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Millions Dead and Counting

by Berry Friesen (June 30, 2015)

On July 1, the religious denomination I am part of (Mennonite Church USA) will debate a proposed resolution that calls on congregations to renewed focus on the meaning of “faithful witness amid endless war.”

Adoption of this resolution would add long-neglected agenda to the life of typical congregations:  reflection on “society’s commitment to the moral necessity of violence, government’s undisclosed purposes in its so-called ‘security efforts,’ and our often secret sympathies with so-called security operations.”

Wars led or supported by the USA have become so commonplace that we can easily overlook the horror they cause and leave behind.

This past March, the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) released a landmark study, “Body Count: Casualty Figures in the ‘War on Terror’—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan.”

Looking only at deaths in those three countries since 9/11, PRS concluded “that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million.”  This total is “approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs.”

Furthermore, the PRS states that 1.3 million is “a conservative estimate.  The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”

Nafeez Ahmed, the British researcher, notes that “the war on Iraq did not begin in 2003, but in 1991 with the first Gulf War, which was followed by the UN sanctions regime.”  An early PRS study found 200,000 Iraqi deaths from that war, and a United Nations study attributed 1.7 million deaths to the sanctions regime of the ‘90s.  Over the past 25 years, this brings to 3 million the total number of war-related deaths in Iraq alone.

Outside of this calculation are war-related deaths in Libya, Syria and Yemen; PSR states that available data is simply too sketchy and unreliable to make a credible estimate.

And we haven’t even mentioned Ukraine yet, another functioning society the USA disrupted by a violent coup and then pushed into a civil war led by fascist groups. Nor have we mentioned the war-like sanctions, terrorism, industrial sabotage and covert operations the USA has directed at Iran.  

One of the most interesting lines in the proposed resolution would direct Mennonite “agencies, educational institutions and conferences” to “ministries of healing and renewal in response . . . to those who feel no guilt for the killing done on their behalf.”

No guilt about millions killed on our behalf?  Who could that be describing?  Well, think about your church, synagogue or mosque. When was the last time its worship rituals included reference to the millions killed on our behalf, much less words of confession and repentance?

Bad News for Whom?

by Berry Friesen (June 25, 2015)

If Not Empire, What? claims “Jesus’ faith was nurtured and supported by the prophetic tradition” of Israel.   That tradition “grounded him in YHWH’s generous mercy, love for righteousness and justice, and determination that all people have the opportunity to experience shalom” (page 237).

To get acquainted with the prophetic tradition, we could start with the book of Amos.  It contains the words of a herdsman who spoke 650 years before Jesus during a time of great prosperity for the northern state of Israel (Ephraim).

Amos harshly criticized that society’s oppression of the poor, its eagerness to make money and its willingness to use exploited labor, bribery and fraud to get rich. He expressed contempt for Israel’s religious life, saying YHWH did not accept its penance and phony worship.  He mocked the self-indulgence of the rich and their feigned ignorance about where their wealth came from.  “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory . . . who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-7).

And Amos predicted that as a result, YHWH’s judgment was coming.  The nation would be destroyed and many people taken away like fish on hooks (Amos 4:2-3).

“If you like Amos, you don’t understand him,” is how one Bible scholar put it.  It just has too much judgment and bad news.

But wait!  Bad news for whom?

This thought takes me to Martin Luther King, exulting in the words of Amos on behalf of those suffering under the oppression of racism and classism:  “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).  King obviously saw something very hopeful in Amos; he saw deliverance from injustice.  He saw good news!

When we say a text such as Amos is gloomy and negative, we are saying as much about ourselves as the text.  Judgment is very good news for someone who has a boot on his neck, but it is very bad news for the one wearing the boot.

So Amos brought good news for the oppressed, but not for the self-indulgent and the comfortable.  Of course, the imperial elite in today’s world do not like this subversive message; it erodes their legitimacy and gives hope to the poor. 

But why do Christians so often join in disparaging the prophets?  Jesus didn’t.  His mission statement was borrowed from another prophet, who said “the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18).

The first Jesus followers didn’t join the bad-mouthing of the prophets either.  When debating whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could join their synagogues, they found in Amos the good news that enabled them to say “yes” (see Acts 15:16-17). 

It is the witness of the Bible’s prophetic tradition that empires are destined to fall under the judgment of YHWH.  If that sounds like bad news, maybe we should spend time getting better acquainted with the US-led empire and its many victims around the world.

Acceptance and Resistance in Community

by John K. Stoner (June 21, 2015)

In my June 8 post on "The Good in All People," I wrote that we know some things: love, forgiveness, acceptance and community. These actions are an alternative to the way of empire.

Berry asked me a question afterward about the "acceptance" word and about an element that was missing from this formulation.

In the book, he said, in lists like this we always included actions like nonviolent resistance--to remind us of our vocation to resist empire. Why didn't I include that?

On reflection, I think it was because I was writing about how we think about community--who belongs and how do we relate to people in it.

My use of the word "acceptance" was not to say that we accept whatever people do or think, no matter what. Rather that we accept people no matter what, remembering that no one is fully defined by the worst thing they ever did. Or the next to worst thing!

