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The Empire's Salvation Story (2)

Berry Friesen (January 29, 2015)

So what do we make of the empire’s salvation story, now that we are acquainted with the fact that it frequently strengthens Muslim extremists (those called “terrorists” by the Western media), making them an effective weapon against the empire’s opponents?

Citizens of countries that receive benefits from imperial control tend to rationalize this by saying, “Well, running the world can be a dirty business.  So long as the dirty business is done for a good purpose, I won’t complain.  And keeping tabs on extremist Muslims is a good purpose.”

Here’s why I reject that approach.

1. The empire has made war on Muslim nations that oppose Wahhabi extremism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria), not those that promote it (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey).  In the process, it has destroyed functioning societies that provided decent-to-good educational, health and commercial opportunities for its citizens.  These same societies had strong secular traditions and had achieved some success at peacefully integrating adherents of different religions and different strands of Islam. Each resisted the empire’s way of governing and doing business, but none threatened the empire militarily.

I don’t see any “good purpose” at work when the empire destroys such societies.

2. Without doubt, Muslim extremists define and pursue their own goals.  But their prominence on the world stage over the past 35 years has been largely attributable to financial support from two members of the empire (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and the military training and support of other members of the empire (including the USA).  If the empire wanted to reduce the impact of Muslim extremism in our world, it could achieve this result quickly through restrictions in funding and arms from members of the imperial coalition.

This has not happened because fear of Muslim extremism is so valuable in winning public support for wars of aggression, military spending, and restrictions in government transparency and civil liberties. In short, the empire’s entire salvation story has come to resemble a criminal protection racket.   

3. The dishonesty of the empire’s story infects the entire enterprise, including the covert relationships between the empire’s intelligence agencies and the Muslim extremists who carry out targeted terror attacks.  Thus, we can no longer tell whether or not particular acts of terrorism–Paris, Nairobi, Boston, Mumbai, Beirut, Samarra, London, Madrid, Jakarta, Bali, New York–have been facilitated or even planned by the empire.

The best we can do is make an educated guess, and assume half have been and half have not.

In the final book of the Bible, the author of The Revelation to John speaks three times of the empire’s deception (13:14; 18:23; 19:20).  The Apostle Paul saw this coming. Writing forty years earlier, he told Jesus-followers in Colossae that the empire claiming to be the hope of the world was in reality “the power of darkness” (1:13) seeking to “take captive” (2:8) their hearts and minds.

Our situation today is similar to theirs.

Empire's Salvation Story

Berry Friesen (January 25, 2015)

In my prior post, I said following Jesus entails debunking the empire’s salvation story.

It tells us how the empire is saving the tolerant, open-minded West from violent, closed-minded Islam.  This is why (it says) we have perpetual war against Muslim nations ( fourteen nations bombed, occupied or invaded since 1980) and must endure the militarization of our society and erosion of our rights.

I find this story deceitful because the empire deliberately empowers and works with the very terrorist elements that it claims to protect us from.

Of course, the empire defends itself by claiming to work with terrorists only for good purposes, not bad ones.  Thus (the empire insists), it is not like a fire department that covertly helps arsonists light fires around the town.  We will consider this defense in a future post.  But first, we need to absorb the fact that in the so-called war on terrorism, the empire fights on both sides.

Displaying the deceitfulness of the empire’s “clash of civilizations” story requires discussion of two big topics:  (1) the Wahhabi stream of Islam and (2) the often covert way the US has used Wahhabi extremists to carry out the Carter Doctrine, which proclaimed that because of oil, the US would use any means, including military force, to prevent other powers from challenging US control in the Middle East.

This entails a bit of work. Thankfully, Karen Armstrong, Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, Shamus Cooke  and Nafeez Ahmed have done much of this work for us.

Armstrong explains that the violent and extreme strand of Islam we see displayed on the evening news is rooted in Wahhabism, an expression of Islam that developed only in the last 250 years.  At its origin, Wahhabism was a renewal movement meant to revitalize Islam and stem its decline.  As Armstrong puts it, “The 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God–rather than materialism or worldly ambition–dominated the political order.”  She compares the leading figure in the movement, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, to Martin Luther.

