Pages -- horizontal menu

Biblical Bias

by Berry Friesen (October 31, 2016)

This website focuses on one of the Bible’s most obvious biases:  opposition to empire.

We see this bias in one of the earliest texts—the story of how YHWH used Moses to deliver the Hebrews from the oppression of the Egyptian empire.  It continues via the tale of the tower of Babel and is carried along by the Bible’s leading characters:  Abraham, Samuel, Elijah, Daniel, Mary, Jesus, Peter and Paul.

As we slog through the final week of the election campaign here in the US, this biblical bias serves as a warning against becoming preoccupied by Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Because YHWH is against the empire, their contest over who will be the next President loses its luster.

Of course, the Bible is chock full of judgments about the way to live.  Many other examples could be cited. The Bible values

  --honest business practices;

  --profit-sharing with laborers and wealth broadly distributed throughout society;

  --fidelity to commitments, even when those hold us back;

  --sexual activity within the context of male-female marriage;

  --social practices that protect vulnerable members (e.g., widows, orphans, aliens);

  --forgiveness of those who wrong us and reconciliation with our enemies;

  --hospitality extended to strangers, to those who are different.

Popular discomfort with the Bible’s many value judgments accounts for the eagerness to spiritualize the Bible’s message, reduce its authority to a simple teaching about god’s love, or ignore it entirely.

It’s not that people turned off by biblical bias lack morality or moral sensitivity.  Indeed, secular society reflects many moral judgments, just as the Bible does.

No, what’s commonly objectionable about biblical bias is the so-called sacred authority with which the Bible claims to speak.  In other words, it’s the god language that is the problem, not the moral voice.

So where does this leave us?

In If Not Empire, What? my co-author and I never insist that in the biases of the Bible we hear the voice of a universal god.  Instead, we make the more modest claim that those biases reflect the authors’ witness to the wisdom of the god of the Hebrews.   “This is our story, our testimony to what we have experienced and learned about this god,” biblical authors seemed to say; “take it or leave it.”

Which brings us back to the biblical view that we should regard the grandiose claims of the empire with skepticism and the election of its leaders with detachment.  Among the many biblical biases, this one receives comparatively little attention from Christian preachers and teachers here in the US. Most are more inclined to follow the script of Ezra and Nehemiah and leverage alignment with imperial officials into personal power and success.

Still, bias against empire endures as the wisdom of Scripture, delivered to us by faithful witnesses who envisioned a world changed from the bottom up, not the top down.  Take it or leave it, as you will.  But there it remains, an invitation to all who seek a better way.

Voting Constructively

by Berry Friesen (October 24, 2016)

Most Americans (57 percent) think we need a major third political party because the Republican and Democrat parties are not doing an adequate job of representing us, according to Gallup polling conducted in September.

So why don’t we have a major third party?  The main reason is we voters haven’t supported credible third parties on the ballot—the Greens and the Libertarians.

On the presidential ballot for the Greens in 45 states is Jill Stein, a physician.  On the ballot for the Libertarians in all 50 states is former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.

(Also on the ballot for President in 11 states is Evan McMullin, a former CIA and Goldman Sachs operative.  Though not impressed with these credentials, I mention McMullin because he currently leads the polling in Utah.  McMullin is running as an independent, not associated with any political party.)

Generally speaking, the Greens and the Libertarians are not beholden to the special interests that drive policy in the US: Wall Street, the energy companies, the big military contractors. This makes a huge difference in the positions their candidates take.

For example, Stein and Johnson each oppose the interventionism that has come to dominate US foreign policy.  Each supports major cuts to military spending; opposes the current economic model, which brings prosperity to the well-connected and leaves the rest of us behind; and views climate change as a pressing public issue.

Rigged Election?

The election system is set up to protect incumbents and ensure the domination of the Republican and Democrat parties.  Generally, we don’t regard this built-in bias to be cheating.

Media bias can distort how a candidate is perceived by the voters.  After noting almost unanimous media support for Clinton, Mike Whitney asks: “When was the last time the media threw 100 percent of its support behind one party’s presidential candidate?”  But generally, we don't regard media bias as cheating either.

Of course, Trump also has benefited from the media, which inexplicably made him into a credible candidate by the inordinate amount of coverage it gave him, especially during 2015.

