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Equipping Western Christians to Resist Imperial Propaganda: An Opportunity for Anabaptists

by Berry Friesen

Presented June 11, 2016 at Global Mennonite Conference and Peacebuilding Festival, Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario. Endnotes are referenced in the text in this format: (  ).

In the post-9/11 era, Western nations have increasingly used military force and terrorism to pursue “regime change” in places where host governments are unwilling to cooperate with imperial purposes.

As a result, the social, economic and physical infrastructure of six societies—Afghanistan (1), Iraq (2), Libya (3), Syria (4), Ukraine (5) and Yemen (6) —have been substantially destroyed. At least two million residents of those six countries have been killed, millions more have been injured, tens of millions have been displaced. The great majority of the casualties have been noncombatant civilians of Muslim identity.

Fifteen years of policy-driven death and destruction might prompt Anabaptists in North America to move toward a stance of opposition and resistance vis-à-vis their respective national states.  But this has not happened.  No major reassessment has occurred. North American Anabaptist leaders seldom speak of these wars, nor will they receive much attention at this conference here at Conrad Grebel (7).  When these wars are spoken of, they usually are described as misguided responses to serious external threats.

In short, after 15 years of violent, predatory acts of intervention, North American Anabaptists continue to give their governments the benefit of the doubt.

What this tells us—in brief—is that North American Anabaptists have accepted the false framing of propaganda and are not able to see the evil at work in these wars of aggression.

This paper will identify five factors that help explain why North American Anabaptists have not been more resistant to imperial propaganda.  Though these factors may not be the most important, it is the writer’s view that they have received far less attention than they deserve.  The paper will end with a practical suggestion that Anabaptist institutions can implement to enable a more effective resistance.

As background, I note two precedents for the proposition that the church should resist war-propaganda.  

Soon after World War I, the (Old) Mennonite Church formed a “Peace Problems Committee” to equip its members to resist warring sentiments.  In 1937, as tensions rose in Europe, this Committee led the church in adopting a resolution that called all members to avoid “agitation, propaganda, or activity that tends to promote ill-will or hatred among nations.”  In 1951 it again led the church in adopting a resolution that asked members to avoid any association with “war propaganda or war hysteria.”  And in 1961, it called upon the church to “conscientiously avoid all support of, or involvement with, movements which employ questionable means for opposing communism.  The supreme recent example of such unholy involvement was the German church’s support of Nazism in Hitler’s anti-communist crusade.” (8)

The Peace Section of Mennonite Central Committee is a second precedent.  It never had a large programmatic role, yet it carried a prominent role within the Anabaptist churches as a discerner of the times and an interpreter of political events.  Resisting war-propaganda was part of its agenda.

So why aren’t we North American Anabaptists more resistant to imperial propaganda?   

1.  As Westerners, we are naturally drawn to narratives about justice and the protection of the weak.  We believe in a moral universe. When told a story of people responding to evil with self-sacrifice, a part of us applauds and wants to help. This is a core facet of Western culture and reflects the biblical heritage of the West, including the witness of Jesus of Nazareth. Though North American Anabaptists may differ from other Christians regarding ethical means by which to respond to an injustice, we join most other Westerners in admiring courageous, morally-inspired action.

Western governments play to this sentiment.  Every intervention in the affairs of another nation is justified by a media-driven moral narrative in which the wicked have targeted the innocent and great evil will occur unless the West responds with violence.   Though these narratives are largely contrived, deceitful and false, they have persuaded Western publics to support intimidation and aggression.

In Afghanistan, the justification for military invasion and regime change was the refusal of the Taliban to turn over the super-terrorist, Osama bin Laden (9).
In Iraq, an invasion was necessary because Saddam Hussein was harboring the 9/11 attackers, then because of his plan to acquire a nuclear weapon, then his chemical weapons arsenal (10).
In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s government triggered the “responsibility to protect” by issuing Viagra to troops and commencing “genocide” against rebels in eastern Libya.” (11)
In Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad triggered the moral call to action with its lethal force against peaceful protestors and its sarin gas attack against children (12).
In Ukraine, it was the corrupt Viktor Yanukovych who spurned popular desires for freedom and prosperity through alignment with the European Union and NATO (13).
In Yemen, it is an expansionist Iran fostering rebellion in its Shia neighbor (14).

