What does Jesus want us to do with Leviticus?

Recently, I was asked some interesting questions:

Do you think that gay people should be put to death?

And since that verse doesn’t say anything about women lying with other women – are lesbians ok?

What about putting adulterers and anyone who curses their parents to death?”

The questions were asked because, in a previous post on this site, I wrote:

“If the Bible gave the impression that same-sex sexual relationships were something which God was not particularly bothered about, one could be forgiven for not being too concerned about this. The Bible, however, makes it clear (Leviticus 20:13) that this is something God takes seriously. “

Now, someone might read that and say “But – hold on. That’s in Leviticus. Surely Christians don’t take Leviticus literally?”

Indeed, all the passages mentioned in the questions I received come from Leviticus:

Leviticus 20:9 “For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.”

Leviticus 20:10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. “

Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

In other words, the basic question is “What are Christians supposed to do with Leviticus, and especially with some commands in it that sound very strange to modern western ears?” Or, to put it another way “What would Jesus tell us to do with Leviticus?” And I believe that is an extremely important question – and one that is not asked often enough. And I think the reason for that is that it is not an easy question.

Jesus and the Scriptures

My starting point is “What did Jesus say about the Old Testament? What was his view of Scripture?” I set this out in my earlier post, referred to above:

The words of Jesus, as we find them in the New Testament, point us to the Bible as the way to know what behaviour is pleasing to God. When Jesus is tempted by Satan and, in reply says “It is written” and then quotes the Bible (Matthew 4:4, 4:7, 4:10), he clearly means “What God has said in the Scriptures is the final word, and there is no arguing with it.” We never find Jesus saying “It is written that thou shalt not, but I say unto you that it is OK.” On the contrary, he condemns those who permit the written word of God in Scripture to be set aside. And so we read in Mark 7:6-13: “He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ” ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”” For Jesus, what is written down in Scripture is the word of God, and it is not negotiable. Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. For Jesus, holding fast to God’s word in Scripture is crucial; setting it aside is unacceptable.

So what about Leviticus?

If that is Jesus’ view of the Old Testament in general, what does he say about Leviticus in particular?  e.g. Does he ever quote Leviticus?

In fact, there are eight verses or passages from Leviticus that Jesus quotes or refers to – most famously Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” But the important one for our purposes is Leviticus 20:9. (The others are 14:1-32, 18:5, 19:12, 24:9 24:20 and 27:30.)

Leviticus 20:9 (“For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.” ) is quoted by Jesus in the passage quoted above from Mark 7 (and also in the parallel passage in Matthew 15):

“And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. “

The key words here are: “the commands of God”, “For Moses said”, and “the word of God”. Jesus uses those phrases to describe the words he is quoting – including the words “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” Which raises the obvious question “Does Jesus believe that anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death?” And, following from that, does this mean that Jesus expects his followers to think that anyone who curses their parents should be put to death?

On the face of it, it looks like the answer to those questions must be “yes”. The accusation that Jesus is making against the scribes and Pharisees is that they hold their own tradition in such reverence that they are prepared to ignore and hence set aside what God says. The unspoken assumption is that what God says in his commandment is correct and not be set aside. Jesus states that the commandment is from God, and hence he clearly believes that it is correct. It seems pretty clear from these verses that Jesus believed that the death penalty was commanded by God, and that what God commanded was correct. And it certainly appears on the surface that he believed in the death penalty for those who cursed their parents.

But didn’t something change with Jesus?

However the matter does not end there. Acts chapter 10 records an incident that took place a few years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Simon Peter, by then the leading figure among the followers of Jesus, had a vision. He was hungry at the time, in his vision, he saw “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds.” A voice said “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” The upshot of all this was the Peter realised that God was showing him that he should not call any person common or unclean. The barrier between Jew and Gentile that was a basic part of Old Testament law had been done away with by Jesus. At the same time, it was clear that all the food laws in the Old Testament – which categorised several foods as unclean, and therefore off-limits – were also done away with. And where in the Old Testament were most of those food laws found? The book of Leviticus!

In fact, even in the gospels, Jesus had effectively said that all foods were clean. And he did it in the very same passage in Mark 7 in which he strongly upheld the instructions in the Old Testament about honouring one’s father and mother. He says “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” and then Mark adds an explanatory note: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)

In other words, Jesus does not treat all Old Testament commands in the same way. Some he stands by, others he appears to actually tighten up on (see, for example, Matthew 5:21-22, 5:31-32), and others he sets aside. What are we to make of this? And specifically, what about putting to death adulterers, men who lie with men, and those who curse their parents?

Which laws stay? Which laws go?

At this point we run out of easy answers. However, a lot of great minds have pondered this question over the last 2000 years. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which dates to the 17th century, condenses a lot of that wisdom in its chapter entitled “The Law of God”. It says that the Old Testament laws can basically be divided into three categories, which it calls “moral, ceremonial, and judicial.” Moral laws are about what is morally right and wrong, and include the 10 commandments. These are about our duty to God and to other people. The ceremonial laws included the laws about things that were “clean” and “unclean”. They also included all the regulations about the temple and about sacrifices.  These laws, according to the Westminster Confession, have been done away with, for, as New Testament makes clear, these things have been superseded by Jesus. All the sacrifices in the Old Testament foreshadowed his sacrificial death on the cross. Once that had happened, there was no need for those sacrifices.  And so, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “All these ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the new testament.

The third category of laws is the one that interests us here – the judicial (or civil) laws. The Confession does not define these closely, but says that God gave these laws gave to the people of Israel as “a body politic”. In other words, these laws were for the administration of justice. The confession says that they “expired” when the ancient state of Israel as a political entity expired (presumably with the capture of Jerusalem with the Babylonians), and place no obligation upon anyone now, except as they embody general principles of justice.

And it seems to me that this judicial law presumably includes the penalties for various crimes – including the death penalties for adulterers, men who lie with other men, and those who curse their parents.

There are a couple of questions that arise here. One is about whether it is really that easy to divide Old Testament laws into those three categories. The answer is that while it isn’t really possible to do it neatly, the general principle does make a lot of sense, and works pretty well for most of the Old Testament law.

The kingdoms of this world – and a kingdom that isn’t

The other question is more important. Where in the Bible does it say that these judicial laws have expired? The New Testament speaks clearly about the end of the distinction between Jew and Gentile and clean and unclean – and it also speaks plainly about the end of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Does it say anything about the end of judicial laws?

And here it seems to me that, while the Bible does not say so in so many words, it does hint that this is the way it is.

It starts even before the fall of Jerusalem. With Jerusalem under siege, the prophet Jeremiah tells the city to surrender: “Serve the king of Babylon and live.” What that meant, of course, was giving up the independence of the Israelite kingdom of Judah – the people who had been given the judicial laws. And, more importantly, it meant serving a pagan king whose laws would be quite different from the judicial laws given by God in the time of Moses. To serve the king of Babylon was to say good-bye to those laws.

And after Jerusalem fell, we find the same thing. We read about people like Daniel and Nehemiah, who live in exile and serve the kings of Babylon and Persia, and who are politically loyal to them. Indeed, Nehemiah was accused by some of wanting to rebel against the Persian Empire, and he protested his loyalty. There was no question of wanting to break free and set up an independent nation with its own laws.

