beaten and then killed in an excruciatingly painful way.  Whenever we Christians participate in the Eucharist, we remember that atrocity.

There is something deeply offensive about this, the way people gather and imagine an act of violence. What exactly are we celebrating?  I know people who have abandoned the church because they are offended by this.

Such persons make an important point.  What kind of faith places an act of violence at the center of its story?  If we can’t answer this question, then the entire project should be abandoned.

Through the centuries, a large part of the church has explained that its god required that somebody pay the ultimate price for our sins.  According to this point-of-view, an iron law of retribution is part of this god’s very nature.  This law requires either our punishment or the sacrifice of someone or something so precious that this god’s righteous anger is satisfied and the slate wiped clean.

Revulsion to this account has come from all quarters, but has been led by liberal Christians, who imagine nonviolence and goodness to be available to any of us who have the common sense to want it.  In such a view, Jesus is the paramount example of that common sense and yet another victim of the idiocy of violence.

Into this conversation comes Tony Bartlett, author of Virtually Christian.  He is the writer I mentioned in my previous post, the theologian who insists Jesus changed the way the world works. Or to put it more precisely, the way human society works.

Bartlett is no liberal; he sees humanity as much more than an aggregation of individuals weighing the alternatives and then deciding for this or that.  Certainly he takes seriously our capacity for self-conscious decision-making.  Yet he insists this capacity operates within strong structures of desire we have inherited from the past.  We share those structures of desire with one another and endlessly replicate and reinforce their dynamics.

Though Bartlett says this mechanism operates neurologically, its results are most visibly manifest in culture. Within the forms of society, we share—almost as a single organism—an understanding of how to make life meaningful.

What does this have to do with violence?

The obvious part of the answer has to do with our rivalries with each other.  I desire what you desire and visa-versa; this is hard-wired into our brains and operates all of the time. It plays out between individuals and collectively among groups and nations. Violence often results; it is as common as grass.

But it isn’t just that we desire the same things; we also desire the same social goods, such as peace and tranquility.  Following the seminal work of anthropologist Rene Girard, Bartlett explains that the death of a scapegoat is what first brought peace and tranquility to disorganized humans and ended their violence, at least for a little while.  It is what launched human culture and made language possible.  It was the first meaning-making event, enabling people to stop fighting and cooperate in the complex ways we do.

Thus, an act of violence—the scapegoating of a victim—is the source of human culture. Capturing and monopolizing the power of this culture-creating, life-giving, meaning-making act of violence is what the nations seek and every empire accomplishes. Accounts of their efforts fill our history books.

When Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem,” when he attracted the crowds with his street theater and provoked the authorities with his disruption of temple operations, he was not bumbling his way toward disaster.  No, he was very intentionally preparing to subvert the place violence occupies at the center of humanity’s story and put there instead an act of compassion and absolute self-giving.

Do you wish Jesus could have accomplished this without being killed on a cross?  I do too.  But wishing away the violence at the heart of the human project has never given rise to a new way of running the world, a new way of restoring peace, a new way of making life meaningful. Something different had to be put there at the center of things, something powerful and attractive. Something we would desire even more than the temporary peace that violence brings.

Though Jesus died violently, his self-sacrifice on the cross replaced violence “with the absolute affirmation of love.”

Bartlett goes on to explain (pages 111-116):  “The cross then becomes a symbol in a completely new sense . . . This infinite self-surrender, this self-pouring-out, spells the end of the symbolic cover-up of violence, since it leaves no hidden depths, no sacredness of violence . . . the photon of compassion discloses itself as the astonishingly new yet original event of meaning, the endless ‘Yes’ at the heart of creation.

“This is a revolution of incalculable significance in every sense; really, it is the only true cultural revolution.  It has taken the original ‘fiction’ of human meaning and made it something wonderfully new, able to bring creation to its intended destiny of peace, life, love.”

That is what Jesus did on the cross.  It is how he changed how the world works.  And that change continues to unwind and expand still today, reaching people and places that do not speak his name or have any inkling that they seek a life whose meaning first flashed across our collective imagination via an image of a man hanging on a cross.

