“The Person of Jesus” Fallacy

“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”

The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.

We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.

Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.

Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.

And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.

Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.

Call me Ishmael

I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.

Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.

It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.

Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.

So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.

“Rabbi”

Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did:  travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)

Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.

Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut:  studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.

He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor:  he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.

Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”

Populism

Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.

There’s a poly-sci term for it:  populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.

Not only that, but they get free healthcare.

Healing

Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.

The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.

Messianic Populism

Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.

Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.

Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this:  one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV

“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]

“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]

The scripture in question was this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV

Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script:  “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 ESV

Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.

Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.

Populism Redux

I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.

Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.

I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.

“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”

So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:

Jesus Reinvented God

If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.

Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.

You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.

Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.

The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.

Jesus Reinvented Religion

Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.

Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.

If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change.  No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.

A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV

The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.

The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk

Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.

And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.

It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 ESV

At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Matthew 16:21-23 ESV

So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.

Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.

At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.

This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.

But then it gets worse.

The Last Judgment

When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.

Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.

But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.

These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.

Behold the Lamb of God.

That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.

Jesus Christ Superstar

By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.

Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.

That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”

Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.

The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”

How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?

Not even “the person of Jesus.”

Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.

Can we please move on?

It Takes a Different Person to be a Christian and Then an Atheist

Not a different kind of person, but a different person, period.

You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself.

Other people don’t either. There’s something different about you, hard to say what – a different energy maybe, like your wiring got scrambled.

That kind of different is why I’m not a Christian anymore. The old me didn’t change my mind about God; I became a new person, and God didn’t fit anymore. It wasn’t just a tweak here and there, but the whole ecosystem of me — self, life, world, inside and out – got shifted, zapped, scrambled, rearranged to the point that it’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore, it’s that I can’t. I’m repulsed by the idea. I’m stunned, shocked, and amazed by what I used to believe. I wonder how I could have. What was I thinking?

Now here I am — a nonbeliever, among the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I never would have believed it. Atheist wasn’t possible – it was never on the life choices list. It still isn’t. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a new person in a new place, with no way to get back. It wasn’t change, it was transformation.

“Transformation” has grandiose overtones. It sounds spiritual. We talked about transformation when I was a Christian. It’s right there in the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2 ESV

The context and the rest of verse is dressed up with pious isn’t-transformation-going-to-be-wonderful language. No it’s not. It’s going to tear you down, and everything else with it. Transformation is destructive and painful, a depressing grind. Try to make big changes and everything comes unglued. I don’t wish it on anybody.

Transformation is inside and outside – the entire ecosystem that is you and your life. Ecological change on the inside is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside it’s sociological, communal, societal, institutional. When transformation has made a mess of all that it’s just getting warmed up. Now you’ve got to figure out how to carry all that into a new life.

Good luck with that.

Personal ecosystem change is why we take vacations and patronize spas, go to a monastery for a week of silence. It’s why churches sponsor retreats, why corporations lay out five star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works:  put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new things. What was unthinkable and impossible before became your new to do list.

Personal ecosystem change is why re-entry is so hard – go away and get inspired, then try to take what happened out there back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking out there. Meanwhile you’re scheming to turn no-way-I-can-go-back into the new normal. All that inspiration and new thoughts while you’re away vs. all that dread and drudgery when you go back to the grind – it’s evidence of ecological change.

Self-help is fraudulent pseudo-religion for a lot of reasons, but it’s biggest fraud is that it doesn’t tell us about the need for ecosystem change if we want to make big changes in our lives. Self-help makes it sound like we can just paste some new things onto what we already are, have, and do. Nope. Won’t work. The reason we’re not already doing the new thing is because we’re not the kind of person who does the new thing. If we were, we’d already be doing it. Duh. If we want to do the new thing, we need to be transformed.

“Transformed” is change on an ecological/systemic scale. That means nothing left out. Nothing left out means this is going to hurt. A big part of the trouble is that transformation can’t mix old and new — get far enough into the process and the old is out for good. That’s in the Bible, too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

There were a couple popular books about new wine and new wineskins making the rounds in my early Christian years. (The Taste of New Wine and Wineskins.) They were the kind of influential books you could use at ecological change retreats – lots of earnest conversations and strategizing ways to make the new wine flow, like getting people into home Bible study and prayer groups, plus lots of great sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Our understanding of the concept was silly shallow. Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. Nobody actually read what the 16th Century mystic wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own:  transformation could be a major downer — not something you preach about on Tithing Pledge Sunday. If it got mentioned at all, “dark night” transformation got a makeover into something like a bad case of the flu you could get over.

The real thing?

Not so much.

I once thought it would be cool to be one of those self-help speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “you changed my life” reviews. But then I started to worry that I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine when I decided it was time to believe my way into my dreams – just like you’re supposed to. So I started telling audiences that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. Every would changed, and they’d have to deal with it and it would be no fun. I think people thought I was doing some kind of reverse psychology number on them. When it was clear they weren’t believing me, I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters – when trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel like at least we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out, fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence. We enter what science and environment writer April Reese calls The Fog of Grief.[1]

“I was a churning maelstrom of emotions: sadness, confusion, anger, disbelief, fear, regret, guilt. At times in those first hours, days and weeks after his death, it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I forgot things. Fatigue was a constant, no matter how much I slept. I came to understand what Joan Didion meant in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a chronicle of her grief over the loss of her husband, when she wrote: ‘I realised for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.’

“This fog of grief, it turns out, is as common as grief itself. When the neurologist Lisa Shulman lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, ‘there was some serious sadness, but that wasn’t the main problem,’ she recalls. ‘It was the disorientation. I felt like I was waking up in a completely alien world. Because the whole infrastructure of my daily life was fundamentally gone.’

“She found herself becoming lost in time, ending up in familiar places without knowing how she got there, she recalls. ‘It’s not simply a matter of discomfort or anxiety. It’s frightening,’ she says. ‘Because you feel like, as Didion said long ago, you feel like you’re going crazy.’

“Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviours that ensure our survival, takes centre stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the centre of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.

“‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’

“That perception of threat means that our survival response – ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in, and stress hormones flood the body. The work of the psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor at the University of Arizona and others has found heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bereaved.

“While the cortisol is flowing fast, the brain remakes itself – at least temporarily – to help us endure the trauma of grief. In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centres of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. Brain scans of the bereaved show that grief activates parts of the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’. Among the limbic regions impacted are the amygdala, which governs the intensity of emotions and threat perception; the cingulate cortex, involved in the interplay between emotions and memory; and the thalamus, a sort of relay station that conveys sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s information-processing centre.

“So my inability to form coherent sentences or remember what I opened the refrigerator to get is nothing to be worried about, Skritskaya assures me; my brain has simply powered down my thinking to enable me to tolerate the loss. The tradeoff is fuzzy cognition – what I’ve come to describe to friends as ‘grief brain’.

“‘Grief takes up a lot of bandwidth in the brain,’ Shulman writes in her book. ‘Odd behaviour and incoherence are expected consequences of the brain’s protective responses following emotional trauma.’”

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Ecological change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.


[1] The Fog of Grief: The five stages of grief can’t begin to explain it: grief affects the body, brain and sense of self, and patience is the key Aeon Magazine (Aug. 10, 2021).

The Trouble is, We Believe

Belief is something humans do.

Beliefism is belief metastasized — belief unmoored, unhinged, runaway, with no object but its own self-referenced purification.

Every belief carries the seed of beliefism– the potential to grow into something toxic, with no purpose but to propagate more of itself.

Which is why…

Belief is a clear and present danger.

Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and so we don’t — we just go around believing things like it’s no big deal. What we believe is a big deal. We should be more careful.

We’re probably careless because belief makes life feel better. It provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic, fired up to do great things.

Belief is how we get to act like God.

Belief is how we create worlds, build civilizations, found nations. Belief anchors us in collective and individual identity, defines who’s us and who’s them, carves out space for us in the world. Our brains are wired to value those things.

Our brains are wired to believe.

Belief is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care what’s believed, what’s fact or fake. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality. Our brains have a bad case of “whatever.” If we want to believe it, they’re good with it.

Belief isn’t choosy.

Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. It’s amoral, indiscriminate, undiscerning. Belief only makes self-referential judgments — what conforms to the thing believed and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish and ban.

Our brains don’t discriminate.

Our brains readily swap belief in this for belief in that — religion, science, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives… they’re all the same.

Belief is fun.

Beliefism is about getting inspired, believing impossible dreams, going for it, realizing your unique calling, becoming your authentic self – all those things that make Hollywood and self-helpers and entrepreneurial heroes rich and famous.

Sound familiar?

Belief has been king in the New World for 400 years. The New World brought it from the Old World, where it was king for millennia. Belief is America’s root religion. It gave us the Puritans. Now it gives us the self-helpers, alternative healers, life coaches, and evangelizing Christians and atheists. We do belief in the USA. We’re belief experts. We got it down.

