Virtually Christian

by Berry Friesen (October 31, 2015)

As soon as we encounter religious language (such as the word “Christian” in the title above), our minds take us to a category of metaphysical ideas beyond time and space about God, the soul and heaven.  We may be deeply committed to some of those ideas, or we may regard them as foolishness.  Either way, it is a realm beyond general human experience.

This pattern of thought has been acquired over a lifetime.  It assumes first that the world is what it is and what it has always been.  Second, it assumes that the central events of religion—salvation, redemption, accountability for our sins, forgiveness—happen individually and relate primarily to another realm of existence.

Our book (If Not Empire, What?) tries to swim against this current of thought.  We read the Bible as an argument rooted deeply in and focused on human history.

Thus in chapter 3, we say “biblical faith is about how YHWH is saving Earth and its inhabitants from destructive paths and dead ends.”  Where does this “saving” happen and how?  In chapter 5, we say, “YHWH’s truth [takes] on flesh and blood within history as men and women live in public ways that others observe, experience and desire because those ways embody peace, nurture community and prepare the way for justice.”

Generally, Christians do not make such claims because they assume the central figure in their faith, Jesus of Nazareth, made very little impact on human history.  He did not change how the world works, in other words, but changed how our souls are/can be regarded in the metaphysical realm beyond Earth.

Anthony W. Bartlett is not such a Christian.  He is the author of Virtually Christian (O-Books, 2011), where he argues that the compassion of Jesus has “changed our relationship to creation through a transformational sign system.  The giving of Christ has entered deeply into the world, producing at the world’s heart the powerful engine of Christian virtuality” (p.29).

In other words, Bartlett claims the world is “virtually Christian.”

It’s an astonishing claim.  A “virtually Christian” world would not be as destructive and violent as our world, right?

But Bartlett persists.  He says that the love of Jesus in the face of violence released an elemental “photon of compassion” into the world, an element that over time has altered what humanity perceives to be the meaning of life.  Because compassion is now at the center of human meaning, the world works differently.  Jesus did that.

Perhaps this is what the Apostle Peter meant when he described Jesus as “the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that God “will have the world judged in [justice] by a man whom [God] has appointed” (Acts 17:31).  And why the author of Ephesians said God has “made Jesus the head of all things” (1:22).

All of this bears more discussion and requires going much further than this blog can achieve into anthropology, semiotics and a close reading of popular culture.  But we will try to tackle aspects of Bartlett's message in the future.

For now, try to imagine how your worldview would change if you regarded the world as “virtually Christian.”

Syria Watch

by Berry Friesen (October 27, 2015)

Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict has intensified the violence.  It also may bring the war—currently in its fifth year—to an end.

Much depends on how the US government responds in coming days.  The imperial plan to break Syria into pieces was hatched in 2006.  Will US leaders now abandon that plan, modify it somehow, or press on despite the risk of widening the war?

Here are summaries of a few recent related events.

1. In a New York Times op-ed, former US President Jimmy Carter says Russia’s entry into the war “has helped to clarify the choice between a political process in which the Assad regime assumes a role and more war in which the Islamic State becomes an even greater threat to world peace.”

Carter recalls how the 2012 peace plan proposed by United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan fell apart because of US insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.  Yet, Carter notes, Assad enjoyed broad support from “his military forces, most Christians, Jews, Shiite Muslims, Alawites and others who feared a takeover by radical Sunni Muslims.”  This broad support reflected Syria’s history of “harmonious relations among its many different ethnic and religious groups, including Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians who were Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Alawites and Shiites.”

Carter encourages US officials to join Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in advancing a consensus peace plan.  In a clear message to the Obama Administration, Carter said: “The needed concessions are not from the combatants in Syria, but from the proud nations that claim to want peace but refuse to cooperate with one another. “

2.  “One of Moscow's main motivations behind its military entry into the Syrian conflict was the desire to get other powers, particularly the United States, involved in discussions for a negotiated end to the conflict,” says Stratfor, a private US intelligence firm. Toward that end, Russia’s diplomats have been busy on many fronts. One initiative has been pressuring Saudi Arabia and Turkey to drop their demands that President Assad step down before a cease-fire is put in place.  Turkey has reportedly agreed to a transitional arrangement.  Talks continue this week in Vienna with Iran joining for the first time.

