Monday, February 29, 2016

Does Society "Decide" to Engage in War?

I think if you asked most people, they would say that (a) war is deeply ingrained in society; and (b) society over and over again decides to engage in war.

There is a growing discourse around point (a): people are starting to unpack the idea that "war is deeply ingrained in society," and growing in understanding that this is not the same as saying "war is part of human nature."

I worry that there is less insight around point (b). At least in the United States, I think people continue to believe that war is a societal choice. I think this is not true.

In theory our Constitution is all about the people -- through Congress -- maintaining control over the decision to go to war. As it stands now, as a practical matter, that's not really what's happening.

I invite people to study the graph of historical US military spending below. It shows that there was a time when military spending went up when the US began to engage in a specific war, and then went back down after that war. Later, that pattern changed.

US Defense Spending -- FY 1800 to FY 2010
(More at

It is very interesting to consider why this change occurred. (Perhaps that's a topic for a later blog post or two.)

But I think the more fundamental point is: at some point US society stopped being the "decider" about war. The US began to engage in war, and more war, and more war . . . but US society was no longer really making that decision in any real way.

(Think about US military action during your lifetime. In what ways, if any, did society at large determine what happened?)

If we confront this reality, what might this cause us to do differently?

POSTSCRIPT March 1, 2016: Yesterday the lead editorial in The New York Times called for a "better not bigger military", saying "[g]iving the Pentagon a blank check does not ensure security," and expressing hope that the next president will get the balance right. Isn't this just part and parcel of the charade that these questions are at all under the control of the US public?

Related links

"The US Military Is America’s 51st State" by William J. Astore in The Nation.

Related posts

More than anyone else, the beneficiaries of permawar are the politicians who thrive on the power to make and control wars. The number one prime beneficiary is the President, as well as presidential aspirants. But it doesn't end there . . . .

(See J'ACCUSE: The Beneficiaries of Permawar )

The decision about whether to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation is our decision. And that is why the entire country is mobilizing for mass action for nuclear disarmament in 2015. Are we capable of making sure the messengers -- Obama, Putin, the other agents of government -- hear their instructions from us clearly?

(See NEEDED: Heroes to Bring About Nuclear Disarmament )

Right now we're "stuck" -- the portion of the public that wants to cut military spending has hovered in the high 20%s since 2004; it just can't seem to break the 30% barrier. (The percentage of people in favor of expansion is about the same.)

(See Cutting Defense: Are We STUCK?

It's essential that we demand our members of Congress get on the record now about the opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria that they are registering from their districts.

(See On Syria, It's Time for Congress to Remember Who They Represent)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Shen Yun: Performance Posters as Resistance Art

Shen Yun Performing Arts 2016 promotional poster

When I was in college, I heard the scholar Frank Kermode give a series of lectures, in which he posed the question, "Why are narratives obscure?"

Kermode veered off from the very mainstream question of "how can one tell a story clearly?" into a question that we probably don't think about enough: "What's the value of telling a story that's hard to understand?"

The very powerful lesson I remember from those lectures is about parables -- something that I, as a Christian, am exposed to a lot.

Kermode made the point that the power of parables lies not so much in the light they shed -- their function as analogy or metaphor -- as in the way they use secrets. The parables bind Christians together because they are only understandable by those who hold the key.

Listening to Kermode provoked a moment of honesty in me. "He's right," I thought. "A lot of the time I feel like saying, 'What the heck are you talking about, Jesus?" Kermode pointed out that Jesus frequently had to supply the key -- "I'm talking about something called 'the Kingdom of Heaven' . . . ." Over the years, I've reached into my pocket on countless occasions to pull that key out again. (Thanks, Prof. Kermode.)

I thought of Kermode recently when I was riding on the San Francisco BART and saw one of the ubiquitous posters for the Shen Yun performances of Chinese music and dance. I've been seeing these posters for years, and over and over again I've wondered, "Who is going to such a big effort to get this in front of people . . . and why?"

Shen Yun is a project of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that originated in China. Now that I live in the Bay Area, I pick up the free Falun Gong newspaper, the Epoch Times, every week, and so have frequent reminders of Falun Gong and its struggles. Moreover, I had recently read a book by Li Yiyun, The Vagrants, that made the issues that Falun Gong talks about very front of mind.

Which led me on that subway ride to exclaim, "I know what that poster reminds me of!" 

Kidneys (source: Medicinenet)

Indeed, the shapes described by the Chinese dancers and their flowing gowns and scarves in the poster are a nearly perfect replica of the human kidney system.