As David Swanson puts it, “The Republican presidential primary was rigged. It wasn’t rigged by the Republicans, the Democrats, Russians, space aliens, or voters. It was rigged by the owners of television networks who believed that giving one candidate far more coverage than others was good for their ratings.”

So when Trump now claims the upcoming election is “rigged” against him, he seems to be speaking of something more targeted and nefarious.

Swanson provides an example of this as well:

“The 2016 Democratic presidential primary was rigged. It wasn’t rigged by bankers, misogynists, Russians, Republicans, or computer hackers. It was rigged by the Democratic National Committee and its co-conspirators in the media, many of whom have helpfully confessed (in case it wasn’t obvious) in emails leaked from the DNC and from John Podesta. The DNC chose Hillary Clinton and worked hard to make sure that she ‘won’.”

Last but not least, there is the cheating that excludes people of a certain persuasion from registering to vote,that blocks their voting by failing to provide enough accessible polling places, or that cancels out their votes by changing the totals.   Allegedly, Republican state officials used these practices in 2004 to win Ohio for George W. Bush and in 2000 to win Florida for Bush (see here and here and here).  In 1960, Democrat state officials are widely reported to have done the same to win Illinois for Kennedy.

Our Response

I take seriously the worries about a rigged election.  Each major party has the motive and the operational capacity to cheat in specific locations.  And yes, each is morally capable of doing it.

Yet this doesn’t prompt me to despair.  Voting continues to be a modest way to impact our world constructively. So I ask: how can I do that?

In most states, to qualify as a recognized political party and thus be assured of a spot on the election ballot, one of a party’s candidates must receive a designated percentage (typically 5 percent) of the vote cast in the preceding election.

This is an important step for a political party to take, enabling it to spend time and money next time around on talking to voters about the issues, not the mechanics of getting on the ballot.

That’s why I don’t see voting Green or Libertarian as “a protest vote.”  Instead, it’s a way to prepare for a better political future by strengthening parties that have fresh ideas and will resist the oligarchic control of Wall Street, fossil-fuel energy and the big military contractors.

This time around, let’s end “lesser evil” voting and the ever-worsening quality of Republican and Democrat candidates.  Let’s use our ballots to accomplish something positive:  vote Green or Libertarian.

Clinton the Imperialist

by Berry Friesen (October 17, 2016)

I’ve posted about Donald Trump at least a half-dozen times since the beginning of 2016, but have posted about Hillary Rodham Clinton only once (“Picking our Poison”). It’s time to say more.

As stated in that previous post, Clinton is an imperialist.  She believes the US is exceptional, the “indispensable nation” with a duty to impose its will on the world through a combination of military and economic power.  We see this confirmed by her performance as Secretary of State (January 2009—January 2013).  In that position, she:

-- Pushed for sending 20,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan at the start of the Obama Administration;

-- Supported regime change in Honduras via a coup in 2009 that removed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and inserted a violent, right-wing government that has turned Honduras into a narco-state and prompted thousands of Hondurans to flee north toward the US border;

-- Pushed for regime change in Libya in 2011 via a no-fly zone and “responsibility to protect” operation that quickly became a joint NATO/al-Qaeda invasion and left most of Libya in the hands of forces loyal to al-Qaeda and ISIS;

-- Pushed for expanded presidential use of kill lists and drone strikes to kill US opponents;

-- Starting in 2011, pushed for regime change in Syria via a strategy that entailed (a) training and equipping foreign fighters to invade that country and (b) enabling Salafist forces (i.e., ISIS) to establish a caliphate in western Iraq and eastern Syria;

-- Deployed the US diplomatic mission to Libya to help coordinate an arms smuggling operation into Syria, thereby creating the context for a 2012 attack in Benghazi on US diplomatic personnel and four US deaths;

-- Interfered in the 2012 Russian general election by alleging Russian officials had engaged in electoral fraud and manipulation; and

-- Laid the groundwork for regime change in Ukraine by appointing Victoria Nuland, former chief foreign-affairs advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, as State Department spokesperson and then recommending her to be appointed by President Obama as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.  From there, Nuland engineered the February, 2014 coup.

In her successful run for the Democratic Party nomination, Clinton has further distinguished herself by

-- Comparing Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler;

-- Repeatedly calling for a no-fly zone over Syria, an action that would violate international law and bring the US and Russia into a direct military confrontation.

