Talking About Terrorism

by Berry Friesen (May 26, 2017)

The suicide bombing in Manchester, United Kingdom (UK)—and the deaths of 22 concert goers—have brought terrorism front and center again.

It’s an emotional subject.  It’s also complicated because of unwritten rules about which aspects of terrorism are legitimate to discuss and which are not.  As a result of these two features, most conversations about terrorism tend to be rather superficial.

Here are the “unwritten” rules:

    1. Terrorism is committed by hate-filled private individuals and groups, not by legitimate governments.

    2. In countries that do not follow the rule of law, terrorism is sometimes carried out via a public- private partnership between the government and private groups.  But this doesn’t happen in the USA or Western Europe.

    3. Follow the guidance of law enforcement professionals when discussing terrorist incidents. Do not show too much curiosity over what happened.  Most importantly of all, remember that discussion of conspiracies is evidence of a weak mind and an unstable personality.

Next, let’s outline the basics assumptions of a mature conversation, one that does not follow these bogus rules.

What is terrorism?

It is the deliberate attempt to impact popular political attitudes and/or public policy by deploying violence (or the threat of violence) against noncombatant civilians.

Why is terrorism despised? 

Within the culture where I live, it is despised because it kills indiscriminately and because it is cowardly.

Human life is valuable and worthy of respect.  If a human life is taken deliberately, there first must be a moral calculus to justify the taking of that particular life; otherwise it is murder.   Thus, soldiers and police officers are required to follow established “rules of engagement” when using lethal force.

Why cowardly?  Rather than taking an open stand against those who oppose one’s values and goals, terrorists act from a position of trust and/or safety to deceive and then attack people who are not part of the fight.

Who does terrorism?

Individuals do it.  Private groups do it. Governments do it too, both through uniformed armed forces and through covert operations that involve private individuals and groups.

Ted Kaczynski—known as the Unabomber—was a lone wolf. From 1978–1995, he carried out over a dozen bombings, killing three and injuring dozens.

The Weather Underground was a left-wing group engaged in arson, bombings and robberies in the US during the ‘70s in the hope of launching a revolutionary political party that would change the direction of the government.

In regard to government terrorism, the August, 1945 detonation of atomic bombs over the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a prime example.  The 1968 My Lai village massacre in Vietnam by the US military is another instance, as is the 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people by the US cavalry at Sand Creek, Colorado.  Arguably, elements of the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq by the US in March, 2003 constituted terrorism.

Though frequently ignored entirely, government terrorism is sometimes discussed within the rubric of “war crimes.”  But since only nations defeated in war (e.g., Germany and Japan) or weak and poor African governments are prosecuted for war crimes, we often let this kind of terrorism drop out of our consciousness.  As the previous paragraph shows, that would be a mistake.

And now for the controversial part:  terrorism carried out by private individuals or groups with tacit government approval and/or covert support. This is the category we citizens of the empire are encouraged to ignore completely.

To get oriented, recall the Ku Klux Klan.  It was/is a private group that engaged in terrorism against black Americans in order to maintain a social and economic system of oppression and exploitation.  In regard to lynchings, intimidation of the black population was a primary purpose.  How did the KKK remain so strong so long?  It enjoyed covert support from government, support that persisted because government valued the role the KKK played in the wider political context.

Or consider a second historical example: Operation Gladio in Europe during the decades after World War 2.  As documented by historian Daniele Ganzer, secret cells of right-wing terrorists carried out bombings in train stations and public squares, often during election campaigns. Routinely, authorities attributed these bombings to left-wing and Communist groups, thus causing electoral support for those groups to decline. Like the KKK, these “Gladio” groups persisted for many years due to covert connections deep within NATO and because they played a role within the wider political context that NATO valued.  

This is the public-private pattern of terrorism we must bring to mind when we consider al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.  These are violent, law-breaking extremist groups that have persisted—even thrived—over decades, notwithstanding the expenditure of huge sums to suppress them.

Like the KKK and Gladio, they persist because they perform a role within the wider political context that is valued by governments.  As we saw in my previous post, Saudi Arabia is one such government.  Qatar, Turkey and Israel are others.  And because all those governments are members in good standing within the empire, we must conclude the USA is yet another.

See why it's controversial to talk about public-private terror partnerships?

Back to the Manchester suicide bomber

The alleged suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, reportedly was “an outgoing, fun guy, but since he went to Libya in 2011 he came back a different guy.”  Abedi was in east Libya during the time when NATO’s air force prevented Libyan government troops from expelling Salafist rebels from the area. Along with his father, he fought against government forces. The government of Muammar Gaddafi fell soon after.

Abedi was enthusiastic about Gaddafi’s fall and the Salafist victory.  Subsequently, he travelled to both Libya and to Syria for training with Salafist rebel groups.

So long as Abedi was in Libya or Syria, his political views—though extreme—fit nicely with the goals of the UK government, which values the role extremists play in the destabilization of foreign governments that refuse to follow the imperial agenda.*

But then Abedi came back home to Manchester, where he apparently deployed his newly acquired skills at the Ariana Grande concert.  ISIS has claimed responsibility for his murderous actions.

Was Abedi a lone wolf?  I doubt it.  An agent of ISIS?  Probably.  A collaborator with the empire?  Not in bombing the Manchester concert, but yes, in Libya and Syria.

Still, I hold the US-led empire morally responsible for the Manchester deaths and injuries. I imagine KKK lynchings “got out-of-hand” on occasion too (in the view of their government supporters), but none of us would find that excuse persuasive. It's similar here:  the US-led empire helped create today's terror monster and we must hold the empire accountable for these deaths.**
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*  From the May 24th edition of The Telegraph:
  
“The Tobruk-led Libyan Government, which is not recognized by the United Nations but controls a large swathe of eastern Libya, said Manchester-born bomber Salman Abedi was part of a group that operated with the ‘prior knowledge and consent’ of successive British governments.  

“In statement released on Wednesday, the government accused Britain and other Western powers of backing jihadist extremist groups in the country trying to install a government that would turn the country into an ‘exporter of terror.’”

The Telegraph then quotes from the Libyan government statement:

“This cowardly attack was an imminent result of terrorist groups’ actions that have been operating for years in the UK, that include the Libyan (Islamic) Fighting Group which has been recruiting Libyan and Muslim youth in the UK and Europe and sending them to Libya and other countries to deliver terrorism and death.  

“The previous British government has been pressuring in every way possible the prevalence of these groups and their control of Libya, while these groups have been destroying our cities and towns in an attempt to shape Libya into an exporter of terror to the whole planet.”

** Daniel McAdams at Antiwar.com summarizes it well:

While the mainstream media and opportunistic politicians will argue that the only solution is more western intervention in the Middle East, the plain truth is that at least partial responsibility for this attack lies at the feet of those who pushed and pursued western intervention in Libya and Syria.

“There would have been no jihadist training camps in Libya had Gaddafi not been overthrown by the US/UK and allies. There would have been no explosion of ISIS or al-Qaeda in Syria had it not been for the US/UK and allied policy of ‘regime change’ in that country.”

Persuaded by Saudi Arabia?

by Berry Friesen (May 23, 2017)

How can I persuade you, dear reader, that President Trump is not the problem, but a vivid symptom of our fatal disease, which is empire?

Maybe paying attention to Saudi Arabia will help. Understanding its history * and role brings the empire into focus.  And it helps us see that the US embrace of the House of Saud has little to do President Trump’s authoritarianism and much to do with the brutal way the empire runs the world.

