HOPE

by Berry Friesen (February 24, 2017)

In my previous post, I highlighted the frame of reference through which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. viewed the US-led empire.  I again encouraged attention to A Public Call to Protect All People as a possible frame of reference.  And I invited readers to suggest other possibilities.

This past Sunday, my local newspaper (LNP) published an essay on “hope” by Mark Wenger, the director of pastoral studies for Eastern Mennonite University in Lancaster.  Wenger begins his essay by noting the dystopian mood in parts of our country these days and then invites us to consider a way of “living forward” amid these challenging times.

I encourage you to read Wenger’s complete essay.  It offers another frame of reference for viewing life in uncertain times.  Perhaps we could even call it “resistance.”

His essay includes four sub-headings, one for each of the letters of the word “hope.”  I quote those subheadings below.

1. “Hold on to the promises of God.”

Of course, this begs several questions—who is this god? how do we know of his promises? what is the content of those promises?  In his short essay, Wenger doesn’t fully answer these questions. 

But he points to Jesus Christ as the embodiment of those promises.  And he says this:  “At the core, God’s [promises] are acts of generosity and commitment.  Think of it:  sovereign God binding himself to creation.”

Creation itself is under threat by our modern way of life.  The Trump Administration is rolling back even the modest changes put in place to reduce that threat.  In the context of this environmental cataclysm, Wenger says God has bound himself to creation. What a remarkable assertion!  

2. “Obey God and walk in his ways.”

Any sentence that starts with the word “obey” elicits our skepticism, right?  Yet Wenger has a fresh way of talking about it.  Here’s what he says:

“Imagine a birdwatcher who wants to catch sight of a rare bird.  Only the foolish go crashing loudly through the bushes or splashing through the marsh.  The bird will be long gone.

“But the wise obey the rhythms and patterns of the forest or the wetland.  The wise move in sync with the surroundings and will be much more likely to be rewarded with the prize.”

I’m a birder and this image of obedience resonates with me.

3.  “Participate in the hope of others.”

Wenger insists “it is almost impossible to be hopeful very long all by yourself. We need each other to sustain hope in dystopian times.”

Yes, indeed, we need companions.  In our preface to If Not Empire, What? John K. Stoner and I make a similar point:  “We urge you to find at least one discussion partner to join you in reading this book.  The discussions you have together, and the collective actions you join, will contribute to the political alternative we need to create.”

Think of all the times your spirits have been lifted by others.  There are too many for me to count.    

4.  “Exchange the love of things for love in relationships.”

Positive human relationships are the decisive factor in human flourishing, says Wenger.  If we want such relationships, we will need to think through our priorities. 

This is similar to the point Dr. King made in his prescription for America, calling for a shift “from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” 

Looking at Wenger’s essay as a whole, perhaps it does not strike you as a political stance.  I would have held such a view at an earlier point in my life, but not anymore.  Increasingly, as I’ve recognized our bleak predicament here in the empire, I’m coming to appreciate the power of an anti-imperial culture.  It’s stronger in some ways than the power of the state and we help create it as we go about living in a life-affirming way. 

So think of Wenger’s “hope” as a culture-forming template, pointing to what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”  And yes, as a way to resist the empire.

Rx from Dr. King

by Berry Friesen (February 21, 2017)

The Trump presidency is one month old.  Already, what lies ahead has come into focus: an exhausting mix of controversy, confusion, truth-telling and distraction.

The appearance of a highly adversarial relationship between the President and the intelligence services (especially the CIA) is likely to endure.  Though national security advisor Michael Flynn was simply doing his job by talking to the Russian ambassador, the intelligence services mugged him by leaking transcripts to the press.  For reasons not yet clear, Trump denounced the mugging, yet played along by firing Flynn, allegedly for not fully briefing Vice President Pence.

The entire incident was interesting to watch, but has smelled a little rotten.  How many vice presidents of the United States have been left out of the loop on important White House agenda?   All of them, I’m pretty sure.

