Breaking from the Empire

by Berry Friesen (May 29, 2015)

In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh describe the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:1-3 as an appeal to make a break with the Roman Empire.  “Secede from the unholy unions of power and money, genius and war, outer space and inner vacuity that distort your lives . . . Put to death the remaining vestiges of an imperial imagination and praxis that still have a grip on your lives.  Put all of this to death before it kills you” (page 160).

What would a break from the empire look like today?

Last week I participated in a discussion hosted by a church group that has been reading If Not Empire, What?  The meeting began with a round of responses to this question, “How do you resist the empire?”  Individuals spoke about using alternative energy sources, growing and preserving their own food, assisting the homeless recover a sense of dignity, remaining quiet while classmates in school said the pledge-of-allegiance, being part of a multi-ethnic congregation, engaging in multi-racial civic coalitions and resisting war taxes.

The responses were inspiring, thought-provoking and occasionally a bit faltering.  The faltering was due to uncertainty about whether these acts of witness reflected an anti-imperial stance or simply a positive, sustainable vision for living.

What do our acts of “resisting empire” communicate to our friends and neighbors?  Do they loosen even slightly the grip the empire has on us and on the world?

Those questions took me to Acts 15 and the pivotal decision early Jesus-followers made to include Gentiles in their assemblies without requiring full compliance with Jewish conversion rituals.  Their act of inclusion was conditioned on Gentile compliance with four prohibitions:  “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:28-29).

Citing the work of Wes Howard-Brook (especially Come Out, My People!), John Stoner and I explain on pages 255-261 of our book that the four prohibited items marked involvement in the public rituals and celebrations of imperial society.  Paul made this clear in a subsequent letter to the assembly in Corinth forbidding participation in civic festivals and banquets where imperial ceremonies were front and center.  “I do not want you to be partners with demons.  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:20-21).

If early Jesus-followers had been asked how they resisted the empire, I expect they would have referred first to their absence from imperial celebrations.  Yes, they also would have spoken of their multi-ethnic assemblies, their practices of caring for one another and their solidarity with the poor.  But what made them notorious was a refusal to join the public gratitude for what everyone else described as the empire’s peace and security.

Today, Jesus-followers lack such a clear boundary marker.  We can assert Jesus is Lord without ever denying that the empire is our salvation, our peace and security.

I’m not sure what we should do about this.  Refusing to stand as the national anthem is played at a sports event strikes me as a bit churlish and lacking in clarity.

What do you think?  How should we let our friends and neighbors know that the empire is not worthy of praise and honor?  That it is instead “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13), “doomed to perish” (1 Cor. 2:6), falsely proclaiming “peace and security” (1 Thess. 5:3), “a roaring lion . . . looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8)?

Hyping Fear

by Berry Friesen (May 23, 2015)

During the past week, Daesh (grandly called “the Islamic State in the Levant” by its supporters) captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra.  The imperial elite are ringing alarm bells over these developments and their propagandists are again hyping people’s fear of Muslim terror.

Thursday morning, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hastily convened a hearing to discuss Daesh’s latest successes.  Witnesses praised the military prowess of Daesh, predicted a deluge of new Muslim recruits rushing to join its ranks, described Daesh as an evil as great as any to have ever appeared on Earth, and emphasized its capacity to strike Europe and the United States.

Yikes!  It all sounded terribly serious until, that is, the conversation turned to the military forces already directly engaged in fighting Daesh:  the Syrian Army and Iraqi militias composed of Shia soldiers and backed by Iranian advisors.  Then—remarkably—the concern about Daesh’s success receded into the background as a more important concern emerged:  the defeat of the Syrian army and the severing of Iranian-Iraqi cooperation.

Absent entirely from the conversation was the most obvious step the U.S. could take if it were serious about defeating Daesh:  cutting off its supply lines from Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates).  These are close U.S. allies and yet their continued support of the dreadful Daesh received nary a mention.

In short, the rising angst about Daesh within the political class and their propagandists in the media is as phony as a three-dollar bill.  They hype the Daesh threat not because they fear Daesh, but because they want us to fear it.  Our fear enables the empire to confidently play the great power game and install compliant governments in Syria and Iran.

This scheme has been long in the making.  Seymour Hersh wrote about it in 2007 when he reported that the second Bush Administration had decided to work with Sunni Arab extremist groups (Salafists) to remove the governments of Syria and Iran.   In 2011, the Obama Administration put the plan into operation in Syria via so-called Arab Spring demonstrations that turned violent.  After NATO military attacks brought down the Libyan government in August of that year, the U.S. ambassador to Libya arranged for Libyan arms to be shipped to Syria to support an armed insurrection there.  The brutal war that resulted is now nearing its fourth anniversary.

