Conspiracy Watch

by Berry Friesen (July 21, 2016)

Recent events have pushed conspiracies out into the open.  Ever so carefully, let’s have a look.

First up is the conspiracy between Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and George W. Bush, former President of the United States, to invade Iraq under false pretenses. We find the ugly details in the 6,275 page Chilcot Report (formally known as The Iraq Inquiry), published July 6.

The crucial period was July, 2002.  The British Cabinet convened on the 23rd to discuss recent meetings with the Bush Administration about Iraq.  The minutes of the Cabinet meeting—the so-called Downing Street Memo—include the comments of Richard Dearlove, head of British intelligence.  The Bush Administration viewed military action against Iraq as “inevitable,” said Dearlove; the problem was a lack of justification for war since the claim that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 was falling apart.  “But the intelligence and the facts [are] being fixed around policy,” Dearlove said.
                                                                                                                           
Five days later (July 28), Blair wrote Bush about the upcoming invasion.  “I have been told the U.S. thinks [evidence of an Iraqi threat] is unnecessary,” Blair said.  He went on to indicate he disagreed with that assessment.  Nevertheless, Blair wrote, “I will be with you, whatever.” 

Blair went on to propose a strategy to win over public opinion.  “If we recapitulate all the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] evidence; add his [Saddam’s] attempts to secure nuclear weapons capability; and, as seems possible, add on the al-Qaeda link, it will be hugely persuasive.”

Blair ended his note to Bush by suggesting an invasion in January or February, 2003.  “The crucial issue is not when, but how.”  (For a full review of Blair’s correspondence with Bush, click here.)

James Cusick provides this summary:  “Blair attempted to dispense with examining intelligence evidence and an exhaustive effort to broker peace, and instead replaced them with a public relations exercise in manipulation that involved duplicity against his own ministers, Cabinet, MPs in the House of Commons and many in the wider international community.”

Philippe Sands reaches a similar conclusion.  Describing Blair’s written defense of the war’s legality, submitted to the Cabinet on the day it made the final decision to join the invasion, Sands says:  "The document did mislead.  It was the product of calculated manipulation enabled by silences and lies, a grand and disastrous deceit."  

Next up is a conspiracy launched by the Bush White House in the fall of 2001 to pin the blame for 9/11 on Iraq and its leader, Saddam.  According to Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Bush's Secretary of State Powell, when the administration authorized torture, "its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the US, but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda."

During 2002, while the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 was underway, the campaign to pin the blame on Iraq continued.  Yet the Joint Inquiry found no Iraqi link; instead it found many links with Saudi Arabia, which it summarized in its final report in December 2002.  To prevent this information from reaching the American people, the Bush Administration removed those pages from the report on national security grounds. 

On July 15, nearly 14 years later, the Obama Administration released those 29 pages to the public.  The suppressed pages detail evidence connecting Saudi government officials, members of the royal family, Saudi naval officers, Saudi government-owned businesses and Saudi intelligence agents with several of the Saudi hijackers living in the United States. 

As 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser puts it, "No other nation is given such singular prominence in the Joint Inquiry's Final Report.  Not Iraq. Not Iran. Not Syria. Not Sudan. Not even Afghanistan or Pakistan."

CIA Director John Brennan, CIA Station Chief in Saudi Arabia from 1996-99, wants us to believe that Saudi involvement was considered and dismissed by a subsequent investigation.  "The 9/11 Commission looked very thoroughly at these allegations of Saudi involvement.  Their conclusion was that there was no evidence to indicate that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually had supported the 9/11 attacks.” 

Breitweiser's response is worth quoting at length:

“To be clear, the 9/11 Commission did NOT fully investigate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Staff Director Philip Zelikow blocked any investigation into the Saudis. Zelikow even went so far as to fire an investigator who had been brought over from the Joint Inquiry to specifically follow up on the Saudi leads and information uncovered in the Joint Inquiry. I will repeat — the investigator was fired.

“In addition, Zelikow re-wrote the 9/11 Commission’s entire section regarding the Saudis and their connection to the 9/11 attacks. Former 9/11 Commissioners John Lehman, Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer have all acknowledged that the Saudis were not adequately investigated by the 9/11 Commission. Thus, for any government official to hang his or her hat on the 9/11 Commission’s Final Report when Commissioners themselves have admitted that the Saudis were not fully investigated is absurd and disgraceful.”