Falungong claims that tens of thousands of its members have been the victims of organ harvesting by the Chinese government - with kidneys being one of the main organs involved. It seems almost too macabre to believe. Falungong faces a steep climb in getting the full facts, and it seems like the vast majority of people would rather just not think about it.

Currently, Epoch Times reporters are among the many journalists jailed in China. (They won't be reporting on organ harvesting any time soon.)

People who feel a responsibility to look deeper into this question can look at:

David Kilgour, David Matas (6 July 2006, revised 31 January 2007) An Independent Investigation into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China

Ethan Gutmann, "Bitter Harvest: China's 'Organ Donation' Nightmare", World Affairs Journal July/August 2012

I've asked myself what Falun Gong might hope to accomplish by blanketing the US with images of Shen Yun dancers that might be recognizable as kidneys. Do they hope to stir the consciences of people who see these posters? Do they hope it will win adherents to the cause?

Perhaps. But I think they are doing something much more subtle and much more powerful. I think they are sending a message to their adherents: "We're in a struggle. Not everyone is with us -- yet. But we know what we stand for. And we're not alone!"

Where have I heard this message before?

Related posts

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort. A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

When you hear "panda," think "China jails journalists." Yes, pandas are soft, cuddly, cute, and adorable . . . . They're also black and white and live behind bars.

(See CHINA: What's Black and White and Lives Behind Bars?)

We need vagrants, misfits, rebels, and liumang. And that while anxiety is worth noticing, that's not the same as saying it's undesirable, or should be shunned.

(See In Praise of Nonconformity: Vagrants, Misfits, Rebels, and Liumang )

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Image to Action: Sergey Ponomarev on the Refugee Crisis

2016 World Press Photo award: General News, first prize stories
Sergey Ponomarev, November 16, 2015
"Refugees arrive by boat near the village of Skala on Lesbos, Greece."
(Commissioned by The New York Times.)

Today winners of the 2016 World Press Photo awards are being publicized.

The image above of the refugee crisis reminded me of images used in a previous post about the need to support immigrants.

Sergey Ponomarev won first prize in the "stories" category for this image: "Refugees arrive by boat near the village of Skala on Lesbos, Greece."

How do we convert our wonder at an image like this into action?

Three suggestions come to mind:

(1) Advocacy - Call your member of Congress today and say that you want the US to insist on a diplomatic solution in Syria, including an immediate ceasefire.

(2) Relief - Contribute to the urgent relief efforts. (Lutheran World Relief is a highly effective supplier of relief.)

(3) Act locally - meet with others in your community engaging in sustained efforts to welcome immigrants and stop all armed conflict. (Search using the name of your locality and words such as "sanctuary" and "antiwar".)

Related posts

Part of what I loved about Du Hai was the way it used large pieces of fabric to convey the sensation of being in a boat among billowing waves, and the multiple uses to which they put the fabric - sea, clouds, sail, and more. Even a newcomer to modern dance, such as myself, could grasp what was going on.

(See The 21st Century U.S. Vocation: Extending hospitality to the next wave of immigrants coming to our country )

In a way, you can hardly even say I "write" blog posts. Mostly I just post FJJ photos with a few words attached. And I know a lot of other beneficiaries of Frank's photos who feel the same way.

(See PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR: Frank James Johnson

Perhaps the most troubling residue of the Syria crisis is that so much of our national discussion was centered on what our interests are, and whether we can force others to do what we want, and who our friends and who our enemies are. What's missing in all this is the question: what can we do to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria?

(See Syria: Where Have We Ended Up?)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Selected Scarry Thoughts

I'm currently living in Berkeley, CA. Below are some of the issues I'm working on.

Anyone who has had to write a speech knows that the hardest part is to land on the main idea. Once you've got that right, the rest practically writes itself.

(See "The way to respond to ISIS is not through violence." )

What I'm feeling particularly energized about is the potential for thousands of people who have decided that we can really say no to ALL war to become active participants in spreading this good news.

(See News Worth Spreading: "There IS An Alternative to War!" )

There is an eerie similarity between events in the book Paul Revere's Ride and events in our world today. I'm thinking particularly of how a network of mass resistance springs into action.

(See American Rebellion: Just Think What They Would've Done with Twitter!)

One thing that is clear to me is that the way community forms on Twitter bears the closest resemblance to the characteristics of community formation that we, as activists, need to work with from now on.

(See Twitter Community for Activism: What Do We Understand?)

"Could it possibly be that we're not supposed to try to hang onto people? Is is possible that we're supposed to prepare people, and then let them go?" 

