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Fixing America?

by Berry Friesen (September 18, 2017)

During the ‘80s, I worked as a civil legal aid attorney for indigent men and women. Their legal claims concerned debt relief and access to health care, food and housing. *

More than any other time in my life, during that decade I contributed to the project of fixing America. I did this by making the rule of law available to people who could not afford to hire legal counsel.

Toward the midpoint of the ‘80s, I began to read Stanley Hauerwas, the Methodist scholar from Texas who wrote about Christian ethics via an Anabaptist perspective. I’ve never been quite the same since.

Though I was a member of an Anabaptist congregation, I was startled by what Hauerwas had to say. The Christian life, he said over and over again, is not about fixing America. Nor is it about getting to heaven or maximizing one’s potential as an individual to be a wonderful and creative person. Instead, it’s about embracing a communal experience—the church—incarnating an alternative way of living in the world.

Here are three Hauerwas quotes from that era.

“Christians must again understand that their first task is not to make the world better or more just, but to recognize what the world is and why it understands the political task as it does . . . Theologically, the challenge of Christian social ethics in our secular polity is no different than in any time and place—it is always the Christian social task to form a society that is built on truth rather than fear” (A Community of Character, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981 at 74).

“I am in fact challenging the very idea that Christian social ethics is primarily an attempt to make the world more peaceable or just.  Put starkly, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community . . . By being that kind of community, the church helps the world understand what it means to be the world.  For the world has no way of knowing it is world without the church pointing to the reality of God’s kingdom” (The Peaceable Kingdom, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983 at 99-100).

“To recover a sense of how Christian convictions may be true (or false) requires a recovery of the independence of the church from its subservience to liberal culture and its corresponding agencies of the state.  For without the distinctive community we call the church, there is no place for the imagination of Christians to flourish” (Against the Nations, Winston Press, 1985 at 6-7).

By the end of the ‘80s, I was sufficiently persuaded by Hauerwas that I left my legal practice and went to work for the church. I never returned to the practice of law.

Hauerwas became well known during the ‘90s. In 2001, Time magazine anointed him “America’s best theologian.”  Now, living in Scotland and near the end of his illustrious career, Hauerwas is still writing. His work can be counted as one of the sources of inspiration for the Benedict Option, the strategy of Christian renewal promoted by Rod Dreher.

Yet Hauerwas also is often sharply criticized (see here and here) and his message is out-of-step with current churchly emphases on affirmation, inclusion and the blurring of the line between the church and the world.

In a recent interview, Premier Christianity asked Hauerwas about his most famous quote—“the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” He replied:

“Years ago, at the outbreak of the first Iraq war, I was to give some lectures at the Washington cathedral for the continuing education of Episcopal clergy. I said, ‘I hope if President Bush came over here from the White House and wanted you to share the Eucharist with him, you wouldn’t commune with him.’ They said, ‘What? We’re people of grace!’ And I said, ‘But, how will he know he’s the world? How will he know that bombing human beings made him the world? He won’t know he needs forgiveness.’ That is what I mean by our task to ‘make the world the world’.

“I mean, read the Gospel of John. The light has come into the world to darken the world and help the world see the darkness, because it’s very hard in darkness to see darkness. And so it’s an ongoing discovery for us to define in what ways we are the world. So it’s not like the world is ‘out there’, and we Christians are OK. I mean, the world is in us, and how to discover it means you’re going to need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ.”
In the previous post at this blog, John asked us to consider assumptions of supremacy that are part of our American identity.  We’ve been marinated in those assumptions our entire lives; it’s silly to claim we haven’t absorbed them to some degree. Now what do we do?

Obviously, if we believe in a god, this is a place where we would look to him/her for help. Purging ourselves of the imperial assumptions we swim in each day isn’t the sort of thing we can do by ourselves; we need a power greater than ourselves—yes, greater than the empire.

Problem is, many of us have placed our faith in the god of America, the divine being who provides the blessings of freedom, liberty and choice.  Listen to Hauerwas from his 2013 essay, “The End of American Protestantism.”

“Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.”

If America is our church, then the god of that church is not likely to be of much help in subverting our assumptions of American supremacy.  And if we really want to be cleansed of such assumptions, we will need another god and another kind of church. Again, here is Hauerwas in the same essay.

“The (faithful) church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, ‘Christian.’ A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”

Compared to American religion, this sounds narrow and restrictive, doesn't it? It's easy to see why Hauerwas' account of the Christian life can be perceived to be unattractive.

