Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Al-Zarqawi's Death is No Cause for Rejoicing

Soledad O’Brian                 the Minneapolis Star Tribune                     June 9, 2006

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke Thursday with Michael Berg, whose son, Nicholas Berg, was beheaded two years ago in Iraq, likely at the hands of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This is adapted from their conversation.

Q Mr. Berg, thank you for talking with us again. It's nice to have an opportunity to talk to you. Of course, I'm curious to know your reaction, as it is now confirmed that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man who is widely credited and blamed for killing your son, Nicholas, is dead.

A Well, my reaction is I'm sorry whenever any human being dies. Zarqawi is a human being. He has a family who are reacting just as my family reacted when Nick was killed, and I feel bad for that. I feel doubly bad, though, because Zarqawi is also a political figure, and his death will reignite yet another wave of revenge, and revenge is something that I do not follow, that I do not ask for, that I do not wish for against anybody. And it can't end the cycle. As long as people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence.

Q I have to say, sir, I'm surprised. I know how devastated you and your family were, frankly, when Nick was killed in such a horrible, and brutal and public way.

A Well, you shouldn't be surprised, because I have never indicated anything but forgiveness and peace in any interview on the air.

Q No, no. And we have spoken before, and I'm well aware of that. But at some point, one would think, is there a moment when you say, 'I'm glad he's dead, the man who killed my son'?

A No. How can a human being be glad that another human being is dead?

Q You know, you talked about the fact that he's become a political figure. Are you concerned that he becomes a martyr and a hero and, in fact, invigorates the insurgency in Iraq?

A Of course. When Nick was killed, I felt that I had nothing left to lose. I'm a pacifist, so I wasn't going out murdering people. But I am -- was not a risk-taking person, and yet now I've done things that have endangered me tremendously. ...

Now, take someone who in 1991, who maybe had their family killed by an American bomb, their support system whisked away from them, someone who, instead of being 59, as I was when Nick died, was 5 years old or 10 years old. And then if I were that person, might I not learn how to fly a plane into a building or strap a bag of bombs to my back?

That's what is happening every time we kill an Iraqi, every time we kill anyone, we are creating a large number of people who are going to want vengeance. And, you know, when are we ever going to learn that that doesn't work?

©2006 Star Tribune

US Election Reflection

by Ian Harris        Otago Daily Times    Oct. 26, 2012

To non-Americans, it seems odd that in a country which built the separation of church and state so firmly into its constitution, religion is deep-grained in every presidential election. This does not, of course, take the form of any church or religious organisation bidding for political power, though like many secular interests they would like to influence certain decisions if they could. But the religious affiliation and views of candidates have long mattered to voters to a degree that does not apply here.

Even that is now changing as the United States remakes itself through immigration from countries beyond Europe and a birth rate which last year, for the first time, added more children of minorities – Hispanics, blacks, Asians, mixed-race – than whites.  And this year, for the first time, there is no white Anglo-Saxon Protestant candidate standing for president or vice-president. Instead the US has a Mormon pitched against an African-American Protestant for president, and two Catholics challenging for the vice-presidency.

In a matching development, the Supreme Court bench has nary a Wasp in sight. It currently comprises six Catholics and three Jews. The Founding Fathers, deist and Protestant almost to a man, would be astounded.
Whether those trends are seen as good, bad, or indifferent will depend on each person’s religious and political perspective, though they hardly reflect the make-up of the electorate at large. Whether that matters, given the separation of church and state, is another issue.

Religion, however, is still highly relevant. According to surveys, most Americans say it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. And despite the institutional separation, the understandings, values and world-views of candidates, inevitably influenced by the kind of faith they profess, must colour their approach to the issues.

Among Christians, the key differences used to be defined largely by denomination. A Protestant would oppose a Catholic almost on principle, a hurdle which Catholic John F Kennedy only just surmounted in 1960. And where Mitt Romney would once have been a non-starter because of his Mormon faith, a survey last August showed 60 per cent of voters to be comfortable with that, with only 19 per cent finding it a problem.

Since the 1980s a new mosaic has taken shape in which denomination matters less than moral values. People of every religion and none find they share conservative values centred on personal morality, or liberal values focused on broader social and environmental issues. One fascinating consequence of this divide is that in a nation that exalts freedom above all else, the word “liberal”, which means free, has become for conservatives a term of abuse in both politics and theology.

Politics imbued with religion has deep roots in American history. For many Americans it shows in a sense of destiny as a people uniquely favoured by God, a nation set above all others, “the hope of the earth,” Romney said this week. Such divine blessing must then be repaid with moral earnestness – and if need be, moralistic repression.