Remarkably, North American Anabaptists seldom speak of how false moral narratives have shaped our world view.  This silence leaves us vulnerable to more manipulation by propaganda in the future.

2. Our principled, Anabaptist opposition to all war has fostered a lazy habit of regarding the facts of war as relatively unimportant.  A group of Mennonites may argue about what happened in the central square of Kiev during the third week of February, 2014, (15)  but usually the group will quickly conclude their different understandings are beside the point.  What’s important is to oppose the war and send a relief shipment.  We can find scores of articles in the Mennonite press reflecting such assumptions.

This stance fosters a willingness to defer to others about the facts of whatever situation is at issue.  For example, we imagine we can count on just-war Christians; their ethics require them to pay attention to the facts, so we can trust them to do the digging.  But generally, others are not doing much digging either; mostly, they are simply listening to mainstream media reports, just like us.

3.  As modern Anabaptists, we take great pride in our relevance.  We often praise marginal peoples for their tenacity, insights and way of coping with deprivation.  Yet we privileged folks in the mainstream have a different role—to join the search for solutions to the problems we all see and experience.  We aspire to a positive, pro-active and engaged identity; we do not admire skeptical dissenters.

How does one maintain a stance of positive public engagement when war crimes, deception and criminal conspiracy are a routine part of foreign policy?  You stop talking about it and focus on other things.  To speak honestly about the aggression and deceit of our governments is to banish oneself to a wilderness from which it is difficult to return.  It is a place no engaged Anabaptist wants to go.

Bell Hooks, the African-American scholar and activist, insists marginality is “much more than a site of deprivation . . . it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance.” (16)  Certainly many North American Mennonites recognize this space exists, but few currently perceive their own government’s imperialism as an urgent reason to go there.

4. We insist on pretending mainstream media are bold, independent and free.   This is how we justify relying on mainstream media so completely.  It is how we justify our rejection of alternative media as “crackpot” and “conspiracy-oriented.”

Yet when we look at any of the narratives that have legitimized war over the past 15 years, we find the mainstream media have not been bold and independent, but instead have served key roles in publishing and reinforcing  a deceptive story line (17).   Yet once we reach that conclusion, what do we do next?  Spend hours each day searching the internet for the truth?  We don’t have the time or patience.

5. Currently, we don’t have church agencies with the responsibility to provide an alternative perspective about world events.  Some agencies may have an alternative perspective, but if so, they largely keep it to themselves.  Their responsibility is to their partners and their joint activities; at least since the demise of MCC’s Peace Section, no church agency carries a mandate to help us see the world accurately.  Thus, MCC has not even hinted that the horror of Syria is the result of a Western regime change operation.

There’s little point in criticizing MCC’s stance.  Mission agencies have specific roles and heavy responsibilities.  They should be allowed to do their job without the financial and regulatory costs that certainly would follow were they also to take on the task of combatting imperial propaganda.

Well, so what?  Assuming these five reasons help explain why North American Anabaptists are not equipped to resist imperial propaganda, why does this deserve our urgent attention? 

This question takes us beyond what can be addressed by a short paper such as this.

Quickly, though, we need to remember we humans are a story-formed species.  If we believe stories that are not true, we will behave in ways that betray the truth.

We dare not forget that the currency of the empire is not brute force, but moral legitimacy.  When the empire’s stories are no longer believed, then its violence will be perceived as brutality, not justice. It is the “yes” or “no” of people like us that makes all the difference.

Most importantly, our core calling is to witness to the way of Jesus.  When we believe imperial propaganda, we betray our calling to be faithful witnesses to his way of living in the world.

So what needs to be done to equip Western Anabaptists to resist imperial propaganda?