But there’s more:  belief morphs into beliefism.

Beliefism is when belief goes public. It’s the Unicorn IPO, the blockbuster premiered. In psychological terms, beliefism is when belief emerges – moves beyond internal subjectivity and takes on form and substance in external human reality, becomes ideology, builds institutions, develops its own mythology and metaphors, becomes law and economics, dictates cultural norms.

Beliefism turns what’s believed into knowledge.

Beliefism is evident in a street evangelist’s pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” he said, “so there must be a God who does.” He could have understood but he didn’t. He took a shortcut – he believed instead of knowing. Then he reversed the order:  his belief became knowledge — he knew what he believed.

Beliefism is unethical.

Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it. Beliefism has no ethics – it runs in a circle; there’s no outside reference, no checks and balances, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it. Belief is unaccountable, therefore unethical.

Beliefism polarizes.

Beliefism separates who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe. It manages entrances and exits, reinforces conformity, and punishes dissent.

Beliefism radicalizes.

Once it’s got a cause, beliefism takes it to an extreme. Belief becomes fundamentalism. If you’re not with us you’re against us. No neutrality. You go to the edge or you suffer and die.

Beliefism trends to fundamentalism

Fundamentalism decrees doctrine, prescribes ritual; banishes and punishes discourse, doubt, and dissent. It builds silos and hunkers down; lobs bombs at them. Fundamentalism can be religious or secular – same dynamics either way.

Beliefism practices mind control.

Beliefism runs on brain conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults are built on mind control. Every belief-fueled cause is a cult in the making. Nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions… they’re all built on mind control. None of them exist if we don’t believe them into existence. The process of entering and sustaining membership is the same no matter what.

Beliefism lives in our blind spots.

Beliefism runs in stealth mode. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality — we just know the reality that emerges from it.

Beliefism promotes delusional thinking.

Beliefism removes belief from examination and critical thinking. Unmoored belief trends to delusion. You become a danger to yourself and others. Your risk/return matrix warps. You drink the Kool-Aid. You storm the Capitol. You flock to super spreader events.

There’s good neuroscience behind beliefism.

Beliefism works because we’re biological beings. We’re powered by hormones, chemicals, electrical charges. We believe from the inside out — our bodies and brains construct our reality from what’s around us, including how other people are constructing reality. We share perspective with each other and a shared reality emerges. We build things together to support and perpetuate that reality — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons. The “higher” portions of our brains dream all this up, the “lower” portions keep it rolling.

That warning label idea is no joke.

Beliefism has hurt a lot a people for a long time. It still does. It hurt me. It might be hurting you.

Maybe we should talk about it.

“A Man of Sorrows and Acquainted With Grief”

Isaiah 53:3 ESV

It’s not like you think, going godless — certainly not like I thought, or from what I can tell not like other people like me — who used to be Christians but aren’t anymore – not like what they thought either.

I didn’t become an atheist because I was drowning in deep despair or off my meds. I didn’t suddenly start being evil, thinking and doing evil things; didn’t wake up cursing and muttering blasphemies; wasn’t suddenly deranged and hollow, didn’t start haunting churches and graveyards; going off on people carrying Bibles.

No, I was just being me – a generally nice guy who grew up in the Nice Person Capital of the World (Minnesota) – doing my best to stumble through a series of what one writer calls “lifequakes.” God and being a Christian were at the center of the deluge because they were at the center of everything about me and my life. They just got caught in the middle. The whole thing was a hurricane in reverse – the highest winds and most damage were in the center, so God and Christianity took the hardest hit. Not that they were exactly innocent bystanders:   my post-Christian life got started with a betrayal from the inside (a story I’ve told that story elsewhere and won’t repeat it here). For the first ten years or so I thought I would get over it, but the damage was done, the citadel breached, the way back destroyed.

From there my reverse conversion just… happened … privately, quietly, gradually… exactly like Screwtape said it would: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” he wrote to Wormwood, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It took years to traverse that gentle slope – a long slow erosion of my sense of identity and way of going about life. God and Christianity eroded away like a bank along a favorite stream in a favorite woodland that failed and faltered until finally one days it was all washed away and there was no more grass, nothing but deep ruts and gnarly exposed roots, the thick green underbrush gone and the trees falling over for lack of purchase for their roots, the life and joy and wonder of the place long, long, painfully dried up to the point that there was no possible way to kid myself that there was anything still growing there, anything that could still grow there, and now there was nothing left to do but wish it wasn’t so, and knowing that yes, it was so, irretrievably so, and I would need to find a new place with new water and soil, sun and shade.

That’s what it was like — the emptiness of a wind over a parched land, a waste land of water not falling from the sky, an endless, ever-receding horizon with nothing but heat mirages ever rising up into view no matter how long you trudged toward it.

“A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Yes, that’s what it was like.

It was a grief long-grieved through multiple iterations of shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance – an endless repetition of redoubt and redoubling, of circling back, searching and wondering, and always this feeling that this can’t possibly be me doing this, this is not happening, this was never supposed to happen.

We prefer to focus on the acceptance stage of grieving – it’s heroic, overcoming, the do-over you get after a lot of awareness and learning and deepening. Nothing to dislike about acceptance, but getting there is rugged – no silver lining, no “reason for everything.” Shit just happens.

Grief packs a wallop. Grief is always an ambush – you’re always reeling, off balance, back-peddling. Grief is your personalized apocalypse, your lonely end of the world. Grief takes you on a tour of your history, reveals things you needed to know but didn’t, all the dumb stuff you did because you didn’t know any better and didn’t know how to ask for help, and now that you know better and are willing to ask for help what’s the point because it’s too late. Grief makes a mess of things, leaves you ragged and speechless and unpretty. Grief makes you crazy mad and angry mad. Grief numbs you out, turns you into the walking dead.

Grief isn’t about what’s lost, it’s about how we deal with loss. I lost a lot when I lost my Christian faith, and I lost my faith because I lost a lot. Grief is a super-slow motion baptism of regret. I used to think I lived with no regrets – like people brag about doing – but I was wrong, ridiculously wrong. Regret is a sticky form of the anger stage of grief. I had it stuck all over me – regret over all those years of uncountable small decisions and declarations that would have been made differently or not at all if it hadn’t been for my fierce allegiance to God – all those risks taken, allegiances declared, positions staked out, doubt and despair denied, convictions affirmed, certainties avowed, doubts and wonderings squelched, comfort forsaken, moments of awe and euphoria asserted, instants of triumph celebrated…. So much life! So many faces, constantly in and out of the frame! So much said, so much left unsaid, so much gainsaid….

It has taken years to get unstuck from regret. Lately, it seems the regret years might finally be over. The memories no longer have that angry edge, like the energy of it has been used up. God and Christianity are lost and gone away – a lifetime bond broken, an identity discarded, a way of looking at life left behind – to the point that now I look at what used to be and wonder how I possibly could have lived like that all those years.

That’s what it was like. All of that.

Not like I thought.

Not like other Christians who lost their faith thought.

Probably not like you thought either.

We Seriously Need to Get Over Our Addiction to Ancient Wisdom

Where did we get the idea that Ancient Wisdom is such hot stuff?

You shrug. You don’t know, you never thought about it. I hadn’t either.

An “ancient wisdom” Google search generated the usual 89 million results in 0.65 seconds. The first couple pages were mostly life coaches trying to out-reverence each other.

Lesson learned:  call what you’re peddling ancient wisdom, and you’ll sell more of it. (Remember the opening of The Secret promo movie?)

Not exactly the answer I had in mind.

Ancient wisdom is an assumption:  of course it’s better than anything we might think of on our own — everybody knows that! It’s better because it’s… well, because it’s… un, because it’s really old… it’s so old it’s… ancient.

Sigh.

We assume ancient wisdom will give us an edge – rocket us from clueless to competitive. I mean, those ancients, they had it going. They’re the Who’s Who of Law, Art, Philosophy, Religion, History, Literature… The ancient texts. The ancient ways. The ancient teachings. The ancient books. The ancient heroes. The ancient incarnations of gods walking the Earth. Miles and piles of traditions and holidays and customs. Wars, wars, and more wars. Greed and evil, corruption and cruelty, with a sprinkle of nobility now and then. On and on and on… Ancient this, ancient that.

Ancient is most potent when it’s sacred ancient, which is as close to God as you can get. God is old – really old, older than old, older even than ancient. That means sacred ancient-ness is next to godliness.

Sigh.

We’re so addicted to ancient wisdom that we’re blind to our addiction, which makes it hard to talk about. It seems obvious, like asking why we breathe.

  • We breathe to live.
  • We revere ancient wisdom because we breathe.

Or something like that.

When’s the last time ancient wisdom made your life better? I mean really better, not just “I believe this old stuff will improve my life” better?

