"It is what it is?"

by Berry Friesen (December 29, 2015)

Most of us living in the West take pride in having a realistic approach to life.  “It is what it is,” we say about the situations in which we find ourselves.

Our patterns of speech disparage those who fail to reflect a proper realism.  “They have their heads in the clouds,” we say; “they don’t have their feet on the ground.”  A person who believes things that are inconsistent with “reality” is described as “delusional.”An individual with severe mental illness is described as having experienced “a break with reality.”

Of course, “reality” varies across cultures and across the centuries.  This simple fact reminds us to be careful not to assume the same uniformity in our social world as science has taught us to expect in our physical world.  Yet that assumption can be difficult to resist, especially in an era like ours when the scientific method has demonstrated such universality, global travel and communications have knit aspects of the social world into one culture, and the forces of imperialism render irrelevant so many important differences.

To put the problem another way, we easily make the mistake of assuming social reality is as subject as the physical world to immutable laws and principles.  This blinds us to what sociologists call “the social construction of reality.”  It obscures the fact “that reality is not fixed and settled,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it in Israel’s Praise:  Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology. 

The empire knows this and exploits it to the hilt.  During the first term of President George W. Bush,  Karl Rove, a close advisor to the President, explained to author Ron Suskind how this all works: “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."

Religion is equally comfortable with the view that social reality is created; indeed, one can make the case that when religion is at its best, it is all about creating a new world in which its highest aspirations are realized.  Of course, religion attributes this creativity in the first instance to its god. But the faithful are co-creators of this new creation, especially when engaged in the rituals and practices of worship.

As Brueggemann puts it, “World-making is done by God .  . . But it is done through human activity which God has authorized and in which God is known to be present.”

This insight brings into focus the contested ground between religious faith and the empire.  Each recognizes that social reality is not fixed.  Each claims the authority to create the social reality in which we live.  And to one degree or another, each proceeds to carry out its claimed authority.  Do we recognize their respective handiwork?  Do we participate in their world-shaping rituals and liturgies? How did we decide which has the higher claim on our lives?

If Not Empire, What? touches on these questions throughout.  It asserts that the very first written biblical text—the story of David and Solomon—attempted to unite the Hebrew tribes behind a Jerusalem-based clique.  Though much of the story was not true, it gave birth to a social, political and economic reality centered on a god who ruled his people through an earthly king and promised to make his people into an imperial power. The book of Exodus, the writings of the First Testament prophets, the teachings of Jesus and the letters of Paul attempted to correct the misrepresentation of YHWH found in the story of David and Solomon and to call into existence an entirely different social reality, what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” and Paul called “a new creation.”

In short, when it comes to social reality, we’re fooling ourselves if we conclude “it is what it is.”  Reality is constantly being shaped and remade by powers that claim the authority to do so. For each of us, the key question is which version of reality we are helping to create.

"Unto Us a Child"

by Berry Friesen (December 23, 2015)

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.  The government shall be upon his shoulder and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Christians understand this text to describe YHWH’s long-awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. But how exactly does he fulfill this ancient prediction—“the government shall be upon his shoulder?”

Jesus’ first disciples expected him to replace the Roman Empire with his own imperium of just laws and administrators.  Many Christians today make the same mistake, only they finesse it by setting Jesus’ reign far into the future when he will live physically on earth again.  Both groups follow conventional understandings of “government” as top-down rule.

Some Christians explain the Isaiah text by saying Jesus is YHWH and thus by definition the One who created, orders and governs the cosmos.

Still others are convinced this text is indeed speaking of authority on Earth here and now, but not in the coercive, top-down fashion we generally associate with the word “government.”  The authority in question is embodied by a child and it is not coercive. Parts of the Christian church, including the so-called peace church tradition, have through the centuries made a witness to the moral authority of non-coercive models of human organization.  A similar phenomenon is embodied in the informal resistance of the oppressed, as documented in the writings of James C. Scott.

If Not Empire, What? calls to mind this latter understanding of authority.  We read the text from Isaiah as looking ahead to the day when a significant part of the world will not work by violence, but by cooperation; by consent, not by coercion; by trust, not by fear. The text does not suggest government will become obsolete, but will depend on an authority greater than itself.  

Such thoughts must have seemed too good to be true until they became flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth, until they became visible in his life and self-giving death, until they became part of a subculture of people who remembered his sacrifice and joined his ascendant and ongoing witness.  

No, this way of Jesus did not achieve a once-and-done victory.   Yet he has decisively undermined the autonomy rulers once enjoyed.  Though their coercion and overwhelming violence remains intact, they have lost a divine imprimatur and now find themselves measured by standards from a competing realm, standards that always seem to erode their legitimacy.