During the latter years of his life, al-Wahhab’s religious reforms were embraced by a Saudi chieftain who found them to be helpful in rallying support for his own goals of territorial expansion.  Thus, two strands of Wahhabism emerged, one happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword, the other insistent that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.  After al-Wahhab’s death in 1791, both strands of the movement that bore his name became increasingly intolerant of other forms of Islam and adopted takfir, the practice of declaring Muslims who did not follow Wahhabi dogma to be unbelievers.

After several decades of success, the strand that combined Wahhabi reform and violence was crushed by Ottoman forces. It then largely disappeared for an entire century, only to re-emerge during World War I when another Saudi chieftain, Abd al-Aziz, blended Wahhabi dogma with Bedouin fighting skills to create a highly effective militia called the Ikhwan (Brotherhood).  The Ikhwan is the source of the imagery and practices we associate with ISIS today:  the covered faces, the slit throats, the emphasis on takfir, the murder of civilians who cannot say a particular Islamic prayer from memory, the rigid adherence to what is perceived to be the original form of Islam.

Al-Aziz and his militia fought the Ottomans during World War 1. After the Ottoman defeat in that war, al-Aziz worked with the British to forge the state of Saudi Arabia in 1932, but not before doing battle with his own militia, which opposed telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking–indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time.  Although al-Aziz prevailed and ruled as the first Saudi king, the two strands of Wahhabism had become firmly established as integral parts of the new Saudi nation.

Outside of Saudi Arabia, Islam’s development was very different.  Hossein-Zadeh describes it by quoting Armstrong:  “About a hundred years ago, almost every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West, which at that time meant Europe. America was still an unknown quantity. Politicians and journalists in India, Egypt, and Iran wanted their countries to be just like Britain or France; philosophers, poets, and even some of the ulama (religious scholars) tried to find ways of reforming Islam according to the democratic model of the West.”

During the three decades immediately after World War 2, secularism gained much ground in the Muslim world.  By the early part of the ‘70s, Wahhabism was “virtually extinguished,” according to Cooke.  Saudi Arabia and later Qatar remained as the last bastions.

So why has Wahhabism emerged as such a threat in our world?  Three primary factors explain this and Armstrong identifies the first: Saudi wealth.  According to Armstrong:

“The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo . . . gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial . . . to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighborhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

“A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop.”

Cooke identifies the second factor: US exploitation of Wahhabi-inspired mercenaries as proxies. In 1979, this brainchild of Zbigniew Brzezinski was implemented by the Carter Administration to harass the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  According to Cooke:

“The United States responded by working with Saudi Arabia to give tons of weapons, training, and cash to the jihadists of the then-fledgling fundamentalist movement, helping to transform it into a regional social force that soon became the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“The U.S.-backed Afghan jihad was the birth of the modern Islamic fundamentalist movement. The jihad attracted and helped organize fundamentalists across the region, as US allies in the Gulf state dictatorships used the state religion to promote it.  Fighters who traveled to fight in Afghanistan returned to their home countries with weapons training and hero status that inspired others to join the movement.”

The strategy worked very well to weaken the USSR during the ‘80s.  It worked so well, in fact, that during the ‘90s, the empire deployed Wahhabi-inspired fighters trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Chechnya to fight against Russia in support of independence, to Algeria to use terror to undermine a Islamic democratic movement, to Iran to destabilize that society and effect a change in government, to Azerbaijan to help effect a government coup, to Bosnia and Kosovo to dismember Yugoslavia and then Serbia, and to western China (Xinjiang) to create social unrest there.  After 9/11, they were a key part of US strategy in Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban and in Iraq to fuel the Sunni “surge” that facilitated the US troop withdrawal.  A few years later, fighting under air cover provided by NATO jets, they brought down the Gaddafi government in Libya.   They then deployed to Turkey and Jordan to attack Syria and try to drive President Assad from power.  This time, the US and Israel provided air cover.

Each of these initiatives required extensive planning and coordination, funding and logistical support, weapons and training, the sharing of military intelligence and communications support.  Remarkably, throughout this 35-year period (1980-2015), violent jihadists never lacked for any of this.  While the US has generally remained far in the background, close allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey have played leading roles.  We see this clearly in ISIS and the other Muslim groups arrayed against Syria, all of which have been funded by US allies or directly by the US itself.

Writing in the March 5, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported a US policy which entailed clandestine operations aimed at Iran and Syria. “A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”  In other words, the alignment we see today in Syria between the US and radical Islamic jihadists reflects policy, not coincidence.

