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This Teachable Moment

by Berry Friesen (January 26, 2016)

(The sixth and last in a series attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon)

This US presidential campaign is a teachable moment because it displays so vividly the social behaviors produced by the practice of empire:  an attitude of entitlement to a huge portion of Earth’s bounty; a blind faith in military power and violence to manage the world; the use of pretense and deception to sustain an appearance of righteousness and an aura of legitimacy.

It wasn’t always this way; as recently as the ‘30s, those behaviors—though present—did not define us as a people. But since the Second World War, our society has gradually absorbed the imperial worldview.

In the current campaign, stepping away from an imperial identity is not regarded as an option. What’s up for debate is how to improve the empire’s performance:  a larger share of the take more widely shared, a world more compliant with the empire’s terms and conditions, less cost to the US in blood and treasure.

So what do you think?  Can an empire become more egalitarian?  More collaborative? Less violent?

Biblical writers from Exodus through the prophets, from the Gospels through the letters of Paul, did not think so.  Instead, they envisioned an entirely different way to run the world. In Jesus of Nazareth, we see this way embodied as compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil. No, not a formula for governments, but a way of life for those who “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

Of course, when I bring up Jesus, many will assume the subject has shifted to religion, but that’s not my intention.  Jesus clearly did not expect any government—any nation-state—to save the world, but that does not mean he understood salvation in other-worldly terms. Instead, when Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom of God,” he envisioned a force within history that is creative, resilient and world-changing, but not violent.

This “way” of Jesus subverted the ideology of the Roman Empire; Roman officials executed Jesus, James, Peter and Paul because of their activities.

And Second Testament writers understood the Roman Empire to be a leading cause of human futility and despair. Its vaunted “justice” executed the innocent Jesus (Acts 10:39, 1 Cor. 2:8), its “peace and security” fell apart under stress (1 Thess. 5:3), its “prosperity” required the slavery of the masses (Eph. 2:1-3), its “wisdom” gave birth to confusion and strife (Romans 1).  The apostle Paul described the Empire as “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13); John the revelator characterized it as a ravenous "beast" (Rev. 13:1).

So the point isn’t to ignore the political ferment of the 2016 presidential campaign, or to imagine we are somehow above it all. Rather, the point is to recognize in it the kind of society the empire is producing.  If we don’t like what we see, let’s not blame this group of partisans or that, but rather the worldview and practices that have been shaping us these past seventy years.

And then let’s join a movement giving birth to a different kind of world, one that doesn’t expect a nation-state to save us, but sees the way of Jesus as our salvation.  It is a way that shapes a different kind of society, which will produce a different kind of leaders.

Trump's Islamophobia

by Berry Friesen (January 23, 2016)

(The fifth in a series attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon)

It’s cheap and easy to criticize Donald Trump’s “shocking” call for a ban on Muslims entering the US.  Reportedly, every other Republican and Democrat running for President has joined the criticism. 

Yet none of those candidates has criticized the Obama Administration for dropping 23,144 bombs on majority-Muslim nations during 2015:  22,110 on Syria and Iraq, 947 on Afghanistan, 58 on Yemen, 18 on Somalia and 11 on Pakistan.

None has criticized the Obama Administration for transforming Libya into unrelenting chaos and violence, Syria into a place of starvation and death, Yemen into a wasteland.
So the major-party alternative to Trump is somebody who supports US wars on Muslim nations, but takes the moral high ground on Muslim immigrants and refugees.  In contrast, Trump’s supporters pride themselves on straight talk.  In their view, the war on terror is a war against Muslim peoples; if the US had a leader honest enough to say who the enemy is, maybe it would start winning its wars. 

Dr. Deepa Kumar, professor of media studies at Rutgers University, asks us not to settle for cheap and easy opposition to Trump’s Islamophobia.  Abby Martin’s interview of Dr. Kumar is mandatory listening for all those who want to go deeper.

Kumar sees in the West “a systematic process . . . to keep fear of Muslims and fear of terrorism alive in the American imagination.”  This process entails “othering,” the transformation of the disparate followers of Islam into a single group whose members have certain negative behaviors and attitudes. “Islam is not a race, Muslims are not a race,” she says.  Yet the analogy to racism is appropriate because “races do not exist naturally, they are produced, typically by an elite to serve certain agendas.”

