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Why We Wrote This Book

by Berry Friesen (July 31, 2015)

I have several answers to this question; each is true up to a point. 

The most complete answer is that John and I are convinced our world is rapidly approaching an era of climate-driven crisis.  A few with great wealth may continue lives of relative comfort and security, but much of humanity will experience severe deprivation and insecurity.

This is the future some of our children and all of our grandchildren will experience.  In the words of Ian Welsh:

We’re going to hit the wall.  We’re going to have to fight a dystopic, panopticon police state in which ordinary people are not allowed to own anything of real value, let alone keep any of the real value they create.  We’re going to do this while the environment comes apart, while we get battered by “extreme weather events”, droughts, water shortages and hunger.

Welsh goes on to say that we might run into the wall “at a hundred miles an hour and go splat or hit it at ten miles an hour and get bruised and pick ourselves up.”  That is still to be determined. But the collision itself has already been “baked into the cake.”  We’ve already passed key decision points related to climate change and it can no longer be stopped. 

For the harsh and extremely violent world to come, our children and those who come after them will need a faith/ideology that makes life worth living.  The faith/ideology commonly on offer today won’t be up to the challenge. 

Welsh puts it this way:

If you’re middle-aged or older, you’ll miss a lot of the worst of this.  Your kids won’t.  Your job, if you’re old, is ideological: to help create the ideas that are lying on the floor, the ideas that are used when people are desperate. When things change in crisis, they change fast, and the ideas that are used are the ones lying around. If all that’s lying around is neo-liberalism, that’s what will be used.  Of course ideology isn’t enough, people can still choose the wrong ideology, the wrong ideas (and often have, don’t tell me otherwise), but if it isn’t there, all they can do is pick up what is there.

With our book, John and I are trying to make sure biblical ideas are there, lying on the floor when people shift into crisis mode. 

The empire will still be in charge; it will be using its media control, 24/7 surveillance and robotic weaponry to maintain the system that has produced unrelenting disaster.  But in contrast to now, many will recognize it as the agent of death.  And so they will ask, “If not the empire, what?  What is our alternative?”

We expect those who read the Bible carefully will find one. 

Chasing After the Wind

by Berry Friesen (July 27, 2015)

(At a July 24th gathering of Mennonite World Conference attendees in the rotunda of the Pennsylvania capitol, participants read these lamentations about weaponized drones.) 

It has been said drones are very precise, that compared to other weapons they kill few people and cause little damage.  It has been said they are inexpensive to deploy and pose little risk to our own personnel.   It has been said that weaponized drones are a more moral way to conduct warfare, a less violent instrument of foreign policy.

But we say terror cannot be defeated by terror.  We raise our voices to lament the false morality of weaponized drones, this “chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-4).

1. We lament the innocent lives snuffed out by drones—the wedding guests, the men assembled to solve local disputes, the families gathered for food and fellowship.

· It has been said few innocent civilians are killed, but this is a lie, a lie facilitated by assuming all men of military age are militants, even though there is no evidence they are militants.

· The great majority of those killed are not on a kill list and the governments that kill them do not know their names.  A study of drone strikes in Yemen found that in an effort to kill 41 identified individuals, 1,147 unidentified individuals were killed.  That’s 28 unintended killings for each intended killing.

2. We lament the massive disruption to family life, work, education and daily activities caused by the constant presence of weaponized drones.  Communities are traumatized by anxiety.  Children stay in-doors, imagining it is safer there.  Neighbors avoid attending to those injured by a drone attack, knowing that a second attack often follows the first.  Families avoid the funerals of loved ones, afraid that a drone will attack the mourners.

3. We lament how weaponized drones have radicalized targeted communities, driving more men and women into violent resistance.  An enemy of 1,000 may suffer 5,000 deaths from drones, but 10,000 will stand ready to take their places.

4. We lament how the deployment of weaponized drones erodes the rule of law. A nation may not violate the sovereignty of another nation by crossing its borders and killing its citizens, yet this is exactly what weaponized drones routinely do.

· This is justified by the “imminent threat of terrorism,” but this is only playing with words.  In today’s world, the word “terrorist” has been politicized and simply means “enemy,” nothing more and nothing less.  The phrase “imminent threat” simply means “armed and angry,” which is the natural consequence of living under the constant threat of drone attacks.

· Predictably, nearly all governments are rushing to acquire this new killing capacity.  Nearly two dozen nations already have it, and within a few more years, most will have it.

5. We lament how weaponized drones are making violence and killing easy, thus subverting more peaceful and enduring forms of foreign policy.  The difficult work of building a stable international order brick by brick, of moderating national goals in the pursuit of international peace, is swept aside by the quick-fix of targeted killing.