And this continues on in the New Testament. In New Testament times there was plenty of hostility to the Roman Empire from the Jews, and there were revolts against Roman rule. Jesus gave no encouragement at all to that sort of sentiment, and early Christians also rejected it. Roman emperors may have been deeply flawed tyrants, but Peter nonetheless wrote: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (I Peter 2:13-15)

And the key moment comes in the trial of Jesus before Pilate, when Jesus is being accused of being a rebel against the emperor, and Pilate asks “Are you the king of the Jews”, and Jesus answers “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Jesus is not interested in assuming worldly political power, and the authority that goes with it – authority that would mean he could replace the questionable laws of the Romans with God’s just laws. And the evidence that his kingdom is not of this world?  The fact that his servants do not fight. Political authority in this world depends on the use of force. Followers of Jesus do not use force to set up his kingdom, and impose his laws.

And that is because followers of Jesus have a different agenda – the agenda of Jesus. Our agenda is not about political legislation and imposing God’s laws on people. Rather, as Jesus told Pilate “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The purpose of Christians is to bear witness to the truth. That is about proclaiming a message – a message that calls people to have Jesus as their king. It is about invitation rather than imposition.

What did Jesus have to say about public policy?

Two other comments.

First, I think it is very significant that Jesus never spoke about how kings should do their jobs. That isn’t because he thought they were doing a good enough job. He clearly wasn’t impressed by Herod, and called him “that fox”, which was pretty scathing. It is as if Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in talking about what laws rulers made and what the punishment was for various crimes. And it wasn’t just Jesus. Daniel and Nehemiah didn’t feel inclined to tell the pagan kings they served under how to do their jobs, and neither did the apostles. It is, perhaps significant that the only New Testament figure who criticized a king was John the Baptist – who didn’t criticized Herod for the way he was ruling, but over his personal relationships: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” The important thing was not whether Herod was, as king, keeping to the Old Testament judicial law; it was whether he, as an individual before God, was keeping to the Old Testament moral law.

Second, it seems that the only matters of public policy that the New Testament has much interest in is that rulers would preserve order and freedom. Paul, writing to Timothy (I Timothy 2:1-2), says I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The big priority was basically that rulers would allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, pray that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order. These seem to be the only real political concerns of the New Testament.

And so . . .

So what does Jesus want his followers to do with these verses in Leviticus? I think it is pretty clear that he wants us to think about how they apply to us as moral laws. In Mark’s gospel, his interest was in people honoring their parents, not the punishment for those who didn’t. I think that it is pretty clear that it is the same with the other two verses. They are about what is morally right and wrong, about the kind of sexual relationships God wants people to have.

And yes, it is true that Leviticus doesn’t say anything about same-sex relationships between two women. But we need to remember the way that Jesus addressed moral questions, by basically asking people to look at the principles behind the laws. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says (Matthew 5:17-22)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And having warned them against relaxing the commandments of the moral law, he then proceeds to tighten them – by going back to the principles behind the laws:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

And so, later on, when he is asked “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?“, he responds by calling them back to the principles behind the law. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” The fact that God made people male and female is the basis for marriage, and for sexual morality. And hence the early Christians understood that the principles laid down in God’s law about men lying with men also applied to women lying with women. Paul speaks (Romans 1:26-27) about dishonorable passions, by which he means: “their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.

So – do I think that Jesus wants his followers to advocate the death penalty for the activities described in Leviticus 20?  Do I think he wants his followers to advocate that those activities be criminalized? No, I don’t. That was not Jesus’ concern. His concern was that his followers look at themselves, and seek to live righteously before God – not seek to impose righteous judicial laws on society. And that is closely connected with the fact that his kingdom is not of this world.

Further thoughts on the last days

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled “Are we living in the last days? (What the New Testament actually says.)

The answer to the question is “Yes – because when the New Testament uses the phrase ‘the last days’, it means the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

The question came up because I was reading II Timothy, where Paul writes

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

Another question

However, the opening words of that passage raises another question. If “the last days” means “the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ”, then why does Paul bother putting in the words “in the last days”? Why didn’t he just write “But understand this, there will come times of difficulty“?

Now, obviously we cannot read his mind. And nothing else that he writes in this passage tells us the answer. So at this point we just indulging in guess-work. Why does he say (effectively) “In these days we live in there will come times of difficulty“, rather than “there will come times of difficulty“?

What people will be – or what people are?

It seems to me that part of the answer is probably because Paul believed that Timothy was underestimating how bad things would be. After all, why say “There will be times of difficulty” unless you think that the person you are speaking to may not realise this? Since Timothy will know (he had spent years in Paul’s company) that these are the last days that he is living in, the implication is, therefore, that he does not realise how bad the last days will be. But when we read Paul’s description of what people are going to be like – and if we pause and think about each of the things he says about people – we will see that none of them are particularly shocking. They are very ordinary failings – the sort of failings that one could expect to find in respectable people.

In fact, as I looked at the list, and considered these failings, another question occurred to me. Surely these failings are things are not unique to the last days. People have not just been like this for the last 2,000 years. They have always been like this. Read the Old Testament, and look at the history of the people of Israel. The characteristics that Paul describes in this passage (“lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, etc. etc.“) were found in Old Testament times as much as in New Testament times.

So – if people have always been like this – why would Timothy expect anything else? And this is where the guess-work comes in. My guess is that Timothy thought, or at least hoped, that the last days would be better than the former days.

A new day dawning?

Why would he think that? Because these were the days of the Messiah. The Messiah had come, he had conquered death, he had ascended into heaven, and was now seated at the right hand of God. In other words, he was reigning as king. He had sent the apostles into all the world to preach the gospel to the nations, and promised that he would be with them. Paul and Timothy knew that they were living in great days – because they knew that the last days were great days. And so Timothy needed to be reminded that even though he lived at a great time, human nature had not really changed – and difficulties would still have to be faced.

And the gospels paint the same picture: the coming of Jesus was something to be excited about. It marked a new dawn. This is how the beginning of the ministry of Jesus is described in Matthew’s gospel (4:13-16): “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Similarly, John’s gospel (1:9) describes the arrival of Jesus with the words “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”

In other words, I suspect that when Paul wrote “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty,” what he was really meant was “Timothy – you need to understand that even in the last days there will be difficult times – even though we have the great privilege of living in the age of the Messiah, it is not always going to be easy.”

After church last Sunday, a lady told me that she had been reading my post on the last days – and commented on how helpful it was – because it made clear that the last days were not all about doom and gloom. She was exactly right. Most people in our time think of doom and gloom when they hear the phrase “the last days”. Among New Testament Christians, the opposite was the case: when they heard the phrase “the last days” – they thought of the light dawning, the end of the reign of darkness, and the coming of a glorious new age.

We live in great days. And the Bible tells us that even greater days are ahead, after Jesus returns in power, and brings in his kingdom in all its fullness. In that kingdom, human nature will have been transformed, because the former things really will have passed away. In the meantime, life in this world will have plenty of difficult times. And we do have to live in this world at present. But we also need to look to the future, and have our eyes firmly focused on it.

Are we living in the last days? (What the New Testament actually says)

I was reading II Timothy recently, and came to chapter 3. It opens with the words “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” The question I immediately asked was “When are the last days? What does Paul mean by that phrase?” So I investigated.

The first clue is found in the passage. I read on.

For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

Those words told me two things.

First, the reason that these times in the last days will be difficult is because of the sort of people that will be found in them. Strangely enough, they sound pretty much like the kind of people one would meet at any time in history. Nothing unusual about them. In fact, someone could be all those things and not really attract attention. As bad qualities go, these failings are pretty common.

Second, Paul tells Timothy to avoid such people. In other words, Timothy is going to meet these people who are going to be found in the difficult times in the last days. And that suggests that Paul expects Timothy to be around in these difficult times – and in the last days.