Over the past 25 years, the Western elite have been guiding us through such a production process.  Bernard Lewis’ “Roots of Muslim Rage” set the template with its insistence that colonialism, war and the formation of Israel on Palestinian land had nothing to do with the anger in the Middle East. Instead, an irrational rage rooted in Islam made conflict between Islam and the West inevitable.

Samuel Huntington extended this analysis by predicting future world conflicts would be cultural, not political.  As described by Kumar, this view assumed the empire had arrived at the correct answers to the big political questions; what remained was irrational opposition rooted in ignorance, provincialism and religious dogma.  Thus, says Kumar, “We don’t need to talk about the military occupation, we don’t need to talk about war, we don’t need to talk about drone strikes, we’ll just call it a clash of cultures.”

This is phony baloney, but it has been systematically manufactured in the West by Hollywood, academia, the think-tanks and the media.  “To see Donald Trump as some sort of lone-wolf who is responsible for the escalation of Islamophobia or who is otherwise corrupting a great political system is deeply problematic,” says Kumar. 

What distinguishes Trump is his blunt discussion of an attitude and worldview that has been sewn with subtlety into the fabric of American life. 

Can we deal with this now that Trump has brought it out into the open?

“Simply doing education around Islamophobia or having interfaith dialogue is not enough,” says Kumar.  “We need to understand that it’s more than a set of prejudices and bad ideas in people’s heads; it’s in fact an ideology and set of practices that sustain and reproduce empire.”

So though we must combat prejudice against Muslims, we can't stop there. We also must “get to the root of what causes Islamophobia—the empire, the national security state, the neo-liberal order in which we live and the class power that sustains all of this.” 

When we do that, when we recognize how our fears and prejudices have been produced deliberately for the benefit of the ruling elite, then we will be able to come together across the lines that divide us now and discredit Islamophobia and the endless war it legitimizes.

A Rich Man to Save Us

by Berry Friesen (January 19, 2016)

(The fourth in a series attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon)

Donald Trump is a billionaire who can self-finance his run for the White House.  In an era like ours, when money has corrupted the political process and Wall Street owns Congress, a President who can afford to follow his own best judgment might be a step in the right direction.

Supporters see in Trump a second attraction: an emotional commitment rare among those with extreme wealth—to make America work.  Whether Trump actually embodies such a commitment remains to be seen, but he has convinced his many supporters.

Their bet makes a certain kind of sense.  The empire is structured to deliver benefits primarily to its elite members, not common folks such as you and me.  If the typical American is to benefit from the fact that a US-led empire rules the world, it is essential for the President to be an ally.

In his first campaign for President, Barack Obama presented himself as such an ally. Yet he has never seemed comfortable in the role of Caesar, hasn’t tried very hard to reign in Wall Street and has failed to push the benefits of empire down to where most Americans live and work.  This time, Trump supporters say, America must choose a different kind of outsider, someone wealthy enough to extract concessions from the oligarchs ruling America, someone ruthless enough to use the powers of empire to benefit all Americans.

Undergirding this rationale is a deep anxiety triggered by the growing detachment of America’s one percent.  This detachment can be glimpsed between the lines in volumes of reports about off-shore corporations and off-shore bank accounts, the shift of manufacturing and research overseas, the trillions in liquid assets sloshing around the globe looking for better returns, the avoidance of taxes by the wealthy, the construction of a self-sufficient way of life not dependent in any way on shared institutions paid for by public dollars.

Mike Lofgren, retired from a long career as a senior staff member for Republican committees in the US House and Senate, recalls how during the early ‘90s debate around NAFTA, a Republican member of Congress made this observation:  “The rich elites of this country have far more in common with their counterparts in London, Paris, and Tokyo than with their fellow American citizens.”

The detachment that began a quarter century ago has become entrenched.  “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India,” says Lofgren, “in the place and ruling it, but not of it. If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension—and viable public transportation doesn’t even show up on the radar screen. With private doctors on call and a chartered plane to get to the Mayo Clinic, why worry about Medicare?”

Social unrest and anxiety about global warming have only accelerated the trends Lofgren describes, prompting the one percent to step up their survivalist schemes.  “I know hedge fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway,” said former hedge fund director Robert Johnson.

