Monthly Archives: November 2014

Birdsong and Fighter Jets

In mid-September I was able to take a week off work and decided to travel to the Taize community in France where I enjoyed a much needed break and time to rest, think, pray, walk, read, sunbathe(!) and have good conversations with nice people. During that week, I had two similar experiences which both happened on the same day a few hours apart and guided a lot of my thoughts that week and I’ve been reflecting on them since.

I was sitting on a bench, alone inside the small church just outside the community, praying in the cool, silent dimness. Suddenly the realisation ‘the world is at war’ entered my mind and my heart simultaneously –I sat there going over this thought and what it means. I felt helpless and had to leave the church to get away because it was becoming too painful to sit with it.

I left the church, walking back into the sunshine and quiet noise and checked my phone, which had been on silent, to see what the time was. I had received a text message from a friend I’d not spoken to for a long time, a short message but telling me that I was loved. So suddenly from thinking about war I was then thinking about love, and yes the world is at war, that is a reality, but there’s another reality and that is the presence of love. I didn’t really know how to deal with this so I went to eat lunch and sing some Taize chants!

A few hours later I was lying contentedly in the sunshine in the shade of a tree reading a brilliant book (The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane if you’re interested!) when suddenly the peace was brutally and abruptly shattered by a fighter jet roaring through the blue cloudless sky. It was gone before I had a chance to look up, but the noise remained for a while after and I was thinking about the reality of war for the second time that day. As that noise gradually faded into the distance I was brought back to where I was by another sound – the birds singing in the tree I was resting under. I was then thinking about birds and trees and birdsong which are a constant presence in this world.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all of this but I do think it’s important to be able to see, hear and know both war/fighter jets and love/birds exist in the world we live in, and it seems that without knowing love and being able to appreciate the beauty of nature, I don’t think we can even begin to imagine a world where war isn’t a thing, or hope that this could happen, or dare to believe that we can be part of making it so.

New earth

I went for a walk the other day, down Regent’s Canal. It was one of those times, spent alone, where your mind is free to wander, take in what’s going on around you, make little connections you didn’t expect. I like those kinds of environments, where grey, angular urban meets the less predictable water, plants and animals. As I walked, big grey clouds blew over and it started to rain, rippling the canal water. A break in the clouds ahead let golden sunlight shine through. Mallards and moorhens got on with their day.

A bit of a preoccupation of mine at the moment is what it means to be connected to the environment we are a part of, and how far it feels we have managed to isolate ourselves from everything we’re surrounded by (even in our language – we talk about ‘the natural environment’ as if it’s something distinctly different from ourselves). I was half-thinking about this, while I enjoyed the rain. As I walked, I was surprised to find my mind had settled on some words of scripture;

“You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

(Actually, it’s not a huge surprise that these words came to mind; they’re one of the few bits of the Bible I’ seem to have memorised, and the few words I’ve underlined in my beaten up copy of the book.)

Though not one of the obvious references to the environment (in my ‘green’ bible, which highlights references to the environment in green ink, these words remain resolutely black…) I think there’s something important in those words that can help us to shape an understanding of our current relationship with the earth.

I find a sense of presence of the divine in the natural world – I don’t know if I believe in any God that exists beyond the material world we live in; that doesn’t seem very important. For me, there is as much of God in the connections and inter-reliance between beings in the biosphere as there is anywhere; our sense and relationship with God could be derived from how well we participate and live in relationship with the other living things on this planet, the utter complexity of it all, in the material and the mundane. I don’t want to look beyond or away for God, I want to look to the very here and now.

It seems at the moment though, we’re often making choices which amount to serving money and finance, not an earthly and present God, and that’s because we’re on a trajectory – kick-started in the industrial revolution with the advent of the fossil-fuel powered engines – which has led us far, far away from any sense of interdependency with our environment.

