A Dog in This Fight?

by Berry Friesen (May 31, 2016)

The great American extravaganza known as “the campaign for President” rolls on before our eyes.  It is a spectacle of unparalleled drama, capable of engaging the hearts and minds of the most determined skeptic. 

Sure, this spectacle is ridiculously expensive and a huge waste of human resources.  But how else does a cynical empire—one that demands our blood and treasure for the private use of the elite—win our passionate and heart-felt support?  Do you think our hearts and minds can be bought on the cheap?

Less sophisticated empires employed crude and coercive methods to confirm the allegiance of their citizens:  loyalty oaths, soldiers in the streets, secret police to ensure fidelity to the leader for life.

America—the home of Hollywood and Madison Avenue—knows far better ways to accomplish the same purpose: every four years, enact a riveting story in front of the citizenry and ask them to decide who wins in the end.  As we follow the story’s twists and turns, we will choose a favorite character and identify with his/her successes and failures. At the show's conclusion, we'll vote.

And when the story reaches its climactic moment with the election of a new President of the United States of America, our allegiance to the corrupt, ravenous and blood-soaked empire will again be confirmed.

What?  Do I really mean to say the endlessly complex and surprising Campaign 2016 is a giant reality show, stage-managed for the empire’s Machiavellian purposes?  Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying.

It’s not such a stretch.  Have we forgotten the elaborate efforts of the empire to win our support for the criminal assault on Iraq in 2003?   The plan was hatched during the Clinton years and given momentum by the terrorism of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that immediately followed. These were huge events, but the US government had little interest in the sort of fact-based investigation routinely conducted by your local police department after a small-time burglary or mugging. It was all international drama and intrigue creating a case for invading Iraq. 

It’s very important to remember the elaborate hoaxes deployed to win our support for that particular criminal enterprise:  the exiles who came forward with detailed descriptions of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, the secret documents showing Saddam’s importation of Nigerian yellowcake, the aerial photographs of bio-chemical weapons labs, the endless and inflamed rhetoric from the news media.  Yet it all was thoroughly fraudulent.

Similarly, it’s very important to remember the huge expense and elaborate planning that has gone into concocting first al-Qaeda and then ISIS as existential threats to the safety of the USA.

Such operations are endlessly complex, very expensive and highly demanding.  Do we really think all of that expertise is only deployed over there, across the waves?  Do we really imagine those tools of deception are not trained on us too?

So we have Donald Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders, each winning passionate support and renewing our hopes for the empire.  Is each of them aware that they have been cast in leading roles in the great American reality show?  We can’t be sure, but we can be sure of two things:  each wants to win the presidency and each is aware of the rules of the contest.

What rules?  First and foremost, all serious contenders must assume the righteousness of imperial purposes, the beneficial effect of US domination.  That’s why we hear almost nothing from Trump, Clinton or Sanders about renouncing the one thing that sets the tone for everything else:  full-spectrum domination of the world.  Everything is fair game for debate but that.

Bernie Sanders may yet be the Democratic nominee.  It all depends on the results of the investigation of Clinton’s email practices, a matter firmly within the control of a key imperial operative, the FBI.  Whether it’s Sanders or Clinton is a small matter in the scope of things; what’s really important is that via their competition, millions of Americans have become newly invested in America.  And that through their explicit and/or implicit support for US imperialism (joined by Trump, of course), American discontent will focus on anything but the root of America's problems:  US militarism and aggression abroad.

Back in March, I predicted Donald Trump would be the next President.  He’s perfect for an empire that specializes in the blurring of the line between pretense and reality, has just the skill set to win back the allegiance of a huge and deeply jaded slice of the American population, and is suited by temperament to the king-of-the-hill spirit of empire.   

Of course, we are the targets of this grand seduction.  As I’ve said many times in this blog, what the empire needs from us is legitimacy; it is what transforms the empire’s brutality into the empire’s justice.  Imperial legitimacy is what this election—and every presidential election—is about.

Does it really matter to you who next serves as the face of the empire?  Do we really have a dog in this fight? Think about it.