The Puritan colonists laid the foundations for these attitudes nearly 400 years ago. They have resurfaced periodically in spiritual awakenings, religious fundamentalism, and then the emergence of the Religious Right as a potent political force. Its leaders want to “take back America”, meaning bring it under their moral control.
This evangelical Protestant movement has found common cause with conservative Catholics, otherwise hardly their bedfellows. Both are profoundly disquieted by the erosion of traditional moral values, which they blame on secular liberalism. Instead they promote a “culture of life”, and organise like any other lobby to advance it.

That means opposing abortion, a role for women beyond family life, equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, “big government” encroaching on their freedoms (including the regulation of schooling), health and welfare programmes, and outsiders such as the United Nations and an assertive Islam. Insecurity in a changing world breeds fear and hate. These are powerful motivators in getting people out to vote.

Of course moral earnestness is not necessarily a bad thing – it got rid of slavery – but as a church billboard once said: “Morality without love is a source of evil in the world.” You know it’s love when it enlarges another’s freedom, maturity and responsibility. However, political campaigns have never been love-fests, and the current one looks especially visceral. The pity of it is that the Religious Right has helped make it so. Barack Obama could win without them. Romney could only win with them. “Taking back America” could end up taking America backward.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Obama Moves to Make the 'War on Terror' Permanent

by Glenn Greenwald                            Guardian/UK                           October 24, 2012

The Washington Post has a  disturbing story this morning by Greg Miller about the concerted efforts by the Obama administration to fully institutionalize the most extremist powers it has exercised in the name of the war on terror. Based on interviews with "current and former officials from the White House and the Pentagon, Miller reports that as "the United States' conventional wars are winding down", the Obama administration "expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years" (the "capture" part of that list is little more than symbolic, as the US focus is overwhelmingly on the "kill" part). Among senior Obama administration officials, there is broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade.
 Obama has institutionalized the practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war." "Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it."
The Post article cites numerous recent developments reflecting this Obama effort, including the fact that "CIA Director David H Petraeus is pushing for an expansion of the agency's fleet of armed drones", which "reflects the agency's transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-September 11 focus on gathering intelligence." The article also describes rapid expansion of commando operations by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and, perhaps most disturbingly, the creation of a permanent bureaucratic infrastructure to allow the president to assassinate at will:
"JSOC also has established a secret targeting center across the Potomac River from Washington, current and former U.S. officials said. The elite command's targeting cells have traditionally been located near the front lines of its missions, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. But JSOC created a 'national capital region' task force that is a 15-minute commute from the White House so it could be more directly involved in deliberations about al-Qaeda lists."
"The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. US officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the 'disposition' of suspects beyond the reach of American drones."
The "disposition matrix" has been developed and will be overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). One of its purposes is "to augment" the "separate but overlapping kill lists" maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon: to serve as the centralized clearinghouse for determining who will be executed without due process. This was all motivated by Obama's refusal to arrest or detain terrorist suspects, and his resulting commitment simply to killing them at will (his will). And, as usual, this agency engages in these incredibly powerful and invasive processes with virtually no democratic accountability: In response to the Post story, Chris Hayes asked: "If you have a 'kill list', but the list keeps growing, are you succeeding?" The answer all depends upon what the objective is.
As the Founders all recognized, nothing vests elites with power – and profit – more than a state of war. That is why there were supposed to be substantial barriers to having them start and continue - the need for a Congressional declaration, the constitutional bar on funding the military for more than two years at a time, the prohibition on standing armies, etc.:[But] there are factions in many governments that crave a state of endless war because that is when power is least constrained and profit most abundant. What the Post is reporting is yet another significant step toward that state, and it is undoubtedly driven, at least on the part of some, by a self-interested desire to ensure the continuation of endless war and the powers and benefits it vests.   Excerpts only, from a long article]
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited
Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Walter Brueggemann:  “The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4.21)  And Jesus went to great length to identify “sister and brother” as everyone, including those most unlike us, those who do not fit, those who upset us and make us feel uncomfortable.”       P.5  “Mandate to Difference”