In short, we need new and different sources of information about world events to enter our congregations and homes.  This can happen many different ways:  websites, magazines, Sunday school materials, pastors, teachers, emails, Facebook pages, etc.

Before this will happen, someone with Anabaptist credibility must legitimize the information, making it “appropriate” for distribution.  This is no small matter.  If the New York Times and the Globe and Mail say that Syrian President Assad gassed hundreds of children with sarin (18),  or that President Putin ordered the shoot-down of an airliner and caused the deaths of nearly 300 passengers (19),  what gives the editor of a small, church-based publication the confidence to report a contrasting narrative?

In fact, there are many sources providing accounts of world events different from what is reported by Western, mainstream media.  Some are small, dissident publications operating in North America; some are large journalistic operations operating in other parts of the world.  Some are official news services working for non-Western governments.  Some are independent journalists, others are citizen observers with eye-witness accounts.  Together, this plethora of outlets provides a wealth of information.

But it all will continue to be ignored by North American Anabaptists unless someone with legitimacy does the research and develops the skill of sifting wheat from chaff. No one is doing that now.

I think it would be wonderful if the Peace and Justice Commission of Mennonite World Conference took the lead on this.  If adequately resourced and backed by a consortium of Anabaptist partners (especially colleges and universities), the Peace Commission could make it work.

Without getting into too much detail, I assume such an endeavor would establish a web-based resource that focused on specific international concerns such as Indonesia, Syria, Ukraine, Honduras and Nigeria (20).   The resource would consist of a constantly updated collection of first-person accounts, stories, interviews, research and commentaries from the global Anabaptist network. It also would include relevant articles, accounts and perspectives first published by media not followed in the West.

Any of us could suggest and/or submit content for publication.  Decisions about content would be made by a volunteer panel comprised of knowledgeable individuals who serve without official designation.  As I imagine it, voices and perspectives from the East and the South would be prioritized (21).

As this MWC resource gained credibility, other North American Anabaptist communication channels would begin drawing content from the site for their own presentations and publications.

Why should this be part of the mission of a global Anabaptist organization?  

Because the violence of Western imperialism is an acute threat to the peace and stability of many countries, including places where MWC members live.
Because the violence of Western imperialism depends on the fuel of moral legitimacy, the supply of which is partly within Anabaptist control.
Because when we accept imperial propaganda, we unwittingly legitimize brutality.

How would successful implementation of this proposal impact North American Anabaptists?

First, we would increasingly join with the Apostle Paul in describing the empire of our time as “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13).  Second, we would increasingly let go national identities and join Paul in saying that “our citizenship is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior” (Phil. 3:20).  Third, we would see deliverance from the imperial spirit as a gift of the Spirit to be shared with our communities. It would become an integral part of our witness to Jesus, like mutual aid or relief (22).

In summary, Western imperialism is immensely destructive and an acute threat to the world-wide Anabaptist community. Only a global response will be adequate; we need MWC to take the lead.

(May 28, 2016)
1.   This study by Physicians for Social Responsibility covers the period 2001-2013.  “This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs. And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”

2.  Ibid.

Initial estimates of Libyan deaths were hyped by pro-interventionist propaganda alleging mass killings by Libyan government forces.  Post-Gaddafi estimates of death related to NATO’s regime-change operation are much lower:  1,000 deaths prior to NATO’s regime-operation began in March, 2011 and 7,000 deaths in the six months after.

Since civil war resumed in June, 2014, around 4,500 deaths have occurred in Libya, according to Libya Body Count. Two million Libyans (one-third of the population) have been displaced.  Estimates of deaths due to the spill-over conflicts in Mali and Chad are not available.

4.  “The report from the Syrian Center for Policy Research said that at least 470,000 Syrians had died as a result of the war, almost twice the 250,000 counted a year and a half ago by the United Nations until it stopped counting because of a lack of confidence in the data.”

The article cites a United Nations report of 9,160 deaths in Ukraine since March 2014.

“Estimates have put the death toll in the war at 6,200+, with the majority civilians, and those overwhelmingly killed in Saudi strikes.”  “Since the UN says that 14.1 million Yemenis, 54 per cent of the population, have no access to health care, this is likely to be an underestimate.”

