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The Love of God?

by Berry Friesen (March 27, 2016)

Preachers typically talk a lot about the love of God.  This is especially so during Holy Week, when the story of Jesus walking toward likely death in Jerusalem in order to save us from our sins takes center stage.

Why this emphasis on the love of God?  Do we need to be convinced that God is not against us? That we’ll have a chance of surviving our final encounter with the One who made us?

I’m not sure what mistaken notions preachers are trying to overcome.       

On Friday, I visited Norman Lowry, a prisoner of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at the Dallas State Correctional Institution. I’ve written once before about him (here).

Norm has been imprisoned more or less continuously for seven years for disrupting operations at the US military recruiting office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Though he could gain his release by promising to never again disrupt operations there, Norm has refused to make that promise.  He’s convinced God wants him in prison, sharing God’s love with the other “residents” of that bleak and violent place.

Norm often speaks of the love of God—to me, to other inmates and to the guards.

So as we sat in the noisy visiting room, side-by-side in the plastic chairs, I asked Norm about the love of God.  “Why do preachers talk so much about it?  Why do you?”

Norm isn’t fond of preachers or churches and doesn’t identify with their project.  “If they believed what they say they believe,” he says of church people, “they’d be shutting down the prisons.”  So in response to my question, Norm didn’t attempt to explain why preachers talk about the love of God.

But he explained why he does:  “It’s powerful enough to set you free.”

People who think of themselves as free already aren’t likely to give Norm’s message a passing thought. 

But it has traction in a place where men live every minute of every day with a profound sense of physical, emotional and spiritual captivity.  

And it grabs hold in other places too, wherever people recognize their enslavement to powers that fill our heads with lies, fill our hearts with fear, and fill our spirits with the false hope that greed and violence will save the world and bring us joy.

Norm often recounts conversations with incredulous inmates in which he has explained why he is still in prison: “God loves you and so do I.  I’d serve your time if I could.”  Hyperbole?  Maybe, but Norm’s words convey better than most what Jesus believed:  his act of self-sacrifice would set us free; only a liberated people can change the world.

Whether this is what preachers mean when they talk about the love of God, I can’t say.  But I left my visit with Norm with a Good Friday insight.  Only love is strong enough to break our chains.  We’re talking here about life and real bondage; nothing but the love of God will work.

What Sort of Savior?

by Berry Friesen (March 21, 2016)

Being “saved” from some earthly threat is a frequent concern in the Jewish writings of the First Testament.  As we read those ancient texts, we find salvation discussed within the context of danger from the Egyptians (Ex. 14:30) and later from the Philistines (1 Sam. 17:37), the Assyrians (Hos. 13:10) and the Chaldeans (Jer. 8:20).  

In contrast, many contemporary Christians view salvation as divine rescue from human mortality.  It’s a very different concept than we find in the First Testament.

Of late, the First Testament way of thinking about salvation seems to be re-emerging.  

According to data released last weekend by NASA, the average global surface temperature in February was 1.35 degrees Celsius warmer than the 1951-1980 average temperature for the month.  This is a far larger monthly increase than ever previously recorded.

As reported by The Guardian, “These results suggest that we may be even closer than we realised to breaching the [2C] limit,” according to a spokesperson for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.   “We have used up all of our room for manoeuvre. If we delay any longer strong cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, it looks like global mean surface temperature is likely to exceed the level beyond which the impacts of climate change are likely to be very dangerous.”

So if we don’t make big changes fast, children living today face a bleak future. Humanity is in great danger, not from a foreign empire, but from the consequences of our own way of life. We need to be saved.    

Might Jesus of Nazareth qualify for this role? Or is his contribution limited to the gift of immortality? 

Jesus expected to die at the hands of the political authorities and deliberately precipitated the decisive confrontation in Jerusalem.  Why?  He explained it this way:  “The [Human One] came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In other words, Jesus expected his death would “ransom” people, set them free.  

From what?  “From the futile ways inherited from your ancestors,” said the author of 1 Peter; “malice, guile, insincerity, envy, slander” (1:18; 2:1). Another text refers to sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed (Col. 3:5).  

Of course, Christian writers have consumed an ocean of ink explaining all of this in much grander terms.  Jesus had to die, these writers tell us, to persuade us of God's love or to win God’s forgiveness and wipe away our sins.  Mostly, this sort of theologizing has served to divert our attention from the very First Testament kind of salvation Jesus had in mind:  escape from the earthly threat of repeating cycles of greed, power-seeking, violence and retribution.