Many have noted how nation-states are declining in importance and national borders are becoming less relevant.  Far less attention has been paid to what happens when (as Lofgren puts it) “the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well-being except as a place to extract loot.” Trump’s supporters seem to get it and are hoping Trump can stem the tide.

This isn’t a theoretical issue for Trump supporters; many haven’t had a raise for several decades.

Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute explains why.  From 1948 to 1973, the hourly compensation (including benefits) of a typical worker essentially grew in tandem with productivity gains, thus giving workers the full benefit of their improved productivity.  For example, if productivity went up by two percent over the course of a year, compensation also would go up by two percent (in addition to being adjusted for inflation).

Since 1973, however, inflation-adjusted hourly pay has almost stopped rising, even though worker productivity has continued to improve.  In fact, 85 percent of the benefit from improved productivity since 1973 has gone to owners and managers rather than to workers.  Since 2000, the results have been even worse, with 92 percent of the gains in worker productivity going to owners and managers.

Many expect this shift in wealth from the middle class to the financial elite to continue, even accelerate.  Certainly a Congress owned by Wall Street won’t do anything to stop it.

Can a rich man save us?  Trump supporters are counting on it.  Perhaps they can cite the biblical figure of Nehemiah as a prototype; like Trump, he was a Johnny-come-lately who stepped forward dramatically to bail out his beleaguered countrymen.  You can read about Nehemiah’s track record in chapter 15 of If Not Empire, What?

But we dare not forget the skepticism of Mary, mother of Jesus, in her song of praise to YHWH:  “The Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:49-53).

Believe in the Same God?

by John K. Stoner (January 15, 2016)

Wheaton College has suspended one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  I recommend the article Miroslav Volf wrote on the Hawkins situation.

The point of this essay is that there is a far more important question about "the same God" for Wheaton—and Christians across the board—and this is the question that should obsess all of us today,

The real question is, "Do all Christians worship the same God?"

From the standpoint of simple honesty and logic, "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" is not a helpful question.  First, because it asks for a "yes" or "no" answer and neither answer is really helpful or true.  It's like asking, "Did ancient peoples who believed the earth is flat speak of the same earth as we who believe it is round?"   A yes or no answer to that is not helpful.

And second, the Christian/Muslim question is not helpful because it diverts attention from the substantive and important question, which is "Do all Christians (or Muslims, et al.) believe in the same God?"

Over the years, I've noticed far more Christians are ready to attach major importance to the different versions of Islam than to the different versions of Christianity.  Especially in one particular—the question of whether God is violent or nonviolent, whether God endorses or prohibits human tirades of homicidal violence.

Why does this become so important in assessing the viability of Muslim religion?  And at the same time, is it not equally important in assessing the viability of versions of christianity?

Obviously, it depends on whether the one doing the assessing is on the giving or receiving end of the violence.  Is that right, or is it right?

So, what's next?

The next thing is for Christians to get on with their own urgent and internal debate about the God they worship.  Is this God violent or nonviolent?

There is a way of reading the Bible in general, and the Jesus story in particular, as one great big debate about that question.  It's not a bad way to read the Bible--in fact, it can be a very honest and helpful way to read the Bible.

Starting with Jesus, one can say/see that what he did was raise to a higher level and bring new evidence to bear on the old questions about how to deal with "sin" and "enemies."  But it was a debate within a religion, not between religions.  This is why the Bible is such a critical resource for Christians today—if they will read it as it was written: the record of great debates about truth, and power, and love.

The Bible can help Christians to do their own work, before they try to become judges and dividers of all the truth claims and religions of the world.

If Not Empire, What? looks at these two great contrasting images of God: God as wielding and endorsing violence, and God as using the power of love, forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation. There is a difference.

And it is not enough to say that "No Christians say, or the Bible never says, that God is all violence. The claim is only that God sometimes uses homicidal violence."  Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If a sometimes violent God works for Christianity, why not for Islam too? Surely few will find it convincing to say that Muslims embrace a God that is all violence.

But what history and today's world are showing us in spades is that the way of empire—superior force, whether enshrined in nuclear arsenals or beheadings as media events—is not working well for humanity.

