Author Archives: stepsadventures

Turning the Tables on Trident

We have posted about this before; but just in case you missed it or needed a reminder…

It is less than two weeks until Palm Sunday, March 29th when some of us will be gathering at Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment to mark the occasion by praying for peace. All welcome so do come along and add your prayers to this act of witness.

If you would like to know more, or to let us know you’re coming, do get in touch!

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The Mother’s Day Proclamation

I have long known that the origins of Mother’s Day in the UK had little to do with boxes of chocolate and expensive bouquets of flowers and more to do with returning to the ‘mother church’. I have also long known that numerous other countries celebrate Mother’s Day in May. Today, I discovered the origins of that May Mother’s Day in the remarkable demands of Julia Ward Howe, who fresh from the carnage of the American Civil War, greeted the beginnings of the Franco Prussian war with a call to all Mothers, indeed all women, everywhere to stand up for peace. Her call for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” has been sadly corrupted since, but its origins are worthy of celebration.

In place of the overly-commercialised sickly-sweet celebration our own mother’s day has become; here is a mothers day I can wholeheartedly believe in. Given that Julia Ward Howe’s words still sound disconcertingly relevant today, instead of taking my mother out for an overpriced meal, perhaps I will invite her to stand proud on the campaign trail for peace.

Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.

Arise, then, Christian women of this day ! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears ! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Julia Ward Howe, 1872

The Two Faces of the Cross

Two quotes from “The two faces of the Cross” by Brother John of Taize. The whole text is available for download at http://www.taize.fr/en_article8666.html

The way we articulate the two moments of what is called the paschal mystery has incalculable consequences for Christian life. For centuries, notably in the West, the resurrection was downplayed with respect to the passion of Christ, and this tended to foster a pessimistic outlook, centred on suffering, regarding life on earth. If today the accent has fortunately shifted towards the primacy of the resurrection in the piety of the faithful, that outlook is not without its drawbacks either. It runs the risk of minimising the effects of evil in human life, of leaping a bit too quickly to the other bank of a rediscovered happiness, and consequently of cutting oneself off from all who are forced to deal with inexplicable suffering or who are caught up in the anguish of an apparently absurd existence. Can we find strength and inspiration in the joyful news of the resurrection without taking from the cross its full measure of seriousness?

And then …

Such an act of solidarity [Jesus death on the cross], by which the Innocent One identifies with the guilty, immediately does away with all the walls we erect between individuals and groups to put ourselves in the right “If others are bad, then obviously I am good” The cross puts an end to the human divisions of race and religion, and even of behaviour, to present us all to God together, prodigal sons and daughters who are nonetheless his beloved children. Looked at from the vantage point of the cross, all human pretensions are unmasked.

This solidarity that overcomes differences and creates unity before God is shown at the same time to be the authentic response to evil. By accepting to give his life for the executioners, Jesus proclaims a truth so simple that we constantly disregard it: you cannot eliminate evil by using the same weapons. Can it not be said that the history of our race, from war to war and from oppression to oppression, is a tale of how we forget this basic truth?

A Just War?

Question: When you are utterly convinced that you are right about something, and believe in it to the very depths of yor being: should we, at that point, resort to violence to protect it?

If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I do not have the strength to live in a world like that.”

Father Gabriel, The Mission

The Christmas Truce

One hundred years ago, a few months into a war that would over the next four years would senselessly claim the lives of millions, soldiers on both sides dared to stretch out their hands to each other and remember the hope of Christmas. Whether they played football or not seems to be up for debate, but it is accepted that up and down the front lines people suddenly remembered one another’s humanity, and in doing so, they saw the reality, people not so very different from ourselves hidden behind this ominous, anonymous “enemy”

It serves to this day as a reminder that it is possible to put down the guns. It has happened before. It can be done again. What better way to commemorate one hundred years since the Christmas truce than to ensure that, once again, we step “up and over, ever man, to shake the hand of a foe as friend”

The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy

Christmas Eve in the trenches of France, the guns were quiet.
The dead lay still in No Man’s Land –
Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank . . .
The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel, sparkled and winked.
A boy from Stroud stared at a star
to meet his mother’s eyesight there.
An owl swooped on a rat on the glove of a corpse.

In a copse of trees behind the lines, a lone bird sang.
A soldier-poet noted it down – a robin holding his winter ground
then silence spread and touched each man like a hand.

Somebody kissed the gold of his ring;
a few lit pipes;
most, in their greatcoats, huddled,
waiting for sleep.
The liquid mud had hardened at last in the freeze.

But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair.
The sharp, clean, midwinter smell held memory.

On watch, a rifleman scoured the terrain –
no sign of life,
no shadows, shots from snipers, nowt to note or report.
The frozen, foreign fields were acres of pain.