When President Obama declared in 2011 that the Syrian president “must go,” the empire’s goal of bringing Syria within its orbit became public knowledge. Again, Shamus Cooke:

“Islamic fundamentalism grew steadily during this period, until it took another giant leap forward, starting with the U.S.-backed proxy war against the Syrian government, essentially the Afghan jihad on steroids.

“Once again the U.S. government aligned itself with Islamic fundamentalists, who have been the principal groups fighting the Syrian government . . . To gain thousands of needed foreign fighters, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states promoted jihad with their state-sponsored media, religious figures, and oil-rich donors.”

Of course, the two US-led invasions of Iraq (1990, 2003) do not fit the pattern of using Wahhabi fighters as the empire’s mercenaries; instead, Western troops directly engaged and experienced the sting of determined Muslim resistance.  Yet even these departures from the pattern served to strengthen the extremist element within Wahhabism. Thus, the broad-based radicalization that inevitably follows the invasion by a foreign army became the third factor in the resurgence of a violent strand of Islam.

Hossein-Zadeh explains:

“For many Muslims the recent turn to religion often represents not so much a rejection of Western values and achievements as it is a way to resist and/or defy the humiliating imperialistic policies of Western powers.  This explains why many of the frustrated youth in the Muslim world (as well as in the belly of the beast, in the core capitalist countries) are flocking into the ranks of militant anti-imperialist forces and employing religion as a weapon of mobilization and defiance."

No, I have not forgotten 9/11.  For many people in the West, the fact that the people of the US were victimized on that day trumps all the evidence presented here about how the empire often works with (not against) extremist Muslim fighters.

That discussion will need to wait until another day; for now we simply acknowledge that in the so-called great struggle between the tolerant, open-minded West against violent, closed-minded Islam, things are not how they appear.  Far more often than we like to admit, the violence of Islamic extremists has been heightened and facilitated by the empire as part of its strategy to weaken and destroy its opponents.  All of this is detailed in Ahmed’s work, including his article, “Our terrorists.”

And we are left with the troubling question:  is Wahhabi-inspired violence occurring in Africa today (especially in Kenya and Nigeria) also enabled and strengthened by the empire, just as similar violence in so many other countries has been over the past 35 years?

Communities of "What?"

John K. Stoner (January 22, 2015)

Our book title ends with a question mark.  To find an alternative to empire is our task--one, we think, worthy of the time and energy, creativity and skill of humanity.   Throughout the book we highlight many descriptions and scenes of communities which are living out a better way than empire. 

In the last chapter we say "Yes, this community seeks to be powerful, not only kind and loving. It is comfortable with the language of power, but it is convinced that the way empires understand and use power is destroying Earth and its inhabitants. So it seeks a different kind of power, the power of people acting in myriad contexts out of a shared faith, worldview and commitment" (p. 336).

The communities which formed around the story of Jesus had seen in that man a courageous confrontation with the power of empire, both political and religious.  In 2000 years there have been horrendous distortions of the first communities which embodied the vision of Jesus.  But unless one thinks that the counterfeit discredits the real, communities which are not destroying the earth and its inhabitants have a continuing attraction.  They are powerful actually by being kind and loving.

"…convinced that the way empires understand and use power is destroying Earth and its inhabitants."   Food for though and action.

Readers of this book may be seeking communities committed to saving the earth rather than destroying it.  Obviously, we need to help each other find such communities.  Click the "contact form" to the right and tell us about your community or your search for one.  

The Stories We Live By (2)

Berry Friesen  (January 17, 2015)

In my previous post on this topic, I noted how highly dubious First Testament stories propelled the Israelites down the road to disaster.  First and foremost was the story of David’s and Solomon’s great kingdom.  Though it never existed, it became a guiding star for the Israelites and put them on the road to rampant injustice, corruption and idolatry during the era of the kings.

In the Second Testament texts, we see a similar dynamic at work.  Jesus’ disciples had embraced a story about national deliverance that included a messiah mighty in battle, as King David had been portrayed to have been. So the old meme was still doing its powerful work, 600 years after Judah’s demise. Though Jesus accepted the messianic call, he repeatedly insisted his victory would entail suffering and death.

