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You Want Change? Then It’s On You to Be That Change Which You Seek

Instead of Complaining About the Status Quo,

Become the Change You Desire and Live It

By Pastor Paul J. Bern

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We all need to look for ways to improve our lives and change our world for the better. We’re all here for a purpose. It’s why God put us all here. It’s nice to make and keep new year’s resolutions, put a troublesome person out of your life and break other old habits, but many more people are waking up to the fact that it’s smarter to improve our surroundings and make the kind of contributions that leave legacies than it is to merely break a bad habit. Breaking bad habits is good, but helping to build a better world is far better. To begin with, we can’t create a better world if we haven’t yet imagined it. How much better then, if we are able to touch such a world and experience it directly, can we enact in the here and now the world we actually want to live in. These kinds of organized grassroots efforts come in all shapes and sizes. At the bottom end of the scale we see Utopian flavored mass movements like “the 99%”, Black Lives Matter, the fight for a living wage, and Occupy Wall Street movements with their stands against inequality, and for free libraries, ethic of social and economic justice, and experiments in direct democracy. At the other extreme we see the ongoing civil war in Syria (and its predecessor, the Arab Spring of 2011) which continues to this day.

 

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality,” Buckminster Fuller once advised.“ To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” A brilliant insight, but he was only half right, because the best direct actions – and social movements – actually do both. Consider the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. They were not only brave acts of resistance against the racism of the Jim Crow South, but they also beautifully and dramatically prefigured the kind of world the civil rights movement was trying to bring into being: blacks and whites sitting together as equals in public spaces. The young students didn’t ask anyone’s permission; they didn’t wait for society to evolve or for bad laws to change. In the best spirit of direct action, they walked in there and simply changed the world. At least for a few moments, in one place, they were living in an integrated South. They painted a picture of how the world could be, and the vicious response from white bystanders and police only proved how important it was to make it so.

 

Many people at the forefront of the nonviolent civil rights movement were moved to action by their Spiritual commitments. Be it the “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” of the Four Gospels, or Gandhi’s call to “Be the change you want to see in the world,” the ethical traditions of many religions have powerful roots in dogma that is largely the teachings of men. It is only when people of faith, such as followers of Jesus Christ like myself, try to live out their deep principles and actually walk their talk in the Spirit that they they tend to come up against the power of tradition. Jesus himself (who promised that anyone who followed his teaching would always be in trouble) was one of history’s more brilliant invaders of the human conscience. He didn’t merely argue that true greatness comes from humbly serving others, he illustrated it by washing his disciples’ dirty feet just before the Last Supper. By socializing with outcasts and the poor, visiting lepers, and always raising up “the least of these,” Jesus didn’t simply prophesy a future filled with a beloved community of believers, He made it manifest. And if Jesus did it, so should we!

 

With the dominance of market capitalism and its apologists proclaiming an “end of ideology” (whatever that is), provocations that stretch our political imaginations are more vital than ever. I would go a step further, arguing that we need to bring back Utopian thinking. Utopian thinking is necessary, because it provides a compass point to determine what direction to move toward and a measuring stick to determine how far one has come. However, in an era of media saturation and distrust, this is increasingly hard to do via criticism alone. Using dystopian visions to sound the alarm – a more and more popular strategy – is just another form of criticism that leaves the status quo standing. What is needed instead are direct interventions that both embody and point toward Utopian possibilities. Contemporary social movements, it turns out, are chock full of them.

 

Of course, we all know that this has about as much chance of occurring as the WTO has of abolishing itself, that GE is actually going to give back the taxes it dodged, or that DuPont is finally going to do the right thing and compensate the 100,000 victims of the Bhopal chemical spill for decades of suffering. Could we possibly ever live in such a world? “Yeah”, people are saying, “why don’t we live in such a world?” And we’re more motivated to go out there to make it happen!

 

In 2006 members from a coalition of environmental groups posed as a government agency – the Oil Enforcement Agency – that should have existed, but didn’t. Complete with SWAT-team-like caps and badges, agents ticketed SUVs, impounded fuel-inefficient vehicles at auto shows, and generally modeled a future in which government takes climate change seriously. Clever protest campaigns can bring little shards of utopia not just into the streets but also into our elections and even legislatures. When Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, one of the planks in his platform called for beat cops to be voted on by the neighborhoods they patrolled. Once out in the open, this and other seemingly radical ideas were revealed as the reasonable proposals they were, and thousands of San Franciscans voted for Jello.

 

Even legislation can be Utopian. A legislative bill called, “What Would Finland Do?” aims to introduce a bill in the New York legislature to prorate traffic fines according to the net wealth of the driver. It wouldn’t pass, but a lot of New Yorkers might think: “Why not?” and the long fight for greater economic equality might inch a tiny bit forward. (Finland, by the way, has such a law, and in 2004 the 27-year-old heir to a sausage fortune was fined $204,000 for driving 50 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone.) Whether religious or artistic, a playful thought experiment, or a serious attempt to be true to one’s values in the face of state violence, Utopian engagement allows us to experience for ourselves (and demonstrate to others), that another world is necessary, possible, and maybe even beautiful.