Similarly, the appearance of a highly adversarial relationship between the President and the mainstream media (MSM) is likely to endure.  The President’s tweets and erratic behavior will create many opportunities for the MSM to pounce.  The President in turn is sure to defend himself by drawing on the reservoir of distrust built up over the years due to MSM betrayals related to 9/11; the invasion of Iraq; the wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and Syria; and state involvement in acts of domestic terrorism. *

All the same, we won’t easily forget the billions in free publicity the MSM gave Trump to enable him to win the nomination of his party.  In short, the MSM and Trump were made for each other.

What about the real-world foreign policy problems candidate Trump spoke about with such candor?  Well, let’s not hold our breath.  So long as President Trump continues to characterize Iran as a threat rather than a potential ally, al-Qaeda and ISIS will remain valuable assets of the US-led empire.  We’ll know Trump is serious about fighting terrorism when he starts putting the heat on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.  Thus far, he’s shown absolutely no interest in doing that.

Then there is the current propaganda campaign to demonize Putin and Russia.  It’s as bogus as the Red Scares following World War 1 and World War 2 and true to form, historians will inform us of this fact a couple of decades from now.  But for the moment, the MSM have people believing Putin is a thug and an imperialist and that Russia interfered in our 2016 elections.  Most Democrats and Republicans are eagerly riding this band-wagon, which tells us a lot about their inattention to the facts. **

Meanwhile, Trump goes on with his bravura performance as the bold maverick.  True, it appears to be more a matter of style than substance; certainly his appointees to Cabinet leadership do not reflect an intention to alter the fundamentals of the imperial structure.

There may be a master plan behind it all, one that will become decipherable with time, but for now I don’t see it.  It’s business as usual, albeit with more razzmatazz.  Vis-à-vis commoners like us, the empire’s favored strategies have always been “spectacle” and “divide-and-conquer.”  The presidency of Donald Trump excels in both.

I’m not suggesting we entirely tune out; we can’t afford to stop paying attention.  What we need is an accurate yet subversive frame of reference so that we are not mesmerized by the spectacle or distracted by the controversy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had such a frame of reference.

As far as I know, King never gave up on America; indeed, when King and others launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, they chose as their motto, “To save the soul of America.”

Yet during the last year of his short life, King made two speeches that described America as gravely ill, stricken by racism, economic exploitation and militarism.

King gave the first of these speeches—and the most famous—nearly fifty years ago, on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City.  There King described the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and the American people as “refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” He spoke at length of the evil of the US war against Vietnam.  Citing “the fierce urgency of now,” King called for an end to the war.

And King called for “a radical revolution of values,” a shift “from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”  Without this shift, said King, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Five months later, speaking to the National Conference on New Politics, King gave an entire speech on the “triple prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning.”  After discussing each disease in detail, King said this:

“I am convinced that this new life will not emerge until our nation undergoes a radical revolution of values. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people the giant triplets of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Where in the public square today do we find a frame of reference like King's, one that gets past the symptoms to the full scope of the disease, is unsparing in describing the life-threatening trouble we are in, and reaches across our divisions to challenge us all with its prescription?

A Public Call to Protect All People is inspired in part by Dr. King’s approach.  If you haven’t already talked about the Call with someone in your circle, or shared with them the Implementation Guide, please do that.

And if you have another model to suggest, please send me a note with a few details.  I promise to write about what you send.
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* For discussion of a current example of misleading reporting, see this post from MoonofAlabama.org on coverage of the recent death of Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, the so-called mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

** For background reading, see Mike Madden’s “Challenging Klobuchar on Ukraine War,” Robert Parry’s “The Did-You-Talk-to-The-Russians Witch Hunt,” and Daniel Lazare’s “Democrats, Liberals Catch McCarthyistic Fever.”

Missing Links in Lancaster

by Berry Friesen (February 17, 2017)

Imperialism is driving the agenda in my little part of the world (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), though it’s rarely recognized.

The most prominent example is the proposed 42 inch natural gas pipeline across the western side of the County. Williams Partners, a company from Oklahoma, has received authority from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to seize a 125-foot right-of-way across farmlands and forests to build it. More than 500 local people have pledged to nonviolently resist construction activity, thereby risking arrest.