Jesus has embodied a way that claims people’s loyalty, trust and devotion.  If rulers wish to claim the authority to govern, they must pay careful attention to his compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil.  Without the moral authority conveyed by his way of life, rulers will be perceived as bloody pretenders, here today but gone tomorrow.

What Isaiah imagined was that someday, the authority of rulers would depend on and be measured by qualities seen frequently in a child. In Jesus, this has been happening, slowly and inexorably.  It is why we rejoice at Christmas.

Why the Empire Needs Terrorism

by Berry Friesen (December 19, 2015)

Imagine a political entity that can constantly watch everyone and everything on Earth, listen to/read every digitally-transmitted message, reach into the safety of private homes anywhere and murder the people who live there, incinerate any military/industrial target with the flick of a switch, and fabricate slanders that are repeated publicly a billion times a day.

You’ve just imagined the US-led empire.

Why would an entity such as that need terrorism?  Why might it bother to make patsies of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, two unknown and inconsequential people from San Bernardino, California?

As we think through how the world currently works, this is where we often get stuck. People find it perplexing to reconcile the grandeur of the empire with the ugliness of a terror attack. The leaders of this mighty power may be incompetent, vain, or tragically over-extended, but surely they have absolutely no need to kill innocent people at an office holiday party in San Bernardino.

So let’s go back to the beginning, 1945, when the US emerged from the Second World War as the righteous conqueror.  Next, it confronted and defeated Soviet Communism, transforming the US government and the economy in the process. Remember President Eisenhower’s 1960 warning about “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in “the military-industrial complex?”

With the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989, the empire lost its reason to be.  Yet it was so entrenched by then—in Congress, academia and the media as well as in the economy and Pentagon—that it could invent its own reason to continue business as usual.  Saddam Hussein served as a stand-in for a time, but post 9/11 a more enduring menace called “Islamic terrorism” has justified the empire’s violence, waste and diminutions of our liberty.

Now, ever-so-often, this newly emergent villain must make a vivid and terrifying appearance.

But really, does an entity as powerful and universal as the empire need something else for us to be afraid of?  Isn’t it enough that we regard the empire with reluctant awe?

Now we’re getting to the heart of it.  Like any other god, the empire desires our loyalty and our devotion.

This desire arises in part from practical concerns such as the empire’s need for millions of functionaries to reassure us, collect the taxes, operate the technology, manage the system, fulfill the defense contracts, staff the killing machine and do the dirty work.  How would people be recruited for these roles if working for the empire and working for the mafia were morally equivalent?  People would quietly begin to resist, stop paying their taxes, turn away in disgust.

But the empire’s desire also has a spiritual aspect.  This is what the writer of Ephesians meant when he referred to the ruling authorities as “cosmic powers of this present darkness . . . spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  The “heavenly places” where this threat intrudes is not some corner of cosmic space, but our human capacity for trust, loyalty and devotion.

To occupy the heavenly places—to be our trusted leader, not merely our jailer—the empire must win our hearts.

Problem is, the world’s consciousness has been infused by Jesus and his message of compassion and sacrificial resistance to evil.  Though most people do not self-identify as followers of Jesus, many around the world measure goodness by what they see in his life and self-giving love.

Thus, the empire’s challenge is not only to maintain its position as king-of-the-hill; it also must appear to be good.  Only then will we overlook its violence and greed and give it our loyalty and devotion. Only then will we regard it to be legitimate.

This is why religious leaders are so essential to the effort to resist the empire. The empire’s legitimacy depends on its moral standing.  When faith-based leaders give it a pass, they undermine our capacity to resist.

Is this making sense?  If not, go back and read the previous two posts.  There are reasonable doubts about the guilt of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, as there are about the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers and the Kouachi brothers.  Moreover, history provides ample evidence of the US using deception and terrorism to win our trust, not only overseas (e.g., its support for and half-hearted opposition to Daesh/ISIS), but right here in America.

We do not serve ourselves well by failing to ask, “Was San Bernardino such an event?”  

The Skepticism of the Wise

by Berry Friesen (December 15, 2015)

Writing for The Mennonite, colleague John Stoner recalls a familiar Christmas story from the book of Matthew.  “Roman King Herod asked the Wise Men to come back and tell him where the young child was, so that he [could] come and worship him.  The men, being wise, saw an undisclosed purpose in Herod’s edict and committed their act of civil disobedience by not coming back and telling Herod anything. For us the question may be, are we wise enough to look for undisclosed purposes in messages from kings and presidents?”

