Not Roy Moore: Trump, Obama, and something much bigger

So – the new Senator from Alabama is not going to be Roy Moore.

For two days in a row, the BBC seemed to take the view that the big news coming out of America was the Alabama story: the “shock defeat” of Republican Roy Moore by Democrat Doug Jones.  Only a little behind is the ongoing conflict with North Korea.

However, I would like to suggest that there is another couple of interesting stories that came out at the same time – both covered by the BBC – which are highly significant for understanding America, as the BBC hints. But neither concerns events that actually happened in America. And that is also highly significant.

One concerns what looks like a very uninteresting story: “US helicopter part crashes on Japanese school in Okinawa.

Part of a US helicopter has crashed on a school in Okinawa, Japan, renewing tensions with the local population. The window dropped on the school grounds, slightly injuring one boy, news agency Kyodo said. The southern island of Okinawa hosts the largest US military presence in Japan. Over the past years, a number of accidents and crimes have led to growing local oppostion to the US base.”

The other concerns a meeting in Syria. The BBC headline reads “Syria war: Putin’s Russian mission accomplished.

But the BBC report begins in a rather unexpected way:

“When Russia launched its military operation in Syria in 2015, the then US President Barack Obama predicted Moscow would get “stuck in a quagmire”. His defence secretary, Ashton Carter, warned that Russia’s approach was “doomed to fail”. Two years on, Russia appears to have proved the doomsayers wrong. On a surprise trip to Syria this week, President Vladimir Putin told his troops they had fought “brilliantly” and could “return home victorious”. He ordered the withdrawal of a “significant part” of Russia’s military contingent. So, mission accomplished for Moscow? It seems so.”

There are three interesting things about this story

Militant Islam.

The first concerns the reason that “Russia launched its military operation in Syria in 2015,” – and also the reason that it is leaving. It launched it in response to an invitation, nay request, by the Syrian government, whose army was, at the time, struggling in the face of an onslaught by Islamic militants, who had seized Aleppo, the largest city in Syria.  And when they seized territory, their treatment of members of religious minority communities, such as the Christians, was brutal.

At the invitation of the Syrian government, Russia came in, and Aleppo was eventually recaptured. One could even say “liberated”. The Russians stayed on, however, and were involved in the battle with ISIS in the East of Syria. Now that ISIS have finally been defeated in Eastern Syria, most of the Russian troops will head home.

Withdrawal

But while the Russians are withdrawing, someone else is not withdrawing. The American troops are staying. For, yes, America has troops in Syria, too – about 2000 of them. Three weeks ago, Reuters (among others) reported:

The Pentagon is likely to announce in the coming days that there are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, two U.S. officials said on Friday, as the military acknowledges that an accounting system for troops has under-reported the size of forces on the ground. The U.S. military had earlier publicly said it had around 500 troops in Syria, mostly supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces group of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting Islamic State in the north of the country.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon could, as early as Monday, publicly announce that there are slightly more than 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. They said there was always a possibility that last minute changes in schedules could delay an announcement.

The report goes on:

The Pentagon said last December that it would increase the number of authorized troops in Syria to 500, but it is not clear how long the actual number has been at around 2,000. Obama periodically raised FML limits to allow more troops in Iraq and Syria as the fight against Islamic State advanced.”

In other words, both Russian troops and American troops were in Syria fighting against ISIS, who have now been largely (though not entirely) defeated in Syria. Most of the Russians are leaving, though not all, because Russia has for many years had military bases there.

What is interesting is that it looks like American troops are not leaving. Last week, just before Putin’s announcement, the Wall Street Journal reported

“The Pentagon plans to keep some U.S. forces in Syria indefinitely, even after a war against the Islamic State extremist group formally ends, to take part in what it describes as ongoing counter-terrorism operations, officials said.

There are approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, along with an unspecified number of contractors supporting them. Last month, the U.S. military withdrew 400 Marines from Syria, which U.S. forces first entered in the fall of 2016.

Officials earlier this week disclosed the plans for an open-ended commitment, known as a “conditions-based” presence. That is the same approach the Trump administration is taking in Afghanistan.

The United States will sustain a conditions-based military presence in Syria to combat the threat of terrorist-led uncertainty, prevent the resurgence of ISIS, and to stabilize liberated areas,” Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.”

But the WSJ also reports something very strange:

“The military says it has the legal authority to remain there. “Operating under recognized international authorities, the U.S. military will continue to support local partner forces in Syria to stabilize liberated territory.”

Really? What “recognized international authorities”? That sounds like, at best, a half truth. And exactly why are the US supporting these “local partner forces” – basically the Kurdish militia – instead of just withdrawing and leaving it to the Syrian government?

If the Russians can pull out, why can’t the Americans? Especially because (though the WSJ doesn’t mention it), while the Russians troops were invited into Syria to fight Islamic militants, the Americans were not. They simply invited themselves.

Now, just imagine for a moment that in 20 years time, Chinese power has grown significantly from what it is today, and there is trouble in Mexico, and the Chinese simply invite themselves to intervene . . .

Quagmire

It gets even more bizarre, however. The BBC reported “So-called Islamic State has, indeed, suffered defeat in Syria, although Western governments have criticised Moscow for also targeting the moderate Syrian opposition.”

What is weird about that is that the so-called moderate opposition that Moscow targeted, and that western governments were actually helping, were al-Qaeda and similar groups – who ruthlessly persecuted Christians and members of other religious minorities in areas they controlled. The so called moderate groups that the west directly supported were allied to al-Qaeda, and fought alongside them.

And that is not all that is odd. When the Syrian armed forces were involved in a battle with ISIS at Deir ez-Zor in September 2016, the Americans helped ISIS by bombing Syrian government positions. They later claimed it was an accident, but that story seems extremely unlikely. This was not something that happened in the heat of battle, and the Americans have the technology to know exactly what is happening on the ground.

And, as reported by the BBC in a piece entitled “Raqqa’s Dirty Secret“, a “secret deal” recently took place,

” . . . that let hundreds of IS fighters and their families escape from Raqqa, under the gaze of the US and British-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces who control the city. A convoy included some of IS’s most notorious members and – despite reassurances – dozens of foreign fighters. Some of those have spread out across Syria, even making it as far as Turkey.”

“The war against IS has a twin purpose: first to destroy the so-called caliphate by retaking territory and second, to prevent terror attacks in the world beyond Syria and Iraq. Raqqa was effectively IS’s capital but it was also a cage – fighters were trapped there. The deal to save Raqqa have been worth it. But it has also meant battle-hardened militants have spread across Syria and further afield – and many of them aren’t done fighting yet.”

America has a track record over the past 5 years of doing things in Syria that help ISIS and other Islamic extremists in their battles. They have announced that that they intend to maintain a military presence in that country, despite the fact that they have not been invited by  the Syrian government.

Apparently, they have no intention of leaving. Just like they apparently have no intention of leaving Afghanistan and little intention of leaving Iraq – because whatever America’s missions in those countries, they have little chance of being accomplished in the near future. And Obama warned the Russians about getting bogged down in a quagmire?

I am reminded of words from the Bible – like “Physician, heal thyself.” Or, as I have said before, with respect to this very situation:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Why do American politicians not see it like this? The simple answer is that Americans simply do not see themselves as subject to the same rules as other countries. They are above the law. An American president (Richard Nixon) once said “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Exactly the same kind of thinking applies here (as can be seen in this article by Andrew Bacevich).  Apparently, “When America does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

In an interview earlier this year, Noam Chomsky, when asked about his take on the view that Russia had interfered in the American election, responded by pointing to America’s record of

” . . . constantly overthrowing governments, invading, forcing people to follow what we call democracy. . . . As I say, if every charge [against Russia] is accurate, it’s a joke, and I’m sure half the world is collapsing in laughter about this, because people outside the United States know it.”

A lot of Americans clearly believe that America is an exceptional nation, and that it has the right to do things other nations don’t. And America is also able to do those things, because of its military power.  That is why America has troops deployed in over 170 countries around the world.

Which brings us back to Okinawa, the subject of the other BBC news item I mentioned: the part from an American military helicopter that fell off and landed in the grounds of a school. To many Americans, it seems natural, right, and proper that America has a military base in Okinawa. They don’t even question it.

Why? Because they believe that America has a duty to be everywhere, and oversee everything that happens all around the world. But if that is the way it seems to Americans, to most people in other countries, it does not. Indeed, it looks like arrogance.

Which, in a nation, is a dangerous characteristic.

As the Bible says (Proverb 16:18) “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. “

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Trump and Jerusalem: good or bad?

That was the question I was asked after church on Sunday evening. What did I think of Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv? Was it a good or a bad thing?

To which I replied that it was complicated. And I said I would write a blog post on it. I wasn’t actually planning to write this post, but here is it – by popular demand.

