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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.”


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.
*  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?

Is Life Before Death Possible? Resurrection

by John K. Stoner (April 16, 2017)

  Millions of people have found a new life by choosing to be generous, forgiving, and bold in the practices of nonviolent struggle.  

Easter Sunday is the church’s celebration of the great human possibility of living by the principle and practice of love.

The resurrection of Jesus followed three years of difficult and often discouraging life in Galilee, according to the gospel accounts.  The relatively small group of people who followed Jesus were often frightened and overwhelmed by the painful human conditions where Jesus lived his daily life.  Choosing to live with poor, sick and socially marginalized people, Jesus loved people who were left alone, avoided and even despised by the recognized leaders of his community and the empire of Rome.  He lived in the ghetto, the rust belt, and the dust of rural poverty.

The conditions of life and future prospects of peasants in Galilee seemed hopeless.  No one who aspired to a position of public recognition and leadership in Israel went to Galilee to make their mark.  But Jesus did.  He took a big gamble, he challenged established leadership there, which operated by dominating and even homicidal power; and those at the center of that power, Jewish and Roman leadership in Jerusalem, finally killed him.  He seemed to have tried and failed .  

But to the amazement of his disciples, Jesus appeared alive in one way and another after his crucifixion!  Every resurrection account says that he will be seen in Galilee!  It was an incredible vindication of the way he had given new life and hope to people in Galilee.  This man, scapegoated for death by the supreme religious and political imperial authorities, did not stay dead after they executed him.  The way he had lived in Galilee, loving all including his enemies, was not squashed out by his death!  That way was continuing—it was going forward. 

Jesus had asserted his own authority in the synagogues of Galilee.  In space where established authorities forbade healing on the Sabbath with their traditional law, Jesus challenged them by boldly asking “Is it lawful on the sabbath to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3)  At that moment, all the synagogue worshippers remembered the challenge of Moses:  “I set before you this day life and death.  Therefore, choose life.”

And in Galilee Jesus had claimed the right to forgive sins, in face of the priestly establishment which held that only God and themselves as God’s representatives could forgive sins. (Mark 2). Going further, Jesus declared with radical boldness that people could and should forgive each other’s sins—without limit!  This was a totally unprecedented way of dealing with the perplexing human problem of sin.  (Matthew 18). 

In Galilee Jesus had looked with compassion on blind people who could not find their way through the morass of life, he came close to them, touched them and restored their sight.  And for those who could not hear his teaching, or make sense of his program of nonviolent love, he gave ears to hear.  (Mark 7,8).  

In Galilee he had singled out women for respect and attention, upsetting all the conventions of Jewish law and practice, speaking publicly even with a Samaritan, not a Jewish, woman.  He openly violated the dictates of gender and religious bias. (John 4). 
In Galilee he had sent out his disciples to proclaim a simple and earthshaking message:   “Peace to this house.”  (Luke 10).  At Pentecost it was Galileans who spoke the good news in many languages. (Acts 2)  Peace was the promise of the empire—a bold, gleaming and cruel lie by those whose way was death, execution, and war.  Peace on the lips of Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew vision of “shalom”—a life in harmony with nature and neighbor.  

Galilee was, in short, the site and synonym for living the kingship of God, a new way of running the world embodied by Jesus of Nazareth.  

And one assertion is consistent in all of the resurrection accounts:  The living Jesus, in whom God dwells as God dwells  in us, will be seen in Galilee, the place where the hard choice between life and death is faced every day.  

The gospel of John tells the great parable of Lazarus—a man bound, like Everyman, by the fear and ignorance of the society in which he lived.  That man, addressed by the son of man, incarnating God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, experienced genuine life before death.  That is the resurrection possibility for all of us.  But we do not have to choose it.  In the ironic words of W. Edwards Deming:  “It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory."
The Apostle Paul wrote:  “God made you alive together with him (Jesus).” (Colossians 2).  Present tense reality,  we have been resurrected with Jesus the Christ.  

We are indeed seeing something which not everyone sees, though all could choose to see it.  At one time only a few people perceived that the earth is round.

  There is strangeness in the resurrection appearances— sometimes he is not seen when he is there, and sometimes he is seen when he is not there.

A few summary thoughts:  Christians have no reason nor right to expect a life in the future which they refuse to embrace in the present.  If Jesus’ way is a bad idea here on the short term, it has got to be a worse idea for a somewhere future on the long term.  