Supporting Terrorism

Remember the summer of 2014, when images of the Islamic State's massacres filled our screens?  Remember the hype from the media, the scare statements from US leaders? Secretary of Defense Secretary Hagel described ISIS as “a threat to every stabilized country on Earth, and it's a threat to us."

During that anxious summer—on August 17, 2014—Hillary Clinton wrote this to John Podesta, an advisor to President Obama:

“(W)e need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

Shocking?  Not to Clinton.  In December, 2009--before there was any talk about an Islamic State and al-Qaeda was still the #1 threat—Secretary of State Clinton wrote a secret cable to US embassies about cutting off sources of funding for terrorist organizations.  Here is what Clinton said:

“Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

How much funding?  In Syria alone several billion dollars; former Vice President Joe Biden described it as “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons.” That’s before adding in all the other countries where Saudi-supported Salafist fighters have been active.

Then there is Saudi support for Wahhabism, a strand of Sunni Islam that requires the elimination of variant forms of Islam and the domination of other religious faiths.  Over the past three decades, Saudi Arabia reportedly has spent about $4 billion per year on mosques, madrassas, preachers, students, and textbooks to spread this version of Islam.

Of course, Clinton was far from the first to learn of Saudi financial support for Islamic extremism.  Saudi financial support for the alleged 9/11 hijackers has been reported for years, but has never been pursued by top US officials.  Though litigation against Saudi Arabia is proceeding in US courts, plaintiffs report continuing high level efforts to deny justice to 9/11 victims.

And Saudi support for terrorism did not start with 9/11.  The militia assembled and trained in Pakistan during the early ‘80s—what evolved into al-Qaeda—was largely funded by Saudi Arabia. During the late ‘90s, Saudi money supported similar militias in the Balkans.

Donald Trump knows this history.  In his 2011 book, Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again, Trump wrote this about Saudi Arabia:

“It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petro dollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”

And Trump spoke about the corrupt connection between Saudi Arabia and Islamic terrorism in his presidential campaign.  It’s safe to say he won votes by speaking this inconvenient truth so candidly.

Yet he eagerly traveled to Riyadh this past weekend to receive the royal treatment from Saudi officials.

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In this regard, Trump followed a well-trod path.  Starting with Richard M. Nixon, every US President (save short-termer Gerald Ford) has traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with its leader. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush--renown for their close personal friendship with leading members of the House of Saud--each made the journey twice. Barack Obama went three times.   

Apparently, Saudi support for terrorism is not a major concern of US Presidents.  Indeed, when we consider the combination of Saudi-supported terrorism with US presidents kissing-up to the House of Saud, we cannot avoid a very unpleasant conclusion: support for terrorism is what makes Saudi Arabia such a valued member of the US-led empire.

Think for a moment about the countless deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, France and other places in recent decades due to Islamic extremism.  Or think of the citizens of Saudi Arabia who have lost their heads because they raised their voices for human rights. Saudi money paid for those deaths.

Or think about those 276 teen-aged Nigerian girls kidnapped and enslaved by Boko Haram during the spring of 2014.  Saudi money—some it channeled through al-Qaeda, some through private Saudi foundations—financed their captors.  

Selling Weapons

The highlight of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was the inking of a $110 billion arms deal, the biggest ever.  It is expected to grow to $380 billion over the next ten years.

This is Trump’s plan to reindustrialize America.  We’re going to build more weapons for the world!

William D. Hartung, researcher for the Center for International Policy, reports that the Obama Administration set records of its own. Writing in December 2016 (just before Trump took office) Hartung said:

“Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has offered over $115 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals, more than any US administration in the history of the US-Saudi relationship.”

Why does Saudi Arabia need so many weapons?  One factor is its war of aggression against neighboring Yemen, launched in March, 2015.  The Saudis have targeted schools, hospitals, markets, transportation infrastructure, weddings and funerals. It has embargoed Yemen, cutting off its access to imported food.  According to Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, the war has resulted in acute malnutrition and disease, leaving a Yemeni child dying every 10 minutes.  The war is primarily victimizing civilians, yet the US continues to support Saudi Arabia, providing wapons, training, targeting and surveillance.

Then there is the upcoming war with Iran, date to be announced.**  During the '80s, the US and Saudi Arabia teamed up with Saddam Hussein against Iran.  Saddam provided the invasion force, the House of Saud provided the money, and the US provided the arms and technical assistance in how to use them (chemical weapons included). Part two of that ongoing effort to end Iran's obnoxious resistance to the empire is coming soon.

Controlling Global Economics

In 1973, during the final months of the Nixon Administration, the US and the House of Saud made a deal.  The US would stand behind this autocratic clique as legitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia, provide military security for Saudi oil fields and sell the Saudis needed military equipment.  The House of Saud, in turn, made three promises of their own:  sell its oil worldwide exclusively in US dollars; use its influence to avoid another oil embargo; and invest its US dollars in US Treasury notes and other US investments.

The agreement—now in its fifth decade—has resulted in huge inflows of investment dollars into the US economy and lots of business for US weapons manufacturers (see here and here and here).  It also has enabled the US to directly influence world oil prices.  A recent example is the Saudi-US decision in 2014 to increase Saudi production, thereby halving the cost of oil and punishing Russia, Iran and Venezuela, three big oil producers that stubbornly refuse to follow US leadership.

Partnering in Deception

In his speech to the assembled House of Saud and guests, President Trump spoke of “a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”

He went on to name the “evil:” ISIS, Hezbollah, Iran, the Assad government in Syria (he did not mention al-Qaeda).  Meanwhile, the “good” sat assembled before him: the autocratic and unaccountable House of Saud, funders of terrorism, aggressors in war, hoarders of wealth, the blood of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen dripping from their hands.

Trump is the perfect messenger of such mind-bending pretense and hypocrisy.  Deceit is his comfort zone; he excels in brazenly calling wrong right and right wrong.  Iran had a fair and free election on the day Trump arrived in Riyadh; 70 percent of the Iranian people voted.  Iran has never invaded a neighbor; at the invitation of the Syrian government, it is fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.  In contrast, Saudi Arabia has never had an election; it has invaded its neighbor (Yemen) and is supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.

But Trump is only the messenger.  He did not have a part in creating the corrupt world on display in Riyadh;*** he only amplifies its lies and carries out its plans.  We dare not believe a word he says, nor think for even a moment that our problem would be solved by getting rid of Trump.

Can we recognize the difference between a symptom and the disease?  Our very existence depends on it.
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*  For a brief history, see Nu'man Abd al-Wahid's "The Myth of Bitter Lake: Why the British Empire Foisted Saudia Arabia on the US" or Frontline's chronology of Saudi history (1932 - present). For a more detailed analysis, see Adam Curtis' BBC documentary, "Bitter Lake."

** See  "There's an alliance growing between Saudi Arabia and Israel--and Iran should be worried" in Business Insider.

*** Mark Curtis documents the dysfunctional relationship between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia in his May 24th essay, "The British establishment is putting our lives at risk:  Our state's key ally is a major public threat."

Battle of the Titans

by Berry Friesen (May 19, 2017)

This is epic: President Donald J. Trump vs. the powers running the world.

I’m searching for words to describe what an unusual moment this is.  We plebs are not supposed to see what we are seeing, nor hear what we are hearing; it will only cause us to become disenchanted with the empire and the imperial elite.

Yet here it is, Trump against “the Deep State.”  That term refers to the powerful people in the federal bureaucracy (especially the military and the security agencies), in Congress, big oil, Wall Street, the defense industry, the media and establishment think-tanks who make sure the world proceeds in the general direction established by most US presidents since World War 2.

