Back in June five members of Put Down the Sword were arrested “willful obstruction of the highway” while blockading one of the entrances to AWE Burghfield, where the UK’s nuclear weapons are assembled. Two other affinity groups (from the Catholic Workers and Quakers) blockaded the other entrances meaning the whole site was shut to vehicles for a morning.
Put Down the Sword are in Reading Magistrates Court on 23rd, 25th and 26th January. We welcome supporters on any day, but are focussing on 25th January as the main day, and we’re putting on a series of seminars for those unable to get into the public gallery. The schedule for the day is as follows (although it will be flexible!)
9: Meet outside the court. Bring banners etc 11.30-12.30 How to bring change: exploring how to use direct action: Andrew Metheven, War Resisters International
1-2: Communal lunch with defendants
2-3: Jesus and non-violence: Woody Woodhouse, Methodist Minister
3-4: What next? Stop DSEI! Sarah Robinson, CAAT
We also have a solidarity fund to help with travel expenses etc for the defendants. Cash donations are welcome, or transfers to 08-92-86 17488437.
So on a related theme to my previous post, I think I have found the one place in which this language of violence I speak of seems not to be used.
Whereas in almost every sphere of life violent imagery seems to be common place, there is one area where, as far as possible, it seems to be studiously avoided … when we’re talking about actual violence.So wars are described as “conflicts” because it is a bit less scary, the bodies of the innocent dead are described as “collateral damage” because it doesn’t sound too ghastly, and aggression is described as “security”; a word which used to mean safe but somehow doesn’t any more.
Has any one seen an armed forces recruitment film recently? They are truly terrifying … because they are not in the least bit terrifying. At no point do they seem to think it necessary to mention that you might get killed or seriously injured by the violent acts of others, nor that your soul will be scarred for the rest of your life by the violence you will perpetrate yourself.
They speak instead of adventure and excitement, of opportunities and education, of comradeship and personal development. And guess what: those are all things I approve of and values I espouse. They are things I think every person; including every young person who has had limited options thus far who are those primarily targeted by these insidious campaigns; should be able to access.
I’m just not sure that the military is the best placed institution to be providing them. No, hold on. I am sure. I am absolutely sure. I think they should be found in independent art projects: in theatre and dance and and creativity; I think they should be found in community activism and the service of one another; I think they should be found in a context of peace and hope.
Just as it is dangerous that we unthinkingly describe our everyday circumstances with the language of violence; it is equally dangerous when we fail to call out violence and aggression for what it really is. So let’s call a spade, a spade. And a war, a war.
And then, named as such, let’s choose to say no.
It was a hymn we sung in church, a few weeks ago now, which reminded me I wanted to write a post on this subject … although it is a theme I have considered writing about previously, but never quite got round to it.
I can’t even exactly remember which hymn it was now, but it was one of those “onward Christian soldiers”, “fight the good fight” type ones which always make me feel distinctly uncomfortable.
I know others will tell me these are not songs which condone violence, that they are simply using familiar, evocative imagery to explore spiritual themes which defy easy description.
That though, is precisely the problem.
As my involvement with the peace movement has become increasingly active, and as I have engaged with and reflected on what it means to be truly non-violent, I have become increasingly aware how unhelpful the language and imagery we use, often entirely subconsciously, can be.
I have long been uncomfortable with ‘warfare’ hymns and the constant rhetoric of the ‘war on this that and the other’ from government ministries and media outlets but the first time I remember being stopped in my tracks by something I said myself was when I described the Quakers as “punching above their weight”… and realised how entirely inapt the image was.
It was a wake up call to try and think more carefully about my choice of words and images, and to become aware of how often we fallback on images of violent conflict to explain or evoke a whole range of situations and experiences. We “fight” or “combat” the things we are against, take “a shot in the dark” when we just don’t know or “give it a shot” when we think maybe we do.
Perhaps it is all entirely innocent and I shouldn’t be concerned about the words we use without a second thought: but I don’t think so. I believe in the power of language and I worry that by our constant exposure to the language of violence we reduce our sensitivity to what these things actually are and actually mean. Desensitised to the reality behind the images, our everyday language becomes one of many factors helping to perpetuate a culture of violence.
