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"Remember How This Started"

by Berry Friesen (September 29, 2015)

Yesterday in his speech at the United Nations, President Obama asked us to “remember how this started.”   He was referring to the crisis in Syria and how Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad responded to “peaceful protests” in the spring of 2011 with “escalating repression and killing.”

It’s not true that the protests were peaceful.  From the start, the protests included murderous snipers trying to destabilize Syria and replace its leader with someone who followed the Western line.  Western powers began planning “regime change” for Syria as early as 2006.  You can read about that here and here and here.

But it is true that Assad escalated the repression and killing; that is typically what leaders do when scores of police officers and national guardsmen are shot down in the streets by snipers.

In his U.N. speech, Obama called Assad a “tyrant” and a “dictator,” even though Assad was elected president in 2014 and even though the most recent opinion polling in Syria showed Assad with 47 percent support, one point better than Obama’s current approval rating.

That same poll of the Syrian population showed 82 percent think ISIS is a creation of the US government.  That probably sounds crazy to most Americans; our leaders have been telling us Assad is to blame for ISIS, even though it is trying to take over the country Assad leads.  And we have the luxury of ignoring the ample evidence that the US government appreciates the role ISIS is playing in the Mideast and does very little to disrupt the recruits, money, supplies and arms that flow to ISIS across international borders.   The Syrian people have no such luxury.

In short, Obama’s speech to the United Nations was an attempt to spin a false reality that would attract public support for what is almost certain to be another expansion of US intervention in Syria.

Obama is likely to sway public opinion, especially among those who stick to mainstream media sources for their news. We Americans find it flattering to think of ourselves as the good guys, the people who (we think) saved the world from tyranny in World War 2 and have been saving countries from Hitler wannabees ever since.  Thus, we are willing to bless regime change whenever the media vilifies a foreign leader.

The list over just the past fifty years is already long:  Salvador Allende (Chile), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Manuel Noriega (Panama), Slobodan Milosevic (Yugoslavia), Eduard Shevardnadze (Georgia), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Manuel Zelaya (Honduras), Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Viktor Yanukovych (Ukraine). Bashar al-Assad (Syria) is supposed to be next.

That’s right, counting only the ones we know about, an average of one “dictator” has been removed from office through US intervention every five years.

The fact that this usually leaves countries in much worse shape seems not to concern us much.  We’re always ready to forget the last failure, always ready for another try.

I suppose we can blame this on the propaganda of the mainstream media.  Increasingly, however, I have begun to wonder if Americans prefer being lied to.  After all, the empire isn’t about to abandon its use of violence to dominate the world.  Perhaps people have decided it’s better to accept this bitter pill with a spoonful of sugar rather than having it jammed down their throats.

Still, it would be a mistake to blame the American people.  The shock-and-awe of the empire is something to behold, especially when it targets the American people via hour-by-hour hype from an obedient media.

A senior aide to President George W. Bush described our dilemma well in remarks to author Ron Suskind:  “[Guys like you] live in what we call the reality-based community [where people] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality . . . That's not the way the world really works anymore.  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."

Yet we are not defenseless.  If we are to believe the biblical record, YHWH opposes empire in all of its forms.  When we do the same, we are on the side that ultimately will prevail.

Francis' Ethic of Life

by Berry Friesen (September 22, 2015)

This past weekend, I attended a public meeting hosted by the local chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), a national environmental organization working to slow global warming through enactment of a national carbon tax.  The event focused on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, and his much anticipated speech to a joint session of Congress on September 24.

To my surprise, the featured speaker, Donald A. Brown, chided the CCL activists in the room for not consistently framing their advocacy in moral terms. “Moral arguments are the strongest arguments,” Brown said; “they have the most potential to change people’s opinions and their behaviors.”  Yet environmental activists in the U.S. typically frame their advocacy in economic terms.  Such an approach implicitly concedes that if it doesn’t make sense economically for us to reduce our use of fossil fuels, then it shouldn’t be done, even if it means killing people in other parts of the world.