The question always before us—will we bow to the powers, the fear and the lure of death?  Or will we say yes to life as Jesus said to life?  

Every claim that Jesus rose from the dead which is linked to policies of death and war is fraudulent and hypocritical.  

If you cannot see Jesus/God in your neighbor, you will not see Jesus in Galilee.  Not everyone will see Jesus in Galilee. 

If we cannot see Jesus, and in him God as well, in every person we ever meet (or do not meet), we do not believe in resurrection.  

Jesus’ resurrection, as his birth, like ours, is shrouded in mystery and miracle.  The miracle is, in the end, life itself.  Thanks be to God.  Yes be to life.  Now.

Why Did Jesus Die?

by John K. Stoner (April 14, 2017) 

Why did Jesus die?  Or, put differently, why was he killed?

The second way of asking it is better, because it shows an intention to take the history seriously. 

Good Friday has been a great Christian celebration across centuries and continents.  The crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday is the focus of the celebration.  Why celebrate the death of Jesus?

Let’s start with the hardest and the worst of it.  Over the centuries a tradition developed by the church and believed by millions of Christians holds that Jesus died because God willed and/or needed Jesus’ death.  Notice, however, that this tradition attributes not a bad motive, but a good one, to God.  God did it in order to make possible the forgiveness of human sins. 

Now let’s be honest—human failure, or sin, is common and big.  Who can look at their own life and not know that?  And we find it is not always easy to forgive ourselves, and consistently try to do better.  So, our forbears looked for a big solution to a big problem.  Let’s make it God-sized, and see how God solves our problem.  They picked up on religious traditions of sacrifice to the gods, and lo and behold, we get a notion of sacrifice in which the very son of God is the sacrifice which pleases God and makes the forgiveness of sins possible.  

If that doesn’t work well for you, fine.  Join tens of millions of other fellow humans who are appalled by such an image of God and way to deal with our problem of recidivism in sin. 

There is a better way to understand Good Friday and the crucifixion.  Start by asking who killed Jesus and why.  

Start with the obvious.  He was killed by people who thought that killing a person was acceptable human behavior, and—we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt—that they could improve the general human condition by performing an execution. It was the logic of empire.   Maybe we can give them a little more:  they killed him thinking he was a bad person.  They were wrong about that, so his death was collateral damage.   

In short, Jesus was killed by bad people for being a good person.

Let’s parse that a little.  Bad and good are relative terms, but that does not mean they are meaningless or useless.  The bad here is the ancient and widespread human belief that some other individuals or groups are so bad that they  must be killed in order to cleanse the land.  They are scapegoated:  those bad must be sacrificed for the sake of us good. 

Jesus taught a different thing, another way.  He said that none of us are so good, nor so hopelessly bad, that we can indulge this practice of killing each other to make the world a better place.  The world is not improved by pillaging and burning.  Scorching part of the earth will not save the whole earth.  

So Good Friday was a contest over the central teaching of Jesus.  Who understands best the real human nature/condition (or the will of God, to put it the other way)?   Is it Jesus, who says that the way to deal with human imperfection or sin, is to forgive one time after another, to help each other try again, loving as Jesus loved, or those who killed Jesus, believing that some bad people have to be killed so that us good people can inhabit the world peacefully?  

The vignette of Peter’s denial is a microcosm of this contest.  There is a double sadness in this story: that Peter denied, and that the church has so universally misunderstood Peter’s denial.  It was not a denial rooted in human weakness as generally understood, but rather in what is generally thought to be human strength and greatness.  By both his actions and words Peter stands out as a brave man, ready to fight and die for Jesus.  What he was not ready for was the disclosure of Jesus’ nonviolent response to the attacking enemies.  Peter was overcome by unbelief and embarrassment when he saw Jesus refusing to take up the sword and defend himself, loving his enemies, and he denied that he was identified with this man.  

The story of Jesus is so irrepressible and universal because he taught this way of compassionate forgiveness, and placed it in tension with imperial practices of dominating power over nature  and justified killing of humanity.  Every person and every culture/nation lives in the tension between these ways of running the world.  It is the existential choice of humanity, standing on the verge of ecological collapse and death by war.

But again, in the ironic words of W. Edwards Deming:  “It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory."