The language we use certainly helps shape the way we think; so I can’t help wondering what would happen if we shifted our rhetoric to more peaceful images.
I am not pretending I have been entirely consistent in changing my language use since I first started to reflect on this idea After all, my starting premise was that often these language choices are so ingrained that we use them entirely sub-consciously. But I guess I have tried to be a little more conscious, at least some of the time, of the words I choose and the images I describe.
It is one of the tiny steps I am trying to take towards the road of peace I want to walk.
Yesterday, Daniel Berrigan: Priest, Poet, Peacemaker and Protester died just short of his 95th birthday.
If, even in the face of vast American military might, he never lost sight of the hope of an alternative, it was perhaps because of his recognition that while the commitment to war was total, those who spoke for peace so often did so half-heartedly, without the commitment and energy that others dedicated to the power of war and death. All it would take, then, for peace to win, is those of us who call ourselves peacemakers, approach the task with the same energy and commitment, and prepared to take the same risks.
Through the anti Vietnam war protests, the anti nuclear weapons movement and onwards to an active stance against more recent American military interventions, Berrigan did exactly that, living what he believed and inspiring others along the way.
I don’t know enough to write a lengthy biography, nor do I feel the need to, I’m sure Wikipedia can do that. But I know enough to know he was an inspiration and that the peace movement, and probably my life, is infinitely richer for his commitment, his faith, his energy and his courage.
His is a voice which continues to resonate and continues to challenge. I know I am not yet living up to the challenge. I know I want to try.
He may not have had the media presence of some of those who facebook has mourned in 2016; but for me, he is without a doubt the greatest of those whose faces have appeared on social media on the roll call to heaven for this year so far.
Some: A Poem by Daniel Berrigan
Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.
Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.
“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”
“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”
“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”
We gathered in the foyer of the British Museum, underneath a banner for the latest exhibition; Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds. We weren’t queueing for tickets; we stood in silence, in a circle, as an act of witness to the destruction being caused in the pursuit of profit by the company sponsoring that exhibition – BP.
Holding a Quaker Meeting is a very simple protest – if that is what it even is – that means space is gently occupied by a group of peaceful people, whose presence draws attention to something everyone would be able to see anyway, if they were to look. Not just BP’s logo – that’s obvious – but casting a light on the all of the systemic violence that has brought that corporation into one of our museums in the first place. BP are not sponsoring our museums and art galleries because they have a great love of art, culture and history – they are there because they need to sanitise their image, and to ensure their view of their world remains hegemonic.
Normally in Quaker Meeting I flit between letting my mind wander wherever it goes, and gently bringing my attention back to my breath, to the flowers or water on the table, to the light coming through the window, to the week I’ve had or the week coming, or to the most recent piece of ministry. In the British Museum, I found my mind settled on the words written on a banner held aloft at the COP 21 protests in Paris:
“We are not fighting for nature – we are nature defending herself.”
In these words there is a sense of hope and interconnection that startles, baffles, and comforts. “We are nature defending herself” speaks of a radical break with the status quo – capitalism’s constant thirst for more resources and ever expanding growth, that is so often achieved to the detriment of societies and cultures, and the destruction of forests, deserts, rivers, lakes, seas, air, animals, birds, insects, fish. Deeper though, those words act as a break with the standard rhetoric of many environmental campaigns and activists; that system tweaks are all that are needed, not systemic and cultural change. I’m convinced we need a radical change in how we use the earth’s resources, and that that has to be nurtured within a radical shift in our relationship with nature, of how we see ourselves in relation to nature.
Stepping back a little, it seems violence is made possible when we are able to effectively distance ourselves from the victim. At a talk I attended recently, a member of Veterans for Peace described the psychological reconditioning that takes place in military training as as important as the physical preparation for war. In his book ‘On Killing’, David Grossman described how in the First World War many soldiers – physically prepared but not mentally reconditioned – ended up not firing their weapons, but by the Vietnam War and onwards the military had ‘successfully’ raised the kill rate, by training soldiers differently. The VfP member described being taught to ‘shoot at the mass’ (rather than the ‘body’, or ‘person’) from distances that made it harder to relate to the target.
Is it trite to suggest a similar reconditioning in terms of our relationship with ‘nature’? Have we been taught to see ourselves as inherently separate from the rest of the earth, to see the earth as an object? Has this allowed us to accept and participate in ecocide?