Here’s the problem (one of many):  We think those guys (yes, guys – ancient pronouns are definitely male) were just like us, living the same kinds of lives, dealing with the same kinds of issues, so that what they thought about how life works can help us out.

Not so.

This is the time travel problem:  the idea that if we could zap ourselves forward or backward in time we’d still be us, the same as we are now, only with some adjusting to do — so if we time-travelled Socrates into today, the bedsheet clothes would have to go, and he’d need a shower and probably a trip to the dentist, but otherwise with the help of Google Translate he’d fit right in.

Not a chance.

Humans function in context. We feel, don’t feel, think, don’t think, act, don’t act… see, perceive, conclude, decide, and all their opposites… only in context. We happen in the moment because that’s all we’ve got. We have no experience except here and now, and everything about our experience comes from our brains’ processing what we’re experiencing. We take in all the external stimuli – through our senses, through spatial and subliminal biological connections –and our brains process it all internally. The amalgamation becomes “reality.” A little of that happens consciously; most of it doesn’t. To the extent we’re aware, we are conscious only in context.

Ancient context was different. Ancient people and their ancient reality were different. The ancient human consciousness that created ancient reality was different. We and our reality and consciousness are different from theirs. We are not like those guys. They weren’t like us. If we could ever meet – which we can never do, not even metaphorically or intellectually or otherwise – we would barely recognize them as human. They would return the favor. We’d both notice the naked ape resemblance, but common ground would be hard to find. Maybe after some who-knows-how-long acclimation process we might learn to experience a new, shared context together. Until then, things would definitely be awkward.

We give ancient religion special status in our ancient addiction. We re-energize ancient events and teachings, beliefs and practices, by the application of our fervent belief. By our belief, we invest ancient relics and rituals with living virtue — antiquity reconstituted. We think we brought the ancient back to life, but that’s delusional because our believe is also processed in context – our current context. We’re making up the experience in the here and now. We cannot do otherwise.

Which loops us around back to where we started:  if we didn’t believe ancient wisdom is something special, we wouldn’t believe its relevance to us. And no, calling something “sacred” and “holy” and “eternal” and “immortal” doesn’t help — it still has to be processed through our mortal, temporal biology. We’re not creating ancient meaning and experiencing it in its original form — we’re only creating this moment’s version of it.

The best our believing can do is to treat ancient wisdom as what philosophers call a “first cause.” If you trace everything back through some impossibly tangled mega-gigantic cause and effect chain, you eventually get to the place where you can’t trace back anymore, so you need a “first cause” that gets the whole thing started.( Once you find the first cause, you sound like a parent:  “Because I said so, that’s why.” )

God is the first cause of choice. You can’t go further back than God, can’t prove or disprove God, you either believe in Him (yes, God’s pronouns are also male) or you don’t. Full stop. Ancient is the same way:  you either believe it’s good and true and valuable and worth fighting wars and making converts at gunpoint or sword point or on the rack or in the Inquisition or whatever… or you don’t. Belief is what makes ancient relevant, but when it does, it only gets the current version. Even if sacred holy other ancient could get a pass, there’s no sacred holy other compartment in our brains to process it.

Suppose we could break our ancient addiction habit – what would have to gain?

Ironically, the answer might be what we were after in the first place:  wisdom – the ability to think useful thoughts about what’s going on around us. Consider the following passage from a Pulitzer price-willing journalist, prolific author, and general awesomely intelligent and articulate human being, taken from I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, by Chris Hedges (2008).

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of consciousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others.

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

Nicely said.

We’re not such hot stuff, and neither is ancient wisdom. We’re not so in touch and in control as we’d like to think we are — in fact we bounce around and mutate all over the place – and always in context. We do our best to push back the night, still the churning seas, halt the careening clouds, tame the void to make it less awful. It’s worth the try – the effort, however vain, gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, agency. But we’re not going to banish our limitations by latching onto ancient wisdom, because the latching process ultimately takes place only in us. We are what we are in the context of the moment, just like those old guys were.

A bunch of old guys tried to figure things out. So do we.

Chances are they were about as good at it as we are.

Which isn’t saying much.

The Case For Covid Accountability (Or Not)

I read an article yesterday asking why America doesn’t prosecute Trump for his handling (nonhandling) of the pandemic. We all know what he did and didn’t do, and that that the USA is the world Covid leader, with deaths stalking the half million mark.[1] We also know that Americans move on. It’s what we do — it’s the American way. But that’s not why we wouldn’t try to hold Trump accountable. The truth is, even it we wanted to, we can’t – our law prevents it.

If we were talking about you or me, what are the options for holding us accountable? You read people saying Trump meant for all those people to die, to cull vulnerable populations. If you or I did that, our intent to do that would make it murder or manslaughter.

But he didn’t have to mean it, he could have just been incompetent, like being unqualified for the job. Or he could have actually believed his own fake truth don’t worry this will take its course and be over before you know it, hey look at me I had it and it wasn’t so bad, and besides it’s all China’s fault. Or gee, I was busy golfing that day and my mind was somewhere else. In other words, he could have just been negligent instead of intentional. And again, if that were you or me, we’d be in deep doo-doo.

Here’s a sample of how the law defines criminal negligence, which is the worst kind of negligence there is and therefore is the hardest to prove:

“To be guilty of criminally negligent homicide, the defendant must fail to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a certain result will occur, and the risk must be of such a nature that the defendant’s failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from a reasonable person’s standard of care.”[2]

What do you think of those key phrases?

  • “The defendant must fail to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a certain result will occur.”
  • “And the risk must be of such a nature that the defendant’s failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from a reasonable person’s standard of care.”

Do you think a “reasonable person” have noticed that death was “a substantial and unjustifiable risk” of ignoring a pandemic? Would a reasonable person’s “standard of care” suggest that it might have been a good idea to try to prevent disaster if you were in a position to do so? Seems reasonable. (And BTW, “reasonable” in this context doesn’t refer to what reasonableness-impaired nutcases think is reasonable. Instead it means what a… well, um, let’s say a more um, normal person – like one who’s capable of empathy — might think.)

The standard of care that applies when people throw around the word “negligence” is for lawyers to argue about, but at the very least, does a gut-level response suggest that there might be something unreasonable and uncaring about ignoring a plague?

Sure, yeah, okay, well maybe. But “gross” negligence means something special under the law. Gross negligence is not just your everyday plain vanilla run-of-the-mill inattentiveness – not just oh-gosh-I-guess-I-wasn’t-paying-attention-I’m-so-forgetful-sometimes negligence. Gross negligence is really trying to be incompetent negligence – it’s talk to the hand, can’t you see I’m busy here negligence.

Gross negligence, normal negligence… really trying to be blind when anybody who’s breathing would have noticed things weren’t going to go well if you just ignored the whole thing and hoped it would go away… none of those kinds of negligence make any difference. Turns out that Presidents get to be as negligent as they want.

Yes, that is gross. But it’s also the law.

And something else that doesn’t  matter is whether what Trump did or didn’t do actually caused those deaths. Like standard of care, causation is something else for lawyers to argue about – that’s what law school is for, to teach lawyers how to do that. Okay fine. But for Presidents, ignoring a plague to the point where hundreds of thousands of citizens in a country you’re supposed to be in charge of die unnecessarily, well that’s just fine. And the rest of us can just go ahead and assume all the very worst things possible and Trump still gets a get out of jail free card.

Why?

Because under U.S. federal and state law, a President can do no wrong.

Let’s take a moment for that to sink in.

Now one more time with felling: Under U.S. federal and state law, a President can do no wrong.

And it’s not just the President, it’s everybody else who’s a — what’s that phrase? oh yeah, “public servant” – none of them can do wrong either. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Lauren Boebert… all of those public servants…  none of them can do wrong.

Seriously. That’s what our law says.

I still remember the moment when I was sitting in a law school class learning about this. “Government needs to be free to govern,” my law professor explained. Okay, got it. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. We hold people accountable, nobody’s going to want to do it. Better give them unlimited Mulligans than not have them in Washington working hard on our behalf.

The legal doctrine is “sovereign immunity.” It’s part of American law because when we started our country we brought English common law with us, because it was easier to do that than start from scratch. And English common law said “the king can do no wrong.”

“Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine whereby a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune to civil suit or criminal prosecution.”[3]

“Sovereign immunity finds its origins in English common law and the king’s position at the ‘apex of the feudal pyramid.’ In that pyramid, lords could not be sued in their own courts, ‘not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.’ Thus, lords could only be sued in the courts of their superiors, but, for the king, ‘there was no higher court in which he could be sued.’” [4]

“The theory of the divine right of kings lent support to the proposition that the king was above the law-that he was in fact the law-giver appointed by God, and therefore could not be subjected to the indignity of suit by his subjects…. [Sir William Blackstone, author of the famous Blackstone Law Dictionary, said that] ‘Besides the attribute of sovereignty, the law also ascribes to the king in his political capacity absolute perfection… The king… is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.’”[5]

Nice to know that our legal system is doing its part to keep the feudal pyramid intact.