So if there is another way, as argued by a thin but impressive strain of Old Testament writings, and a consistent voice from Jesus and his first followers, then the many christianites of the world should be fully engaged in finding and living that alternative.

25 Years of Dishonesty

by Berry Friesen (January 12, 2015)

(The third in a series attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon)

Think of a social context rife with pretense and hypocrisy. It could be an extended family unwilling to confront its members’ addictive or abusive behaviors, a work team covering up its ineffectiveness and lack of productivity, a network of friends trying to ignore an undertow of sexual infidelity and cheating.

Such groups generate negative energy, frustration and dysfunctional patterns.  Manipulative behavior becomes the order of the day; everyone is hiding something and that fact can be exploited. As the pressure builds and the discomfort grows, the desire for honesty and candor can be intense and lead to irrational outbursts and brutal scapegoating.      

That’s how I think of the Donald Trump phenomenon. 

Pretense and hypocrisy are valuable skills, enabling us to pursue simultaneously conflicting or contradictory goals.  They buy time until the right moment for the conflict to be acknowledged and talked through, the contradiction resolved, or best of all—the entire problem to disappear because the context has changed. 

So all of us reluctantly use these skills from time to time.  If we acquired a college education and have spent years working in professional or public settings, we likely take some pride in our ability to use these skills effectively.  And yes, elected leaders excel at pretense and hypocrisy; conflicts and contradictions are their daily bread and avoiding the need to deal with them “until the time is right” is their forte.

But here in the USA, national politicians have been using pretense and hypocrisy to “buy time” continuously since the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago and the USA stood alone as the world’s only unassailable nation.  Rather than adapt to a world freed from the threat of war, US leaders ginned up new threats and doubled down on military spending to fuel the economy and enrich themselves and their friends. 

As a result, we’ve had a quarter century of dissembling by our national leaders. Trump’s supporters—blue collar, financially stressed, not schooled in pretense and hypocrisy, kin to men and women who have served and suffered in the military—are fed up with it all. They know they have been conned and no longer see any reason to pretend otherwise.

What exactly do I have in mind?  The dishonesty has to do with our leaders’ failure to protect our country and its people.

Let’s start with the very confusing relationship between the US and Muslim-led nations.

In an essay published by The Altantic in September, 1990, noted British historian Bernard Lewis wrote that in the Muslim world, there is “a surge of hatred that distresses, alarms and above all baffles Americans.”  Lewis went on:  “It should by now be clear that we are facing . . . no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.” 

Even as Americans were absorbing Lewis’ scary rant, US President George H. W. Bush was preparing for war against Muslim Iraq, which had invaded Muslim Kuwait to settle a border dispute after first securing assurances from the US ambassador that the US had no objection. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 followed, and after that came the US embargo and the imposition of a no-fly zone over much of Iraq. 

After 9/11, the US invaded Muslim Afghanistan on the theory that it was to blame for 9/11 by providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda.  George W. Bush also tried to blame Saddam Hussein for 9/11, and though the accusation did not stick, the US invaded Muslim Iraq anyway in March, 2003. 

New York Times columnist TomFriedman explained why to Charlie Rose in April, 2003:  “We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble . . . And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying . . . 'Well. Suck. On. This.'  That, Charlie, was what this war was about.  We could have hit Saudi Arabia.  It was part of that bubble.  Could have hit Pakistan.  We hit Iraq because we could."

Fifteen years later, US troops continue to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq while also supporting proxy armies fighting in Muslim Pakistan, Muslim Libya, Muslim Somalia, Muslim Syria and Muslim Yemen.  At least four million Muslims have died as the result of the military actions initiated by the US in these seven Muslim nations during these 25 years. Only Pakistan remains a unified, functioning nation; the other six have been left in chaos. Obviously, all this mayhem has planted a desire for revenge against the US, right?  

And let’s not forget the so-called Islamic State.  Those head-choppers have been on our screens constantly since June, 2014. 

In short, as Trump supporters see it, we have a mountain of evidence telling us that Muslims are a major threat to the USA.  Yet the top US political leaders say there is no clash of civilizations, that the US has no problem with Islam or with Muslims in general, that our borders are open to Muslim refugees.  Then why this endless war in Muslim nations?  Why this endless slaughter of Muslim people?  Why this endless stream of images of head-choppers on our screens?