3.  Many have described the US House hearings on the performance of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the events surrounding the 2012 death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens as “political theater.”  That’s true, yet the episode has revealed two important insights about the empire.

Clinton was asked about her boast upon the murder of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi :   “We came, we saw, he died.”  She replied, “That was an expression of relief that the military mission undertaken by NATO and our other partners had achieved its end.”  This bit of truth-telling contradicts what President Obama told the American people in 2011: "Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

The second insight is how the mainstream media refuses to let the public in on the fact that slain US ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi running a covert CIA operation to ship heavy weapons from Libya into Syria to arm the mercenary terrorists recruited and paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Everything about that gun-running operation is classified; it cannot be spoken of in a public hearing.

But that doesn’t mean the media can’t talk about the fact that the Benghazi operation was all about making war against Syria.  Early on, this was reported in a few mainstream outlets, and alternative news outlets regularly do just that (see here and here).

4. Iraqi government leaders are under intense popular pressure to invite Russia to join Iraq’s war against ISIS.   The call to invite Russia into the fight is a consequence of Russia’s performance in Syria, where it has attacked ISIS with much greater frequency and intensity than the US ever has.

Meanwhile, Iranian media continue publishing disturbing reports about the character of US involvement in the Iraqi war against ISIS, including US intelligence support for ISIS and US arms drops to ISIS forces.  Recently, an Israeli IDF officer was reportedly captured while fighting with ISIS.

5. The US political elite and their captive media continue to talk about creating a “buffer zone” along the northern edge of Syria and its border with Turkey.  This “buffer” is justified by the need to provide a “safe zone” for refugees, a “free zone” for those trying to escape the violence of the war. This allegedly humanitarian purpose would be accomplished by an Air Force-enforced no-fly zone.

Let’s not be fooled.  This is a replay of the humanitarian deception President Obama carried out in 2011 as the US implemented its plan to effect regime change in Libya.  In the case of Syria, the “safe zone” would protect supply routes from Turkey to forces fighting for ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. That’s why Hillary Rodham Clinton and other imperialists want a no-fly zone:  protect the terrorist mercenaries the US and its allies have spent so much developing.

6.  Oil is one of the many reasons the empire wants to replace Syrian President Assad with someone more cooperative.  Assad refused to sign an agreement to extend an existing pipeline from Qatar into Turkey, preferring instead a new pipeline from Iran across Syria into Europe.  And he stoutly resisted Israel’s plans to use its current occupation of the Golan Heights as an opportunity to steal Syrian oil. The disintegration of Syria’s government would make such theft virtually unstoppable.

Israel’s plans reportedly are supported by a thoroughly bipartisan selection of the imperial elite such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, former US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, former CIA director James Woolsey and Wall Street Journal publisher Rupert Murdoch.

7.  Last but not least, the empire does not want us to connect the deceit that led to the invasion of Iraq with the deceit that led to the destruction of Libya and the deceit that led to the destruction of Syria. When we make those connections, when we discuss them with our friends and neighbors, then we do our part to end the empire's reign of destruction, violence and death.

Careless Blindness

by Berry Friesen (October 22, 2015)

My previous post described the blindness of American Christians to the malevolent role of the US government in Syria as “willful.”

But might it be carelessness instead?

In late August 2013, hundreds of Syrian civilians died after an attack of sarin gas.  For days, many images of lifeless children filled our screens.

The deadly gas was delivered by a rocket fired into a suburb of Damascus.  Within hours of the atrocity, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US had convincing evidence that Syrian President Assad was responsible.  The New York Times and Washington Post agreed.  President Barack Obama repeated this conclusion in a nationally televised speech on September 10, 2013. The White House even identified a place near President Assad’s office as the likely launching point for the rocket.

Those searing images of dead children—joined with the authority and credibility of US leaders—left an indelible impression in our minds:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Damascus.  He used chemical weapons to murder innocent children.

That’s what most American Christians still think today.  That’s where the carelessness comes in.

In December 2013, the London Review of Books published Seymour Hersh’ report that the sarin attack appeared to be a provocation staged by opponents of President Assad and designed to dramatically escalate the involvement of the US military in the dismantling of Syria.

Hersh is an award-winning journalist.  He has a long record of breaking major stories, including the My Lai massacre from the Vietnam War and the Abu Ghraib torture practices of the US in Iraq.  His reporting on the sarin attacks deserved to be taken seriously.  But no US media would publish it, so few Americans became aware of it.