On one level, this is utterly unimportant. For a start, does it really matter where America puts its embassy? If it moved it embassy in the UK to Milton Keynes, would it be a problem? It might be a little less convenient, but in the end of the day, it wouldn’t cause a storm. Even if America moved its embassy to Edinburgh, other than raising a few eyebrows, nobody would be seriously worried.

It’s  much the same story about capital cities. What does it matter which city is the capital? What is a capital, anyway? If a country moves its capital to another city, the new capital will undoubtedly get a wave of new buildings, and government employees moving there – but government buildings don’t have to be in the capital. In fact, South Africa actually has three capitals. “The branches of government are split between Cape Town (legislative), Pretoria (administrative) and Bloemfontein (judiciary), though the Constitutional Court is in Johannesburg.” 

The answer, of course, it is all symbolic. It is about what it means to people. It may be ultimately meaningless, but it clearly means a lot to a significant number of people. If enough people get excited about something that is absolutely meaningless, everybody is going to sit up and pay attention. Hence people are talking about this.

Why it matters, apparently

The BBC believes that there are five issues involved:

“Mr Trump’s announcement puts the US at odds with the rest of the international community’s view on Jerusalem’s status.

Because of its importance to both Israel and the Palestinians, its final status, according to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, is meant to be discussed in the latter stages of peace talks.

Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has never been recognised internationally, and all countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem contains sites sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, was annexed by Israel after the Six Day War of 1967, but before now it has not been internationally recognised as part of Israel.”

So there you have it. In a nutshell, there are four things going on.

1) Trump is out of line with other world leaders, which is not particularly surprising. If America moves its embassy, America will be out of line with every other country.

In and of itself, these things don’t matter – but again, if other people think they do matter, then they start to matter – possibly a lot. This is about taking into account the feelings of other people – and whose feelings we are supposed to be most concerned about.

2) According to a treaty Israel signed, Jerusalem’s “final status” is meant to be discussed at some stage – and presumably this decision taken by Trump somehow undermines this.

There are questions about whether in some way the Israeli government is doing something that it promised to do. This is about keeping one’s word.

3) There are question marks over whether Jerusalem is actually part of Israel. Israel occupies it, because the Israelis captured it in a war, but many people don’t think that actually gives Israel a right to it. Which is an interesting question.

4) The fact that “Jerusalem contains sites sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity” is interesting. What does that have to do with anything? And what does the word “sacred” mean, anyway?

I can see the importance of Jerusalem for Jews, and I am quite prepared to accept that it has some importance for Muslims. As far a Christians go – I would say that it contains sites of historical significance for Christians – as well as church buildings that are important to some Christians – but nobody actually knows the exact location of say, the crucifixion of Christ, or the tomb he was buried in. I am not sure how sacred the site of the temple is to Christians, but I doubt that many Christians I know think of it as a site sacred to Christianity.

And the New Testament writings tell Christians to be more concerned with what they refer to as the “new Jerusalem” (Revelation 3:12, 21:2, 21:10) or the “heavenly Jerusalem” – which does not have a temple, because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  Indeed, in Galatians, we are told “Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. ”  And that really seems to be saying: “The present Jerusalem isn’t the important thing – it is the Jerusalem that is above that we are supposed to be focused on.”

And so there is no obligation for Christians to treat Jerusalem any differently from the way they treat Milton Keynes, and no Biblical reason for going on pilgrimages there – and ultimately, no good reason for the medieval crusades.

What it all boils down to then, is politics and power. This is basically about politics. It is about American domestic politics; but it is also about international politics and the way that different nations and peoples treat each other.

US politics

Domestically, Trump’s announcement has not hurt Trump. Indeed, Trump is completely in line with American political opinion. In 1995, the US House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill called the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which formally recognized the city as the country’s capital and called for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved there from Tel Aviv by 1999. Support for the bill was overwhelming. It passed the Senate by a 93 to 5 vote, with four Republicans and one Democrat voting no. It passed the House 374 to 37.   And in 2008, then Democratic candidate Barack Obama called Jerusalem the ‘capital of Israel’.

And so it is hardly surprising that (as Haaretz reports) that that when Trump made his announcement, 

 . . . members of the Republican Party overwhelmingly expressed support for the move, [while] Democrats were split between those who congratulated Trump for it and those who called it a dangerous and irresponsible action. On the Republican side, even usual critics of Trump, such as Senators Bob Corker and John McCain, praised him for the speech, describing it as historically justified and important. …

On the Democratic side, some legislators, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Reps. Ted Deutch of Florida and Brad Schneider of Illinois, expressed support for the President’s decision. . . .
Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii called Trump’s decision irresponsible, stating that
״moving our U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will imperil Americans, isolate our country, and make peace less likely. It’s reckless.” A similar sentiment was expressed by other Democratic Senators, including former candidate for Vice President, Tim Kaine of Virginia. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon stated that “Trump blows up chances for Middle East peace with announcement on Jerusalem, inflaming not just Arab neighbors but virtually the entire world.

International politics

While Trump’s announcement seems to have broad (if not unanimous) support from American politicians, things are different on the world stage. The Czech president has spoken in support of the decision, but that’s about it. In particular, America’s main allies in both Europe and (with the exception of Israel) the Middle East, have strongly opposed Trump.

And that, it seems to me, is where the long term significance of this lies.

I think Mark Perry’s assessment is correct:

“Domestically, it would seem Trump has little to worry about. . . .

Rather, it’s probable that the governments of Europe will remember the real import of this decision—that when asked to stand with our European allies and Arab friends, we chose Israel instead.

Pay attention: This is what it feels like to live in a nation whose moment has passed.”

The main impact of Trump’s announcement is likely to be a diminishing of American influence in the world – and, as a result, the continuing decline of American power in the world.

So – good or bad?

Which is why I, oddly enough, welcome Trump’s announcement. It may be a foolish decision, but I think that it is good for the world – and good for America, too.

There are two reasons for this, both of which I have covered fairly thoroughly before. Read the links if you are interested; I don’t intend to go over this again in great detail.

The first is that I believe that America is too powerful. When I wrote my response to Trump’s election, just over a year ago, I said

America is an enormously powerful nation. A quick google indicates that while American has less than 5% of the world’s population, its military spending accounts for 34% of the world’s total. America currently has troops on active duty stationed in 150 countries around the world. . . . .

This is something that most Americans think is a good thing. The fact that America is the most powerful nation on the face of the earth is a source of much pride to many Americans – and also gives them a sense of security. But whether it should be a source of pride to them, and whether it gives them real security is extremely questionable.

. . . In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place.

I believe America is too powerful.

Secondly, I do not believe American power is a source of good in the world. Other countries, having that amount of power and influence might be worse, but I believe the better situation would be for no country to dominate the international scene in the way that America currently does. America’s track record over the past 20 years is not encouraging. American politicians speak about pursuing peace. But what they do is to take military action – resulting in death, destruction, and destablisation.

I have written about this in some detail several times – covering America’s impact Afghanistan,  Iraq, and Yemen, as well as a pieces here and here which look more broadly at American activity in the Middle East.

And so anything that lessens American power and influence in the world, it seems to me, is a good thing.

Which is why, when asked after church, whether I thought Trump’s decision was good or bad, I could have said “Good” – but preferred not to give a one word answer.

Indeed, one wonders whether, in a way, America having Donald Trump as president might be turning out to be a blessing in disguise. Is it an example of God at work – in a strange sort of way?

I am reminded of the words of that great poet (and native of Berkhamsted), William Cowper:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Russia-gate & the Bible: A Christian perspective on the Trump-Russia saga

For the pasts 12 months, one of the long running (and, in my opinion, important) stories in the news has been the Trump-Russia saga. The story, as summed up by the BBC is that

US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the election in favour of Mr Trump and a special counsel is looking into whether anyone from his campaign colluded in the effort.

In other words, the story is about two questions:

1. Did the Russian government really try to sway the election in favour of Trump?

2. Did anyone from the Trump campaign collude in the effort?

I suppose it is technically possible that even if the answer to the first question is “no”, someone from the Trump campaign might have attempted to encourage the Russians to do so, though this possibility has not really been much discussed.

Which brings us to the fact that there is something odd about the phrasing of the BBC’s summary statement: the special counsel’s job, according to this summary, assumes that Russia did try to sway the election – which is an interesting assumption to start with.

What should Christians make of this? Since it is one of the big stories of the past year, is there a Christian perspective on it?

1. Evidence

The first thing to be said is that this is about whether certain things are true or false. This is also something that the Bible speaks about – quite often.

There are several verses in the Bible that are about looking at evidence – about believing, and the reasons why people might believe something. And they say that we should look at the evidence.

For example

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. ” (Acts 17:31)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)

(I wrote more about this a few weeks ago, and if you are interested, you can read what I said.)

The real questions, therefore, are:

  • How credible and convincing is the evidence that Russia attempted to influence the election? 
  • And how credible and convincing is the evidence that members of the Trump team colluded in such efforts?