Breitweiser goes on to point out that the controversy about the redacted 29 pages concerns primarily the alleged terrorists living in San Diego (with a brief mention of alleged terrorists in Phoenix).  Information from some 80,000 documents about 9/11 terrorists living in Florida has never been disclosed or investigated by either the Congressional Joint Inquiry or the 9/11 Commission.

So the conspiracy to obscure the Saudi role in 9/11 facilitated the conspiracy to commence a war of aggression against Iraq. 

Last but not least in this review of conspiracies in the news is last week’s attempt by portions of the Turkish military to seize control of its government.  Numerous mainstream media outlets have speculated that Turkey’s President Erdogan “staged” the coup and is using its defeat as a pretext to expand his own powers.  (See here and here and here.)

How dare the mainstream media engage in conspiracy thinking?  If you or I were to engage in such speculation, we’d soon find ourselves crowned with those dreaded tinfoil hats.

Ah conspiracy, what a flexible political weapon you are!  Yes, you may be found anywhere.  But it we wish to avoid being labelled “kooks,” we must utter your name at the right time and about the right place: long after the conspiracy occurs and about places far, far away.

"So Sweet and Such a Mess"

by Berry Friesen (July 14, 2016)

“This life is a thump-ripe melon—so sweet and such a mess.”
Greg Brown, “Rexroth’s Daughter,” Covenant (Red House Records, 2000)

Greg Brown’s pithy bit of wisdom comes to mind often these days.  I’m struggling to get my head around the reality of stage-IV kidney cancer and his metaphor fits my need.

Brown’s Covenant album has been playing in our house for many years and I’ve long been aware of the aptness of his description.  The “mess” seems to show up unbidden, without much effort on my part.  I guess the “sweetness” does too, but my awareness of it is easily eclipsed by my tendency to be preoccupied by the “mess.”  

Still, when I’m alert, the sweetness is in plain sight.  Just yesterday, rain fell steadily on a landscape sparkling in the sun’s light. Two friends stopped by my house to cheer me up and engage in conversation about life.  Both my daughters called with stories from their busy days.

Treatment of stage-IV cancer brings to mind another metaphor:  kicking the can down the road.   In this morning’s chemotherapy session, the nurse told me cancer is an umbrella term that covers a thousand different pathological mutations.  Until the day when we have a thousand targeted therapies, treatment entails lots of guessing.  Sometimes a well-placed kick sends the can far up the road; other kicks move it only few yards or miss the can completely.  

Whether it’s hit or miss, the can remains well within sight.  This is what makes this experience decisively different from life as I’ve known it previously.   

I find myself thinking of Jesus these days too.  Gospel writers report he healed many people of their diseases.  Once Jesus apparently needed some convincing (see the story of the Syrian-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30), but typically Jesus healed simply because it is what he did.   Great crowds of people gathered around him, “bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others.  They put them at his feet and he cured them” (Matthew 15:30).  Special pleading was not required.

Important as this insight is to me as I say my prayers, it can’t be separated from the fact that every last one of the people Jesus healed subsequently died.  Every last one, even Lazarus!  

So I am not immortal; my existence as a differentiated being had a beginning and will have an end. As one writer put it, “It is [YHWH] alone who has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16).  YHWH may remember me forever (Psalm 112:6), but even if that is the case, it does not make me immortal. 

We all have some awareness of this, I think, no matter the stage of life. At the moment, my particular problem is that the “end” has a name, an identity, a timetable and a method of proceeding toward its goal, which is to end this sweetness we call life.  

But back to this fact of mortality, the reality that causes me such sadness these days.  It is relevant as well to other beings whose existence is far less fleeting than yours or mine because of resources and capacities beyond what we can imagine.  I’m specifically thinking of the empire, which is the core of what we discuss here at this website, even when the topic is very personal.  

In If Not Empire, What? John K. Stoner and I address the mortality of the empire in conjunction with our brief discussion of the story of Babel, its tower reaching up into the heavens and YHWH’s scattering of the builders “over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).  

“The anti-imperial message of the story is clear,” we say.  “YHWH will prevent evil—which is always present and frequently in charge—from becoming permanently entrenched.”  Thus, the story tells us, YHWH’s scattering of the people was a compassionate act of mercy saving Earth from the utter destruction the empire otherwise would surely have caused. 