Ask the Question

by Berry Friesen (May 25, 2016)

On Monday, I underwent a diagnostic procedure at the local hospital.  My nurse was a cheerful woman named Bao.

The name elicited faint memories of another time in my life and I asked the nurse to tell me its derivation.  “Bao is a Hmong name,” she said.  I instantly recalled the full memory of my work as an attorney for Hmong refugees in St. Paul, Minnesota during the ‘80s.  As it happens, Bao was born in St. Paul, the daughter of refugee parents, and had grown up within blocks of the place where I practiced law.  She may have benefited from the class action lawsuit I helped litigate.

We exchanged a bit more personal information; I mentioned my daughter and her family living in London.  Soon we were chatting about air travel and Bao noted her concern about safety.  “How can planes just disappear?” she asked; “it makes me nervous.”

I know the feeling.  Today, my London-based daughter and her family are in the air over the Atlantic.  Sure, air travel is the safest form of transportation, but weird stuff has been happening of late.   In addition to a Malaysian flight that disappeared over the South China Sea, there was the German flight that made a controlled flight into a mountain, the Russian flight blown out of the sky over the Sinai and the AirEgypt flight that disappeared last week over the Mediterranean.

Why does this fleeting conversation stick in my mind?  Because between the lines, Bao expressed an often unarticulated anxiety:  something important has changed, something dangerous has slipped its mooring.

Readers of this blog know that for me, that “something” has a name:  the US-led empire.  It is the entity I think of first when I hear of an inexplicable air disaster, or when I hear of a car bomb killing scores of people in Syria or Iraq.

This response sets me apart from people who are offended by the slightest suggestion of US government engagement in terrorism.  And it likely drives some readers away.  But others readers—perhaps like Bao—are trying to understand inexplicable shifts in the way the world works.  This blog is for those readers.

So ask the question:  does the US government engage in terrorist activity? We can look at history and we can look at current events.

The bombing of Nagasaki—the second bomb dropped on Japanese civilians—would be one place to start.  Next, we could consider the saturation bombing of civilians in Korea or Vietnam, or the war of aggression the US mounted against Iraq in 2003.  We could acquaint ourselves with the many civilians killed by US drone strikes.

We could consider the US alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, in Libya and in Yemen, how the US supports al-Qaeda with training, weapons, intelligence and logistics.  We could consider how the US pretended to make war on Da’esh in Iraq and Syria while at the same time approving arrangements through Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to strengthen Da’esh through resupply, rearmament, recruitment and financing. 

We could consider the village massacres (May 12) and bombings (May 23) carried out in Syria by Ahrar al-Sham, a terrorist group the US protects from Russian attack because they are “moderates.” 

In short, history contains many instances of US government terrorism, so we know US leaders are fully capable of such evil. 

What about opportunity? 

In the US-led empire, we have an entity that maintains 24/7 surveillance of every square foot of Earth.  It has access to nearly every digital signal conveyed by people everywhere.  It has achieved full spectrum dominance, meaning it can disrupt any normal communication channels, hijack planes and cars electronically, and deploy well-armed criminals and thugs anywhere on Earth to do its bidding. 

Eventually, courageous people are compelled to take the question of US government terrorism seriously. 

What’s next for those who do? 

Well, Donald Trump won’t fix it for us, no matter how bold and rebellious he may be.  No politician in Washington can reverse the ways and means of the empire.  Neither will our citizen activism do it.

Our only hope is the patient living of another way in communities of resistance where we acquire the comrades, skills and faith to persevere through the ordeal of an empire gone to seed.  For me, that community of resistance has always been a part of the church; that is why If Not Empire, What? is important to me.  For others, it is not a part of the church, but some other community with an anti-imperial ethos.

For all of us who take on the mantle of resistance, this will be a multi-generational struggle.  Yet let us not be discouraged or afraid:  one of the gods—YHWH of the Hebrews—is on our side.

The Spirituality of Psalm 103

by Berry Friesen (May 19, 2016)

In recent days, I have received unwelcome news from my doctor of a life-threatening disease.

The details are terribly important to me and to my loved ones and in due time, those details will be our preoccupations.  But for now, they are unknown and I am left to guess about what lies ahead. 