Yet the task of fixing America--and giving up all those war-producing claims to supremacy--remains. In the end, we have to choose: are we content to remain on the path we're on, or do we want a god who will save us from ourselves?
*  Here are three of the reported cases in which I was involved: Cha v. Noot, Morrison v. Heckler, Dow v. Public Housing Authority.

White Supremacy, Anyone? American Supremacy, Everyone?

By John K. Stoner (September 15, 2017)

Speaking at the Riverside Church in April 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. upset many of his supporters.

“Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this [poverty] program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

Why upset?  Because King had included more in his condemnation of supremacy thinking than many of his contemporaries and supporters wanted him to include. King had undertaken to address America’s reach for global hegemony as well as its practice of white supremacy.

The purpose of this post is to critique the label and identity “American” in the same way we are critiquing (rightly, of course) the identity of "white" supremacy.

We cannot condemn “white supremacy” and give “American supremacy” a pass.

But it is popular, almost universally acceptable, to do just that.

King said it was time to break the silence on America’s war in Vietnam. Today it is time to break the silence on America’s “war on terror,” justified, legitimized and sanctified by 9/11 (did you celebrate that this week?), America’s war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, America’s endless wars, drone wars, preemptive wars, propaganda wars, wars that make the war profiteers rich (Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatamala, Texas, West Virginia, Korea, Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam,  Laos, Cambodia, Detroit, South Dakota). See Zoltman Grossman’sessay on US interventions written a month after the Twin Towers bombing in 2001. 

“The white supremacy that some of us see as more insidious is not reflected in the simple, stereotypical images of the angry, Nazi-saluting alt-righter or even Donald Trump. Instead, it is the normalized and thus invisible white supremacist ideology inculcated into cultural and educational institutions and the policies that stem from those ideas. That process doesn’t just produce the storm troopers of the armed and crazed radical right but also such covert true believers as Robert Ruben from Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Tony Blair and Nancy Pelosi -- 'decent' individuals who have never questioned for a moment the superiority of Western civilization, who believe completely in the White West’s right and responsibility to determine which nations should have sovereignty and who should be the leaders of 'lesser' nations.”    

Tom Engelhardt has been speaking to this in his, publishing people like Ariel Dorfman and his essay, “How to Read Donald Trump.”

“Perhaps more crucial today is the cardinal, still largely unexamined, all-American sin at the heart of those Disney comics: a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States.

“Back then, this meant (as it still largely does today) the inability of the country Walt was exporting in such a pristine state to recognize its own history. Bring to an end the erasure of, and recurring amnesia about, its past transgressions and violence (the enslavement of blacks, the extermination of natives, the massacres of striking workers, the persecution and deportation of aliens and rebels, all those imperial and military adventures, invasions, and annexations in foreign lands, and a never-ending complicity with dictatorships and autocracy globally), and the immaculate Disney worldview crumbles, opening space for quite another country to make an appearance.”

Anyone who has been reading this blog has seen reason enough to rest uneasy with the identity of “American.”  The behavior of the Empire which is condemned here cannot be condoned overseas.

American supremacy is in a class with white supremacy, and we will not get far toward a sustainable world until this is widely understood and acted upon.

Faking It

by Berry Friesen (September 11, 2017)

Last week, published “On the Brink of Nuclear War,” an essay by William R. Polk, veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor.

Polk began his career in 1955 as a professor at Harvard. He went on to serve in the Kennedy Administration’s State Department where he was a member of a Policy Planning Council helping Kennedy defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Polk has hard-won credibility and I encourage you to read his essay about the US and North Korea.

His analysis focuses on the gap between “the national interest”—which certainly rejects a nuclear weapons exchange—and the interests of the people in government making the decisions. He illustrates this gap with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when both President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev were determined to avoid nuclear war, but each was under intense pressure from close associates who thought such a war was winnable.

Polk explains:

“We were lucky that at least Kennedy realized this dilemma and took steps to protect himself. What he did is not well understood so I will briefly summarize the main points. First, he identified General Lyman Lemnitzer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), as the main hawk. Lemnitzer was pushing him toward a nuclear war and had shown his hand by presenting a ‘black’ plan (‘Operation Northwoods’) to be carried out by the JCS to trigger war with Cuba.