During Clinton’s four years within the Obama Administration, Clinton was known as “a hawk” who pushed President Obama and Pentagon officials to be more aggressive.  If she is elected President, we can expect she will govern with the same spirit.

War with Russia is a real possibility.  That thought is shocking in itself, but it becomes even more troubling when viewed in context.  Clinton’s no-fly zone would seek to ground the Syrian and Russian air forces and thus serve the purposes of the fighters on the ground trying to overthrow the Syrian government.  In the main, those fighters are al-Qaeda and ISIS.

To the typical American, this is baffling.  Risk war with Russia to help terrorists take over Syria?

Yes, that is exactly where a President Clinton is likely to go, not because she is evil, but because she is committed to the imperial agenda.  That’s where the evil lies.

October 18 update:  According to this Pepe Escobar essay, Clinton also launched the so-called "pivot to Asia" with her October, 2011 article, "America's Pacific Century." The "pivot" entailed a turn from the view that China is an economic partner of the US to the view that it is a strategic rival, which must be contained through military and trade alliances that exclude China.

Electing an Anti-Christ

by Berry Friesen (October 10, 2016)

Writing in the October issue of The Mennonite, religion professor J. Denny Weaver suggests the essence of the biblical image of the anti-Christ (see Revelation 13) is to sanctify imperial war-making by linking it with Judeo-Christian symbols and rhetoric.

“Wars have been fought in the name of Jesus ever since the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine declared himself a Christian and put Christian symbols on the shields of his army,” writes Weaver.  “In that sense, there have been so-called anti-Christs ever since.”

An American anti-Christ?  In our time?  Yes, says Weaver; all the current candidates for the US presidency “are running for ‘not-Christ’.”      

Most American Mennonites—indeed, most American Christians—are sure to object to such a characterization.  We take pride in “our democracy” and treasure our right to choose our leaders via elections.  It’s provocative—even inflammatory— to say we are using these cherished practices to pick an anti-Christ.  What possible connection is there between the violent, deceptive and enslaving beasts of Revelation 13 and the US President?

Weaver’s relatively short article doesn’t explain this connection in detail.  He merely references two features of the United States that support his thesis:  its claim to a Christian identity “under God” and its practice of “waging war” by “sending American young people to foreign countries to kill and be killed.”  Thus, Weaver says, the book of Revelation—with its parody of a dragon and two beasts—remains a warning to us “to remember the true character of the emperor and empire.”

There are American Christians who refuse to invest themselves emotionally in presidential elections.  The Amish and so-called plain Mennonites are examples.

But the great majority of us American Christians are not easily persuaded to detach emotionally from the American state. And most of us still think the current empire is so much better than the ones spoken of in the Bible as to render its warnings inapplicable.

If you are included in that great majority, then I encourage to test your perspective via “The United States as Destroyer of Nations,” an essay by University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Daniel Kovalik.  

Coming out of the great US victory in WW2, the core issue for foreign policy was how to maintain control of 50% of the world’s wealth with only 6% of the population.  What success has the US achieved in that regard?  Kovalik explains:

“While it would have been impossible for the U.S. to continue to monopolize a full half of the world’s wealth after Europe, Japan, China and the USSR inevitably got up upon their feet after WWII, the U.S. has nonetheless done an amazing job of controlling an unjustifiable and disproportionate amount of the world’s resources. Thus, currently, the U.S. has about 5% of the world’s population, and consumes about 25% of its resources.”

How has this been accomplished?  Again, professor Kovalik:

“The only way the U.S. has been able to achieve this impressive, though morally reprehensible, feat has been to undermine, many times fatally, the ability of independent states to exist, defend themselves and to protect their own resources from foreign plunder. This is why the U.S. has teamed up with the world’s most deplorable forces in destroying independent states around the globe.”

Kovalik’s list of nations weakened, divided or destroyed by the US-led empire in the post-WW2 era is long: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Yugoslavia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Ukraine.   Many millions have been killed along the way.  And Kovalik’s list of targeted nations doesn’t even get them all.

Our objection is easy to anticipate:  yes, all of those nations were weakened, divided or destroyed by the US, but that wasn’t the purpose of the US intervention.