Nice to know that the king in his political capacity is absolutely perfect.

Nice to know the President is, too.

And can we talk for a  moment about “divine right”? The Divine Right of Kings was a favorite doctrine of the first King James of England –King James as in the King James version of the Bible.[6] It makes sense that somebody who has a Bible translation named after him would know about Divine Right. Export Divine Right to this side of the Pond, and now you’ve got Presidents and members of Congress and the whole scurvy bunch getting to act like they’re the King of England:  incapable of doing wrong, incapable of even thinking wrong or meaning to do something improper, because in them is no folly or weakness.

Hmmm, sounds just like Trump and his cronies.

And can we also talk about the Bible that says God has made “him [that, is mankind] a little lower than the angels” and “crowned him with glory and honor” and “has given him dominion over the works of your hands,” and “put all things under his feet.”  Psalm 8: 4-6 (There’s a reason why Biblical language is male-biased:  God Himself is a him – “a man of war” to be exact. Exodus 15:3) That’s the Bible that says, God has made him “A little lower than angels.” All disrespect intended, that’s a lie. The way it works is that God is way up there, the rest of use are way down here, and the ones a little lower than the angels are the people in government. Angels, when they’re not dancing on the heads of pins, get to be Death Angels and destroy people and things. The President and his enablers get to do likewise. The rest of us? Only in your dreams, pal – as the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol are learning.

No wonder people want to be rich and powerful:  you get the adult version of a permanent hall pass. Turn a virus loose? No problem. Wage endless wars? You got it. Sic SS troops on Black Lives Matter protestors? Rock on, baby. You can get away with stuff now. Don’t like the service? Buy the place and fire the manager. No more nagging internal voice that says be careful what you say and do. God bless the child’s that’s got his own”[7] – that’s you, my friend, now get out there and sing “I did it my way”[8] all the way to the bank.

If we were honest, when the adults ask us what we want to be when we grow up, we’d all answer “I want to be God.” The more timid might wonder if they can be God without having the whole world in their hand, but they don’t need to worry, the best part of being God is nobody can put you on their naughty and nice list. You can theoretically have the whole world in your hands, but what you do or don’t do with it is all up to you.

And don’t tell me that the Man at the top of the cosmic pecking order has an internal moral compass that makes Him be nice and just and truthful, that sure He has His moments (like ordering genocide and authorizing rights of rape for his troops) but his love really is everlasting and his mercy really does endure forever.

Sorry, but I’ve read that book many times, and I know better.

True, the government can waive its own sovereign immunity,[9] and believe it or not that has actually happened before:  “The federal government did this when it passed the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waived federal immunity for numerous types of torts claims.”[10]

What do you suppose are the odds it could happen again, this time around?

Yeah, me neither.

So the reason why Americans aren’t suing Trump over Covid is not because we’re acting like Americans and letting bygones be bygones and calling for unity so we don’t slow down the march of progress that is our manifest destiny, it’s because we can’t. And we can’t because the Bible tells us so.

So the real culprit isn’t the Bible’s God, it’s the Bible, and in particular it’s the Bible’s worldview that thousands of years later still dominates our thinking about how life works, still undergirds our country, still explains why “Amazing Grace” gets sung at Inaugural festivities as a patriotic hymn like of course it belongs there, it’s part of what it means to be American.

Hey, hierarchies with God at the top are nice sometimes. They make the cosmos seem orderly, they give life meaning and purpose. They clean up the mess, make it so we don’t have to deal with being so damn… human… all the time.

I mean, screaming into the void does get old.

And just think what it would be like to actually have to think through a way to make sense of the messiness of human government in a way that would hold accountable people like former (praise be to the Autocratic God at the top of the pyramid!) President Trump – not to mention what that would mean for Republicans and the Christian Right and everyone else who might in the absence of King James Law be considered morally, ethically, and legally accountable for half a million deaths.

Yeah, that would be tough, all of that out-of-the-Bible-box creative thinking it would take to come up with something like that.  

Just like it would be tough to figure out whether a reasonable person might take a deadly plague seriously.


[1] Coronavirus Update (Live): 98,049,817 Cases and 2,098,153 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Pandemic – Worldometer (worldometers.info). Some people think the U.S. performance isn’t so bad if you measure it per capita:  Mortality Analyses – Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (jhu.edu). Great. Explain that to somebody’s friends and family.

[2] CO 18-3-305. Criminally negligent homicide – Law of Self Defense

[3] Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States.

[4] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both.  See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity”  “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”.

[5] Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[6] Owlcation

[7] Billie Holiday – YouTube.

[8] Frank Sinatra – YouTube.

[9] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity” and Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States

[10] Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute.

Blueprint for Fascism Part 5

This series has been looking at fascism’s Biblical worldview and narrative. Last time, at the close of Part 4, I said we would look next at “Christianity’s claim that God and His genocidal directives don’t apply to New Testament religion.” On reflection, that topic is irrelevant to this series, so I’m going to wrap up without it.

I was showing my age. When I was part of evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, there was an assumed theodicy that the New Testament God had somehow superseded the Old – He was kinder and gentler, and so was the gospel. (“Theodicy means vindication of God. It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil, thus resolving the issue of the problem of evil.” Wikipedia) I was shown the door out of that world over 20 years ago. It took most of those years for me to get re-situated until I could say, “Hey, would you look at that – I’m an atheist now!” In the meantime, the world I left behind changed to the point where it no longer needed its kinder, gentler God and kinder, gentler gospel.

The churches I’d been associated with were only peripherally related to the rising new Christian Right, although in hindsight I can see that we were less peripheral than we wanted to think. The shift was already underway by the time I got out – it was a product of the times, moving in sync with the USA’s economic, political, and cultural shift. Under the new militant nationalist regime, the old theodicy was unnecessary.

I didn’t see this happening while it was going on around me. I think most of us didn’t. I’ve only become aware of it because about 4-5 years ago I realized that I didn’t know how life works any more, and started reading and writing to try to catch up. Because I was detached from the church, my worldview hadn’t moved with the times. I was on the outside looking in. I had become part of the new fascism’s Other and didn’t even know it.

As I tried to understand the brave new world I was now living in, I made the faulty assumption (one of many) that the Christianity I once knew was still the same, and therefore I couldn’t understand how it had suddenly rallied behind Trump and the Republicans and their new American fascism. Turns out there was nothing sudden about it, and the Christianity I’d left behind wasn’t the one that had done the rallying. But I didn’t notice, and that’s why I was about to write this Part 5 on a topic that wasn’t relevant.

Instead of doing that, I’ll end this series by referring you to an article I read just this weekend by someone I follow on Medium who has been paying attention: Dear Christians: We Need to Talk, by Manny Otiko Medium (Jan. 15, 2021). In addition, if you’re interested in generally learning more about the rise of the Christian Right, here’s a list of short histories told from a variety of viewpoints:

Christian right – Wikipedia.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right – POLITICO Magazine

Movements | Religious Right | Timeline | The Association of Religion Data Archives (thearda.com)

The Christian Right, The Twentieth Century, Divining America: Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center

Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Blueprint for Fascism – Part 4

Fascism at War

Part 3 of this series looked at how fascism uses gaslighting, cult indoctrination, and patriotic nationalism to install the Biblical/Fascist Narrative as the country’s new normal. The narrative mandates war against Them – those fingered for the nation’s fall from grace, defined racially, ethnically, nationally, politically, and otherwise. In this Part 4, we’ll see that fascism at war is domestic and international terrorism.[1]

Legalized Crime

War is legalized crime:  it legalizes what is culturally unacceptable and morally abhorrent. It returns humanity to a state of raw survival, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[2]

“War… preys on our most primal and savage impulses. It allows us to do what peacetime society forbids or restrains us from doing:  It allows us to kill.”[3]

International Law

International law imposes limits on war’s legalized criminality.

“’We have had a system of international governance since World War II that reflects the ascendance of a set of commitments to individual rights and protections rooted in the U.N. system…,’ says [Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor and director of the Stanford global studies division], who served as deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2015.” [4]

International law is grounded on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[5] and is backed up by criminal enforcement in the International Criminal Court[6]. These structures were put in place in 2002 via The Rome Statute, a treaty negotiated under U.N. auspices. The Rome Statute established four types of international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. The ink was barely dry when the United States announced its non-compliance with the treaty.

“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits U.S. government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates U.S. participation in United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release” of certain U.S. and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”[7]

India, Indonesia, and China have also rejected these international law standards.