My thoughts have taken me to Psalm 103.  It’s a lovely poem that reflects the spirituality I desire. 

Here is how the poet describes the human condition (quoting The New English Bible):

“Our days are like the grass;
we blossom like the flowers of the field,
a wind passes over us and we cease to be,
and our  place knows us no more.”

Where then is comfort?  The poet tells us this:

“As a father has compassion on his children,
so has the LORD compassion on all who fear him.
For he knows how we were made,
he knows full well that we are dust.”

Of course, we want more.  We want not only comfort, but some assurance that our lives counted for something and had meaning.  And the poet hears our plea (quoting the NRSV):

“The steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children to those who keep his covenant,
to those who remember to do his commandments. 
The LORD has established his throne in the heavens and his kingdom rules over all.”

This is the voice of faith, convinced that though we flower and then fade, our lives contribute in some small way to the justice and righteousness God is unfolding for generations to come and all creation.

And so the poet ends with these words of praise (back to New English): 

“Bless the LORD, all his angels,
creatures of might who do his bidding.
Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers who serve his will.
Bless the LORD, all created things,
in every place where he has dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul.”

Evangelical Stumble


by Berry Friesen (May 12, 2016)

Yesterday, two related items arrived by email.  

The first was A Call to Resist Bigotry—A Statement of Faithful Obedience.  It is the recent public letter from prominent Christians--many of whom are evangelicals--urging Americans not to support Donald Trump for president.  Among the 50+ signers are luminaries such as Richard Rohr, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren and David Gushee.

The second was from William Boardman via Reader Supported News: “Donald Trump is the greatest threat to America today, or so the conventional wisdom left and right would have you believe. More realistically, the greatest threat to America today is actually believing that Trump is the greatest threat to America today.”

Also yesterday, I sat for an hour with my co-author, John K. Stoner, and talked about the call to resist Trump.  John’s response was spot-on.

“1. These condemnations of Trump are important and necessary.

“2. To the extent that they divert attention from the corruption of the whole system, they do not help.

“3. To have hope for the future we will have to do vastly more than stop Trump.”

To begin unpacking the problem with the evangelicals’ letter, we can start with the fact that it could be roundly and enthusiastically endorsed by Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.  When it describes how “faithfulness to Jesus” is at grave risk in American, it describes only personal attitudes and aspirations of Donald Trump.  He is a bigot, the letter says, and so Christians should not vote for him.  The letter says absolutely nothing about the practices and policies of the US government.

Thus, the declaration denounces Trump’s proposal to ban temporarily the entry of Muslims, but does not mention the 2,000,000 Muslim deaths caused by the US government since 9/11. Nor does it mention the wars of aggression (war crimes) committed by the US against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

Apparently, it’s all about who we vote for, not about the imperial goals that define the behavior of the US government and much of US society.

Writing at Religion News Service, Gushee defended the statement as “not a mere declaration of political preference or candidate taste. It is about something much more fundamental.” What in particular?  Gushee points to language of “confessional resistance” used in the letter.  And he says:

“The language of ‘confessional resistance’ harks back to two particular moments in 20th-century history in which groups of Christians made major statements claiming that the very purity of the faith was at stake in political events and that a failure to resist represented a failure to follow Jesus. Those two instances were Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. While no direct comparison is intended, the language of confessional resistance draws on that history.”

The historical precedents Gushee seeks to invoke are the 1934 Theological Declaration of Barmen and the 1985 Kairos South Africa declaration.

The so-called Barmen Declaration, written and distributed about a year after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party took power in Germany, rejected the false teachings of the Nazi government and of the church leaders who collaborated with that government.  The idolatry of the state was the fundamental threat addressed in the Declaration. The signers said:

“We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church's vocation as well.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.”

Kairos South Africa declared that “a moment of truth” had arrived in which Christians had to decide whether or not they supported false theologies that buttressed  the South African apartheid state.  The first false theology was “State Theology,” which used the Bible to justify “the status quo with its racism, capitalism and totalitarianism.”