Only a month later, two aeronautical scientists (Dr. Theodore Postol from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Richard Lloyd from Tesla Laboratories) published their analysis of the rocket that delivered the deadly sarin gas.  These are top-drawer experts; Lloyd is a former United Nations weapons inspector with two books, 75 academic papers and 40 patents to his credit.

They concluded that the rocket could have traveled only about two kilometers.  “It’s clear and unambiguous this munition could not have come from Syrian government-controlled areas as the White House has claimed,” said Dr. Postol in an interview with MintPress News.

This finding corroborated what Hersh had reported:  the deadly sarin attack had been carried out by the opponents of President Assad, not by agents of the Syrian government.

Never heard of MintPress news?  It’s an alternative news site in Minnesota that refuses to follow the official line of the empire.  It published Postol’s and Lloyd’s important findings (as did other alternative news outlets), the mainstream media did not.

But it’s not too late. Today, start reading the alternative media.  What we hear on National Public Radio and FOX News, what we read in mainstream newspapers, do not provide an accurate account of the US role in the world.  If you continue to rely on them, you are participating in the deceit of the empire.

For a little while, you could call that carelessness.  But then it becomes willful blindness.

Oct. 23 update:  Whistle-blowers within Turkey's government have gone public this week with reports that Turkey's intelligence service planned and executed the sarin attack, hoping it would bring the US military into a more decisive role in bringing down the government of Syria. This important development is not being reported widely in the USA, but is being reported by alternative media.   

Willful Blindness

by Berry Friesen (October 18, 2015)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit . . . you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-20).

Nearly every American Christian is familiar with these words from Jesus, but few apply them to the affairs of nations.  Why bother?  We confidently assume the USA is generally a bearer of good fruit.

Along with others whose knowledge far exceeds mine, I expected this assumption to change with Russia’s entry into the war in Syria.  After only a few weeks, Russia’s air attacks have significantly weakened ISIS. The US-led alliance has been bombing targets in Syria for over a year, but until Russia’s got involved, ISIS inexplicably grew ever stronger.

In a similar vein, both the US and Russia claim to oppose terrorism.  But in Syria, the US–led coalition has for several years been arming and training fighters that almost always (and thus predictably) ended up joining al-Qaeda.  Over the strenuous objections of the US government, Russia is attacking al-Qaeda's forces in the same way that it attacks ISIS.

Thus, the pretense and fraud of the US-led effort has become plain to see.

Yet most American Christians are simply averting their eyes.  The thought that the US-led alliance fueled the mercenary invasion of Syria and then used that invasion as an excuse to intervene militarily is simply too awful to contemplate.  After all, 250,000 people have died in Syria as a result of this war; eleven million have been displaced.

Piously changing the subject has become the favorite way to rationalize this willful blindness.  Thus, Russia is accused of “prolonging the war” by supporting the legitimate government of Syria.

Without doubt, Russia‘s intervention will prolong the Syrian government’s capacity to defend itself. On September 30, when Russia entered the war, the US-led coalition was poised to establish a no-fly zone in Syria that would have taken the Syrian air force out of the fight.  The end of Syria as we know it would have followed soon after.

Forgotten in such an analysis is what the mercenaries would do next, after defeating the Syrian government. The mercenaries come from many places: North Africa, Russia, Turkey, Europe, all across Central Asia, western China, the Gulf States. After destroying Syria, they will move on to other targets, most likely selected by the empire, which has inexhaustible resources to pay for such services.

Obviously, Russia must worry about this, even if people living on the other side of an ocean do not.

American Christians are hearing much these days about Syrian refugees. We are exhorted to open our communities to them, reflect on their plight and welcome them with a spirit of compassion.  This is described as doing our share.

But last weekend, F-16 fighter jets of the US-led alliance reportedly attacked and destroyed power stations fifteen miles east of Aleppo. Those stations were part of a grid that powered the water system serving Aleppo and the surrounding area, lifting water out of the Euphrates River, purifying it and then distributing it throughout the municipal system.  As a result of this attack, the residents of Aleppo and the surrounding area lost access to clean water.

Such an attack on the civilian infrastructure of a beleaguered city filled with displaced people is a war crime.