And why are the Bushes and the Muslim royals in Saudi Arabia the best of friends?  Even during the dark days immediately following 9/11 when all flights had been grounded, no American could fly and the police were rounding up Muslim suspects for questioning, George W. Bush made special arrangements for Saudis to be flown out of the US and back to the place where most of the alleged hijackers came from.  Then there is President Obama, the son of a Muslim father; he has been photographed bowing before the Saudi king.  Yes, US relations with Saudi Arabia are tighter now than ever before; in the wars in Syria and Yemen, the US and Saudi Arabia are working hand in glove.

In summary, the history of US relations with Muslim nations over the past 25 years is a mass of contradictions that conventional politicians have done little to sort out.  To his supporters, Trump is the man who will straighten out this mess.  

The hijackings and attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on 9/11 are at the core of a second major aspect of this credibility crisis.  The events of that day entailed the most massive failure of US security and self-defense systems in our country’s history, yet not a single US official was disciplined in any way for poor performance on that day. Indeed, most officials responsible for operations at key points of failure were promoted after the attacks.

According to a 2013 poll, only 40 percent of Americans are “completely satisfied” with the official account of what happened that day; 38 percent have “some doubts” and an additional 10 percent “do not believe the government’s account at all.”    

Closely related is the failure of law enforcement to solve the anthrax attacks against members of Congress in the days immediately following 9/11.  We know the anthrax came from a US government lab, but we don’t know who stole it and tried to kill members of Congress with it. It sounds very much like an attempted coup, but US officials don’t seem particularly concerned.

A third epic failure by government to protect its own citizens occurred in 2008 with the financial melt-down.  This disaster was facilitated by Congress during the ‘90s when it allowed banks to engage in highly speculative investments.  Financial executives engaged in criminal fraud to maximize their returns and government regulators looked the other way. 

Again, nobody went to jail.  And again, the crooks were rewarded with bail-outs that enriched them even further.

Speaking of the failure to protect, let’s not forget the export of US jobs, an operation that has been going on for at least 25 years now.  Members of Congress always lament this when they are home in their districts, but they never do anything about it after they return to Washington. So the jobs keep flying away, migrants from other countries keep crossing our borders to take the remaining jobs for lower pay, and wages in the US keep declining.  It’s a massive and ongoing betrayal.

Last but not least, let’s remember that Trump’s followers are generally better acquainted with veterans of the wars of these last 25 years than is the typical American.  And when one talks at length with a veteran of those wars, one eventually hears echoes of Smedley Butler, the highly decorated career Marine officer who said, “War is a racket.”   Though they may not have read Butler’s famous speech, they can feel it in their bones.

The US is the mightiest nation ever, yet it failed in the wars it fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria.  Many American men and women have died or have been horribly injured and trillions have been spent in these lost causes.  How could this be?  

And why exactly has the US worked with al-Qaeda in Libya and Syria?  Why are the people who brought us 9/11 now our allies?  Again, “betrayal” comes to mind.

As Trump supporters see it, only Trump has the courage to speak of any of this.  Only he refuses to carry on the charade.  Only he can be trusted to lead.

Who Supports Trump?

by Berry Friesen (January 8, 2016)

The Donald Trump phenomenon cannot be understood in conventional right-left terms. He has often taken progressive positions and even now, as the Republican front-runner, does not follow conservative talking points.  Much has already been written to this effect; here and here are a couple of examples.

Trump is better understood as an opportunistic populist, quickly shifting policy positions as he rides the energy of supporters frustrated by life in the heart of the US-led empire.

Establishment Republicans loathe Trump.  Columnist George Will has said a Trump nomination would destroy the Republican Party.

As he dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is reported to have described Trump this way:  “He is an egomaniac, he’s a narcissist, he’s not a conservative, he’s not a liberal, he believes in himself.  He’s not reflective of a coherent ideology, he’s for himself.”

Yet Trump attracts support from all across the political spectrum.  I’ll look at some of the data below.

But let’s start with five statements that represent the emotional responses at the heart of the Trump phenomenon.  Using 0, 1 or 2, test your alignment with Trump’s candidacy by indicating the strength of your agreement with each statement.*

A. The USA is an exceptional nation that is the source of much good in the world; it deserves to receive the rewards related to its global leadership and dominance.