“[Curiously, ‘Operation Northwoods’ is hardly known even today. It was described by the eminent scholar on intelligence James Bamford in Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 82 ff, as the ‘launching [of] a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an-ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba.’ Provocations were to be manufactured: hijacking of aircraft, murders and the explosion of the rocket that was carrying astronaut John Glenn into space. Lemnitzer lied to Congress, denying the plan’s existence, and had many of documents destroyed. Although he was dismissed as chairman of the JCS by Kennedy, the organization he formed within the JCS continued to plan covert actions. It would have been surprising if Kennedy did not worry about a possible attempt on his government.]

“Apparently realizing that the plan could easily have been turned into a coup d’état, Kennedy removed Lemnitzer as far from Washington as he could (to Europe to be the NATO commander).”

Operation Northwoods?  Do you know about it?  Go back and read that paragraph again: “a secret and bloody war of terrorism (launched) against their own country in order to trick the American public . . .” It was designed to put the blame on Cuba, but was cooked up entirely by the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the leadership of General Lemnitzer.

Imagine what America would be like today if Kennedy had not uncovered Lemnitzer’s plot. It’s not hard to do; just consider what America has become since 9/11.

That’s right, like the plan Lemnitzer put together, I’m persuaded the terror attacks of 9/11 were scripted (“manufactured”) by insiders within the US government “in order to trick the American public.”

Since 9/11 we have been reaping the harvest of this deceit. We see it in continuous war, out-of-control Pentagon spending, a covert intelligence system that uses “national security” to eviscerate the protections of the Bill of Rights, a dysfunctional Congress, a corrupted media, a deep cynicism all across society about “truth,” an inexorable slide toward a police state.

This is not something to talk about if you fancy yourself “a cheerful person” or if you wish to be highly regarded by “important people.”  The entire subject has been effectively stigmatized. If you speak about it publicly, you will be shut out of important conversations and shunted to the side of public life.  Don’t blunder into this unless you are prepared to “lose your life,” as Jesus put it (Matthew 10:39).

This helps explain why we no longer see courageous leaders on the national stage. Only people who first swallow the deceit of 9/11 are given a turn at the microphone.

Want to know more?  Again, be forewarned:  learning about 9/11 entails not general essays such as this blog, but detailed, sometimes tedious materials such as one would expect from a fact-oriented investigation into an event that involves many moving pieces of a technical nature.

Here are a few up-to-date resources.

WTC7 Evaluation Progress Report:  Video presentation of the results to date of a two-year study by Dr. J Leroy Hulsey, Chair of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and two Ph.D. research assistants into the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7 on the afternoon of 9/11.

"Will the 9/11 Case Finally Go toTrial?" by Andrew Cockburn (Harpers, Sept.10, 2017), surveys the many obstructions erected to block the case against Saudi Arabia for financing intrnational terrorism and the 9/11 attacks.

9/11 in the Academic Community, a collection of nearly 30 peer-reviewed studies and papers prepared and published 2006-2017 by 9/11 researchers.

Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, the group leading the campaign for a new and independent investigation of the destruction of the three World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Dig Within, the blog of researcher, Kevin Ryan. Ryan is a former senior manager with Environmental Health Laboratories, a subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories Inc.

Bush and Cheney: How They Ruined America and the World by David Ray Griffin (Olive Branch Press, 2017).  Griffin is a Christian theologian distinguished by his work in process theology. His book discusses the world altering events that occurred 2000-2008 and closes with a brief summary of the “miracles” on 9/11 that energized and justified those events.

What should readers do with information gleaned from such resources? In my view, nothing in particular. What's important is that we understand our world--including the distortions required by the empire--and live accordingly.

A Season of Humiliation

by Berry Friesen (September 7, 2017)

“The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled
    and human pride brought low;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
 The LORD Almighty has a day in store
    for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted:
 they will be humbled.”
                                                  Isaiah 2:11-12

Watching the evening news these days is spiced by moments of schadenfreude—pleasure I feel upon hearing of the troubles of our national politicians.

This is a guilty pleasure I feel; it is wrong to enjoy another’s distress, even when the distress is caused by the return of the chickens to their roost.    

Still, there also is a sliver of purity in my heart. It is what the Psalmist expressed: “O LORD, how long shall the wicked—how long shall the wicked—exult” (Psalm 94:3)?

Let’s start with the Republicans.

Donald Trump—the candidate Republicans chose to run for the White House—embodied the more bombastic policies and detestable tricks of the Grand Old Party. Much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment, Trump as President hasn’t toned-down those policies and tricks—he flaunts them.