Other New Testament passages

I did a bit more digging. I discovered that the phrase “last days” is used five times in the New Testament.

The first is in Acts 2, when Peter explains to the crowds how it is that the Christians are able to speak in other tongues, as enabled by the Holy Spirit:

“”Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”

Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy about what will happen in the last days, and says, in effect: “That is what is happening now, before your eyes.” In other words, as far as Peter was concerned, he was living in the last days.

The second is in the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

It’s a slightly different phrase – it says “these last days” rather than “the last days”, so it is possible that it could simply be a way of saying “In the last few days” or “in recent days”. Equally, it could be saying “in these days which we are living in, which are the last days”. But either way, it is talking about New Testament times.

The third is in the 5th chapter of the letter of James:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

Again, James when James uses the phrase “last days”, he is, again, speaking about his own day.

The final one is II Peter, chapter 3:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”

Here, there is not much evidence to suggest whether or not Peter sees his own time as being part of the last days. But there is certainly nothing here to suggest that he definitely doesn’t.

In short, in four of the five uses of the phrase “last days” in the New Testament, it is clear that the writers believe that New Testament times were part of the last days, and the fifth does nothing to say otherwise.

What do the scholars say?

I also had a look at what a few commentators had to say on the subject.

Gordon Fee says

For the term ‘the last days’ as referring especially to the beginning of the Christian era, see Acts 2:16-21 and Hebrews 1:2″ and adds that Paul believes “that the last days are already upon us.”

George Knight says

“‘. . . last days’ is used here as elsewhere in the NT … to refer to the time of the Messiah, that last period of days before the final messianic action takes place. Here, as in I John 2:18 [Children, it is the last hour,] the phrase does not designate some yet-to-come period of days. Rather Paul is reminding Timothy that the Christian community is living in the ‘last days’, and, because that is true, he must come to grips with what characterizes those ‘days.'”

John Stott says

Next, Paul refers to ‘the last days’. It may seem natural to apply this term to a future epoch, to the days immediately preceding the end when Christ returns. But biblical usage will not allow us to do this. For it is the conviction of the New Testament authors that the new age (promised in the Old Testament) arrived with Jesus Christ, and that therefore with his coming, the old age had begun to pass away and the last days had dawned.”

So – total unanimity there. None of them treats this as a controversial matter. It isn’t something about which there is disagreement or scholarly debate. When the first Christians used the phrase ‘the last days’, they meant the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

Which raises a question . . .

This raises a question in my mind. It seems to me that when the Christians I meet speak of “the last days”, they mean something quite different from what the first Christians meant. I get the impression that when I hear people in the church talking about the last days, they mean a period of history that probably has not yet arrived. In other words, Christians today almost never use the phrase the way the Bible uses it. Why?

If this is indeed the case, it should concern us. Do Christians realise that what they mean when they use the phrase is very different from what the first Christians meant – and what the Bible means – by it? If not, that is a problem. And if so, why do they insist on using a phrase (in conversations about the Bible) to mean something very different from what the Bible means by it? That can only confuse people. Either way, this isn’t exactly healthy.

Surely, when Christians discuss matters of faith and the teaching of the Bible, we should, as much as possible, use words and phrases the way the Bible uses them. Shouldn’t we?

British values and the Westminster attack

The week from the 17th to the 24th March made for an interesting seven days.

Let’s start with Wednesday the 22nd. A man who grew up with the name Adrian Russell Ajao, but is now known as Khalid Masood, and who had a history of knife attacks, went on a rampage, driving a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, and then running towards the Houses of Parliament where he stabbed a policeman. He managed to injure over 50 people, and to kill four, including the policeman and an American tourist. Ajao himself was shot dead.

The incident was horrifying – but hardly unique. In 1987, Michael Ryan shot 16 people in Hungerford before killing himself. In 1996, Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and one teacher at Dunblane Primary School before killing himself. in 2010, Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria. In terms of death toll, the Westminster attack was not as bad as those incidents.

Two things are different about this incident. One is that politicians have spoken as if this incident is in some way was a threat to the British way of life. The other is the fact that it has been described as a “terrorist” incident.

Terrorism great and small

Which brings us to what happened on the previous day – Tuesday 21st. Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional IRA, died. The Provisional IRA killed over 1700 people during the course of the troubles in Northern Ireland, making them the most deadly “terrorist” organisation ever to operate on British soil.

But their terrorism was of a very different kind from that of Ajao. They used bombs and bullets, and they were a tightly organised body. Ajao was armed with only a knife (and a Hyundai), and he was not acting as part of an organised group. As far as we know, he acted alone. His terrorism bears no resemblance to that of the IRA. His career as a ‘terrorist’ lasted a matter of minutes. The Provisional IRA was active for almost 30 years.

One incident in Ajao’s history seems to me to be significant. According to the Independent:

“In an incident that … may have led to a sense of alienation and grievance, he was convicted in 2000 of wounding and criminal damage. After a row at the Crown and Thistle pub in Northiam, Masood, who had drunk four pints during the afternoon, slashed café owner Piers Mott with a knife, leaving him with a face wound that needed 20 stitches. It was said at the time that Masood had been one of only two black men in the village. And Alexander Taylor-Camara, Masood’s defence barrister, told Hove Crown Court: “There were racial overtones in the argument between himself and the victim. He let that get to him – unusually, because in the past he has been able to shrug off that sort of abuse.””

In short, he comes over as someone who has long felt alienated from British society – and a rather sad figure.

British values

And yet, listening to politicians talk, you would have thought that he posed a serious threat to British democracy. The Prime minister, Theresa May, is quoted as saying

“Yesterday, an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy. But today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism. And we meet here in the oldest of all parliaments because we know democracy and the values it entails will always prevail .”

Indeed, the word “values” was the word of the day among politicians. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said “Our values are superior, our view of the world is better and more generous and our will is stronger.” ”

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary said “The British people will be united in working together to defeat those who would harm our shared values. Values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. Values symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. Values that will never be destroyed.

“We are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism.”

Huh? One man with a Hyundai and a knife?   And the Prime Minister speaks of how the nation’s resolve will never waver?  The way politicians speak, one would think the Luftwaffe were flattening the country, and plucky little Britain was standing up to incredible odds. (Indeed, Andrew Neil did invoke the spirit of the Battle of Britain and speak about the Luftwaffe.)

Are these people delusional? Well, they might be. But I think the more prosaic truth is that they are politicians. Politics is about power. And, to quote Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, “Victimhood is the currency of our current cultural politics. Victimhood is power in our current society.” Hence politicians love to use the language of victimhood, and to portray their nations as victim nations that are under attack from powerful forces. I suspect that government ministers want people to think that Ajao represented powerful forces that threaten Britain, because it strengthens their political power if people believe that.

And, of course, victimhood is also a great enabler of self-righteousness. It enables us to become experts at seeing the specks in the eyes of other people, while not noticing the logs in our own.  That was undoubtedly the case with Ajao, but it doesn’t just apply to him.

Yemen, war crimes, and British bombs

And speaking of the Luftwaffe and bombs, there was Friday 17th March.

On that day, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen. Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers.

All the evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia was responsible. According to Human Rights Watch:

“All the parties to the conflict denied responsibility for the attack. Only the Saudi-led coalition has military aircraft. The Houthi-Saleh forces do not. Somalia, which supports the coalition, called on the coalition to investigate. But the coalition has repeatedly shown itself unable or unwilling to credibly investigate its own abuses.”