The Lancaster County portion of the proposed pipeline is part of a $3 billion, 198-mile project called “Atlantic Sunrise.”  As reported by the local newspaper, LNP, “It would carry gas fracked from wells in the Marcellus Shale region of northeastern Pennsylvania to markets along the Eastern Seaboard and for export overseas.”

Currently there is a glut of natural gas in the US domestic market and the price is too low to sell profitably substantial amounts of fracked gas.  Thus, many of the wells in Pennsylvania have been capped.  The caps would be removed with the completion of Atlantic Sunrise project; gas then could be moved to liquefaction and purification facilities and readied for export across the oceans in specially built tanker ships.

So the export potential of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the heart of the pipeline initiative.

Problem is, LNG is more expensive than natural gas in its gaseous state.  Is there demand for exported LNG sourced from Pennsylvania?  Within each local market around the world, that depends on the available supply of less expensive, pipeline gas.

For many years, Europe has had an ample supply of pipeline gas from Russia.  That changed in early 2014 when the US-led empire—acting in concert with neo-Nazis from Ukraine and some well-intentioned reformers as well—toppled the elected government, threw the country in chaos, triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and imposed retaliatory sanctions on Russia.

With the arrival of these orchestrated troubles, Europe no longer has a reliable supply of pipeline gas. Thus, it has become a potential market for Pennsylvania-sourced LNG. This is why a pipeline will be built across our fields, woodlands and streams here in Lancaster County; this is why private land is about to be seized for private profit.

Next time you hear a news report about the brutal civil war going on in Ukraine, about the NATO tanks and troops massing along the border of Russia, about the terrible things President Putin has done, about how Russia interfered with our recent presidential election, think about the capped natural gas wells in Pennsylvania. Many of those “Russia troubles” are designed and manufactured to yield big profits for natural gas companies here in the US.  *

Obviously, energy company lobbyists and the legislators on their payrolls don’t want the story told this way.  It's just not very persuasive. So they talk instead about the abundant supply of clean natural gas in Pennsylvania’s shale deposits, the wonderful new technology to extract the gas and the possibility of new jobs for local residents.  “It’s simply business,” they tell us, “and environmentally green too.”

A second example of imperialism’s impact on our lives is the war in Syria, now entering its seventh year.  It’s been a horrible conflict, claiming the lives of around 500,000 people and creating millions of refugees.

Lancaster has been very welcoming of refugees.  A couple of weeks ago, over 1,500 people rallied in our downtown square to protest President Trump’s order closing down travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.  Curiously, not a word was spoken at that rally about why so many people have become refugees.

US imperialism has driven the war in Syria, beginning with a 2007 decision of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel to take down the government and replace President Bashar al-Assad with someone who would not support Iran and not support Hezbollah’s protection of Lebanon, but would toady to Israel.

President Obama put the plan in motion in 2009.  The multi-pronged strategy included an extensive propaganda campaign aimed at the Syrian people, direct funding of opposition groups inside Syria, and the preparation of a mercenary army to invade Syria.  By March 2011, the context in Syria was ready for the regime change operation to move into the open.  Street demonstrations were salted with armed provocateurs who fired upon and killed law enforcement personnel.   Soon after, foreign mercenaries began pouring across Syria’s borders.  (See here for a thumbnail history.)

The horror in Syria reflects what happens to countries that stand up to the empire and chart their own paths.  Iraq under Saddam Hussein tried that and was destroyed; Libya under Muammar Qaddafi tried that and was destroyed.  Syria under Bashar al-Assad tried that and has nearly been destroyed.

Private profit also was a contributing factor.  In 2009, shortly before President Obama put the regime change plan in motion, Assad approved a plan to build a natural gas pipeline from Iran’s gas fields through eastern Syria and into Lebanon for the European market. The war in Syria has prevented that plan from going forward.

My larger point is this:  US-led imperialism is driving big changes in our lives, such as the pipelines crossing across our lands and the refugees moving into our towns.  Part of responding effectively to these changes is to recognize and name this cause.