This is morally wrong under all of the world’s religions, Brown stated, and is legally culpable behavior.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis described the social, economic and environmental factors that have set in motion the “spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.”  He warned of a “false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness” and an evasiveness that “serves as a license to carry on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption . . . delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

His message to Congress and the American people is expected to be framed in moral terms.  Monetary profit has become an idol, a false god; respect for human life and the care of Earth must guide our actions.  Only then will our grandchildren and their descendants have a decent chance to live on Earth.

As Brown spoke, I felt sympathy for the CCL activists in the room.  Are we Americans persuaded to act against our own economic self-interests by the lives of people living in Asia or Africa?  Western sanctions caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children during the 1990s.  When asked if that wasn’t too high a price to pay, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said it was “worth it.”  Albright has since been honored as a great humanitarian.

The illegal and unjustified U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush caused at least another one million Iraqi deaths.  While few still say it was worth it, the regret has more to do with American deaths and loss of treasure than Iraqi deaths, which apparently don’t count for much.

More recently, we Americans have watched as our government has destroyed Libyan society, pushed Ukraine into civil war and facilitated the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  In none of these places has there been a threat to the USA; each intervention has entailed the death of many of “them” in order to protect some economic interest of “ours.”  President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, planned and facilitated these three atrocities.  Yet most of the criticism he has received from Americans suggests he has too little blood on his hands, not that he has too much.

My point is that we Americans have a history of regarding the moral dimension with disdain.  We act as if there is no god to hold us accountable for taking human life in order to advance our economic interests.

What will Pope Francis say to such a people?

Idolatry American Style

by Berry Friesen (September 16, 2015)

How can a generation that has lived through the deceitful U.S. wars of aggression against Vietnam and Iraq continue to give its leaders the benefit of the doubt in Syria and the Ukraine?

How can it not notice the fact that the U.S. government has changed sides in the so-called war on terror, and that in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen has supported the terrorists against legitimate governments?

These are questions I brought to Ted Grimsrud’s book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters (Cascade Books, 2014).

Grimsrud doesn’t deny that we Americans have a long history of using violence to achieve our ends.  Yet he insists there was such a thing as an American reluctance to support war—especially overseas—and an American skepticism about empowering the federal government with military assets.  Thus, the U.S. traditionally had no standing army during peacetime; armies assembled for purposes of war were promptly demobilized when the fighting ended. As a result, the economy did not become dependent on war or preparations for war.

That all changed with World War II.  During the seventy years since, the United States has maintained a permanent war economy and has been almost continuously at war. Richly funded security institutions have become permanent fixtures of the national context.  We have become a thoroughly militarized society, solidly supportive of violent interventions abroad and violent behavior by police at home.  There is no discernable difference between our leading political parties in their backing for all of this. Public resistance to the government’s use of violence is rare.

With remarkable clarity and concision, Grimsrud explores how WWII brought about this transformation.  It isn’t a simple story and Grimsrud hasn’t provided a simplistic explanation.  But neither has he written a wonky book.  Instead, he stitches together the context that helps us understand—perhaps for the first time—how well-intentioned Americans responding to grave provocations followed a path that led to the betrayal of the very purposes for which they fought.

What made up this path to betrayal?  Grimsrud points to a variety of factors.  A major element was the way the Allied powers conducted the war with little regard for the safety of civilians.  The fire-bombing of German cities, the utter devastation of the Soviet campaign along the eastern front, the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the most obvious cases in point.

Protection of the Jews never entered the equation until after the war was over.

Government duplicity also played a major role.  It was present at the very beginning as President Franklin Roosevelt asserted an intention of staying out of the wars in Europe and Asia while taking deliberate actions to make U.S. participation inevitable.   It was present at the end of the war as President Harry Truman defended his decision to use the nuclear bomb rather than respond to Japanese desires for a negotiated surrender.

And it has been present ever since as the powerful war-dependent institutions that emerged during the war (the Pentagon, the CIA, the weapons-and-security complex) made sure that one of the war’s primary goals—disarmament—never happened.