It’s a huge undertaking, managing the world and keeping it headed in the “right” direction. Unexpected events occur constantly and some nations simply won’t play ball (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Russia and Iran come to mind).

What’s more, mavericks such as President Trump mess things up.  He refuses to take counsel, is contemptuous of any plan but his most recent brainstorm, and doesn’t respect public servants, Congress, bankers or the media.  So it’s game on!  Events unfolding in our presence will be spoken of for generations!

Before we declare a favorite in this battle of the gods, we’d better check our sources. From whom are we getting our information?

Of course, there is the mainstream media, so determined to see Trump bloodied, discredited and kicked to the curb that they regularly and illegally publish classified information.  They are part of the Deep State, so what we hear from them will support the Deep State’s agenda.

Trump has his media supporters too; Fox News is an example, Breitbart News another. I am not acquainted with Trump-supporting sites, so cannot comment.

What about an anti-imperial perspective?  We need reliable guides, people who blend candid criticism of Trump with mature disenchantment with the empire and its truth-bending stories and domination-seeking agenda.  I recommend four:

     --   Robert Parry’s ConsortiumNews.com, established in 1995 as the first investigative news magazine on the Internet.  Parry is a veteran journalist with excellent credentials; he was one of the reporters who broke the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press in the mid-‘80s.  He often writes himself, but also publishes commentary from others.  Content includes both domestic and international issues.

     --   Ray McGovern’s website at RayMcgovern.com.  McGovern was a career analyst at the CIA until he retired 25 years ago.  In retirement, he leads the “Speaking Truth to Power” section of Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  His website includes occasional essays as well as highly informative TV and radio interviews.  No decipherable political affiliation. His May 17 op-ed about Trump is published by the Baltimore Sun (see here).

     --   Justin Raimondo’s Antiwar.com.  Raimondo is a libertarian who focuses on foreign policy and opposes both of the major war parties (Republican and Democrat).  His mission is to build a left-right anti-war coalition, united in its opposition to militarism and empire.  Raimondo’s site publishes brief news reports as well as anti-imperial commentary from a wide variety of authors.

     --   Paul Jay’s The Real News Network.  It leans left politically, but does not hesitate to criticize Democrats.  Of the four sites noted here, it covers the broadest range of issues, both via direct reporting and commentary.  In addition, the site often includes interesting interviews.

As readers of this blog already know, I do not believe Russia intervened in the 2016 election or attempted to compromise Trump or his top associates.  The Russia story is fake news, manufactured to discredit Trump, fuel more imperialism and justify a massive spending increase for the weapons industry. (For a review of my reasons, see the note * below.)

So where does all of this come from?  According to McGovern and Parry, from a combined effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency led by former CIA Director John O. Brennan, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey.  You can read Philip Giraldi's summary of McGovern’s and Parry’s perspective here.

In a May 19 essay published by ConsortiumNews, Giraldi says he has been persuaded "there is indeed a group at the top of the US national security system that wants to . . . . convince the nation that the President and his team colluded with the Russians to rig the 2016 election in his favor."

Clapper Comey Brennan

Brennan and Clapper have been replaced by Trump appointees.  Comey continued on until Trump fired him on May 9 for his refusal to bring the 8-month FBI investigation to a conclusion.  The firing can be understood as an obstruction of justice; it also can be understood as the removal of a disloyal and even treasonous team member.  Similarly, Trump’s “I hope you can let this go” comment to Comey can be understood as in two different ways--as obstruction or as continuing support for a close associate (Michael Flynn) whose career has been destroyed by politics.

Comey is a member of the imperial elite; he’s touched nearly all the bases.  After a couple of years as Deputy Attorney General in the Bush Administration where he attempted to legalize torture, Comey left government and become general counsel and senior vice-president for Lockheed Martin, the largest military contractor in the world and recipient in 2015 of $36 billion in  Pentagon funds.  Next he worked as general counsel for Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, before becoming a senior research scholar on national security at Columbia Law School. From 2005-2013, Comey also served as a director for HSBC Holdings, a British bank. During his tenure on the board, HSBC engaged in extensive money laundering for drug cartels and conspired with other banks to commit financial fraud by manipulating the LIBOR rate, an index for setting interests rates worldwide.

Obviously, the stakes in this confrontation are high.  Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer summed it up nicely on national TV when he expressed puzzlement that Trump seemed ready to tangle with the CIA.  Said Schumer: "You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you."

Furthermore, because of his own mistakes and weaknesses, Trump’s credibility declines day by day.

Yet his Administration holds the information, expertise and legal authority to expose the misdeeds of Brennan, Clapper and Comey and perhaps bring criminal indictments against them.  And as Parry notes, it holds the keys to many locked Washington closets where skeletons abound.

Whether Trump has the executive ability to marshal his Administration’s assets is uncertain.   Whether he has the time to do so is in the hands of Trump’s Republican colleagues in Congress.  Notwithstanding all the bluster, I do not expect them to destroy the Republican Party in order to get rid of Trump.

Which means the battle of the titans will continue for the foreseeable future. Don't forget: for anti-imperialists like us, this tedious drama is a wonderful opportunity. We may feel like we're in the wilderness, but that's the very place where disenchantment with the empire is most likely to occur. And it's the perfect time to invite your friends and neighbors to recognize what wretchedly dystopian politics being an empire has given us.
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*   Though the FBI investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election has been going on since late July, 2016, no evidence of collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign has been produced.  This was confirmed recently by Senator Diane Feinsteinby former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and by other leading public officials.

Much has been made of the December/January conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computers.

Inexplicably, the FBI never examined the DNC computers.  Thus, the only evidence produced by these agencies to date was provided by a private contractor working for the DNC:  CrowdStrike, a company linked to an anti-Russia think tank.  It found evidence of hacking by someone who used Russian references in the coding of the hack.

The probative value of that finding was greatly diminished March 31 when WikiLeaks published its “Vault 7” cache of documents, including the CIA’s $17 billion “Marble Framework tool.” Its 700 million lines of code enable it to hide the true source of CIA malware and make it appear that a hack originated from a country other than the US, such as Russia, North Korea or Iran.

Then there is the allegation that the Russians turned over stolen DNC files to WikiLeaks. If such a transfer occurred via Internet transmission, the NSA would have detailed proof. Yet the NSA has produced no evidence of this, nor of any other kind of transmission.

So what has been going on?  The breach of the DNC computers—the one that provided proof that the DNC cheated Bernie Sanders out of the Democratic nomination—likely was carried out by one or more upset employee who then relayed the stolen files to WikiLeaks, probably via a thumb-drive.  The CIA conducted the hacking of the DNC computers, using its Marble Framework tool that deceptively pointed to the Russians in order to create a diversion and further poison US-Russia relations.

Had Clinton won the election, none of this would have received much attention. But with Trump’s shocking victory, the emergency plan to shackle Trump and the already established plan to freeze hostile US-Russia relations merged into a single campaign.

Thus, the Clinton campaign blamed Russia’s Putin for her defeat.  Top Obama Administration officials added fuel to the fire by briefing the President on the so-called “dirty dossier” on Trump, thereby ensuring its scandalous references to Russian prostitutes would be leaked to the media.  Further, the Obama Administration unmasked the names of Trump associates surveilled by NSA’s ubiquitous data collection and expanded the network of government functionaries who had access to the unmasked surveillance.  As expected, frequent leaks of classified information to the media promptly began, even before the new administration was in place; Trump’s fired National Security Director, Michael Flynn, was discredited by those leaks.