“The hallmark of the church is not certainty but openness to the Spirit.”  ibid

Richard Holloway:  “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.  Where you have certainty you don’t need faith…  Faith, by definition, always implies doubt. .There can be something admirable, something worth doing, in the decision to believe – but it never gives us certainty!  And here’s the catch.  Revealed religions tend to blow a smokescreen round the living reality of the faith-doubt experience and out of the smoke emerges – doctrinal certainty!  Believers are not encouraged to take the plunge of faith, they are invited to swear to the certainty of a series of historic claims that come in propositional form. That is why religious history is so full of disputes over competing interpretations of the certainties contained in the faith package.”   Pages 184ff of Holloway’s memoirs, “Leaving Alexandria”.
Teilhard de Chardin:   “I see the vision of a wider ecumenism than the ecumenical movement in the Christian Churches…The Christian Church is to be a Gathering Community, a Servant Community to other communities of faith, confident in its faith in God as Creator of all, Animater of all, and worshipfully grateful that we have seen Christ the prototype of this universal activity.  Equally I long for the time when the other communities of faith will identify their treasures of wisdom and spirituality and share them with us all.” From a book entitled THE HUMAN SEARCH
Route 443
Leads from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
Through Occupied Territory.

The Palestinian inhabitants,
On whose land it was built,
Are prevented from
Using it.

Suddenly, quite by surprise,
Palestinian demonstrators
Blocked it.

Why indeed?

Gush Shalom ad in Ha'aretz 19.10.12
Robert Fisk:  “Who can forget the words of the Israeli journalist Amira Haas – Haaretz's reporter in the occupied West Bank, whom I often quote. She told me in Jerusalem that the foreign correspondent's job was not to be "the first witness to history" (my own pitiful definition), but to "monitor the centres of power", especially when they are going to war, and especially when they intend to do so on a bedrock of lies.” From an article in the Independent on war reporting, 3 March, 2012

Friday, 19 October 2012

The End of the New World Order

by Seumas Milne                         Guardian/UK                           October 19, 2012

The following is an edited extract from Seumus Milne's new book, The Revenge of History: the Battle for the 21st Century, published by Verso.
In the late summer of 2008, two events in quick succession signalled the end of the New World Order. In August, the US client state of Georgia was crushed in a brief but bloody war after it attacked Russian troops in the contested territory of South Ossetia. Culture shock ... the collapse of Lehman Brothers ushered in the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s.
The former Soviet republic was a favourite of Washington's neoconservatives. Its authoritarian president had been lobbying hard for Georgia to join Nato's eastward expansion. In an unblinking inversion of reality, US vice-president Dick Cheney denounced Russia's response as an act of "aggression" that "must not go unanswered". Fresh from unleashing a catastrophic war on Iraq, George Bush declared Russia's "invasion of a sovereign state" to be "unacceptable in the 21st century".
As the fighting ended, Bush warned Russia not to recognise South Ossetia's independence. Russia did exactly that, while US warships were reduced to sailing around the Black Sea. The conflict marked an international turning point. The US's bluff had been called, its military sway undermined by the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan. After two decades during which it bestrode the world like a colossus, the years of uncontested US power were over.
Three weeks later, a second event threatened the heart of the US-dominated global financial system. On 15 September, the credit crisis finally erupted in the collapse of America's fourth-largest investment bank. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers engulfed the western world in its deepest economic crisis since the 1930s. "The Bush administration's wildly miscalculated response turned the atrocities in New York and Washington into the most successful terror attack in history."
The first decade of the 21st century shook the international order, turning the received wisdom of the global elites on its head – and 2008 was its watershed. With the end of the cold war, the great political and economic questions had all been settled, we were told. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism had triumphed. Socialism had been consigned to history. In 1990, George Bush Senior had inaugurated a New World Order, based on uncontested US military supremacy and western economic dominance. This was to be a unipolar world without rivals. Regional powers would bend the knee to the new worldwide imperium. History itself, it was said, had come to an end.
But between the attack on the Twin Towers and the fall of Lehman Brothers, that global order had crumbled. Two factors were crucial. By the end of a decade of continuous warfare, the US had succeeded in exposing the limits of its military power. And the neoliberal capitalist model that had reigned supreme for a generation had crashed. It was the reaction of the US to 9/11 that broke the sense of invincibility of the world's first truly global empire. The Bush administration's wildly miscalculated response turned the atrocities in New York and Washington into the most successful terror attack in history.
Not only did Bush's war fail on its own terms, spawning terrorists across the world, while its campaign of killings, torture and kidnapping discredited Western claims to be guardians of human rights. But the US-British invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq revealed the inability of the global behemoth to impose its will on subject peoples prepared to fight back. That became a strategic defeat for the US and its closest allies. This was the first of four decisive changes that transformed the world – in some crucial ways for the better. The second was the fallout from the crash of 2008 and the crisis of the western-dominated capitalist order it unleashed, speeding up relative US decline.
A voracious model of capitalism forced down the throats of the world as the only way to run a modern economy, at a cost of ballooning inequality and environmental degradation, had been discredited – and only rescued from collapse by the greatest state intervention in history. The baleful twins of neoconservatism and neoliberalism had been tried and tested to destruction. The failure of both accelerated the rise of China, the third epoch-making change. Not only did the country's dramatic growth take hundreds of millions out of poverty, but its state-driven investment model rode out the west's slump, making a mockery of market orthodoxy and creating a new centre of global power. That increased the freedom of manoeuvre for smaller states.
China's rise widened the space for the tide of progressive change that swept Latin America – the fourth global advance. Across the continent, socialist and social-democratic governments were propelled to power, attacking economic and racial injustice, building regional independence and taking back resources from corporate control. Two decades after we had been assured there could be no alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, Latin Americans were creating them.