And Sarah Leah Whitson, their Middle East director, commented

“The coalition’s apparent firing on a boat filled with fleeing refugees is only the latest likely war crime in Yemen’s two-year-long war. Reckless disregard for the lives of civilians has reached a new level of depravity.””

And this is not the only horrifying story coming out of Yemen. While everybody knows about the Westminster attack, more than half of British people are unaware of the war in Yemen. A YouGov poll showed 49 per cent of people knew of the war there, which has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced three million more and left 14 million facing starvation.

Got that? Everybody knows about an incident in which 4 people were killed, but most people in Britain are unaware of a war going on at the moment which has killed 10,000 people.

And what is more, it is not as if the war in Yemen has nothing to do with Britain. The British Government supports the Saudi led coalition which is accused of killing hundreds of civilians – and of deliberately trying to starve rebel areas into submission.

Last year, Britain agreed weapons sales worth 3.3 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia. Some of the cluster bombs dropped in civilian areas were of British manufacture. Under pressure, the Saudis stopped using British cluster bombs and promptly replaced them with Brazilian ones, rather than giving up weapons which are known to kill and maim civilians and children decades after being dropped.

Last September, a Parliamentary report by the Committee on Arms Exports Control, which comprises 16 MPs from four parties, said it was likely British weapons had been used to violate international law.

The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”

Theresa May rejected this conclusion, and spoke about the importance of Britain’s relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, saying “When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

The following month, October, saw Parliament rejecting a motion calling for the British government to withdraw its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

And, then in December, when the American government announced it would stop a shipment of precision-guided munition to Saudi Arabia following what it called evidence of “systematic, endemic problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting” (in other words, Saudi bombings of schools, hospitals, wedding parties, and funerals), Theresa May refused to follow the American decision to end bomb sales to Saudi Arabia.

Iraq – and its body count

The day after the attack that killed 42 Somali refugees, was Saturday 18th, which, (by interesting coincidence) is the 14th anniversary of something else that happened in Westminster: the vote in Parliament that Britain “should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”. In other words, on that day, Parliament voted to invade Iraq.  (Ironically, it turned out Parliament was mislead, and Iraq didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction.)

As a result of this Parliamentary vote, the invasion began two days later – so Monday 20th March was also a significant anniversary. The invasion, of course, led to war, and the war led to violent death on a massive scale. The Iraq Body Count project has come up with a list of 174,000 Iraqis killed between 2003 and 2013, with between 112,000 and 123,000 of those being civilian non-combatants – a huge number compared to the four people killed in the Westminster attack.

And the Iraqi death toll keeps rising, because the invasion of Iraq led to war that continues to rage to this day. In particular, the war enabled a tiny, insignificant Salafist Islamic group to become a major power in western Iraq calling itself Islamic State – now generally known as ISIS. In 2014, ISIS had their most astonishing success: they capturing Mosul – a city of over half a million people.

In other words, what happened to Mosul in 2014 (and what is happening in Mosul today) is a direct consequence of that parliamentary vote in Westminster in March 2003 – together with US government’s decision to invade taken a few months earlier. And so yesterday’s BBC headline – concerning an American bomb attack on Mosul on the 17th March that apparently killed over 100 civilians) is a masterpiece of ironic understatement: Mosul battle: US ‘may be responsible’ for civilian deaths.” The fact is that the US and the UK, by starting off the fighting in Iraq in 2003, are unquestionably responsible – not just for the civilian deaths in the Mosul bombing, but all the civilian deaths in Iraq in the last 14 years.


Amber Rudd can talk about the “values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law” and how these values are symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. She may think that these values are symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. But perhaps not everyone sees the Houses of Parliament that way. I would suggest that if you want to know what the Houses of Parliament really stand for, you look at the words of Christ (Matthew 7:16): “ye shall know them by their fruits.” If you look at what the Houses of Parliament actually do, and the consequences of their actions, the truth about Parliament is considerably darker than what politicians would have us believe.

And what of these great values?

Amber Rudd talks about democracy. But is democracy really an important value? If democracy means that democratically elected politicians in the US and UK democratically vote to enable war crimes in Yemen, is democracy really that wonderful a value? If democratically elected politicians in the US and the UK vote democratically to set off a war in the Middle East that will rage for decades and kill hundreds of thousands of people, is democracy something that is sacred?

Amber Rudd talks about the value of tolerance. But what exactly are we supposed to tolerate? Looking at Parliament’s record, one gets the impression that Parliament believes in tolerating repeated Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen. Is that such a good thing?

Amber Rudd talks about the value of the rule of law. It’s a bit of a shame that the rule of law, which was bad enough in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, went out the window completely in that country when the UK and the US invaded Iraq to overthrow him.

And there was also something a little odd about the words of sympathy for the victims for the victims of the Westminster attack that came from politicians. Theresa May, in her speech, said “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected – to the victims themselves, and their family and friends who waved their loved ones off, but will not now be welcoming them home. “

What is odd is that I cannot remember Theresa May saying anything about her thoughts and prayers going out to those affected by British (and American) policy in Yemen. What I can remember is the way she spoke about the importance of Britain’s relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, saying “When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

Alas, that relationship has done nothing at all to keep people on the streets of Yemen safe. The opposite is true. It has helped make people on the streets of Yemen very unsafe.

One can talk as much as one likes about Parliament embodying values like freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. But actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Parliament in recent years show that there are other values at work in Parliament. Parliament seems to embody a national pride that verges on national self-righteousness, not to mention callous disregard for human life if the people concerned are in certain Middle Eastern countries.

How do we know that Ajao’s attack was an attack on freedom, human rights, or the rule of law? Perhaps, just perhaps, he was angry because he saw darker values at work in Parliament.

What exactly is Saudi Arabia exporting to Indonesia?

According to The Atlantic:

When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman landed in Indonesia on Wednesday, he became the first Saudi monarch to visit the world’s largest Muslim-majority country since 1970. Officials in Jakarta had hoped the visit would help them strengthen business ties and secure $25 billion in resource investments. That’s largely been a bust—as of Thursday, the kingdom has agreed to just one new deal, for a relatively paltry $1 billion.

The article then goes on:

But Saudi Arabia has, for decades, been making investments of a different sort—those aimed at influencing Indonesian culture and religion.

But I think the key sentence in the article is this:

Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has devoted millions of dollars to exporting its strict brand of Islam, Salafism, to historically tolerant and diverse Indonesia.

For some background about Saudi Arabia, see my article on the subject.  It’s not good news.

Some background about Indonesia: (courtesy of OMF):

Indonesia is home to both the largest Muslim population of any country in the world and the largest number of Christians in Southeast Asia.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution.

. . . in the 1960s and 1970s, … tens of thousands of people joined the churches, including many from Muslim backgrounds.

There has been inter-communal fighting between Muslim and Christian groups in Maluku and Central Sulawesi. Frequently conflicts have been initiated by outside “jihad” warriors demanding that the local Muslim communities take control of mixed Christian land areas.

Indonesia, in other words, is a country with a large Muslim majority, with more Muslims than any country in the world, and yet which is committed to religious freedom, and where Christians can and do share the gospel of Jesus Christ with their Muslim neighbours.

However, one can never take such freedom for granted, and one suspects that Saudi influence is not going to do anything to encourage that freedom – or any other freedom.

OMF requests for prayer concerning religious issues include praying about:

* Fanatical Islam breeding ethnic and religious hatred.

*The president and his government as they seek to tackle these issues.

Yemen: trusting in princes, trusting in chariots, and laying down one’s life for one’s friends

In my last article on Yemen, I wrote: “Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.”