Grimsrud shows how repeatedly over the past seventy years, efforts to return the U.S. to a peaceful footing were turned back at the last moment by some external event that seemed to require a military response.  America’s war lobby did not cause all of those events; some—such as the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons, North Korea’s violation of the armistice and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—had origins outside of the US government.  But the war lobby was directly involved in defeating the democracy movements of Greece, Iran and Guatemala; it was directly involved in opposing Vietnam’s struggle to end colonialism; it was directly involved in the resistance to Cuba’s, Chile’s and Nicaragua’s efforts to achieve economic justice.

Thus, not only did the American institutions created by WWII betray a second purpose for which the war was fought—national self-determination—they used the international crises precipitated by their interference to elicit fear from the American people.  This is the cynical game Grimsrud exposes.

Many of us have lived through this history.  We remember Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua.  What we lack is a narrative that recalls the context, connects the dots and helps us imagine a time when our moral vision had not been corrupted by hubris and deceit.  Grimsrud’s book does that for us.

So do we Americans now BELIEVE in war?  Yes, many of us do; our moral blindness is no longer just political, it has become part of our culture.  In contrast to our ancestors who lived free of the cognitive captivity induced by WWII, our default stance is supportive of imperial interventionism.  Now, the burden of proof is on those who oppose war, who claim the world would be better off if the U.S. demobilized its forces and stopped its violent interference in the affairs of others.

Earlier this month, Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz, released their latest book, Exceptional:  Why the World Needs a Powerful America.  Here’s the book’s core message:  “We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known . . . Our children need to know that they are citizens of the most powerful, good, and honorable nation in the history of mankind, the exceptional nation.”

I don’t expect many Christian preachers in the U.S. will denounce such idolatry. 

There is an antidote to such blindness, however.  Grimsrud ends his book by highlighting communities of dissent that have maintained their moral vision throughout this time of captivity.  Some have emphasized political resistance, some social transformation, others acts of service to meet primary human needs.  Together, such communities have served us all by “creating spaces to be human.”

Modest as that sounds, it is where the renewal of moral vision begins. 

A Look in the 9/11 Mirror

by Berry Friesen (September 11, 2015)

It has been fourteen years since terrorism in New York City, in Washington D.C. and in the skies above Pennsylvania took nearly 3,000 lives.

That was our final test as Americans, our last opportunity to assert ourselves and insist on integrity and accountability from the people and structures in which we place our trust.  We failed miserably. 

Our leaders led the way, of course.  Ted Grimsrud, author of The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters, identifies the summer of 1990 as their point of decisive failure.

It was a time, Grimsrud says, when “the Soviet withdrawal from the Cold War helped move the world closer to peace than it had been any time since Hitler gained power” in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union released its hold on the nations of Eastern Europe and even allowed its constituent republics to declare their independence.  Both the Soviet Union and the USA reduced their nuclear arsenals.  The “doomsday clock” was turned back to seventeen minutes before midnight, its earliest point ever. There was much talk of cutting military spending and the upcoming “peace dividend.”

That August, the Iraqi army under the command of Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  He had worked closely with US officials over a decade on an agenda that included the invasion of Iran and the use of chemical weapons to gas the Shia, the Kurds and the Iranians.  The U.S. ambassador to Iraq had led Hussein to believe that the USA no more objected to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait than to prior Iraqi atrocities.  But this time, U.S. President George H.W. Bush described Hussein as Hitler incarnate; the Gulf War began five months later. 

The USA has been at war in the Middle East ever since—a quarter century through a dozen Congresses led by each of our major political parties, ten years under a Republican president, nearly fifteen under a Democrat.  Needless to say, there has been no peace dividend.

Grimsrud notes that throughout the seventy years since the end of World War II, whenever peace seemed close at hand, something always came up to make Americans feel afraid and thus save the military-industrial complex from being cut.  The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait perfectly fit this pattern.

Still, 9/11 was different.  It was such a visible event, right here in our country, and such a complete debacle from one end of the government to the other:  visa control, border security, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, airport security, air defense, Pentagon defense, White House communications, public safety.

And then, after this avalanche of so-called errors, the entire matter was “solved” by the identification of all the guilty parties within a few hours of the attacks. 