The first world war: A savage imperial bloodbath

David Cameron wants to turn the first world war into a focus of national pride. That should be resisted every step of the way

Seumas Milne                               Guardian/UK                                 16 October 2012

Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier from the trenches, who died at the age of 111 in 2009, described the first world war as 'nothing better than legalised mass murder'. Now the prime minister wants a "truly national commemoration" of the first world war in the runup to 2014 that will "capture our national spirit. So £50m has been found to fund a four-year programme of events, visits to the trenches from every school and an ambitious redevelopment of the Imperial War Museum. Cameron says he wants to remember those who "gave their lives for our freedom" and ensure that "the lessons learned live with us for ever".

It surely must be right to commemorate what was by any reckoning a human catastrophe: 16 million died, including almost a million Britons. It touched every family in the country (and many other countries), my own included. Both my grandmothers lost brothers in the four-year bloodletting: one in Passchendaele, the other in Gaza. Seventy years after the event, one of them would still cry at the memory of the postman bringing the death notice in a brown War Office envelope to her home in Edinburgh. My grandfather was a field surgeon on the western front, who would break down as he showed us pictures he had taken of lost friends amid the devastation of Ypres and Loos, and remembered covering up for soldiers who had shot themselves in the legs, to save them from the firing squad.

But it does no service to the memory of the victims to prettify the horrific reality. The war was a vast depraved undertaking of unprecedented savagery, in which the ruling classes of Europe dispatched their people to a senseless slaughter in the struggle for imperial supremacy. As Lenin summed it up in early 1917: "One slaveowner, Germany, is fighting another slaveowner, England, for a fairer distribution of the slaves".

This wasn't a war of self-defence, let alone liberation from tyranny. It was the cataclysmic product of an escalating struggle for colonial possessions, markets, resources and industrial power between the dominant European empires, Britain and France, and the rising imperial power of Germany seeking its "place in the sun". In that clash of empires, Europe devoured its children – and many of its captive peoples with them.

All the main warring states were responsible for the brutal suppression of nations, large and small, throughout the racist despotisms that were their colonial empires. In the years leading up to the first world war an estimated 10 million Congolese died as a result of forced labour and mass murder under plucky Belgian rule; German colonialists carried out systematic genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples in today's Namibia; and tens of millions died in enforced or avoidable famines in British-ruled India, while Britain's colonial forces ran concentration camps in South Africa and meted out continual violent repression across the empire.

The idea that the war was some kind of crusade for democracy when most of Britain's population – including many men – were still denied the vote, and democracy and dissent were savagely crushed among most of those Britain ruled, is laughable. And when the US president, Woodrow Wilson, championed the right to self-determination to win the peace, that would of course apply only to Europeans – not the colonial peoples their governments lorded it over.

As the bloodbath exhausted itself, it unleashed mutinies, workers' revolts and revolutions, and the breakup of defeated empires, giving a powerful impetus to anti-colonial movements in the process. But the outcome also laid the ground for the rise of Nazism and the even bloodier second world war, and led to a new imperial carve-up of the Middle East, whose consequences we are still living with today, including the Palestinian tragedy.

Since the 1990s, direct conflict between great powers that reached its cataclysmic nadir in the world wars has been replaced by a modern version of the colonial wars that preceded and punctuated them: in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Unable to win public support for such campaigns, the government has tried to appropriate the sympathy for the troops who fight them as a substitute: demanding, for example, that poppies be worn as a "display of national pride" (or as Lieut.Gen. Sir John Kiszely, the now ex-British Legion president, described Remembrance Day, a "tremendous networking opportunity" for arms dealers).