Within two weeks, it was looking increasingly like the answer (as I suspected) is that it wasn’t true. Although White House spokesman Sean Spicer had said on February 8th that “We gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil,” and Pentagon officials have said that the raid produced “actionable intelligence,” and Donald Trump spoke in his State of the Union Address of “a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,”  the only example the military has provided turned out to be an old bomb-making video that was of no current value.

More significantly, in late February, several senior officials who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of any.  Ten current U.S. officials across the government who have been briefed on the details of the raid told NBC News that so far, no truly significant intelligence has emerged from the haul. Retired Admiral Jim Stravidis is clearly sceptical that there is any. “When we look at evidently very little actual intelligence out, the loss of a high-performance aircraft and above all the loss of a highly trained special forces member of SEAL Team 6, I think we need to understand why this mission, why now, what happened, and what the actual output was.”

But from a moral point of view, does it matter? Because, of course, the really significant thing about the raid was the fact that it killed 25 civilians – including 9 children.  Would the killing of 25 civilians be more morally acceptable if the US gained useful intelligence as a result of the raid? And come to think of it, since when does gaining intelligence become a legitimate justification for killing 25 civilians?

What the Bible says . . .

Which brings me to my second point. Here is the full quote of what Donald Trump said about the Yemen raid in his State of the Union Address:

We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our Nation. I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom –- we will never forget him.

Let us leave aside the fact that I am sceptical that the Yemen raid did anything whatever to secure the USA. Let us also leave aside the fact that I would question whether Ryan Owens, in any meaningful sense, actually died for his friends, or for his country, or for anyone’s freedom.

What I find deeply disturbing is that these words of Jesus are not just quoted out of context; they are quoted in a context that is highly inappropriate. The words of Jesus are about laying down one’s life – voluntarily allowing oneself to be killed. To quote the New Testament scholar Leon Morris, “In the context, this must refer primarily to the love of Jesus as shown in the cross. There He laid down His life on behalf of His friends.” To apply it to an armed man, involved in a raid that killed 25 civilians, including 9 children, is simply grotesque – even blasphemous. And if anyone objects that Ryan Owens did lay down his life, in that he risked his life by going into action – then it could be said of every fighter on every side in Yemen’s civil war that “they lay down their life for their friends.”

Some lives matter more than others

And as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out,

The raid in Yemen that cost Owens his life also killed 30 other people, including “many civilians,” at least nine of whom were children. None of them were mentioned by Trump in last night’s speech, let alone honored with applause and the presence of grieving relatives. That’s because they were Yemenis, not Americans; therefore, their deaths, and lives, must be ignored . . . .

This is standard fare in U.S. war propaganda: We fixate on the Americans killed, learning their names and life stories and the plight of their spouses and parents, but steadfastly ignore the innocent people the U.S. government kills, whose numbers are always far greater. There is thus a sprawling, moving monument in the center of Washington, D.C., commemorating the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam, but not the (at least) 2 million Vietnamese civilians killed by that war.

Politicians and commentators condemning the Iraq War always mention the 4,000 U.S. soldiers who died but rarely mention the hundreds of thousands (at least) innocent Iraqis killed: They don’t exist, are unmentionable. After a terror attack aimed at Americans, we are deluged with media profiles and photographs of the victims, learning their life aspirations and wallowing in the grief of their families, but we almost never hear anything about any of the innocent victims killed by the United States.

Senior Chief Ryan Owens is a household name, and his wife, Carryn, is the subject of national admiration and sympathy. But the overwhelming majority of Americans do not know, and will never learn, the name of even a single foreign victim out of the many hundreds of thousands that their country has killed over the last 15 years. This imbalance plays a massive role in how Americans understand themselves, the countries their government invades and bombs, and the Endless War that is being waged.

Those words are worth reflecting on. So is the rest of what Greenwald says in his article. Do read it.

Something else the Bible says

There is one other thing that Greenwald says that I want to comment on.

” . . . it is also intended that the soldier’s nobility will be transferred to his commander in chief who is so solemnly honoring him. As demonstrated by the skyrocketing post-9/11 approval ratings for George Bush and the endless political usage Obama obtained for killing Osama bin Laden, nothing makes us rally around a president like uplifting war sentiment. . . . War makes people instinctively venerate the authority and leadership of the president who is presiding over it. That’s why . . . presidents like wars due to all the personal benefits they generate.”

In other words, to put it crudely, in speaking about Ryan Owens, Donald Trump is saying “put your trust in me.” But the Bible says: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” Trusting in princes comes all too naturally. And not just in times of war. It is, however, always foolish. Politicians and rulers make great claims. People eat it up, but it is nonsense. And the more you examine it, the more obvious it becomes that it is nonsense.

And who does this prince, President Trump, put his trust in? Well, in the case of the Yemen raid, he put his trust in generals, in military men. On Fox News, he said

“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

His enthusiasm for generals has been noted, as he has chosen a remarkable number of them for top White House posts. And that enthusiasm for generals seems to be related to a trust in military power in general – or, as the Bible would put it – relying on horses and trusting in chariots. Which, according to the prophet Isaiah (31:1), is not a good idea:

“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!”

It seems to me that the complete fiasco of the Yemen raid shows that Isaiah was right.

Nobody wants to talk about Yemen. Is the truth just too embarrassing?

Over the last year, story after story has come out of Yemen that is horrible. And yet nobody – well, almost nobody – is talking about it.

The Yakla raid

Let’s start with the Yakla raid. On January 29, 2017, a United States-led Special Operations Forces operation was carried out in Yakla village in central Yemen. Authorized by President Donald Trump, its goal was to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also, as claimed by unnamed sources, to target the group’s leader Qasim al-Raymi.

Not only was al-Raymi untouched, but it now appears, according to ABC News that the main Yemeni figure killed – tribal chief Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab – was a tribal leader who was allied to the country’s U.S. and Saudi-backed president.  (A more detailed account of the raid is given here, and makes for uncomfortable reading.)

Furthermore, survivors and witnesses say at least 25 Yemenis were killed, including 10 children and nine women, raising outrage in Yemen and prompting the government to ask Washington for a review of the raid.

U.S. Central Command claimed that 14 al-Qaida militants were killed. It counted among them al-Dhahab. If, as now seems possible, he was not part of al-Qaida, that figure of 14 seems questionable. Indications seem to be that all were low-level operatives.

Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.  The number of people killed on American soil by al-Qaida attacks in the last 15 year is zero.   Was getting some intelligence on them really worth killing around 25 civilians, including 10 children and 9 women?

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the raid will turn out to have helped rather than hurt al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Hence, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

“Far from delivering a blow to AQAP, the raid may have strengthened it. “Groups like AQAP will contend [this attack] shows Trump is making good on his campaign pledge,” said Letta Tayler, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Even if Trump wasn’t serious, armed extremists are likely to jump on every photo of a Yemeni child killed in a US strike as a recruitment tool.”

“The use of US soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics… plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-US sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits,” said International Crisis Group in a report released three days after the attack.”

And some things need to be noted: The operatives who killed these children

  • were not acting in self defense – in any meaningful sense of the term. (They were the attackers.  And they apparently shot before anyone shot at them.)
  • will not be punished for shooting unarmed civilians.
  • were not working for a Middle Eastern autocratic government, but for a western democratic government.
  • were not working for the government of the country where the killings occurred, but for a country thousands of miles away – a country that has never been attacked by Yemen, and is not at war with the Yemen.

I find that shocking.  How is this not a crime?  How is this not breaking the 6th commandment?