The official investigation compounded the calamity.  The steel from the destroyed buildings was shipped off to China before it could be adequately inspected. Witness reports of explosions and molten metal were ignored and discounted.  Routine forensic tests for explosives were not conducted.  Pentagon officials repeatedly lied to the 9/11 Commission about the failure of air defenses.  The President and the Vice-President refused to testify publicly or under oath.  Critical witnesses were not called and critical material evidence was ignored.  The Commission’s final report offered no comment whatsoever on how or why all of the massive steel supports of the Twin Towers failed so quickly, completely and simultaneously, nor did it even mention the third skyscraper that fell into a heap of rubble that day, allegedly due to office fires. 

Many New York City first responders gave their lives that day in attempts to save others; many who survived have since died of diseases acquired that day as they breathed air declared “safe” by public officials. 

Yet not a single individual in the various chains of command was ever disciplined for failure to carry out required duties and many were inexplicably promoted.

Obviously, there was (and is) a lot to question about 9/11.  But we, the American people, have meekly allowed the questions to be shoved aside, even joining the media’s ridicule of anyone who objected.

Now it seems too late to demand answers; the American people have shown they don’t care if their leaders mislead them, even about matters of life and death.  Let the wars go on, let the military-industrial complex bleed us dry, let our leaders tell us lies that cause a million deaths, it doesn’t matter. 

How could it not matter? 

Because we Americans no longer perceive the difference between what historian Andrew Bacevich describes as “our country” and “the state.”  In other words, we can’t imagine an “us” that isn’t defined by the conceit that the USA is the world’s indispensable nation.  Within such a worldview, embracing lies is a small price to pay.

The Bible describes that state of mind as a kind of bleak and barren captivity.  For those who desire liberation, it describes a costly but authentic new life.  As we reflect with shame on all that 9/11 has shown us about ourselves, do we also dare to ask whether at long last, we desire new life?  

"Do Something" in Syria?

by Berry Friesen (September 7, 2015)

The mainstream media are using the refugee crisis in Europe to bring front-and-center the question of whether NATO-linked nations should “do something” about Syria.

The displacement of the Syrian people began in the fall of 2011 when the effort to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad began.  Why the mainstream media now have begun paying attention to those displaced isn’t clear.  It may simply be that the refugee crisis has reached a tipping point.

But I suspect something more sinister is afoot: those plotting the demise of the Assad government have pushed the plight of refugees into the headlines because they want to frame an expanded military intervention as another “responsibility-to-protect” rescue mission.  They expect popular opinion in Europe, Canada and the U.S. will support an escalation of the war in Syria if presented in such a guise, even though escalation was soundly rejected by popular opinion only two years ago.

As we may recall, the 2011 NATO attack of Libya was framed as a "responsibility-to-protect" mission to save innocent civilians.

Also like Libya, an expanded attack on Syria would likely consist of air support for al-Qaeda-linked forces on the ground.  In fact, former CIA director General David Petraeus proposed something very close to that just a couple of days before the refugee crisis hit the headlines.

Of course, those ground forces wouldn't be called al-Qaeda; they will go by other names (Ahrar al-Sham or al-Nusra) and the alleged purpose of working with them will be the defeat of the Islamic State.  But we shouldn’t be confused by the rhetoric or by the various names.  Each of the major Salafist groups active in Syria today (including the Islamic State) has received years of significant financial, material and logistical support from the USA-led network of nations. To one degree or another, they all are proxy armies of the West.

Syria’s disintegration is often “explained” in Western circles as a result of Assad’s brutal governance and a multi-year drought that caused many rural people to abandon farming and move to the cities. Both of those assertions are true and each helps explain the civil unrest across Syria during the spring and summer of 2011.  But as an explanation for what has happened since then, they are highly misleading.

Syria tipped decisively into violence (and then war) when during street demonstrations, unknown snipers murdered civilian police officers.

The identity of those snipers has never been established, just as the snipers who played similar roles during civil unrest in Ukraine, Egypt and Thailand have never been identified. President Assad said the snipers acted on behalf of “external forces” who wanted to destabilize Syria. I believe him.

After all, in the years since those attacks, Syria has been invaded by mercenaries from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Turkey, Libya, the countries of Europe and central Asia, even China.  That’s right; it’s not so much a civil war as an invasion.

In significant part, those mercenaries have been equipped with arms transferred from Libya by the CIA; trained in Turkish and Jordanian camps staffed by Western personnel; paid with funds donated by citizens of the Gulf States; supplied by trucks that pass freely across the Turkish border; protected by air cover from Turkey and Israel; cared for when injured by medical personnel in Turkey and Israel; and informed by satellite intelligence furnished by the USA.

Now, with the heartbreak of Syria front and center in the news, we may be reaching what has long been the core objective:  the dismemberment of Syria with pieces of its territory awarded to neighboring Turkey, the Islamic State, Jordan and Israel.  All that stands in the way is uncertainty about what Russia might still do to prevent this.

In short, the US-led intervention in Syria began in 2011; it is the cause of the Syrian refugee crisis. Next time you see that photo of the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on the beach at a spot where a news photographer happened to be taking pictures, remember who caused his death.

(Much more could and should be said.  One excellent and well-documented source is "The Refugee Crisis Isn't the Real Problem" by Steven Chovanec; another is "The Obama Two-Step on Syria" by Ajamu Baraka.)

Paul Interprets Jesus

by Berry Friesen (September 3, 2015)

Paul of Tarsus embraced and embodied Second Temple Judaism—its confidence that YHWH had made an eternal covenant with the Jews, its understanding of salvation as a status, the rigor of its religious and ethical demands, its strategic collaboration with secular power, its conviction that YHWH would raise the righteous from the dead at the end of time.

Then he encountered Jesus, both in the voice along the road to Damascus and in the healing touch of an enemy, a Jesus-follower named Ananias.  Convinced Jesus had been resurrected, Paul became our leading example of Second Temple Judaism transformed by Jesus.

Yet the remnants of Second Temple verities are easily spotted in Paul’s writings.  All of his life, Paul remained a devout Jew who embraced the Law of Moses as YHWH’s clear and truthful revelation.  Always he carried in his head a map of humankind consisting of only two people-groups, one Jewish and the other pagan.  He never lost his attraction to secular power and relished the opportunity to engage powerful people.  He remained demanding and rigorous in his understanding of what YHWH required.

So how exactly was Paul changed by his encounters with Jesus?

He became convinced that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the long-awaited “day of the LORD” predicted by the prophets had arrived.  This meant the reign of YHWH as king of all the Earth had begun, bringing justice and shalom.  It also meant that the pilgrimage of pagan peoples had begun, uniting divided humanity in one nation seeking to know and follow the wisdom of YHWH.

History had entered a new era, in other words; the power of human empires had been broken and the Empire of YHWH had begun.

Of course, most people regarded this to be an absurdity.  The violent and oppressive Roman Empire remained in firm control, slavery and exploitation continued unabated, and Jews and Gentiles remained estranged.  Apparently, nothing had changed as a result of the crucifixion of this hapless Jew from Nazareth.

In effect, Paul said in response, “We will make visible the invisible change we believe has happened in Jesus.”  He and his “assemblies” did just that.

This required Paul to shelve the strategy of imperial collaboration and pursue instead grassroots transformation and organizing. It required him to curb the rigor and elitism of his training and live with patience and forbearance among people whose lives were filled with impurity, selfishness and sin.  It led him to be utterly uncompromising on the full inclusion of pagan believers into Jesus-following synagogues.

And it led him to extended discussion of the metaphysics with which we so often associate Paul: how YHWH—the source of all righteousness and justice—had come to regard pagan people as “justified,” no longer condemned to perish, but among those YHWH would bring back from the dead at the end of time.

As suggested by my previous post, Jesus readily perceived pagan people to be included in YHWH’s compassion and forgiveness.  For Paul it was not so easy, and yet in his struggle the point became absolutely clear for us.  In Messiah Jesus, there is no longer Jew and pagan, male and female, free and slave, but one humanity committed to the justice and shalom of YHWH.