Following my previous post, I ask whether we are wise enough to be skeptical of the open-and-shut way officials are describing the recent act of terrorism in San Bernardino.

Generally, people in the US freely discuss long-past events where conspiracies served hidden purposes. One example of this is Iran.  In 1953, the CIA launched a campaign of violence and deception (e.g., bombing the home of a cleric and making it appear to be the work of Communists) to bring down that nation’s first democratically elected government.

Another well-known example is Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA used “psychological warfare and political action” (e.g., propaganda about the president being a Communist and hired thugs to attack civilians) to bring down its first democratic government.  

If enough time has passed, informed people nod sagely when these events (and others like them—see here and here and here) are recalled.  But many of the same people will mount a fierce argument about similar events that are more recent, such as the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine in February, 2014.  The thought that the CIA and US State Department engineered a coup that included the murder of police officers and peaceful demonstrators in the center square of Kiev is just unacceptable.

When the discussion shifts to domestic terrorism, people show even greater reluctance to be skeptical of their government leaders.  Thus, it may be true that our government occasionally arranges violent acts overseas, but here in America only “outsiders” would carry out terrorism, never public officials.

Yet the historical record does not support such naïveté.  For example, in 1962 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off on a plan to blow up an American plane over US soil and blame it on Cuban President Fidel Castro.  It was only opposition from President Kennedy that foiled the plan.

Federal law enforcement has a long history of using agents to pose as members of dissident groups the government wants to discredit.  These agents instigate criminal activity or engage in violence themselves, thereby giving law enforcement a pretext to proceed against the entire group.  This was a standard practice in COINTELPRO, the illegal FBI project that targeted civil rights, anti-war, labor and feminist organizations during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

A government agent played a decisive role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Emad Salem, working under-cover for the FBI, was at the center of the plot.  At the direction of his FBI supervisor, Salem provided the explosive material used in the assembly of the bomb rather than an inert substitute.  Six people died in that case of domestic terrorism; more than one thousand were injured.

Even more disconcerting are the anthrax attacks that killed five and injured seventeen shortly after 9/11.  The anthrax came from a high restricted US government lab; thus, the terrorism involved at least one government agent in some capacity.  Moreover, another unknown party made an early attempt to blame a Muslim scientist for the attacks, thus suggesting a conspiracy.  Yet the FBI closed the case, saying it has been resolved by the 2008 suicide of its leading suspect, Bruce Ivins. The FBI makes this claim even though it has admitted the anthrax could not have come from the lab where Ivins worked.

The terrorism on 9/11 also would not have happened without the help of government agents.  Many of the alleged hijackers entered the US with visas provided by the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  According to Michael Springmann, head of the Consular office during the relevant time, he was under intense pressure from CIA officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants.

Two of the alleged hijackers lived in San Diego with an FBI informer after entering the US.  Although the CIA knew the two men to be terrorists and had long tracked their international travels and bugged their phones, it did not inform the FBI of any of this.

Given this history of activity by the empire, what does wisdom require? The same skepticism we see in the wise men in their encounter with King Herod.

What undisclosed imperial purposes might domestic terrorism serve?  That will be the topic of my next post.

Doubting San Bernardino

by Berry Friesen (December 10, 2015)

Do you have reasonable doubt that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed the mass shooting in San Bernardino on December 2nd?

“Reasonable doubt” is the standard the government must overcome when it accuses someone of a crime.  It is a rigorous standard, reflecting democracy’s skepticism of government’s proclivity to abuse its coercive power.

Accusations of “terrorism” are especially suspect because the definition is highly politicized, constantly shifting to fit the agenda of those who rule.  When someone is accused of “terrorism,” we must be especially vigilant—more willing to articulate our doubts, more willing to take them seriously, not less.

I’m not saying that until an accusation of terrorism has been proved in court, we should have reasonable doubts about guilt.  Common sense is operative here; when persons wearing suicide vests are seen shooting civilians on the streets and then blowing themselves to bits (as occurred last month in Paris), their actions speak for themselves, even though the government has never been put to the proof.

But the San Bernardino attack, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015 and the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April, 2013, was not like that. Instead, in each of these three cases, the act of terror was completed and the unknown perpetrators left the scene.  Thereafter, the police identified suspects based on “witnesses” and/or “evidence.”  Later still, the police located the suspects and commenced gunfire so intense that it was almost certain to cause instant death.

In this pattern, the police show little interest in gathering information from the suspects. Police exhibit little concern of mistaken identity or that the evidence of guilt may be mitigated or contradicted by other evidence.  Moreover, the police seem intent on killing the suspects.