The Truth About Ukraine

by Berry Friesen (May 16, 2017)

Do you want to be relevant and well-regarded within the empire?   Then join the imperial discourse, the way the empire talks about the world.  In other words, repeat the empire’s story.

A vivid example of this axiom is presented by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an international, faith-based, non-government organization (NGO) that generally opposes imperialism and works to ameliorate the suffering imperialism causes.

A March 28 article by Julie Bell published by MCC in A Common Place describes the expansion of its war relief work in southeastern Ukraine.  The fourth paragraph of the article provides historical background on the crisis in Ukraine:

“The conflict began in early 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine. Unrest spread, intensifying from May through November 2014 as waves of people fled fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (provinces), which share a border with Russia.”

This paragraph is not accurate.  Though many paragraphs like it have been published in oft-cited sources such as the New York Times, National Public Radio or The Globe and Mail, it is false.  The conflict began in early 2014 when armed groups—supported by fascist militias and Western governments—betrayed an agreement to adopt a new constitution and hold new elections by violently seizing control of the government apparatus in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.

From the start, the coup was regarded as illegitimate by most Ukrainians living in the eastern provinces and in Crimea, a province nearly surrounded by the Black Sea. Thus, Russian forces already present in Crimea pursuant to official agreements denied the new Kiev government and its agents access to Crimea.  And people in the eastern provinces organized self-defense units.

In response, the usurpers in Kiev called Ukrainians living in the east “terrorists” and commenced an aggressive military attack against them.  The war that ensued is now in its fourth year.

So eastern Ukraine is a horror—and MCC is doing war relief work there—because a violent coup designed by the US-led empire pushed that country into chaos.

I assume writer Julie Bell and the people who operate MCC are aware of this historical background.  So the interesting question is this:  why omit it from the article?

To answer that question, we first need to acknowledge that the mainstream media routinely omit this information from their reporting about Ukraine.  Always, we are told that Russia started the war by annexing Ukraine.  By now, this is dogma:  Russia is to blame.

If you tell a different story—an accurate one—you are stepping out of line, swimming upstream, sending an off-beat message, which means your message will elicit resistance.

Obviously, eliciting reader resistance would have undermined the commendable purpose of the MCC article:  raising public support for war-relief work in Ukraine. Thus, we have a faith-based NGO known for its anti-imperial stance reinforcing imperial propaganda.

Alas, we all do it.  Imperial propaganda is the water we swim in; unless we enjoy being obnoxious—unless we get pleasure by sticking out like a sore thumb—we don’t spend our days correcting our conversation partners when they repeat some canard from the New York Times, NPR or The Globe and Mail.  Instead we nod, maybe say something disparaging about President Trump, and continue the patter.

We go along to get along, accepting the empire's distortion of the record.  That’s how you and I (and Mennonite Central Committee) legitimate imperialism and help keep it in place.

Yet we can and must do better.  Without being obnoxious, we can decline to chime in, thereby signaling that we don’t accept imperial framing.  It’s a creative challenge, but one well worth the effort in order to prepare for a better world.

And yes, dissenting from imperial framing is a powerfully effective way to resist the empire, especially when lots of people do it.

Are you already dissenting?  Good!  If not, what are you waiting for?


Imperial Privilege

by Berry Friesen (May 12, 2017)

“Privilege” as used in Western social discourse is an unearned advantage awarded informally via social norms and practices.

Some are remedial, such as the perks given the elderly or the disabled.  Some are courtesies, like the considerations given a guest.  Some are meant to encourage, such as the kindnesses accorded children and youth.  Some reflect simple familiarity, like the effortless communication between people of the same language and culture.  Some are pernicious, such as the comforts and advantages enjoyed by those who have light colored skin.

Recently, an October, 2016 essay by Rashna Batliwala Singh and Peter Matthews Wright, two professors at Colorado College, introduced me to another pernicious example: imperial privilege.  Citing the work of Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, Singh and Wright ask:

“What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power? When it comes to presidential elections in the United States, the answer is ‘not much’—especially when those bodies are in faraway lands and wounded or slain not by ‘terrorists’ but by state actors. 

“The ability of the American electorate to shrug off the plight of those who suffer as the direct result of US foreign policy is so pervasive that it deserves a name. We call it ‘imperial privilege.’

“Indeed, so pervasive is this particular form of privilege that it is not limited to the ‘usual suspects,’ e.g., militarists or right-wing politicians. Imperial privilege makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of US militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.

"Whether by turning off the TV and heading to the mall, the movies, or for a hike in the great outdoors, Americans may turn off war with a click. People in countries such as Yemen where US armament sales fuel the devastation of war do not enjoy that option."

I’m not a fan of “privilege” discourse.  Too often, it is a form of emotional manipulation, designed to make people feel guilty about positive living conditions. But in some situations the positive conditions I enjoy come at your expense.  Then it is only right that I be made aware of the potential injustice.

Of course, when the subject is US foreign policy, the distance between my good life and someone else’s suffering is vast.  The casual links are diffuse.  As a result, it is easy to ignore connections between US imperialism and our way of life here in the USA.

As if anticipating our nonchalant shrugs, Singh and Wright bore in by setting “imperial privilege” alongside “white privilege”:

“Despite the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has made the nation aware of the militarization of our police, the use of tanks and teargas on the streets of American cities shocks the conscience only of a vocal minority. The connections that exist between police violence at home and US militarism abroad has little salience as an election issue. . . . 

“We are told that refusing to vote for Clinton constitutes a particular type of privilege, because communities of colour will suffer most under a Trump presidency. But imperial privilege allows Americans (black, brown, and white) to focus only on the ‘homeland’ and ignore the consequences of their political choices for any other country. There is a disturbing moral disconnect here. Voters who support a candidate that recognizes black lives matter nevertheless avert their gaze in good conscience from the thousands who are killed as a direct result of that same candidate’s interventionist policies.”

Human rights activist and 2016 Green Party vice-presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka * applies the concept of imperial privilege in his work to launch and organize a Black Alliance for Peace (BAP).  In “War, Militarism and No Mainstream Opposition: Different Administration, Same Story,” published May 9 by the Black Agenda Report, Baraka rues the lack of response to recent aggressions by the US:

“The absence of any real opposition to the reckless use of US military force—the attack on Syria, the macho demonstration bombing in Afghanistan, the provocations toward North Korea— exposed once again the unanimity among the US ruling class and the state on the use of military force as the main strategy to enforce its global interests.
. . . . 

"Imperial privilege is this strange ability on the part of the US public to ‘shrug off’ the consequences experienced by people impacted by the direct and indirect result of US militarism. That is precisely why pro-imperialist politicians like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can be designated as ‘progressives’ and vast numbers of voters can rally around a warmonger like Hillary Clinton without suffering much moral distress.”

In an earlier essay recalling the anti-war stance of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “50 Years Later, We Must Again Confront and Reject U.S. Warmongering,” Baraka said this:

“After almost three decades of pro-war conditioning by both corporate parties and the corporate media coupled with cultural desensitization from almost two decades of unrelenting war, opposition to militarism and war is negligible among the general population. The black public has not been immune to these cultural and political changes. And with the ascendancy of the corporatist President Barack Obama, during whose tenure the US continued its militaristic bent unabated and in fact ratcheted up its aggressive posturing in some parts of the globe, particularly in the Middle East, there was a decidedly rightward shift in the consciousness of the black public and a significantly dampened anti-war sentiment among black people.