2. Witnesses

The Bible has a lot to say about the importance of witnesses in seeking to establish the truth in court cases, most famously in Deuteronomy 19:15

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

We can tell that this principle was important to early Christians, because it is quoted three times in the New Testament – which is as often as it is mentioned in the Old Testament.

What that means is that one does not just need one piece of evidence, since that evidence might be misleading. One needs corroborative evidence. For, while we usually think about people when we speak about witnesses, other things can also bear witness. Hence Jesus speaks about the Scriptures bearing witness to him (John 5:39), and about his works bearing witness to him (John 10:25).

Witnesses vary in quality – Psalm 27 speaks of ‘false witnesses’ and Psalm 35 speaks of ‘malicious witnesses.’ People do lie. And since these psalms don’t just speak of “a false witness” or “a malicious witness” – but use the plural, one does not just need corroborative evidence, but fairly solid corroborative evidence. Indeed, we are told (Matthew 26:60) that at the trial of Jesus “many false witnesses came forward.”

The BBC summary that we began with says “US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the election in favour of Mr Trump.” The fact is that the US intelligence agencies have a good track record for being right. As pointed out by Ray McGovern, the three intelligence chiefs particularly associated with this story all have very questionable records, and might not be the most reliable witnesses.

3. Fair Trials

Trials exist, in theory, to look at the evidence. In practice, a lot of trials that have taken place over the course of history have simply taken place in order to convict someone that powerful forces wanted to get rid of.

You don’t have to look hard in the Bible to find evidence of that. It’s worth re-reading Mark’s account (14:55-64) of the trial of Jesus:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none.    For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.   And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'”    Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.

And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”   But he remained silent and made no answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”   And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

The trial of Stephen, and some of the trials of Paul, were not much better.

So – what about the Russia-gate?

Well, Robert Parry of Consortium News is concerned by what he has seen, as he details in his article on the Flynn case:

“besides the collateral damage inflicted on mid-level government officials such as retired Lt. Gen. Flynn facing personal destruction at the hands of federal prosecutors with unlimited budgets, there is this deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states. “

“Using criminal law to settle political differences” sounds remarkably like some of the criminal trials that the New Testament tells us about.

If Parry is right, Christians should be seriously concerned about this.

4. What is the point of law?

When Robert Parry speaks of “Using criminal law to settle political differences,” it raises the question, “What is law for anyway?” That is not quite the same as asking “What are laws for”? Rather, it is asking “Why do we have courts and trials and verdicts and sentences?”

Let’s look at two short passages from the Bible:

Isaiah 10:1-2 “Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their right, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans. “

Luke 18:1-5 “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterwards he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'”

While neither of these is about what the purpose of courts and trials should be, both of them tell us. The key phrase in the Isaiah passage is “to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their right”; in the Luke passage it is “Give me justice.”

The key word is justice, and the underlying question is “What are people entitled to? What is it right that they should have? What is their due?”

In this case, that means the question is “What should happen to Michael Flynn?”  Or even “What should happen to Donald Trump?”

5. Playing God – without the omniscience

If one were to ask a hundred people at random those questions – especially “What should happen to Donald Trump?”, one would no doubt get a wide variety of answers. Some of those responses might be fairly objective, but a lot of them would be pretty passionate. And that is because Donald Trump stirs up a wide range of emotions and feelings. He is a controversial man.

People have a wide variety of ideas about what justice for Donald Trump would look like. And people’s preconceived ideas – one might call them prejudices – might well have an influence on what they think should happen to him.

Preconceived notions and prejudices have existed since time immemorial. And we can read about that in the Bible. Indeed, the description of the trial of Jesus in the Bible gives the distinct impression that his judges had decided what ought to happen to him before the trial began, and that made all the difference to the proceedings.

But even before that, it was a known problem. Hence, in God’s instructions to the Israelites about justice in trials (Exodus 23), he mentions the problem of prejudice:

“Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.“Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent.”

It is interesting that God’s people were warned not only about denying justice to poor people, but also about showing favouritism to poor people.

Preconceived ideas about what people deserve often pervert the course of justice.

The problem is that we have ideas about what people deserve, and see it as our duty to ensure that they get it.  Occasionally, having decided what they deserve, we are prepared to use any means possible to make sure that they get it. 

The problem is that God alone knows all the facts of cases, and he alone knows the heart.

There is a danger in the Russia-Trump affair that fallible people would be tempted to play God.

6. Gnats and camels

And finally, we come to the question: Does it matter? Does it matter whether or not Vladimir Putin sought to influence the American election?

It is a common human failing to get really passionate, anxious, or angry about things that don’t really matter – and being totally unconcerned about things that were important.

And it was a failing that Jesus spoke about: Matthew 23:23-24. He called it “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel”

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

What Russia is accused of doing is trying to influence the American election by making certain facts known to American voters – facts that they are alleged to have obtained by the highly dubious means of hacking email accounts.

(Ironically, in the latest installment of the saga, in which Michael Flynn was found to have lied to the FBI about telephone conversations, the FBI got the information about what he said in those conversations . . . by the highly dubious means of tapping his telephone.)

So it all comes down to the fact that the Russian government is supposed to have tried to make certain facts known to American voters to help them make up their minds about how to vote.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t see what the problem is. If it is a problem, it is a pretty minor one. 

There is also, I suppose, the issue of Matthew 7:3 question “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” – and the matter of America’s history of being interfering in elections in other countries.

7. A final word: knowing the times

What should Christians make of this? I’ve offered my thoughts. I think they are solidly grounded in the teaching of the Bible. I think they are pretty fair.

But there is one final thing I would say about this. I have said it before, but I will say it again. It comes back to the words of Robert Parry, quoted above:

“. . . there is this deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states.”

Is he right? Is there a “deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences?”

If so, it shows that in America, there is an increasing tendency in the minds of many people with power, to see the law as a tool to enable them to get those that they don’t like.

If that is true, it shows that there is something wrong with our political culture; something that is getting worse. And that would almost certainly mean that not only is there something rotten in our western culture, but that the culture is becoming more rotten.

In I Chronicles, there is a list of the numbers of armed men of the different tribes of Israel who came to Hebron to join David, to make him King. The men of the tribe of Issachar are described as “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.

In order to know what God’s people ought to do at any given time, it is important to understand the times.

If one of the things that is happening in our times is a change in the culture, Christians need to be aware of it.

Russia-gate: it’s worse than you think

Yesterday, an article appeared in Consortium News about the latest twist in the saga about Russia and America’s election. It made for interesting reading.

The BBC covered the story in a piece entitled “Trump-Russia: Michael Flynn admits lying to FBI.”   It reports that “Ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about meetings with Russia’s ambassador weeks before Donald Trump became president,” and explains that “The charges were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.”

That explanation is helpful. Indeed, much explanation in news stories is helpful, because without explanation, the news often does not make sense. We need to see information in its context to see it relevance and importance.

The BBC then proceeds to tell us what happened in court (“Appearing in a federal court in Washington DC, he admitted to one count of knowingly making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements””) adding that “The retired Army lieutenant-general is unlikely to serve more than six months in prison.”   

If you think about it, that is quite a serious punishment for making false statements. After all, public figures make “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” quite often.  How bad were these statements that Flynn made?

The BBC article then explains exactly what the charges were, before going on to two final sections which further explain what is going on.

The first is entitled “How damaging is this for President Trump?” (Apparently, it could be very damaging.)

The second is entitled “What have we learned about Russia?”

It tells us that after the election, people involved with the incoming Trump administration  instructed Flynn to contact various foreign governments about foreign policy matters and make certain requests of them – which Flynn did.  In particular, Flynn made requests to Russia about two things.  One was about a UN security council vote on Israeli settlements; the other was a request that Russia not escalate the situation after the outgoing American administration announced sanctions on Russia for allegedly interfering in the American election.

Russia didn’t do what the incoming American administration asked with regard to the UN vote, but they did (as requested) not retaliate in response to the American sanctions.   So – what did we learn about Russia?  To be honest, nothing very interesting. In fact, it seems to me that there is, on the face of it, nothing odd or surprising about anything in that final section – either about Russia’s actions, Flynn’s actions, or the actions of the incoming administration.

That is the story, as reported by the BBC – with some explanation so that readers can understand a little better what is going on. But, if you think about it, it still seems to be something that isn’t very interesting or important – except for its wider significance, which is apparently a) what we have learned about Russia (nothing interesting), and b) how damaging it is to Trump (possibly very).

What the BBC didn’t tell us

Robert Parry’s article in Consortium News does not disagree with any of the facts or explanations in the BBC article. Rather, it provides us with a few other facts, and a lot more explanation. It points out a few things that the BBC didn’t point out. And what is says is interesting – very interesting.

To start with, we have this:

“What is arguably most disturbing about this case is that then-National Security Adviser Flynn was pushed into a perjury trap by Obama administration holdovers at the Justice Department who concocted an unorthodox legal rationale for subjecting Flynn to an FBI interrogation four days after he took office, testing Flynn’s recollection of the conversations while the FBI agents had transcripts of the calls intercepted by the National Security Agency.