I find this pattern alarming, and I’m not alone. Beyond the doubts raised by specific details in the unfolding of the events, the actions of law enforcement raise an additional doubt in my mind: why are they behaving this way?

Consider Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old college student accused by police of placing a pressure-cooker bomb in the crowd at the Boston Marathon.  A homeowner called the police after discovering in his yard a bleeding young man hiding in a small boat covered with a tarp.   Many police officers descended on the scene, confirmed the presence of a warm body under the tarp and proceeded to pump at least 126 bullets into the boat.  Dzhokhar was very seriously wounded by the onslaught; at least three of the bullets fired by police found their mark.

He was unarmed when arrested and had not resisted the police in any way.  Obviously, the police wanted him dead.  They had already killed his older brother, Tamerlan, in a shoot-out the day before. (Go to WhoWhatWhy.org and search “boston bombing” for extensive coverage of the many reasonable doubts that Dzhokhar was one of the bombers.)

In the Charlie Hebdo attack, the highly-trained killers made their escape from the attack in downtown Paris.  Later that day, police found their get-away car and inside, an identification card "left behind" that led police to name two local laborers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, as the highly-trained killers.  The next day, the brothers were spotted and pursued; eventually they were cornered in a signage production business.

During the seven-hour stand-off that ensued, the brothers reportedly chatted with the business owner and a visiting salesman and allowed both to leave the building unharmed. Thereafter, the police assaulted the building with explosive devices and a helicopter. The brothers exited the building and were killed in a hail of gunfire.

In the San Bernardino attacks, one eye-witness reported to CBS News that she saw three tall, athletic men in black, military-style clothes enter the building and start shooting. Other witnesses reported two or three masked shooters (here and here and here), spraying gun fire. Still others said that amid the continuous gunfire, they recognized Farook's voice when one of the shooters spoke. No witness described any shooter who resembled the diminutive, 90-pound Malik.

Farook and Malik were pious, law-abiding parents with an infant child, living their dream in the USA. Farook had a good job, was liked by co-workers and had never caused problems for anyone. His name was allegedly given to the police after the assault by a witness who said Farook had unexpectedly left the event shortly before the assault began.  Farook and his wife died several hours after the shooting in a hail of police gunfire.  They were in a rented vehicle just a few blocks from their home, not far from the scene of the attack.

Much of the evidence of their “radicalization” has been produced by authorities from digital records. Apparently, it is assumed that no one but Farook or Malik could have created that digital evidence.

I am not saying that I know Farook and Malik were not the shooters, only that I have reasonable doubt.  The evidence is far from conclusive.  But the couple is dead and their guilt is assumed.  And the case is closed, or soon will be.

Of course, if Farook and Malik were not the ones who committed this terrible attack, then those who did remain a threat.  And members of law enforcement would themselves be culpable for framing them. What possible motive could be suggested for such a betrayal? And aren’t such thoughts beyond the pale, especially in a case like this that is so important and is receiving such intense media attention?

We’ll pick up those questions in upcoming posts.  If we take them seriously, they can move us beyond simplistic understandings of the empire (e.g., “who else but our country should be king of the hill?”) to an appreciation of how the empire creates the specific social realities that make its authority indisputable, even invisible.

Obama's Dishonesty, Trump's Demagogy

by Berry Friesen (December 7, 2015)

In his nationally televised speech last evening, President Obama spoke reassuringly of a 65-nation, US-led coalition that will defeat Daesh.  He rejected the commitment of US troops to a new land war, saying such a response would only enhance Daesh’s reputation and recruitment efforts.  He promoted gun control and improved border procedures and asked us to remember that the vast majority of Muslims have nothing at all to do with terrorism.

In the wake of the December 2nd terrorism in San Bernardino, it’s easy to imagine a US President giving a worse speech.

Yet it was a deeply dishonest speech that failed to address the questions people are feeling.

People know intuitively that the growing frequency of terrorism is related to the bully role the US is playing in the world.  The US intervenes in the affairs of other nations to bring them into line with imperial purposes.  Toward that end, it engages in terrorism (e.g., drone attacks on civilians) and supports insurgent fighters that use terrorism to destabilize their targets (e.g., Libya, Ukraine, Syria).

It even supports terrorist organizations (e.g., al-Nusra and Daesh), though it also is careful to attack them too.

William Blum lists a few of the many uncomfortable questions the President is avoiding. Have a look for yourself.

Veteran reporter Robert Perry says Obama “suffers from the worst ‘credibility gap’ among the American people since Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on the Vietnam War or at least since George W. Bush on the Iraq War.”  Perry states:  “Increasingly, almost no one outside Official Washington believes what senior U.S. officials say about nearly anything – and that loss of trust is exacerbating a wide range of dangers, from demagogy on the 2016 campaign trail to terrorism recruitment in the Middle East and in the West.”