“Politically the result has been disastrous for the society and for the US anti-war movement. The bi-partisan warmongering over the last two decades has met very little opposition, and the traditional anti-war stance of the black population has almost disappeared.”

Living as we do in the belly of the beast, we are well-insulated from the massive violence done in our name abroad.  Yet at times—the ‘60s (Vietnam), the ‘80s (Central America), ’02-’03 (Iraq)—Americans have been stirred to openly oppose that violence. What will move us to do so again?  Talk about “imperial privilege”? Awareness of how imperial propaganda has shaped our values and worldview?  The growing presence of military-style weaponry, tactics and violence in the US?  A Republican in the White House?  I don’t know.

What I am sure of is that cushioned by our privilege, we have settled deeply into siloed groups constructed around favorite causes and our respective gender, race or sexuality-related identities. Important though that work may be, we have a serious problem when it leaves us divided and silent vis-a-vis imperialism and endless war.  The two essays by Baraka and the one by Singh and Wright can help us overcome this problem. Please take the time to read all three.
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*  Ajamu Baraka will be the featured speaker at a one-hour seminar facilitated by John K. Stoner on July 6, 2017 at the annual convention of Mennonite Church USA in Orlando, Florida.

Korean Apocalypse?

by Berry Friesen (May 9, 2017)

The last few weeks have brought to our attention the chilling possibility that nuclear weapons could be detonated in Korea as part of a confrontation between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK).

Following the familiar pattern, this threat scenario has been accompanied in the West with a frightening portryal of DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong-un.  Clearly, we are meant to fear this “unpredictable,” “volatile” and “capricious” man, just as we have been taught to fear many stigmatized leaders before him:  Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Saddam Hussein, Hugo Chavez, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad.

What’s particularly frightening in the case of the DPRK is that it has nuclear weapons. As we hear it in the West, the world simply cannot tolerate the possession of nuclear weapons by “rogue nations” such as North Korea; the threat of their use is simply too great.

How should we Jesus-followers assess all of this?

First, a confrontation between the US and DPRK is a chilling prospect because one of those parties has a frightening and cruel history of using nuclear weapons in a terrorist fashion against civilian populations.  That party, of course, is the US.

Second, let’s remember how Korea has suffered at the hands of the West.  This remembering may require a bit of work; we in the West typically are not encouraged to acquaint ourselves with the inconclusive three-year war from June 1950 to July 1953. Nevertheless, when Korea is the topic, shouldn’t we be aware of the fact that three million Koreans died in that war— 20 percent of the population—mostly at American hands?

Here are three relatively short articles to provide some remedial reading:

Why Do North Koreans Hate US?  One Reason—They Remember the Korean War

Why North Korea Needs Nukes—And How to End That

How Bio-weapons Led to Torture . . . And North Korean Nukes

Third, we can’t forget what happens to opponents of the US-led empire that do not have nuclear weapons.  It isn’t pretty, as survivors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Venezuela, Libya, Syria and Yemen can testify.

Fourth, it’s important to view all of this within its broader context.  The Obama-Trump “pivot to Asia” involves many initiatives to retain US dominance in that part of the world, including a plan to encircle China militarily.  Hyping the threat of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons provides a rationale for a piece of this strategy of encirclement, just as hyping the threat of al-Qaeda 15 years ago provided the rationale for the piece in Afghanistan.

In March, the US took a big step forward in its strategy of encirclement with the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea.  This missile system is designed to neutralize China’s missile fleet, thereby eliminating its nuclear deterrent.  See here and here for details.

How serious is the threat of war in Korea?  I’m not in a position to make an assessment, but can quickly see it is a serious threat for the people of the DPRK.  They live in a poor country and constant military preparedness is hugely disruptive of their subsistence economy.  Moreover, history gives them every reason to conclude that the US-led empire is fully prepared to regard to regard their lives as expendable.  Yet their distress serves US imperial interests and so is likely to continue.

In short, Koreans are pawns, condemed to suffer in imperial war games. How much longer can this test of nerves go on? *
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*  For the response of the executive director of the Mennonite Church USA to the crisis in Korea, see "An Open Letter about Endless War and Opposing its Advance to North Korea."

Trading Our Birthright

by Berry Friesen (May 5, 2017)

(The third of three posts inspired by my recent travel in Poland)

“How many Mennonites live there today?”  is the usual response when I describe my recent travels to northern Poland, site of history's broadest and most sustained effort by Mennonites (apart from the Netherlands) to live as an identifiable faith community.

“Zero,” is my sad reply; “Mennonites have not lived in northern Poland since 1945.”

Here’s the skinny.  In 1945, Soviet armies swept through Poland, pushing back the occupying Nazi German forces.  Most of the 10,000 Mennonites who had lived in northern Poland moved west with the retreating German army; others fled north across the Baltic Sea to reach safety in Scandinavian lands.  Soviet forces took some into custody and deported them to labor camps in Siberia; a few were granted refugees status and resettled in other countries during the years after the war.

Thus ended the 400+ year presence of Mennonites in Poland.

This raises more questions.  How did Mennonites living in northern Poland become so strongly identified with Germany?  Why did the defeat of the Nazis make Mennonite existence in Poland untenable?

Such questions require chapter-length answers, such as you will find in Peter J. Klassen’s Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia, published in 2009, John Friesen's "Mennonites in Poland:  An Expanded Historical View," published in 1986, and Mark Jantzen's Mennonite German Soldiers, published in 2010. But I’ll make a small start.

1. Starting in the 1530s, several ethnic/cultural streams created the Mennonite community in Poland.  The largest contingent—perhaps half—consisted of Dutch and Flemish Anabaptists fleeing persecution from what today are the Netherlands and Belgium.  Smaller contingents of Anabaptists came from Switzerland, Austria, Moravia and Germany.  Over time, Anabaptist-minded Poles, Prussians and Lithuanians also joined, as did some Swedes.

Together, these disparate peoples developed a common “Mennonite” culture rooted in distinctive religious practices (no infant baptism, no participation in the military, no oaths) and a shared dialect of the German language.

2.  The peculiar (some would say obnoxious) religious practices of these Mennonites fostered a marginal social identity and continuous friction with the authorities (kings, princes, Lutheran and Catholic bishops, civic burghers, guild leaders). Although occasionally this friction resulted in the eviction of the Mennonites from one geographic area or another, generally what saved the day was the fact that Mennonite economic productivity put money in the pockets of the ruling classes.  This stasis held for over 300 years, from the 1530s until well into the 1800s.

3. During the 19th century, following Napoleon’s wars, a new political paradigm became dominant in Europe.  Large nation-states replaced the patchwork of smaller kingdoms. Universal military service became the norm.  People began to think of themselves as individuals with rights, existing as citizens within egalitarian political structures.

As these identities became paramount, other group-based identities (such as church) became secondary.

Poland did not exist as an independent state during the 19th century.  At the same time, German statelets were merging into a centralized government and one particular statelet—Prussia—became dominant. A portion of the Mennonite community (my ancestors included) emigrated to Russia early during this era, hoping to escape the demands of a nationalistic, centralized state; other Mennonites emigrated to the US.

The Mennonites who stayed in northern Poland adapted to the new paradigm, which by 1868 included compulsory military training and service (albeit with the option of not bearing arms). Mennonite men began to think of themselves as “German” in a broad sense and as autonomous individuals in a narrow sense, capable of deciding for themselves whether to serve the state in a combatant or a noncombatant role.  Yes, they continued to be “Mennonite,” but the relevance and authority of that identity began to recede.