Virtually Christian

by Berry Friesen (October 31, 2015)

As soon as we encounter religious language (such as the word “Christian” in the title above), our minds take us to a category of metaphysical ideas beyond time and space about God, the soul and heaven.  We may be deeply committed to some of those ideas, or we may regard them as foolishness.  Either way, it is a realm beyond general human experience.

This pattern of thought has been acquired over a lifetime.  It assumes first that the world is what it is and what it has always been.  Second, it assumes that the central events of religion—salvation, redemption, accountability for our sins, forgiveness—happen individually and relate primarily to another realm of existence.

Our book (If Not Empire, What?) tries to swim against this current of thought.  We read the Bible as an argument rooted deeply in and focused on human history.

Thus in chapter 3, we say “biblical faith is about how YHWH is saving Earth and its inhabitants from destructive paths and dead ends.”  Where does this “saving” happen and how?  In chapter 5, we say, “YHWH’s truth [takes] on flesh and blood within history as men and women live in public ways that others observe, experience and desire because those ways embody peace, nurture community and prepare the way for justice.”

Generally, Christians do not make such claims because they assume the central figure in their faith, Jesus of Nazareth, made very little impact on human history.  He did not change how the world works, in other words, but changed how our souls are/can be regarded in the metaphysical realm beyond Earth.

Anthony W. Bartlett is not such a Christian.  He is the author of Virtually Christian (O-Books, 2011), where he argues that the compassion of Jesus has “changed our relationship to creation through a transformational sign system.  The giving of Christ has entered deeply into the world, producing at the world’s heart the powerful engine of Christian virtuality” (p.29).

In other words, Bartlett claims the world is “virtually Christian.”

It’s an astonishing claim.  A “virtually Christian” world would not be as destructive and violent as our world, right?

But Bartlett persists.  He says that the love of Jesus in the face of violence released an elemental “photon of compassion” into the world, an element that over time has altered what humanity perceives to be the meaning of life.  Because compassion is now at the center of human meaning, the world works differently.  Jesus did that.

Perhaps this is what the Apostle Peter meant when he described Jesus as “the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that God “will have the world judged in [justice] by a man whom [God] has appointed” (Acts 17:31).  And why the author of Ephesians said God has “made Jesus the head of all things” (1:22).

All of this bears more discussion and requires going much further than this blog can achieve into anthropology, semiotics and a close reading of popular culture.  But we will try to tackle aspects of Bartlett's message in the future.

For now, try to imagine how your worldview would change if you regarded the world as “virtually Christian.”

Syria Watch

by Berry Friesen (October 27, 2015)

Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict has intensified the violence.  It also may bring the war—currently in its fifth year—to an end.

Much depends on how the US government responds in coming days.  The imperial plan to break Syria into pieces was hatched in 2006.  Will US leaders now abandon that plan, modify it somehow, or press on despite the risk of widening the war?

Here are summaries of a few recent related events.

1. In a New York Times op-ed, former US President Jimmy Carter says Russia’s entry into the war “has helped to clarify the choice between a political process in which the Assad regime assumes a role and more war in which the Islamic State becomes an even greater threat to world peace.”

Carter recalls how the 2012 peace plan proposed by United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan fell apart because of US insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.  Yet, Carter notes, Assad enjoyed broad support from “his military forces, most Christians, Jews, Shiite Muslims, Alawites and others who feared a takeover by radical Sunni Muslims.”  This broad support reflected Syria’s history of “harmonious relations among its many different ethnic and religious groups, including Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians who were Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Alawites and Shiites.”

Carter encourages US officials to join Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in advancing a consensus peace plan.  In a clear message to the Obama Administration, Carter said: “The needed concessions are not from the combatants in Syria, but from the proud nations that claim to want peace but refuse to cooperate with one another. “

2.  “One of Moscow's main motivations behind its military entry into the Syrian conflict was the desire to get other powers, particularly the United States, involved in discussions for a negotiated end to the conflict,” says Stratfor, a private US intelligence firm. Toward that end, Russia’s diplomats have been busy on many fronts. One initiative has been pressuring Saudi Arabia and Turkey to drop their demands that President Assad step down before a cease-fire is put in place.  Turkey has reportedly agreed to a transitional arrangement.  Talks continue this week in Vienna with Iran joining for the first time.