In other words, the Justice Department wasn’t seeking information about what Flynn said to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – the intelligence agencies already had that information. Instead, Flynn was being quizzed on his precise recollection of the conversations and nailed for lying when his recollections deviated from the transcripts.”

Note the words “unorthodox legal rationale”. In other words, there was something unusual about the way the law operated in this case.  The BBC explains that “it is illegal for a private US citizen, as Mr Flynn was during the transition, to conduct foreign affairs without the permission or involvement of the US government.” It also, very helpfully, has a link to a helpful piece on the law concerned (the Logan Act) that it published in February. 

But Parry’s explanation is even more helpful.

“just four days into the Trump presidency, an Obama holdover, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates, primed the Flynn perjury trap by coming up with a novel legal theory that Flynn – although the national security adviser-designate at the time of his late December phone calls with Kislyak – was violating the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering with U.S. foreign policy.

But that law – passed during President John Adams’s administration in the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts – was never intended to apply to incoming officials in the transition period between elected presidential administrations and – in the past 218 years – the law has resulted in no successful prosecution at all and thus its dubious constitutionality has never been adjudicated.”

In other words, by the standards of any reasonable person, Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong, and this law was never intended to be used in circumstances like this – but the Attorney General suggested that he had broken it.

What was really going on?

The conclusion that Parry draws (and I suspect that he is right) is that

“Basically, the Obama holdovers concocted a preposterous legal theory to do whatever they could to sabotage the Trump administration, which they held in fulsome disdain.”

And they were able to do so because

“At the time of Flynn’s interrogation, the Justice Department was under the control of Yates and the FBI was still under President Obama’s FBI Director James Comey, another official hostile to the Trump administration who later was fired by Trump.”

So Flynn was interrogated by the FBI. As Parry has already told us, Flynn’s telephone had been tapped, so the FBI knew exactly what he had said. They asked him, and in two cases, what he claimed to have said did not match up to what he had actually said.

“The first item in the complaint alleges that Flynn did not disclose that he had asked the Russian ambassador to help delay or defeat a United Nations Security Council vote censuring Israel for building settlements on Palestinian territory.

The second item. . . referenced a Dec. 29 Flynn-Kislyak conversation. . . . That phone call touched on Russia’s response to President Obama’s decision to issue new sanctions against the Kremlin for the alleged election interference.

The complaint alleges that Flynn didn’t mention to the FBI that he had urged Kislyak “to refrain from escalating the situation” and that Kislyak had subsequently told him that “Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request.”

The Dec. 29 phone call occurred while Flynn was vacationing in the Dominican Republic and thus he would have been without the usual support staff for memorializing or transcribing official conversations. So, the FBI agents, with the NSA’s transcripts, would have had a clearer account of what was said than Flynn likely had from memory. The content of Flynn’s request to Kislyak also appears rather uncontroversial, asking the Russians not to overreact to a punitive policy from the outgoing Obama administration.

In other words, both of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations appear rather unsurprising, if not inconsequential. One was taken at the behest of Israel (which proved ineffective) and the other urged the Kremlin to show restraint in its response to a last-minute slap from President Obama (which simply delayed Russian retaliation by a few months).”

That is putting it mildly. Flynn making these requests of the Russian government seems pretty uncontroversial, the requests were pretty much what one would have expected the new administration to say, and the details that Flynn left out were pretty minor. It really looks like much ado about nothing. It makes doing 55 mph in a zone with a 50 mph limit look like a serious crime.

And, as Parry points out,

the inclusion of [the] Israeli element shows how far afield the criminal Russia-gate investigation . . . has gone. Though the original point of the inquiry was whether the Trump team colluded with Russians to use “hacked” emails to defeat Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the criminal charge against Flynn has nothing to do with election “collusion” but rather President-elect Trump’s aides weighing in on foreign policy controversies during the transition. And, one of these initiatives was undertaken at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, not Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hence Gareth Porter’s tweet

“So it turns out Flynn, Kushner and the Trump team were colluding with a foreign government after all in their contacts with Kislyak – and it was . . . Israel! “

So, to sum up:

  • Someone ordered Flynn’s phone to be tapped and his conversations recorded, despite the fact that there was no reason to believe he was involved in terrorism or serious criminal activity.
  • Flynn was questioned in detail about his phone calls by the FBI despite the fact that they were simply the sort of normal diplomatic contact that you would expect an incoming administration to have with other countries.
  • He was was accused of criminal dishonesty despite the fact that the things he falsely told the FBI were not particularly surprising or controversial.
  • The grounds for this were a totally obscure 200 year old law that had no real relevance to what was happening.

Who comes out of this looking sordid, malicious, a danger to democracy, and having no respect for the law?

Flynn? He looks naive, and somewhat inept, albeit rather shifty.

Trump?  Well, this doesn’t really seem to tell us much about Trump.

Those evil Russians – who of course are the reason this whole investigation was launched? Well, there is as much in this to implicate the Pope of interfering in America’s election as there is Putin.

It seems to me that Flynn, Trump, and Putin come out looking pretty innocent compared to the people involved in going after Flynn.

What is going on?

The whole thing is bizarre. Remember, the BBC piece opened by explaining that “The charges were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.”

This, however, has nothing to do with Russian meddling in the US election.

Indeed, there is still no strong evidence that Russia did meddle in the US election.

And, as I have pointed out before, what the Russian government is alleged to have done (basically to give American voters some information about some of their politicians that they would not otherwise have had) does not seem to me to be particularly shocking – or even legally or morally wrong. Compare that with the fact that nobody in American political life seems remotely concerned that the Saudi government effectively kidnapped the prime minister of a country with democratic elections (which Saudi Arabia does not have) and then forced him to go before TV cameras and read a resignation statement.

(By the way, despite the lack of evidence of any Russian government meddling in the US election, America not only introduced sanctions against Russia in response to this alleged meddling, but the American Justice Department has now banned reporters who work for Russia Today from the US Capitol. This is despite the fact that most RT reporters in America are American citizens, many are experienced and respected journalists, and they have made it quite clear that RT management has never tried to interfere with their journalistic freedom. Basically, it is like the British government banning former MP Alex Salmond from reporting from Westminster because he now works for RT. )

So why has Flynn been charged? Robert Parry reckons it is simply using the force of the law for political point-scoring:

“While Flynn’s humiliation has brought some palpable joy to the anti-Trump “Resistance” – one more Trump aides being taken down amid renewed hope that this investigation will somehow lead to Trump’s resignation or impeachment – many of the same people would be howling about trampled civil liberties if a Republican bureaucracy were playing this game on a Democratic president and his staff. . . .

What I have heard from many Hillary Clinton supporters in recent months is that they don’t care about the unfairness of the Russia-gate process or the dangerous precedents that such politicized prosecutions might set. They simply view Trump as such a danger that he must be destroyed at whatever the cost.

Yet, besides the collateral damage inflicted on mid-level government officials such as retired Lt. Gen. Flynn facing personal destruction at the hands of federal prosecutors with unlimited budgets, there is this deepening pattern of using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states.”

Notice the way that ends: ” . . .using criminal law to settle political differences, a process more common in authoritarian states.”

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that the Russia hysteria in America was not a good sign. It showed that a lot of Americans (and this is, of course, true of people in other countries as well) were willing to believe things if they hear them repeated often enough – even if there is no serious evidence that they are true.

But the Flynn saga indicates that it is worse than that.

It shows that in America, law exists, in the minds of many people with power, to enable them to destroy those that they don’t like.

We always knew that this was the case in countries like North Korea, or Communist China, or the old Soviet Union. It now appears that it is also the case in America. And the scary thing is that this view of how the law should be used does not appear to be restricted to a fringe minority. It appears that in one of our enlightened, modern, democratic western nations, it is actually a pretty mainstream belief among members of the political elite.

If it is true in America, it seems to me quite likely that it is true throughout the enlightened, modern, democratic, west.

If so, there is something rotten in our culture.

In other words, this is not just about Flynn, Russia, and American politics.  It goes much deeper than that.

Trump, Twitter, Theresa, and Tribalism

This morning’s big BBC headline was “Trump hits out at May over Tweet Criticism.”

Yesterday we had “Donald Trump wrong to share far-right videos – PM

And before that, a couple of days ago, it was “Democratic leaders cancel meeting with Trump after Twitter attack.”  Then there was “Trump calls for boycott of television network CNN: tweet“.  And there was also an attack on NBC for putting out ‘Fake News’.   

And that’s just in the past week.

Personally, I am surprised that anyone still expresses outrage at Trump’s tweets. It seems that the more obvious reactions are to groan, or shake one’s head sadly, or even to just laugh.

That tweet

But back to the tweet that traumatised Theresa. What was the problem?

A Downing Street spokesman said:

“It is wrong for the President to have done this. Britain First seeks to divide communities through their use of hateful narratives which peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people. British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far-right which is the antithesis of the values that this country represents: decency tolerance and respect.”