Then today (October 18), F-16 fighter jets of the US-led alliance again reportedly attacked a power plant, this time the facility that provides electricity to Aleppo city.  An estimated two-to-three million Syrians lost access to what little electrical power they had as a result of this second attack..

Such attacks serve no military purpose. But they are likely to force hundreds of thousands of Syrians sheltering in Aleppo to flee the city and become refugees.

What should peace-loving American Christians who care about refugees do?

We simply must admit Russia is not the problem.  The US-led alliance is responsible for the grinding war in Syria, just as it is responsible for the wars in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. These wars are just the beginning; more will follow because this is the way the empire destabilizes and defeats those who try to follow an independent path. Indeed, the shock troops for the coming wars have already been trained, armed and battle-hardened in Syria.

In short, if American Christians want the death and carnage to end quickly, we must publicly oppose the evil within our own government, not Russia’s.

What Next in Syria?

by Berry Friesen (October 13, 2015)

What will the empire do next in Syria?

Ever since September 30, when Russia entered the war and complicated the empire’s plan to take down Syria’s government and divide up its territory, the world has been anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Will the empire make Russia bleed like it made the Soviet Union bleed in Afghanistan? That’s seems to be why the empire is providing more armaments to the various mercenaries fighting the Syrian army north of Damascus.  But then it also is providing more arms to the Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria.  That seems more like a strategy aimed at ISIS and Turkey.  And it is coordinating flights in Syrian air space with Russia, apparently trying to avoid a confrontation.

As we entertain such questions, we often assume each party to the Syrian conflict wants to win through a quick and favorable end to the fighting.  That assumption is correct for some parties (e.g., Syria, Turkey, Russia), but it is not correct for others (e.g., USA, Israel, France), which prefer the fighting to continue indefinitely because it weakens rivals, opens opportunities for future exploitation and expands markets for favored arms industries. Libya is the textbook case of the latter strategy in operation.

Another complicating factor is a division among imperial leaders over tactics.  President Obama is committed to dominating the world through managed conflicts in which surrogates and proxies shed most of the blood.  The neo-conservative establishment in the USA is committed to flashy, shock-and-awe displays.  It’s easy to mistake this debate around tactics as a debate about purposes.

Sorting it out is demanding.  Why bother?

Because the empire needs our consent to succeed.  It gains our consent by telling us stories—moral narratives—that we accept and tacitly support.  This is how the empire is legitimatized.

To effectively oppose this process, we must do the work of debunking the imperial narrative and revealing its deceitfulness and moral depravity.

Thankfully, people are at work to help.  It’s still a lot of effort to absorb what they tell us, but it is doable.  Here is a baker’s dozen of the sources I’ve found most valuable over the past four-and-one-half years as I’ve tried to follow events in Syria. For each source, I note what in particular I find valuable.

Moon of Alabama (links to new reports, analysis, high quality comment board)

Levant Report (links to news reports, perspective)

Land Destroyer Report (links to news reports, analysis)

Asia Times (links to news reports, perspectives)

Indian Punchline (analysis)

Voltaire Network (analysis)

The Saker (links to news reports, analysis)

Antiwar (news synthesis, links to news reports, perspectives)

Consortium News (links to news reports, analysis)

CounterPunch  (perspectives of Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, Pepe Escobar, Mike Whitney)

Almasdar News (news reports)

PressTV (news reports)

RT (news synthesis)

Nor can we ignore the Western mainstream media.  It provides the moral narrative meant to win our hearts and minds (as well as the daily details to fill in that narrative).  All of this is valuable information to have, not necessarily because it is true, but because it tells us what the empire wants us to think.  So whether FOX News or National Public Radio, the New York Times or the Associated Press stories in your local daily, it too is relevant to this work of resisting the empire.

Courage to Name It?

by Berry Friesen

(Oct. 10th update below)

It was only a few weeks ago—September 3rd—when we saw that photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead in the surf on a Turkish beach.

Since then, something historic has happened.  No, I don’t mean the half-million refugees who have entered Europe (though that is important), but Russia’s very public embarrassment of the empire.  By mounting a serious assault on the mercenaries fighting in Syria, Russia has revealed both what a joke the US attacks have been over the past year and how deeply invested the US-led empire is in terrorism.

For at least ten years now, the empire has been actively planning to replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with someone who would follow the imperial script.  (I’ve previously written about this here, here and here.) The United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, the United Kingdom and France have spent billions on this project. ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra (whatever name the mercenaries go by in their shifting alliances and name-changes) are the results of those investments.