“As of January 2019, 123 states are members of the Court. Other states that have not become parties to the Rome Statute include India, Indonesia, and China. On May 6th, 2002, the United States, in a position shared with Israel and Sudan, having previously signed the Rome Statute formally withdrew its signature and indicated that it did not intend to ratify the agreement.”[8]

Fascism at War

Fascism at war adheres to the Biblical-Fascist Narrative. [9]

Altered Narrative/Altered Reality. “The myth of war creates a new, artificial reality. Moral precepts — ones we have spent a lifetime learning — are jettisoned. We accept, if not condone, the maiming and killing of other as the regrettable cost of war. We operate under a new moral code…. I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug… It is peddled by mythmakers — historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state — all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess:  excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. it dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it is over.”

Victimhood of Us at the hands of Them.  “The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict. It is studiously crafted by the state. All cultural life is directed to broadcast the injustices carried out against us. Cultural life soon becomes little more that the drivel of agitprop. The message that the nation is good, the cause just, and the war noble is pounded into the heads of citizens in everything from late-night talk shows to morning news programs to films and popular novels. The nation is soon thrown into a trance from which it does not awake until the conflict ends. In parts of the world where the conflict remains unresolved, the trance can last for generations.”

They must be destroyed. “War is not a uniform experience or event … war usually demands, by its very logic, the disabling of the enemy, often broadly defined to include civilians… While we venerate and mourn our own dead we are curiously indifferent about those we kill. Thus killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not.”

Nationalism.  “Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalistic cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and at times erases the society of individual consciousness. We abandon individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious…. There is little that logic or fact or truth can do to alter the experience. Moreover, once this crusade is embraced by the nation, the myth predetermines how the world is perceived. It is only after the myth implodes, often as suddenly as it descended, that one can again question the motives and the actions of the state.”

Religious Sanction.  “Armed movements seek divine sanction and the messianic certitude of absolute truth. They do not need to get this from religions, as we usually think of religion, but a type of religion:  Patriotism provides the blessing. Soldiers want at least the consolation of knowing that they risk being blown up by land mines for a greater glory, for a New World. Dimensions, questioning of purpose, the exposure of war crimes carried out by those fighting on our behalf are dangerous to such beliefs. Dissidents who challenge the goodness of our cause, who question the gods of war, who pull back the curtains to expose the lie are usually silenced or ignored…. Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”

“The Lord is a man of war”

In Biblical Fascism, God is a totalitarian ruler and unaccountable sovereign, free to wage war if, when, and how He sees fit. The Bible identifies God this way:  “The Lord is a man of war.” (Exodus 15: 3) And God is not just a “man of war,” but a terrorist:

“The peoples have heard; they tremble;
pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,”
Exodus 15:  14-16

God’s “Anointed” – the one who leads his chosen nation – is similarly above human legal, moral, and ethical accountability. God backs up His Anointed and uses his chosen nation as his “hammer and weapon of war,” to impose his will on the non-chosen. He does so with derision and contempt.

“You are my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms; with you I break in pieces the horse and his rider; with you I break in pieces the chariot and the charioteer; with you I break in pieces man and woman; with you I break in pieces the old man and the youth; with you I break in pieces the young man and the young woman; with you I break in pieces the shepherd and his flock; with you I break in pieces the farmer and his team; with you I break in pieces governors and commanders.” Jeremiah 51:20-26 

“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.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury.” Psalm 2:1-12

God expects the same ruthlessness from his nation:

“Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness, and cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed.” Jeremiah 48:10

Little wonder, then, that the best way to deal with God is to be afraid of Him. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10.

Holy War

Israel went to war, Islam went to war, Christianity went to war — against each other and amongst themselves. They still do. For God’s people, every war is holy war — God is always on your side, your cause is always just. The Church, steeped in centuries of holy wars and pogroms, supported Mussolini in his day, just as the Christian Right supports Trump and the Republicans today. Same God, same Bible, same worldview, same cause, same justification.

Genocide

When God sends his nation to war, the object is genocide.

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God)”. Exodus 34:11-14

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.” Deuteronomy 7:1-26

“And you shall consume all the peoples that the Lord your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.” Deuteronomy 7:16 

“You shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” Deuteronomy 13:15 

“You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place.” Deuteronomy 12:1-32 

“But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded,” Deuteronomy 20:16-17 

“And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors.” Deuteronomy 2:34 

“And we took all his cities at that time—there was not a city that we did not take from them—sixty cities, the whole region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides very many unwalled villages. And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children. But all the livestock and the spoil of the cities we took as our plunder.” Deuteronomy 3:4-6

“The people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” Joshua 6:20-21 

“Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai.” Joshua 8:22-25

“Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” Joshua 10:40 

“Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword; also the women and the little ones. This is what you shall do: every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” Judges 21:10-12 

“And the men of Israel turned back against the people of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, the city, men and beasts and all that they found. And all the towns that they found they set on fire.” Judges 20:48 

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” 1 Samuel 15:2-3 

“And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.” 2 Kings 19:35 

“And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.’” 1 Kings 18:36-40 

“And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul, but that whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15:12-13

“Go up against the land of Merathaim, and against the inhabitants of Pekod. Kill, and devote them to destruction, declares the Lord, and do all that I have commanded you. The noise of battle is in the land, and great destruction!” Jeremiah 50:21-22 

Sometimes, instead of killing everyone, Israel’s soldiers were authorized to capture and rape the women survivors.

“Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.” Numbers 31:17-18 

“This is what you shall do: every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction. And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan”. Judges 21:10-12 E

Sometimes, God’s hostility was turned against His own people.

“And he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.” Exodus 32:27-28 

“Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Numbers 21:6-35 

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.’” Numbers 25:4 

“Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.” Isaiah 13:16 

“And if anyone again prophesies, his father and mother who bore him will say to him, ‘You shall not live, for you speak lies in the name of the Lord.’ And his father and mother who bore him shall pierce him through when he prophesies.” Zechariah 13:3

“Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird— no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! Ephraim, as I have seen, was like a young palm planted in a meadow; but Ephraim must lead his children out to slaughter. Give them, O Lord— what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts. Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more.” Hosea 9:11-16 

“Then the Lord said to me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go! And when they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord: Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine, and those who are for captivity, to captivity.’ I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers, declares the Lord: the sword to kill, the dogs to tear, and the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy. And I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh the son of Hezekiah, king of Judah, did in Jerusalem.” Jeremiah 15:1-4 

“I will make Mount Seir a waste and a desolation, and I will cut off from it all who come and go. And I will fill its mountains with the slain. On your hills and in your valleys and in all your ravines those slain with the sword shall fall. I will make you a perpetual desolation, and your cities shall not be inhabited. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 35:7-9 

“And to the others he said in my hearing, ‘Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.’ So they began with the elders who were before the house. Then he said to them, ‘Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out.’ So they went out and struck in the city.” Ezekiel 9:5-7

“Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished. Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children”. Isaiah 13:15-18 

“Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open”. Hosea 13:16 

“Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their fathers, lest they rise and  possess the earth, and fill the face of the world with cities.” Isaiah 14:21 

This endless onslaught of holy venom represents more than an historical account of a brutal, savage, ancient nation and its brutal, savage, ancient God. They also display the state of mind fascists and theirsupporters once they are fully immersed in and indoctrinated into the Biblical-Fascist Narrative.

Next time, we’ll look at Christianity’s claim that God and His genocidal directives don’t apply to New Testament religion.


[1] The Rome Statute, Articles 6 and 8

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

[3] Hedges, Chris,War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002).

[4] Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)

[5]The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[6] The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights — Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

[7] U.S. Policy Regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congressional Research Service (July 9, 2002 – August 29, 2006) 

[8] Wikipedia –the United States and the International Criminal Court.

[9] All quotations in this section are from Hedges, op cit.

Blueprint for Fascism – Part 2

In this series, we’re looking at fascism’s Biblical roots. Last time, Part 1 distinguished worldview from ideology and began a list of fascism’s defining features. Let’s continue with the list.

Us vs. Them — Racism

Fascism thrives on identifying Us vs. Them. They look, talk, and act differently, follow different customs, traditions, and holidays, listen to different music and express themselves in different art forms. They are usually foreigners, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ[1] crowd, artists, intellectuals, and anybody else who’s not with you and is therefore against you. People of a different race are particularly easy to pick out of the not welcome crowd.

“American fascism… is a clear derivative of centuries of supremacy, slavery, and segregation. That old America never went anywhere, it seems — it was just hibernating. And now it’s back with a vengeance, seeking to reinstate something very much like the America it used to be. So where Islamic fascism is theofascism, American fascism is something subtly different: I’d call it proto-fascism.

“That means something like: ‘fascism before fascism’ or ‘the original fascism.’ I say that because the Nazis in fact both admired and studied America’s supremacist institutions — from Jim Crow to slavery to the elimination of personhood — and modeled their own new society after America’s lost one. So if America is reverting back to an older form of social organization, where whites lived above everyone else, where once they literally owned everyone else — who were the first fascists of all, the Nazis…or the Founding Fathers?