Already in 2012, a U.S. intelligence report predicted that the fall of the Syrian government would likely lead to a radical Salafist entity taking control of eastern Syria.  According to the intelligence report, that was exactly the result the powers supporting the Salafist extremists wanted.  It identifies these "powers" as Western nations, the Gulf States and Turkey.

In short, Daesh is not a defect in a project gone awry, but a feature of the U.S.-led plan from the very start.

On Thursday, I also read Benjamin Corey’s post, “How Christian Behavior Online Might Fuel a New Kind of Terrorism.”  Corey perceives “an unchallenged fear in the Christian community, one that is being watered instead of weeded: the fear of Muslims. Sadly, we are not beyond becoming terrorists ourselves, and after many years of heavy consumption of anti-Muslim fear, I think we’re seeing that happening.”

Corey appeals to his readers to resist this “watering” of the fear weed and I fully agree. But in contrast to Corey, I do not expect appeals like his to help much. The message from those who are using Daesh as the prod for more fear and more violence is pervasive.  Sure, we can try not to amplify the fear through our own emotional reactions, but the impact of the empire's propaganda on our friends and neighbors will remain, as will its power to shape public support for more violence abroad.

So along with Corey’s appeal, we need to proactively debunk the empire’s powerful salvation story. It has very deliberately developed a strategy that exploits and manipulates human weakness (our fears, the rivalries in the Middle East) for the purposes of imperial conquest.  It's a mistake to focus only on keeping on own emotions under control; we also must proactively rebut the empire’s deception.

The realization that our leaders are deceiving us is hardly a comfort.  Yet it does point to ways we can helpfully engage.  After all, we still can talk freely to one another, we can still vote, and we still can weaken the imperial project by publicly branding it to be an illegitimate fraud.

That’s what Second Testament writers did.  Look at how Paul describes the political elite in Romans 1:24-25, how he describes their wisdom and their prospects for success in 1 Corinthians 1:6-8, how he calls the empire “the power of darkness” in Colossians 1:13 and how he mocks imperial pretensions to provide “peace and security” in 1 Thessalonians 5:3.  Notice the description of the imperial project in Ephesians 2:1-3 and the description of the Jesus project in 6:12.  Notice how 1 Peter uses images of “a roaring lion . . . looking for someone to devour” and “Babylon” to depict the empire (5:3, 5:13).

This is a subversive discourse, carried on by early church leaders.  We need to hear the same from our church leaders too.

Dualistic Thinking in the Bible

by Berry Friesen (May 18, 2015)

Each morning, my wife receives an email from Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who leads the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.  I often read them too. Recently, Rohr has been writing about how spiritual maturity requires liberation from the trap of dualistic thinking.

What is dualistic thinking?  It’s the tendency to interpret the experiences of life as right or wrong, good or bad, friend or enemy, attractive or unattractive.  Dualistic thinkers are continually assessing, evaluating and deciding whether to put the various aspects of life into this box or that.

Rohr says dualistic thinkers often project their worldview on to God, who then serves as the enforcer of their categories.  In this act of projection, God’s radical love and acceptance are distorted and obscured.

If Not Empire, What? might be described as an extended exercise in dualistic thinking. So it’s important to carefully consider Rohr’s point of view.

We focus on the aspirations of biblical writers to create a good society (see chapter 7, pages 39-42). Obviously, this is a choice we made as authors, but it is more than that. As we read the Bible, we see biblical authors less occupied with convincing us YHWH loves us than with describing a way of life that leads to social justice, peace and prosperity—and contrasting that with a way that leads to disaster (empire, for example).

In short, biblical writers often reflect dualistic thinking.  Should we view this as a mark of their spiritual immaturity?

In his May 15th reflection, Rohr’s message addressed an important aspect of this: statements of Jesus that reflect dualistic thinking.  He finds them especially in The Gospel According to Matthew: "You cannot serve both God and Mammon" (Matthew 6:24); "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24); and the dichotomy in Matthew 25 between sheep (who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned) and goats (who don't).

Rohr doesn’t criticize or discount these words from Jesus; he even says they reflect “Jesus' foundational and even dualistic bias . . . against false power and in favor of the powerless.”  But Rohr goes on to say such words rarely are effective in changing people’s behavior.   They do “not create loving people, but fearful people, which is an entirely different game.”