7.  From a review of the presentation titles on the agenda for this conference, it appears only this presentation identifies the imperial policies of the U.S. and Canadian governments as a core problem for Anabaptists.

 8. Quoted in Stutzman, Ervin R. From Nonresistance to Justice:  The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric 1908—2008 (Herald Press, 2011).
 9.  See

A U.S. government contractor, Kabir Mohabbat, was in Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. Four days later, the U.S. State Department asked Mohabbat to set up a meeting between the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan and U.S. officials.  At the meeting (which occurred in Quetta in Pakistan), the Afghan leaders agreed to the three U.S. demands:  (a) immediate handover of Osama bin Laden; (b) extradition of foreigners in Al Qaeda who were wanted in their home countries; (c) shut-down of bin Laden’s bases and training camps. CBS reporter Alan Pizzey’s account of the meeting was published September 25, 2001.  See

The U.S. premised its demands on the claim that bin-Laden planned and executed the 9/11 terror attacks.  That claim remains vigorously disputed today, in part because the official explanations of the destruction of the three Trade Center towers do not conform to the laws of physics.  See, e.g.,

10.  The U.S. government first justified the invasion of Iraq with the claim that Iraq had given shelter and support to al-Qaeda, then with the claim that the Iraqi government was seeking nuclear weapons capacity, and finally with the claim that Iraq had acquired a chemical and biological weapons arsenal with which to threaten the world.  Each justification was false and each was eventually abandoned.  Many North Americans continue to perceive these to be “mistakes” the U.S. government made due to “intelligence failures.”  But there was no “intelligence failure;” before the invasion in March, 2003; the U.S. government was fully aware Iraq was not a threat.  See, e.g., and

11.  In the run-up to the NATO attack on Libya, U.S. officials accused the Gaddafi government of mass killings, a “rape policy” by issuing Viagra to soldiers and sniper attacks on children in the street. They warned of “the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred.” See and  None of it was true (see

12.  From the beginning, the “peaceful” protests of the Syrian “Arab spring” included armed elements fomenting violent escalation by directing lethal fire at Syrian soldiers and police.  See Joe Giambrone’s “The First Casualty” at;  Jonathan Marshall’s “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War,” at; and Sharmine Narwani’s “Syria: The Hidden Massacre,” which describes a murderous April, 2011 attack on Syrian soldiers ( has reported repeatedly on the collapse of the case against Assad’s government related to the sarin gas attack.  See and articles cited there; also .  From the start, Obama’s intelligence chief acknowledged problems in the case against Assad, yet Western media persist in speaking of Assad as guilty (see Note also this technical debunking of the case against Assad by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors:

For background on the empire’s regime-change operation in Syria, see Jonathan Marshall’s overview at;  Bouthaina Shaaban provides a pro-government view at David Mizner discusses the origins of Da’esh at See also

13.  There is no doubt Yanukovych was enriching himself as president of Ukraine.  But did he act against the economic interests of the Ukrainian people when he chose the Russian economic package over the EU package?  This is debatable; the Ukrainian and Russian economies have long been highly integrated and the financial terms of the Russian offer were very attractive ($15 billion in aid). In contrast, the EU package involved International Monetary Fund oversight of the Ukrainian economy, severe austerity measures for the Ukrainian people and the likely expansion of NATO.  See and .

The overthrow of the democratically elected government of Yanukovych was a Western intelligence operation through-and-through. See, e.g., ; for a chronology of events see

14.  U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen is based on Saudi fears of expanding Iranian influence ( Accusations of Iranian involvement have been exaggerated (see, e.g.,  As in Iraq, Syria and Libya, Western interventionism has enabled Da’esh to set up a mini-state in Yemen, a result so predictable it can only be described as intended.