Then flickering flames from the other side danced in his eyes,
as Christmas Trees in their dozens shone, candlelit on the parapets,
and they started to sing, all down the German lines.

Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot, or vaporised
by falling shells, or live to tell, heard for the first time then –
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht …

Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge from man to man;
a gift to the heart from home,
or childhood, some place shared …
When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.

A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel
and all joined in,
till the Germans stood, seeing
across the divide,
the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.

All night, along the Western Front, they sang, the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems, in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

Frohe Weinachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!
A young Berliner, brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Then it was up and over, every man, to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
beer, sauerkraut;
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.

I showed him a picture of my wife. Ich zeigte ihm
ein Foto meiner Frau.
Sie sei schön, sagte er.
He thought her beautiful, he said.

They buried the dead then, hacked spades into hard earth
again and again, till a score of men
were at rest, identified, blessed.
Der Herr ist mein Hirt … my shepherd, I shall not want.

And all that marvellous, festive day and night, they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves …

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.

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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An Open Letter to Andrew Nunn, Correspondence Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Mr Andrew Nunn,

Thank you for your letter (dated 6th October) in response to my previous correspondence. I am concerned that you do not seem to have grasped what I was trying to say, or for some reason have chosen not to respond to the main points which I made. I am writing again in the hope that some further clarification may enable you or the Archbishop to respond more pertinently to my correspondence.

Perhaps the fact that we seem to be approaching the subject from significantly different starting points created some confusion which left you unsure how to answer. While you are working with a definition of peace which states “peace at any cost may bring with it the continuation of exploitation, aggression or domination, of genocide even”; my own definition would be very different and would say that any situation of continued exploitation, aggression or domination could certainly never be named as peace, with or without western military intervention.

Let me make very clear, then, that the peace of which I write, and for which I hope, is not about the avoidance of western military intervention being a byword for the permitted continuation of other forms of aggression, but an invitation to choose the long and difficult path of creative, non-violent action which makes hope possible. I stand by my position that more war and hatred will never create peace. Only acts of love can do that. This is the message of the God I believe in.

My principle disappointment with your response to my letter is that the perspective from which I wrote was primarily a theological, not a political one. While it was a speech from the House of Lords which inspired it, I wrote to the Archbishop not as a political figure but as a religious one. It was addressed to a fellow Christian, albeit one with a more prominent public profile, walking a path in which we strive to follow Christ in the way he taught.

I wrote from the deep convictions of my faith, from my reading of the bible and my relationship with a God of Love. It was an invitation for the Archbishop to do the same. As I said, I can personally find no justification in the New Testament, nor in my personal experience of God, for anything other than a non-violent response however despicable an act may be. My hope is that, if the Archbishop does indeed stand by his intervention in the debate and his defence of the military action now taking place, he does so not as a politician but as a Christian: that he finds his justification in a return to the Christ who walked to the cross.

I was disappointed, therefore, that your response made a frequently articulated political argument but offered no theological justification for the Archbishop’s position. Your letter contained not a single reference to either Christ or the Gospels. Simply saying that “Christians must be committed to social goals other than just peace” is not, to my mind, a theological justification for military action. Not least because I, as someone who would not support such acts of state-sponsored violence, do not disagree with this premise, as I think my letter’s references to the intertwined issues of social, economic, political and military power, and the Church of England’s relationships to them (another unanswered point), probably suggested.

As I said in my previous letter, what I wanted to hear from the Archbishop was “what drove you to speak as you did and how you are able to understand the Gospel so differently to my reading of it”: a question which remains unresolved, and to which I await an answer with interest.

May I end by thanking you for sharing the link to the Archbishop’s speech but assuring you that I would not have dreamed of writing to the him at such length without having already read, and prayerfully considered, the full text. I also apologise for my mistake about the regularity of his attendance (although this was never intended as a criticism as I am sure he has a multitude of other priorities). I acknowledge not having taken into account that the Hansard records account only for those eight days in the 2013-14 season on which he spoke and not those where he was merely present in the chamber.

I look forward to hearing from you again soon,

Yours Sincerely

Stephanie Neville

Reply from the Archbishop’s Secretary

This weekend I received a reply to the letter I sent to Archbishop Justin Welby after writing to him about his intervention in the House of Lords in favour of military action. As the original letter was shared here, it seems only fair to share the reply too.

This is not going to be the end of the story either. I was not particularly impressed with this response, so my next letter is currently being drafted … watch this space in the next few days for the continuation (if you are interested!)

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Eid Mubarak!

This weekend, Muslims around the world are celebrating the feast of Eid al-Adha, or the “festival of sacrifice” which is (at least as I understand it) their most significant religious festival. “Big Eid” as the children in my class used to call it, celebrates both Ibrahim/Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail, and, perhaps more significantly, God’s intervention to prevent the death of that treasured child. The biblical version has Isaac in the place of Ismail, but tells the same story of God’s intervention.

