Deception or Complexity?

by Berry Friesen (April 27, 2015)

Each day, I read the morning paper published here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Using foreign news services and independent publications online, I also read news reports and commentary about international political events.    And if Sharon (my wife) and I have finished supper in time, I watch the CBS evening news.  I’ve followed this pattern for nearly ten years now and it has shaped my view of the world, including my conclusion that deception is a core operational mode of the empire led by the USA.*

But what I see as “deception” most people I know see as “complexity.”

For example, I started following events in the Ukraine around Christmas, 2013.  Online news accounts described the protests occurring on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in Kiev. Armed protesters erected barricades, fire-bombed riot police with Molotov cocktails and used huge catapults to hurl loads of paving stones at them.  Most of the police were unarmed or used nonlethal ammunition.  President Obama publicly condemned the behavior of the riot police and praised the protesters.

In late February, 2014, the Maidan protesters and the elected government reached an agreement for new elections in December, 2014.  Several European governments “guaranteed” the agreement and Russia’s President Putin supported it.  As required by the agreement, the riot police promptly left the square.  But the armed protesters did not withdraw; they entered government buildings, beating anyone who stood in their way and displaying their weapons and Nazi regalia.  President Obama again praised them and promptly sent CIA Director Brennan and Vice President Biden to put a plan in place with the junta that had seized power.  Atrocities, assassinations, artillery attacks on civilian housing in eastern Ukraine and all-out war soon followed. Obama has blamed it all on Putin’s desire to build a new Russian empire.

Does this strike you as a very complex situation where imperial officials are doing the best they can? Or as a deception?

A second example:  al-Qaeda.  We are told by all respectable sources that it attacked the USA on 9/11.  Only a few days later, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a blank check for the President to attack al-Qaeda and anyone who supports al-Qaeda anywhere in the world.  All of the overt US wars since 9/11 have proceeded under authority of AUMF.  Because of the alleged threat from al-Qaeda, at least one million have died and billions--no, trillions--in public funds have been paid to private contractors for military and security-related purposes.

Yet during 2011 in Libya, when the empire wanted to get rid of the Gaddafi government and put someone more pliable in his place, the empire made common cause with al-Qaeda fighters.  Since 2012, the same thing has occurred in Syria, where the empire wants to get rid of the Assad government and put someone more pliable in his place.

How do you account for the fact that the empire collaborates with al-Qaeda to get rid of the very Muslim leaders—Gaddafi and Assad—who steadfastly resist al-Qaeda?

A third example: Daesh (as it is known throughout Muslim societies) or the Islamic State (as it is known in Western propaganda). US political leaders speak of it as a terrible threat and Western mainstream news sources give it many hours of sensational coverage.  Yet the US does little-to-nothing to require its allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan) to stop supporting Daesh.  News accounts from Iraq report multiple instances where US planes dropped equipment and supplies to Daesh fighters.  Last week, Daesh fighters showed up in Yemen where they appear to be operating in concert with the Saudi military, which in turn is receiving US intelligence to guide its attacks on Yemen.

US political leaders have nothing critical to say about any of this, but often speak of going to war against Iran, a nation that is fighting Daesh in Iraq.

What accounts for this craziness?  Does the complexity of the situation in the Middle East require the empire to fight on both sides of its wars, or are these phony wars, manufactured by the empire?

In George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, it made no difference who was fighting who so long as people back home were bewildered, afraid and paying their taxes.  That describes the US public pretty well, don’t you think?

On page 332 of If Not Empire, What? we note that the final book of the Bible (Revelation) describes the forces that bring Earth to the brink of destruction as "homicidal, idolatrous and deceitful." Revelation uses variants of the word "deceive" more than any other book of the Bible. Similarly, the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians strongly associates "the lawless one" with deception, delusion and falsehood (see page 310 of If Not Empire, What?).
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* I don’t listen to National Public Radio or watch the Public Broadcasting System.  They could keep me as well-informed of the latest imperial propaganda as my morning newspaper and CBS, but I still carry a sense of betrayal from the many years when I trusted them as independent news sources.