Jesus: King or Prophet?

by John K. Stoner (April 10, 2017)

     Why has the Jesus story become so timelessly influential across history?  Why do so many people find something irresistibly attractive and fearful in it?

And yes, why have so many adherents to this “Christian” tradition done horrendous acts of violence and depredation?  

No search of history to find lessons for the present can ignore these two questions.

So why this great positive and negative impact of the figure of Jesus on the course of history?  Why does the story of Jesus refuse to go away?  This is truly a big subject, but humanity faces big choices.  As we think about this, we might remember ironically,  as W. Edwards Deming said:  “It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory."

The Christian celebration of Holy Week begins by remembering the story of Jesus’ entering Jerusalem.  For Jesus, Jerusalem was the center of power which most opposed his own political views and public activity.  In Galilee, where he had lived for several years among the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and those imprisoned for debt and resistance to imperial power, he had gained notable popularity, because he had healed and empowered multitudes of those despairing folks.  But now, his decision to go to Jerusalem was a fateful and frightful one, because it would take him inside the beltway, to the center where those who thought they ran the country and defined the culture wielded their power.  But he chose to take the risk, ramp up his courage and do it. 

Matthew’s gospel says “When they came near Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’ And Matthew says

        “This fulfilled the words of the prophet, who said,
'Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.' “

So, it was a prophet’s voice from the margins, not the mainline press, which said the king of Israel was coming in a totally unprecedented way—he would be riding a bicycle, not a limousine.  

The crowds in Jerusalem, gathered for the great annual religious and political convention, heard the rumor that this Jesus from Galilee was entering the city.  They gathered along his route and Matthew says they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

With great drama the crowds were identifying Jesus as a descendant and heir of king David’s ruling dynasty in Israel.  Jesus was coming as a king.  The people of Israel, living in exile under the cruel oppression of the Roman Empire, were about to have a new king in the line of David.

But it was far from clear who Jesus was.  The account says next, 
“When he entered Jerusalem, the who city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’  The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.”  

So there you have a stark and dramatic difference in who Jesus might be.  Is he a king in the tradition of David, with a throne, armies and wealth, or is he a prophet who denounces kings with their pride, pretense and homicidal ways?  

This Jesus is a big deal, he is popular, known by thousands apparently, and he must have some kind of power.  But there’s the question of history—what kind of power is it?  Do we have here a king or a prophet?   

      And if a prophet, then is his power merely the kind that stirs people up and leaves them frustrated?  What real power does a prophet wield?
Then Jesus goes to the temple, the center of religious practice for all the people, but also of political power, because the Romans had built the temple.  It was a kind of giant mall, arena and cathedral all in one, where commerce, piety and patriotism combined in a great annual festival of spending and profiting and hoping for success in the year ahead.  Jesus walks in and begins to turn things upside down, and says ‘You’ve turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves’.  He challenged the way things were being run, and his challenge infuriated those who thought they held the power in this society.  Then he left the temple for the night, but returned the next day to teach publicly.

Matthew then records a week of Jesus teaching in the temple.  It is a clash of power, the established religious authorities in league with Rome vs. a prophet from Galilee.  The teaching of Jesus put forward a nonviolent plan of action, a way of running the world that was based on compassion, forgiveness and defeating enemies by loving them into relationships of trust.  It did indeed clash with the ways of kings and priests who were busy colluding to manage the economy and society with the power of hierarchy, domination and ultimately homicidal violence.

But why has that clash and story so fascinated people for centuries? 

Because humans know this struggle between the violence of established authorities and powerful nonviolent impulses of the human heart.    Every day we face choices between harming or helping, retaliation or forgiveness, escalating or calming situations of conflict.  It is the human condition—do we survive by beating down and beating up the other, or seeking common ground and greater good by taking the risks of cooperation and second and third chances for all of us?  

The great advances of history have been made by people who chose the path of human kindness, to abolish slavery; of justice, to recognize women as equals; of democracy, to replace kings with shared leadership.  Nonviolent methods have achieved dramatic changes.

But it is painfully true that others have turned their backs on this wisdom of Jesus, and people carrying his name and posing as his community have fought wars, launched military crusades, and filled prisons with people far better than themselves.  But if we’re clear and honest about it, these were not people accepting the radical new way that Jesus entered Jerusalem, on a donkey or bicycle.  They enter Jerusalem as David did, with armed men on war horses (I Chronicles 11) —they are in long black limousines.   They are not disciples of Jesus. 