3.  Many have described the US House hearings on the performance of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the events surrounding the 2012 death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens as “political theater.”  That’s true, yet the episode has revealed two important insights about the empire.

Clinton was asked about her boast upon the murder of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi :   “We came, we saw, he died.”  She replied, “That was an expression of relief that the military mission undertaken by NATO and our other partners had achieved its end.”  This bit of truth-telling contradicts what President Obama told the American people in 2011: "Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

The second insight is how the mainstream media refuses to let the public in on the fact that slain US ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi running a covert CIA operation to ship heavy weapons from Libya into Syria to arm the mercenary terrorists recruited and paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Everything about that gun-running operation is classified; it cannot be spoken of in a public hearing.

But that doesn’t mean the media can’t talk about the fact that the Benghazi operation was all about making war against Syria.  Early on, this was reported in a few mainstream outlets, and alternative news outlets regularly do just that (see here and here).

4. Iraqi government leaders are under intense popular pressure to invite Russia to join Iraq’s war against ISIS.   The call to invite Russia into the fight is a consequence of Russia’s performance in Syria, where it has attacked ISIS with much greater frequency and intensity than the US ever has.

Meanwhile, Iranian media continue publishing disturbing reports about the character of US involvement in the Iraqi war against ISIS, including US intelligence support for ISIS and US arms drops to ISIS forces.  Recently, an Israeli IDF officer was reportedly captured while fighting with ISIS.

5. The US political elite and their captive media continue to talk about creating a “buffer zone” along the northern edge of Syria and its border with Turkey.  This “buffer” is justified by the need to provide a “safe zone” for refugees, a “free zone” for those trying to escape the violence of the war. This allegedly humanitarian purpose would be accomplished by an Air Force-enforced no-fly zone.

Let’s not be fooled.  This is a replay of the humanitarian deception President Obama carried out in 2011 as the US implemented its plan to effect regime change in Libya.  In the case of Syria, the “safe zone” would protect supply routes from Turkey to forces fighting for ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. That’s why Hillary Rodham Clinton and other imperialists want a no-fly zone:  protect the terrorist mercenaries the US and its allies have spent so much developing.

6.  Oil is one of the many reasons the empire wants to replace Syrian President Assad with someone more cooperative.  Assad refused to sign an agreement to extend an existing pipeline from Qatar into Turkey, preferring instead a new pipeline from Iran across Syria into Europe.  And he stoutly resisted Israel’s plans to use its current occupation of the Golan Heights as an opportunity to steal Syrian oil. The disintegration of Syria’s government would make such theft virtually unstoppable.

Israel’s plans reportedly are supported by a thoroughly bipartisan selection of the imperial elite such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, former US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, former CIA director James Woolsey and Wall Street Journal publisher Rupert Murdoch.

7.  Last but not least, the empire does not want us to connect the deceit that led to the invasion of Iraq with the deceit that led to the destruction of Libya and the deceit that led to the destruction of Syria. When we make those connections, when we discuss them with our friends and neighbors, then we do our part to end the empire's reign of destruction, violence and death.

Careless Blindness

by Berry Friesen (October 22, 2015)

My previous post described the blindness of American Christians to the malevolent role of the US government in Syria as “willful.”

But might it be carelessness instead?

In late August 2013, hundreds of Syrian civilians died after an attack of sarin gas.  For days, many images of lifeless children filled our screens.

The deadly gas was delivered by a rocket fired into a suburb of Damascus.  Within hours of the atrocity, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US had convincing evidence that Syrian President Assad was responsible.  The New York Times and Washington Post agreed.  President Barack Obama repeated this conclusion in a nationally televised speech on September 10, 2013. The White House even identified a place near President Assad’s office as the likely launching point for the rocket.

Those searing images of dead children—joined with the authority and credibility of US leaders—left an indelible impression in our minds:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Damascus.  He used chemical weapons to murder innocent children.

That’s what most American Christians still think today.  That’s where the carelessness comes in.

In December 2013, the London Review of Books published Seymour Hersh’ report that the sarin attack appeared to be a provocation staged by opponents of President Assad and designed to dramatically escalate the involvement of the US military in the dismantling of Syria.