In Paul’s writings to audiences that included many Gentiles, he debunked their leading story, which focused on the wisdom and beneficence of the Roman Empire. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, we see this in Paul’s mocking reference to an imperial slogan, “peace and security” (5:3).  In his first letter to the Corinthians, we see it in his bold reframing of the crucified Jesus as “the wisdom of God” and in his characterization of the empire’s elite as “doomed” (1:24; 2:6).  In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he substituted “the power of darkness” (1:13) for the empire’s boast of being the light of the world and then went on to warn readers not to be “deceived with plausible arguments” or “taken captive” through “empty deceit” (2:4, 8).   In his letter to the Romans, he depicted emperor-worshippers as “fools” who had “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:22, 24).

This subversive work of debunking the empire must also be part of what we do as Jesus-followers in our time.

I suggest we start with the so-called “clash of civilizations” playing out in our world between the West and Muslim nations. It is the story that was on display in the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and in the astonishing gathering of world leaders last week for a photo op in support of provocative cartoons and against radical Islam.  In public life here in the USA, it is the leading narrative of our time.

It is a lie, an empty deceit (to use Paul’s words), and the cause of a great darkness in our lives.  Obviously, this is an assertion I must explain and support, and I will do that another day.

But for now, I simply want to introduce this critical work of debunking deceit.  We find it going on here and there throughout the Bible, and it is essential if we are to resist the imperial worldview in our time.   The stories the empire gives us lead inevitably to the empire as our savior.  So long as we believe those stories, the story the Second Testament tells us about Jesus simply will not make sense.

Why Is the Most Christian Nation the Biggest Empire?

(John K. Stoner, January 14, 2015)

People ask Berry and me why we wrote IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT?  Is this book needed? Who wants to read it?

Taking the last question first, who wants to read it? --we don't know.  And that's a problem, or the problem, as far as we're concerned.  Who cares about "empire" and maybe even more, who thinks the Bible has anything useful to say about empire?  Others will have to answer the "who" question.

But is this book needed?  Think about it this way:  Why is the most "christian" nation in the world the biggest empire?  Thinking, if you didn't know, of the USA.

"Biggest" is not the only relevant modifier.  You've got to add "greediest,," "most violent" (where is there a bigger nuclear arsenal, military machine or military spending or globally deployed military?) and overtly committed to "full spectrum dominance" (land, sea and air, globally).

So why is this empire the most "christian" nation in the world?  Why are so many Bible reading and/or Bible believing christians flying the flag of this empire in their churches? Is the notion and practice of empire all that compatible with Jesus of Nazareth?

Our book addresses these questions.  You aren't going to read our book cover to cover. So you could start on page 219 and ask with us "Who is this man Jesus?"

What do you think?  Did Jesus fly a Roman flag on his car (or more likely his bicycle!)?  Send us your thoughts with the CONTACT button.

The Stories We Live By

Berry Friesen (January 9, 2015)

Today the news is filled with accounts from France, where the police are searching for those who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders.  It’s another chapter in the grand story entitled “War on Terror.”

We humans make sense of life by fitting ourselves into larger narratives. Some are small, such as the story of a family, a career or a congregation. Some are middle-sized and tell how one life fits into the development of an institution or industry, the emergence of an artistic or intellectual genre, or a large social migration and resettlement effort. Some are mega-sized in their impact on us, both individually and collectively; Christianity, Democracy and the so-called War on Terror all qualify.

The Bible is a collection of such stories.  Here are four from the First Testament.

1.  The imperial kingdom of David and Solomon and God’s promise to David that a descendant would forever rule the Israelite state.

2. The liberation of the Hebrew people from imperial control via the exodus and the non-imperial covenant God made with them at the mountain in the wilderness of Sinai.

3. The sudden lifting of the terrible Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, either because of divine deliverance or because the Jerusalem elite surrendered to Assyrian political, economic and religious demands.

4. The campaign by Israelite militias to cleanse Canaan of its indigenous residents and make it exclusively Israelite.

As it turns out, whether or not a narrative is powerful does not depend on whether it is historically accurate.

Consider #1 and #2 on my list. Both are doubtful as history (to us and to those who lived during biblical times), yet in contradictory ways each functioned in a powerful way to shape Israelite life.

Narrative #1 carried the day for 400 years during the era of Israel's kings, only to be discredited by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE.