The Resurrection of Jesus

by Berry Friesen (April 22, 2015)

In his otherwise positive review of our book, Tony Bartlett offers this critique: “One thing I would have liked would have been a greater stress on resurrection--as itself a definitive victory over empire and its most feared instrument, death.”

Tony’s life and writings have been an inspiration to John and me and we take his critique seriously. He’s right to emphasize how the resurrection of Jesus reveals (and delegitimizes) the empire’s shocking hypocrisy and pretense. I won’t try here to fix the weakness Tony identifies, but instead will reflect on it.

In a book like ours written primarily for skeptics, resurrection is a difficult subject. Ringing affirmations don’t count for much, nor do “proofs.”  Yes, modern physics has demonstrated that the laws of energy are more open-ended than the Newtonian model suggested.  Still, that does not provide an explanation of resurrection.

Building on what he had been told (1 Cor. 15:3-7), the Apostle Paul was the first to write about Jesus’ resurrection.  His chapter-long discussion established the framework for subsequent writings.  It emphasized the physicality of Jesus’ risen state and how “those who belong to [Messiah]” would also be resurrected at the end of history (1 Cor. 15:23-24).

The Gospel According to Mark came next, perhaps fifteen years later. It included a low-key account from “a young man, dressed in a white robe” who sat in Jesus’ empty tomb and said Jesus “had been raised” and would be visible to his followers in Galilee (Mark 16:5-7). Mark ended his account (Mark 16:8) without confirming the physicality of Paul’s account, thus raising doubts about what Paul had written.

The Gospel According to Matthew followed soon after with an awkwardly dramatic account of the resurrection that included an earthquake, celestial beings and the emergence from tombs of long-dead saints who walked around Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52—28:3). But it confirmed the risen Jesus’ physicality, noting that his disciples “took hold of his feet” when they worshipped him (Matt. 28:9).

The Gospel According to John was written next and added several unique dimensions to the story.

First, it alone included the story of Jesus summoning Lazarus from the tomb.  This allegory speaks to the human condition—comatose until we answer the call of Jesus to new life.  Second, John’s gospel included multiple descriptions of personal encounters between the risen Jesus and individuals: Mary Magdalene, the disciples, Thomas, Peter and John.  In these encounters, Jesus is described as a physical being who prepared breakfast for his disciples and invited Thomas to touch his wounds.

Third, John’s gospel addressed an aspect of the resurrection accounts every skeptic notices:  only those who wanted to see Jesus alive saw him.  While speaking to his disciples shortly before his death, Jesus predicted this: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” One of the disciples asked Jesus why he would “reveal yourself to us, but not to the world.”  Jesus’ oblique reply suggested that the experience of those who followed him would be different from those who didn’t (John 14:19-24).

The Gospel According to Luke was published last.  It omitted Matthew’s drama, added an ambiguous account of followers who did not recognize the risen Jesus until the moment of his mysterious disappearance from their sight, and made a point to say that Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish.

Finally, we have Acts, which described the motley group of Jesus-followers galvanized into an energetic and courageous new community by Jesus’ appearances and the events of Pentecost.

How do we speak of all of this to a skeptic?  On the one hand, we see a kind of literal factuality and physicality, and on the other, mystery and things that challenge all rational description.

Yet without doubt, what Jesus’ followers saw and experienced convinced them that Jesus was alive. From this conviction flowed the courage and commitment to continue the work Jesus began, including his resistance to the imperial ways of Rome.  They were convinced, as we are, that the way Jesus lived and taught did not end in defeat, but was in fact the way that God intended humans to live, denying death and affirming life.

Want to Delegitimize the Empire?

by Berry Friesen (April 14, 2015)

It has begun, the solemn ritual to legitimize the empire.  Who will it be next as its Commander-in-Chief: Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio, Jim Webb, Ted Cruz?