If Cameron and his ministers try the same trick with the commemoration of the 1914-18 carnage, it will be a travesty. Among the war's real lessons are that empire, in all its forms, always leads to bloodshed; that state violence is by far its most destructive form; that corporate carve-ups fuel conflict; and that militarism and national chauvinism are the road to perdition. Celebrate instead the internationalists, socialists and poets who called it right, and remember the suffering of the soldiers – rather than the cowards who sent them to die. Attempts to hijack the commemorations must be contested every step of the way.


Seumas Milne's book, The Revenge of History was published last week

The Week the World Stood Still:

by Noam Chomsky                Pub. by,                  Oct.16, 2012

The world stood still 50 years ago during the last week of October, from the moment when it learned that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba until the crisis was officially ended -- though unknown to the public, only officially. The image of the world standing still is the turn of phrase of Sheldon Stern, former historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, who published the authoritative version of the tapes of the ExComm meetings where Kennedy and a close circle of advisers debated how to respond to the crisis. Those meetings were secretly recorded by the president, which might bear on the fact that his stand throughout the recorded sessions is relatively temperate compared to other participants, who were unaware that they were speaking to history. 

There was good reason for the global concern. A nuclear war was all too imminent, a war that might “destroy the Northern Hemisphere,” President Dwight Eisenhower had warned. Kennedy’s own judgment was that the probability of war might have been as high as 50%. Estimates became higher as the confrontation reached its peak and the “secret doomsday plan to ensure the survival of the government was put into effect” in Washington, as described by journalist Michael Dobbs in his well-researched bestseller on the crisis.

Dobbs quotes Dino Brugioni, “a key member of the CIA team monitoring the Soviet missile buildup,” who saw no way out except “war and complete destruction” as the clock moved to “one minute to midnight,” the title of his book. Kennedy’s close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, described the events as “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wondered aloud whether he “would live to see another Saturday night,” and later recognized that “we lucked out” -- barely.

“The Most Dangerous Moment” A closer look at what took place adds grim overtones to these judgments, with reverberations to the present moment. There are several candidates for “the most dangerous moment.” One is October 27th, when U.S. destroyers enforcing a quarantine around Cuba were dropping depth charges on Soviet submarines. According to Soviet accounts, reported by the National Security Archive, submarine commanders were “rattled enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes, whose 15 kiloton explosive yields approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945.”

In one case, a reported decision to assemble a nuclear torpedo for battle readiness was aborted at the last minute by Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, who may have saved the world from nuclear disaster. There is little doubt what the U.S. reaction would have been had the torpedo been fired, or how the Russians would have responded as their country was going up in smoke. Kennedy had already declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch (DEFCON 2), which authorized “NATO aircraft with Turkish pilots ... [or others] ... to take off, fly to Moscow, and drop a bomb,” according to the well-informed Harvard University strategic analyst Graham Allison, writing in the major establishment journal Foreign Affairs.

Another candidate is October 26th. That day has been selected as “the most dangerous moment” by B-52 pilot Major Don Clawson, who piloted one of those NATO aircraft and provides a hair-raising description of details of the Chrome Dome (CD) missions during the crisis -- “B-52s on airborne alert” with nuclear weapons “on board and ready to use.”

October 26th was the day when “the nation was closest to nuclear war,” he writes in his “irreverent anecdotes of an Air Force pilot,” Is That Something the Crew Should Know? On that day, Clawson himself was in a good position to set off a likely terminal cataclysm. He concludes, “We were damned lucky we didn’t blow up the world -- and no thanks to the political or military leadership of this country.”

The errors, confusions, near-accidents, and miscomprehension of the leadership that Clawson reports are startling enough, but nothing like the operative command-and-control rules -- or lack of them. As Clawson recounts his experiences during the 15 24-hour CD missions he flew, the maximum possible, the official commanders “did not possess the capability to prevent a rogue-crew or crew-member from arming and releasing their thermonuclear weapons,” or even from broadcasting a mission that would have sent off “the entire Airborne Alert force without possibility of recall.” Once the crew was airborne carrying thermonuclear weapons, he writes, “it would have been possible to arm and drop them all with no further input from the ground. There was no inhibitor on any of the systems.”

From the ExComm records, Stern concludes that, on October 26th, President Kennedy was “leaning towards military action to eliminate the missiles” in Cuba, to be followed by invasion, according to Pentagon plans. It was evident then that the act might have led to terminal war, a conclusion fortified by much later revelations that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed and that Russian forces were far greater than U.S. intelligence had reported. 