Similarly, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted: “Britain First is a divisive, hateful group whose views are not in line with our values”, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said it was “deeply disturbing” that Mr Trump had “chosen to amplify the voice of far-right extremists”.

What is interesting is that most people are objecting not to the point that Trump is seeking to make, per se (though they may well find it objectionable) – but to the group that originally made it. They feel that he is giving it credibility.

How should we respond?

I for my part, am inclined to welcome these tweets from Trump – even if without much enthusiasm.

Let me explain. Britain First are a tiny, marginal group. To say that they represent no threat to anyone would not be true, but they strike me as being in the same category as a gang of car thieves. Yes, they do represent a threat to some people, but their threat to the country as a whole is pretty negligible. There is no sign whatsoever that Britain First and its message, are having, or will have, any influence in the corridors of power in Britain – either in politics or the media. Like the bogeyman threat of Islamic terrorism, they are a paper tiger, to use an old Chinese proverb. 

Islamic terrorism and groups like Britain First may terrify millions, and they may be what politicians want us to worry about, but they are the least of Britain’s problems.

Hence I am not remotely concerned that Trump may amplify the voice of Britain First. I don’t think that he is adding much to their credibility. Rather, what he is doing, is further detracting from his own credibility. And that, I think, is an excellent thing. The more Donald Trump does things that show that he is not to be taken seriously, the better it is for our world.

And that is because it would be a great thing if people took the utterances and statements that come out of the White House a lot less seriously. I say that because a lot of what is coming out of the White House is seriously dangerous.

Things that actually matter

Let’s start with Iran. Donald Trump is doing his best to ratchet up tension with Iran, and using the issue of Iranian compliance with that Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the deal which allows Iran to have a nuclear power program, but not do do anything toward developing nuclear weapons) to do so. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly said that Iran is in full compliance. Donald Trump keeps on making wild accusations against Iran, and saying that America should pull out of the agreement

To quote Daniel Larison,

Iran has been in compliance with the requirements of the nuclear deal in nine consecutive reports issued by the IAEA. Reports of Iranian compliance have become so predictable by now that they scarcely seem newsworthy, but it is worth remembering how certain opponents of the deal were that this would not happen. Opponents of the agreement were sure that Iran would cheat and fail to meet its obligations, and they insisted again and again that there was no point in making a deal with a regime that wouldn’t honor its commitments. For the ninth time in a row, the deal’s opponents have been proved completely wrong on this point.

Iran has been consistently adhering to the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA, so now we hear from critics of the deal that their compliance isn’t enough. Iran hawks no longer claim to care about cheating by Tehran, and instead express their horror that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement. These complaints serve as a reminder that no deal will ever satisfy these critics, because they are opposed to any agreement that reduces tensions with Iran and removes a pretext for war. 

That is much more dangerous than re-tweeting the tweets of a marginal British political group.

Then there is Lebanon. I’ve already written about the extraordinary resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. It seems pretty clear that what happened was that the Saudi government basically summoned him to Saudi Arabia, put him in a TV studio, and ordered him to read a resignation statement. This was was effectively the kidnapping by the Saudi government of the prime minister of another sovereign state. If any other country had done this, there would have been international uproar, but the the Western political establishment treated this, at least in public, as if it was no big deal. But what is much worse is that it appears that the Saudi plan was known in advance and approved by the White House.

Again, that is much more dangerous than retweeting the tweets of a marginal British political group.

And then there is Yemen. A few weeks ago, after the bombing of a market and a hotel in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, Daniel Larison wrote:

This is just the latest in a long string of indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas by the coalition. Saada province has suffered some of the worst bombing over the last two and a half years, especially after the coalition illegally designated the entire area a military target. Other civilian targets that have been hit over the years have included schools filled with children, health clinics, and civilian homes, among others. When the U.S. fuels and arms the Saudis and their allies, this is what our government is enabling in Yemen. These are all violations of international law, and by helping to make them possible the U.S. knowingly makes itself complicit in the commission of war crimes. That must end if there is to be any hope of halting the war in the near future.

I think that being complicit in the commission of war crimes by a government that is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians is a lot more serious than retweeting the tweets of a marginal British political group.

The real problem

Donald Trump is pursuing policies in the Middle East which have been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths – and which may cause the deaths of a lot more. These things are seriously worrying. If Trump were president of a small central African state, it wouldn’t be a major problem. But he isn’t. He is president of the wealthiest, most influential, and most powerful country in the world – so powerful that it’s military budget dwarfs that of every other country in the world.

Military_Expenditure

The more that he discredits himself with his tweets, the better. One would like to hope that between the Saad Hariri fiasco, and the utter nonsense that Trump has been spouting about Iran, that no other world leaders would take him seriously. Sadly, some still seem to. Maybe, just maybe, these tweets will help discredit him further. If so, they might prove to make a contribution to peace and stability in the world.

Alas, while I think that will happen to some extent, I don’t think this is going to happen nearly as much as it should.

Of pigs and men

And one of the main reasons for that is that in America, and even outside America, a remarkable number of political leaders seem to be broadly supportive of the policies that Trump is pursuing in the Middle East. A lot of people think that simply changing the president would solve the problem. It wouldn’t. A lot of Trump’s views are widely shared by the political establishment in America – not just by those members of his own party who don’t like him, but also by Democrats. Look it up yourself – there has been bipartisan support for Saudi Arabia’s policy in Yemen over the past two years, with very little criticism; there has been remarkably little criticism of Saudi involvement in the resignation of Hariri, and surprisingly little criticism of Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric. In many ways, where Trump is at his worst, he is simply taking the establishment line.

The Democrats and the Republicans may have a lot of differences, but a lot of them are pretty minor. And so often, their political behaviour is simply tribalistic. I recently listened to an interview with a long serving Congressman who spoke about how he was convinced that whether his fellow members of Congress would vote for or against a measure depended on whether the president who proposed it was a member of their own party or not. If Clinton proposed it, they would vote one way, if Bush proposed it, they would vote the other. If Trump proposed it, their response would be the opposite of the response they would give if Obama proposed it. And this isn’t just the case for members of congress; it’s also true of a lot of ordinary Americans.

There is a meme that came out last year which summed up this political tribalism well (and my view of the election!)

meme how I see trump

And of course this is not just true in America; it’s true in plenty of other countries as well. But sometimes I do wonder if it is even more true in America!

And it blinds people to the real problem. The real problem is not that Donald Trump was elected president last year. The real problem, it seems to me – and as I pointed out when he was elected – is that in the American presidency, far too much power is concentrated in the hands of one person. And that is always potentially dangerous, and is a seriously bad idea. And almost nobody is talking about it. (But hey, that’s what this blog does – raises issues than almost nobody is talking about.)

So politicians continue to argue among themselves about trivia. But often, they are a lot more similar to their opponents that one might think. Orwell captured this brilliantly in Animal Farm, in the scene in which the animals on the farm watch a meeting between the pigs and the men: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

They realised that for all the pig’s anti-human rhetoric, they were just like the men. The new political masters claimed to be completely different from the old ones; but in everything that really counted, they were just the same.

I can’t help reflecting on some words in the Bible, from in the opening verses of Psalm 2.

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.””

Basically, it is saying that the rulers of the world have all joined together. And what do they want to do? They want to be free from God – in other words, free from his standards, free to do whatever they want, whether it is morally right or morally wrong. They want to be above the law.

Sadly, history shows that that is really what (almost) all the world’s rulers have in common – a desire for power – to do whatever they want, whatever they think is right. As Lord Acton said, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

And so it is, for all practical purposes, with Donald May and Theresa Trump – or whatever they’re called.

But as for me, I’m with George Orwell and Lord Acton.

And with what the Bible says.

Faith without reason is superstition

When I was in high school, I had five biology teachers. I guess the one that had the biggest impact on me was the first one, Mrs. Murphy. I had no real interest in biology before she taught me, but her classes changed that – and it is partly because of her that I went on to do biology at university.

The others were a mixed bag. One, Mr. Morwood, was excellent, and after his death, I learned that there was even more to him than met the eye

Two only taught me briefly, and I don’t remember much about them.

The remaining one was a little unusual. He was brand new at teaching when he arrived at the school, and some of the boys gave him the nickname “Gringo”. We didn’t learn much biology from him, and he did not remain at the school long.

However, he did say a couple of things that I found very helpful, and that I remember to this day. The first is that one day in class he said something about different kinds of love and showed us a copy of C.S. Lewis’ book “The Four Loves“. I was already into C.S. Lewis, but had not heard of this book, so I went out and bought it and read it.

The other thing he said was “‘Faith without reason is superstition’ – as Christian scientists say.” I thought that was pretty profound, and it stuck with me. (A few decades later, I got around to googling it, and discovered that the quote apparently comes from Arthur Custance, a Canadian anthropologist, scientist and writer, who specialized in science and Christianity.)

So, it is true? Is it true that to believe something without having good reasons for believing it is merely superstition, and therefore wrong?