This is important.  It is how Earth’s greatest empire shows humility, obedience to democratic values, subjection to the will of the people.  We may talk all we want about how cynical, violent and greedy the empire is, but now we will see an 18-month-long demonstration of its accountability and transparency.

After the votes have been counted in November 2016, the authority to use overwhelming power to rule billions of people will gently change hands, a transition unimaginable among peoples less blessed by the gods.  Thus, the empire will carry on in its glory, freshly legitimized by our votes.

Amazing!  Are you ready to do your part?

In various other settings, many of us participate in communal rituals of renewal.  Family reunions, so-called founders’ days hosted by venerable institutions, ethnic festivals and local elections serve to gather people, focus attention, reaffirm values and a communal identity.  By participating, we say “yes” to a broader purpose and confirm its importance. All of this is good.

But what if your extended family is involved in the sale of meth?  What if the institution to which you have given so much has become a front for a criminal enterprise?  What if the festival you enjoy has evolved into a ruse to exploit the naïve and the innocent?  Would you still participate?  Or would you turn away in disgust, not wanting to add an iota to an enterprise that promotes rot and ruin?

Many of us in the USA said our national government had “gone rogue” during the years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  We prayed for a return to a government committed to the rule of law and voted for Barack Obama in the hope he would lead the way.  But he didn’t.  He built on and accelerated the lawless and violent ways of his predecessors; the people of Waziristan, Libya, Syria, the Ukraine and now Yemen are his victims.  And no, President Obama’s support for an agreement with Iran because “the only alternative is war” does not convince me otherwise; it is simply another form of extortion.

Imperial interventionism is now a thoroughly bipartisan commitment, one unlikely to change under any Republican or Democrat elected as Commander-in-Chief.

Yet throughout history—even under the most oppressive and autocratic regimes—little people have together held one powerful capacity:  the authority to grant or deny legitimacy. In tiny ways, we can signal either approval or opposition to the policies of our rulers. James C. Scott writes about this in Domination and the Arts of Resistance and other books.

Yes, I know that the national government of the USA consists of more than its foreign policy. It includes many important programs and efforts that contribute to human well-being.  In a similar fashion, when one gets acquainted with the principals of a garden-variety criminal enterprise, one may find gentle fathers and loving mothers, picnics in the park and lots of charitable activity. Yet we know better than to be fooled by the attractive veneer or to assume the underlying evil can be kept apart, “over there.”

If we do not want to legitimize the criminal foreign policy of the USA, we can refuse to participate by thought, conversation or voting in the legitimizing ritual of choosing the next Commander-in-Chief.  That is my intention. Aside from tax resistance, it is the most effective action by which to say “no.”

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.

Why So Pessimistic?

by Berry Friesen (April 6, 2015)

During a recent group discussion, someone asked: “Why are we Christians so pessimistic?  Shouldn’t we of all people be filled with hope?”

The questioner wasn’t one of those Christians who expect Earth to be destroyed at God’s command.  Instead, he is a Christian grounded in the understanding that God loves the world and means to save it (John 3:16-17).

So his questions are very important.  This post will not do them justice, but it is a start.

First, the case for pessimism. 

1. Jesus insisted that the salvation of which he spoke was historical.  His first followers were not idealists, pointing to some other state of being yet to come; they claimed Jesus had changed the direction in which history was unfolding on Earth.  Their expectations are a matter of record; we read about them in the Bible.

2. Countless preachers have schooled us to accept the view that while Jesus’ first followers expected Jesus to return bodily to Earth during their lifetimes to complete what he had started, in fact this did not happen.  Thus, the way the world works today is no different from when Jesus lived and died; little has really changed.

3. The world’s current trajectory is unsustainable and headed for disaster. 

Due to cultural and economic decline, the USA is losing its position of world leadership.  Nevertheless, it maintains control through the use of violence and supremacy in surveillance, military capacity and media propaganda.  The moral cynicism beneath US policies is much worse than we had imagined, giving us every reason to expect the violence to only increase in the years ahead.  