One reason we do this with others is that we do it with ourselves. At least for myself, I can say that I do not fully accept or approve everything I do, but I don't quit accepting or affirming myself because of those faults. I keep on accepting myself and seek to improve in my fault areas.

In using the word acceptance I was also observing a difference between people and their institutions. We certainly have no duty to affirm or accept all that people create in their institutions, nor the ways they abuse as well as use power there.

Our critique and protest of empire is not an assertion that people who make some compromises with institutions of management and control are all bad. We are saying rather that we have a duty never to forget that the abuse of power is a persistent temptation, and there are no good reasons to turn a blind eye toward behaviors which exclude the world's poor and excluded people.

These distinctions, it seems to me, are ways that we stay in community with one another without sinking into delusion that in human behavior, everything is the same as everything else.

What do you think? Click the "contact form" to the right or above and share your thoughts.

Thou Shalt Not Be Cynical!

by Berry Friesen (June 16, 2015)

Renunciation of the empire does not fit well with contemporary notions of healthy spirituality.

It conveys too little respect for the political elite and the complexities they face, too much skepticism of the way they and their allies in the media describe reality.  It too readily disparages the motives and intentions of leaders with the snide remark.

It sounds cynical and leaves people wondering whether the speaker is embittered about life.

Yet biblical writers often encouraged a scornful attitude toward the reigning empire.  We see this most vividly in the way the writers of Exodus described the Egyptian pharaoh. But we also find it in the prophets’ description of Israel’s ruling elite, Daniel’s descriptions of Babylonian rulers and the Apostle Paul’s depiction of the Roman ruling class (see Romans 1:18-32).

How does one reconcile a desire to be sunny and positive with biblical criticism of empires and empire-wannabes?  This tension is a major stumbling block within any group of people exploring alternatives to the imperial way of running the world.

Most in my social circles resolve the tension by concluding the American empire is different from its predecessors because it attempts to dominate the world for positive purposes.  The list of such purposes is long:  prosperity; peace; equality for women, ethnic minorities and people with same-sex attraction; the rule of law; democratic values; freedom of religion; etc.   Many believe in this so strongly that they regard U.S. wars of aggression as well-intentioned mistakes, not evidence that the current empire is like those the biblical writers warned us about.

How do we work our way through this tension?

First, we need to remind ourselves that one can be a person of faith (and thus hopeful and positive about life) while also being highly critical of the empire.  The prophets did it. We also see it in Jesus as he called King Herod “a fox” and predicted his own death at the hands of religious leaders and political authorities in Jerusalem.  And we see it in Paul’s letter to the assembly in Colossae and in The Revelation to John.

Second, we need to get acquainted with honest reporting on the empire’s activities and impacts in the world.  This is not found in mainstream western newspapers or in cable news, so we will need to look elsewhere:  reporting in foreign newspapers, the alternative media and even the news services of other governments.

What we read there will be terribly depressing, to be sure, because we hate to hear that the American empire is often as malevolent, murderous and deceitful as any other that preceded it.  But that depressive feeling can be an important step along the pathway toward the faith of Jesus, who harbored no illusions about the beneficence of collaboration between the Jewish elite and Rome, but nevertheless trusted God to bring good from the confrontation that awaited in Jerusalem.

Third, we need to recognize a frightful irony:  whenever opponents of empire are regarded as cynical people, then the cynicism and hopelessness of the imperial worldview has indeed carried the day. For only people of faith and hope can look into the darkness of empire, call it by name and yet dare to imagine an alternative.

As God is our strength, may it be so with us!

Our Sin Problem

by John K. Stoner & Berry Friesen (June 12, 2015)

When people in the church talk about sin, they often add a highly theological meaning: Our sins are an offense that separates us from God. This relational rupture is said to be the crucial reason we need a Savior. It is the core of what many churches refer to as “our sin problem.”

Since this understanding is so prominent in Christian theology, we would expect to find Jesus speaking of it often. But that is not what we find in the gos­pel accounts. Instead, Jesus describes God as sending rain on the just and the unjust, forgiving us as we forgive each other, standing on the front porch watching for our return from a long and fruitless journey and as eager to meet our needs as any human parent to feed her hungry child.

Yes, Jesus often engaged people who were estranged from God. Recall, for example, his encounters with people possessed by evil spirits. But always the estrangement was rooted in the human side of the relationship. Never did Jesus suggest God had a score to settle with us.

Some parts of the Bible can be interpreted to support the notion that our sins prompt God to turn away from us in disgust. Generally, such passages describe the real-life consequences of our sins, not God’s rejection of us as sinners.

What’s a Savior for?

If it is biblically incorrect to say God rejects us because of our sins, then why do we need a Savior?

Behind every First Testament call to “repent” — and there are many — is the assumption that the Israelites were able to repent (metanoeo in Greek), to change their minds, to make a different choice. Yet repentance must have been nearly unimaginable for them. They assumed the world worked by violence and greed. Everything in their experience confirmed this. Though the prophets called for repentance, it was beyond the people’s reach.