So Rohr is saying that dualistic thinking has its place, but it isn’t transformative like love, forgiveness and acceptance can be.  Love, forgiveness and acceptance are expansive, creative and integrative.  They do not shoehorn life into binary categories, but remain expectant and open to pathways and options that may pleasantly surprise us.

What then is the place for dualistic thinking?  Here our book seems to be on the same page with Rohr.  If we’re discussing the good society and what it values, our conversation will be structured around values and choices.  Some paths lead toward shalom, others away.  The Bible repeatedly and resoundingly confirms this.

Now if one thinks (as I did as a youth) that the bottom line is whether I am welcomed into heaven or get sent to hell, then the dualism goes all the way down (and all the way up). Everything boils down to getting that decisive matter right, leaving little space for the surprises the transformative power love, forgiveness and acceptance can produce.

But as it turns out, the Bible doesn’t usually frame matters that way.  Instead, on the whole it tells us that the bottom line is our life here on Earth.  And along with many discussions of a good society—and many denunciations of an evil one—it gives us Jesus and his kingdom as the transformative way to create the good society.

The best I can do to articulate the paradox is this:  the loving, forgiving and accepting way of Jesus integrates what we desire with how we aim to achieve it.  Dualistic goals remain; good and bad do not evaporate in a gnostic pipedream that says everybody and everything turn out well in the end. But the animating power of it all and the means of pursuing it are seen in Jesus.

Of course, the Christian religion often portrays Jesus as simply another category in a chart of binary choices.  But the way of Jesus—the faith of Jesus—cannot be captured in that way.  Compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to injustice are inherently open to all, even those who do not speak Jesus’ name.

"There are two kinds of people in the world,” said Robert Benchley, the American humorist: “Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't."  Indeed, we cannot entirely escape dualistic thinking, nor should we try. Yet the way of Jesus opens up possibilities for shalom far beyond the binary choices we can imagine.  As biblical writers repeatedly said, “The just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38).

The Imperial Scam

by Berry Friesen (May 14, 2015)

The empire craves moral justification for its massive violence, greed and lawlessness. So it seizes upon a danger that does exist on Earth and amplifies that danger into a global threat. This manufactured monster becomes the moral justification for all the harm the empire does.

Awareness of this scam is a part of being a faithful witness to YHWH.  This awareness isn’t the heart of the good news of Jesus, but if we leave it out entirely, we are easily distracted into endeavors and commitments that waste our talents and sap our energy.

In a prior post, I described this scam as “the empire’s salvation story” and said it resembles a criminal protection racket.  That is, the empire strengthens and deploys the violent forces it then “saves” us from.  In another post, I suggested the empire resembles “a fire department that covertly helps arsonists light fires around the town.”

To explain how this works, let’s look at four prominent instances of domestic terrorism.

An Egyptian national, Emad A. Salem, worked as an FBI informant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing plot led by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman.  Salem’s FBI handler initially instructed him to help assemble the bomb using harmless powder instead of explosives.  But then a FBI supervisor intervened, changed Salem’s instructions and told him to use explosives.  Salem felt huge guilt over the loss of life that followed, but was told by his FBI handlers to keep quiet.

A German national, Andreas Strassmeir, worked as an FBI informant during the 1990s among right-wing extremists in Oklahoma who wanted to take revenge on the federal government for deaths at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Strassmeir repeatedly traveled to Oklahoma City and was seen stringing wire in the Murrah Federal Building basement just days before the bombing.  Yet the FBI shielded Strassmeir from arrest and facilitated his exit from the US without ever being questioned about the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

During the fall of 2000, two of the alleged 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, lived in San Diego with an FBI informant. Although the CIA knew the two men to be terrorists, had long tracked their international travels and knew they had entered the US via Los Angeles airport, it claims it did not inform the FBI of any of this.  The FBI says it had no reason to monitor the men’s activities.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of two brothers accused in the 2013 Boston bombing, had a very unusual relationship with the FBI and may have been an informant.  The FBI says it first interviewed him in early 2011, concluded he was not a threat and closed the investigation a few months later. Russian authorities issued a second terrorism alert about Tamerlan shortly thereafter, and the CIA placed his name on list of individuals to be detained immediately if they attempted to leave or enter the US.  Yet Tamerlan flew to Russia in early 2012 and had no problem leaving or returning in July, even after spending time with suspicious associates in volatile Dagestan.