4.  During World War 1, two-thirds of Mennonite men reportedly participated in the German army as combatants, one-third as noncombatants.

Famously, the clergy of Danzig selected a Mennonite pastor, H. G. Mannhardt, to speak to the public at the dawn of that war.  Mannhardt described the war as a “struggle for liberty” against the unjust hostility of enemies filled with “envy and hatred” and “destructive rage” against a righteous Germany.  He expressed gratitude to God for the German nation and called upon his audience to be ready to fight and die for the fatherland.

5. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) recognized Poland as a major nation-state.  However, as a way to “settle” competing Polish and German claims, it placed Danzig and the Vistula River Delta under the authority of the League of Nations.  Mennonites living on the Delta strongly supported German rule.  When Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933 and promised to bring Danzig and the Vistula River Delta back under German control, Mennonites were pleased.

When World War 2 came along, Mennonite men expressed their German identity by joining the war effort as military combatants.  Six years later, when the war was in its final stage and the Soviet army rolled west through Poland, there was little doubt about the “identity” of Mennonites:  they were active supporters of the Nazis.

With all of this in mind, visiting Danzig (now called Gdansk) and the Delta was for me a melancholy experience.  In part, the melancholy was related to mistakes Mennonites made, mistakes that eventually led to their departure.  And in part, the melancholy was related to similar mistakes we Mennonites are making now here in the US.

Of course, today we are even further along the road Mennonites in northern Poland began walking in the 19th century.  Like them, most of us are convinced national identity is important; we are proud of our American citizenship and believe our government’s purposes and methods are generally well-intentioned and deserve our support.  Even more than they, we are apt to see our personal identities as fundamental.  Thus, we describe ourselves in terms of gender or genderlessness, race, sexual orientation, political preference, educational and professional achievement, musical and artistic tastes, all cherished aspects of our individualized identity projects.

As for religious faith, we have come to see it primarily as an adjunct to these personal projects. “Church” is important and good so long as it provides a spacious canopy to affirm the identities and lifestyles we have constructed.  Yes, we accept its role in challenging us to live out our identities with greater love and integrity, but rarely do we recognize its authority to call us to a new way of living.

Religion aside, my forbearers from the 16th - 18th centuries would have been astonished by the naiveté of our worldview.  They understood the arbitrary authority and the deception of the ruling powers; further, they understood their own vulnerability (physically, emotionally, spiritually) as individuals vis-a-vis those powers.  And they recognized the potential of faith-based communities to create an alternative social and political reality, one strong enough to endure state oppression and the travails of life, yet truthful enough to create the conditions for shalom.

Nevertheless, over time, they gave up their birthright (see Genesis 25:29-34) in order to become free and autonomous citizens of Germany.  Aren’t we doing this again, here in the USA?

Stages of Evil

by Berry Friesen (May 2, 2017)

(The second of three posts inspired by my recent travel in Poland)

We often imagine evil barging in, its malevolence fully formed.  But more commonly, evil first appears as something less obvious. Perhaps we best learn from history by paying close attention to the evolution of evil, how it intensifies over time and develops a life of its own.

On April 27, Sharon and I visited a portion of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, located in the former Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory in the southern part of the city.  There we viewed an extensive exhibit documenting the Nazi occupation from September 6, 1939 until January 18, 1945.   During this time period, Krakow served as the capital of the “General Government,” the Nazi phrase for the structure of rule over occupied Poland.

Upon occupying Krakow, the General Government declared Krakow to be “a German city.” Polish monuments were removed; only Germans (about one percent of the population) could use the best parks and arts venues.  Jagiellonian University, Krakow’s pride-and-joy, was shut down, its professors imprisoned.

Also immediately, the General Government began widespread conscription of Polish citizens, some into the German Wehrmacht, some into local street-cleaning crews, many more into labor assignments in Germany and other Nazi-controlled lands where workers were needed to support the German war effort (arms manufacture, petrochemicals, mining, transportation, farming, etc.).

One such labor site was a metal fabrication factory owned by Oskar Schindler and located in an industrial neighborhood in the southern part of Krakow.  It manufactured pots and pans as well as ammunition.  Poles were conscripted to work there, Jews included. Most lived in their own homes, commuted to work, and received a food ration at work each day.  Most received a meager wage besides.

And in that initial flurry of activity, on November 18, 1939, the Nazi occupiers ordered all Jews over twelve years of age to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. Somewhat similarly, all Poles providing conscripted labor in Germany were required to wear yellow armbands with a large letter “P.”

On May 18, 1940, the city’s 65,000 Jews were ordered to leave Krakow and find places to live in rural towns and hamlets, thus making Krakow “a clean city” with room for incoming workers from Germany, Austria and elsewhere eager to staff the General Government.

Ten months later, on March 3, 1941, police summarily arrested the Jews still living across Krakow and force-marched them to Podgorze, the neighborhood where Schindler’s factory was located.  There the Nazis had enclosed a section of streets, houses and apartment buildings with a wall; all 1,500 former residents of that area were expelled and the 15,000 Jews who had been arrested were confined there.  Jews working in Schindler’s nearby factory were allowed to come and go through one of the four guarded gates, but it was an open-air prison for everyone else.

Thus 18 months into the occupation, the infamous Jewish ghetto of Krakow began.  In September, another 6,000 Jews were confined and housed there. Apartments that formerly housed one family now housed three or four.  A food ration of 200-300 calories a day per person was established. Malnutrition, squalor and disease proliferated; the capacity to work declined.

Beginning just over a year later (May, 1942), the Nazi’s began deporting Jews from the Krakow ghetto to other locations.  The last of these deportations occurred March 13-14, 1943.  During those two days, 8,000 able-bodied Jews were moved to the Plaszow work camp just east of Krakow and 2,000 of the diseased and incapacitated were murdered in the streets of the ghetto.  Perhaps another 2,000 were transported to the death camp in Auschwitz.

Prior to the final deportation, Oskar Schindler was able to arrange for 1,200 Jewish workers to move from the ghetto to another location, thus preserving his workforce and saving many of their lives.

I appreciated how the museum told this horrible story.  All Poles suffered under Nazi rule, but some more than others and the Jews most of all. Of course, those living through this era were acutely aware of this hierarchy of suffering; for most people, being “favored” by the occupiers through a “better” work assignment, a “richer” food ration, a more “peaceful” environment became the very focus of life.  This is often how we humans endure—by comparing ourselves favorably to others.

As for the German occupiers, the museum’s story suggests they set in motion events they could not control.  Their goals were instrumental:  dominance, a German ethos, a mobilized labor force, the clear identification of Jews as a threat to national security.  But within a relatively short time, those operational goals were overwhelmed by events: military reversals, food shortages, epidemics of disease, starvation.  Firing squads and death camps became default solutions.

It ended horribly, but along the way it was merely a banal process of using desired ends to justify awful means.

And though nothing in today’s world compares to the Jewish Holocaust, the pursuit of dominance and ends-justify-the-means thinking by US leaders has unleashed the evil to claim millions of lives in Korea, in Vietnam and in Iraq.   The pursuit of dominance and ends-justify-the-means thinking ravage Libya, Syria and Yemen still. Maybe 75 years from now, there will be museums describing how ever this could have happened.

Surprises in Poland

by Berry Friesen (April 29, 2017)

Along with Sharon (my wife) and our London-based daughter and her family, I have been traveling in Poland over the past nine days.  All branches of my ancestors lived in northern Poland for around 250 years.  Thus, this trip gave me the opportunity to see places that shaped my families of origin and—in some sense—me.  It was a dream-come-true.