 

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Are Russia and the USA Headed For Disaster?

The Confrontation Between Russia and the US Found In the Bible, and the Outcome Doesn’t Look Very Good For America

by Rev. Paul J. Bern

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I’m quite sure everyone is well aware by now of the rising tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria, the Ukraine, and the Crimean peninsula. Although the roots of US-Russo tension go back to the late 1940’s, let me give a brief history of events between the two countries over the last 7 years or so. In March 2007, the U.S. announced plans to build an anti-ballistic missile defense installation in Poland along with a radar station in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials said that the system was intended to protect the United States and Europe from possible nuclear missile attacks by Iran or North Korea. Russia, however, viewed the new system as a potential threat. Vladimir Putin warned the U.S. that these new tensions could turn Europe into a “powder keg“. On 3 June 2007, Putin warned that if the U.S. built the missile defense system, Russia would consider targeting missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic. On 16 October 2007, Vladimir Putin visited Iran to discuss Russia’s aid to Iran’s nuclear power program and “insisted that the use of force was unacceptable.” Despite U.S.-Russia relations becoming strained during the Bush administration, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama struck a warm tone at the 2009 G20 summit in London and released a joint statement that promised a “fresh start” in U.S.-Russia relations.

In May 2012, Russian General Nikolay Yegorovich Makarov said that there is a possibility of a preemptive strike on missile defense sites in Eastern Europe, to apply pressure to the United States regarding Russia’s demands. In July 2012, two Tu-95 Bear bombers were intercepted by NORAD fighters in the air defense zone off the U.S. coast of Alaska, where they may have been practicing the targeting of Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Later in August 2012, it was revealed that an Akula-class submarine had conducted a patrol within the Gulf of Mexico without being detected, raising alarms of the U.S. Navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Following the collapse of the government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, in March 2014 Russia annexed Crimea on the basis of a controversial referendum. The U.S. submitted a UN Security Council resolution declaring the referendum to be illegal; it was vetoed by Russia on March 15 that same year; China abstained and the other 13 Security Council members voted for the resolution. As unrest spread into eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, relations between the U.S. and Russia worsened. Russian support for separatists fighting Ukrainian forces attracted U.S. sanctions. After one bout of sanctions announced by President Obama on July 16, 2014, Putin said sanctions were driving Russia into a corner that could bring relations between the two countries to a “dead-end”.

From March 2014 to 2016, six rounds of sanctions were imposed by the US, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. Due to the situation concerning Ukraine, relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold war. In early October 2015, U.S. president Obama called the way Russia was conducting its military campaign in Syria a “recipe for disaster”; top U.S. military officials ruled out military cooperation with Russia in Syria. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and other senior U.S. officials said Russia’s campaign was primarily aimed at propping up Assad, whom U.S. president Barack Obama had repeatedly called upon to leave power. Since then there have been incidents where Russian aircraft have flown by, and narrowly missed, US Navy ships patrolling in the North Sea and the Caspian Sea. Russian military aircraft have been intercepted off the Alaskan and California coasts while they were probing Us military defenses. As tensions continue to rise between these two countries, the risk of a nuclear exchange greatly increases. Being a resident of a large metropolitan area, my only consolation in the event of a nuclear attack would be that my death would likely be instantaneous.

These worrisome trends can be found in the Bible in a number of places. Since much has been written and discussed about the Book of Revelation, with some of the teaching being very good and some not so much, I will bypass that for now. Today, I want to compare what is written in the Book of Jeremiah chapter 51 with current events, and I find some alarming similarities. For example, verses 6-9 read as follows: “Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins. It is time for the Lord’s vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves. Babylon was a gold cup in the Lord’s hand; she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad. Babylon will fall and be broken. Wail over her! Get balm for her pain; perhaps she can be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; let us leave her and each go to his own land, for her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the clouds.”

Babylon? What was the prophet Jeremiah writing about here? One thing for sure – it wasn’t the ancient Babylonian Empire, which had conquered ancient Israel by the time this was written. Although there are a number of places in the Bible that can be cross-referenced with this, one of the most extensive is in Revelation chapter 18. To sum it up, “mystery Babylon”, as it is called there, turns out to be the USA (please see http://wp.me/p4uvMi-ep for a fully detailed commentary, it’s just a 5-minute read). So when Jeremiah wrote that we should flee for our lives, it wasn’t just a suggestion. He was imploring all to whom this prophecy applied to get the heck out of there. A lot of Americans – thousands each month, both Christian and secular – have been going to live in other countries for quite some time now, and they are leaving in increasing numbers. Many of them say they made the decision to leave after reading Jeremiah 51. “Do not be destroyed because of her sins. It is time for the Lord’s vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves.” What sins was Jeremiah writing about here? Where should I start, I wonder? Polluting the earth would be one. The nations of the world, with China being the worst offender and America following close behind, have poisoned earth’s land and waters to the point that huge masses of animals are dying off all at once. More people suffer respiratory ailments, from asthma to lung cancer, due to air pollution than die each year from cigarette smoking!