15.  North American Mennonite media have largely ignored the events in Maidan Square leading up to the flight of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to Russia on February 22, 2014.  Yet the ongoing crisis in Ukraine cannot be understood without an accurate accounting of those events: the violent attacks by neo-Nazi forces on government riot police; the sniper killings of protesters and police during that third week of February; the negotiation among European leaders, Yanukovych and leading protest leaders in an effort to end the violence, disarm the protesters, withdraw the riot police, cede government powers and prepare for a new constitution and election; the good-faith performance of the agreement by the Yanukovych government, but not by the armed protesters; the failure of European leaders to take any action in defense of the agreement they had negotiated and guaranteed.

16.   Hooks, Bell.  Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (South End Press, 1990).

17.  For historical background on the close relationship between U.S. media and covert intelligence, see Carl Bernstein’s “The CIA and the Media” (

Don North describes Western governments’ current intention to “weaponize” information and erase the distinction between deliberately deceptive “psy-ops” and normal public communications in “US/NATO Embrace Psy-ops and Info-War” (;2015/09/02/usnato-embrace-psy-ops-and-info-war/).

Journalist, author and Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer says “Coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press.”  Accurate reporting from Syria “does not fit with Washington’s narrative. As a result, much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening” (

Australian journalist John Pilger says governments major in deception because their core concern is winning our approval. “The times we live in are so dangerous and so distorted in public perception that propaganda is no longer, as Edward Bernays called it, an ‘invisible government’. It is the government. It rules directly without fear of contradiction and its principal aim is the conquest of us: our sense of the world, our ability to separate truth from lies” (  Ukraine is among the many examples Pilger cites in his article:  “The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember. The biggest Western military build-up in the Caucasus and eastern Europe since world war two is blacked out. Washington’s secret aid to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible for war crimes against the population of eastern Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that contradicts propaganda that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner is blacked out.”

18.  See endnote 12, supra.

19.   Journalist Robert Parry notes the contrast between the certainty with which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the details of the attack immediately after it happened, and the continuing refusal of the U.S. to provide evidence of its assessment now that substantial doubts have been raised about the culpability of the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists.  This behavior strongly suggests that the top priority of the U.S. government is not factual assessment, but the planting of a strategically advantageous impression in popular opinion, however false it may be.  See articles cited at .

20.  Boko Haram’s mass killings in and around northern Nigeria have caught the attention of North American Anabaptists because many of the victims have close ties to the Church of the Brethren.  As a global Anabaptist community, we are constructing a narrative to “explain” this horror and to help us fashion a response.  This narrative-building could be informed by what we have learned about the emergence of similar groups (Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and Da’esh come to mind) and their component parts: (a) Salafist Islamic teachings, (b) money and arms from the Gulf States—especially Saudi Arabia, and (c) the expertise and guidance of Western covert intelligence agencies. See, e.g.,

Yet unless we draw on new sources, it is highly likely our narrative related to Boko Haram instead will consist of components provided by Western propaganda:  (a) Nigerian incompetence and corruption, (b) Islam’s inherently violent character and (c) the fractious tribalism of Africa; and (d) the West’s moral superiority to Africa.  In other words, constructing an accurate narrative of the travail in northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region will not happen without substantial help from the parts of the global church living on the fringes of the West’s canopy of propaganda and outside its legacy of imperialism.

21.  Following are two examples of faith-based, publications that address public policy in a highly participatory, non-imperial fashion. --a web-based publication based in Nazareth, Israel. It aims to be a reliable resource for Christian believers who have interest in what is happening in Israel and the Middle East.  It features the latest updates from Middle Eastern newspapers published in Arabic, Hebrew and English on issues related to the Christian faith, the Christian presence and human rights Issues. In addition, it publishes up-to-date stories and personal accounts about local ministries and churches. -- an independent, not-for-profit think-tank based in the United Kingdom. Working within a Christian framework, it publishes alternative perspectives via the web on humanitarian challenges in a globalised world, not least a positive, affirming approach to migration.

22.  For more on the scriptural call to an anti-imperial identity, see If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible by Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner (Create Space, 2014).  For examples of a critique of Western imperialism that is both faith-based and fact-based, see the authors’ blog at