This is the sin problem the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans. God’s compassion and grace are on display all around us, but we are blinded by false gods and deceitful power structures that find great advantage in exploiting our fears and weaknesses.

These false gods and deceitful structures fix a false concept of reality into place. This is the “the power of sin” Paul wrote about in Romans 3:9, a power that renders us incapable of imagining an alternative to the world’s bleakness. So repentance, a new way of thinking, remains out of reach.

Broken stranglehold

Until, that is, we look at Jesus. In him, the “righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Rom. 3:21). He breaks the stranglehold of the imperial worldview, reignites our imagination and raises high a standard of compassion and justice that shines a light on all that is violent, tawdry and deceitful. Jesus overcomes evil with good.

Jesus did this by his life, death and resurrection. The memory, power and vision of his life are what enable our repentance today.

From Genesis to Revelation, we read of God opposing empires and structures of deceit and coercion. It is most obvious in the story of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, but the same dynamic was at work in the movement launched by Jesus. Paul wrote of it in Colossians: “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” (Col. 2:15). It is from their tyranny that Jesus saved us.

The neglected gospel

The gospel invites each of us as individuals — and our cultures collectively — to repentance and the new life Jesus has shown us. It is a life very different from the one the rulers and authorities tell us is the norm. This is the part of the gospel neglected by the church, which often views principalities and powers, kings and empires as better teachers and examples than Jesus of how to live this life and run the world.

This, then, is the meaning of salvation we must recover: Jesus has rescued us from false concepts of reality that hold us captive. Because we have seen the world set right with a new form of power in Jesus, we are able to recognize the pretense and deceit of the powers that bind us—whether those powers take the form of the mighty U.S.-led empire, an economic ideology or a set of lifestyle expectations. And we are able to repent, turn and walk in newness of life.

(This essay was first published March 16, 2015 by Mennonite World Review.)

The Good in All People

by John K.Stoner (June 8, 2015)

What if the human project is nurturing the good ("that of God"--Quakers) in all people? How do we do that?

In my previous post, I proposed that empires divide humanity into "good" people (us) and "bad" people (them, the expendable).   I said that Jesus had a different view, which was that all people, all individuals are within themselves divided by good and bad.

The way of Jesus is to nurture the good in all people.  But how is that done?

We don't know everything about that, but from Jesus and listening to our own hearts, we do know some essential things.  (This builds on Berry's post, “Dualistic Thinking in the Bible.")

First, we know love.

Love wills the shalom of the other.  Unconditional love wills the shalom--health, wholeness, happiness--of all others, no matter their sins or their strangeness.

This will toward the shalom of the subject, of the other, must be imaginative, planned, bold, persistent, hard-working, friendly and welcoming.  All of this is the peacemaking which Jesus called blessed.

Second, we know forgiveness.

Forgiveness assumes a world in which there is right and wrong.  It does not assume that anyone knows all about right and wrong, but it assumes that there are standards of behavior which damage relationships when violated.

Forgiveness extends another chance to the other person.  If we are reasonably healthy people, we do that for ourselves--more than once, regularly.  The mature person is learning to forgive others as they forgive themselves because they know, or are learning, that that is the process of human development.  Forgiveness implements seeking the shalom of the other.

Third, we know acceptance.

Acceptance is the practice of persistent welcoming.  Acceptance knows the faults, foibles and failures of others and welcomes them into the circle regardless.

Acceptance is committed to maintaining the bonds of human relationship in the face of and in spite of violations of standards of behavior.  It does not abandon teaching standards of behavior and nurturing people in living up to their own ideals, but it seeks to create and maintain relationship despite failures, real or imagined.

Finally, we know community.

Love, forgiveness and acceptance are the basics of community.  Community is Jesus' alternative to empire.

We'll say more about building community in future blogs.

Good and Bad People?

by John K. Stoner (June 3, 2015)

In a post a few days ago, Berry quoted Robert Benchley to the effect that "there are two kinds of people in the world—those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't."

I've been trying to plumb the wisdom of that claim.

Basically this leads me to ask, "What is most basic in human nature?"  Or, "Are there indeed two kinds of people, as empires see it, good and bad people?"   People, in other words, who are good for the empire and people who are bad for the empire?  For the empire, it follows that the people who are bad for the empire are expendable—indeed, there are people who need to be expended.

And so the project of the empire becomes how to expend the expendable people.

The project becomes the power of death—how to kill the people who threaten the security of the empire and its beneficiaries.  That leads to amassing the biggest military budgets, global reach, full spectrum domination, bombs and drones in all of history.  A truly exceptional nation: the USA.

Jesus obviously had another idea.

Jesus had an idea more like that of Brian Stevenson, who said in a 2012 TED talk:  "In my work with people, I have come to believe that  each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."

What a revolutionary view of human nature!

Well, maybe not all that revolutionary.  Everybody believes that, don't they?  At least in one case—their own case.  Do I believe that I am more than the worst thing I've ever done?   If that is true of me, why wouldn't it be true of someone else?  Everyone else?

So what if there are not good and bad people, but just people who are both good and bad?

Then that changes the human project from getting rid of bad people to nurturing the good in all people.