Have we been conditioned to see nature as an object to meet our own ends, rather than something we have an inherent, deep connection with, something (everything?!) that has value in and of itself? Do we know how to look at a tree, an animal, a river, an insect, a whole ecosystem, as something inherently valuable, regardless of whether we manage to extract resources from it, consume it, even visit it to ‘enjoy’ it? How would we (re)learn how to do that? Could we?
George Monbiot explored some of these themes in ‘Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding’, a fascinating account of how areas of the Earth’s lands and seas might be allowed to return to wild forest and ocean. He dares us to imagine hundreds of acres of forest, with wolves roaming free in Scotland and wild boar in the south of England, and at the same time imagine what rewilding ourselves would mean; indeed, he suggests it would take a degree of rewilding our hearts and minds to find the idea of boars and wolves palatable. For this to be possible, for this healing of our planet to take place, it feels like we need new stories (or to remind ourselves of old ones) about what a healthy relationship with nature is about; relearning this will be deeply spiritual, as we redetermine what and how we value, how we understand our roles and relationships. It will be a grand shift, away from capitalism, growth, extraction, and profit.
And so when corporations like BP look at our world and only see oil to be extracted and profit squeezed from the very rocks, we should balk. And when corporations invade our cultural spaces to legitimise their worldview, we should act to expose them.
“One universal demand which the church as an agency of counsel and consolation must meet is the need of men and women of all ages for help in facing suffering: illness and accidents, loneliness and defeat. What more fitting resource could there be than the biblical language which makes suffering bearable, meaningful within God’s purposes, even meritorious in that “bearing one’s cross” is a synonym for discipleship? Hosts of sincere people in hospitals or in conflict-ridden situations have been helped by this thought to bear the strain of their destiny with a sense of divine presence and purpose.
Yet our respect for the quality of these lives and the validity of this pastoral concern must not blind us to the abuse of language and misuse of Scripture they entail. The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move towards it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly free choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. Already the early Christians had to be warned against claiming merit for any and all suffering; only if their suffering be innocent, and a result of the evil will of their adversaries, may it be understood as meaningful before God (1Pet 2:18-21; 3:14-18; 4:1,13-16; 5:9; James 4:10)”
John Howard Yoder in ‘The Politics of Jesus’ page 129
I’ve just finished reading a book called “The Hammer Blow”, by Andrea Needham. Andrea was one of the women who participated in the Seeds of Hope action 20 years ago. Seeds of Hope famously campaigned against the shipment of Hawk fighter jets to Indonesia, where they would be used to attack the people of East Timor. After a long campaign, the group decided to take direct action against this shipment, entering a British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) factory and disarming one of the jets, hammering on it’s side and control panels. Four of the women spent six months in prison, before being found not guilty by a jury.
The book itself is very well written, and a powerful tale of the power of nonviolent intervention. I was wary when I picked it up, because it is easy to read stories like these, and end up putting the people who did them up on a pedestal, as hero figures, and project onto them idealised images of the fearless activist. The book is a relief, because the writer has dared challenge these stereotypes, and the book is rich with humanity.
There is a particular moment when the writer describes a simple ritual they participated in, just a few days before they took their action; each woman wrote on a piece of paper the fears and worries they had about the action, and these were collected up and burnt without being read out loud. A tray of seeds was then passed around, and each participant took some of the seeds and told the group what their hopes and dreams were for the action – as these were said, the seeds were mixed up into the ash. When all the fears and all the hopes had been collected up together, each woman took a pinch of seed-ash mixture, which they scattered in the days leading up to the action.
For me, this simple ritual is an illustration that in our activism, we have to hold our whole being in the light as we take part. It seems that the women in this story weren’t without fears – I assume they all wrote something on those bits of paper! But what is beautiful is that they refused to let their fears be the only thing that dictated their decision-making, they were able to be guided by something else.
We all might have different understandings of what that ‘something’ is; one of the women had the words “choose life!” painted on her hammer, which maybe illustrates this ‘choosing something else’. Maybe a way of being that ‘fearless’ activist is not hiding our fears away, but owning them and refusing to be co-opted by them, and finding new things to be guided by.