Russia is causing it all to go up in smoke.

But more than Syria is at stake.  By exposing the fact that the empire wants to protect some of the head-chopping terrorists, Russia has undermined the narrative that has fueled the empire’s game plan ever since 9/11.  This not only threatens the strategic potential of those terrorist groups in the years ahead, but also weakens the legitimacy of the entire imperial agenda.  We—the taxpayers of the US, Canada, Australia and Europe—cannot avoid the fact that we are being scammed.

Moments of such unvarnished clarity do not come often.  As people of faith, we dare not waste them.  If we fail to name what we are seeing—a partnership between the empire and Sunni terrorism—then we become complicit in the cynicism that blesses this evil.

My point isn’t to celebrate what Russia is doing.  Rather, it is to draw our attention to what we have for too long denied:  the war on terror resembles a criminal extortion racket. The empire strengthens terrorism, uses terrorism and attacks terrorism—whatever suits its purposes at the moment—as a pretext for global domination.

Already, the mainstream media are trying to cover up this embarrassing fact.  Gone are the reports of atrocities committed by al-Qaeda’s various offshoots in Syria; now it’s all about the “rebels” fighting Assad and the power-hungry Russians targeting the more “moderate” elements.  References to Syrian “freedom fighters” will be next.

Why this duplicity?  If the empire is so evil, why doesn’t it simply use its unchallenged surveillance and military capabilities to do whatever it wants?  Because it craves legitimacy—the moral approval of the people it claims to serve.

Despite its overwhelming coercive power, the empire will not endure if the moral depravity of its violence is revealed.  This is the “judgment” brought into the world by Messiah Jesus, the light the darkness will never put out (John 3:19).  So the empire does what it can to retain our trust and moral support.  The empire calls it “strategic communications;” the Bible calls it deception.

Those of us who follow Jesus have a special responsibility at a time such as this.  It’s scary to name the empire's deception, I know.  But in Jesus we have seen a faith in YHWH that gave him (and gives us) uncommon courage.  Now is the time to exercise it.

Oct. 10th update:  The Pentagon announced October 9th that it will increase its direct support (including arms and air support) to established "rebel" groups in Syria that are willing to fight ISIS. This will strengthen the forces fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda, lengthen the war and greatly increase the risk of a direct confrontation in Syria between Russia and the empire.

Under a plan developed by former CIA director David Petraeus, the CIA secretly trained 10,000 Islamic mercenaries to defeat the Syrian army and overthrow the elected government of Syria. Nearly all of these CIA-trained mercenaries ended up fighting in units associated with al-Qaeda.   Officially, the US government has until now kept its distance from these CIA-trained forces because of their links to terrorism.

Now, at the insistence of the CIA and in response to Russia's entry into the war at the invitation of the Syrian government, the veil has been lifted and the Obama Administration expects the American people to willingly go along with the repackaging of terrorists as "rebels." What this means, of course, is that the US has changed sides in the war on terror.  And that the suffering of the Syrian people is about to get even worse.


Against Inherited Sanity

by John K. Stoner

The mass murder shooting in Roseburg, Oregon confronts us with an urgent question.

Can we expect to endorse mass homicide on the wholesale level and successfully forbid or prevent it on the retail level?

As a thought experiment or moral reflection, consider this.

Since World War II our society has justified mass killing as a way to restrain evil and improve the world. Most egregiously, we incinerated two Japanese cities and ever since touted Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as normal and sane. Most of our best known Christian theologians and preachers have justified the possession and use of nuclear weapons, every new invention of military hardware and the pursuit of global domination.

The media never misses a chance to celebrate wars of the past and praise those who have killed human beings around the world in the name of one or another higher good.

The public, including our children, are supposed to think all of this makes sense, is normal, rational and moral.

Could we produce a sane population by insisting that 2 + 2 does not equal 4? Everybody consulting their own mind knows it is 4, just as everybody consulting their own conscience knows that killing people is morally degraded and degrading.  Yet the nation state says it is not and the culture--in a thousand small ways--applauds the state for saying so.  So individuals are left to twist their own minds and consciences to agree with this distortion.

Hello! It is not working. Is anybody noticing that it is not working?

We are capable of doing immensely better than this, but where is the leadership to affirm the inherited sanity in all of us?