Furthermore, most voters in America seem completely relaxed about the fact that their armed forces are launching attacks that are killing children and other civilians in far away countries. What would people in America think if the armed forces of an Arab nation raided a small town in America, and in the process, killed 10 children? And does the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6:31 (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”) have any relevance to this situation?  Does it apply to the actions of nations and governments?

But it gets stranger.

In Yemen, there is a civil war going on. It’s a complicated affair, and broadly speaking, there are three sides – the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which is backed by Saudi Arabia; the Houthi forces, who hold the capital (Sana’a); and al-Qaida. However, a lot of the time al-Qaida have been fighting informally alongside the Hadi government against their common enemy, the Houthis. And since the USA is backing the Saudi Arabians and the Hadi government, they are sometimes sort of on the same side as al-Qaida.

(By the way, the ABC News story refers to the Houthi rebels as Shiites. This is not true. According to the Carnegie Endowment, until 2011, “the term “Shia” was not used in the Yemeni public to refer to any Yemeni groups or individuals. The Houthis do not follow the Twelver Shia tradition predominant in Iran, but adhere to the Zaidiya, which in practice is closer to Sunni Islam, and had expressed no solidarity with other Shia communities.”)

Saudi Bombing

Which brings us to the other side of the horror of Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s repeated bombing of civilian targets following its invasion of Yemen.  In the latest, eight women and a child have reportedly been killed in an air raid on a funeral reception (not the first time the Saudis have bombed a funeral) on the 15th February, near Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sana’a.  (Edit: The death toll has now risen to 21)

And the Saudi-led coalition has the support of the American and British governments.

Daniel Larison’s comment is worth repeating:

“The U.S. continues to aid and abet the coalition as it carries out war crimes such as these, and based on what we’ve been hearing from the new administration that support is only going to increase. Our government is providing the weapons and fuel that allow coalition planes to blow up women and children at funerals, and it is doing this just so we can “reassure” a few despotic governments. U.S. support for the indefensible war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and an enduring blot on our country’s reputation.”

And it is not just America’s reputation. The British government rejected the recommendation of two select committees to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and is now facing a court case brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which claims that “the indiscriminate nature of the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen means there is a significant risk that British arms are being used in strikes that break international humanitarian law.”

What is even more tragic in all this is that Saudi Arabia is not only killing civilians by bombing them, but is also enforcing a blockade that effectively aims to starve the Houthi areas into submission, and has caused massive hardship. According to the United Nations, “About 3.3 million children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished in Yemen, including 462,000 children under five suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” and the country has been described as being on the brink of famine.  What Saudi Arabia is doing is serious.  Indeed, Kevin Watkins of Save the Children has described it as a “de facto a humanitarian blockade from the Saudis, which incidentally is a war crime.”

And the silence is deafening.  A Yemeni woman, quoted in the Guardian, said “I also blame the whole world for watching us dying and for their silence against [the] Saudi-led coalition.”

But the blame lies more with some parts of the world than others.  Daniel Larison calls it an enduring blot on America’s reputation. But I think one could go further than that. This is not just a blot on the reputations of America and Britain. The actions of our governments – and the silence of the people in both nations as a whole – looks like a blot on us as nations.

And, as the Bible says (Proverbs 14:34), “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

Why you shouldn’t trust the BBC

Many people in the UK get most of their news from the BBC. It is their window on the world, and therefore has a big impact on how they view the world. It is usually seen as more objective and less biased than most British newspapers, and unlike them, has official government support through its charter.

However, BBC news reporting is often so slanted as to be misleading. Indeed, its treatment of some news stories verges on the dishonest.

Let me give three examples.

Russian Hacking

The BBC News website has a page entitled “Can US election hack be traced to Russia?” dated the 22nd December 2016. It doesn’t give a definitive answer. But even the title is misleading. The basic question is “Where did Wikileaks get the emails?” There are two possibilities. One is that the emails were leaked by an insider who had access to them. The other possibility is that they were hacked by an outsider, and then passed to Wikileaks. But the title of the article does not even admit the possibility that they were leaked by an insider.  It assumes a hack.

The really strange thing about the article, however, is not what it says, but what it leaves out. First, there is no mention of Julian Assange. Second, there is not even any mention of Wikileaks. It was not until the 4th of January 2017 that the BBC mentioned that “Mr Assange said Russia was not the source for the site’s mass leak of emails from the Democratic Party. ” Assange, however, had said this several weeks before, as was made clear in an article published in the Guardian on the 10th of December.

But it was not just Assange who said that Russia was not the source. In that Guardian article, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, said “I know who leaked them.  I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

And here is the interesting thing. While the Guardian and the Daily Mail both contacted Craig Murray, interviewed him, and published some of his comments, the BBC never contacted him, and never mentioned his comments. Why?

In short, the BBC didn’t actually say anything untrue. They simply omitted to mention a crucial fact. And that, it seems to me, is dishonest.

Bana Alabed

The BBC has, several times, run news stories about Bana Alabed, a seven-year-old girl tweeting out of besieged east Aleppo. The first on the 2nd October, 2016, was entitled: Meet the seven-year-old girl tweeting from Aleppo.  The most recent was on the 24th January 2017 (by which time she was living in Turkey).  In the initial report, the BBC says “As the Twitter account has gained followers, Fatemah [Bana’s mother] says people have accused her of running a “fake” account, or using her daughter for propaganda reasons. ” The BBC report does not say that these allegations are false, but it certainly implies it. And in the most recent report, no mention of these allegations is made.

However, it seems to me that Bana’s parents are almost certainly using the account for propaganda purposes.

In the first place, Bana’s tweets do make political points, and it is pretty obvious that any seven-year-old’s tweets on a political subject are going to reflect the point of view of whatever adult is supervising their tweeting. The political points made are subtle, and are appropriate for a seven-year-old, but the overall message has been “The Syrian Army and the Russians are killing the people of Eastern Aleppo”. The clear implication was that the Syrian Army and the Russians were the villains of the piece, and it would be good if someone intervened in some way against the Syrian Army and the Russians. The fact that the tweeting was in English made it clear that they were aimed at readers in the west.

Secondly, all the evidence suggests that all information coming out of Eastern Aleppo was controlled by the militants who ruled it at the time – and that these militants were pretty brutal. For example, Patrick Cockburn, a highly experienced and respected Middle East correspondent, recently wrote:

In East Aleppo any reporting had to be done under licence from one of the Salafi-jihadi groups which dominated the armed opposition and controlled the area – including Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly known as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. What happens to people who criticise, oppose or even act independently of these extremist groups was made clear in an Amnesty International report published last year and entitled ‘Torture Was My Punishment’…

All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. The ease with which propaganda can now be disseminated is frequently attributed to modern information technology: YouTube, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter.”

Yes. Twitter.

The fact is that, at the very least, Bana Alabed’s tweets could not have been going out of Aleppo without the blessing of an extremely brutal group of Islamic militants. But I think we can go beyond that, and say that it is quite likely that these Islamic militants encouraged and facilitated her tweets.

However, you would never guess that from reading the BBC’s accounts.

Andrew Ashdown

Andrew Ashdown is an Anglican clergyman who has visited Syria several times. On one of those occasions, he was part of a group that included Baroness Cox of Christian Solidarity International, and Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester. He has discovered and reported that most ordinary Syrians support the Syrian government in its war against the rebels. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every source which is in contact with the Christian communities in Syria, and pretty well every independent journalist who has gone into Syria, says the same thing. This, however, is something that one would never guess from reading and listening to the mainstream media. They simply never say that.