Hersh is an award-winning journalist.  He has a long record of breaking major stories, including the My Lai massacre from the Vietnam War and the Abu Ghraib torture practices of the US in Iraq.  His reporting on the sarin attacks deserved to be taken seriously.  But no US media would publish it, so few Americans became aware of it.

Only a month later, two aeronautical scientists (Dr. Theodore Postol from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Richard Lloyd from Tesla Laboratories) published their analysis of the rocket that delivered the deadly sarin gas.  These are top-drawer experts; Lloyd is a former United Nations weapons inspector with two books, 75 academic papers and 40 patents to his credit.

They concluded that the rocket could have traveled only about two kilometers.  “It’s clear and unambiguous this munition could not have come from Syrian government-controlled areas as the White House has claimed,” said Dr. Postol in an interview with MintPress News.

This finding corroborated what Hersh had reported:  the deadly sarin attack had been carried out by the opponents of President Assad, not by agents of the Syrian government.

Never heard of MintPress news?  It’s an alternative news site in Minnesota that refuses to follow the official line of the empire.  It published Postol’s and Lloyd’s important findings (as did other alternative news outlets), the mainstream media did not.

But it’s not too late. Today, start reading the alternative media.  What we hear on National Public Radio and FOX News, what we read in mainstream newspapers, do not provide an accurate account of the US role in the world.  If you continue to rely on them, you are participating in the deceit of the empire.

For a little while, you could call that carelessness.  But then it becomes willful blindness.

Oct. 23 update:  Whistle-blowers within Turkey's government have gone public this week with reports that Turkey's intelligence service planned and executed the sarin attack, hoping it would bring the US military into a more decisive role in bringing down the government of Syria. This important development is not being reported widely in the USA, but is being reported by alternative media.   

Willful Blindness

by Berry Friesen (October 18, 2015)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit . . . you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-20).

Nearly every American Christian is familiar with these words from Jesus, but few apply them to the affairs of nations.  Why bother?  We confidently assume the USA is generally a bearer of good fruit.

Along with others whose knowledge far exceeds mine, I expected this assumption to change with Russia’s entry into the war in Syria.  After only a few weeks, Russia’s air attacks have significantly weakened ISIS. The US-led alliance has been bombing targets in Syria for over a year, but until Russia’s got involved, ISIS inexplicably grew ever stronger.

In a similar vein, both the US and Russia claim to oppose terrorism.  But in Syria, the US–led coalition has for several years been arming and training fighters that almost always (and thus predictably) ended up joining al-Qaeda.  Over the strenuous objections of the US government, Russia is attacking al-Qaeda's forces in the same way that it attacks ISIS.

Thus, the pretense and fraud of the US-led effort has become plain to see.

Yet most American Christians are simply averting their eyes.  The thought that the US-led alliance fueled the mercenary invasion of Syria and then used that invasion as an excuse to intervene militarily is simply too awful to contemplate.  After all, 250,000 people have died in Syria as a result of this war; eleven million have been displaced.

Piously changing the subject has become the favorite way to rationalize this willful blindness.  Thus, Russia is accused of “prolonging the war” by supporting the legitimate government of Syria.

Without doubt, Russia‘s intervention will prolong the Syrian government’s capacity to defend itself. On September 30, when Russia entered the war, the US-led coalition was poised to establish a no-fly zone in Syria that would have taken the Syrian air force out of the fight.  The end of Syria as we know it would have followed soon after.

Forgotten in such an analysis is what the mercenaries would do next, after defeating the Syrian government. The mercenaries come from many places: North Africa, Russia, Turkey, Europe, all across Central Asia, western China, the Gulf States. After destroying Syria, they will move on to other targets, most likely selected by the empire, which has inexhaustible resources to pay for such services.

Obviously, Russia must worry about this, even if people living on the other side of an ocean do not.

American Christians are hearing much these days about Syrian refugees. We are exhorted to open our communities to them, reflect on their plight and welcome them with a spirit of compassion.  This is described as doing our share.