(See What I Learned in Church (7 Habits) )

The panopticon was a prison design that reversed the old paradigm, in which prisoners were stored away, "out of sight, out of mind," and instead arrayed them in a way in which they could be observed as efficiently as possible by the fewest number of managers.

(See Drones, 1984, and Foucault's Panopticon)

The biggest idea coming out of the 2013 Drone Summit? We will only deal successfully with the crimes being committed using drones when we understand them as part of the much larger war against communities of color . . . .

(See Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color )

I believe Easter is God's gift to humanity of victory over death, hopelessness and frailty, and I believe that God is alive and in our midst. The witness of the Guantanamo lawyers has confirmed me in those beliefs.

(See Easter Victory: The Guantanamo Lawyers )

So as I watched Ziggy for the first time last night, I asked myself, "What is it? What is it? What is the frisson that one feels? It's part charisma, part sexuality, partly the thrill of gender-bending, partly adolescent rebellion . . . . But what is it that Ziggy did (and does) for so many people?" (It can't be a single thing, can it?)

(See "You're NOT alone!" (Ziggy the Subversive) )

Faced with chorus of voices saying, "Isn't it time for you to tone it down? Can't you be more reasonable? What is it you want, anyway?" Jesus kept right on doing what he was doing. And that was a sign to us about how to live our lives . . . .

(See WWJD? Occupy! )

This past fall, a friend said to me, "It's good that you came to the demonstration; it would be even better if you brought a sign!" That was the start of something I've enjoyed a lot. And a lot of those signs have found their way into my blog posts.

(See Scarry Signs )

How might an uprising against inequality and dismantling the military-industrial complex dovetail?

(See WHERE'S MINE? Inequality in the US and the Military-Industrial Complex )

More than anyone else, the beneficiaries of permawar are the politicians who thrive on the power to make and control wars. The number one prime beneficiary is the President, as well as presidential aspirants. But it doesn't end there . . . .

(See J'ACCUSE: The Beneficiaries of Permawar )


I don't think Alanna and I ever talked about what it must be like to be trying to escape a shower of sparks and hot ash. But she seemed to know that the sparks and hot ash are too important a part of the picture to be left out.

(See The Children Are Waiting )

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )

Hibakusha is a word that has traditionally been used to refer to people affected by the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagaski.  It is now being broadened to recognize the many additional victims of acute affects of nuclear radiation (including fallout from tests and radioactivity from mining and processing). In fact, we are all subject to the impact and threat of nuclear radiation spread indiscriminately by nations and corporations.

(See HIROSHIMA: What does it mean to say, "We are ALL 'hibakusha'?")

Before there was the NATO5 -- or the NATO3 -- there was NATOin5. People tweeted their summaries of NATO in just 5 words (hashtag: #NATOin5). It all started with an interview between Eric Zorn and Andy Thayer about NATO ....

(See #NATOin5)

At the end of the first day of the 2012 CODEPINK drone conference, I came to a realization: the fundamental problem that we had all gathered to address is that drones render killing 100% invisible. And as long as the killing is invisible, we lose the most powerful tool we have for fighting the killing: the disgust and outrage of the general public.

(See Make Drone Killing 100% VISIBLE!)

Cook County Jail is the perfect example of the nationwide injustice that Michelle Alexander described in her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration, focused principally one people of color, in which "crimes" (often related to drug possession or other low-level offenses) become the mechanism for entrapping people in a cycle of incarceration that is brutalizing and often begins a downward spiral of lifetime discrimination.

(See Free Them All )

 Years later, during the time I was busily traveling to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and many other places, I had occasion one day to flip open my (real) passport, and all the extension pages, filled with visa stamps, cascaded out. The memory of Expo 67 and my "globetrotting" came rushing back to me . . .

(See O Canada! (We'll always have "Expo" . . . . ))

Ever since I went there to study Chinese as a junior in college, I've considered Taiwan my "second home."

(See Taipei c. 1979 )


What people in Asia (and others) have seen for the past century is that something is happening in the Pacific, and it's being driven in part by advances in naval (and, subsequently, aviation and electronics) technology, and in part by powerful nations (principally, but not limited to, the U.S.) proximate to the area.

(See The Imperialized Pacific: What We Need to Understand)

Oil companies are valued by the market based on their reserves. The problem with this approach is that the total reserves claimed by the oil companies is FIVE TIMES what can possibly be burned without driving up the temperature of the atmosphere up by a catastrophic amount and, as McKibben puts it, "breaking the planet." How can the value of oil companies be a function of reserves that can never be used?