“I know that Americans won’t like to hear that. So go ahead and pick holes in it if you can. I have thought about it intently, and I have to concede, as much as I admire America, this logic appears to be immovable to me. Hence, I think what’s emerging in America is proto-fascism — the original variant, when settlers arrived on the shores of a Promised Land — and decided that it belonged only to them as masters and lords, hence everyone else already there was a subhuman, hence they needed slaves to till their fields.” [2]

Economics

Fascism thrives on economic inequality.

“America became the first rich country to collapse to the new wave of fascism. Why? Because it was the most capitalist country in the world. Capitalism implodes into fascism — inevitably. Why? Because capitalism concentrates capital among those who already own it, which starves labour of gains. That causes the middle class to crater, and inequality to spike. In their desperation and fear, the imploded middle begins to punch down, taking from the even more powerless what was promised to them — security, riches, stability, belonging, status. That sequence describes America perfectly, in hard empirical terms: the rich became ultra rich, but because they took more than 100% of the economy’s gains for decades, the middle class imploded. That fresh poverty produced a turn to a demagogue, who blamed everyone weaker for it — immigrants, refugees, foreigners, etcetera. The Trump voter isn’t the poor black — he’s the declining white.

“So the second half of America’s grim, weird collapse I’d describe as implosive fascism. Implosion of the middle, driven by economic stagnation, is a necessary feature of every fascist collapse — but it’s especially true in America.”[3]

Somebody’s got to pay for it, and rich supporters get richer through fascist cronyism. Meanwhile, the economically disadvantaged flock to fascism and support government policies that widen the inequality gap at their own expense. They do so for a lot of bizarre reasons,[4] but from a religious point of view, lifestyles of the rich and famous is their heavenly destiny — Heaven is where they’ve got a mansion waiting.[5]

Fascism’s Dismal Checklist

If we assemble the above together with the identifiers we saw in Part 1, we have guidelines for recognizing fascism.

Fascists prescribe simple fixes for complex problems.

  • It’s not an ideology, it’s a method, a system for thinking and doing.
  • Fascism feeds on grievances, identifies the enemies responsible, and sets the populace against them.
  • They take on the role of national saviors.
  • They expand their self-concept to the size of the state itself.
  • They subvert, discredit and eliminate societal and governmental institutions that defy or impair them.
  • They ascend to power through the ballot box and then undermine democracy from within.
  • They systematically eliminate opposition one small step at a time.
  • They attack the judiciary and the media.
  • They tell lies as the new truth, repeating them incessantly until they become the new truth, the new reality.
  • They denigrate science and academia.
  • They threaten political competitors and dissenters.
  • They foment bigotry and racism;
  • ,,,male dominance and misogyny;
  • …persecution of the LGBTQ community;
  • …stonewalls against immigrants and foreigners;
  • They praise autocrats and encourage worldwide drift to authoritarianism.
  • Fascism ascends in times of accelerated social and cultural upheaval.
  • …in the aftermath of demoralization and defeat;
  • …after great recessions and other forms of drastic economic displacement;
  • …during times of extreme economic inequality;
  • …in the waning stages of an economic miracle,
  • …when new artistic and creative forms are displacing the old standbys;
  • …when scientific developments offer shocking new perspective on the fabric of life and reality;
  • …when democratic institutions are unstable and the notion of “freedom” takes on new meaning;
  • …when there is widespread disorder;
  • …when a visceral, nostalgic appeal to tradition emerges.
  • Fascism promotes the heavy hand of authoritarianism, and a return to law and order.
  • Fascists promote extreme militaristic nationalism.
  • They use military marches and staged spectacles and rallies to stir up support.
  • They lionize the military and police.
  • They bully, abuse, threaten, intimidate, promote hostility, and encourage their followers to do likewise.
  • They belittle traditional heroes and societal role models of leadership.
  • They glamorize national history in ways that support their cause, and ignore national embarrassments, failures, weaknesses.
  • They adopt religious narratives and forge religious allegiances.
  • They equate national identity with divine purpose and chosen status.
  • They express contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism.
  • They endorse a natural social hierarchy that prizes social and economic elites.
  • They purport to support the vanishing and lost middle class, but only to the extent the middle class is willing to subordinate self-interest to the good of the nation.

But of course fascism doesn’t run off a checklist. (“Let’s see, how are we doing on bigotry today?”) The list entries are embedded in fascist culture. They are socially normative. They serve as measures of allegiance and duty. They create a narrative of how life works, is and ought to be, and maintain practices that support individual and collective compliance with that narrative.

Fascism’s Religious Narrative

Fascism’s narrative is as follows:

  • A utopian past when life was better and people were better off;
  • A fall from grace – a turning away instigated by the evil Them;
  • An awakened nostalgic and righteous yearning to restore lost utopia;
  • The need for a beneficent intervention – salvation – to get back to the good life;
  • The arrival on the scene of a savior, whose charisma commands a following;
  • The emergence of the congregation of the faithful – a chosen population of aggrieved victims transformed into the superior Us;
  • War and final judgment meted out on Them.[6]
  • The Golden Age of the victorious.

The Biblical narrative is everywhere in Western culture – from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Yankee Stadium to the Capitol Building. And it explains fascism’s religious ties and obsession with holy war.

“Old fascism didn’t abhor ‘religion’ as much as we imagine. It was a deeply mystical exercise, steeped in its own mythology of sacred blood and divine…. A homeland of the pure, strong, and faithful. Cleansed of the weak and impure — who are dirty, filthy subhumans.

“A militant message broadcast by armies of demagogues…. Jihadis who took up the call. And destabilized society after society. By bombing and shooting up places where civilized and decent values were being enacted: hospitals, schools, festivals. Minorities targeted, jailed, imprisoned, hunted, eliminated. New institutions built — justice systems, law enforcement agencies, whole new kinds of morality police. Society finally reshaped in the image of the perfect and the pure and the strong.”

“Islamic fascism we might say is something like theo-fascism. It is explicitly ‘religious’ — and faith trumps nationhood. It isn’t mere ‘nationalism’ — its goal is something like a new caliphate, in the extreme, or at least a federation of united Islamic states, proudly clean and faithful.[7]

Mussolini – Fascism Christened

Mussolini gave “fascism” its name, which he took from an ancient Roman symbol.

“Fascism [is a] political ideology and mass movement that dominated many parts of central, southern, and eastern Europe between 1919 and 1945 and that also had adherents in western Europe, the United States, South Africa, Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East.

“Europe’s first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, took the name of his party from the Latin word fasces, which referred to a bundle of elm or birch rods (usually containing an ax) used as a symbol of penal authority in ancient Rome.

“Although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: ‘people’s community’), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation.”[8]

Mussolini’s “Clerical Fascism” and Trump’s Christian Right Fascism

Fascism seizes power by degrading legitimate government and spurring the electorate to rally in patriotic mob scenes, celebrating their own political disempowerment. And then get God on your side. Mussolini rose to power 100 years ago on the strength of “clerical fascism.”[9] “Clerical” referred to Roman Catholic clergy whose interests were propounded by the Italian People’s Party[10], which later split over whether the church should overtly support fascism. Fascist Italy recognized Catholicism as its state religion. Mussolini’s defining rally was his March on Rome.[11] A hundred years after Mussolini, Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the Christian Right have followed the same historical blueprint.

Violence and “the Unthinkable”

What happens when fascism makes its move? As we saw last time, worldview resides with the most basic human impulses – where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[12] Fascism therefore asserts itself with crassness and brutality.

“What tends to happen is violence. Of a spectacular kind. War, atrocity, barbarity. Genocide. The unthinkable…. [T]here is only room for one master race, one Promised Land, one fatherland, one people who are the strongest and purest.”[13]

Violence? Check. Think of the Proud Boys. Think of Trump’s SS troops attaching citizens on city streets.

The unthinkable? Check. Thinks of Trump and the Republicans blatant all-out assault on the defining right of democracy – the citizens’ right to vote — everything from calling votes (only those against Trump) fraudulent to appeals for suspending the Constitution and imposing martial law.

And it all begins with a Biblical worldview.

The Fascist Bible

When I say “Bible,” I mean the Christian Bible. The first part is the “Old Testament” — God’s original deal with ancient Israel. The second part is the “New Testament” — God’s new deal that includes the “Gentiles” – the non-Jews. The second part is Jesus and post-Jesus, but since he was a Jew and it was mostly written by Jews, there’s a lot of carryover. Muslims and Jews buy into the parts of the Old Testament that include Abraham, so they and Christianity are called the “Abrahamic” religions. Therefore “Abrahamic worldview” could be substituted for “Biblical worldview.” It’s the same God in all three.