That’s right, President Obama’s dishonesty is fueling support for Donald Trump. Obama’s dishonesty and Trump’s demagogy work hand-in-hand.

Alas, it’s a mistake to pretend this is mainly about domestic politics. The people of Syria are suffering through their fifth year of continuous war. As Mel Lehman puts it at Common Humanity, “Has it occurred to anyone to ask the Syrian people what they want in the midst of the current horrors which are consuming that bedeviled country?”

Lehman goes on:  “Instead of helping us to look at Syria from the Syrian people’s perspective, our news media is telling the story from our perspective . . . It’s as if our Syria policy is one giant ‘selfie’ photo, with our large American face in the foreground and the millions of miserable and homeless people of Syria barely visible in the background.”

Meanwhile, the confrontation between the empire and Russia seems to be moving into Iraq.  This past weekend, without any advance communication with Iraq, Turkey moved troops and heavy military equipment (including tanks) to a location just outside Daesh-controlled Mosul in Iraqi-Kurdistan.  Of course, Turkey claims this is part of its war on terror, but that’s laughable given its generous support for Daesh in Syria over the past three years.  More likely, Turkey has invaded Iraq to protect Daesh.

Iraq has objected and said it will take the matter to the United Nations if Turkey doesn’t promptly withdraw its troops.  The US has indicated it has no problem with Turkey’s actions; indeed, the US is likely to have given Turkey the green light.  The prevailing view in Russia, on the other hand, is convinced the empire eventually will use Daesh against Russia.  This makes Russia determined to eliminate Daesh wherever it may be, before it reaches Russia’s borders.

President Obama has repeatedly promised Russia that Syria will be its “quagmire.” Increasingly, it appears that dire prediction may fit all parties involved.

Media Terrorism?

by Berry Friesen (December 2, 2015)

Think about the media coverage of the recent attacks in Paris.  The perpetrators used violence to make people in the West fear for our safety.  Did the media coverage keep the fear effect to a minimum?  Or unnecessarily amplify that effect?

Writing at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Adam H. Johnson helps us understand how violence “works” in today’s world.

“Terrorism—to the extent the term is useful—is a fundamentally postmodern crime. It requires two parties for it to be effective: the violent actor and the media. As I’ve mentioned here at FAIR before, blowing up a market 1,000 years ago, for example, before mass communication, would have been entirely pointless. To properly terrorize a population, the population must be aware of the threat, and to be aware of the threat relatively quickly, mass communication is required for economy of scale to be achieved.”

In a world filled with communication devices, the media cannot entirely avoid adding to the fear effect.  Johnson agrees that the media must report events of terrorism, but he insists it must stop using methods that sensationalize the events, prolong the coverage, or intensify the emotional impact with frightening images that accompany those events. And it should never report general threats of terrorism to come, which he calls “propaganda.”

Many have noted the expertise of Daesh’s communications, screen-ready for use by Western news outlets.   Johnson says:

“If the media really wanted to prevent the dissemination of ISIS propaganda, they could stop disseminating ISIS propaganda. It’s really that simple. Report the substance—‘James Foley Has Died,’ ‘ISIS Releases Another Propaganda Magazine’—but avoid the smutty details, the empty threats and, above all, the titillating visuals.”

But the mainstream media doesn't stop.  When we recall how it has performed over the past eighteen months since Daesh burst on the scene with its capture of leading Iraqi cities, smutty details, empty threats and titillating visuals have led the way.

How should we respond?

First, avoid the mainstream media.  It is enhancing the power of terrorism.  So shut it off.

Second, ask ourselves why it persists in practices that aid and abet terrorism. Certainly, a fearful public boosts ratings and profitability (not unlike an approaching hurricane keeps us all glued to our screens). But a fearful public also ensures support for growing military budgets and interventionist foreign policies, while distracting us from growing economic inequality and the failure of democratic processes.

This explains why the political elite are not talking about how the media are enhancing terrorism’s power.  Accomplishing their agenda has come to depend on us being afraid.

Third (and more difficult), foster the skepticism and resilience that resist the fear factor. Skepticism is difficult because it calls into doubt the truthfulness and intentions of respected people and institutions.  Resilience is difficult because the triggers of fear are beyond our rational control; emotion can easily overwhelm our best intentions.

This is where community is essential; resilience cannot be achieved in isolation.  So if you don’t have a community of support, find one.  And if you have one, make sure it is talking about the way the empire is using fear to further its agenda of domination and control.