Andrew Ashdown was interviewed by the BBC, about his travels in Syria. The experience was interesting. In his own words, they “gave me 2 minutes and told me I could not mention that refugees from East Aleppo were directly contradicting the mainstream narrative.They changed the subject when I tried to mention it!

That suggests that the BBC was determined to make sure that certain information didn’t get out.

What is interesting about this particular case is that Andrew Ashdown has been interviewed by RT (Russia Today), the Russian state broadcaster. While the BBC told him what he couldn’t say, I understand that RT placed no such restrictions on him. Similarly, western journalists who have worked for RT have made it clear that RT has not interfered in their journalistic freedom.

Deliberate misrepresentation?

It is clear that in all three cases, the BBC was not omitting crucial facts due to ignorance. But what is worth noticing is that in all three cases, the slant produced was in the same direction. The slant was against the Russian and Syrian governments. In other words, the bias was in exactly the same direction as that of British government policy.

Since the BBC is basically a state owned corporation, perhaps that isn’t surprising. But it seems to me that there is little reason to think that its news coverage is any more fair or objective than that of RT. Indeed, I suspect that in some subjects, RT coverage may turn out to have been more objective than that of the BBC. And if someone had told me 10 years ago that I would one day be saying that, I would have been surprised.

A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?

The last few days of 2016 have produced a few articles that particularly caught my attention, and which in many ways, summed up the year for me. They concerned two of the main stories that dominated world affairs in 2016: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and in particular the war in Syria; and the American presidential election, and in particular the allegation that Russian hacking had been the source of the Democratic Party emails published by Wikileaks.

They are by four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.

These four writers are:

1) Phil Giraldi – a former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer – who has a PhD from the University of London in European History, and spent eighteen years working for the CIA in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain (and is fluent in Turkish, Italian, German, and Spanish).

2) Craig Murray – a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that intelligence linking the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to al-Qaeda was unreliable, immoral and illegal, as it was thought to have been obtained through torture. After making these complaints, he was removed from his ambassadorial post.

3) Glenn Greenwald – an American lawyer, journalist, speaker and author, best known for his role in a series of reports published by The Guardian, beginning in June 2013, detailing United States and British global surveillance programs, based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.

4) Robert Fisk – a writer and journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent intermittently since 1976 and who (apparently) holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent and has been voted British International Journalist of the Year seven times.

Evidence for the Russian hack?

First, three on the alleged Russian hacking.

The last week of 2016 produced the astonishing spectacle of the American president expelling 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the alleged hacking. Perhaps even more interestingly, media coverage often seemed to assume that evidence had been produced which showed that the Russians really were involved. Giraldi, Murray, and Greenwald all take the view that no strong evidence has yet been produced.

Giraldi, writing on the 28th of December, said

“Nevertheless, even though it has been nearly three weeks since the Washington Post initially reported the story, no hard evidence has been provided to identify the actual hackers or to link them to the Russian government, much less to President Vladimir Putin. . . . Those who are fulminating most effusively about Russia should perhaps step back and reflect on the fact that they do not actually know what happened with the DNC computers.”

Greenwald, writing on the 31st, spoke of: “the U.S. government’s evidence-free report.”

Murray, writing on the 31st, simply reiterates his view that the American government is lying about the supposed Russian hacking of emails associated with the presidential elections, and says that the FBI report published on the 29th of December,

gives no evidence at all of the alleged successful hack that transmitted these particular emails, nor any evidence of the connection between the hackers and the Russian government, let alone Putin.

The dishonesty of western journalism

Then there was Greenwald’s article about dishonesty in the media – and in particular, the Guardian

Greenwald writes about a report published … by The Guardian “that recklessly attributed to [Julian] Assange comments that he did not make.” Furthermore, “those false claims — fabrications, really — were spread all over the internet by journalists, causing hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) to consume false news.”

“The Guardian published an article by Ben Jacobs, which contained two claims, both of which were false. Furthermore, the Guardian article contained no original reporting. Indeed, it did nothing but purport to summarize the work of an actually diligent journalist: Stefania Maurizi. . . . Jacobs’s “work” consisted of nothing other than purporting to re-write the parts of that interview he wanted to highlight, so that he and The Guardian could receive the traffic for her work.

Ever since the Guardian article was published and went viral, Maurizi has repeatedly objected to the false claims being made . . . But while Western journalists keep re-tweeting and sharing The Guardian’s second-hand summary of this interview, they completely ignore Maurizi’s protests.”

Greenwald’s point is that “those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News, and want Facebook and other tech giants to suppress content in the name of combating it, are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.”

And note what Greenwald said about western journalists re-tweeting and sharing the Guardian’s misleading summary of Maurizini’s interview, but completely ignoring her protests that the Guardian’s story was seriously misleading. Doesn’t exactly encourage one to trust western journalists, does it?

Robert Fisk on Syria

And finally, on the subject of western journalists, Robert Fisk on the war in Syria. Fisk had previously expressed reservations about the way the war in Syria has been reported in an article earlier in Decemberin which he spoke of how we were being given “a narrative of good guys versus bad guys [which was] as explosive and dishonest as “weapons of mass destruction” and then said “But it’s time to tell the other truth: that many of the “rebels” whom we in the West have been supporting – and which our preposterous Prime Minister Theresa May indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week – are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East.

But in this more recent article, on the 29th, he wrote:

“The use of social media in reporting the battle of eastern Aleppo has been extraordinary, weird, dangerous, even murderous, when not a single Western journalist could report the eastern Aleppo war at first hand. Much damage has been done to the very credibility of journalism – and to politicians – by the acceptance of one side of the story only when not a single reporter can confirm with his or her own eyes what they are reporting.

The 250,000 “trapped” Muslims of eastern Aleppo – now that 31,000 have chosen to go to Idlib, many more to western Aleppo – appear to have been somewhat fewer than 90,000. It’s now possible that at least 160,000 of the civilians “trapped” in eastern Aleppo did not actually exist, but no one says so. That vital statistic of 250,000, the very punctuation mark of every report on the besieged enclave, is now forgotten or ignored (wisely, perhaps) by those who quoted it.

Can we really shake our heads in disbelief at electoral lies when we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years?”

A post-truth world?

But Fisk’s most interesting comment is this: “We do not live in a “post-truth” world, neither in the Middle East nor in the West – nor in Russia, for that matter. We live in a world of lies. And we always have lived in a world of lies.”

I think that Fisk may be onto something.

For me, 2016 has been the year when my confidence in the western mass media hit rock bottom. Before 2016 I believed that it was biassed and often misleading – but broadly speaking honest and accurate. By the end of the year, I had come to the conclusion that it was often dishonest and sometimes completely inaccurate. Individual reporters often told the truth, but when what they said was not what the powers that be wanted to hear, it was usually buried in obscure places.

But does that mean that the only thing that happened was that the scales fell from my eyes? Or is it also the case that in recent years there has been a real decline in respect for truth, honesty, and accuracy in the west – or at least in some western countries? I don’t know – but it seems to me that this is certainly a possibility.

Some 3000 years ago, the Psalmist David seemed to think pretty much the same thing:

Help, LORD; for there is no longer any that is godly;
for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men.
Every one utters lies to his neighbour;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak,
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is our master?”
“Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan,
I will now arise,” says the LORD; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.”
The words of the LORD are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will keep them;
you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
as what is vile is exalted among the children of man.
                                                                                          (Psalm 12)

Yes, we live in a world of lies, for we have lived in a post-truth world since the Adam ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But the truth is not dead. The world may be dark, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Yes, people love the darkness rather than the light – because their works are evil. (For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.) There are a lot of people with plenty to hide, who do not want the truth to come out.