To avoid catastrophic warming and climate change, we must leave nearly all of remaining carbon-based fuels in the ground.  Yet we remain highly dependent on fossil fuels and eager to develop reserves.  Our economic system seems incapable of making the adjustments required if we want to avoid the ecological threat.

Meanwhile, the world’s financial elite have turned away from communal understandings of justice and security.  Instead, they use their immense wealth to subvert political institutions for private purposes.

Next, the case for hope.                                                      

1.  YHWH, the god of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, opposes empires.  YHWH brings them down, reducing them to nothing.  From Genesis to Revelation, the witness of the Bible is that YHWH will not permit evil to become entrenched. Thus, we can be sure the current US-led empire and its assumptions, all of which seem so impervious to change, will collapse before dooming Earth.   Radical change is coming, probably not in my lifetime, but perhaps in yours and certainly within the lifetimes of coming generations.

2.  The prophetic vision of a sustainable, just and decentralized society—illuminated and enlarged by Jesus’ witness of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil—is the light of the world.  One way we know this to be true is the frequency with which it is honored in the speech of political leaders who believe the opposite.  Barack Obama (for example) is so effective because he is so well-versed in the prophetic vision and pays it homage so eloquently.  Yet even his cynical use of that vision cannot quench its power. 

At the center of our faith is the belief that YHWH has made Jesus the standard by which all the world is measured.  When we pay attention to public rhetoric, we can hear that this is so.

3.  If YHWH opposes the existing imperial system, and if history has borne out the Christian claim that the witness of Jesus is a light that will never be extinguished, then we can be confident that new opportunities for a good society rooted in Jesus and the prophetic tradition lie ahead.  Again, these opportunities may not fully flower in my lifetime or even yours, but we expect this to happen within the lifetimes of coming generations. 

It is for that day we live and work today.  

Did Jesus Have a Jerusalem Plan?

by John K. Stoner (April 2, 2015)

Have you ever heard it asserted that the reason Jesus upset the tables of the money changers in the temple was that he lost his temper?

People calling themselves Christians have made and continue to make assertions which defy common sense and plain evidence. It is quite embarrassing to others of us who also call ourselves Christians, or with more certainty, followers of Jesus.

Consider that temple scene during the last week of Jesus' life.

Should this climax of Jesus' three-year challenge to the oppressive practices of religious authorities be interpreted as an impulsive fit of anger? Should Martin Luther King's march on Selma be described as a momentary loss of direction?

This loss-of-temper description of Jesus is the sort of thing you would expect from detractors of Jesus, but from his friends?

So, getting serious about Jesus and what he did, the Holy Week that Christians are observing is a good time to think about why Jesus was executed.

Jesus did not live his relatively short life in the environs of Jerusalem, according to the records we have in the Synoptic gospels. So when he went there from his home area of Galilee, it was an event and occasion, no doubt reflecting a purpose and a plan.

And the first main event of the week that ended with Jesus' execution looks like it was carefully planned. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. It was staged public event that attracted a fair amount of publicity. But there was something totally upside-down about it. In the ancient world when kings and emperors entered capital cities, they rode on impressive, prancing horses or chariots, symbols of war and victory in warfare. But Jesus rode an animal that a king would have considered too lowly for his butler.

Was Jesus sending a message here about how he viewed kings and empires?

There are a lot of war scenes and stories in the holy writings on which Jesus was raised, and we cannot imagine that he was not well aware of them. He doesn't retell a single one of those stories. However, it does appear he had one of them in mind when he planned his entrance into Jerusalem. The story of David, most famous king of Israel, entering Jerusalem as a conquering king and making Jerusalem the capital of Israel, is told in      II Samuel 5 and I Chronicles 11.

There is every reason to believe that Jesus had that story in mind when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as far from a war horse as you could get. We discuss that on page 233 of If Not Empire, What?