Extreme Nationalism

Extreme nationalism lies at the heart of fascism. It is also the essence of Abrahamic religion. God choses a nation to be His. That nation becomes Us, which makeseverybodyelse Them. God provides detailed laws through his representatives — prophets, priests, and kings — for how We are supposed to behave.[14] Conformity is the lowest compliance standard; loyalty and zealotry are preferred. Nonconformity, disloyalty, disrespect, doubt, dissent are crushed. One of the worst things God’s favored nationcan do is act like Them – take up foreign customs, marry internationally, etc. The Old Testament is therefore several hundred pages of rewind and repeat re:  how it goes for both Us and Them, and often it’s hard to tell who’s got the worst deal.

The Totalitarian God

Abrahamic religion imposes a hierarchical structure with God at the top. God enjoys absolute sovereignty and is not accountable to anyone for anything. God’s word is Truth, His will supreme, His power absolute. Totalitarianism is authority without accountability, therefore God is a totalitarian ruler.[15] Plus, because God is… well, God… He is in charge of not just his own nation, but all nations. All national sovereignty derives from Him. On this point, the New Testament section of the Christian Bible restates and summarizes Old Testament political worldview:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Romans 13:1-5[16]

National sovereignty that derives from God is similarly unaccountable. Accordingly, “the divine right of kings” protected English monarchs with its declaration that “the king can do no wrong,” and the concept was imported into the Colonies as “sovereign immunity,” which protects federal and state officials.[17] The divine right of kings and sovereign immunity, like God’s rule, are therefore ultimately totalitarian. Which means that a fascist in power is God’s man and can do no wrong unless God intervenes.

Biblically-based national sovereignty answers the question I began Part 1 of this series with:  how is it that the Christian Right can support Trump? The answer is that Trump is God’s man in the same way that Mussolini was God’s man. They are because the Bible says they are. They carry on the succession of divinely-appointed national leaders all the way back to the Old Testament kings.

Farfetched? Fantastical? We need only listen to the rationale given by one of Trump’s Men –former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his defense of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, to learn that the Christian Right doesn’t find this farfetched or fantastical in the slightest. Instead, it is a validation of legitimacy.

“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you,,,, If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”[18]

Sessions invoked the Bible to substantiate the United States’ God-derived national sovereignty. The authority of God and the Bible is totalitarian, beyond accountability. Since the United States derives its national sovereignty from God and the Bible, it enjoys the same totalitarian authority, above any law other than its own. Its laws are good and moral by definition, and its government and government officials are free from fault because its laws say they are.

  • “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul.”
  • “God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
  • “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.”
  • “Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”
  • “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Sessions’ case justifies national xenophobic indifference to the plight of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse. the homeless, and tempest-tossed.[19] Instead, the United States government is free to terrorize them at the border. The same concept applies to America’s national history of legal slavery and normative racism, as well as its institutionalized homophobia and misogyny.

Next Time

In sum, the Bible narrative – the story of God’s relationship with his people — illustrates the dynamics of fascist government. And the Bible’s God is a prototype of a fascist leader.

We’ll look further into these things next time.


[1] For an updated treatment of the acronym, see LGBTQIAPK: Let’s Unpack the Acronym, Harlot (Mar. 19, 2018),

[2] Hague, Umair, The (New) Fascism of the 21st Century, Medium (Aug. 7, 2019)..

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas, K R, Why DO the poor keep voting for the rich? Medium (Dec. 26, 2019)

[5] “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2 NKJV

[6] Wikipedia – Fascism

[7] Hague, Umair, op cit.

[8] Fascism | Definition, Meaning, Characteristics, Examples, & History | Britannica

[9] Clerical fascism – Wikipedia

[10] Italian People’s Party (1919) – Wikipedia

[11] March on Rome | Definition, Events, & Facts | Britannica. March on Rome – Wikipedia

[12] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

[13] Hague, Umair, op cit.

[14] See the “blessings and curses” of Deuteronomy 26-28.

[15] For a breakdown on how the CIA categorizes dictatorial forms of government, see Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism — What Is the Difference? ThoughtCo. (June 5, 2020).

[16] See also Daniel 2:20-21, Daniel 4:17, Jeremiah 27:5, Proverbs 21:1.

[17] Wikipedia – Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia – Sovereign Immunity in the United States. McCann, Miles, State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both.  See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity”  “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”. Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity,” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[18] YouTube. See Wikipedia — Trump administration family separation policy.

[19] The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty, The Atlantic (Jan. 15, 2018)

Reparations [7]: Global Accountability – Part 2

Proposals for reparations for American slavery often focus on centuries-old circumstances, legal issues, and cultural attitudes, proposing compensation to the descendants of slaves for ancestral harm suffered. This view treats slavery as something that ended at the Civil War and ignores its de facto persistence for another century until the 1960’s Civil Rights movement and for yet another 60 years of normalized cultural racism since then. Further, it misses the opportunity that reparations offer:  a chance to cleanse the past and create an inspired future. The global community offers a framework for this kind of opportunity — international human rights law, but the USA has long resisted global accountability, asserting instead its “rugged individualism” version of national sovereignty.

Rugged Individualism Sovereignty

Herbert Hoover introduced the term “rugged individualism” into the American lexicon in a 1928 campaign speech. [1] He began by acknowledging the need for federal control of the WWI mobilization, but rejected it as a standard for going forward, demonizing it as “European” and advocating a return to the Republican Party’s decentralized agenda.

“[At the end of World War I], the most vital of issues both in our own country and around the world was whether government should continue their wartime ownership and operation of… production and distribution. We were challenged with a… choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines ­ doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization… [and] the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”[2]

Hoover’s perspective was untimely and off the mark. Rugged individualism didn’t pull the nation out of the 1930’s Great Depression. For that, the country needed another wave of massive federal investment in the New Deal, followed by another centralized war effort. After the second world war, federal guidance shepherded three decades of post-war recovery, but in time the nation returned to rugged individualism as politicians continued to demonize democratic socialism until it became synonymous with Soviet Communism — a characterization both intellectually and historically false.

Sovereignty Without Accountability

Rugged individualism applied to the issue of national sovereignty results in a lack of accountability which 20th Century political theorist Hannah Arendt identified as the identifying hallmark of totalitarianism, since it results in “the possession of all instruments of governmental power and violence in one country.”[3]

The historic roots of this outlook lie in a Biblical hierarchical worldview in which God reigns uncontested at the top, and national charters derive directly from the supreme divine source. God enjoys absolute sovereignty unaccountable to anyone for anything, and is therefore free to enforce divine will by any means, including holy war, genocide, temporal chastisement, and eternal torture. The derivative sovereignty of nations is similarly unrestrained. In this scheme, “the divine right of kings” protected the English monarchs with its declaration that “the king can do no wrong,” and the concept was imported into the Colonies as ”sovereign immunity,” which protects state and federal officials. The divine right of kings and sovereign immunity, like God’s rule, are therefore ultimately totalitarian.

“Many of us see the term [totalitarianism] primarily as polemical, used more to discredit governments than to offer meaningful analyses of them. Scholars often prefer the much broader term authoritarianism, which denotes any form of government that concentrates political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.”[4]

International Accountability – The Nuremberg Trials

The Nazis in control of Germany operated under their own totalitarian version of national sovereignty, possessing “all instruments of governmental power and violence” which concentrated “political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.” To hold them accountable after the end of the war, the victorious allies convened the Nuremberg Trials under the authority of a unilaterally-imposed instrument known as the London Charter.[5] The resulting trials defied traditional notions of national sovereignty, as described in a 1946 article in The Atlantic, written by a Federal judge.

“The Nuremberg War Trial has a strong claim to be considered the most significant as well as the most debatable event since the conclusion of hostilities. To those who support the trial it promises the first effective recognition of a world law for the punishment of malefactors who start wars or conduct them in bestial fashion. To the adverse critics the trial appears in many aspects a negation of principles which they regard as the heart of any system of justice under law.

“This sharp division of opinion has not been fully aired largely because it relates to an issue of foreign policy upon which this nation has already acted and on which debate may seem useless or, worse, merely to impair this country’s prestige and power abroad. Moreover, to the casual newspaper reader the long-range implications of the trial are not obvious. He sees most clearly that there are in the dock a score of widely known men who plainly deserve punishment. And he is pleased to note that four victorious nations, who have not been unanimous on all post-war questions, have, by a miracle of administrative skill, united in a proceeding that is overcoming the obstacles of varied languages, professional habits, and legal traditions. But the more profound observer is aware that the foundations of the Nuremberg trial may mark a watershed of modern law.”[6]

The Nuremberg Trials thus initiated an unprecedented accountability for transnational crimes:

“There were many legal and procedural difficulties to overcome in setting up the Nuremberg trials. First, there was no precedent for an international trial of war criminals. There were earlier instances of prosecution for war crimes, such as the execution of Confederate army officer Henry Wirz (1823-65) for his maltreatment of Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War (1861-65); and the courts-martial held by Turkey in 1919-20 to punish those responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915-16. However, these were trials conducted according to the laws of a single nation rather than, as in the case of the Nuremberg trials, a group of four powers (France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S.) with different legal traditions and practices.