No, this is not Donald Trump’s fault.  This is what America has become over the decades, no matter whether a Republican or a Democrat was in the White House.  It orchestrates war and violence to maintain US hegemony, destroy competition and clear the field for the favored elite.

Rarely does anyone speak of this publicly.  Silence prevails notwithstanding political ideology, religion, race/ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.  

As we welcome refugees, as we resist the seizure of private land for private profits, let’s be honest and courageous enough to break the silence and identify what’s fueling this runaway train we’re riding.  That way, we just may come up with a way to stop it.
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*  For my take on the alleged Russian interference in our election, see here.  For reliable coverage of allegations against Russia, follow ConsortiumNews.com and MoonofAlabama.org.  For perspective on the resignation of National Security Director Flynn, see Sam Husseini’s “The Left Needs to Assess the Implications of the Flynn Scandal” and Philip Giraldi's "More About Russia and Less About Flynn?".

This Window of Opportunity

by Berry Friesen (February 14, 2017)

John K. Stoner and I have been publishing this blog for a bit over two years now, offering commentary on life within the US-led empire.  If you are a regular reader, you probably have noticed the following aspects of our perspective.

First, we are gloomy about the life the empire is preparing for us.  Our pessimism is based on our reading of the Bible (it regards empires as doomed instruments of evil) and our reading of current events, which confirm deceit, domination and violence as standard imperial operating procedures.

Second, we value the process of becoming disillusioned with the US-led empire and thus free of its omnipresent power to shape our worldview, self-understanding and vision for the future.

Third, we are optimistic about the faith of Jesus as a way through this disillusionment and into a renewed commitment to life and to saving the world.  When we trust YHWH the way Jesus did, our disillusionment leads not to fear, apathy or cynicism, but to compassionate engagement with people and the world.  This sounds religious and is religious, but does not require the affirmation of religious dogma.

As we see it, the election of Donald Trump reflects the hubris, frustration and anger generated by decades of coercion, betrayal and deceit.  His ascension to the presidency is not an aberration or anomaly, but the natural progression of a system that depends on fear, propaganda and continuous war to manage public opinion.  

Certainly his presidency will be painful, especially for less powerful members of our society.  How that pain is distributed will be a bit different than it would have been had Hillary Clinton been elected.  It’s important to respond to these differences.  Yet neither Trump nor Clinton ever showed any inclination to abandon America’s imperial quest, and we see no point participating in the divide-and-conquer grudge match over who exploits the weak more, Republicans or Democrats. *

Because the Trump Administration is unabashed in its embrace of imperialism and brazen in its exercise of coercive power, it is likely to cause many more people to become disillusioned with the empire.  This is potentially promising as it enables us to see the empire clearly, maybe for the first time.

No, we do not see true promise in détente between Trump and Putin; both are oligarchs seeking to enrich themselves and their friends. But it is helpful when President Trump speaks candidly about “grabbing the oil;” about how the US-led regime change agenda has destroyed Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine; about how much killing US leaders have done.  The imperial mask has been lowered, at least for a moment.

So yes, as I’ve written before, we perceive the Trump Administration to open a new window of opportunity.  Here are some of the positives that now are more likely:

--Strip away the aura of moral legitimacy that has been the empire’s greatest asset;
--Acknowledge how contrived and wasteful America’s recent wars have been;
--Forge bonds of empathy—even solidarity—with people who may be below us in the neo-liberal pecking order, but are no more vulnerable than we to the loss of community, humane values and moral conviction;
--Recover our understanding that the way of Jesus is a narrow way requiring courage and the company of brothers and sisters in the faith;
--Recognize compassionate acts, which Jesus names in Matthew 25, in all people of any or no religion; and
--Create sustainable and humane patterns and practices that will survive the empire’s demise.