Of course, all the truth will one day come out, for there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and come to light.

But even before that day comes when the whole truth comes out, a remarkable amount of it does come out – and it seems to me that for that, we must be grateful to those people who make it known.

Bearing false witness: The western media, Syria, and the evil Russians

Last week, the Independent published an article by Patrick Cockburn entitled “This is why everything you’ve read about the wars in Syria and Iraq could be wrong.” What I found most surprising about it was that a newspaper saw fit to publish an article that not only said that western media reports about Syria and Iraq tended to be one-sided and misleading, but also effectively suggested that readers shouldn’t believe everything they read in newspapers.

Fake News

What Cockburn has to say is scathing:

“The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source.”


On Syria the crucial paragraph is this:

“The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas. There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups.”

For example, one of the most reported stories from Syria this year concerned the attack on an aid convoy in Aleppo, which the American government blamed on Russia. 

However, as is pointed out by Gareth Porter in his article “How a Syrian White Helmets Leader Played Western Media “, all the evidence that points to Russia comes from extremely dubious sources who are close to the Syrian rebel forces.

The subheading says it all: “Reporters who rely on the White Helmets’ leader in Aleppo ignore his record of deception and risk manipulation.”

Who decides the story?

But this is the really interesting thing that Cockburn says:

“A word here in defence of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it.

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.”

Cockburn seems to be saying that reporters often report the truth back to head office, but that editors simply publish whatever suit their agenda.

And that really is the big problem with the media.

Those evil Russians

And just as significant as Cockburn’s reference to “deciding the story of the day”, is his use of the phrase “a threat to the world”. In 2003 the threat was Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Today it is Vladimir Putin and his alleged cyber-attacks on western elections.

Last Friday, the Washington Post published a story about claims that American “intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails” from both the DNC and John Podesta’s email account.

The reaction has been astonishing.

Earlier this week, Ben Bradshaw, M.P. for Exeter, speaking at the Aleppo debate in Parliament, said

I don’t think we have even begun to wake up to what Russia is doing when it comes to cyber warfare.  Not only their interference, now proven, in the American presidential campaign, probably in our referendum… We don’t have the evidence for that yet, but I think it’s highly probable. Certainly in the French presidential election they will be involved, and there are already serious concerns in the German secret service.’

I don’t believe a word of it. Note that Bradshaw said that this was “now proven”. That is complete nonsense . Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Intercept, describes the Washington Post’s story as “in many ways .. . classic American journalism of the worst sort” and continues: “The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret.”

Far from being “now proven”, there is, in fact, not a shred of evidence – at least not that Ben Bradshaw will have seen.

But it gets better. Not only is there not a shred of evidence, but the CIA’s apparent claims have now been completely debunked. Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan tells the story on his website:

“I have watched incredulous as the CIA’s blatant lie has grown and grown as a media story – blatant because the CIA has made no attempt whatsoever to substantiate it. There is no Russian involvement in the leaks of emails showing Clinton’s corruption. Yes this rubbish has been the lead today in the Washington Post in the US and the Guardian here, and was the lead item on the BBC main news. I suspect it is leading the American broadcasts also.

A little simple logic demolishes the CIA’s claims. The CIA claim they “know the individuals” involved. Yet under Obama the USA has been absolutely ruthless in its persecution of whistleblowers, and its pursuit of foreign hackers through extradition. We are supposed to believe that in the most vital instance imaginable, an attempt by a foreign power to destabilise a US election, even though the CIA knows who the individuals are, nobody is going to be arrested or extradited, or (if in Russia) made subject to yet more banking and other restrictions against Russian individuals? Plainly it stinks. The anonymous source claims of “We know who it was, it was the Russians” are beneath contempt.

As Julian Assange has made crystal clear, the leaks did not come from the Russians. As I have explained countless times, they are not hacks, they are insider leaks – there is a major difference between the two.”

Got that? Unidentified sources say that the CIA says that Wikileaks got the leaks from the Russians. Identified named individuals (Craig Murray and Julian Assange) associated with Wikileaks, say that they did not get the leaks from the Russians. In fact, Murray says “I know who leaked them. I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

Who are you going to believe? Murray and Assange should know what they are talking about – and they are known to be reliable sources. Murray was sacked as Ambassador to Uzbekistan for revealing that MI6 was using intelligence obtained through torture from Uzbek intelligence services via the CIA – which, in my opinion, indicates that he is a person of integrity. The CIA, on the other hand, is not exactly known for honesty and integrity. And we don’t (yet) even know what the CIA says; we only know what some anonymous individual says that they said.

Selective reporting

But it gets worse. The way the western media have largely ignored Murray’s account is astonishing.

The Guardian did refer to what Murray said, but buried it deep within an article headlined “CIA concludes Russia interfered to help Trump win election, say reports.” (Note the words “say reports” – i.e. the CIA has not issued a statement; this is just “Someone says that the CIA says”.)

And, furthermore, the Guardian has continued to run stories that simply take for granted that Russia did indeed covertly intervene in the American elections – here, here, here, and here.

And guess what? Not one of these other Guardian pieces mentions Craig Murray (or Julian Assange).  

At least the Guardian did report what Murray wrote  – as did the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.  The BBC, however, has been silent on the matter.  Not one single BBC News report on the story on the BBC website has mentioned either Craig Murray or Julian Assange, even though they have covered the story.  Indeed, their original report on the story says “Democrats were enraged when hackers breached email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta,” even though Wikileaks has said that the email accounts came to them through a leak (an insider giving out the information) rather than a hack (an outsider breaking in and taking it).

False witness

Fake News? Well, not exactly. But, in choosing to cover the story that the CIA apparently believes that Russian hacking was the source of Wikileaks emails, while not mentioning what Murray and Assange have said, the BBC is deliberately misleading people. And that is simply dishonest.

But it goes further. A lot of people have been getting angry at the Russians because of this. Ben Bradshaw certainly sounded displeased with them, and Lindsey Graham, a member of the American Senate has been quoted by the BBC as saying “We should tell the Russians that on no uncertain terms, you interfere in our elections, we don’t care why, we’re going to hit you and hit you hard, we’re going to introduce sanctions.”


For myself, I am not convinced that by hacking into the DNC emails, and then passing them to Wikileaks, the Russians would have been doing anything wrong. After all, the emails were perfectly genuine, so all the Russians would have been doing (had they done this) was making information available to American voters about their politicians which would have otherwise been unavailable to them. It sounds to me like that would be performing a useful public service. Messrs. Bradshaw and Graham apparently disagree (which may have something to do with the fact that they are politicians!)

But the point is that the Russian government is being accused of something which is widely regarded as bad, and could lead to people taking action against them.

And that brings us to the heart of the issue. An accusation has been made against the Russians. It is apparently serious. And yet evidence of their innocence is available, and the BBC, and much of the rest of the western media are not reporting it, and and thus causing people to get angry at Putin.

Let’s put it this way. If you had been accused of something, and people were getting angry at you and threatening you, and someone had evidence that you were innocent, but was choosing just to keep quiet about it, how would you feel?

In other words, the BBC is not just being dishonest, it is also, by choosing not to report a significant bit of news, causing someone’s reputation to be damaged. In short, the BBC is in breach of the 9th commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

And that forbids (according to Question 78 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) “whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name” – and that means anything at all that hurts someone’s good name – including undue silence.

So the BBC may not be guilty of what is called Fake News. But it is guilty of bearing false witness.  And that, it seems to me, is much more serious.