B. The USA needs leaders who speak directly and candidly; it is ill-served by officials unable to break free of the hypocrisy, pretense and self-dealing of Washington insiders.

C. Muslims are a threat to the peace and security of the USA, especially if they live here in the US.

D. Personally, I admire people who apply themselves and succeed financially, especially the rare few who put themselves at risk in public life by standing up for the values Americans hold dear.

E. Most people in my social circle have about the same inflation-adjusted income today as they did in 1989.  But simply holding our own—not sliding backwards—takes more effort than it used to.

If your score is 9-10, you likely are a Trump supporter.  If your score is 7-8, you likely feel some attraction to Trump’s candidacy.  It has nothing to do with thinking “right” or “left.” Instead, it is about wanting a leader as bold and brazen as America is in the world, someone who eschews politically correct speech and knows how to use America’s imperial power to improve life for Americans.

What’s the point?  First, you and I will have opportunities this year to engage potential Trump supporters. We’ll do that most successfully (i.e., dissuade them from voting for Trump) if our conversation avoids caricature and conveys understanding. Second, by paying careful attention to Trump's supporters, we're likely to gain insight into what kind of world the empire is giving us.

My previous post noted Trump’s emphasis on competence, meaning an ability to translate US power into a larger share of the plunder of war.  In future posts, I’ll discuss in greater depth the other four statements noted above (B – E).

In the remainder of this post, let’s briefly consider what the polls reveal about Trump’s supporters.

An ABC/Washington Post poll from last summer found Trump’s supporters leaned to the left of the typical Republican. He received 27 percent support from moderate to liberal voters, 24 percent from somewhat conservative voters and 17 percent support from very conservative voters.  And he had more support among Independents than Republicans (25 percent vs. 22 percent).

Trump received four times as much support among those with no college degree (32 percent) as among college graduates (8 percent).

A very high percentage of Trump supporters (77 percent) believe “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life,”according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll.  This compares to 72 percent of other Republicans holding that view and 43 percent of Democrats.

A New York Times poll from late last year confirms Trump supporters tend to have modest incomes (less than $50,000 annually) and be less educated. He is particularly attractive to people who are registered Democrats but tend to vote Republican if they vote.  Trump supporters are concentrated in the southern and the mid-Atlantic states.

Incongruous as it may seem, Trump is a billionaire with a big following among people who don’t count for much in today’s USA.

Trump supporters are often disparaged as racists because of their support for expelling undocumented people and keeping out refugees.  Yet a more-than-tiny share of working class blacks and Hispanics are likely to consider Trump in the hope he can improve the economy.

Pundit Paul Gottfried puts it this way: “Those afflicted with stagnating or declining incomes have no interest in competing with cheap foreign labor and feel particularly impacted by crimes associated with illegals. As one of (Trump’s) reluctant admirers points out in the Post: ‘He’s a huckster. He’s a loudmouth New Yorker. People don’t like people like that.’ But on the positive side, continued the speaker from Rappahannock County, Virginia, ’He just seems like the guy who can take on the people who Trump supporters think have been screwing with them for so long’.”

* My score is 5 (0, 2, 0, 2, 1).

Terrorism as an Investment

by Berry Friesen

Terrorism is a staple of aggressive states.  It is as ordinary a tactic as using the sword. It’s how to make opponents shake in their boots.

Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter who resigned amid controversy related to his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, highlights this reality in The American Empire:  Murder Inc., an essay describing the work of reporter Allan Nairn. “The indiscriminate slaughter of real or imagined opponents is considered a prerogative of imperial power,” says Hedges. “Violence is the primary language we use to speak to the rest of the world.”

By writing about state terrorism, Hedges addresses a reality rarely discussed publicly. “The few atrocities that come to light are dismissed as isolated aberrations.  The public is assured what has been uncovered will be investigated and will not take place again. The goals of the empire, we are told by a subservient media and our ruling elites, are virtuous and noble. And the vast killing machine grinds forward, feeding, as it has always done, the swollen bank accounts of defense contractors and corporations that exploit natural resources and cheap labor around the globe.”