And here, we need to clarify that this is about believing something. It could be a religious belief – e.g. that Jesus is the Son of God – or it could equally be something very ordinary – e.g. that that I will have food on the table tomorrow.

In the New Testament, the word for “faith” is the word for “belief.” Yes, people have belief / faith on different levels. Yes, Christian faith, as described in the New Testament means more than just believing certain things to be true. But the word “faith” does, basically, mean belief. So to say “Faith without reason is superstition” means “Believing something to be true without a good reason is not a good thing.”

The Bible never suggests that one should believe without some good reason for believing. And that means evidence.

Reason and the Bible

So what does the Bible say? Here are some verses, all of which are about looking at evidence and / or deciding what to believe.

Many people said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:20-21)

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me.” (John 10:24-25)

Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.” (John 14:11)

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. (John 20:30-31)

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. ” (Acts 17:31)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)

These are all about looking at evidence; they are about believing, and the reasons why people might believe something. They are saying “Look at the evidence.”

Looking at the evidence

There are different kinds of evidence. We believe some things because of testimony – because we are told them by people we trust. Most people believe what they read on Wikipedia, or what they hear on BBC News, unless they have good reason to be sceptical.

We also believe things because of our experience. I believe that it will take me about 50 minutes to drive from my house to Inverness, because I’ve done it several times, so I know what to expect.

In court cases, judges and juries listen to various kinds of evidence, and have to make up their minds what to believe. We expect them to weigh the evidence fairly and rationally, because we believe that if they do, they are more likely to do what is right.

Some evidence is stronger than other evidence, of course. And evidence does not always point in the same direction; some evidence can be misleading. That is why evidence must be examined and weighed.

Indeed, in The Message, a very loosely translated modern version of the Bible, the final quote above (do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God) becomes “Don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you.” And it seems to me that this is exactly what the writer means. Indeed, it seems to me that this is basically the position of the Bible.

And so people are not simply expected to believe what the Bible says. They are expected to weigh it and examine it – and, based on their examination, to decide whether to believe it.

I’ve written before about the story of David McIntyre, an agnostic who investigated the historical evidence, and came to the conclusion that yes, Jesus did rise from the dead – and who, based on that conclusion, became a Christian. And that led him to write about the historical evidence in a booklet that he called, appropriately, Jesus, the Evidence.

I heard David speak about his experience a few years ago, and one thing he said surprised me. He footnoted things to references in Wikipedia. I found that surprising because people can edit Wikipedia, and so articles can change all the time. But David, having looked at the historical evidence, obviously believed that the historical facts and opinions he was quoting were so well-established and uncontroversial, that the Wikipedia articles were not going to change substantially. He believes that the evidence is solid, and will stand up to scrutiny without much difficulty – as do I.

So yes, I believe that faith without reason is superstition – in other words, it is irrational and foolish to believe something without good reason, without good evidence.

That applies what is going on in the world today, and the things that are reported in the media. And I think that is important. As regular readers of this blog will know, I think there is far too little serious looking at the evidence.

I see that a big problem. It is a problem partly because the news producers of most of the mainstream media seem to be fairly uninterested in actually looking at the evidence concerning the things that they report. But it is also a problem because ordinary, normal, intelligent people tend often accept a lot of what they hear from the mainstream media with what amounts to an almost superstitious reverence.

But it also applies to what one believes about Jesus Christ and about God. And that is ultimately a lot more important.

Ignore the fluff. What are the real news stories of 2017?

Yesterday morning, one of the main stories in the “World” section of the BBC New website concerned a minister from India’s ruling party being criticised for urinating in the open. I know I shouldn’t have, but I clicked on the link. Apparently the problem with this was that there is a government drive to persuade people to use toilets. Apparently he felt unwell. 

Yes. We really needed to know that.

Even more remarkably, the BBC gave even higher prominence to a story entitled “Charles Manson dies after decades in jail.” I didn’t bother clicking on that. I was pretty sure that he would die some time.  Most people do.  When exactly it happened didn’t seem to me to make any difference to anything.

The BBC is considered to be a pretty serious news source, and yet they treat us to the most amazing fluff and trivia. Just the other day we were being told that a few years ago an unnamed government official had touched a journalist’s breast at 10 Downing Street.

Other stories the BBC give us are less obviously trivial, but, I suspect, not really that significant. For example, we get endless stories on how the Brexit negotiations are going. I’m sure the final outcome will be interesting, but the details will not be of earth-shattering importance. As for the details about what politicians are saying about the negotiations, I can’t see that it really matters at all.

So – what are the real news stories of 2017 – the serious stuff?

I am going to suggest five.

I am not including those long-running things that go on year after year after year. What are the things happening this year – or that came up last year and have gotten even bigger this year?

Yemen

Yemen has been a mess for years, with a brief civil war in 1994. Things were better for a few years after that, but violence between different factions returned a few years later, there was a revolution in 2011 which brought down the president, but the replacement president didn’t please everyone, and he was brought down when rebels seized the capital in 2014. Fighting continued, and in 2015, a Saudi-led coalition invaded. Despite widespread reports of the coalition repeatedly bombing civilian targets, America and Britain continued to support the Saudi invasion, and continued to supply military equipment to the Saudi government.

What is new is the Saudi blockade, which has made it difficult to get food and medicine into Yemen, with the result that malnutrition is widespread and famine threatens. It could be the largest famine the world has seen for decades, with millions of victims.

What is new is that with almost a million cases, Yemen is experiencing the worst cholera outbreak to be reported in human history.

And what is really newsworthy is that this cholera outbreak and the approaching famine are man-made – caused by the coalition, with the active support of the British and American governments.

Journalist Barry Malone’s tweet that “This should be the biggest story in the world right now” has been re-tweeted 87,000 times. Glenn Greenwald commented: “One of the worst atrocities of the last two years – if not the worst – is what’s being done to Yemen. But because the primary culprits are the US, UK and their Saudi partners, it gets virtually no attention. “

Over a year ago, I expressed my concern about American and British ties to Saudi Arabia. I think that I have been proved right. And in particular, note these two quotes. The first is from the UK’s Prime Minister, when questioned about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen: “What matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The second is from the woman who was expected to become President of America, but who, surprisingly, lost the election: “American leadership means standing with our allies because our network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional.

The resignation of of the Lebanese Prime Minister

On November 4th, Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation as Lebanese prime minister in a televised broadcast. What was distinctly odd is that he did it from Saudi Arabia, and has not been back in Lebanon since. Five days later, Reuters reported that a senior politician close to Hariri said that Saudi Arabia had ordered him to resign and put him under house arrest. Another source familiar with the situation said Saudi Arabia was controlling and limiting his movement.

The most readable and startling account of what happened was that of veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk, in the Independent. It begins with the words “When Saad Hariri’s jet touched down at Riyadh on the evening of 3 November, the first thing he saw was a group of Saudi policemen surrounding the plane. When they came aboard, they confiscated his mobile phone and those of his bodyguards. Thus was Lebanon’s prime minister silenced. “

This story is important, because, like what is going on in Yemen, it tells us a lot about the current government of Saudi Arabia. And because of Saudi Arabia’s alliances, that is important for the whole world.

Catalonia

The Catalonia independence referendum and the response of the Spanish government have been well covered, but it is worth saying that what is going on there is fascinating. It has been brewing awhile, but most of us didn’t see it coming. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

Russia – or rather, American hysteria about Russia

In terms of events happening in the country, or actions of the country’s government, or reports coming out of country, news of Russia has been no more significant in the last 12 months than news of, say, China, Germany, South Africa, or Brazil.

However, the biggest story of the year concerns Russia. It is the Russia-hysteria that has gripped America and spread to much of the rest of western world. I wrote about this in my December piece, Bearing false witness: The western media, Syria, and the evil Russians.

I returned to the subject in January in my look back at 2016, which asked, “Are we living in a post-truth world?

And I also referred to it in my February post “Why you shouldn’t trust the BBC” . 

Back then, it was seemed pretty clear to me that there was no evidence that the Russian government had done anything improper with regard to the American election. And no significant further evidence has emerged, though a huge amount of froth has.   And yet the hysteria continues unabated.

In July,  a group of former U.S. intelligence officers, including NSA specialists, cited new forensic studies to challenge the claim of the key Jan. 6 “assessment” that Russia “hacked” Democratic emails last year.  In September, two of those former intelligence officers published an article showing more holes in the Russia-gate narrative.

This month, Donald Trump, speaking of the stories about Russian interference in the presidential campaign, said of Vladimir Putin, “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” Many American politicians were outraged. One said “You believe a foreign adversary over your own intelligence agencies“, while another accused him of “taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community.

The choice of words of these politicians is worth noticing. The KGB has not existed for over a quarter of a century, and the description of the president of Russia as a “foreign adversary” is bizarre. Exactly how is Putin an adversary? There has been a huge amount of adversarial language toward Russia on the part of the American government, and a considerable amount of adversarial action – the expulsion of diplomats, the passing of sanctions legislation, the requirement that Russia Today register as a foreign agent – but it is difficult to actually see any adversarial behaviour on the part of the Russian government toward America.