[Excerpts from the first part of a 12-page document. Chomsky’s complete document can be accessed at]

Taxing Dilemmas

By Ian Harris           Otago Daily Times          Oct. 12, 2012

Many and varied are the reasons people give for leaving a church, but saving a few dollars by avoiding the collection plate would be well down the list. That, however, is now an issue for German Catholics, thanks to a decree by their bishops that if they don’t pay their dues by way of the tax system, they will be denied the church’s services, from mass to Christian burial. The message is: “You join the club, you pay the sub.”

It is excommunication in all but name, and a reformist group within the church is not happy. It says the new rule is tantamount to saying that the sacraments are for sale, which “goes beyond the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther denounced”, triggering the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

Indulgences were an ingenious fund-raising device. Needing money to build the grandiose new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the pope promised that they would wipe away the penalties of sin, on earth and in purgatory, for those who bought them – and also for their dead relatives.

Luther was aghast both at this commercialisation of sin and salvation and at the church’s exploitation of lay people’s naivety. He challenged indulgences on theological grounds, and his charge that the German states had become “the milch cow of Europe” for Rome’s benefit fanned Reformation fervour.

In today’s increasingly secular world, the German churches’ claim on a share of taxes collected by the state seems out of place; but the practice is an overhang from a relationship with the state that goes back centuries.  The tax, calculated at 8 to 9 per cent of a church member’s income tax bill, collected €5 billion (NZ$8 billion) from Germany’s 25 million Catholics last year, and €4.5 billion (NZ$7.2 billion) from its 24 million Protestants. It keeps the churches (and Jewish synagogues) well-funded, and enables them to run hospitals, schools and other social services at home and abroad.

But clouds are building. The Catholic Church has lost 3 million members in the past two decades, and with them the tax levy they once paid.  So when a retired professor of church law, Harmut Zapp, challenged whether his religious beliefs should tie him automatically to a tax payment, the bishops were not amused. He wanted to stop paying but remain a church member. The bishops countered that “it is not possible to separate the spiritual community of the church from the institutional church”. Last month a federal court concurred – and that will no doubt spur many who now hover between staying in or getting out to decide one way or the other.

For people whose faith has ebbed away, the choice will be easy. But it is a real dilemma for those Christians, of every hue, who have glimpsed new horizons in faith and understanding, but who don’t find them reflected in their churches’ rituals and practices. A tension grows between where their evolving faith is taking them, and where their churches seem to be stuck. And the more their leaders insist that members’ religious duty is to acquiesce and obey, as some do, the more those people wonder why they should continue to support them with their cash.

More than 40 years ago, English Anglican Bishop John Robinson reflected on that tension between a liberating gospel and a stultifying church, while acknowledging that not everyone finds it stultifying. In 1966 it came to a head for a Catholic professor of theology in England, Charles Davis. He had grown increasingly uncomfortable about the sheer weight of the clerical system, which he found authoritarian, cramping and pointless. He felt his integrity was at stake by continuing to be part of it.

For Davis and others like him, getting out proved liberating. But Robinson said that was not the only option. Another was to stay within the church but switch one’s energies to service in the world beyond it. A third, to stay within the organisation and work to transform it from the inside.

The latter is the course chosen by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organisation of American nuns, in their current disagreement with the Vatican (which I wrote about in July). Ordered to back off in their questioning of certain church teaching, in August the conference responded by seeking instead “open and honest dialogue”, in the hope of “creating more possibilities for the laity, and particularly for women, to have a voice in the church”.  Wish them luck! Back in 1517, dialogue was what Luther was initially seeking, too

The transformative qualities of contemplation

Rowan Williams                       Guardian/UK                           14 October 2012

'Contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems, our advertising culture, and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.' We need to show our world the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, delighted and engaged by the glory of God that we look towards. St Paul speaks (in II Corinthians 3.18) of how "with our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord", we are transfigured with a greater and greater radiance. That is the face we seek to show to our fellow human beings. 

This is not because we are in search of some private "religious experience" that will make us feel secure or holy. In the early church, there was a clear understanding that we needed to advance: from the self-understanding or self-contemplation that taught us to discipline our greedy instincts and cravings, to the "natural contemplation" that perceived and venerated the wisdom of God in the order of the world, and allowed us to see created reality for what it truly was in the sight of God – rather than what it was in terms of how we might use it or dominate it.