For this kind of mortality, I am exceedingly glad!

I know, it’s a far stretch from my life to the life of the empire.  You may find it such a stretch as to be absurd to place the two together in one sentence.  And yes, it is nigh-to-impossible to conceive of our own mortality as “a compassionate act of mercy.”  Yet within this sweetness called life—living in the place YHWH calls home and does his/her eternal work—mortality binds together all of us: nature, human beings, principalities and powers.  

Can we really say we wish it otherwise?

Making Lies Come True

by Berry Friesen (July 12, 2016)

If one wants to dominate others and exploit their resources, one must have justification.  There must be a reason that legitimizes the violence and oppression; otherwise, it will not stand. This is the way the world has worked, ever since Jesus of Nazareth changed things forever.

Legitimizing violence and oppression:  that is the first task of every imperialist.  It is done by so deeply embedding lies in human consciousness that those lies become “true.”  I use quotation marks because the kind of truth of which I speak is not based in empirical science or dispassionate historical accounts, but in the social realities that form around lies.  In other words, when enough people act as if a lie is true, then it becomes “true” in the way life is structured and experienced.

Racial categorization is such a lie.  Biologists tell us races do not exist, yet life as we have come to live it tells us otherwise.   We (white, brown, black alike) have taken the lie and made it “true,” thus serving the imperial agenda of colonial masters who desire to exploit darker-hued people and find it advantageous for the rest of us to distract one another with quarrels while they carry out their nefarious schemes.

Enemy-fear is another such lie, at least in places such as North America where rivals live an ocean away and lack the capacity to dominate and exploit us.  Yet, life as we have come to live it tells us otherwise.   First it was the Bolsheviks, then the Fascists, then the Communists, now Islamic jihad.  Again, we have taken the lie and made it “true,” thus justifying the militarization of our society and its purposes and legitimizing the exploitation of people and resources through war.

Of course, this deceitfulness is compounded when these two lies are brought together, as they have been in the tumultuous events of this past week.  People with dark skin pose a particularly potent threat of violence, thus justifying the quick use of gunfire by police officers carrying out routine duties involving nonresistant black men.  This threat is especially dire when such persons have been “radicalized” by subversive information.  This phenomenon explains black Micah Johnson and his murderous attack on Dallas police officers.

Thus, police officers “have no choice” (I’m quoting numerous mainstream media outlets here) but to take on the methods and tactics of war. They “had no choice” but to execute Johnson in summary fashion, even though he had been neutralized.

This is the cycle of evil in which we all are enmeshed, the “slavery,” the “death” from which YHWH is determined to save us.  It is the ugliness of making lies come true.

The resistance of Iesha Evans, the New York City nurse and mother who travelled to Baton Rouge to protest the murder of Alton Sterling, shows us another way.  She stands serenely in the street as “peace officers” outfitted for war prepare to seize her.  She embodies truth.


(Photo by Jonathan Bachman, Reuters)

Those who believe in YHWH—the god of the ancient Hebrews—refuse to believe the lie of race, the lie of fear.  So how do we follow Evans in embodying our disbelief?  How do we resist the power of the lie?

Answering this question is much more difficult than it would seem because when we resist a lie on its own terms, we usually reinforce its power.  Johnson’s actions did just that; Evans’ actions did not. 

Think of the pernicious curse of racism in my country (the USA).  How do we demonstrate that race is a lie?  Talking about racism a lot—defining life in racial terms—only serves to entrench the lie, making it worse.  Ignoring the lie—pretending we are “above” such attitudes—is condescending and leaves the lie intact.  What is needed are a manner of speaking and course of action that demonstrate the lie is a lie.

Or think of the militarism that has come to pervade the USA.  How do we demonstrate it is rooted in a lie? Thousands of Americans have given their lives because they believe it, hundreds of thousands more have been physically or spiritually maimed, millions of livelihoods depend on this lie being “true.”   Our actions to debunk it can prompt yet more fear, further entrenching the lie.

This is the desperate situation in which we find ourselves.  The lies are bearing fruit, the fruit is bitter, the bitterness persuades us yet again that the lies are true. And when we do resist, too often our resistance makes it worse.

Yet we must resist, not because our resistance will produce specific results, but because witness to the truth is our calling, what YHWH has asked of us.  It is why we are here on Earth, to be witnesses to the character of the Creator who is ever compassionate, ever forgiving and ever passionate about justice.