In her new book ‘This Changes Everything’, Naomi Klein talks about the ‘sacrificial zones’ created for tar sand extraction (vast landscapes negated to hold the waste of this utterly polluting form of fossil fuel extraction); a more recent example of how capitalism has pushed ‘nature’ further and further into a corner. “If it doesn’t turn a profit, then it has no value” is the mantra of modern-day, hyper-capitalism. If we can’t extract vast amounts of minerals, or oil, or wood from a landscape, then it’s future is of little consequence, it has no inherent worth beyond our own financial valuation. We’ve spent a long time teaching ourselves to believe that we’re on the top of the pile, that things only make sense through their utility to us. Our economy has become ever more reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels and ever increasing levels of consumption. To my mind, we spend a lot of time serving money, not God.

However, we know this doesn’t fit well, that we’re running on borrowed time. We know that the Amazon and other rainforests are the lungs of our planet. We know that our plants and animals rely on each other. We know that the wonder of creation isn’t just the individual species, but even more the vast tapestry of connections and interdependency that exists in the biosphere.

A few years ago Friends of the Earth ran a publicity campaign to promote bees and to stop activity threatening their future, with the tagline “Bees: they need us almost as much as we need them.” This did a beautiful job of reminding us that we are reliant on the ability of these little creatures to pollinate plants, that we need them more than they need us, that we have a relationship. Of course, it’s our brutal attitude towards nature that has meant that bees are finding it hard to survive; our extractivist mindset finds it hard to understand the value of a wildflower meadow on it’s own terms, and at the same time the extractivist culture takes all the honey, leaving the bees just sugar water to survive on. Take everything, fuel the economy, return nothing.

I believe there’s a response though, and I don’t think we need to overly ‘spiritualise’ it – I think we need to take concrete action to rebuild our relationship with the earth, to live more interdependent lives with each other and other non-human living things, to recognise and love those relationships. It’s not about what happens in a church building – it’s about having mud under your fingernails. It’s about making compost, growing plants, eating the produce (and making compost out of the bits we don’t eat or digest). Taking what we need, leaving the rest. Growing flowers that bees and other animals love, even if we would never eat them outselves. Not digging the soil. Remembering – when we harvest – to say thank you for what we have been served. Not looking up for heaven, but looking down.

Peter Rollins’ interpretation of the film Wall-e (which I love) is a lovely illustration of this process – of alienation, of separation, and of a more genuine return. In case you haven’t seen it, the film is a bit of a dystopian future, where humanity has had to abandon planet earth because of the un-Godly mess they’ve made of it. The humans managed to create an entirely synthetic environment – a huge space ship that is literally disconnected from the earth, where all their needs are met. Wall-E is the last surviving robot tasked with cleaning up after the human’s ancestors mess. You can’t help but feel sorry as the fat blobs float around, being endlessly fed with crap food and mindless entertainment, all because they’re ancestors were so horrifically violent to the planet they had to leave, because their consumerist, hyper-capitalist society couldn’t be contained in the closed biosphere, because those generations before them chose to live lives of such complete disconnect (so maybe I’m extending the metaphor…) For much of the film, they’ve entirely forgotten what it means to have a relationship with the earth.

The film ends hopefully though, with the humans returning to the earth, and they begin planting plants; there’s a sense that they’re taking the first tiny steps of reconnection with what should actually sustain them. From where I’m sat, the last scene, in which the captain of humanity’s alienation-ship plants one of those first plants back in the ground – looks a little bit like a vow to serve God, not money.

We need to train to wage peace

I heard this read from the Quakers’ ‘Faith and Practice’ yesterday (which I recently found out was all online, here), and was very moved by how it describes what a life committed to peace might look like, especially that last sentence – ‘we need to train to wage peace’. It’s taken from Chapter 24, paragraph 11.