These are our hopes for how people will respond to the presidency of Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, prospects are slipping away for the Trump Administration to make good on some of its best ideas:  (a) stopping US and allies’ support for violent Salafist extremists; (b) narrowing the role of the CIA to the gathering of intelligence; (c) normalizing relations with Russia.  **

Looking ahead, the fundamental problem is not the Trump Administration, but the way the empire has organized the world to enrich an imperial elite. As we press on, disappointments are to be expected.  Our focus will be a faith, worldview and community to help us endure with creativity and courage.

This is our prayer and our purpose, living here in the belly of the beast. ***
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*  In “Revolution Beyond Blue Bubbles,” Paul Street engages the views of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.  Here is a quote from Street:  “Hillary represented the . . . toxic variant of bourgeois identity politics—a version that disastrously tossed many of the everyday people who repair cars, maintain city parks, build pallets, drive trucks, clean sewers, do construction, take patients’ blood pressure, stock warehouses, and who do countless other low-pay and low-status jobs into ‘a basket of deplorables’.”

** For discussion of this slippage, see Consortium News’ “Trump’s Foreign Policy at a Crossroads,” and Moon of Alabama’sCIA Honors Major Terrorist Financier for Successful Cooperation,” and “Organized Campaigns Hit at Trump's Foreign Policy Plans.”

*** In the imagery of the last book of the Bible (Revelation), the empire is a ravenous beast.

What Resistance Means

by Berry Friesen (February  10, 2017)

Earlier this week, I read Chris Hedges latest essay, “Make America Ungovernable.”  He makes a bleak forecast: “Donald Trump’s regime is rapidly reconfiguring the United States into an authoritarian state.”

In response, Hedges calls for the immediate organization of a movement of resistance: “Now is the time to resist. It is our last chance. The fanatics are moving with lightning speed. So should we.”

Hedges is a journalist with extensive international experience; up close, he has seen authoritarian governments at work.  He is fiercely opposed to militarism and imperialism, a perceptive analyst of what he calls “the liberal betrayal” of working class Americans, and a severe critic of both political parties.  I respect his work and take his forecast seriously.

Yet I find aspects of Hedges’ forecast to be hyperbolic.  For example, he apparently expects the checks-and-balances built into our system—the thee-way separation of powers, the residual authority of state and local governments—to collapse in a matter of months.  I do not expect this to happen.

On the other hand, were some highly dramatic event to further roil the public mood (and recent history shows such events typically occur during the first year of each new administration), then we could see a rapid consolidation of power in the Trump Administration just as Hedges predicts.  I remember the dark days after 9/11, when stories of anthrax attacks filled the media and America’s fabled checks-and-balances became paralyzed by fear. *  Then the Bush Administration had virtually a free hand to impose its will on America and used the opportunity to pass the Patriot Act and launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We dare not forget this history nor relapse into naiveté.

Equally important is that we think about the images of “resistance” we carry images in our heads.  Now is a good time to review and update those images.

In his essay, Hedges writes briefly about a nationwide work stoppage as one way we may be asked to resist what he sees coming.  Would you or I participate in such a strike action if one were called? I’m guessing it would depend on the circumstances at the time.

Political scientist James C. Scott broadens the meaning of “resistance” to include unorganized activity.  His Weapons of the Weak describes how peasants living in a Malaysian village struggled to retain a measure of autonomy from state and corporate control.  Rather than outright defiance, they resorted to conduct often perceived to be personal and idiosyncratic:  negotiation, gossip, petty theft, foot-dragging, feigned ignorance, poor performance, and so on.  These “everyday forms of resistance” have certain advantages, says Scott:

“They require little or no coordination or planning; they often represent a form of individual self-help; and they typically avoid any direct symbolic confrontation with authority or with elite norms.

“Everyday forms of resistance make no headlines. Just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political or economic barrier reef of their own. There is rarely any dramatic confrontation, any moment that is particularly newsworthy. And whenever, to pursue the simile, the ship of state runs aground on such a reef, attention is typically directed to the shipwreck itself and not to the vast aggregation of petty acts that made it possible.” **

Sharon (my wife) and I practice war tax resistance.  It is a quiet way of opposing imperialism and building that “reef” Scott speaks of.  Certainly any of us considering resistance to the Trump Administration will want to consider whether this is the year to pay less than the full amount due on Form 1040.  (For help in thinking that through, go here or here.)