The second false theology was “Church Theology,” which used biblical concepts related to “reconciliation (or peace), justice and non-violence” to foster “a spirituality that, when faced with the present crisis in South Africa, leaves so many Christians and Church leaders in a state of near paralysis” with “very little to do except to pray for God’s intervention.”

This recent declaration by American evangelicals denouncing Trump’s bigotry is nothing like those two historic Christian statements.  It is weak tea by comparison.

Boardman is right:  to demonize Trump as the great threat of our time is itself a great threat because it distracts us from the real crisis in which we American Christians find ourselves.  If we are serious about bearing witness to the truth we have found in Messiah Jesus, our declarations will require much more depth and courage than this.

Neutered Truth

by Berry Friesen (May 5, 2016)

For many years, I’ve believed truth is powerful, so powerful it will uproot entrenched evil.

It’s an assumption others share.

Think of all the effort to reveal the deceitfulness of the Bush-Cheney rationale for invading Iraq. Or the painstaking research to demonstrate the laws of physics refute official explanations of what happened within those three World Trade Center towers on 9/11.  Or to cite a current example, that Da’esh is not a threat to the empire, but one of its favorite tools.

Yet what these vivid examples of truth-telling taught us is that telling the truth isn’t nearly as effective as we had imagined. The power of truth is socially mediated, which means it can be neutered and rendered powerless.

Think of Ed Snowden.  He put his life and liberty at risk to reveal how our government collects and stores everything we do digitally. It’s all there to be used against us when the need arises.

“Preying on the modern necessity to stay connected,” writes Snowden, “governments can reduce our dignity to something like that of tagged animals, the primary difference being that we paid for the tags and they are in our pockets.”

Three years after Snowden’s whistle-blowing, little has changed. The truth he revealed has been neutered.

Or consider the article published by The Guardian this week exposing the fact that military contractors funded by the British government generate propaganda on behalf of “moderate” rebels and pass it off to the world as “news” about the war in Syria. When we follow news from Syria, mainly what we see and hear are the products of this propaganda operation.

This publicly-funded “information warfare” initiative began in 2013 after Parliament refused to authorize war against Syria.

“Contractors hired by the Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters,” reports The Guardian.

It goes on to describe a similar effort aimed at the domestic audience in the United Kingdom. "In both the foreign and domestic campaigns, the government’s role is often concealed. Messages are put out under the banner of apparently independent groups – community organisations in the UK, and armed groups in Syria.”

MoonofAlabama.org reports the US government is also deeply involved in funding anti-Assad propaganda via fully controlled news outlets, human rights organizations, social media accounts and citizen-journalist operations.  The distribution of fake videos and pictures is standard fare.

 Again, exposing this truth does not change anything.  Mainstream media continue to uncritically report what these propaganda outlets say, the drumbeat for more war in Syria goes on, the people of Syria suffer and die.

What is the social process that explains this?  More than ever, we have the capacity to get to the bottom of things and find out the truth.  But when we get there, we find truth has lost its power to require accountability and change.

How did this happen?  Perhaps it’s the continuous state of war we live in.  People have always known governments act illegally and unethically during wartime.

Perhaps it’s that people no longer perceive deceitfulness to be offensive.  Honesty is so rare we no longer expect it, dissembling and pretense so common we no longer find them upsetting.

Or perhaps we have lost touch with a crucial bit of knowledge—wisdom, really—that the truth isn’t merely a personal accessory, but an absolute necessity if society is to have a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable tomorrow.

This is important to ponder.  Meanwhile, the empire carries on its terrible war in Syria, confident domestic audiences will not object.  It carries on its massive domestic surveillance operations, confident people will not put up a fuss.

More whistle-blowers will not change this.  Nor will more heroic journalism and bold exposes.  What is needed is a cultural renewal, a return to a worldview in which truth again becomes electric.

More than any other, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah plumbed the depths of this.  He wrote:  “This is a nation that did not obey the voice of YHWH, their god, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips” (7:28). “They have taught their tongues to speak lies” (9:5).  “They were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush” (6:15).

For Second Testament writers, it was very simple:  “Do not lie to one another” (Col. 3:9); “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors” (Eph. 4:25).

How do we get back to that?