So as far as Jesus goes, and history goes, it is pretty clear.  Jesus can be represented and he can be misrepresented.  If it is too difficult for us to parse that difference, we will be the losers.  

Jesus does not continue to impress and attract 2000 years later because of people who misrepresent him.  He is remembered  because he did choose a donkey for his transportation, totally upsetting the notion of kingship, and did speak like a prophet, challenging the presumptive powers with their ways of domination and cruelty.  He confronted the world with the option of nonviolent struggle,  another way which he called the kingdom of God.  And that continues to have an irresistible tug on the human heart—a vision of how we could choose to make a viable future by running the world a different way. 

But for bringing this vision inside the Jerusalem beltway Jesus faced consequences.  That is the subject of my next blog, Good Friday.  

"No" to Attacking Syria

by Berry Friesen (April 6, 2017)

“I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, 
people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence 
that is available, who are saying that the essential narrative we 
are all hearing  about the Syrian government or the Russians
 using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.

“The intelligence confirms pretty much the account the 
Russians have been giving since [Wednesday] night, 
which is that they hit a warehouse where the rebels—
now these are rebels connected with al-Qaeda—
where the rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it
 basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties. 

“Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear. 
People both in the agency and in the military who are aware
of the intelligence are freaking out about this because
essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he
already should have known but maybe didn’t.
And they are afraid this is moving toward a situation 
that could easily turn into an armed conflict.”

                         Philip Giraldi, former CIA and DIA officer
       Member, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
                             Interviewed on The Scott Horton Show

For six years now, Syria has been fighting off foreign mercenaries funded, trained and supported by the US and its allies. With the help of Russia and Iran, the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad staved off what in August, 2015 appeared to be almost certain defeat.  Slowly since then, Syria has regained the advantage.  During the past six months, Syria has liberated its largest city (Aleppo) from al-Qaeda, regained control of the water supply for the capitol city (Damascus) and defeated al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters hidden in tunnels in the suburbs east of Damascus.

Just last weekend, the Trump Administration said the US is no longer seeking regime change in Syria and that the future role of Assad in the Syrian government is in the hands of the Syrian people.  Hurray!

So 48 hours after Assad’s big diplomatic victory, does it make sense for him to use chemical weapons to kill civilians?

Obviously, that would be the height of stupidity.  And Dr. Bashar al-Assad, the physician who trained in London to be an eye surgeon, is not a stupid man.

All of this seems to elude Western mainstream media, which have been unanimous in blaming Assad for the deaths of more than 70 civilians April 5.

Thus, Western media have dismissed the statements of Russian and Syrian government officials explaining how this happened.

Instead, Western media broadcast video clips and reports from unnamed sources in Idlib, including the widely-discredited “White Helmets,” who work hand-in-hand with al-Qaeda. There are no independent journalists in rebel-held areas of Syria; they long ago fled for their lives or were murdered.  What the media are feeding us now is pure and unadulterated al-Qaeda propaganda.*

Yet President Trump has joined the rush to blame Assad and as of Thursday evening (April 6) has directed missile attacks on Syria. **

War thrives on moral narratives.   Before a war starts, we always are given a compelling moral narrative.  And that’s how this expansion of the war in Syria has begun.

Remember February 2003 and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech before the United Nations (UN)?  He spoke of irrefutable evidence that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq was preparing weapons of mass destruction.

It was a lie, yet the terrible war it helped launch still goes on today, fourteen years later.

Remember March 2011 and the media reports that Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was distributing Viagra to his black mercenary soldiers and encouraging them to use rape as a weapon of terror against civilians?  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton amplified those allegations; so did Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, in a speech there.

It was a lie, yet the UN authorized armed intervention against the Libyan government in support of the rebels, which turned out to be mainly Salafist fighters, including ISIS.

Remember August 2013 and the chemical attack on civilians in Ghouta near Damascus? Secretary of State John Kerry said there was irrefutable evidence that President Assad was responsible; President Obama asked Congress to retaliate by authorizing an attack.

It was a lie.  With time we learned it likely was Turkish intelligence, working with rebel forces, who designed and resourced the attack in order to blame Assad and mousetrap Obama into an escalation of the war.  See here and here and here to read more.