For more than thirty years, Allan Nairn lived in and reported from the places where US-backed terrorism has been most intense, most deadly.  Nairn is able to recognize the methods of terrorism, understand the important role it plays in the strategies of imperial powers, and see through the deception used to cover it up.

“The powers have always been willing to use these tactics,” Nairn says.  “For centuries they were proud of it.  All you have to do is look at the holy texts of the major religions—the Bible, the Quran, the Torah.  They’re full of one massacre after another.  People forget.  The story of David and Goliath is put forward as a great story.  At the end of the story David decapitates Goliath.  He parades around holding up his head.  For years and years the powers were proud of these tactics.  They advertised it.”

Nairn emphasizes that the use of state terrorism is not unique to the US-led empire. If you want to be a player on the world stage, you must have “some kind of killer force . . . capable of fast mass killing. Without that you (have) no chance.”

“All big powers do this," he says.  "But in the recent period, because the U.S. has been the dominant power, the U.S. has the biggest death toll. If you added all the operations up it would go into the several millions.”

The last US president to openly talk about using violence in a way that makes opponents afraid was Teddy Roosevelt, says Nairn.  Subsequently, US presidents have hidden such activity behind veils of altruism and idealism.  Pushing back those veils has been Nairn’s lifework, which is why Hedges’ essay honors him.

Donald Trump knows this history well and wants to return to the candor of old.  He’s a bold, plain-spoken man like Teddy Roosevelt, not at all shy about acknowledging the important role violence plays in the conduct of an empire.  He’s contemptuous of people who lack the fortitude to face this reality squarely; “incompetent” is his favorite word to describe them.

Recently, NBC host George Stephanopoulos asked Trump to explain his flippant response in an earlier interview to allegations that Russian President Putin uses murder to eliminate members of the media who criticize Putin’s policies.  Trump had been dismissive:  “I think our country does plenty of killing too.”

In his reply to Stephanopoulos, Trump referred to decisions former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made in Libya and the “thousands and thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people (that) have been killed” as a result of those decisions.

Trump went on:  “Now, we should have never gone into Iraq. . . . We made a big mistake with Libya. We’ve destabilized all these places.  We now have a migration with thousands and hundreds of thousands and even millions of people that don’t know where they’re going.  I mean, it’s a terrible thing.”

A bit later, Trump summed up his position:  “Well, take a look at, excuse me, take a look at the rampage all over the place.  And you know what we’ve gotten for Iraq?  We’ve spent $2 trillion, OK? We’ve—thousands, hundreds of thousands of people killed.  We’ve lost thousands and thousands of our great young people, soldiers.  So $2 trillion, deaths, wounded warriors, we have nothing and Iran is now taking over Iraq with the second largest oil reserves in the world.  And I said, don’t go in.  But I said, when you go out, take the oil.  And I’ve been saying that for four years to you and others and we were so incompetent, we didn’t even get the oil.”

There is a clear critique in Trump’s comments; he opposed the invasion of Iraq and says it was “a big mistake” to destabilize Iraq and Libya.  The core problem, as he sees it, is incompetence; the empire is getting a lousy return on its investment in violence.

Nairn explains how the veiled nature of US violence can be used politically. “If presidents are reluctant, or seem reluctant to [utilize terrorism], they get castigated. They get called a wimp." The first President Bush, President Clinton and President Obama each felt the sting of this scorn, he says.

Beyond the analysis, Hedges’ essay takes us to the places where imperial terrorism does its work:  the Philippines during the ‘50s, Indonesia during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Central America during the ‘80s, the Middle East in the post-9/11 years.

Torture, mutilation, decapitations, crucifixions, village exterminations, assassinations—these are the tools of the trade. Death squads of local paramilitary units do the dirty work; their accountability to government officials is blurry.  Of course, the empire denies any involvement whatsoever and denounces the murdering as violations of human rights.

“It’s systematic,” Nairn says.  “It’s the exact same tactics in country after country, with local adaptations, and often the officers are all trained at the same US military bases—Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Leavenworth [and] the Inter-American Defense College, in the case of the Latin American officers.”

For a keen observer like Nairn, ISIS is not a new development, but simply the latest iteration of a very old pattern.

