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Teaching Ourselves to Believe Lies

by Berry Friesen (April 10, 2015)

We’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot in recent years about our eagerness to believe lies served up by our national political leaders.

The 9/11 attacks, the anthrax attacks, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons—all of this our leaders threw at Saddam Hussein’s feet to justify the war of aggression launched 12 years ago. Each lie was discredited; each was followed by another lie.  At least one million Iraqis died in the violence and deprivation that followed. Today, many US residents would call the invasion and occupation a mistake, but few would admit that it was all based on deliberate lies.

Or take a different kind of example—the lies US leaders have been telling for years about Iran’s alleged attempts to build a nuclear weapon.  President Obama has been deceiver-in-chief for the past six-plus years.  Now, he says, we must either reach an agreement with Iran or go to war against Iran. Why?  Because within an empire, there can be no allowance for subordinate nations to defend themselves. Thus, Iran's capacity to define its own future must be eliminated, either through negotiations or through violence.  The lie about Iran’s nuclear weapons program has facilitated this imperial requirement.

This leads me to a lie we find in the Bible, a lie spoken not by the empire, but by people oppressed by empire.

It is the candy-coated version of the Assyrian invasion of Judah recounted by 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36-37. The Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, led the invasion in 701 BCE after Judah’s king, Hezekiah, declared Judah’s independence and stopped making tribute payments.

At the start of the invasion, the Assyrians ignored Jerusalem and focused on other fortified cities and towns.  They destroyed all of them, 46 in total, and reportedly took 200,150 Judeans captive into exile, a larger number than any prior or subsequent deportation of Israelites by a conquering power.

You can read an oblique lament about this catastrophe in Micah 1:8-16, where the prophet described himself wandering naked and barefoot through a devastated and nearly empty landscape.

Hezekiah responded by apologizing to Sennacherib and trying to appease him with the payment of a huge sum of silver, gold and other valuables.  He even stripped the gold off the doors of the temple to enlarge the payment.  Nevertheless, the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem.  As the story is told in the passages cited above, an angel of YHWH delivered the city by striking dead in one night 185,000 Assyrian soldiers.  Thus, Judah won a great victory and Sennacherib retreated back to Nineveh.

It is likely that this is the story Jeremiah referred to 100 years later when he said the people of Jerusalem had “taught their tongues to speak lies” (Jer. 9:5).

What was the self-deception?    Sennacherib did not retreat in defeat.  We cannot be sure of the details, but it appears Sennacherib required Hezekiah to turn over royal authority to his twelve-year-old son, Manasseh.  Hezekiah saved his own neck, but lived out the balance of his years “as a caged bird” (that’s the phrase Sennacherib used in his account of the outcome). Judah became a vassal state again and Manasseh functioned as Assyria’s agent, even erecting a carved image of the Assyrian god, Asherah, in the Jerusalem temple of YHWH.  You can read about it on pages 117-118 of If Not Empire, What?

People who teach themselves lies are unable to face reality and adjust accordingly. They are unable to repent, in other words.  And so they march on toward destruction. This is what the book of Jeremiah is about; the failure to tell the truth about the Assyrian catastrophe led to a second one, this time at the hands of the Babylonian Empire.

As I see it, the people of my country (the USA) reached our moment of greatest candor during the mid-‘70s. We acknowledged that our prophets had been murdered (JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, RFK) and that our political leaders had lied us into a war of aggression (Vietnam), run a criminal conspiracy out of the White House (Watergate) and targeted the American people with a covert surveillance conspiracy (CONTELPRO).

But since 1980, we have been teaching ourselves lies.  This accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and became stunningly brazen during 9/11 and the days that followed. The weight of all this deception has rendered our national government dysfunctional.    Most media outlets do little to improve the situation, preferring instead to play along.

As a people, we have lost our capacity for candor, self-critique and reform.  And as a nation, we cannot repent, cannot change directions.

Yet many passages of the Bible insist we can and must repent—it is possible to change directions. This is why the final chapter of our book calls us to “secede from the empire,” which is addicted to lies, and form communities committed to an alternative politics based on the "kingdom of God" assumption that YHWH will transform our compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance into salvation for Earth and its inhabitants.