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The Way of Jesus

by Berry Friesen (April 28, 2016)

Recently, I heard Elias Chacour speak.  He is a Palestinian Christian who has dedicated his life to seeking justice through reconciliation with Jewish neighbors in Israel.

As described in his book, Blood Brothers, Chacour was a boy of eight in 1947 when the United Nations (UN) divided Palestine into two potential states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian.

During the six months that followed the UN decision, Zionist militias carried out a campaign of terror to expel Palestinians and expand the borders of the proposed Jewish state.  Around 400,000 Palestinians were forced out.  In May, 1948, after Israel declared itself an independent state, neighboring Arab nations promptly declared war on Israel.  During the ten-month conflict that followed, ethnic cleansing continued and at least another 350,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  In all, around 400 Palestinian towns and villages were either destroyed or resettled by Jews.

Chacour’s village was one of those destroyed.  His family stitched together temporary living arrangements and avoided expulsion from Israel. Today, he continues to live as an Israeli citizen.

Chacour speaks passionately about the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. He’s done so since 1965, when he became a Christian (Melkite) priest. Yet throughout his years of activism, he has insisted that Jewish, Muslim, Druze and Christian citizens of Israel are “brothers” and need one another to achieve justice.  “We belong to this land together,” he says.

I do not live in a context of conflict as wrenching as Chacour’s, yet I regularly encounter situations where people disagree deeply with one another.  Nearly always, the conflict is framed as a contest and the goal is to “win.”  Each side attempts to prevail by criticizing the other side’s errors, mistaken assumptions and weaknesses.  The resulting conflict wounds and destroys.

Conflict avoiders step back from all of this, saying nothing is important enough to risk the rupture of relationships.

If Not Empire, What? speaks of a third way (pages 41-42):

“The value judgments found in the Bible can be off-putting because of their authoritative, “god said” framing.  Yet we should not let that prevent us from hearing the underlying claim: there is a way of life within our grasp that leads to social justice, peace and prosperity.  ‘For surely I know the plan I have for you, says [YHWH], plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope’ (Jer. 29:11).  Except perhaps for the writer of Ecclesiastes, biblical writers never said it is unimportant how we live because it all will turn out the same in the end.  Such a thought simply did not fit their worldview.

“This brings us to a troubling question:  can we pursue a moral vision of society without triggering endless conflict and likely violence? Jesus believed it was possible; although he was committed to peace, he did not dial back his passion for justice and righteousness. Instead, he renounced violence and put his faith in YHWH and the power of self-giving, suffering love.  This was Jesus’ way of saving the world!”

Repeatedly in our book, we describe the way of Jesus as “compassion, forgiveness and resistance to evil.”  These are qualities that don’t easily fit together; some would call them contradictory.

Elias Chacour does not view them as contradictory.  His compassion includes Palestinians and Jews alike; his forgiveness reaches those who destroyed his family home and those who enslaved and killed Jews in Europe; his resistance to evil includes the second-class citizenship Israel grants Palestinians and the anti-Semitism that persists within Christianity.

Obviously, this understanding of the way of Jesus does not avoid conflict.  Instead, it sees conflict as an opportunity for something new and positive to emerge, something not yet fully articulated, something refreshingly honest and respectful in the way it relates to opponents.

As Chacour puts it, "If Jesus did appear [today] he'd say to all of us, 'I did not invite you to be peace contemplators, but peace actors, activists, builders.  Get up.  Get your hands dirty'."

This way of living has given Chacour a difficult, interesting and productive life.  It will do the same for us.

Which Fork in the Road?

by Berry Friesen (April 22, 2016)

Most people in my experience understand life to involve consequential choices. Disagreements emerge when we describe those choices and their consequences.

For the evangelical wing of Christianity, the fundamental choice is between accepting or rejecting Jesus as our “personal savior and lord.”  The consequences of this choice include either personal joy or anxiety while we live on Earth and nonstop heaven or hell after we die.

For the liberal wing of Christianity, the fundamental choice is between a loving, open-hearted way of life or a selfish, rule-oriented way.  The consequence of this choice shows itself in the gracefulness (or lack thereof) of our individual personalities.  Beyond death, the god whose very nature is loving and open-hearted ensures everything will be well.

For agnostics and atheists, the fundamental choice is between authenticity and pretense, between a life consistent with a true self versus a life fashioned after a false self.  The consequences are experienced as a personally satisfying life or a sense of frustration and futility.

If Not Empire, What? (the Bible survey John K. Stoner and I published in December, 2014) says a fundamental choice is between the stateless, vulnerable communalism of YHWH (embodied by Jesus of Nazareth) or the false security of empire. The consequence of this choice shows itself in how the world functions, which we claim to be YHWH’s primary concern.

Four perspectives, four different sets of choices, four different sets of consequences.

In the April issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, Michele Hershberger, professor of Bible at Hesston College, reviews our book in a way that bridges these four perspectives.  That is, she affirms communal faithfulness within history as the center of YHWH’s concern even as she calls attention to a dimension of life she calls variously “supernatural,” “miraculous” and “divine.”

Hershberger speaks well of our book, calling it “a valuable addition to biblical scholarship and the church, giving us not only a fresh survey of the canon, but also a solution for the apparent disunity of the biblical narrative concerning the role of empire. It provides a standard for discerning which texts should be given more authority for our ethics . . .”

But she also voices criticism, lamenting a perceived “diminishment of all things miraculous or divine.”  This lack of attention to “the supernatural” will “very likely push evangelicals to stop reading before they get to the compelling argument for a biblical alternative to empire.”

“How can we find the love and energy needed not only to fight the empire but to help YHWH redeem it?” Hershberger asks.  Though Christians may not “agree completely on which miracles were historical or how exactly Jesus is divine,” Hershberger insists we can “agree on our calling to resist empire, and to recognize that such resistance is an impossible task without supernatural help from YHWH.”

I think Hershberger’s critique has merit.  There is a vital and hugely significant spiritual dimension to life that is not sufficiently addressed in our book.  But in my view, neither “supernatural” nor “miraculous” is a helpful way to describe this feature of life because it is as much part of normal human history as flesh and blood.

Some authors are capable of writing about the spiritual dimension without lapsing into magical thinking.  Tony Bartlett comes to mind with his deep understanding of mimetic theory and brain science.  Alas, Stoner and I are not such authors.

If Hershberger’s point is that resistance to empire is in part a spiritual battle in which spiritual resources are essential, then I can only wholeheartedly agree.

My hope and desire is for us to embrace such a correction while remaining fully rooted in human history.  Because YHWH has chosen to dwell on Earth, human history is where YHWH’s purposes unfold, take on flesh and are revealed.

This Spirit of Craziness

by Berry Friesen (April 19, 2016)

This past Sunday, my local newspaper published two establishment voices decrying the political craziness at work here in the US.  One lamented the “disturbing” candidacy of Donald Trump and how it revealed “our country’s dark side,” the other condemned the “ideological extremism” of Bernie Sanders.

In the Bible, the gospels include a story of Jesus encountering political insanity.  As it happens, the adult education class at the church where I am a member studied that story this past Sunday.  It describes Jesus' encounter with an extremely violent man—likely a veteran of the Roman legion—who lived naked among the tombs along the Sea of Galilee’s east bank.

The story attributes the man’s rampaging violence to evil spirits that had possessed him. The name by which the spirits identified themselves—Legion—also named the notorious Roman cohort of 6,000 troops based in that particular place.  In the year prior to Jesus’ birth, this particular military unit had destroyed the Galilean town of Sepphoris and terrorized the population by crucifying 2,000 Jewish rebels.

The double meaning of the name (“Legion”) provides the interpretive key, helping us to see in this story Jesus’ response to the Roman Empire. Using this key, other elements of the story become clear.  The man’s craziness was a manifestation of his embrace of political domination and violence.  He had become incapable of being accountable to anyone or anything.  His desire for control was insatiable and could not be restrained.

This created a wretched isolation.  No one could bear to be in the man’s presence. He lived alone in a graveyard among the dead, abusing himself with stones.

Nearby, an industry required by the presence of the Roman Legion flourished:  pork production.  It was a large operation consisting of 2,000 pigs plus human attendants. Historian R.W. Davies notes that typically members of the Legion received a food ration of one pound of meat per day, often pork. So lots of locals found paid work tending that herd, butchering the mature animals and preparing the soldiers’ rations.

Jesus commanded the evil spirits to leave the man, restoring him to “his right mind” (Luke 8:35).  But the spirits of political domination and violence insisted they be allowed to occupy some host.  Why not the pigs?  Jesus agreed; after all, the pig was the mascot of the Roman legion resident in that locality. “Then the unclean spirits came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned” (Luke 8:33).

The image of the pigs rushing into the water brings to mind the destruction of the imperial army of Egypt as it pursued the Hebrew people into the Red Sea during their exodus from Egypt. One lesson is clear:  the spirits of domination and violence cause self-destruction.

Though Jesus had restored the crazy man to sanity, the local people were not pleased. Perhaps they had found the man to be entertaining in a scary sort of way.  Certainly they had enjoyed the economic benefits of hosting the spirits of domination and violence in their community.  Now they would need to find other paid work.  And so they begged Jesus to take his message of liberation to another place.

I find this story applicable to our time and place here in the US.

While we lament the craziness of this political season, we stubbornly refuse to make the connections between the craziness and the spirit of empire that sustains this country in its present form.

Why?  Because then we would either need to evict the spirits of domination and violence or admit that we too have come to welcome and depend upon their presence.  Rather than submitting to such an unpleasant but potentially liberating choice, we persist in our attempts to bind the beast with chains and shackles, pretending to limit the harm.

The election of Barack Obama—a very good man—was such an exercise.  Indeed, the spirits of domination and violence have intensified their evil under his watch, adding Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen to the places where death and mayhem reign, and parts of Nigeria, Mali and Chad too.

In the biblical story, the authority of Jesus was sufficient to evict the crazed spirit of empire and leave the man in his right mind.   But the story also reminds us that many actually prefer the turbulence of insanity to the uncertainty of healing.

As we live through this crazy election year, what will be our choice? Will we name the spirit producing the craziness?

"The Conquest of Us?"

by Berry Friesen (April 13, 2016)

In a December, 2014 speech to the London-based Centre for Investigative Journalism, veteran Australian journalist John Pilger asked a few of the right questions.

“Why has so much journalism succumbed to propaganda? Why are censorship and distortion standard practice? Why is the BBC so often a mouthpiece of rapacious power? Why do the New York Times and the Washington Post deceive their readers?”

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq is Pilger’s case-in-point.  If the media had done its job, the war would not have happened.  A million lives would have been saved, millions more would not have been injured, yet millions more would not have been displaced.

But the media did not do its job in 2002-03.  Nor has it learned from its failures.  If anything, propaganda dominates the mainstream media more than ever.  Here is what Pilger says about Ukraine:

“The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember. The biggest Western military build-up in the Caucasus and eastern Europe since World War 2 is blacked out. Washington’s secret aid to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible for war crimes against the population of eastern Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that contradicts propaganda that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner is blacked out.”

Pilger recalls a time forty years ago when Carl Bernstein, one of the journalists who broke the Watergate scandal, created a sensation by revealing that more than 400 journalists and news executives worked for the CIA.

Today, such clandestine intrigue isn’t necessary. On matters related to “national security” and international policy, mainstream media willingly serve the purposes of the empire. The fabled independence of the press has disappeared; it has become an integral part of the governing power structure.

Thus, says Pilger, “We have war by media; censorship by media; demonology by media; retribution by media; diversion by media—a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.”

Pilger acknowledges that the modern era of government-generated propaganda began 100 years ago when public opinion was shaped to support World War 1.  The so-called father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, called that carefully hidden propaganda operation ‘an invisible government.’

Now, says Pilger, the propaganda apparatus is no longer invisible, but front and center. The empire knows it has achieved full-spectrum dominance and has the firepower to rule the world.  The only remaining obstacle is public opinion.  Will we view the empire’s ruthless domination as “justice” or as “brutality?” This is the pivotal question.

Thus, the empire’s “principal aim is the conquest of us: our sense of the world, our ability to separate truth from lies.”

Think about that:  the empire’s main objective is “the conquest of us.”

We thought we didn’t matter.  Yet conquering us is what worries the empire.

This is immensely encouraging.  There is something we can do to stop the empire’s madness:  stop believing its lies, stop granting legitimacy to its pillage and devastation, reveal its violence for the brutality that it is.

You and I have this power, small though we are.  It is “the power and the glory” of “the son of man” described by the seventh chapter of Daniel and by Jesus in his final public teaching (Mark 13:26) and in his response to the accusations of the Jewish high priest (Mark 14:62).

The empire knows that legitimacy is the key to the kingdom.  It’s the one thing we hold and on it everything the empire does depends.

Isn’t it time we stop pretending there’s nothing we can do?

Empire's Way and Means

by Berry Friesen (April 6, 2016)

This blog meanders from time to time; recently it has focused on important events from the Christian calendar.

But its core purpose is to acquaint readers with the ways and means of the US-led empire. Those ways and means define our experience of the world, yet are almost invisible because they are so pervasive and widely embraced.  Invisibility is the crowning success of the empire, indicating broad acceptance of the empire's version of how the world works.

I often write about Syria because the war there helps us see what is otherwise hidden.

By following events in Syria, we learn the empire prefers war to peace and actively supports terrorists as agents of war.  We learn the mainstream media work tirelessly to obscure this preference for war and this collaboration with terrorists. And we learn that other leading sectors of civil society—business, labor, academia, the arts, philanthropy, the church—acquiesce to this state of affairs.

So let’s get back to work.

1. President Obama continues to insist on the one thing that ensures the war in Syria will continue: removing President Bashar al-Assad from his position as the popular leader of the Syrian government.

Not surprisingly, the February 27 ceasefire is starting to come apart.  On April 2, “moderate” fighters joined al-Qaeda units in attacking government positions near Aleppo.

So-called “moderate” units that signed on to the ceasefire reportedly have used the nearly 6-week lull in fighting to restock arms inventories and rebuild manpower levels.

The US-led coalition funded and facilitated this resupply effort via cross border movements from surrounding nations, especially Turkey.  Indeed, the empire has for the first time provided insurgents with MANPADs, hand-held missile launchers that can shoot down Syrian fighter jets and helicopters.  A Syrian fighter jet reportedly was shot down April 5.

It is well documented that about half of all weapons turned over to “moderates” end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or Da’esh, so we should not be too surprised when domestic airlines are targeted somewhere in the world.

2.  On March 26, after three days of intense fighting with Da’esh, the Syrian army captured Palmyra, the desert city known for its antiquities.  Syrian troops have since unearthed there the graves of many civilians slaughtered by Da’esh.

The Obama Administration was unable to find any good news in the liberation of Palmyra.  NPR radio reported March 28 that the city and its beleaguered inhabitants “fell into government hands.”  The New York Times compared Syrian President Assad to a scorpion and groused that the liberation of Palmyra bolsters Assad’s confidence.

Again, we learn from Syria that the empire is more prepared to accommodate savage terrorism than a popular leader who refuses to cooperate.

3.  The belief in the freedom of Western media is a major asset of the empire.  So long as we believe in the vigor and independence of the press, we are highly likely to give the benefit of the doubt to the empire.  If anything is rotten about the way things are, the media would dig it up and expose it, right?

This week we saw an example of how this works.

An organization that specializes in investigative reporting revealed a huge data base of information about government officials, politicians and business leaders who have invested in a shady tax shelter administered by a Panamanian law firm called Mossak Fonseca.

The data set is massive and is still being analyzed, but its contents have been available to at least one media outlet for at least a year already. Yet we see no stories implicating politicians or billionaires from the inner circle of the empire (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand).  Instead, this story investigating hidden corruption focuses mostly on people who are disfavored by the empire.

For example, though Russian President Putin is not named in the documents, many Western newspapers published reports about the "leaked" documents alongside a picture of Putin. (As an example, have a look at how The Guardian presented the story.)  This suggests that this entire episode is designed for a very different purpose than exposing corruption.

Moon of Alabama views the entire “leak” as a propaganda ploy and includes this quote from former UK ambassador Craig Murray:

“The filtering of this Mossack Fonseca information by the corporate media follows a direct western government agenda.  There is no mention at all of use of Mossack Fonseca by massive western corporations or western billionaires—the main customers.  And the Guardian is quick to reassure that ‘much of the leaked material will remain private.’

“What do you expect?  The leak is being managed by the grandly but laughably named ‘International Consortium of Investigative Journalists,’ which is funded and organized by the USA’s Center for Public Integrity.  Their funders include [the] Ford Foundation, Carnegie Endowment, Rockefeller Family Fund, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Open Society Foundation (Soros).”

Independent journalist Robert Parry provides a similar analysis.

“The . . . advantage of ‘corruption’ as a propaganda weapon to discredit certain leaders is that we all assume that there is plenty of corruption in governments as well as in the private sector all around the world. Alleging corruption is like shooting large fish crowded into a small barrel. Granted, some barrels might be more crowded than others, but the real decision is whose barrel you choose.

“That’s part of the reason why the U.S. government has spread around hundreds of millions of dollars to finance ‘journalism’ organizations, train political activists and support ‘non-governmental organizations’ that promote U.S. policy goals inside targeted countries. For instance, before the Feb. 22, 2014 coup in Ukraine, there were scores of such operations in the country financed by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), whose budget from Congress exceeds $100 million a year.”

Do you believe a free press is important?  Do you like to think we in the West have one? If so, the empire can work with that.

As Parry puts it, the “perversion of journalism” can set the stage for regime change, which almost always entails stigmatizing a targeted leader.  This obviously is underway in the Mossack Fonseca “leak;” Putin is being stigmatized, another step in the campaign for “regime change” in Russia.