Like any traveler, I had coached myself in advance to expect the unexpected. Nevertheless, I experienced genuine surprises along the way.

1.  At our first stop—the Gdansk airport—I learned I was not permitted to drive the rental car because I did not have an international driver’s license.  Ouch!  Such a license is apparently not difficult to obtain, but does require a bit of preparation.  All you travelers, be forewarned.

2. Gdansk became a thriving international city-state 500 years ago—in the 16th century—as a hub of trade between the central and eastern European cities of the Hanseatic League and the booming ports of Amsterdam and Antwerp.  Dutch influence was especially strong, shaping Gdansk’s architecture and culture.  US bombing and Russian artillery destroyed much of the city in 1945.

Here is the surprise:  starting in 1948 and continuing for the next 40 years, Communist Poland restored the grandeur of 16th century Danzig (as it was then known) in modern-day Gdansk. That’s right; today the historic center of Gdansk looks much like Danzig in 1939 before the war started.  Polish Communist leaders enabled this to happen.

3.  Between Gdansk on the west and Elblag on the east, south of the Baltic Sea and along both sides of the Vistula River south to Torun, my ancestors lived as farmers. Their remarkable achievement was to lower the water table and thereby claim the land—30 percent of which was below sea level— for productive uses.

During our day on the Delta, we saw vistas of spring green, an early stage of what over the summer will become acres of grain.  Countless drainage canals and ditches crisscross the green, taking the water into rivers and on to the Baltic.  The surprise? Few people live on the Delta and hardly any farm animals. We saw widely scattered farm building sites, but nearly all were old and decrepit.  The roads are awful and seem slated for use only by farm equipment.   The land of the Delta remains productive, but apparently no longer supports a vibrant human community.  Industrial agriculture prevails.

4.  Sunday evening, Sharon and I attended the 7:00 mass at a Catholic church on the main square in Torun. It was cold inside the large space, dark and not particularly attractive.  As we sat at the far back and waited for the worship service to begin, the benches of the sanctuary filled with people.  Near where we sat, a long line stretched around the corner of the sanctuary, people waiting for an opportunity to confess sins to a priest.  Many of the worshippers—including those in line for the confessional—were young adults.  Slowly, it dawned on us:  religious faith is vital and strong in Poland.

5.  Monday we visited Czestochowa, site of Jasna Gora, the “bright hill” overlooking the city.  It is the site of the Black Madonna, an ancient painting of unknown origin that is one of Poland’s most important religious and cultural treasures.  Also part of the huge complex at Jasna Gora is a basilica with an alter that includes perhaps two dozen sculpted figures rendered in the baroque style.

What first surprised me was the emotion I felt in the depiction of what I took to be the glorification of Jesus (i.e., the resurrection).  There was such beauty, such joyous triumph and celebration over Jesus’ vindication.  The emotion drew me to my knees with the words of Ephesians running through my mind . . . “raised him from the dead and seated him in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come . . . head over everything” (1:20-22)

Alas, my second surprise of the afternoon soon followed as I drew closer and knelt at the communion rail. The glorified figure at the center of the alter tableau was Mary, mother of Jesus.

6.  The fourth and final city we visited was Krakow, second-largest city of Poland. During the German occupation of Poland (1939-1945), the Nazis made Krakow the administrative and regulatory capital of the governing unit imposed on Eastern Europe.   It also is the historical setting for and filming location of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the movie about a German factory owner who saved the lives of Jews by putting them to work and inflating the number of people in his employ.  All of this opened the way for a more nuanced account of that horrible era, a subject I will discuss in my next post.

7.   During the 45 years of Communist rule (1945-90), the Polish people defeated the Nazis; rebuilt cities, towns and infrastructure shattered by the war; revived their economy; and educated two generations of youth.  As we passed through four Polish cities in the course of our travels, I looked for historical markers celebrating those important accomplishments, but saw nothing.  Curiosity aroused, I did some digging and discovered nearly 500 statues and markers related to the Communist era had been removed during the early '90s from public view.  Now in storage, those statues and markers remain controversial; Poland’s parliament reportedly enacted legislation on April 21 to destroy them.

Really?  Simply because the ruling Polish government was Communist, it is necessary to purge from memory the achievements of two generations of Polish people?  I find this surprising and disturbing. For some reason or another (is it politics?), Poland’s current rulers have decided to tell the country’s history as a morality tale.  As a result, I expect Poland will be less equipped to deal with today’s challenges.  It’s a pity; Poland has many accomplishments to be proud of, including those that occurred during years of Communist rule.  

Why Church?

by John K. Stoner (April 25, 2017)    

     People need a community, a group larger than themselves, in which to give and receive the possibilities of a fuller life.

    It can be called a matter of survival, and on one level it is that, but much more.  Whatever it means to be human, to be alive and growing, can be discovered only in relationship to others.  The Western ideal of individualism, of self-realization without communal commitments, is an illusory and ultimately destructive project.  We are witnessing the decay of our so-called civilization as we pursue our self-fulfillment.

    The nation state has become the default community for cultures of individualism.  Seeking a larger community with which to identify, a community which gives a sense of strength, protection and security, people put a national flag in their lawn, porch and truck.  Others, more educated, urbane or cultured, put up no flag, but support the imperial project nevertheless.  They make the nation their community. 

    This expresses a view of human nature which sees people as fundamentally aggressive, mean-spirited and threatening.  The foundational human project is then to protect one’s self from dangerous human enemies.

    In this worldview people believe that violence is the ultimate arbiter of human relations—a monopoly of power to dominate and kill enemies is the true form and expression of power.  There are always other people so evil that they must be scapegoated and pursued with endless war.   This is the imperial worldview.

    And it must be taken seriously because at this moment in the juvenile stage of human development, most people do accept, or apparently accept, this view that violence is most true reality of human nature.  

    But there are other ways of conceiving the most foundational realities of human nature and of constructing human community.  Church is one of them.

    The project of church is based on a particular view of what is most real, available and authentic in human beings.  I am calling this reality human nature.   

    Church is the community of people which has been forming in a million different ways for two thousand years around and in the wake of the life and teachings of a man from Galilee in Palestine named Jesus.  

    The church’s view of human nature when it gets it right (and this is pitifully far from always), is that humans are created in the image of God and that the life and teachings of Jesus give us the best picture we have of the God-reality.  This can be affirmed while also affirming that there are other pictures of the God-reality/human nature which are life-giving and wonderful, in numberless cultures and religions of the world.  But no one can do everything at once, so here the focus is on church and Jesus.

    Christians see the Jesus story as a grand enactment in life of what is most essential, true and available in the human person.  Jesus called himself the human one, or son of man.   His life and teachings are the lived-out drama of everyman/everywoman— of human nature.

    Jesus lived and taught that love is the ultimate form of power.  As such, love, not violence or dominating power,  is the principle and practice for building successful and sustainable human community.  The church at its best is is a community which orders its life by love.  But what does love look like?

    It looks like a good Samaritan (today, read Muslim) giving help to a wounded man who has been bypassed by Christian tv preachers and smooth talking pastors.

    It looks like Jesus talking with a Samaritan (read Muslim, Jewish, lesbian activist) woman, in public, while men complain on the sidelines.

    Love looks like a father welcoming home a prodigal son while an elder brother (read pious churchgoer) complains about being neglected by his father. 

    It looks like people forgiving others as often as they would like to be forgiven themselves, many times without end.

    Love looks like visiting and freeing people imprisoned by the imperial system of discrimination against poor, non-white people.  