Can we imagine a way of life that would save Earth as a habitation for generations to come?  Do the life, death and resurrection of Jesus help us start living that way now?  

If we wish to maintain our claim that Jesus is the savior of the world, the answer will be yes.

Not Wasting an Election Year *

by Berry Friesen (March 16, 2016)

Most Christian congregations walk on eggshells during an election year, hoping to avoid disunity by keeping the partisanship at a safe distance.

A Jesus-following community of resistance behaves very differently.  It recognizes that the Republican and Democrat parties offer different versions of the same thing:  a plan for running an empire and ruling the world.  Because it opposes the imperial project, a community of resistance doesn’t feel invested in one side or another.  Thus, it doesn’t fear being divided into competing camps of Republicans and Democrats.

What’s more, a community of resistance sees an election year as an opportunity.  Truth rarely spoken will be revealed during the campaign scramble.  This creates the context for candid conversation about the real world.  And “real” conversation creates the opportunity for change, for conversion, for the flowering of human community that is honest, generative and life-giving.

In short, a Jesus-following community of resistance doesn’t walk on eggshells during an election year; it mobilizes for engagement with people, expecting them to be unusually open to conversation.

Do we see evidence of this approach in the Second Testament writings of the Bible?

Many Christian leaders characterize those writings as largely apolitical, reflecting the fact that the first Jesus-following assemblies pursued religious purposes, not political ones. 

Yet such an interpretation reflects a fallacy—imagining religion and politics to be mutually exclusive realms—and misrepresents the perspective of Second Testament writers such as the Apostle Paul.  He perceived the Roman Empire to be “the power of darkness” (Col.1:13) and believed the way of Jesus provided an escape into another way of life. 

By definition, the communities Paul nurtured resisted the Empire.  They understood themselves to be engaged in a struggle, “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12).

This helps explain why Paul did not need to argue the point at length in his writings; it also goes far in explaining why the Empire executed Paul for treason.

The survey of the Bible John K. Stoner and I published in 2014—If Not Empire, What?recovers this understanding of the Second Testament writings.

So how does a Jesus-following community of resistance regard the American state?  Does it desire its well-being and success? 

Certainly such a community cares much about the American people, their cities and towns, their businesses and schools, their families and households. But it does not view the American state as contributing to the vitality and sustainability of these human endeavors.  Instead, it sees that state as possessed by an imperial spirit seeking to dominate the world; its purposes lead to desolation and ruin.

This is where many of us are caught up short.  We continue to believe that for our families, neighbors and friends to thrive, the empire must succeed. 

So I suggest a small step.  Let’s get in touch with the anger and restlessness of the US electorate.  Empathy for the people with those feelings can be a doorway to new relationships within our neighborhoods; those relationships can reveal new and hopeful possibilities. 

What better time to do this than an election year?

A related essay by the same author has been published by PeaceSigns and by The Mennonite.

Why Dad Voted Republican

by Berry Friesen (March 12, 2016)

“Fried rats, pickled cats, good enough for the Democrats!”

That school-yard taunt introduced me to the world of American politics.  It was 1956, I was in the third grade and unfamiliar names—Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson— inexplicably entered our school-day conversations.

I was bewildered. “Who do we support for President?”  I asked my father.

“General Eisenhower,” he replied.


“Because the Democrats get us into wars.”

Through my school years and into college, I tested my father’s words.  Sure enough, Democrat Woodrow Wilson had been elected in 1916 on a promise to keep America out of the European war, only to betray that promise soon after winning the vote. Republican Herbert Hoover had ended the Marine occupation of Nicaragua and Haiti and turned away the requests of corporations that wanted him to send the Marines into Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Peru. Republicans such as Robert A. Taft, Gerald Nye and Arthur Vandenberg had led the opposition to Democrat FDR’s long preparation for entry into World War 2.  Republican Dwight Eisenhower had ended the misguided and futile war in Korea that Democrat Harry Truman took our country into.

When at last I could vote for President, I adopted my father’s frame of reference and voted for a former bomber pilot named George McGovern.  He was the candidate most likely to end the war in Vietnam.

Yes, McGovern was a Democrat, the exception who proved the rule.  But in 1980, my father’s wisdom took me to John Anderson, a Republican whose biggest regret was his vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.  And in 1996, it took me to Bob Dole, even though there appeared to be little difference between Dole and Bill Clinton in regard to their support for U.S. interventionism.

