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The Empire's God-like Power

By Berry Friesen (February 28, 2015)

The empire has the god-like power to create reality, we say on page 33 of our book, If Not Empire, What?  Its version of life is so encompassing and “normal” that it becomes most everyone’s default worldview.  Thus, even its highly deceptive assertions and claims become “real.”   People live accordingly and thereby lose the ability to imagine anything else as workable and worthy of respect.

Recently, this squishy aspect of “reality” brought to mind memories of The Truman Show, the 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey.  He plays a man whose life—unbeknownst to him—is a live, 24/7 reality show.  Although everyone around him plays scripted roles, Truman’s emotions and actions are authentic.  That authenticity is a valuable commodity, which translates into a huge television audience.  

Over a period of years, Truman notices anomalies in his existence, such as the way the same people appear in the same places at certain times each day and the way his wife seems to advertise the various products she buys.  This leads him to conclude he’s trapped in a false reality created for an audience he cannot see.  Eventually, he escapes the set of The Truman Show and enters the real world.

Reality TV also seeks to capture authentic human responses for an audience to enjoy.  As compared to The Truman Show, many more variables come into play.  Actors are carefully chosen because of their unique identities and behavior patterns, but their emotions, speech and actions are usually unscripted.

But what is presented on Reality TV is not the raw video, but a highly edited reconstruction that creates a coherent and dramatic story line the producer believes the audience will like. As described by one writer, it requires “working backwards from the ending in the most interesting way possible, crafting an inevitable occurrence into an emotional, humorous, or provocative journey.” Yes, the final product consists of real footage of real people responding authentically in real settings to real human dynamics. But the sequence of events might be rearranged, and the words of a voice-over that accompanies a scene might be very different from the words the actors spoke when the scene was filmed.

It’s sort of real, but not really.  

Recently, I’ve also been thinking about ISIS.  It makes war in ways every bit as brutal as anyone else.  Perhaps its most unique aspect is providing television-ready videos of especially inhumane actions.  Apparently, it’s very important to ISIS that we in the West regard its cruelty as off-the-charts.

What about other ISIS-related news reports assembled by Western media outlets?  They also typically hype the ISIS threat.  Recently, FAIR (the national media watch group) reported on the “Top 10 Bogus ISIS Stories.”  Have a look at the article; you’ll see the names of top-rung media organizations.

Then there is the remarkable similarity of coverage about ISIS across the major Western media.  You don’t see one story line here and another there.  Instead, all reduce a mass of reality-based data to fit the same story line.  How does that happen?

Needless to say, there is something artificial and contrived about all of this.  No, it’s not The Truman Show, nor Reality TV.  But it’s not real.

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."

Of course, the Bible denounces such hubris as idolatry and the god of the Bible (YHWH) opposes the empire.  But in Christendom, this fundamental aspect of the Bible is rarely mentioned, what with all the studying we need to do of ISIS—or whatever distraction du jour the empire has cooked up for us.

Patience and Resistance

John K. Stoner (February 24, 2015)

Many people have said, "The trouble with life is that it's so daily."  I don't know who said it first.  Maybe Adam or Eve!

One could learn or fail to learn many things from that little bit of wisdom.

Anyway, has anyone ever described the book of Revelation as too daily?

There's a word repeated in Revelation which brought this to mind.  In the Greek it is "hupomone"--meaning patience, patient endurance, or steadfast resistance.   (I'll quote the Greek sometimes as a reminder that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural, historical and linguistic exercise, and that few words in any language have a full equivalent in another language.  One reason we use YHWH instead of God in the book.)

The first of the 7 churches addressed by the 7 angels, Ephesus, is complemented for its "hupomone"/steadfast resistance.  Resistance to what?  To "evildoers."  (Rev. 2:2,3,18;3:10; EMPIRE p. 328).  The point is that following Jesus is not a cake walk, there is struggle, not everybody is doing it, and to continue in the way of Jesus takes effort every day.  

English Bibles often, probably usually, translate "hupomone" as  "patience."  That's a little weak. "Patience" denotes more passivity than the Greek word allows.  This is not patience in view of boredom or dull repetition--it is maintaining a stance of resistance to evil in the face of fear or weariness.  

We've all seen how it is easier to quit doing the disciplines of a simpler lifestyle, writing one more letter to the local paper, or withholding a symbolic amount of those war taxes than it is to maintain a steadfast resistance to the evils we deplore.  

The letter of James emphasizes this same "hupomone" posture of discipleship (EMPIRE, p. 319). 