After returning to Boston, Tamerlan openly engaged in provocative behavior.  The FBI kept tabs on him (his mother says the FBI “were controlling every step of him”), but the FBI claims not to have recognized Tamerlan’s picture when it was widely publicized two days after the Marathon bombing.

Repeatedly, we see how the empire’s law enforcement agents could have prevented major terror attacks, but did not.  Many call it incompetence, but that is only wishful thinking.

Here is my point:  as we lose faith in the empire’s salvation story, we are liberated to put our faith in more constructive causes and our energy into more positive purposes.  For me, this is the way of Jesus.

The First Testament, Chronologically

by Berry Friesen (May 11, 2015)

If you were to read the earliest text of the Bible first, and then follow with later texts in the order in which they were written, where would you start?

We can’t be sure, but the 13th chapter of 1 Samuel would probably come first. It’s the story of King Saul and how he and his son, Jonathan, led a successful military campaign against the Philistines. That narrative continues through the rest of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel and the first ten chapter of 1 Kings.  Mostly, it’s about King David and King Solomon.

So if we put the first text at the front of our Bibles, it would start with Israel’s great kings and how Israel became a mini-empire in its own right.

Next would be a text written soon after:  Exodus—or at least major portions of its first 24 chapters.  It tells the story of slavery in Egypt, Moses’ encounter with a god with no name (YHWH) in the desert, Moses’ confrontation with the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh, the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, their encounter with YHWH while standing at the foot of the mountain in Sinai, YHWH’s gift of the law to Moses and the people’s covenant with YHWH.

Next we would read the first three or four chapters of Deuteronomy, which piggy-backs on Exodus with an account of the Hebrew people journeying from Mt. Sinai to the land of Canaan.

Then we would return to the stories of the Israelite kings, picking up at the 11th chapter of 1 Kings with the story of Israel’s division into two kingdoms (Ephraim in the north and Judah in the south). Slowly we would move forward in time; along with a succession of kings, we would meet the prophets Obadiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Jeremiah.  Also along the way, we would come to Joshua and Judges and a greatly expanded version of Deuteronomy.

Next we would read Lamentations, Ezekiel, Job and 2nd Isaiah.  Only then we would get to Numbers, Leviticus, the last part of Exodus and the stories of creation in Genesis. Genesis would be #25 on the First Testament’s list of 39 books.  See pages 44-45 of If Not Empire, What? for a table that reflects this.

If you think it’s difficult to read the First Testament now, imagine what it would be like to read it chronologically!

Theologically, it’s important that the Bible does not start with the stories of Saul, David and Solomon.  The accuracy of those stories is much in doubt, for one thing.

But more importantly, when we look at the Bible as a whole, we see that the stories of the Israelite kings reflect a huge misunderstanding.  The authors of those first stories thought that because their god was the greatest, the Hebrew people should rule.  But they knew little-to-nothing of the god who called all of creation into being without any violence whatsoever. They knew little-to-nothing of the god who resisted the imperial impulse of Babel and Gomorrah, who called Abraham and Sarah to leave the heartland of the Sumerian Empire, who called them to settle in Canaan. They knew little-to-nothing of the covenant this god made with Abraham and later with all of the Hebrew people, a covenant this god intended to use to bless all of Earth’s peoples.

This is the god—YHWH—we meet in Genesis.  Wisely, the Jewish compilers of the First Testament put it first, even though it arrived rather late in Jewish history. And by this choice, they confirmed the god first described in Exodus.  It is the god—YHWH—the prophets proclaimed and Jesus called “Daddy.”

Two different beginnings, two different gods, two different religions; one explains why kings should rule and why violence is necessary, the other how without the so-called help of kings, the people of YHWH create a way of life that leads to peace.

Mother's Day as Anti-imperialism Day?

by John K. Stoner (May 5, 2015)

How will you celebrate national anti-imperialism day this Sunday?

Ken Sehested writes in Prayer and Politiks: "Mother’s Day is celebrated in many cultures. Although others are given credit for founding the observance, Julia Ward Howe led in establishing what some believe to be the first observance of Mother’s Day in the U.S. (2 June 1872) after witnessing the carnage of the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. The Mother’s Day festival, she wrote, 'should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines.' ”

Sehested continues: "Howe’s concept of Mother’s Day was considerably different from today’s celebration. Her idea was to mobilize women as agents of resistance against the policies that led to injustice and war. In her Reminiscences she wrote: 'Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of human life which they alone bear and know the cost?' Realizing it would require fundamental change to end war, she later wrote: 'Let the fact of human brotherhood be taught to the babe in the cradle, let it be taught to the despot on the throne. Let it be the basis and foundation of education and legislation. . . .' ”

Will you you help others on this Mother's Day to "mobilize women as agents of resistance against the policies that lead to injustice and war?" Mother's Day could be an anti-imperialism day if we made it that. Sehested says that the last celebration of Mother's Day with Howe's peace theme was in 1912.