My father would have been shocked by the roster of Republican candidates for 2016. Rand Paul may have attracted his attention (as he did mine), but Paul’s credibility as a non-interventionist evaporated when he joined the Israel-first lobby’s call for continued hostility toward Iran.  The other Republican candidates show much enthusiasm for U.S. intervention in other countries’ affairs, the very trait my father scorned in the Democrats of his lifetime.

Today’s Democrats, meanwhile, are like the proverbial leopard that can’t change its spots. Bernie Sanders doesn’t trumpet his party’s warring tradition like Hillary Rodham Clinton does, but he doesn't criticize it either.  Neither Sanders nor Clinton will reverse the Bush-Obama trajectory of endless war.  So if Green Party candidate Jill Stein in on the ticket, I expect to vote for her, as I did in 2012.

I’m well aware most opinion leaders hold the view that a stance of non-interventionism is ignorant and uncomprehending of modern global realities.  That view was already strong in the 1950s; it came along with the U.S. ascension to imperial power at the end of World War 2.  Today, the necessity of an interventionist foreign policy is dogma: America has no choice but to intervene and "do something."

We see this sense of privilege routinely displayed by the columnists of the leading establishment newspapers. They write regretfully about the intractable ethnic and sectarian division of troubled societies, the corruption and cruelty of their leaders, the extremism of their disaffected, the irrationality of their violence.   As any dolt is supposed to understand, U.S. interventionism (i.e., endless war) is an inescapable responsibility, a moral duty, an honorable response to the tragedy of life.  The world is dreadfully difficult to manage, but for grown-ups, what other choice is there?

Thankfully, my father resisted this virus of imperial condescension. He knew the “necessity” of war is the desire for wealth and power.  He also knew war entails the breaking of all the rules, whether having to do with the Bible, the Constitution or simple human decency.  

His wisdom, so widely shared among the American people in the '20s and the '30s, can be simply summarized.  Military intervention in the affairs of other nations almost always makes matters worse. A few will find great profit in such interventions, and those few will dominate national electoral politics.  But their ambitions will only be legitimized by our support, and because we aren’t fools, we won’t give it to them.

(A version of this essay first appeared in LNP, the daily newspaper in Lancaster PA)

Bad, Bad, Donald Trump *

by Berry Friesen (March 8, 2016)

Like many others, I’m trying to understand the US presidential campaign.  Back in January, I posted six essays about what motivates Trump’s supporters.  This post is about the broader dynamics at work in the politics of the empire.

Let’s start with this maxim from John Basil Barnhill, an early 20th century socialist:  "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."

Do the imperial elite perceive a threat to their rule among the American people?  That is, is there a part of the electorate who rejects the legitimacy of the elite’s control and is prepared to act accordingly?  If so, who are those people?

Determined leftists do not accept the legitimacy of the elite, but are not a threat because of their fragmentation and preoccupation with identity issues.  Liberals are too acculturated to make a stand; Chris Hedges has chronicled their betrayal. 

Is there then a threat from the right-wing?  Not exactly; there is simply too much money being made via war profiteering, prison profiteering, pharmaceutical profiteering, Wall Street manipulation and the privatization of public functions and wealth.  

Yet there is a genuine threat abroad in the land—millions of Americans who are convinced the US political system is a charade designed to legitimize the rule of the elite. The right-wing Tea Party is the most organized and visible manifestation, but this reality exists all across the spectrum and includes leftists too.  

Within this huge slice of the American people, we find very low rates of voting, deep anger at liberals for their betrayal of the working class, fury about the bank bail-out of 2009, intense frustration with America’s inconclusive wars, much skepticism over official accounts of 9/11, and outright contempt for rules of political discourse that serve to maintain the charade.

Bad, bad, Donald Trump is the elite’s answer to this threat.  Trump has been anointed leader of the disaffected and given the task of neutering that threat.  I expect he will be elected the next President of the United States.

What of the millions being spent every day to derail his candidacy?  It’s all part of the charade, meant to lock in Trump’s credentials as an enemy of the elite, but deployed much too late to stop Trump’s march to the White House.  If the elite wanted to block Trump, they would have denied him nonstop media coverage during 2015.  In this respect, Donald Trump is like ISIS, launched into leadership by the very people who flamboyantly claim to oppose him.