Tony Cartalucci combines “everyday resistance” with purposeful intent in his essay, “So You Want to Start a Resistance?” After explaining how our political crisis goes much deeper than the Trump Administration, he describes two major economic sectors where alternative business models have been effective at subverting authoritarian control:   locally-supported agriculture and the alternative media.  Writes Cartalucci:

“Americans must realize by now, having protested the war in Iraq in 2003 only to be completely ignored and have the war rage for now 16 years under both a Republican and Democrat president, and having protested almost continuously since President Trump's election in 2016, that protests alone accomplish nothing.

“Without leverage, the special interests that dominate American politics have absolutely no reason to listen. By cutting these interests off from the very source of their strength—and channeling that strength instead into local movements like organic agriculture, alternative energy, local manufacturing, alternative media and entertainment, and alternative currencies—we empower ourselves with overwhelming leverage—not only to exact our demands from our elected officials, but to implement policy locally without conferring with or receiving ‘approval’ from Washington in the first place.”

So yes, let’s seriously consider participating in conventional forms of resistance:  vigils, calling our members of Congress, participating in a nationwide strike.

But let’s also value everyday resistance—the informal ways a subculture painstakingly constructs a life outside the authoritarian mainstream.  To review, this can include:

--patronizing local merchants (e.g., not Amazon or Wal-Mart) and local food growers;
--failing to cooperate with the enforcement of unjust laws;
--supporting alternative news media (that’s not National Public Radio) with your dollars;
--supporting local refugee resettlement efforts;
--joining a credit union and avoiding New York Stock Exchange investments;
--failing to pay the full amount of federal income tax due;
--living locally and minimizing use of carbon-based energy sources;
--loving our country but refusing to regard it as "an exceptional nation;"
--voicing skepticism about official statements on terrorism; and
--repenting of loyalty to either War Party (Republican or Democrat).

Finally, let’s recognize that religious faith enables us to imagine alternatives to the authoritarian/corporate way. As Kim Domenico puts it in “Revolutionary Lessons from Flyover Country,”

“Religion—even the conservative evolution-denying kind—is a way of applying an imagination-based program to enlarge the meaning of everyday committed life in families, in communities, stable over lifetimes.  Religion—the inner adventure that must be taken on—is key to the very project we are interested in: halting the unstoppable barbarism of corporate capitalism allied with American militarism and imperialism, and restoring a way of life that supports generativity, caring, neighborliness, and the pleasures of humanity-affirming culture.”
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* The October, 2001 anthrax attack shutting down Congress is one of the most chilling events in US history.  Anthrax developed and weaponized in top secret US government labs was used in the attack; thus undisputedly, the attack on Congress was an inside job.  The FBI closed its investigation of the case, saying it had been resolved by the 2008 suicide of its leading suspect, a US Government microbiologist named Bruce Ivins. The FBI makes this claim even though it admits the anthrax used in the attack could not have been weaponized at the lab where Ivins worked, and even though the FBI has produced no evidence that Ivins had access to another lab with the equipment to weaponize the anthrax used in the attack.

** For a review of Scott’s recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchy, see here.

With or Without Lipstick?

by Berry Friesen (February 7, 2017)

Reading New York Times columnist David Brooks can seem a bit like reading the biblical book of Isaiah: lovely phrases that convey an inspiring vision of a people dedicated to the salvation of the world.

In an era when right-wing populism has captured the White House and seems poised to capture France and other European governments as well, many within America’s educated classes applaud Brooks’ measured eloquence, keen insight and dignified pride in what America has accomplished.

Alas, both Isaiah and Brooks are more problematic than they seem.

Isaiah the prophet imagined a Jewish state as mighty as the horrid Assyrian and Egyptian empires (see Isaiah 19:19-25).  A hundred years later—long after Isaiah’s death—his vision died as the Chaldean army destroyed Jerusalem and exiled Judah’s elite to Babylon.