This festival seems an appropriate time for me, as well as my Muslim friends, to reflect on its significance. To me, at least, the message of the story seems very clear. God does not choose, ever, acts of violence as a way to honour him. When we think we hear God asking us to carry out acts of violence; he whispers into our heart, no, that is not what I desire. God does not desire suffering, death or violence. Abraham, even if only at the last moment, heard that message and understood it. For me, it is perhaps this as much as anything else about his story that marks him out as a man of God and father of faith.

As Wilfred Owen wrote, far more eloquently than I could express, too often, humanity, including the many who profess to believe in the God of Abraham/Ibrahim, have forgotten to listen to this message. Almost 100 years on from these words being written, sadly, we too often continue to forget, and the words remain hauntingly relevant.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo, an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
(Wilfred Owen)

An Open Letter to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Archbishop Justin Welby,

I am writing to you following your intervention in the House of Lords in the debate about British Military Action in Iraq. Initially, when I heard you were attending the debate and going to speak, I was extremely pleased that this was one occasion when you had made an active choice to attend a chamber in which I know you are rarely present.

While I disagree with the existence of the House of Lords, at least, so I thought, here was an opportunity for a voice to speak the Christian message of peace and justice. Imagine then my profound disappointment when the only representative of the church to be given the opportunity to inform the debate chose to speak in favour of action which, as a committed Christian, I feel is abhorrent to the faith I follow and its founder, Jesus Christ.

When will we learn? Conflict is an interminable cycle downwards into the worst depths of the human condition; of which the most vulnerable victims are always innocent civilians and from which the only real winners are the arms industry and their friends in the finance sector. I mourn for an institution which calls itself church but which puts their interests ahead of the hope of a future of peace and justice.

Your claim that “ It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest, to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.” is one with which I strongly agree. As church we are, both individually and collectively called to be prophets, holding up a vision of hope that speaks of another way being possible. But to hear it immediately followed by the words “ But in the here and now there is justification for the use of armed force” suggests that the early part of your speech was merely an empty formulation; when in reality you have chosen to ally yourself, and by virtue of your position, the Church of England, with the temporal powers of this world.

To my mind, as followers of the non-violent Christ, there is no situation, no justification which calls for us to raise weapons of war. This does not mean that I condone the activity of IS: of course I am in full agreement that their barbaric actions (along with those of other armed groups, both those we support and those we don’t) are causing a humanitarian crisis. I agree entirely that now is not a time for inaction, for closing our eyes and ears to the cries of the suffering. But I do fear for a world, and a church, which has come to believe that violent action and total inaction are the only two possible routes when faced with a difficult choice.

For me it is part of the very essence of the Gospel, and not an optional extra, that, in the face of the violent oppression of a regime which victimised the innocent, the route chosen by Jesus was neither violent action, nor passive inaction. It is a route that many in the church are still courageously trying to walk, but which your words suggest may have been institutionally forgotten. It is the route of non-violent, creative resistance, the route of sharing a hope of peace and justice, the route of making visible the pain not to exacerbate it further but to explore and understand and heal it. It is, I believe, the route along which Jesus invites us to follow him.

When Jesus told his disciples in Gethsemane to ‘put down their swords’, swords which they had raised in good faith to protect the innocent and prevent a worse act of violence, I do not believe it was a one off commandment for a given historical moment. I believe it was a commandment he whispers to our hearts repeatedly through the ages: ‘when you hear the battle call, when you see the weapons of war being raised, however good the justification might sound, you my followers, put down your swords’.

My personal church history is a varied one, and these days I hold my denominational identity very loosely, but it was the Anglican tradition which formed my early faith and into which I was both baptised and confirmed. I still hold those roots as a part, though not the whole, of my Christian identity. That said, out of all the churches with which I identify, the Church of England is increasingly the one I struggle with most. I have long been concerned about the church’s choice to associate itself both with military might and financial power; which make words spoken on behalf of the poor look all too often like hollow insincerity. It’s vast wealth and its choice of unethical investment practices, it’s support of a political system where being born into privilege is considered acceptable, and its continued support for acts of state violence, to me are all contrary to the Gospel.

Your words in Friday’s debate did nothing to allay my fears that the Church of England has become corrupted by such associations; and that those members of it who continue to share the Gospel, of whom I know there are very many, do so almost in spite of, rather than because of, the church. My condemnation of your position is paralleled by my admiration of those who continue to  courageously witness to the hope of peace in the name of the church.

I look forward to hearing your response about what drove you to speak as you did and how you are able to understand the Gospel so differently to my reading of it.

You remain in my prayers.

Yours Sincerely

Stephanie Neville

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