The peace testimony is about deeds not creeds; not a form of words but a way of living. It is the cumulative lived witness of generations of Quakers… The peace testimony is not about being nice to people and living so that everyone likes us. It will remain a stumbling block and will itself cause conflict and disagreement. The peace testimony is a tough demand that we should not automatically accept the categories, definitions and priorities of the world. We look to the Spirit, rather than to prescriptive hypothetical statements. The peace testimony, today, is seen in what we do, severally and together, with our lives. We pray for the involvement of the Spirit with us, that we may work for a more just world. We need to train to wage peace.

Wearing my (white) poppy with pride

It is November, so soon I will be wearing a white poppy. It is a conscious choice and one which I am happy to explain and defend. Around me, many are wearing red ones. I wonder how many have made the same informed choice, and how many are simply “doing the done thing”. The cynic in me says the number and size of the red poppies around Birmingham city centre is less a mark of respect and remembrance and more of a competitive one-up-manship, but perhaps I am being a little unfair.

November 11th marks the end of what was, at least in terms of European history, one of the greatest examples of the destructive potential of the insatiable desire for ever-increasing wealth and power. There is (or at least has been until very recently) little debate: the first world war was sheer folly, begun and continued by egotism and empire. As such the choice of the anniversary of its end as remembrance day sends a clear message: this is a time to remember the futility of the wasteful destruction and suffering of war.

But it seems to me that in recent years there has been a dangerous trend. Far from being a day on which we repent of our engagement in past violence and strive to believe in the possibility of something better, Remembrance Day has increasingly been hijacked for use as a vehicle for the pro-war propaganda of our current political and military establishment.

True, there is nothing new about the British Legion Red Poppy Appeal supporting only ex-British armed forces personnel, thereby suggesting the somehow superior value of this one group over others effected by war; but in recent years, since our engagement in what started out as two highly unpopular wars it seems the red poppy and the commemorations of Remembrance Day have become more and more associated with supporting “our troops” and justifying our engagement in continuing destructive conflict.

Since the suggestion of a war in Iraq brought 2 million people on to the streets in protest, the war industry propaganda machine has worked overtime, and scarily, it seems to have had a huge amount of success. In 2003, probably a majority of the population were speaking out against an unjustified, illegal war. More than ten years on, as military action in the middle East continues, speaking out against the actions of the British and American military has almost become a taboo subject. Remembrance Day and the red poppy have somehow become part of that message.

It is blatant enough to have convinced millions, and subtle enough to be truly dangerous.

This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the disastrous decision of the European powers to go to war. A significant anniversary in danger of being abused and manipulated by our current political and military powers. Make no mistake: it was a war which found its origins in the desire for ever more power and resources and in fear and hatred of the other. With the last veterans of the “Great” war now dead, there seems to be a danger of history being reworked to provide a more convenient myth. We need to remember what happened, and how pointlessly wasteful it all was. We need to remember that there were no winners, only losers; no good, only evil; no right, only wrongs.

We need to make sure we use Remembrance Day, and perhaps especially all the anniversaries which the next four years will highlight, to remember: and not to rewrite history to better suit the military complex. If we are to break the cycle of destruction and suffering caused by war, we need to stop rewriting history and start learning from it.

I am wearing a white poppy because, since its beginning in 1933, it has been a symbol of a movement which calls for the remembrance of war to be more than just that. First, it calls for a universality in the remembrance of those who have suffered in wars: armed forces, on all sides not just “ours”, as well as the innocent civilians caught up in the cross fire, and the courageous conscientious objectors who have dared to say no. Second, it reminds that to remember is to learn from, and to learn from is to change. It is a poppy which cries for the victims of war but which also cries out for an end to the continual increasing militarisation of the world.

I think it is right that we remember the victims of war. But let us not use that memory to promote the creation of further victims, but rather as an impetus that they should be the last. It is time to stop telling “that old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”

As we say let us remember, let us work towards never again.

(White poppies are not as easy to come by as the ubiquitous red poppy but they can be bought from the peace pledge union http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop/

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