In this perspective, contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. Contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems, our advertising culture, and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

We have to be very careful in our evangelisation not simply to persuade people to apply onto God and the life of the spirit all the longings for drama, excitement and self-congratulation that we so often indulge in. The American scholar of religion, Jacob Needleman, wrote that the words of the gospel are addressed to human beings who "do not yet exist"; and responding in a life-giving way to the gospel means a transforming of our whole self, our feelings and thoughts and imaginings. To be converted to the faith does not mean simply acquiring a new set of beliefs, but becoming a new person, a person in communion with God and others through Jesus Christ.

Contemplation is an intrinsic element in this transforming process. To learn to look to God without regard to my own instant satisfaction, to learn to scrutinise and to relativise the cravings and fantasies that arise in me – this is to allow God to be God, and thus to allow the prayer of Christ – God's own relation to God – to come alive in me. Invoking the holy spirit is a matter of asking the third person of the trinity to enter my spirit and bring the clarity I need to see where I am in slavery to cravings and fantasies, and to give me patience and stillness as God's light and love penetrate my inner life. Only as this begins to happen will I be delivered from treating the gifts of God as yet another set of things I may acquire to make me happy, or to dominate other people.

And as this process unfolds, I become more free – to borrow a phrase of St Augustine (Confessions 4.7) – to "love human beings in a human way", to love them not for what they may promise me, to love them not as if they were there to provide me with lasting safety and comfort, but as fragile fellow creatures held in the love of God.

This "internal" transformation is not more important than action for justice, but without it our search for justice or for peace becomes another exercise of human will, undermined by human self-deception. The two callings are inseparable, the calling to "prayer and righteous action", as Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, writing from his prison cell in 1944. True prayer purifies the motive, true justice is the necessary work of sharing and liberating in others the humanity we have discovered in our contemplative encounter.

[This is an edited version of the talk that Rowan Williams gave to the General Synod of Bishops in Rome last week. The full address is available at  ]

Monday, 15 October 2012

Links between MoD and private sector

Guardian research in the aftermath of the 'jobs for generals' scandal shows extent of links between MoD and private sector
Nick Hopkins, Rob Evans and Richard Norton-Taylor        Guardian/UK       15 October 2012
Lt General Sir John Kiszely, who has resigned as president of the Royal British Legion, was one of several former senior members of the military caught in a lobbying sting. Senior military officers and Ministry of Defence officials have taken up more than 3,500 jobs in arms companies over the past 16 years, according to figures that reveal the extent of the "revolving door" between the public and private sector.
The data, compiled by the Guardian from freedom of information requests, shows how the industry swoops on former officials and military personnel once they have left service, with hundreds of senior officers being given jobs every year. The figures for 2011-12 show 231 jobs went to former officials and military personnel – a rise from the previous year's total of 101. Another 93 have been approved since January. In total 3,572 jobs have been approved since 1996.
The disclosure comes in the aftermath of a "jobs for generals" scandal that led to the resignation of the president of the Royal British Legion, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, who was embarrassed in a newspaper lobbying sting. Kiszely was one of several former senior members of the military caught on film by Sunday Times reporters who were pretending to seek lobbyists for a South Korean defence company.  Admiral Trevor Soar, second in command of the Royal Navy until the spring, has also quit his role as an advisor at the large UK defence and engineering company Babcock.
The MoD began its own inquiry on Monday into the access that former members of the military have to serving officials. This may lead to a tightening of current restrictions and blanket bans on certain individuals approaching senior staff in the ministry. Figures obtained by the Guardian show that there has been a regular flow into the private sector every year since records began in 1996. There has never been fewer than 101 and the highest is 360.
The furore began at the weekend with the Sunday Times investigation in which six former members of the military were approached for help by journalists purporting to be working for a defence firm. Those fooled by the sting included Lord Dannatt, a former head of the army; Lieutenant General Richard Applegate, a former head of procurement at the MoD; and Lord Stirrup, a former chief of the defence staff. All of those involved intimated they knew people at the top of the MoD who could help the firm. Some bragged about their connections to ministers and the MoD's most senior civil servants.
Though they all denied wrongdoing, at least two of them appear to have been in breach of Acoba guidelines. These state that senior officers have to wait up to two years before they can lobby on behalf of defence companies. Soar, who retired this March, suggested he could ignore those guidelines if he was described as a consultant. Applegate, who has only just past the two years' "purdah", claimed he had spent the past 18 months working on behalf of an Israeli arms firm and had successfully lobbied the MoD to release £500m for a helicopter safety programme.
But even if the men have defied the Acoba rules, there is no way of sanctioning them or the firms with whom they might have been working. Jenkin said the public administration select committee (Pasc) had flagged this problem to the government in July and had recommended adopting a much tougher regime. "We recommended that there should be a statutory appointment of a conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, with statutory rules so that it is very clear what people can and cannot do. Acoba does not have any powers. This episode shows that and I hope the government will now look fa A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "This is an important issue as events over the weekend have shown. Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said the system needed to be changed. "It is ludicrous that rules can be broken without sanction and so we must see systematic change to restore confidence and standards.
"Military expertise should not be lost after retirement, but contact on defence contracts must be transparent and within established guidelines. We must get to the bottom of what happened. We must also establish the facts of ministerial involvement and awareness in these cases." Labour has tabled a series of questions on the issue, including a demand for details of meetings between former members of the military and serving civil servants, senior officers and ministers.   [Abridged]