Still later, someone other than Isaiah penned the inspirational vision contained in chapters 40-55 (what I refer to as 2nd Isaiah):  a people who would “not grow faint or be crushed until [they had] established justice upon the earth,” who would live as “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:3, 6).  This vision was articulated at a time when Israel did not even exist as a state, but only as an ethnic group subject to the rule of Persia.  Indeed, 2nd Isaiah tells us, the apparent weakness of the Jewish people was an integral aspect of their mission of justice.  Though “despised and held of no account . . . oppressed and afflicted,” the Jewish people would “make many righteous” (Isaiah 53: 3, 7, 11).

That’s right, the apparent weakness of the Jews would be used by YHWH to bring justice to the world.

Brooks, the genteel cheer-leader for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US-led air campaign over Libya to help Salafist rebels bring down the government of Libya, the US collaboration with neo-Nazis to carry out a coup in Ukraine, and the US partnership with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to use al-Qaeda and ISIL as mercenary forces against the government of Syria, is not a 2nd Isaiah kind of guy.

Instead, Brooks is a propagandist for the empire, though not in the brash, in-your-face style of Donald Trump.  Brooks prefers a sunny imperialism wrapped in velvet, communicated without raised voice or hyperbole, pleasing to the eye, touch and ear.

Consider Brooks’ description of “America’s true myth” in his latest column, “A Return to American Greatness.”

“[It] was embraced and lived out by everybody from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan. It was wrestled with by John Winthrop and Walt Whitman. It gave America a mission in the world — to spread democracy and freedom. It gave us an attitude of welcome and graciousness, to embrace the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and to give them the scope by which to realize their powers.”

And consider Brooks’ description of the current political debate:

“Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important in this common project?  Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?”

It isn’t just David Brooks; there are many like him among the Eastern Seaboard political elite.  By and large, they defend the US-led empire by framing the key question this way: do we want an imperialism characterized by benevolence or brutality?

Or, to put it more baldly, do we prefer our pig with or without lipstick?

Followers of Jesus immediately recognize this is a deceptive and false choice: deceptive because there are not two kinds of empire, one benevolent and the other brutal; false because there is a non-imperial choice—the apparently weak yet surprisingly effective way of the 2nd Isaiah and Jesus.

As I see it, Brooks is almost certain to fail in his attempt to revive faith in the lipstick-smeared American myth.  The lies and deceit that have accompanied the destruction of Yemen, Syria, Ukraine, Libya and Iraq are still fresh in our minds; 9/11 and the distortions and cover-up of the post-atrocity investigation are recent memories.  Not so far back are the horrors the US inflicted on Central America and on Iran during the ‘80s and the US launch of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  During the ‘70s and ‘60s the US ravaged Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and before that Korea.

Many millions have died in these imperial wars. So long as a broad swath of America prospered, most Americans were content to ignore the empire’s brutality—sweep it under the rug, as Brooks proposes to do again.

But now we have an economy where most are losing ground while a few grow ever more obscenely rich.  Now we are a society in which suicide and opiates are shortening average life expectancy.  Bitterness has set in; people are not in a frame of mind to swallow sweet lies.

Yes, we in the educated classes living along the coasts may be an exception.  We desperately want to believe Brooks; he makes us feel so good about ourselves. And it is flattering to think our liberal imperialism is itself the light of the world.  Isn’t this why we hardly ever talk about US wars and all the deaths those wars have caused? *  Isn’t this why we so obediently have started hating Russia again?

But as the surge in right-wing populism demonstrates, many in the West are increasingly impatient with the velvet façade of Brooks-style imperialism.  It’s time to call a spade a spade, this populism is saying, and stop being squeamish about boldly using the full power of the empire.

So how do you think we should respond?  Is this a good time to smear more lipstick on the pig?  Or should we instead seriously consider the way of 2nd Isaiah?
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*  For further reflection on our reluctance to discuss US wars and their deadly consequences, see “No Ban! No Wall! No War?” by Richard Moser.