Oppression would be another sin. According to Wikipedia, the US is currently involved in 75 conflicts all over the world. These wars of various types are all being fought over natural resources for the exclusive benefit of the American Empire and the super-rich elites who control it, to the complete detriment of everyone else. This American oppression continues unabated here at home too – just ask any person of color or other minorities and you’ll likely get an earful. The other, and biggest, sin is the eviction of God and Jesus Christ from our governments and our schools. If there are those who want “freedom from religion” as they call it, then that is entirely their affair. I will respect their beliefs so long as they respect mine and that of other Christian folks, that’s what the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution is there for. To prevent school-age kids from being taught about any theological subjects is a different matter altogether. That’s not what our Constitution says at all, and humankind has offended God in this regard whether they realize it or not! “…she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad.” I don’t think Jeremiah was talking about alcoholic beverages here, I think he was referring to excessive wealth and profit – materialism, if you like – resulting from the US being the economic and military center of the world. After all, riches, fame and fortune can all be intoxicating as well, and even more so.

Babylon will fall and be broken… We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; … her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the clouds.” This could not be more clear. Other nations would have helped us out when America falls, but there will be nothing anyone can do. “Her judgment… rises as high as the clouds”. To me at least, this sure looks like Jeremiah was describing a large mushroom cloud from an atomic blast. As I said in the beginning, this looks very much like it’s not going to end well for the US. How far into the future this prophecy is, no one can say for sure. The rest of chapter 51 is equally inflammatory towards “Babylon”. Let me quote one more time from further down in this same chapter: “You who live by many waters and who are rich in treasures, your end has come, the time for you to be cut off. The Lord Almighty has sworn by himself: I will surely fill you with men, as with a swarm of locusts, and they will shout in triumph over you.” (Jeremiah 51: 13-14) “you who live by many waters” is an unmistakable reference to the USA. What other country is besides many waters (having two coasts) and rich in treasure? “To be cut off” means being cut down or pruned decisively, When written in reference to a country, people or nation it means military defeat. So this is unmistakable! We better start praying for America, that we would be spared her fate! We had better start praying for world peace as well, meaning the return of Jesus Christ, because without him there can be no peace. In the meantime, I’m considering applying for a passport, but I will still be praying while I wait for it to arrive.

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The Human Catastrophe Called Aleppo

Weeping For Aleppo

by Rev. Paul J. Bern

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The Syrian Civil War has been raging for five years now. It is, to say the least, a multifaceted conflict. Aleppo is the capitol city of Syria, with roughly the same population as Houston, Texas. One of the primary reasons it’s in the news a lot is because the rebel-held, eastern part is one of the hardest-hit areas of the war. We’re talking airstrikes and food, water and supply shortages affecting hundreds of thousands of people. There are a thousand reasons why you may not care about Aleppo. The question is, what’s the one reason why you would? Things that happen far away, to people we have never known from areas of the world we have no connection to, don’t hit us as hard as whatever is happening at home. So if you don’t particularly care about the Syrian civil war, or the crisis it’s created in places like the city of Aleppo, I think it’s high time you did. Even as you read this, the world is watching the exploding humanitarian catastrophe known as the Syrian civil war unfold in real time. But this disaster should surprise no one: It is the natural result of a series of policy decisions that led to the current diplomatic standoff. Step by step, the very nature of humanitarian access and relief has almost been redefined in Syria.

The Syrian civil war has laid bare a great deal, including the world’s unwillingness to intervene to stop civilians from being killed in their beds and on their streets, in a conflict that has pinned them down in their homes. Every time those close to the war think things have sunk as barbarically low as imaginable – from bombing convoys to starving towns – things get even worse. For many of those in the US government who have worked on Syria policy for years, the overwhelming sense of frustration has made the bloodshed nearly impossible to watch, in part because of its predictability. Grief-stricken families embracing in the rubble of what used to be their home – a home like any other, and probably similar to yours. Mothers and fathers crouching over their dead children as they sob uncontrollably together. A father and son, crushed in place under the wreckage of another airstrike. And these aren’t even among the most iconic images. This is every hour, every day. That’s five elementary school classrooms gone in a matter of days. That’s more children than you likely know by name. That’s only one week of fighting. When we say trapped, we mean Aleppo’s citizens literally cannot leave. Roads out of parts of the city are under constant attack. That doesn’t only mean people can’t leave, it means things can’t get in; things like food, water, medicine and fuel.