Steadfast resistance is not about boredom, it's about doing a hard thing when it would be easier not to.

What have you learned about walking this path?  Click the "Contact Form" to the right on this page and share your thoughts with us. 

What Clash of Civilizations?

By Berry Friesen (February 20, 2015)

“The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie,” said President Obama on February 19; there is no great clash between Islamic civilization and the West.

Why do so many people across the Muslim world believe this “ugly lie?”  Historian Andrew Bacevich provided the answer in the pages of the Washington Post:

“Syria (is) at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.  Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.”

At least 25 military intrusions—some lasting years— in 14 Muslim countries over 35 years.

So what is the “ugly lie” Obama wants to debunk?  Best I can tell, the President is saying it isn't religion that prompts the U.S. to frequently make war in Muslim nations, but other reasons.

He has a point.  If the violence-prone variants of Islam were the issue, then the U.S. would have targeted the nations where extreme, takfiri-oriented Islam is dominant (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), not more moderate nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria that built societies opposed to the intolerance of Wahhabism.

So the “great threat” that justifies perpetual war, violations of our civil liberties and all the spending on “national security” is not Islam, but rather Muslims who resist the U.S-led empire.

Yet it isn’t only Muslims who oppose the empire; here and there a few Christians (and Jews and Buddhists) feel the same way.  So under President Obama’s approach, the empire’s great salvation story of defeating terror does not discriminate on the basis of religion.  Instead, it defines the enemy in a more inclusive, open-minded way.  What a relief!

Will Obama’s nuanced description of the enemy continue to fuel public support for US-led wars of aggression?  Republicans don’t think so.  So this will be one to watch.

As for those of us who believe the witness of the Jewish and Christian scriptures is against empires (even those led by Jews or Christians), we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves caught up in Obama’s politically correct way of defining the enemy.  After all, within the Orwellian discourse of the current craziness, our claim that the god of the Bible opposes the empire can easily be characterized as giving aid and comfort to extremists, even though that is far from our intention.

Did Jesus Spiritualize Israel's Message?

by John K. Stoner (February 16, 2015)

Christendom (for readers who can give that term meaning) has spiritualized Jesus' message and mission by making it future and other-worldly, as the salvation of souls in heaven after this life.  And it claims that Jesus spiritualized Israel's history and message.

In IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT? we find something very different than this.

In our reading and telling of the gospel story, the life of Jesus (chapters 19 and 20), we do not see Jesus executed for teaching that people can go to heaven when they die.  And we certainly do not see the Hebrew people, in the First Testament,  offering a message of other-worldly salvation.  

The story says that Jesus was executed for challenging the narrative of empire, the idea that the world is run by dominating, homicidal power.  He offered another way to run the world--by the power of compassion, forgiveness, and resistance to coercion.  The "powers that be/were" of his time felt threatened by this other way of running the world, and decided that Jesus had to be removed before he got so many followers that the empire's program would falter. 

The political and religious powers of Jesus time saw that the program and plan (the way) of Jesus were very much in this world, very human, material and physical--with spiritual dimensions, of course.  But the poor, outcast, imprisoned and oppressed whom he welcomed were so numerous that the empires felt threatened, if all of those people should find their voice in the community of Jesus. 

And so in IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT? we ask, where in scripture do we see the communities of compassion and resistance which are a threat to empires and a hope for the common people?  And we challenge the reader to notice, join and form such communities in our world today.  

What Jesus Did Not Change

By Berry Friesen (February 11, 2015)

Jesus broke evil’s stranglehold, enabling us to break free of its power and imagine other ways of living.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” in the cross (Col. 2:14-15).  That’s how Jesus changed the world.

Yet every hour of every day, the empire tells us it has not been humiliated by the Way of Jesus, that it retains its legitimacy as the world's Savior and Lord.

So it brings us the story of a Jordanian pilot, burned alive by ISIS. By frequent repetition of this story, the empire reminds us of the horrors we may face if it does not make war on our behalf.   Never mind that it sets people on fire too using drone-based Hellfire missiles; 13-year-old Mohammed Toiman al-Jahni, incinerated January 26 in Yemen, is one of its victims.  And never mind that it burned alive many hundreds of thousands of people in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, across Southeast Asia, in Fallujah.