Consider the significance of that.

Amy Goodman, at The Hague last week for 100th anniversary celebration of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), wrote: "Among the women here were four Nobel Peace Prize winners. Shirin Ebadi was awarded the prize in 2003 for advocating for human rights for Iranian women, children and political prisoners. She was the first Muslim woman, and the first Iranian, to receive a Nobel. Nevertheless, she has lived in exile since 2009, and has only seen her husband once since then."

In her keynote address to the WILPF conference this week, Ebadi said: “Had books been thrown at people--at the Taliban--instead of bombs,” she said, “and had schools been built in Afghanistan, 3,000 schools could have been built in memory of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11—at this time, we wouldn’t have had ISIS. Let’s not forget that the roots of the ISIS rest in the Taliban."

Goodman also reported this exchange:  "I asked Shirin Ebadi if she had advice for the people of the world. She replied with a simple yet powerful prescription for peace, laying out the work for WILPF as it enters its second century: 'Treat the people of Afghanistan the same as you treat your own people. Look at Iraqi children the same as you look at your own children. Then you will see that the solution is there.' ”

This is the alternative to empire that If Not Empire, What? celebrates. In Mark's gospel (ch. 3) Jesus asks who are his mother and brothers and sisters, and then answers his own question by saying "Whoever does the will of God is my mother, and sister and brothers." In the prayer which he taught his disciples Jesus equated the kingdom/empire of God with the will of God.

That's the whole story in a nutshell.

Jesus' Return

by Berry Friesen (May 3, 2015)

My parents expected Jesus to appear in the clouds, summon his followers and take them to heaven. That’s what “the return of Jesus” meant to my parents.  Along with many other evangelical Christians, they based this belief on a literal (as contrasted to metaphorical) reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and the notion that God intended to evacuate Christians from doomed Earth.

Other Christians associate the return of Jesus with the end of history, when Jesus and his resurrected followers would live on Earth together in timeless bliss.  This belief is based on a literal reading of chapters 20 and 21 of the last book in the Bible, Revelation.

If Not Empire, What? does not include a general discussion of this subject.  Our most explicit reference is on page 335, where we state that the return of Jesus described in Revelation “is the constant irruption of the Jesus-way of life in the life of his disciples.”

Also, on pages 279-280, we cite with approval John Fairfield’s assertion that after his death and resurrection, Messiah Jesus was present and visible on Earth through the community of his followers, which the Apostle Paul called “the body of Christ.”

All of this came to mind recently as I read an energetic online discussion at Peter Enns’ website, Rethinking Christianity.  I’m referring to his post, “Jesus and the delay of the Second Coming: maybe he doesn’t want to be seen with us” and the 150+ comments that follow.

Many of those comments discuss Jesus’ predictions about the future, as recorded in Mark 13, Matthew 16:27-28, Matthew 24 and Luke 21. There Jesus is quoted as predicting the destruction of Herod’s temple, the fracturing of the Jewish community, the siege of Jerusalem, the shake-up of earthly political powers and the arrival of the Son of Man in “great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). All three gospels quote Jesus to the effect that all of these events would occur within the lifetimes of his contemporaries.

Some of the comments at Enns’ blog fit the approaches described in the first two paragraphs of this post.  But many take seriously Jesus’ prediction that big changes—including the arrival of the Son of Man in great power—would happen within decades of his death.  To be specific, such a view (called Preterism) focuses on the first Jewish-Roman war (66 – 73 CE), during which the empire laid Jerusalem waste, destroyed Herod’s temple and ended 600 years of priestly collaboration with imperial power. Preterism understands those events to have been the judgment of God, unleashed by the Son of Man.

As for “the return of Jesus,” most Preterists believe there have been many returns, most notably the astonishing outpouring of the Spirit of Jesus at Pentecost, but others too. This seems consistent with  the perspective of our book, as noted in the third paragraph above.

None of this precludes Paul’s view—as stated in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere—that Jesus’ bodily return to Earth and the bodily resurrection of his followers would occur at the end of time. But it prompts us to live this time—today—with alertness and anticipation.