But even stupider than the language of these American politicians is their logic. The leaders of the American intelligence agencies may believe that the Russian government interfered in the election, but they don’t know it. They could be wrong. Indeed, these US intelligence chiefs could be deliberately misleading Americans.  As has been pointed out, the top people in the CIA and FBI don’t exactly have a great record for honesty.

A year after the American presidential election, we are still waiting for evidence to emerge that Russia interfered improperly in the American election. 

Despite the total absence of evidence, the claims are repeated ad nauseum, with the result that most Americans now simply accept them as true. I doubt that any intelligent, open-minded, rational person, looking at the evidence, would be convinced that Russia had improperly interfered in the election. But the number of intelligent, rational people who have looked at the evidence with an open mind is pretty small. And most people, if they hear something often enough about a subject they know nothing about – and never (or rarely) hear it questioned – will believe it.  On the eve of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, most Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks – despite the total absence of evidence.  In the same way, today, most Americans believe that Vladimir Putin improperly interfered in last year’s presidential election.  Again, that is despite the absence of serious evidence.  

In Russia, it is different. Russians who read American media reports about Russia can spot what is obviously laughable drivel. And the Western press has already reported so many inaccurate, exaggerated, knowingly untrue things about Russia that most Russians, including those who have no time for Vladimir Putin, no longer take the western media seriously. Educated Russians, who have long been sceptical of their own media, used to look for truth about Russia in the western media.  They no longer do so. And that is a change that has really only happened in the last year.

The news itself

Which brings me to the fifth big story of 2017: the news itself. A week ago, an article appeared on Consortium News, a highly respected independent news website. It was by the site’s founder, Robert Parry, a veteran reporter and investigative journalist. It is worth reading.

It begins:

“A stark difference between today’s Washington and when I was here as a young Associated Press correspondent in the late 1970s and the early 1980s is that then – even as the old Cold War was heating up around the election of Ronald Reagan – there were prominent mainstream journalists who looked askance at the excessive demonization of the Soviet Union and doubted wild claims about the dire threats to U.S. national security from Nicaragua and Grenada.

Perhaps the Vietnam War was still fresh enough in people’s minds that senior editors and national reporters understood the dangers of mindless groupthink inside Official Washington, as well as the importance of healthy skepticism toward official pronouncements from the U.S. intelligence community.

Today, however, I cannot think of a single prominent figure in the mainstream news media who questions any claim – no matter how unlikely or absurd – that vilifies Russian President Vladimir Putin and his country. It is all Russia-bashing all the time.

Note those words: “I cannot think of a single prominent figure in the mainstream news media who questions . . .” That is pretty serious – considering that it comes from Robert Parry, who knows the media well.  It means that the mainstream news media are prepared to – and often do – publish things that are unlikely – or even absurd.   Not just part of the mainstream media but pretty much the whole of it.  I think that is pretty scary.  And as news, it is important.

The article ends with the words

“But what is perhaps most troubling to me about these developments is the silence of many civil liberties advocates, liberal politicians and defenders of press freedom who might have been counted on in earlier days to object to this censorship and blackballing.

It appears that the ends of taking down Donald Trump and demonizing Vladimir Putin justify whatever means, no matter the existential danger of nuclear war with Russia or the McCarthyistic (even Orwellian) threats to freedom of speech, press and thought.

What is happening in the American media – and the British media as well, albeit to a lesser extent – indicates that we live at a time when increasingly, people in the west – even in the media – do not believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.

Parry’s article is worth reading. In fact, it is probably worth reading two or three times. Not least, because I think he is right. I think that we are living in a time when, increasingly, people in the west do not believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought. 

And not only that, we are living in a time when the mainstream news media, are prepared to unquestioningly publish stories that are incredibly unlikely, or even absurd.

And that, I think, is probably the big story of 2017.

Two American teenagers. One had her bottom squeezed by a president. The other was killed on a president’s orders. Which matters more?

What would a visitor from another planet make of BBC News? Over the last three weeks they have treated us to three stories which certainly had me scratching my head.

On the 31st October we had “Michael Fallon ‘apologised for touching journalist’s knee.’

And, on the 14th of November, we had a story about how a TV producer said that a government official had put his hand on her breast during a visit to 10 Downing Street.

And on the 13th November, the BBC showed its concern for international affairs by reporting that a woman had revealed that in 2003, when she was 16 years old, she and her mother were having a photograph taken with former American President George H W Bush, and that as the picture was being taken, “he dropped his hands from my waist down to my buttocks and gave it a nice, ripe squeeze.”   

(By the way, it seems to me that Bush’s motivation was quite different from that of Fallon and the unnamed official.  Bush, who was 79 years old at the time, apparently has a habit of doing this, and thinks it funny.  The “David Cop-a-feel” joke is very revealing.  I guess people would describe this as an “earthy” sense of humour.  Being a humourless Presbyterian when it comes to earthy humour, I don’t think it’s at all funny – but I guess humour is a very individual thing. )

Politicians and character

These stories will undoubtedly have shocked people who previously believed that politicians and government officials were morally impeccable figures who should be looked up to with reverence and admiration.

However, it seems to me that there has long been plenty of evidence that this was not the case.

When I was a boy, one of the most significant long-running news stories of the early 1970s concerned the Watergate affair. This did not show Richard Nixon in a good light, and in 1974, he felt forced to resign over it – the only president in American history to do so.

One of the things that came to light during the investigation was tapes of conversations involving Nixon.  As a result, I learned a new phrase: “Expletive deleted”. I didn’t understand this, but a more worldly-wise school friend explained to me that these were bad words, and that Nixon could be foul-mouthed. I was shocked. It was bad enough that he might have been dishonest in matters of state, but it was absolutely horrific that he swore.

And in the decades since, I have learned a lot of things about top politicians which have suggested to me that in terms of personal morals, most of them are no different from the average person. The touching of knees, breasts and bottoms does not constitute good behaviour – but then again, nor does the use of certain four letter words. But is it important news that a government minister, a retired president, or an unnamed government official does it?

Unacceptable as this behaviour may be, it seems to me that these stories are much ado about nothing. Of the three incidents, it seems to me that the worst was the one involving a 16 year-old. The others involved grown women, who were professionals, and perfectly capable of responding vigorously.  This was a girl.  Nevertheless – it has to be remembered that the girl’s mother was standing beside her. It wasn’t exactly Mimi Alford.

What matters more?

To put it bluntly, what these three, white, well-off, middle class ladies suffered was pretty inconsequential compared to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of poverty stricken people living in war zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc.

And yet, people who seem utterly unconcerned about the latter think that what happened to the former is a major scandal.

For example, in Yemen, an estimated 17.8 million – six out of every 10 Yemenis – don’t know where their next meal will come from. At least 7 millions across Yemen are on the verge of famine. We have known about this situation for over a year. We have known what the causes were. Western governments have had the power to do something about it. And they haven’t. And one of the reasons for that is that there has been no popular or media pressure on them to do so.

And yet the British government, and much of the media, seem to be much more concerned about the suffering caused by the touching of journalist’s knees and breasts.

The presidents and the teenagers

And as for presidents and 16-year-old’s, I’ve already told about the 16-year-old whose bottom was squeezed.  The other story, it seems to me, was strangely under-reported.  Wikipedia sums it up:

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a 16-year-old American of Yemeni descent who was killed while eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Yemen by a drone airstrike ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama on 14 October 2011.   Abdulrahman’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was an operational leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was killed two weeks before his son by a CIA drone strike also ordered by President Barack Obama. 

Ironically, as Wikipedia then points out,

On January 29, 2017, Anwar al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter, Nawar, the half sister of Abdulrahman, was killed in a commando attack ordered by President Donald Trump.  

(I’ve written about that here.)

Personally, I find it curious that people don’t use the word “assassination” when talking about these drone strikes, because that is what they are.  Apparently Obama gave the order for some extremist to be assassinated, and the assassins managed to accidentally kill a 16 year old American citizen who was having lunch in a restaurant.  It is bad enough to have a situation in which the most powerful man in the world is giving orders for people to assassinated in countries half way around the world – but when an American teenager eating lunch in a restaurant can be killed in one of these strikes, you know something has gone seriously wrong.

And while the BBC did cover the story, the media coverage was generally pretty low key, and most people didn’t seem particularly bothered. 

But yeah, I know.  These people are in Yemen, so they doesn’t matter. 

Remembrance: What would Jesus tell us to remember? (Updated)

(Updated and expanded 16th November)

If you are a Christian, the obvious question to ask on Remembrance Sunday is “What would Jesus want us to remember? What would he tell us to remember?”

Those who know me will not be surprised that my answer is “I don’t know. But I do know what he told us to remember.”

So – what did he tell us to remember?