(See The REALLY Big Short: The Jig is Up with Oil Companies)


Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )


A campaign exists to bring about a democratically-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago. The campaign would involve the people in electing the watchers of the police, and put the ultimate control of (and responsibility for) the police in the hands of the citizens of Chicago.

(See Does a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) need to be part of a "new plan of Chicago"? )

When Chicagoans fully succeed in fully connecting the dots -- especially to the crimes being committed in their name with their tax dollars and the weapons produced by their favored corporate citizen, Boeing -- I think there will be some new and different phone calls taking place . . .

(See What's New in Chicago: Connecting the Dots - US Aid, Boeing Weapons, Gaza Massacre, Chicago Complicity )

Steven Salaita has forced us to speak quite openly about three rather distinct things that get treated (incorrectly) as if they were the same thing: the state of Israel (and whether you criticize it or support it); the ideology of Zionism (and whether you criticize it or support it); and the religion of Judaism (and whether or not you share in its values and beliefs).

(See "What good is a tweet?" (The Packing and Unpacking of Meaning and the Steven Salaita Case) )

For the members of this congregation,
who will continue gathering as a people of God in a new place,
that today will mark not only the end of an era
but also the beginning of new opportunities for worship and service.

(See A Prayer for St. Luke's (Annotated and Illustrated) )

Monday, February 15, 2016

Listening for Community (A Chicago Encounter)

Where do you find community?

A member of the St. Luke's community spoke one day about how she found community on the CTA.

The CTA?

I ride the CTA a lot.

It really made me think . . . .

*    *    *

We had been studying the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.  We asked, "Where is the 'well' in our community?"

What I find memorable about that story is how Jesus appears to be really listening. (You can tell from the woman's amazed reaction!)

So what would happen if we really listened . . . at the 'well' in our community? . . . on the CTA . . . at Starbucks . . . . ?

*    *    *

I had gotten on the bus to ride 3 stops to the laundry.

I apologized to the man who had two cups of coffee on the rack next to the first seat -- the rack where I plopped down my laundry bag. "It's just too heavy to carry!" I said. He said, "You're only human . . . . "

Then he told me he was laid low when a car hit him -- he had to go to the hospital and have an operation on his hand.

He showed me his scar. It was on the underside of his wrist.

We had gotten to something pretty essential . . . within moments!

Afterwards I wondered at how we could have covered all that in just a minute or two -- the time it takes to go a few stops.  After all, when I walked onto that bus we were strangers.

I thought of the words of a music composition I often listen to by John Adams, "Christian Zeal and Activity." It includes a recording of a preacher, and the looped recording of his voice keeps circling back to the story of Jesus encountering a man with a withered hand. "Now what's wrong with a man with a withered hand?" the preacher asks. "Why would Jesus . . . . "

You can listen to it here:

The images that accompany this video -- together with the music itself -- are making me sense an invitation to a much wider field for conversation and listening.

To be continued . . . .

Check out Sunset Christianity on Facebook.

Related posts

I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry))

As I walked home from today's service, I replayed the service in my mind. "The part about the visitor card was pretty good . . . " I thought, "and yet . . . visitor card . . . ? Maybe it's not really a visitor card . . . . Maybe what we should be calling them is participant cards."

(See Being Church in Logan Square, Chicago: An Ecclesiophilic Reflection )

"Could it possibly be that we're not supposed to try to hang onto people? Is is possible that we're supposed to prepare people, and then let them go?" 

(See What I Learned in Church (7 Habits) )

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#Nuclear #President (Clinton?) (Cruz?) (Sanders?) (Trump?)

It has seemed to me that people are oblivious to the question that matters most in the 2016 presidential election: what happens if    (fill in the blank)    is in final control of the massive US nuclear arsenal??

I experimented with a Twitter poll yesterday. The small sampling yielded interesting results:

"Which candidate would you be LEAST scared
to see holding the nuclear controls?"
(Participate in current poll here.)

So now I want to give a larger number of people a shot at answering the question. The poll asking "Which candidate would you be LEAST scared to see holding the nuclear controls?" will run for one week. Please participate in the poll, and share the poll with others so they can weigh in, too.

Please use these hashtags for this issue: #nuclear #president.

Related posts

Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon - a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War - deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.

(See Reviews of "Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry )

The clock is ticking. If Barack Obama is going to make a difference in stopping the threat that nuclear weapons pose to the world, there is one (and only one) thing to do.

(See Putin and Obama: #talk)