6. We lament the moral injuries to those conducting drone attacks.  They work in an environment where innocent men, women and children are “bug splat,” body tissue rent asunder and strewn across the landscape.  We lament that this terror-producing activity is coming to Pennsylvania via a kill command center at Horsham, and that as we speak, young men and women are being trained at Fort Indiantown Gap to carry out these atrocities.

7. We lament the callousness of our own consciences, our reluctance to pay attention to the suffering caused by weaponized drones.

· Against the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, we have valued the lives of our own countrymen more than the lives of those living in far-off places.  We have regarded their lives as cheap and our lives as precious, their terrorism as evil and our terrorism as good.

· Against the witness of history and the skepticism of our own traditions, we have swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the deceptions of governments and the distortions of the media.  We have failed to remember that those who want war always manufacture our consent by twisting the facts into a righteous cause.
These are our lamentations.  As God is our help, may we find courage and strength to resist these sorrows, this chasing after the wind.

Before 9/11: 8/6 and 8/9

by John K. Stoner (July 20, 2015)

My pain is worse than your pain.

You have heard it--probably not in so many words, but in many other words and ways.

We're complainers by nature--to that we add a layer of victim talk and soon we've made a case not only for your pity, but also why we should do something to fight back against someone, to make this right--well, yes, and get some revenge.

It's an interpersonal dynamic we are all familiar with. But not only individuals; nations as well behave this way. Especially nations.

"Never Forget." "We Remember." Bumper sticker politics and policy. The cars of America have fairly bloomed with such messages since 9/11/01.

But in all of this something has indeed been forgotten. Americans have forgotten 8/6 and 8/9. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945. .

"But that's comparing apples and oranges," you say. "This was terrorism, that was war." Well, to be sure, what's terrorism to me is war to you, and vice versa.

Apples and oranges--there are differences worth noting .  Actually, that's what I want to draw to your attention.

In the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings the death toll was in the range of 130,000-225,000. In the 9/11 bombing the death toll was 3,000.

In homicidal consequences, that would be comparing watermelons and grapes.

The empire will indeed publicize the wounds it suffers more than the atrocities it inflicts. But the repetition of a lie does not make it true.

Jesus spoke to this--he put it in terms of noting the log in your own eye when you are inclined to retell once again the story of the dust bit in your neighbor's eye.

This year on August 6, and again on August 9, Americans--well, let's start with American Christians--would do well to remember their history of dropping not one, but two, atomic bombs on civilian populations.

IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT? is a candid look at the Bible's compromises with and critiques of empire over a period of more than a thousand years. In the year 2015 it would be good if all versions of Christianity looked again at their book to see what it says about the imperial dream of running the world with overwhelming homicidal power.

ISIS: The Empire's Proxy Army

by Berry Friesen (July 14, 2015)

A lot of ink has been spilled by Christians over the past year writing about the Islamic State. But few (if any) have said the most important thing:  the Islamic State is a proxy army of the empire.

Say what?  The Islamic State kills, terrorizes and destroys on behalf of the U.S. and its allies?  How can that be true?  Isn’t the U.S. bombing the Islamic State?

That’s true, dear readers, because the empire finds it advantageous to fight on both sides of many of its wars.  To the empire, war is simply a tool of the trade.  It’s not a matter of winning or losing, but of dividing and conquering, of pitting one nation against the other and keeping everyone off-balance. It’s the empire’s way of maintaining what it calls “full-spectrum dominance:”  no nation (or combination of nations) can have the capacity to chart and defend its own path.

Now I fully understand that most reading this post will consider it extreme to suggest the Islamic State is fighting on behalf of the empire.  There’s nothing I can say here that will change that assessment.  All I can do is ask that you do your own reading on the subject.  I'll give you a few places to start.

The organization known today as the Islamic State was very visible and effective in Iraq during the years leading up to and immediately following the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq.  During 2012, it began an offensive called “Breaking the Walls” designed to secure the release of prisoners and reclaim lost territory in Iraq. The offensive included many car bombs aimed to kill Shiite civilians and facilitate prison breaks.  The point is that the Islamic State was already a major force in Iraq three-to-four years ago.

In April, 2013, the Islamic State formally merged with al-Qaeda in Syria (called the Nusra Front) for the purpose of bringing down the Syrian government.  As part of the merger, it changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL. During the last half of 2013, its fighters took control of smaller towns and cities in eastern Syria.  In January 2014, it seized Raqqa, Syria’s largest city in the east, and made it the center of operations.