“The Allies eventually established the laws and procedures for the Nuremberg trials with the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), issued on August 8, 1945. Among other things, the charter defined three categories of crimes: crimes against peace (including planning, preparing, starting or waging wars of aggression or wars in violation of international agreements), war crimes (including violations of customs or laws of war, including improper treatment of civilians and prisoners of war) and crimes against humanity (including murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds). It was determined that civilian officials as well as military officers could be accused of war crimes.”[7]

“I was only following orders.”

National policy is carried out by individuals, and the Nuremberg Trials eliminated the defense that the accused were merely following the orders of the state. This was an unprecedented evidentiary innovation that, like the London Charter, defied historical notions of state sovereignty, particularly with respect to the actions of military personnel.

“In connection with war crimes of this sort there is only one question of law worth discussing here: Is it a defense to a soldier or civilian defendant that he acted under the order of a superior?

“The defense of superior orders is, upon the authorities, an open question. Without going into details, it may be said that superior orders have never been recognized as a complete defense by German, Russian, or French law, and that they have not been so recognized by civilian courts in the United States or the British Commonwealth of Nations, but they tend to be taken as a complete excuse by Anglo-American military manuals. In this state of the authorities, if the International Military Tribunal in connection with a charge of a war crime refuses to recognize superior orders as a defense, it will not be making a retroactive determination or applying an ex post facto law. It will be merely settling an open question of law as every court frequently does.”[8]

“Slavery was legal at the time” and the International Statute of Limitations for crimes against humanity.

A corollary of the “only following orders” defense is the assertion that slavery was legal at the time. General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox[9] presented a question of lingering guilt to former Confederates that was quickly resolved by Presidential pardons.[10]

International human rights law presents a similar problem. The Rome Statute was created by treaty, to be enforced by the International Criminal Court, effective in 2002.[11] It established four core transnational crimes similar to those applied at the Nuremberg Trials: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. “Enslavement” is included in the Rome Statute’s list of crimes against humanity, [12] and there is no statute of limitations. Therefore it is no defense under international law that American slavery was the law of the times.

“Under international law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have no statute of limitations, according to the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity and Article 29 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”[13]

“In the international arena, the non-applicability of statutory limitations pertains to crimes that are extremely difficult to prosecute immediately after they were committed. This is particularly true of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Given the context in which such crimes tend to be carried out, it is often necessary to wait for a change in the situation—an end to the conflict or a change in regime—for it to become possible, in practice, to initiate judicial proceedings. The non-applicability of statutory limitations prevents the most serious crimes, and those most difficult to prosecute, from going unpunished.”[14]

As long as a nation refuses the jurisdiction of international law, and absent an extraordinary unilateral enforcement such as the London Charter, a nation can remain shielded by its own self-declared sovereignty. And since there is no international statute of limitations, the nation has every incentive to keep it that way. No surprise, then, that the United States quickly repudiated the International Criminal Court immediately after the effective date of the Rome Statute. The USA’s main concern:  to protect its military personnel from guilt associated with following orders.

“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits US government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates US participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use ‘all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release’ of certain US and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”[15]

The same issue was behind the Trump Administration’s recent ICC sanctions:

“On Thursday, the president followed through on the longstanding threats by his foreign policy team, issuing new sanctions against the ICC over its provocative effort to investigate and prosecute American military, intelligence, and perhaps even former political officials for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.”[16]

Reparations for American Slavery Under International Law

A recent The Wall Street Journal editorial argued for slavery reparations under international law.

“The prohibition against slavery has now achieved jus cogens—a peremptory norm, from which no derogation is permitted. This is the highest legal status in international law, and it means retroactive responsibility may be imposed on those who violated that norm. This is how the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg: retroactively—for the jus cogens of crimes against humanity. On that basis alone, the U.S. may be held legally responsible for the historical enslavement of Africans and the consequences for their descendants.”[17]

The editorial asserts without qualification that “the U.S. is bound by international law and must be guided by the precedent set by many other countries that have recognized reparations as a means to redress injustice.” But as we’ve seen, even if the USA is accountable for slavery and there is no statute of limitations under international law, the nation can continue to shield itself from global accountability by asserting its rugged individualism sovereignty.

Interference in “Internal Affairs.”

The USA routinely vilifies the world’s dictatorial strongmen for telling us (and the rest of the world) to stop meddling in their internal affairs, failing to notice that this attitude matches our own concept of national sovereignty.

A Google search of “interference with internal affairs” turns up a fascinating look at the futility of international diplomacy on this topic. Invariably, one nation’s “interference in internal affiars” is another’s “crime of aggression.” The U.N.’s Charter tried to find a way through this conflict, but the result raises more questions than answers. Here’s a sample:

“To what extent does the UN Charter permit legitimate violation of the sovereignty of another state, in the absence of international armed conflict or acts of national self defense? Should moral imperatives override legal authority? Even assuming the mandate was soundly based in law, was it breached by the coalition and NATO in the manner of its execution?  While the mandated authority to protect civilians was interpreted most liberally, some might say it was used as a smoke screen for an intent which was subsequently revealed, that of regime change, for which there is no lawful authority under the Charter.”[18]

The USA bypasses this legal sparring by resisting international interference. The Trump administration’s recent sanctions against the ICC replay this familiar theme, as evidenced by editorial commentary from his media supporters:

“In essence, the ICC is the plaything of the European left, post-sovereign technocrats, and progressive legal elites — one-worlders who won’t provide for their own security and dream up schemes to delegitimize actions that sovereign states, especially the United States, take in their national interests.”[19]

“This sanctions regime is fundamentally misguided. It will do little to stop the ICC’s investigation, erodes the U.S. longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and may undermine one of the most powerful tools in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal — economic sanctions.”[20]

The counterpoint to this commentary is the recognition of the USA’s historical preference for unilateralism.

“Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on several individuals associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The order is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle against the ICC, which the Trump administration has long sought to undermine in order to avoid accountability for itself and its allies. The move is also part of a broader disengagement with the multilateral system.”[21]

This political preference for “disengagement with the multilateral system” did not deter Trump’s recent call for the U.N. to impose global accountability against China with respect to the pandemic.[22] Chinese leader Xi Jinping responded by citing the USA’s historic unilateralism and isolationism:

“We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We will not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in zero sum game. Unilateralism is dead.”

“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization, or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance, goes against the trend of history. Let this be clear: the world will never return to isolation.”[23]

Aside from a history of slavery and following orders in Afghanistan, the USA has further issues with human rights law, as evidenced by recent accusations from the last-surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor. We’ll look at that next time.

Also coming up, we’ll also look beyond the legal issues of global accountability to the non-legal case for reparations and the opportunity they offer for a national reset.


[1] World History Facts, American “Individualism” Is Shallow and Immoral, Medium Dialogues and Discourse (Sept. 15, 2020).

[2] Full text at Digital History.

[3] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

[4] Huneke, Samuel Clowes, An End to Totalitarianism, Boston Review (April 16, 2020). Samuel Clowes Huneke  “is an assistant professor of modern German history at George Mason University. His research focuses on Germany after World War II….”

[5] Wikipedia – Nuremberg Charter.

[6] Wyzanski, Charles, Nuremberg: A Fair Trial? A Dangerous Precedent, The Atlantic (April 1946) 

[7] Nuremberg Trials, History.com (updated June 7, 2019, original Jan. 29, 2010)

[8] Wyzankski, op cit.

[9] History.com – Robert E. Lee Surrenders.

[10] Wikipedia – Pardons for Ex-Confederates.

[11] Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Jan 8, 2020. See also Wikipedia – Rome Statute International Criminal Court.

[12] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[14] The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

[15] US Policy Regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congressional Research Service (July 9, 2002 – August 29, 2006).

[16] International Court V. Trump: A Case Of Politics, Not Justice, The Hill (June 15, 2020)

[17] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).

[18] Paphita, Anthony, Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States, E-International Relations (Oct 25 2011).

[19] International Court V. Trump: A Case Of Politics, Not Justice, The Hill (June 15, 2020)

[20] The Danger Of Trump’s New Sanctions On The International Criminal Court And Human Rights Defenders, Brookings Institute (June 11 2020)

[21] Trump’s Chilling Blow To The ICC With International Criminal Court Sanctions, Foreign Policy (June 17, 2020)

[23] Trump Attacks China Over Covid ‘Plague’ As Xi Urges Collaboration In Virus Fight, The Guardian (Sept. 22, 2020).