Here is Kovalik’s response:

“This would seem to be an insane course of action for the U.S. to take, and indeed it is, but there is method to the madness. The U.S. appears to be intentionally spreading chaos throughout strategic portions of the world; leaving virtually no independent state standing to protect their resources, especially oil, from Western exploitation. And, this goal is being achieved with resounding success, while also achieving the subsidiary goal of enriching the behemoth industrial-military complex.”

Kovalik sums up this way:

“Jose Marti once said, ‘There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy.’ There is no doubt that the U.S. has proven itself to be of the latter kind; indeed, the very nature of U.S. foreign policy is destruction.”

We may find it outrageous to characterize the US-led empire as one of the beasts of Revelation 13.  But then how do we explain Syria, where to protect al-Qaeda’s control of east Aleppo, the US is prolonging the war and threatening Russia?  How do we explain Libya, where the US armed Salafist fighters and destroyed the government, leaving chaos behind and ISIS entrenched?  How do we explain Ukraine, where the US joined neo-Nazis in bringing down an elected government and making war on Russian-speaking citizens?

There are no honest explanations for these crimes.

Nor should we spend any more time or energy debating the relative merits of Trump or Clinton.  One of them will be the new anti-Christ; let's not legitimize either with our votes.


Going Tribal (2)

by Berry Friesen (October 4, 2016)

I want to write more about “Going Tribal” in coming weeks because embracing a tribal identity may be one of the keys to surviving humanely within the empire.

But I also feel misgivings.  “Tribalism” is almost a synonym for conflict-ridden, us-versus-them thinking.  We obviously don’t want or need more of that.  How can one reap the humane benefits of a tribal identity without also becoming more insular and defensive?

My exploration of this tension is taking me to some interesting people and conversations.  I mentioned Greg Boyd and Tribalnet in a previous post.  Since then my circle of reading has widened to include Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option; the network of Christian communities connected to Ched Myers and a vision of radical discipleship; and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the New Monasticism.

These are distinct networks with important differences.  Boyd stands within the evangelical tradition, Dreher within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Myers within Anabaptism and Wilson-Hartgrove within the multi-faceted Protestant stream.

But each, it seems to me, would join Dreher’s way of describing the people who find these movements attractive:  “Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

To repeat, what these tribally-oriented networks have in common is a negative (“cease to identify . . .  with the maintenance of the American empire”) and a positive (“keen to construct local forms of . . . Christian resistance”).

My co-author, John K. Stoner, is currently leading an adult education class in his congregation entitled "Communities of Resistance and Hope."  It’s a conversation about what’s involved in distancing oneself emotionally and spiritually from the empire and committing instead to what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

This past Sunday, I helped lead the class as it talked about the presidential campaign and election. People do have their favorites and it wasn’t an easy conversation, especially not in a class setting where uncomfortable questions hung in the air.  Does the importance we attach to the election reflect the strength of our identification with the empire?  If we yearn for political engagement that is more holistic and authentic than lesser-evil voting, what would be our structure for that—my congregation?

Earlier this year, Richard Beck, a psychology professor who blogs at Experimental Theology, posted about the Benedict Option, its strengths and its dangers.  He highlighted the characteristics of progressive Christians that suggest a particular need for the Benedict Option (or something like it).

Statism:  The belief that the state is the sole and final arbiter of social and moral affairs and thus reducing Christian social action to taking control of the state.

Individualism:  A fierce commitment to radical autonomy and independence making it impossible for us to form communities that participate in God's ongoing story of covenantal promise and fidelity.

Functional atheism: Pervasive doubt and agnosticism, along with an inability to articulate anything particularly or distinctively Christian in prophetic contrast to the prevailing liberal and humanistic consensus.

Scarcity, Exhaustion and the Never Enough Problem: The competitive meritocracy of capitalism fills our lives with neurotic status anxiety--what Brené Brown calls ‘the shame-based fear of being ordinary’--which drives us to emotional and physical exhaustion as we work and perform for self-esteem, success and significance.”

But it’s not only progressive Christians who need the help.  Beck acknowledges as much:  “Late modern capitalism is killing us. That's why Christians, conservative and progressive, need the Ben Op.”

I recommend all six of Beck’s essays about the Benedict Option, as well as Dreher’s response to Beck.  Also the online conversations between Dreher and Wilson-Hartgrove, which can be found here and here.  Add the writings of Boyd and Myers and we have much to help us as we ponder the implications of going tribal.