And what is the point of this deception?  To restore the legitimacy of the empire and its ruling elite.  With Trump in the White House, disaffected Americans will have won their country back; they again will believe in the empire.  For a time, at least, this will dissipate any threat to the elite.

But won’t Trump need to make big changes in the empire in order to win over the disaffected? 

Certainly the packaging—the rhetoric—will need to change and that will generate endless and highly engaging controversy. But will Trump change the policies of the empire—the predatory economics, the Pentagon’s bullying, the private profiteering, the transfer of wealth from America’s working people to the elite?  The question answers itself. 

In “Trump will make his peace with the war party,” Dan Sanchez notes that Trump’s circle of advisors includes imperial insiders: Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, Richard Haass (current president of the Council on Foreign Relations), Senator Jeff Sessions and John Bolton, an Iraq War architect and close ally of the neocons. 

Sanchez also recounts how Ronald Reagan came to power as an anti-establishment figure, only to use the power of the presidency to strengthen the grip of the elite.

But isn’t Trump wrecking the Republican Party?  Aren’t people who have given their lives to that Party about to suffer great loses?  It’s a good point, one suggesting Trump is a true outsider and not a stalking horse for the elite. 

Nevertheless, count me among those who are skeptical that Trump represents the end of the charade.  Rather than marking a return to greater transparency, he signifies the seriousness of the threat from the millions of us who have stopped believing what is fed to us daily by the mainstream media. 

That’s the problem Donald Trump is meant to fix.
*     Back in 1973, Jim Croce had a No. 1 hit with “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown,” a song about a man whose meanness was part of his attractiveness.    I don’t expect the song will be played at the Trump inauguration parties, but it captures a crucial element of the Trump phenomenon.  

A Kinder, Gentler Empire?

by Berry Friesen (March 3, 2016)

Can the US-led empire be saved?  That is, can it be convinced to turn away from deceit, violence and domination and seek peace and sustainable life on Earth?

Or is its collapse the best we can hope for, like the Soviet empire that broke apart without taking the world with it?

How pessimistic should we be about the empire?

The Bible gives us various perspectives to consider.  

The myth of David and Solomon was optimistic about empire so long as a righteous king from the House of David was in charge.  Ezra and Nehemiah lived at a time when being in charge was out of the question.  Still, in their view, empire could be a good thing, especially if enough people from “our team” were appointed to powerful positions within the empire.

However sincerely those viewpoints are espoused in biblical writings, they come across as cautionary tales when read within the context of the entire Bible.

Empire is a major theme of Genesis and Exodus and the authors provide a highly pessimistic view. So do Hosea, Micah, the authors of 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, and the author of Daniel.

In the Second Testament, the Apostle Paul called the empire “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13). Yet he also left us with more optimistic messages.  For example, he was enthusiastic about preaching to top-ranking imperial officials and told persecuted Jews in Rome (perhaps facetiously) that the empire was “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad“ (Rom. 13:3).

The author of 1 Peter displayed no such ambivalence; he described the empire as “a roaring lion” prowling around “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  And John the Revelator described the empire as a ravenous “beast” (Rev. 13).

Jesus didn’t pay much attention to the Roman Empire, but talked all the time about the empire of YHWH.  As Jesus described it (see Matt. 5), YHWH’s empire bore no resemblance to the Roman Empire.  According to Mark’s gospel, when arrested and questioned by a high-ranking Roman official (Pilate), Jesus refused to speak.

On balance then, the Bible is pessimistic about empire, but not uniformly.

This past week I read accounts of the US-led empire by two well-informed observers who see a deeply malevolent spirit at work.

The first, from economist Michael Hudson, describes economic policies; it is entitled “The New Global Financial War” and is a transcript of Bonnie Faulkner’s Guns and Butter interview of Hudson.  Do we imagine the empire wants an efficient economy driven by market dynamics, broadly shared prosperity and a rising tide that will lift all boats?  That’s not at all how the US-led empire acts.  Instead, its economic policy is driven by the desire to enrich its elite members and destroy resistance to its control.

The second, “Empire of Chaos preparing for more fireworks for 2016,” is from journalist Pepe Escobar.  It describes the empire’s political purposes: the expansion of NATO and separation of Europe from Russia; the encirclement of China and transformation of the South China Sea into a war zone; endless proxy wars across Africa and the Middle East. It’s all about retaining dominance and destroying the viability of alternatives to the imperial system.

Chillingly, Escobar ends his essay with these quotes from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

"There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies....To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe....We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone . . .”