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Our Existential Choice

by Berry Friesen (August 23, 2016)

The prophetic thread running through the Bible is committed not to reforming the empire, but to replacing it with something called the “kingdom of God.”   That’s the core stance of If Not Empire, What?

Writers within this biblical tradition desired the end of imperial rule, but they also regarded that end to be inevitable.  Why inevitable?  Because YHWH—the god those writers worshipped as the source of life—is compassionate, forgiving and opposed to injustice and oppression. 

For Second Testament writers there was a second reason:  YHWH had exalted Jesus of Nazareth—the man who lived compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil—by raising him from the dead.

When it comes to the empire, in other words, the prophetic biblical witness is not to reform the empire so that it is gentler, less ruthless and more long-lasting, but to resist it in a way that is consistent with the character of YHWH.  That is, with compassion toward the many dependent on the empire for their daily bread, with a spirit of forgiveness toward one another as we struggle to escape the grasp of imperial deceptions and policies, and with nonviolent practices that create an alternative to the empire’s ruthless methods and despairing future.

Resistance may strike many readers as an extreme proposition, especially during an election year when supposedly we have the power to decide who will lead the empire (or at least be its public face) during the next four years.  Don’t we have the capacity to improve the empire by who we vote into office?

This is the assumption within which most Americans operate (religious folks included). According to this perspective, the US-led empire is different from all those before it—more benevolent, less ravenous, more peace-loving, less violent.  We ought to support it, not resist it.

Events of recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Honduras, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen flatly contradict this illusion of imperial exceptionality.  Even under the so-called liberal President Obama, the US-led empire has functioned internationally as a criminal enterprise using violence and threats of violence to create chaos and extort control.      

Here at home we see evidence of the same spirit of domination in the militarization of policing and the frequent use of lethal violence against civilians.  We see it as well in the popular infatuation with guns, the open efforts to suppress voting by racial minorities, and the passage of trade, banking and tax laws that enrich the wealthy elite while depriving the working class of jobs. 

Of course, those whose understanding of the world depends on National Public Radio, the New York Times, cable news and the big-name wire services know little of this.  As they see it, the US-led empire isn’t in control of much of anything; mainly, it bumbles along doing the best it can in a tragic world not of its making. For those with this perspective, reform makes perfect sense, electing a new President of the US is a big deal, and Clinton vs. Trump feels like a question of nearly existential significance. 

But for those who have crossed over to the other side (both in how they read the Bible and in where they get their news), the US-led empire is simply the latest incarnation of the “darkness” and “death” of which the Bible speaks (Col. 1:13).  For such people, the existential question is not Clinton vs. Trump, but how to align today’s living with an anti-imperial alternative that reflects the character of YHWH.

Our book title (If Not Empire, What?) assumes readers are convinced of the urgency of forging an anti-imperial alternative.   But of course, most living in the West—religious or otherwise—are far from convinced. Instead, they remain hopeful that with a leader who is a little smarter and a bit more principled, the entity that has brought us continuous war and ruthless state terrorism will change its spots. 

That’s a far cry from the prophetic thread within the Bible, which imagines the humiliation of the great powers ruling the world, disarmed by the way of Jesus (Col. 2:15). 

Hard to believe, I know, so hard that it’s easy to see why many have embraced a christianity that avoids this entire subject.  Yet there it is, in the Bible:  the great existential question isn’t who we will elect for President, but whether we expect the way of empire or the way of Jesus to save Earth and all who live here.     

A Stateless Politics - Part 2

by Berry Friesen (August 15, 2016)

Two readers offered substantive responses to my previous post on “A Stateless Politics.” 

CM from California wrote:  Quite a feat to write a whole post on anarchism without using the term! Seriously, though, why not use the occasion of this post to at least mention the thin tradition of Christian anarchism over the last 150 years?  Just curious.”

CM, yes, the stateless character of the prophetic biblical witness does have important connections to anarchism. 

Anarchism points us away from the state, just as the prophetic biblical witness does.  Each insists the state is not a solution to the violence and insecurity of our world, but instead a significant source of that violence and insecurity.

Anarchism and the prophetic biblical witness also share an emphasis on informal ways to “establish” peace at the grassroots level.  Both are realistic about the importance of authority in community life, but in contrast to those holding a top-down orientation, each views authority as most effectively mediated informally through social and economic norms and structures.  The emphasis is on informal cultural power, not formal state power.

Of course, the prophetic biblical tradition is rooted in its understanding of YHWH and the shared experience of communities committed to YHWH.  It is a religious viewpoint, in other words.  In contrast, anarchism as a belief system dedicated to the abolition of government is an ideology, one difficult to support by reference to the biblical tradition, in my opinion.

CR from Iowa wrote:  “A stateless politics is as idealistic as a church without politics.”  He went on: "The processes of decision-making and authority are parallel in regional, state, national and international scale organizations, whether they are church-based or [overtly] political organizations.  War is the failure of nonviolent decision-making organizations [of whatever type].  . . . The religious, consensus-based pacifists [who refuse] to lend their voices, votes, time and money to the [overt] political process is a negative and a tragedy, in my view.”

CR, I haven’t attempted to mount a general argument for a stateless politics. States provides benefits as well as burdens/threats, and life in some places of the world would be much worse without them.  Witness the empire’s deadly desire to destroy states in places such as Iraq, Libya and Syria, thereby rendering residents of those places highly vulnerable to exploitation by private interests.   

But yes, as you say, political behavior is certainly as present in church life as in the realm of government.

My point is that communities shaped by the prophetic biblical witness create a multifaceted life that shapes behavior, enables commerce, encourages human creativity and protects safety/security.  This is accomplished by providing a better way, not by imposing top-down power.  Because it is practically attractive and life-giving, it can also be self-organizing, not by capturing the levers of coercion but by winning the heart-felt commitment of people.

Often this kind of “politics” is separatist and sectarian, but it doesn’t have to be.  It can exchange ideas, data and best practices with local governments, for example.  In the biblical record, we see many positive examples of such (though at the imperial level, not so much). 

So as I see it, the power of the prophetic biblical witness is in modeling another way to live in the world, including norms, expectations, structures and prototypes that are life-giving.

Is Trump's Candidacy a Covert Op?

by Berry Friesen (Aug. 10, 2016)

I’ve been mulling this possibility since last August, when Trump and his supporters showed us that a Trump run for President had to be taken seriously.

I do not know the answer to my question, but in the paragraphs that follow I will outline why I increasingly am inclined to regard this “election from hell” as a covert op. 

As I said in “A Dog in This Fight?”, the empire carries out covert ops all around the world to create desired change. Why not here?

By “covert op,” I mean a secret conspiracy of agencies of the US government (probably the FBI, CIA, NSA), working together with private “security” contractors and elements of organized crime to achieve specific results in the 2016 presidential election.

For those who reject “conspiracy thinking” across-the-board, spend a couple of hours reading about how the Democratic National Committee (DNC) conspired to make sure Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination.  Then come back here to finish this post.

What is the purpose of this covert op (if it exists)?

Primarily, the purpose is to elect Clinton as the next President. 

She is a member of the imperial elite and can be counted on to advance the imperial agenda, both in the US and globally:  undermine independent bases of power and authority (culture, religion, nationalism, fiefdoms, etc.); use debt to shift public wealth into private hands; financialize the economy so that Wall Street rules. The military, covert intelligence agencies and proxy terror groups are the enforcers in this game plan. In Iraq, Honduras, Libya, Syria and the Ukraine, Clinton has established a clear record of using such “allies” to advance private interests.  She can be trusted to authorize more violence when “needed.”

A second purpose of a covert op within this election is to restore the legitimacy of the US democracy. Many millions of Americans are convinced that the US political system has been corrupted by the moneyed elite.  Participation in voting has been weak; turn-out among the voting-age population has not reached 60 percent since 1968. 

This threatens the legitimacy of the agendas advanced by the President and other political leaders.  So this election must generate high popular participation, including more voting. 

Third, within the Republican Party is a group of mavericks who refuse to follow the imperial script (more Wall Street control, more surveillance, more use of the US military in world events).  Members of this group oppose increased surveillance, oppose war without congressional authorization, oppose energetic government action in response to crisis, and refuse to follow blindly their leadership. 

The growth in this sentiment within a major player in the system must be stopped.  Discrediting this maverick point-of-view and making it political death to go off-the-reservation (as politicians such Rep. Walter Jones or Senator Rand Paul have) is necessary in order to restore stability.

How would such a covert op be implemented?

A populist candidate who engages the disaffected would be provided the resources to win the Republican Party’s nomination for President, but then would conduct a post-convention campaign that almost inevitably produces failure in the General Election. 

Cooperation of the key players in this plan would need to be secured.  For Trump and Bernie Sanders, the opportunity to gain the attention of the nation and launch “political revolutions” would be sufficient inducement; for Clinton, certain victory would make it all worthwhile.  Major media executives who decide how to “cover” the news are already part of the imperial elite; their support can be counted on.  The same is true of the top leaders of the two major political parties.

How has it been implemented?

Mainstream media ushered Trump onto the national stage in the late spring of 2015 by amplifying his attention-seeking statements.  They kept Trump in the spotlight for a solid 15 months.  This is highly unusual behavior in response to a maverick candidate who has very little establishment support. FOX News played a major role in this (even though Trump was highly critical of FOX News), but other leading television networks and news outlets have responded similarly.

On the left, Sanders campaigned energetically and successfully in opposition to two aspects of Clinton's record:  Wall Street's stifling hold on the US economy and international trade agreements that benefited primarily the 1 percent. Inexplicably, he said little-to-nothing about Clinton's reckless use of confidential documents or her falsehoods to the American people about that conduct. Likewise, Sanders avoided criticism of Clinton's foreign policy record, which has served the interests of al-Qaeda while failing to protect US interests.

Since Trump's nomination as the Republican candidate, he has performed poorly.  Rather than building momentum on his convention success and the popularity of several of his policy proposals (opposition to international trade agreements and the extension of US military force around the world; support for the expulsion of certain groups of refugees and illegal immigrants and a return to an economy based on production, not financial manipulation), Trump instead has distracted his audience with off-topic controversies.

Prominent Republican leaders have responded to Trump’s unfocused and controversy-laden campaign by openly disavowing him.  Other Republican leaders in the foreign policy establishment—especially the Republican neo-cons—have committed their support to Clinton.  Numerous Republican officials in the “national security” establishment have declared Trump is “dangerous.” Together, this has caused a drop in support for Trump among college-educated Republicans and Independents, even while Trump’s support among the disaffected blue-color portion of the electorate remains strong.

Generally, throughout the pre-convention and post-convention phases of the campaign, Republican voices of opposition have been too-little-too-late, never attempting to cut Trump off at the pass, but always waiting to act until he is safely in the clear. 

Meanwhile, the mainstream media has continued to report about Trump’s statements in a way that attracts the disaffected while alarming those loyal to the process.

For example, Trump’s recent comment that in the event of a Clinton victory, Second Amendment devotees may have an alternative to the loss of Amendment-secured rights has been reported as encouragement to assassinate Clinton, even though it shows Trump to be referring instead to some sort of insurrection in the event of a Clinton victory.  Thus, both the disaffected and those loyal to the system have been energized.

How will this end?

If this is “a fixed fight” (as I suggest it is), then Trump will continue to engage the disaffected and alienate the rest of the electorate with outrageous antics and statements.  If there are more moderate and liberal voters driven to the polls by this approach than disaffected voters, then Clinton will certainly win.

Trump will do what is necessary to lose, in other words. That’s what the script calls for.

What difference does any of this make for you and me?

Always, our question must be how to use our time and energy.  Will we expend it on the drama and theatrics of what probably is a staged event leading to a Clinton presidency?  Or on helping to build an entirely different base of moral and political authority than our existing two-party system?  For me, as YHWH gives me breath, it will be the latter.