“The world is finally starting to understand what’s involved in political killing when they see the videos of ISIS,” Nairn explains. “In Salvador, not only would they kill but they would cut off hands, they would cut off arms, and they would display their handiwork on the road. Passersby would see it. In the same period—I spent most of those years in Guatemala, which was even worse—they were killing more than 100,000, perhaps more than 200,000 by some estimates. One day in the library of the Polytechnica, the military academy of Guatemala, I found the Spanish translation of a U.S. military counterinsurgency document. It gave instructions on how to ‘create terror;’ this was the way they put it. And they described methods used in the Philippines in the campaign against the Huks.

“In the case of the Philippines, they were talking about leaving the bodies by the rivers. So you mutilate the bodies, you cut them, you amputate, and then you display the bodies on the riversides to stir terror in the population.  And of course that’s exactly what ISIS is doing today.”

In coming posts, I hope to write more about the astonishing popularity of Donald Trump. But first, it’s important to grasp the reality Hedges and Nairn describe:  terrorism as an everyday tool of US foreign policy, the pretense and subterfuge surrounding that terrorism, and the frustration of Americans who perceive the pay-off to be far less than they expected it to be.

A World-to-Come

by Berry Friesen (January 1, 2016)

Anglican bishop and author N.T. Wright speaks of the human spirit in a four-fold way: delighted by beauty, hungering for justice, wanting to give and receive love, ambushed by moments of awe. Whether deliberate about it or not, nearly all of us are acquainted with these yearnings.

As individuals, we vary as to which of these spiritual impulses we experience most vividly and/or find most attractive.  Our differences in this regard play out in public life. Awe is the special emphasis of religion, politics focuses on justice, the arts on beauty and our private lives on loving relationships.

I’ve long been drawn to justice.  This may be due to some quirk in my personality, my place in the birth order of my family, my training as a lawyer.  Certainly it relates to my immersion since a small child in readings from the Bible, which reflects a hunger for justice as much or more than the other yearnings.

I remember a professor’s comment from nearly fifty years ago to the effect that Marxism’s passion for a just world was inspired by the biblical vision of a just world.  It was an odd comment for that time and place (the height of the Cold War, a conservative Christian campus in Kansas), yet I instantly recognized the professor’s insight. Biblical faith and Marxism shared a passion for a world-to-come, a world made new in justice.

A world-to-come usually is described in religious circles as “heaven.”  That’s a fine word, but when “heaven” is defined as a place people go after their lives on Earth have ended, then we’ve taken a major detour away from the biblical vision.  Call it what you will, the world-to-come of which the Bible speaks is not somewhere other than Earth, nor is it meant for another life.  The Bible’s world-to-come is meant for Earth within this time in which we are living—human history.

I seriously doubt the capacity of institutional Christianity in the West to recover this understanding.  Its influence and revenue are too dependent on selling an after-life, it is too invested in current structures of power and wealth, it has become too accustomed to metaphysical interpretations of biblical texts.

But I do not doubt the human spirit, especially when it interacts with and is energized by the voice of YHWH we encounter as we gather in groups to hear the Bible’s stories.

Perhaps this is why I’ve so enjoyed reading Walter Brueggemann on the world-making power of ritual and liturgy (Israel’s Praise:  Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, also referenced in my previous post).  While he freely acknowledges “the biblical community has no monopoly on the work of world-construction,” he insists that by intention or not, world-making is what people of faith do when they gather to voice their yearnings and meld them with biblical texts.

Thus, the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21) announces “the world has become a place of justice and freedom because the empire is overcome.”  Moreover, Brueggemann says, “the world continues to be such a place, and each time the exodus memory is reenacted, the empire is overcome again.”

This announcement has a primal power, Brueggemann says, when “it wells up from below” out of the yearnings of the people, and then connects in a moment of amazement and gratitude to the One who gives life and legitimates our hunger for justice.

Love, beauty and awe are available throughout the world. Yes, they can be found in a church setting, but one doesn’t need to join a faith-based community to find them.

On the other hand, world-making power that “wells up from below” is much harder to find, especially power animated and informed by the revolutionary wisdom of the Bible.  If you are part of such an experience now, you are truly blessed.  If you aren’t, 2016 is the time to start.

A discussion group using If Not Empire, What? is a potential way to begin.  Perhaps pastors of congregations engaged in local community issues will help you recruit members.