But last weekend, F-16 fighter jets of the US-led alliance reportedly attacked and destroyed power stations fifteen miles east of Aleppo. Those stations were part of a grid that powered the water system serving Aleppo and the surrounding area, lifting water out of the Euphrates River, purifying it and then distributing it throughout the municipal system.  As a result of this attack, the residents of Aleppo and the surrounding area lost access to clean water.

Such an attack on the civilian infrastructure of a beleaguered city filled with displaced people is a war crime.

Then today (October 18), F-16 fighter jets of the US-led alliance again reportedly attacked a power plant, this time the facility that provides electricity to Aleppo city.  An estimated two-to-three million Syrians lost access to what little electrical power they had as a result of this second attack..

Such attacks serve no military purpose. But they are likely to force hundreds of thousands of Syrians sheltering in Aleppo to flee the city and become refugees.

What should peace-loving American Christians who care about refugees do?

We simply must admit Russia is not the problem.  The US-led alliance is responsible for the grinding war in Syria, just as it is responsible for the wars in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. These wars are just the beginning; more will follow because this is the way the empire destabilizes and defeats those who try to follow an independent path. Indeed, the shock troops for the coming wars have already been trained, armed and battle-hardened in Syria.

In short, if American Christians want the death and carnage to end quickly, we must publicly oppose the evil within our own government, not Russia’s.

What Next in Syria?

by Berry Friesen (October 13, 2015)

What will the empire do next in Syria?

Ever since September 30, when Russia entered the war and complicated the empire’s plan to take down Syria’s government and divide up its territory, the world has been anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Will the empire make Russia bleed like it made the Soviet Union bleed in Afghanistan? That’s seems to be why the empire is providing more armaments to the various mercenaries fighting the Syrian army north of Damascus.  But then it also is providing more arms to the Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria.  That seems more like a strategy aimed at ISIS and Turkey.  And it is coordinating flights in Syrian air space with Russia, apparently trying to avoid a confrontation.

As we entertain such questions, we often assume each party to the Syrian conflict wants to win through a quick and favorable end to the fighting.  That assumption is correct for some parties (e.g., Syria, Turkey, Russia), but it is not correct for others (e.g., USA, Israel, France), which prefer the fighting to continue indefinitely because it weakens rivals, opens opportunities for future exploitation and expands markets for favored arms industries. Libya is the textbook case of the latter strategy in operation.

Another complicating factor is a division among imperial leaders over tactics.  President Obama is committed to dominating the world through managed conflicts in which surrogates and proxies shed most of the blood.  The neo-conservative establishment in the USA is committed to flashy, shock-and-awe displays.  It’s easy to mistake this debate around tactics as a debate about purposes.

Sorting it out is demanding.  Why bother?

Because the empire needs our consent to succeed.  It gains our consent by telling us stories—moral narratives—that we accept and tacitly support.  This is how the empire is legitimatized.

To effectively oppose this process, we must do the work of debunking the imperial narrative and revealing its deceitfulness and moral depravity.

Thankfully, people are at work to help.  It’s still a lot of effort to absorb what they tell us, but it is doable.  Here is a baker’s dozen of the sources I’ve found most valuable over the past four-and-one-half years as I’ve tried to follow events in Syria. For each source, I note what in particular I find valuable.

Moon of Alabama (links to new reports, analysis, high quality comment board)

Levant Report (links to news reports, perspective)

Land Destroyer Report (links to news reports, analysis)

Asia Times (links to news reports, perspectives)

Indian Punchline (analysis)

Voltaire Network (analysis)

The Saker (links to news reports, analysis)

Antiwar (news synthesis, links to news reports, perspectives)

Consortium News (links to news reports, analysis)

CounterPunch  (perspectives of Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, Pepe Escobar, Mike Whitney)

Almasdar News (news reports)

PressTV (news reports)

RT (news synthesis)

Nor can we ignore the Western mainstream media.  It provides the moral narrative meant to win our hearts and minds (as well as the daily details to fill in that narrative).  All of this is valuable information to have, not necessarily because it is true, but because it tells us what the empire wants us to think.  So whether FOX News or National Public Radio, the New York Times or the Associated Press stories in your local daily, it too is relevant to this work of resisting the empire.