Last, Worst Hope?

by Berry Friesen (February 3, 2017)

A reader from Oregon, thoroughly anti-imperialist in perspective and a Trump voter this past November, writes this about our new President:

"Donald Trump, a businessman involved in large scale peaceful building projects,
 is a kind of last, worst hope for America veering off from its present imperial course,
before all is lost and we lurch over an abyss."

“Last, worst hope” is an unusual phrase.  As used in the quote, it suggests our nation has exhausted the alternatives (hence “last”) and that the only hope of recovering a non-imperial identity is very unattractive (“worst”).

If you think America was pretty much on the right track while Barack Obama was President, then the association of Donald Trump with any kind of hope at all will strike you as nonsense.

Obviously, I don’t think America has been on the right track.  Yet “hope”—even it its worst version—is not a word I associate with the presidency of Donald Trump either, at least not if the purpose is getting America “off its present imperial course.”  Trump is a thorough-going imperialist, intent on dominating whatever setting he finds himself in.

So why do I take my Oregon reader’s perspective seriously?

First, because I’ve noticed that when President Trump speaks of refugees, he often also speaks about the wars from which the refugees are fleeing.  This may seem to be an obvious pairing of problems, yet you won’t hear it from progressive, who speak only about “welcoming refugees,” nor from the conservatives, who speak only about “secure borders.”

Indeed, I’m baffled by all the current controversy over refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations.  The US has been slaughtering people in those countries for years now; few Americans have bothered to object.

You see, I’m convinced that if America’s wars do not become a prominent part of our conversations, the current flurry of “resistance” to Trump is doomed to fail.  That is to say, we're wasting our time if we allow the argument to be framed around which vision of imperial America is the best—Donald Trump’s or someone else's.

Second, I pay attention to this notion of "last, worst hope" because Trump’s disruptive style and manner is highly likely to fracture the Washington establishment, reconfigure the US political landscape and change how we understand America.  This will create the opportunity for a non-imperial vision of America to take root and grow (if, that is, someone is articulating such a vision).

Again, this is not to suggest President Trump—with his unbroken record of bullying behavior and unmitigated greed—intends to delegitimize the empire.  Yet that result is inevitable, at least to a degree, with “President Biff” * at the helm.   That’s our opportunity.

This takes me to the Call to Protect All People that John K. Stoner wrote about here several weeks ago.  It is an appeal from visionary American Christians, asking congregations “to make public commitments in their communities.”

What sort of public commitments?  The 50 signers of the Call suggest these four:

1. We will protect and support the worth and rights of all people, including marginalized persons who are targeted, discriminated against or singled out by hate crimes or state-sponsored/sanctioned violence;

2. We will oppose the aspirations of those who seek U.S. global domination through the use of propaganda, inciting terror, military threats, regime change and war.  We will support instead the practices of diplomacy and negotiation, which lead to peace.

3. We will support a just economic order—one that is sustainable as a servant of the people amid the changes in climate that have already begun.

4.  To keep these promises, we will reach across lines of creed, class, ethnicity, race and party preference in a spirit of empathy and learning, seeking relationships of solidarity with other groups.

Notice there is nothing here about being pro-Trump or anti-Trump.  Instead, the Call gives congregations three principles and one practice to guide their public engagements at this critical moment in history.  In effect, it says:  “Let the chips of partisan politics fall where they may; as Christian congregations, we pledge to serve our communities by living out these commitments.”

Look, President Trump may be making a hash of things, but America's mad dash toward the abyss (moral, social, economic, political) is not of his making.  So let’s not spend our time and energy making Trump the issue.  Out in public spaces, let’s be true to the light we’ve been given.

For congregations, this means stepping forward in a new way, reaching out along with new partners with a necessary message that otherwise won’t be heard.

Let’s find our own voice and speak out of our own values.  Now is the time, before the cacophony about Trump drowns out everything else.
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*  “President Biff” is the derisive way one of my daughters refers to Trump.  It’s a reference to a Back to the Future movie character who is a high school bully in Part 1 of the famous trilogy and a bullying tycoon in Part 2.  “Biff” in Part 2 was patterned after Donald Trump, the ‘80s casino tycoon.