So he calls for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and passage of a substitute that would cause over 20 million Americans to lose health insurance coverage. While Barack Obama was President, the Republicans in the House voted over 60 times to repeal the ACA.  But now with Trump in the White House, they can’t get the job done. It’s an embarrassment to them.

Or consider the DREAM Act, which proposes a pathway to permanent residency for people who entered the US illegally as children.  The legislation has been around for 16 years; Republicans have repeatedly blocked its passage. They even portrayed President Obama as a dictator for implementing some provisions of the Act via an administrative work-around called DACA.

Now their guy in the White House is ending the work-around, thus subjecting 800,000 US-educated residents to deportation.  Again, Republicans are embarrassed; Trump’s action is reflecting badly on them!

Then there’s the Republican strategy of using racist strategies and tactics to win elections. It’s been their standard operating procedure for decades.

And Trump?  He simply makes it all too obvious as he speaks disparagingly of people of Mexican descent, pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s federal conviction for contempt of court related to racially discriminatory law enforcement, and launches a voter fraud commission that extends the long-running Republican scheme of manufacturing phony voter fraud scenarios in order to drive down voter participation by African Americans.

Trump’s flamboyant disregard for common decency is a huge embarrassment for establishment Republicans.  Yet they will do nothing about it because impeachment would split the party down the middle (and most current Republican office-holders would never again be elected to public office). So they swallow their pride and endure their public humiliation.

And the Democrats?  Ample opportunities for the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude here too.  

They pose as the voice of everyday working people, but now have to live with the fact that their party leaders rigged the 2016 primary against Bernie Sanders, the “little guy’s” candidate.

As further embarrassment, their party ran a candidate for President who was more inclined to war and militarism than the bombastic Donald Trump. Imagine, Democrats are now more hawkish--more inclined to military intervention--than Republicans!

To hide their humiliation, Democrats have been peddling a phony Russia-stole-the-election story for nearly an entire year now, poisoning US relations with Russia.

Then there’s the embarrassment of California, where “Medicare for all” legislation has gone down to defeat despite having a Democrat as governor and Democrat super-majorities in both state houses.

As we contemplate this mess, here are two important threads to follow.

1. Humiliation is a strong emotion.  When not followed by repentance, it’s powerful enough to override sound judgment and rationality.  Few national leaders show any inclination toward repentance; most are fixed instead on changing the subject and restoring battered reputations. Their response makes this a volatile time because actions to divert national attention to external threats and national “crises” (e.g., violence and war) are very attractive.

During this time of national humiliation, we need to be especially alert to contrived emergencies. If national politicians attempt such, we must be quick to register our disbelief. This is the most effective form of political engagement I can imagine at the moment.

And Donald Trump?  As always, he is the wild card. His humiliation threshold is higher than anyone I can remember; I pray that will become a positive factor during this volatile time.

2. The second implication also has to do with where we put our time and energy as concerned citizens. Is it on electing better leaders to Congress? Or on electing effective leaders locally?

Imagine you are a civic-minded person with excellent people skills, a solid public reputation and the desire to do your part to fix our systemic problems. Do you run for Congress? Or work at things at the local level?

Going to Washington to fix anything looks more and more like a fool’s errand. Once you get there, you’ll be required to serve your time as a toady for party leaders who spend most of their energy mending the holes in tattered reputations and pretending to be something they’re not.

Beyond that dysfunction, there is the reality that Washington is a company town, owned lock-stock-and-barrel by Pentagon contractors, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and “intelligence” spooks with oh-so-scary stories and transcripts of every digital conversation you’ve ever had.

Perhaps we should focus on local leadership instead.

As for that pleasure we feel as the arrogant are humbled, let it pass quickly. This is a serious moment in our history; it’s important to be engaged.

Finding an Answer

by Berry Friesen (September 4, 2017)

The title of our book—If Not Empire, What?—poses the question clearly enough. But does the book provide an answer?

Living as we do within the belly of the beast, John K. Stoner and I are unlikely candidates to come up with an alternative to empire.  After all, part of what an empire does is consume and digest (break down) anything that hints of an alternative.  Along with the rest of you living in America, John and I experience this co-opting process constantly in our work, daily routines and the myriad media-driven debates that fill our thoughts and conversations.

So no, John and I did not come up with “an answer” to the question.

Those who live far from the center of the empire—geographically or spiritually—are better situated to imagine an alternative.