That same month, President Obama spoke about the Islamic State in The New Yorker. He mocked it as “the jayvee team” and not a serious threat, involved only in local power struggles and sectarian disputes.

Yet only a few months later, in June 2014, the Islamic State had captured vast expanses of Syria and Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Since then the shocking violence and smashing victories of the Islamic State have been featured in countless newscasts by Western media.  In early July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Secretary Hagel added to the hype.  He described the Islamic State as "a force that is sophisticated. It's dynamic, it's strong, it's organized, it's well-financed, it's competent. And it is a threat to our allies all over the Middle East. It's a threat to Europe. It's a threat to every stabilized country on Earth, and it's a threat to us." That same month President Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq.  By August U.S. planes were bombing Islamic State positions and by September the U.S. had assembled a 40-nation coalition to resist the Islamic State.  

That’s the background.  For the analysis, you will need to do some reading.

A good place to start is Ted Snider’s “America’s Bizarre Initial Response to the Islamic State.” Snider points out two of the most obvious lies we’re been told about the Islamic State:  that its emergence was a surprise and that the U.S. tried to stop its allies from supporting the Islamic State. He states:  "America did not wake up too late to the reality of ISIS: America was wide awake but willing to let it happen."  Snider also helps us understand why the U.S. has wanted the Islamic State to succeed:  it is weakening the Mideast governments that the empire wants weakened:  Syria, Lebanon and Iraq (directly) and Iran (indirectly).

Next, I suggest you read about an August, 2012 report of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), uncovered in May, which revealed that the success of the Islamic State is the exact result the U.S. has been expecting for at least three years.  I quote from the secret report:  “If the situation unravels [in eastern Syria], there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers [Western countries, the Gulf states, Turkey] to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”  Note the phrase, “possibility of establishing;” it appears to be speaking of the empire’s options, not what the Salafists might do.  

You can read about the DIA report here and here and here.    

Next, take a look at a couple of articles by Tony Cartalucci, “Logistics 101: Where Does ISIS Get Its Guns?” and “TIME Admits ISIS Bringing Arms, Fighters in From NATO Territory.”   Relying on mainstream media sources, Cartalucci shows in these two articles how truck convoys from Turkey keep the Islamic State army equipped and supplied. “ISIS is supplied not by ‘black market oil’ or ‘hostage ransoms’ but billions of dollars worth of supplies carried into Syria across NATO member Turkey's borders via hundreds of trucks a day,” he says.

In “America’s Multinational Ramadan Assault,” Cartalucci describes the geographic breadth of Islamic State terrorism (France, Tunisia, Yemen, Kuwait, China’s western Xinjiang region) in the recent Ramadan attacks and asks who had the motive and the logistical capacity to carry off such an astonishing array of closely timed attacks over such a huge area.
Writes Cartalucci, "It appears that only the United States and its hegemonic ambitions stood to gain from the otherwise senseless violence perpetrated this Ramadan. Its enemies have been directly attacked, and its allies given further justification for military adventures abroad. And not coincidentally, it is only the United States and its vast, criminal intelligence community that possess the operational capacity and network of proxies necessary to organize and execute such large scale and conveniently timed attacks.”

Then there is all of the money and arms coming to the Islamic State from sources in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.  These are all U.S. allies, of course, yet one hears not a word from the U.S. about putting a stop to their support of the dreaded Islamic State.  Nafeez Ahmed describes this here and puts it within the larger context of the past 35 years.  Marcy Wheeler adds the Benghazi connection and shows how the U.S. worked with its allies back in 2011-12 to ship weapons from Libya to Salafists in Syria.

Still reading?  Then consider what happened in May when the Islamic State captured Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province located about 65 miles west of Baghdad.  It held a victory parade on a sunny day under skies controlled entirely by the empire.  You would think the parade would have been bombed, but it wasn’t.  And the pictures of the triumphant and seemingly unstoppable Islamic State parading through Ramadi showed up on all the evening news shows that very evening.  Hmmm.

In short, the Islamic State is scary and powerful because the empire wants it to be scary and powerful. You want to stop the Islamic State?  Resist the empire.

Why Quote the Bible?

by Berry Friesen (July 10, 2015)

The convention I referenced a couple of posts ago stirred up much controversy among the Mennonites in my circles.

Primarily, the controversy related to same-gender sexuality and how Mennonite congregations should respond to gay and lesbian Jesus-followers.  But there also was an evenly divided debate on how to support Palestinian Christians suffering under Israel’s military occupation and affirmation for a resolution calling on congregations to renewed reflection on how to be “faithful witnesses” to Messiah Jesus while living in a nation perpetually at war.