Now we’re hearing a story like that again.  Once again, Salafist "terrorists" (that’s a UN designation, not mine) are the operatives on the ground, feeding Western media a story to help their cause.  This is the same group the UN documented using chemical weapons against innocent civilians in Homs in December, 2012 and in Aleppo in March, 2013. This story is already falling apart, and in time will be confirmed to be a lie.

Here’s something constructive we all can do:  email our members of Congress and tell them we do not believe what the media and the President are telling us about Syrian President Assad using chemical weapons in Idlib.  It takes only 10-15 minutes to send three emails if you cut-and-paste the first note you write into the second and third email you send.  (I timed myself.)

It's not hopeless. Already a few courageous members of Congress (such as Thomas Massie, R-KY, Tulsi Gabbard, D-HW, Rand Paul, R, KY and Chris Murphy, D-CT) are taking a stand against attacking Syria. Others will join if they hear from enough of their constituents.

Remember:  take away the moral narrative and the case for war collapses.  That’s because the empire’s survival depends more on moral legitimacy than on military supremacy.  When the empire’s stories are no longer believed, then its violence will be discredited as brutality, not justice.

It is the “yes” or “no” of people like us that makes all the difference.
*   Scott Ritter, writing April 9 in The Huffington Post, puts it this way:

"Mainstream American media outlets have willingly and openly embraced a narrative provided by Al Qaeda affiliates whose record of using chemical weapons in Syria and distorting and manufacturing “evidence” to promote anti-Assad policies in the west, including regime change, is well documented.  These outlets have made a deliberate decision to endorse the view of Al Qaeda over a narrative provided by Russian and Syrian government authorities without any effort to fact check either position. These actions, however, do not seem to shock the conscience of the American public; when it comes to Syria, the mainstream American media and its audience has long ago ceded the narrative to Al Qaeda and other Islamist anti-regime elements."

* *The power struggle in Washington between President Trump and the Deep State is now officially over.  Trump has folded, thrown in the towel and betrayed his supporters.  From here on out, US foreign policy will generally follow what Hillary Clinton would have done had she won the presidency.

Among the signs of this transition are (a) Trump’s eagerness to accept misinformation from Syria in order to abandon his priority on taking out ISIS and pursue instead regime change; (b) his elevation of Jared Kushner to ever more responsibility and his demotion of America-firster Steve Bannon; (c) the solace of having his much-loved daughter, Ivana, working as a White House advisor with an office down the hall;  (d) the recusal of straight-arrow Congressman Devin Nunes from leadership of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Obama Administration surveillance of the Trump campaign and transition team.

We could call this “the Clinton triumph,” but by personalizing it that way we obscure who actually has triumphed:  the globalists of neo-con and neo-liberal stripe who understand the vital importance of hiding the brutality of US imperialism behind a veil of humanitarianism, multiculturalism and democracy.

So enough of Trump’s embarrassing “America First” slogan, enough of his fascist imperialism!  We now have a President moved to tears by the images of dead Syrian children on the evening news! And we will again see an America that leads the world by protecting the innocent.

I know, I know, I’m gagging too.

Who knew Lent would end this way?

A Biblical Faith

by Berry Friesen (April 4, 2017)

“. . . . to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, 
the oil of gladness instead of mourning.”
                                                                     Isaiah 61:3

If one believes—as I do—that life’s purpose and meaning are found within the unfolding of time and events, then paying attention is pretty important.  There’s no alternative to “getting into the weeds” (as the expression goes) and observing the details.

To say it another way, we humans are highly malleable products of our time and place, contingent through-and-through. Yes, we are spiritual creatures too, but even that aspect of our existence is mediated through history, not via a separate and independent dimension.

The text from Isaiah—quoted above—promised a community living at a specific place and time that the bleakness of their lives would not endure, but would turn to joy.

Now, 2,500 years later, do we claim that promise?  If so, we will pay close attention to events, eager for signs that the great reversal YHWH has promised is crossing yet another threshold.  And yes, “paying attention” will include political events, a few of which I note here.

1. The media’s case against Russia for providing the American people with information about Democratic National Committee (DNC) corruption has fallen apart.