Take Houston off the map. Yes, the whole darn city. Or Atlanta, or Miami and then some. Do you live in Lansing, Michigan? Destroy it – four times over. That’s the number of people who have been killed in five years of fighting in Syria. It’s easy to think that, if things were really that bad, someone would surely be doing something about it. That’s the whole point. The world is trying and failing. The US can’t decide whether to authorize military action against the Syrian regime. Ceasefires designed to help bring aid to people trapped in war-torn areas only last a matter of days. The biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II drags on. The ghosts of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still looms large in Washington, but the question is, what lessons has it offered? Without question the conflict has prevented the Obama administration from committing sustained resources to stopping the carnage. Officials in Washington who for years argued for greater intervention could never prove that further American action would make things on the ground in Syria better, not worse. And so the status quo prevailed. And that status quo was to do little to address the conflict’s root causes, but a great deal to fund help for refugees who were suffering the war’s effects. Meanwhile, the carnage has continued.

The United Nations once spoke of a responsibility to protect and defend. In 2009 it said that in the face of war crimes, when a state was miserably failing to protect its population, then the international community was prepared to take collective action in a “timely and decisive manner.” Yet there is nothing either timely or decisive about the world’s approach to Syria, which has become the theater in which global and regional actors pursue their own goals, with Syrian mothers and fathers trapped in cities under attack paying the price. But this piece is not about dueling political aims; it is about the shared misery of those on the ground and an international community that has failed them. What is life in Aleppo like now? Bombing in plain sight. Hospitals crushed under the weight of the injured and the dying. Food and water supplies dwindling. Medical supplies limited to almost nothing, leaving anesthesia near nonexistent and babies dying without functioning ventilators on the dirty floors of the few overwhelmed facilities that remain standing. And all of it is happening in real time as the city’s life and death is captured on social media and shared with the world. And yet the world seems to have stopped watching. And the international community is now shown to be impotent in the face of what the British ambassador to the United Nations termed “war crimes.”

That has been the pattern for years, only now the death toll is growing even higher and the “barbarism,” to quote Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has grown more bold. For those on the ground in Aleppo and other areas under siege, it is clear that no one is prepared to stop the carnage everyone can see and many had predicted. The pictures may be on phones and screens within easy reach, but a solution to ending the bloodshed remains much further away. We don’t want to lose hope, but in the end if you look at the situation it seems hopeless, that we can’t do anything, so the world is just watching. People keep on dying and the situation continues to get worse and worse, with no end in sight, and no plan to help those children in Aleppo from facing death the next time they go outside to play on their streets. From the very beginning of this on-line ministry, this blog, and this website, I have vigorously opposed and vehemently stood against warfare in all its forms. There is no ideology that can justify mass murder, no economic or governmental policy that justifies terrorizing an entire populace, and at the end of the day that’s what warfare is! What’s all this killing for, for what purpose? If we pause to step back and examine the reasons for warfare, I see two little words coming to my mind – pillage and plunder. Or, if anyone prefers, criminal activity are two other words that could be substituted. Jesus summed this point up perfectly when He said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Of course, I can practically hear all these ‘conservative Christians’ say these wars are necessary to address the perceived threat of militant Islam. They are likely excoriating me even as they read this (if any of them are actually reading this at all), stating that I’m not patriotic enough, or that if I don’t help kill more Muslims they will be at my doorstep to kill me. Problem is, this is the kind of thinking that gets wars started in the first place! Still others would – and do – say that if America doesn’t take a more aggressive stance in the Middle East in order to protect and defend “our” oil, that we will be cut off from “our” petroleum reserves and suffer a military and economic defeat of unimaginable proportions. The problem I have with that is the internal combustion engine is at the end of its useful life span. At the very least, America should have converted over to much cleaner-burning natural gas decades ago after the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970’s. At best, the US should have engaged in a crash-program of developing battery and solar-powered cars and trucks, again starting decades ago, but no! There’s still too much oil in the ground for the ‘big oil’ companies to simply walk away from, there’s too much profit to be made! Never mind that all those car, bus and truck engines and slowly asphyxiating our planet – the only one we’ve got! Never mind that more people die from respiratory illnesses caused by pollution globally than from cigarette smoking! We Americans, I conclude, are indirectly responsible for the catastrophe of Aleppo. Those who support ‘blood for oil’ – mainly the US political, military and corporate systems and their respective organizations and entities, are accessories to the murder of hundreds of thousands just in Aleppo alone, not counting the remainder of Syria. Moreover, the fact that these are primarily Muslims who are dying is, to me at least, completely beside the point! And what is the point? Murder, no matter what the context or circumstances, is wrong. Period, end of story. And so, I sit here at home today and I silently weep. I, too, weep for Aleppo.

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