Narrative #2 was nearly as old as narrative #1, but was broadly embraced only after the exile in Babylon where the Jews had no land, no state, no king of their own. Then with the help of Ezekiel and the writer of 2nd Isaiah, narrative #2 animated the astonishing religious, literary and artistic renaissance the Jewish people experienced during the diaspora.

Though #3 describes a historical event, the false interpretation that carried the day (divine deliverance) locked the nation of Judah into a disastrous trajectory vis-à-vis the Babylonian Empire. This is what Jeremiah is about, and what Micah hints at.

#4 did not happen, yet the story of God-directed ethnic cleansing became part of Israelite theology and self-identity and provided the core rationale for the emphasis (obsession?) with purity during the Second Temple era.

There are no foolproof principles to sort this all out as it happens.  We're searching for the Spirit of God at work in history, and the reading of the signs will always be contested. But one thing we can say:  it’s important to pay attention to the big stories of our times and consider where they are taking us.  Some stories lead to life, others to death--and our book finds decisive help from Jesus and the Second Testament stories in discerning which it is.

A second point is that it’s a big mistake to incorporate the empire’s version of events into our personal and communal stories.  But let’s save that for future discussion.

Oh yes, for more on the historicity of several events noted above, I recommend reading Uri Avnery’s recent speech, “The Rock of our Existence.”

Doomed by Hope?

by Berry Friesen (January 5, 2015)

Hope is commonly thought to be a biblical virtue.  And yes, one can use the Bible to build a strong case for hope.  Yet many biblical writers would readily agree that we are “doomed by hope,” Margaret Atwood’s memorable phrase from “Oryx and Crake.”

Why doomed?  Because a certain kind of hope blinds us to what must change if generations to come are to receive life as a gift, not as a curse.  In “The Folly of Empire,” Chris Hedges calls this blindness “self-delusion” and “magical thinking.” It’s crazy, he writes, to expect the politicians, propagandists, financial mandarins and military commanders who put the world on its current path to change direction.

Yes, it is plucky and brave to maintain a cheerful disposition in difficult circumstances. Yet biblical hope is different from pluck.  It insists that because of who YHWH is, because of how the world works, the reigning empire cannot maintain its grip.  Its illegitimacy has been revealed by Jesus of Nazareth and it will collapse.  Then there will be a new opportunity to put human life on a just and sustainable path.  

Obviously, to say that hope lies only on the other side of great disruption is a downer and–for many people–the very opposite of hope.  To erase that view of hope from public understanding, religious authorities have developed spiritualized theologies focused on our estrangement from god, our need for someone to rescue us from god’s wrath, and our reward in heaven if we assent to this metaphysical package.

Our book tries to recover the biblical understanding of hope and its linkage to the triumph of YHWH over the empire in saving Earth.  It will not convince people who have faith in the empire and its solutions.  But for those who are deeply uneasy about the direction the empire is taking us, our book will point the way to hope.

What about the progress made under the reign of the current empire?  Global living standards are up, disease and malnutrition are down, literacy is up, the scale of war has diminished.  Aren’t these achievements worthy of celebration?

Yes, they are and we celebrate them too.

Are they sustainable?  Not if they depend on the burning of fossil fuel.  Not if they separate people from the land, the diversity of nature and the know-how of self-sufficiency.  Not if they disappear when profitability declines.  Not if they eviscerate the traditions and social bonds that give life its resilience.  Not if they use deception and violence to extinguish alternatives.

In a way, we are like the inhabitants of the first century Mediterranean world, marveling at the broad Roman roads, the clean water from the never-before-seen aqueducts, the welcome suppression of bandits and warlords.  The messages of Jesus, Paul and John the Revelator do not deny any of those achievements, but instead direct our attention to the deception, the brutality and the unsustainability of those who produced them.

In the essay referenced above, Hedges says the empire’s “collapse will take the whole planet with it.”  I can see why he would say this.  The empire has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to deploy its astonishing capacity for homicidal violence in pursuit of advantage for the elite. In 2014 Ukraine became the latest victim; Venezuela lies just ahead, along with Russia.  China is on the far horizon.  Russia and China have ample resources and economic clout, but neither has the empire’s weaponry nor the empire’s willingness to use it.

Yes, the empire will bring about its own destruction, but because of what YHWH has done in Jesus of Nazareth, human life on Earth will not be destroyed.  In fact, we have already begun creating a new civilization within the shell of the old. This is the biblical message of hope for Hedges and all those who see reality as clearly as he does.