    It looks like challenging encrusted religious structures to choose life rather than death (Mark 3).

    Love is risking to live by the side of us which wants to welcome, forgive and help others the way we ourselves would like to be welcomed, forgiven and helped. Jesus did this and showed his peers that they also could do it. 

    So love in the life of Jesus is a succession of nonviolent actions which save life rather than kill.  

    But in the end love looks like getting executed by religious and political power systems which can’t stand such simple acts of goodness—ending up on a cross.  A cruel end, apparently, to an attractive, but obviously futile, alternative to dominating power and violence as the way to run the world.  So it seemed. 

    However,  then again, love looks like resurrection, like a way to run the world which is not defeated by death itself, but comes to life again like a seed thrust into the ground.  So Jesus was seen alive after his death by some believing disciples, and soon a growing crowd of people who called themselves “followers of the way” believed that they could actually live the way Jesus lived.  That way seemed to them viable, not dead, so they did it in their communal life and soon were calling themselves church, assembly, or congregation.  

    My co-author Berry Friesen and I describe that life in more detail in IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT?  We give a glimpse of why people find this community an attractive alternative to the “going it alone” of Western individualism.  Have a look: “Chapter 21.  A New Political Community.”  http://liberationtheology.org/library/if-not-empire-what--a-survey-of-the-bible.pdf






 


Speaking About War

by Berry Friesen (April 20, 2017)

The April 6 US missile attack on Syria brings to the surface a hardy perennial:  hand-wringing over what Jesus-followers should say about military acts of violence.

The hand-wringing occurs because (a) Jesus taught us to love our enemies, a stance incompatible with deliberately killing them; and (b) Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, which surely includes protecting the innocent from terror and aggression.  Doing both at once is a steep challenge.

Those loyal to the power of the state are prone to ignore the first teaching and emphasize the second.

Thus, with regard to Syria, the mainstream media present us with innocent and defenseless women and children being victimized by President Bashar al-Assad, who is described as a brutal and violent oppressor who uses poison gas to kill and intimidate. This presentation is deliberately distorted to justify the continued use of violence by Western powers, allegedly to protect the innocent, but in fact to perpetuate the violence.*

Jesus-followers are called to do better than that.

For example, on April 7, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—the international NGO that represents US Mennonites, Amish and Brethren in Christ congregations—issued a public call urging its supporters to oppose US military action against Syria.  After noting the civilian deaths on April 4 from “a chemical weapons attack” and the US airstrikes on Syria April 6—“an act of war without debate or approval by the US Congress or UN Security Council”—MCC conveyed the opposition of its Syrian partners to

“the use of violence from all sides in the conflict, including chemical weapons, airstrikes and the bombardment of villages--events that have all taken place this week. Rather than fueling the flames of war, they urge support instead for a robust process of dialogue and diplomacy to address the root causes of the conflict.”

Notice how the short MCC statement implicitly honors both of Jesus’ teachings.  Notice also how it includes relevant facts, including a couple that reflect poorly on the US.

Yet the statement seems a bit perfunctory. And its call for an end to the violence and a negotiated settlement is rather conventional; I can’t imagine a US official or military officer objecting to such a call, nor any editor of a mainstream newspaper.

Evil is running amok in Syria; nearly 500,000 have been killed, six million people have become refugees, another six million have been internally displaced.  Why does this carnage continue? Is the dishonest narrative of the Western powers a contributing factor? People of faith dare not avoid these questions. So how do we start?

First, we must clarify what’s going on in Syria.

President Assad is defending his country against outside invaders led by al-Qaeda and ISIS. These terrorist groups have been supported in Syria by money, arms, training and intelligence from the US and its allies.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been especially important sources of support for these groups; the US provides technical expertise and also plays a coordinating role.

In Idlib province where the April 4th chemical incident occurred, al-Qaeda is in control. Most of the on-the-ground information reported in the Western media about the deaths on April 4 has been provided by individuals and groups working with al-Qaeda.

During the long Syria war, investigative teams of the United Nations have documented (see here and here and here) chemical weapons use by al-Qaeda, by ISIS and by the Syrian government. Responsibility for the largest such attack—the August, 2013 attack in Ghouta—remains unclear, but points toward Turkey, a member of NATO.

Russia is militarily present in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government; thus, its presence conforms to international law. The US has no legal basis for military involvement in Syria; its presence in Syria is a violation of international law.

Second, we must summon the courage to identify parties to the Syrian war that apparently want this horror to continue and are willing to use deceitful means to justify more war.  I refer to “courage” here because accurately describing the agony of Syria will be viewed by some as a breach of loyalty to our tribe. This breach can bring consequences:  loss of reputation, marginalization, even exclusion.

Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat congresswoman and former US Army officer from Hawaii, is a vivid example.  For going to Syria late last year and visiting President Assad, expressing skepticism about al-Qaeda-sourced reports that are published by Western media, and calling for an independent investigation of the April 4th chemical event, Gabbard has been denounced by leading members of her party.  She is likely to face a challenge in the next Democratic primary.  Her constituents may decide to throw her out of office.

But Gabbard has refused to back down.  She even has introduced legislation (H.R. 608)** prohibiting US support for al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria.  Think about it:  Gabbard says it is necessary to make it illegal for the US government to do what you and I would be thrown in jail for doing:  supporting the evil of terrorism.

Raised in part by a Christian father, Gabbard now practices the Hindu faith.  Yet she provides an example of what we Jesus-followers must find the courage to do as we speak in public settings about war:  grapple with the evil that explains the apparent intractability of war.

Yes, this means casting blame.  And of course, the standard objection is that casting blame will get us nowhere.

Actually, however, that’s not true.  Blame has already been cast a million times through Western media reports stigmatizing President Assad and his administration’s attempts to defend their country against foreign mercenaries and terrorists. This pattern of media blame-casting is a powerful force that has indeed got us somewhere:  six-plus years of war, justified by a false moral imperative to remove President Assad from office.***

So yes, we must do more than oppose war and the re-arming of the combatants.  We must do more than call for a negotiated settlement.  We also must identify the presence of evil pushing war ever onward.  And we must oppose this evil, even if it gets us in trouble with our tribe.
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*  Dr. Theodore Postol, professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says this in "The Nerve Agent Attack that Did Not Occur," his April 18th, 13-page summary of the data related to the April 4 chemical incident at Khan Sheikhan:

"The conclusion is that the nerve agent attack described in the White House Intelligence Report (WHR) did not occur as claimed. There may well have been mass casualties from some kind of poisoning event, but that event was not the one described by the WHR."

**  Gabbard's bill now has ten co-sponsors (three Democrats and seven Republicans).  A companion bill has been introduced by Senator Rand Paul in the Senate (S. 532).

*** A truly revolting case of the way Western media abuse the concept of "blame" to distort public understanding is the reporting around the April 15 suicide bombing in Syria. Under an agreement negotiated between multiple parties, civilians being evacuated from al-Qaeda-held territory waited on buses for clearance to begin their short journey to a government provided safe zone.  Suicide bombers drove a pick-up truck carrying food alongside the buses, reportedly attracting children as they passed out free potato crisps.  That's when the bombers detonated their bomb, killing 130 people, including 70 children. Western media reported this atrocity in a fog-of-war manner, ignoring the high likelihood that al-Qaeda committed this horrible act of terrorism, and occasionally blaming the government for allowing the pick-up truck to be in a position within rebel-held territory to cause such harm. See Moon of Alabama's "Al-Qaeda Suicide Attack Kills 100+ Children, Women; Whodunit?