Yes, this is why we are here—to be part of YHWH’s saving Earth from ruin.

And this is why we must be wise as we speak and wise as we act, seeking always to embody the truth and delegitimize the lies.   How can we demonstrate that race is not real?  That fear of foreign conquest by Islamic extremism (or Russia or China or Iran) is not real?  How can our lives tell the truth instead of making lies come true? 

A Stateless Politics

by Berry Friesen (July 5, 2016)

In an essay published on U.S. Independence Day by the Christian group of which I am a member (Mennonite Church USA), author Ryan Ahlgrim briefly describes the two failed forms of political organization he sees in the Bible:  “decentralized theocracy” (the Hebrew people before King Saul) and “monarchy.”  

A third form of political organization—“democracy”—never appears in the Bible despite flourishing in Greece before the entire Second Testament and a large section of the First Testament were written.  Surprisingly, this doesn’t trouble Ahlgrim.  Instead, he breezily asserts that “despite the lack of democracy in the Bible, it is a better form of national government than any that we see in the Bible.”

Ahlgrim then concludes by pointing to the way “the government of Jesus’ disciples—the church—is supposed to be run” as the ideal because it avoids coercion, protects the vulnerable and utilizes consensus decision-making.  He ends by calling “on the church—not the United States—to truly be God’s government in this world.”

I cite Ahlgrim’s essay because it reflects conventional political thinking among western Christians. In the realm of practical politics, democracy is lauded and honored as better than any alternative.  In a parallel realm of aspirational idealism, leaders are servants, exercise no coercive power and enjoy no special standing.  This dichotomy enables Christians to remain steadfastly loyal to the US-led empire (it regularly holds elections, after all) while piously pretending we really “believe in” another kind of politics altogether.

I read the same Bible as Ahlgrim and see there two political realities Ahgrim doesn’t find necessary to mention.  

First, though theocracy is present in the First Testament (especially in Leviticus and the writings of Ezra), the political vision of Exodus, the prophets, Genesis, Paul and Jesus was built on a vision of statelessness and did not assume a centralized political entity at all.  In fact, those texts criticize the desire to organize ourselves as nation-states and trust a nation-state for protection.  

To put it another way, when we assume that the nation-state is fundamental and then proceed to ask how it should be operated, we have headed off in a different direction than the Bible points to.  This is the tragic error of Zionism, as well as the error of most of the entire Christian enterprise. 

The second important political reality to note when reading the Bible is the fact that early Christian congregations are called “assemblies” by the earliest Second Testament writings.  In that context, “assemblies” referred to open civic gatherings to discuss public business.   The use of the term signifies that the first Jesus-followers understood themselves to be a political movement whose purpose was to bring into the world a new way of organizing and exercising power.  Jesus called this movement "the kingdom of God." 

This suggests every Jesus-following congregation today should regard itself to be a political body too.

Of course, this does not negate the nation-state, nor does it cancel out the fact that we may have preferences in how the nation-state in which we live is organized.  But it explains why the Bible ignores the emergence of state-based democracy.  And it reminds us that trust in any particular nation-state is incompatible with trust in YHWH. In fact, the biblical prophets called trust in the nation-state “idolatry.”

So how would I describe the politics that biblical communities of faith will practice in a time such as ours when nation-states continue to be important and one nation state (the USA) dominates the world?

     1. Faith communities will publicly claim political authority that precedes and succeeds that of the state.  While this claim will often be ignored and even suppressed by nation-states, it will remain the primary witness of those whose lives are rooted in their belief in god.

     2. Faith communities will engage in compassionate economic practices that provide livelihoods to local people.  These practices will be decentralized and sustainable without state assistance, thus suggesting it is possible to thrive on Earth without a state.

     3. Faith communities will root their affiliation practices (both locally and globally) in a shared understanding of authority and justice.  In other words, national origin, ethnicity, race, heritage, gender, sexual orientation and even religious differences will not be used to exclude people.  Again, faith communities will embody an alternative to the state’s way of avoiding civil strife, showing there is another way of running the world.

     4. Faith communities will publicly oppose all uses of power for imperial purposes of conquest and control. Anti-imperialism (which translates to nonviolence in practical terms) will be a more important value than democracy, in other words.  

The book John K. Stoner and I published—If Not Empire, What?—explores this in greater depth. Have a look by clicking here.