The only specific evidence to date of Russia being the source of the DNC emails published by WikiLeaks has been CrowdStrike, the private computer security firm the DNC hired to investigate a security breach.  After a one-day investigation, CrowdStrike pinned the blame on Russia.  Recently, CrowdStrike’s credibility has taken major hits (see here and here and here).

Meanwhile, the only government agency with knowledge of the DNC computer network (the National Security Agency, which surveils all of us all of the time) has produced no evidence of its own and has said it has only “moderate confidence” the Russians were involved.

2.  The Democrats are showing themselves to be unworthy of national leadership.

Rather than accepting responsibility for losing the presidency to Donald Trump, the Democrats spend endless hours blaming Russia.  Rather than working with House Republican Intelligence Chair Devin Nunez to get to the bottom of President Trump’s claim that he was surveilled by the Obama Administration, the Democrats blame Russia. Rather than articulating and advancing an agenda representing the interests of the wage-earning class—the group whose votes proved decisive in the last election—the Democrats blame Russia.

Relations between the US and Russia are worse today—and the risk of a nuclear war greater—than at any time since Cuban missile crisis of 1963.  In collaboration with war-loving Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, that’s what the Democrats have accomplished.  It's crazy.

3.   Donald Trump is showing himself to be the charlatan his critics said he was.  He is gutting worker protections; dismantling environmental protections it took a generation to assemble; cutting investments in infrastructure, public health, housing and rural development; supporting a health insurance plan that strips coverage from folks as they get older and approach Medicare eligibility; and failing to assemble a fully staffed Administration.

4.  The stunning hypocrisy of the USA remains its hallmark.  The suffering of the people of Syria, Yemen and Iraq continues, as does the policy initiated by presidents Bush and Obama to carve up those nations, render them vassals, and use them to deprive Iran of its independence.

Indeed, on March 29 US Central Command’s General Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee that Iran is a major threat to the “stability” of the Middle East and the US military will “look at opportunities where we can disrupt [Iran] through military means.”  On the same day, the new US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, boasted that the US—the primary cause of instability in the Middle East—serves as “the moral conscience of the world.”

So we see that paying attention can be an emotional downer, causing us to mourn the passing of our hope that America will be a land of peace and opportunity for our children and grandchildren.  It’s often so unpleasant that we stop paying attention and look away, sometimes using religion to rationalize our response.    

Yet when Isaiah speaks of “a garland instead of ashes,” it is promising a great reversal in human history when those who now mourn “will be called oaks of righteousness . . . they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations, they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:3-4).

As I’ve said before, institutional Christianity in the West has settled for a metaphysical faith built around abstract notions of god and the promise of eternal bliss in another dimension.

In contrast, biblical faith starts with the promise of YHWH that “my salvation will come and my deliverance will be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). It is thoroughly historical; even the spiritual dimension so prized by religion is accessible only through history.

I’m not sure how to recover this understanding of faith.  Certainly it’s helpful to contextual the scriptures we read.  I find it significant that much of the Bible was written by authors inspired by specific historical events.  To be specific:

   ---Many of the great texts of the First Testament—Ezekiel, Job, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, Leviticus, Genesis, Esther, Malachi, Ruth, Jonah—were written during the years immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judea’s elite to Babylon.  YHWH’s salvation—so unexpectedly experienced in their survival as a community in a strange land—inspired those texts.

   --- Most of the great texts of the Second Testament—Ephesians, Matthew, Hebrews, John, Revelation, Luke, Acts, 1 Peter—were written by Jesus-followers following another razing of Jerusalem, this one by the Roman Empire in 70 CE.   Again, the authors were inspired by historical evidence that the long-promised historical reversal was underway.

Whether we 21st century Westerners can recover a biblical faith is much in doubt.  We are entrenched in an understanding of salvation that makes individual happiness the center of all things and a loving god the guarantor of personal immortality.  We have lost the capacity to perceive salvation in biblical terms:  a vision giving birth to a prophetic way of life that powerfully challenges and attracts the nations, thus changing the course of history.

Still, circumstances are conspiring to challenge our metaphysical faith and raise very uncomfortable questions.  The world is not sustainable on its present course; its destructive dynamics are spinning out of control.  Increasingly in coming days, we will find ourselves asking a very down-to-earth question:  where is there a community resilient enough to weather the storms and nurture a shalom-giving life for our children and grandchildren?

If we take it seriously, this is the question that will lead us back to a biblical faith.