Thus, so-called rogue nations such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea*  give us worldviews and lifeways that are distinctive and surprising, in part because the empire has banished those nations to the margins, far from the usual discourse and exchange of “benefits.” The same could be said about the separatist Amish. These distant people and places can be sources of “an answer.”

For those already convinced the world would collapse without an empire to keep the lid on, the “answer” needs to be similar to what we have now, only better. You know, less violence, a more equitable distribution of goods and services and higher quality emperors, but still fully capable of holding back chaos and keeping the world working in coordinated fashion.

Of course, John and I have not described an alternative of that sort. Following as we do the core thread of the biblical texts, we reject the premise of the imperial worldview—that without a dominating power ruling the world through overwhelming violence, it will collapse into chaos and decline.  No, we haven’t even tried to offer that kind of “answer.”

The story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)—with its rejection of centralization and uniformity—is a cornerstone of our stance.  We contend that if we repent of our desire to dominate and yield to the compassion and just order of the god who made us (YHWH), we will experience a capacity to create, nurture and produce life-sustaining abundance. That is, out of the apparent chaos of thousands of uncoordinated responses, human creativity and cooperation will emerge to make a way.

But more to the point of this post, by pointing to the biblical record, our book suggests where to find “an answer” to the question of empire.  It’s the Bible with its prophetic texts, the teachings of Jesus and two very helpful historical alternatives—post-exilic Judaism and the Christian communities of the first century.  Both pursued a vision of shalom (community, security, reconciliation) rooted in a combination of religious tradition, present-day deliverance and commitment to YHWH.

So yes, notwithstanding the long history of compromise, collaboration and corruption between empire and Jewish and Christian religious institutions, our book makes the claim that we can find “an answer” to empire in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

I realize how little sense this makes in the West, where religion at its best is a free therapist and at its worst is the source of bigotry and ignorance.

Indeed, many here in the West seem not to understand what traditional religion does: elevate ancient wisdom in order to create and nurture a life free from the deceit and captivity imposed by today’s consensus.  Frederick Turner captured this blindness in his essay, “The Freedoms of the Past: On the Advantage of Looking Backward:”

“Our cultural myth is one of liberation, of the present breaking the shackles of the past. But what if it is the past that breaks the shackles of the present?”

It’s important to catch this point:  within the West today, few look to the religions of the past to offer them a different way for the world to work today.  It’s not even a passing thought. Instead, most insist that for religion to be worthwhile, it must add value to a life and worldview already fully formed by the empire.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t very successful. Unless it is odd, unless it is in honest tension with the empire, religion becomes pretty weak tea (e.g., god loves me, god loves you, let’s all love one another).  More and more people are concluding they don’t need it; pop music and walks in the park will do just as well.

So where do we go from here?

There’s not much that can be done to affect the playing out of the empire’s inexorable agenda. Nor is there much to be done in the short-term to convince an increasingly secular culture that ancient texts are potential sources of “answers” to modern problems of economics, social equality, governance and peacemaking.

What we can do as people of faith is reverse the narrowing of vision within our communities of faith. Bring back to active memory, in other words, that the religious traditions that formed us have this dynamic potential to break our bondage to today’s dogmas and life-threatening constrictions.

As an example of this narrowing of religious vision, consider the nationwide church in which I hold membership, Mennonite Church USA.  Traditionally, Mennonites have articulated an alternative to empire via a refusal to participate in the military; a commitment to mutual aid and service to the needy; and the practices of community accountability and servant leadership. Yet in recent years, this church has been declining rapidly due to controversies related to personal liberation and same-sex marriage. Just around the corner is further controversy related to “the gender revolution.” Traditionalists and progressives continue to go their separate ways over these matters, leaving a weakened, discouraged and less resilient church.

Aspects of these controversies affect the shalom of the community, are important and are not easily resolved. Yet other aspects are on the church’s agenda mainly because they're part of the empire's agenda. We need the skill—typically found most frequently among traditionalists—to tell the difference. And we need to hold these difficult controversies within a broader perspective that recalls our mandate to offer the world an alternative to empire.

Because without alternatives the world is lost. Do we really imagine the US-led empire has any answers?
*  For perspective on the escalating tensions between the US and North Korea, see “North Korea Tests a New Nuke—Continues to Press for Negotiations,”  “What the Media Isn't Telling You about North Korea's Missile Tests” and “How History Explains the Korean Crisis.”