Christians quote the Bible a lot when engaged in debates about sexuality, justice or national security. John and I do that too; If Not Empire, What? is evidence of that.

The Bible is quoted because it is considered to be an authority, one that will influence, persuade and decide important questions. I expect most Bible-quoters would agree with that.  But what makes it authoritative?

For starters, it’s old, as the Paul Simon song says.  More importantly (many would say), it describes how we can regain the immortality that Adam and Eve let slip away back there in the Garden of Eden.  Get to heaven, in other words, and live forever.  Others see in the Bible an explanation of how to be in a loving relationship with God and gain access to spiritual resources that will enrich our lives.

Without contesting any of that, John and I find the Bible authoritative for an entirely different reason.  It records a 1,000-year debate about how to live on Earth over many generations in a way that is just, sustainable and life-giving.  It’s an argument about wisdom (in other words) in which historical accounts, stories, poetry, prayers and persuasive rhetoric are brought to bear on a highly political question:  how shall we live with one another and with people who are different from us?  Not just until I get old and die, but also throughout the lives of the generations to come?

What is at stake in the debates John and I find engaging is not heaven or God’s love, but what is a wise path into the future.  And because the Bible is an argument, we expect debaters with very different understandings of wisdom to find supportive texts in the Bible.

God is a participant in this debate because God is the creator and sustainer of Earth and the life here.  Obviously, a wise path forward will work with—not against—the One who is creator and sustainer.  So this wisdom debate takes us into prayerful consideration of how life on Earth works and how God is at work “to make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  What works well and what doesn’t?

Again, the Bible gives us 1,000 years of reflection of that kind.  It’s the most diverse and time-tested set of writings we have on the subject.

This doesn’t end the controversies about sex, justice and war; we’re arguing about future generations here and it’s important!  But no, we’re not debating whether anyone is going to heaven or whether God loves them.  It’s much more down–to-Earth than that.

A Look Behind the Curtain

by Berry Friesen (July 3, 2015)

The front-piece of If Not Empire, What? re-tells the story of Naboth’s vineyard, as recorded in the 21st chapter of 1 Kings.  John and I highlighted the story because it serves as a timeless allegory of empire.

Naboth inherited ownership of the vineyard.  Though productive and useful, he did not view it as a commercial asset, but as a part of YHWH’s creation entrusted to the care of his family.  

Throughout the world, we find people who value tradition, relationships and family obligations more than money.

King Ahab, in contrast, saw only a piece of land conveniently bordering his palace.  He wanted it, had the money to buy it and was depressed by Naboth’s refusal to sell.

To the imperial elite, there are no ancestral lands, no special places.  There are only commodities to be bought and sold.

Queen Jezebel embodied empire’s arrogance.  As far as she could see, no power existed above the king and it troubled her that by taking “no” for an answer, the king had caused people to think otherwise.  So she initiated a covert plant to dispose of Naboth.

Behind walls of secrecy, off-budget funding and deception, the empire conspires to work its will.   Some co-conspirators are exploitable because of “issues:” criminal activity, doubtful immigration status, scandalous secrets. Others are eager opportunists distinguished by their violence: al-Qaeda, ISIS, mercenaries such as Academi, fascists such as the Azov Brigade, drug criminals. 

The leaders of Naboth’s town were Naboth’s neighbors, but first of all they were ass-kissers and power-seekers.  They welcomed the opportunity to impress the powerful and win favor.  So they invited Naboth to a feast, framed him with false testimony as a threat to national security, and joined in his brutal murder by stoning. The incident appeared to be a local event, without broader significance.

After the empire sets its sights on a place, we usually see an upsurge in violence among local rivals covertly empowered by hidden streams of imperial resources:  Hutu and Tutsi (Rwanda), Croat, Serb, Bosnian (Yugoslavia), Sunni and Shia (across the Middle East), pro-Russia and anti-Russia (Ukraine), Muslim and Christian (Nigeria).  And when the empire wants a propaganda victory, we often find local politicians, police departments and media outlets willing to play along (think NYC and 9/11 or Boston and the Marathon bombing). You go along to get along.

Thus, King Ahab took possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Once principled people have been killed or have fled, it is easy for empire to take what it wants. 

Elijah the prophet spoke for YHWH, the point of accountability that Jezebel did not know about. Even though King Ahab had not been personally involved in Naboth’s death, Elijah accused Ahab of murder and told him a violent end also would be his fate.

YHWH opposes the empire.  The self-destructive results of its greed, deception and violence are baked into life itself. The imperial elite shall not escape; as they have given, so they will get.

I encourage reading the story for yourself.  It helps explain how today’s empire works.