Let’s start by . . . er, . . . recalling what remembering means, and what memory is. It means bringing back into your mind something that you know, but had forgotten – or, at least, were not thinking about. You cannot remember something that you never knew. So if someone tells me to remember something that he told me, then there is a chance of me being able to remember it. You can only tell someone to remember something if they once knew it, or were aware of it.

The Bible mentions four times when Jesus tells people to remember things.* But three of those times he is telling people to remember things that he had told them (John 15:20), or that they had heard (Revelation 3:3), or that happened to them (Revelation 2:5).

Those all involve the word “you” – what I said to you; what you received and heard, from where you have fallen. The word “you” tells us that he is asking specific people to remember things that were specific to them – part of their own personal experience. So Jesus isn’t telling us to remember them.

Which means that only one of the four remains. There is only one thing that we could say that Jesus tells us to remember. It is said to his disciples, and hence we could say that it is something Jesus is telling all his disciples, all Christians, to remember. (Especially since it is something that we have no evidence it was something that Jesus had ever mentioned to his disciples before.)

So – what is it? Well, we were told in church yesterday – which is very appropriate on Remembrance Sunday – though oddly enough, I have never heard this on Remembrance Sunday before.

It is Luke 17:32 “Remember Lot’s wife.”

What did he mean? Here’s the context (Luke 17:28-33):

“Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Jesus is assuming that the disciples know the story of Lot, and the destruction of Sodom – found in the book of Genesis 19 – about how God destroyed the city of Sodom because of its wickedness, but told Lot and his family to get out to save themselves. Because Lot seemed a bit hesitant about leaving, God sent a couple of angels who took grabbed him and his family and practically dragged them out, with the words “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley.” Lot’s wife, however, looked back, and became a pillar of salt.

So that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said “Remember Lot’s wife.”

What did he mean? He is talking about the Christian life. He is saying “God offers us salvation – escape from destruction. The destruction of Sodom is a powerful picture of that. The Christian life means leaving things behind, things that we might be attached to – just as leaving Sodom meant that Lot and his family were leaving things behind – things that they were attached to.

As Christians – we are pulled in different ways. There are things that we like, things that we are emotionally attached to, that come between us and God. Some of these things are wrong in themselves, but some are not. They may well be perfectly good in themselves. But if become too attached to them, they can become idols to us – things that come between us and God. As Christians, we ought to be able to give them up, but are often very reluctant to do so.

Remember Lot’s wife.

That’s what Jesus tells us to remember. It’s a good message to us on Remembrance Sunday.


Update: A friend has helpfully pointed out to me (thanks, John) that most Christians, when they read the title of this post, and see the word “remembrance” and the question “What would Jesus tell us to remember?” would immediately think of the words “Do this in remembrance of me.” And I guess they would be surprised that I didn’t even mention those words.

The reason I didn’t is that, technically speaking, when Jesus said that, he was not telling his disciples to remember him; he was telling them to do a certain thing in connection with remembering him.

Rather strangely, he doesn’t actually tell them what to do in remembrance of him; he merely says “Do this“. What is “this”?  What does he want them to do? When he says “this” he could have meant what he was doing at that moment – i.e. breaking bread and giving it to them, and taking a cup of wine. What he probably meant, however, was what they were all doing at that time – i.e. eating bread and drinking wine – and doing it together as a group. That is is certainly the way the apostles understood it, as we see in I Corinthians 11, in which, by the way, the phrase “come together” is used four times in 18 verses (I Corinthians 11:17-34) to describe the believers in Corinth eating the bread and drinking the wine.

What about the phrase “in remembrance of me”? What does that mean? Does it mean “so that you will remember me”? Or “do this when you remember me?” Or “do this as a sign that you remember me?”

It seems to me that when Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me”, he probably was alluding to the fact that in eating the Passover, he and his disciples were actually eating a meal that was about remembering. Indeed, the passage in the Bible that describes the instructions God gave the Israelites for how to keep the Passover, actually says that it is about remembering: “This day shall be a memorial day for you” or “a day of remembrance for you.” (Exodus 12:14)

And what exactly does Jesus want his disciples to remember about him? Again, I Corinthians gives us our answer: “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” It is about remembering Christ’s death.

Why? What are they to remember about it? Again, Exodus (12:26) provides the clue: “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.‘” ” The Passover was to remind the people of Israel about how God had spared them, when there was death all around them – and of course, how that then allowed them to escape from slavery in Egypt.

And the New Testament explains that the death of Christ was about the same things. It was about how followers of Jesus are spared from death (John 10:10-11, I Thessalonians 5:10), even though there is death all around them (Romans 5:12), and thus enabled to escape from spiritual slavery (Romans 6:17).

In other words, Christians come together and eat bread and drink wine in order to be reminded how, through the death of Jesus Christ, God saves them from death and enables them to escape from spiritual slavery. We remember about how God gives us eternal life and true freedom.

So, when Jesus told his followers, “Do this in remembrance of me” – he wasn’t technically telling them to remember something. But, in telling them to do something that would remind them of his death, he was, for all practical purposes, telling them that they needed to remember his death, and what it meant.

Remembrance: what we should not forget. (But probably will)

A few days ago, I read an interesting article about Hezbollah by Sharmine Narwani, (a Middle East specialist and former Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford) explaining why Hezbollah is not a threat to America. She wrote:

“Two weeks ago, at a State Department briefing on the Hezbollah “threat,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas J. Rasmussen tried to paint a picture f an organization that was directing “terrorism acts worldwide” and posing a threat “to U.S. interests” including “here in the homeland.”

Prior to September 11,” Rasmussen claimed, “I think everybody knows Hezbollah was responsible for the terrorism-related deaths of more U.S. citizens than any other foreign terrorist organization.””

She was surprised by this claim, and contacted the State Department and asked for more information.  Most of the rest of her article looks in detail at the claims made by the State Department in its response – and also other claims made by American government departments and officials over the years.

And it seems that most of them don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The words that came to my mind as I read this were “Weapons of Mass Destruction” – usually shortened to the three letters WMD.

Why? Because WMDs were ostensibly the reason that America and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 – along with a claim by the American government that the Iraqi regime had been assisting al-Qaeda in its operations. After the invasion, of course, the evidence for both these claims fell apart.

Which is why I thought of WMDs when reading the article. It was a case of “Here we go again – American government departments and officials making claims about people and groups that they don’t like – claims which don’t actually stand up to scrutiny.”

War, Remembrance, and WMDs

My point is that the invasion of Iraq – and thus the whole war – was based on falsehoods and dishonesty. People in the top echelons of government in America wanted that war – and were prepared to make exaggerated and misleading statements in order to ensure that it happened. They may well have believed their own wild claims – but that does not make those claims any less false, and just because you believe your own lies does not make you honest. Falsehood and dishonesty were the basis for that war, and probably for all wars in human history. It is often said that truth is the first casualty in war, but the reality is that truth is often thrown out the window before the war actually begins.

Perhaps more worryingly, wars happen because powerful people want them to happen. A lot of people said of the Iraq War, “It’s about oil.” Well, that was probably part of it – but it was about a lot of other things as well – like political power, influence, prestige – and even careers.

Which brings me to the first thing we should be remembering every time this season of remembrance rolls around – every time we see poppies, wreaths, and war memorials. We need to remember the causes of wars.  Never forget the track record of dishonesty on the part of those who hold political power. Think “WMDs”.

People of great faith

Perhaps the most frightening thing about this, is that not only did people in the UK and America believe the claims that led us to war in Iraq – but people continue to believe political leaders who make claims about governments and nations they don’t like.  They continue to believe the wild claims of politicians who advocate military action. Strangely enough, people who will be sceptical when politicians speak about any other subject will be remarkably trusting when those same politicians speak about how evil the government of some other country is.

Why is it that we have such great faith in the words of our politicians when they speak about the governments of other nations?

The answer, it seems to me, is pretty clear.  One way of putting it is that it is a case of misguided patriotism. But I would put it more strongly than that. I think that most people have an almost religious belief in the goodness and righteousness of their own nation. If fact, why use the word “almost”? There is something religious about it. Our nation and its symbols have, to many, a mystical quality about them. There is often a reverence for members of the armed forces in times of war. In the words of Kipling’s poem, Tommy, (about how people view soldiers),

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute! ”
But it’s ” Saviour of ‘is country ” when the guns begin to shoot.”

I think the word “saviour” was well chosen.  (See, for example, this – though be warned; it is pretty repulsive.)

And for those of us who are Christians, I think that this does amount to idolatry. I cannot imagine the first Christians, in the days of the Roman Empire, having such great faith in Caesar, or such a feeling of loyalty to Rome and its symbols, or such reverence for the legionaries.

There is a phrase found in the Bible; it speaks of “the gods of the nations”. The truth is that many people in the world – including in western countries – make gods of their nations.

And so there is something else that Christians must not forget during this season of remembrance – the first commandment:

I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”

Even more important than the three letters WMD, is the three letter word “God.”