The Faux Objectivity of Journalists

Establishment journalists are creatures of a highly ideological world and often cause ideology to masquerade as neutral fact.
by Glenn Greenwald                     Guardian/UK                         October 12, 2012

Martha Raddatz as the moderator of Wednesday night's vice presidential debate was assertive and covered substantial ground in 90 minutes. That's all true enough, but the questions she asked reveal something significant about American journalism in general and especially its pretense of objectivity.  For establishment journalists like Raddatz, "objectivity" is the holy grail. In their minds, it is what distinguishes "real reporters" from mere "opinionists" and, worse, partisans.
The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.  These assumptions are almost always unacknowledged as such and are usually unexamined, which means that often the journalists themselves are not even consciously aware that they have embraced them. But embraced them they have, with unquestioning vigor
At best, "objectivity" in this world of journalists usually means nothing more than: the absence of obvious favoritism toward either of the two major political parties. As long as a journalist treats Democrats and Republicans more or less equally, they will be hailed as "objective journalists". But that is a conception of objectivity so shallow as to be virtually meaningless, in large part because the two parties so often share highly questionable assumptions on the most critical issues.
The highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked illustrate how this works. Let's begin with Iran, where Raddatz posed a series of questions and made numerous observations that she undoubtedly believes are factual but which are laden with all sorts of ideological assumptions. First there is this:
RADDATZ: Let's move to Iran, because there's really no bigger national security.issue...    RYAN: Absolutely.   RADDATZ: this country is facing.
The very idea that Iran poses some kind of major "national security" crisis for the US - let alone that there is "really no bigger national security" issue "this country is facing" - is absurd. At the very least, it's highly debatable. The US has Iran virtually encircled militarily. Iran has demonstrated no propensity to launch attacks on US soil, has no meaningful capability to do so, and would be instantly damaged, if not (as Hillary Clinton once put it) "totally obliterated" if they tried. That Iran is some major national security issue for the US is a concoction of the bipartisan DC class that always needs a scary foreign enemy.
Note what Raddatz did not ask and never would. Even after both candidates re-affirmed their commitment to attacking Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, there were no questions about whether the US would have the legal or moral right to launch an aggressive attack on Iran. That the US has the right to attack any country it wants is one of those unexamined assumptions in Washington discourse, probably the supreme orthodoxy of the nation's "foreign policy community".
Worse, even after Biden boasted about the destruction of the Iranian economy from US sanctions - "the ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. . . . He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into freefall" - there was no discussion about the severe suffering imposed on Iranian civilians by the US, whether the US wants to repeat the mass death and starvation it brought to millions of Iraqis for a full decade, or what the consequences of doing that will be.
In sum, all of Raddatz's questions were squarely within the extremely narrow - and highly ideological - DC consensus about US foreign policy generally and Iran specifically: namely, Iran is a national security threat to the US; it is trying to obtain nuclear weapons; the US must stop them; the US has the unchallenged right to suffocate Iranian civilians and attack militarily. As usual, the only question worth debating is whether a military attack on Iran now would be strategically wise, and advance US interests.
One can say many things about the worldview promoted by her questions. That it is "objective" or free of ideology is most certainly not one of them. Exactly the same is true of Raddatz's statements and questions about America's entitlement programs. Here is the "question": "Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process."
That Social Security is "going broke" is a claim that is dubious in the extreme. This claim lies at the heart of the right-wing and neo-liberal quest to slash     benefits for ordinary Americans - Ryan predictably responded by saying: "Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts." - but the claim is baseless.      [Excerpts only]        Read the full article with updates at The Guardian