And the empire brings us images of President Obama speaking gravely of the need to insert more weaponry into the Ukrainian conflict because of “Putin’s aggression” against the people of the Ukraine.  The empire expects we will not take the time to learn that it was Obama–not Putin–who conspired to bring down the elected government of the Ukraine in February, 2014.  It assumes we know better than to break ranks and identify Russia as the target of Obama’s aggression:  NATO military forces all along its borders, global attacks on its currency, economic sanctions, and the arming of neo-Nazis on its doorstep.

“Wait,” you may be saying, “most Christians do believe what the empire is saying.  But they also believe none of this has anything to do with the salvation of Jesus Christ, which is about our bondage to sin and about our eternal destiny, not the passing political issues of the day.”

You would be exactly right on all counts.

The empire still lies, still promises to “save” us from evil it creates.  This Jesus did not change.

People who want the empire to succeed still believe the lies, still put their trust in the empire’s salvation and still carefully reserve life's "biggest" metaphysical questions for religion.  This Jesus did not change either.

Yet the witness of the Second Testament remains, insisting that Jesus “has rescued us from the power of darkness” and “enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Col. 1:12-13).  And as we saw in the quote in the first paragraph above, it was describing this life when it said those things, not another.

Nothing has changed, or everything has changed.  Each of us decides which it is.

What Jesus Changed

By Berry Friesen (February 7, 2015)

Paul believed that Jesus (his life, death and resurrection) changed something fundamental.  As a result, he spoke of a “new creation” here on Earth (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:21).

What changed?  How we understand salvation will depend on how we answer this question.

In the tradition in which I was raised, it was something about God that changed. Before Jesus, God had been peeved with us and had turned his back; now God stood smiling, with open arms because Jesus paid a debt and accepted the punishment humanity deserved.

An alternative view–the one our book reflects–says that Jesus changed something about the world. “The people who sat in darkness saw a great light” (Matt. 4:16) as Jesus set humanity free from evil’s stranglehold.  His liberating life crested most unexpectedly in his willing acceptance of a violent execution on a Roman cross. On page 238, we quote Tony Bartlett's explanation of this.

Thus, when Paul speaks about “salvation” and “faith,” we hear him telling us that Jesus and his way have provided an alternative to the destructive road the empire has us on. Other implications also follow from Paul’s teaching, but this is clearly one of them.

Most decisively, we find this view confirmed by the gospels and their accounts of Jesus’ teaching. He repeatedly called us to repentance and to participation in the newly-arrived empire of God.  But he never spoke of God as being estranged from humanity. Instead, he spoke of God as the father who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45), gives good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:11) and searches for the sheep gone astray (Matt. 18:12).

Paul frequently used terms such as “sacrifice” and “redemption” when talking about what Jesus did. These metaphors were a part of his effort to communicate the astonishing claim that the execution of an enemy of the state had changed the world.

John and I claim these metaphors for ourselves.  As we understand Jesus, he clearly sacrificed his life for us and by that costly act, rescued us from our hopeless bondage to the Empire's earth-ending ideology.  Unfortunately, those metaphors are often interpreted metaphysically, thus separating them from the decisive change Jesus inaugurated here on Earth.

This subject has been discussed and debated within Christianity for 2,000 years.  The view John and I take has been part of that debate from the very beginning and is not at all novel. When reading what we say about Paul’s letters (pages 268-298), I hope readers will keep this in mind.

What Is The Kingdom of God?

John K. Stoner (February 3, 2015)

On page 246 is this question for Reflection and Discussion:  Do you agree that Jesus intended "the kingdom of God" to describe a new understanding of power, new use of power, and a new way to run the world?

The phrase "a new way to run the world" occurs a number of times in the book, and "way to run the world"  is used as a virtual translation of the word "kingdom."


Jesus, for some reason, used the phrase "kingdom of God" probably more than any other language to describe his message and mission.  What did he mean by this?

Surely he was starting with what his listeners understood "kingdom," or "basilea" in Greek, to mean.  Kingdom described the way human life was managed and organized.  Kingdoms were the largest units of the way people organized their life on earth.  Kingdoms  (or empires) were the way people organized to run the world which they inhabited.  Kingdom was a term which in our day we would call "political." 

Viewing kingdom in this light, it is possible, indeed probably necessary, to read the story of Jesus as a running debate between conflicting ideas of how to run the world.  Jesus claims to be introducing a new kind of kingdom, or empire, which he calls "of God."  This turns out to be in conflict with existing ways of thinking about power and organizing religion and politics, church and state, to run the world.

So we suggest reading the story of Jesus in this light.  In IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT? the story of Jesus is basically told  in chapters 19 and 20.