The hammer blow

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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.

hammer (2)_optFor 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.

A Legacy not to be lost

Today, in the US,  is Martin Luther King Day.

He is, rightly, remembered and celebrated by, well, nearly everyone. I have no doubt he deserves to have a public holiday named after him.

But there is a risk with all this though. Giving someone a public holiday, accepting them into part of the establishment and the fabric of society, can be a subtle way for their true legacy to be controlled and manipulated.

Martin Luther-King was an outspoken advocate of non violent direct action. He was utterly committed to non-violence, but this never meant he was passive in the face of injustice: he was arrested almost 30 times in ten years because he refused to comply with oppression, even if the oppression was legal and his actions were not.

He stood up not just against racial injustice but against money and militarism. Widely remember as a face and name of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King was outspoken about other issues of injustice, poverty, and violence too. He never stuck to just fighting his own battles, but fought on behalf of others as well. He refused to accept the dominant economic and militaristic models, the very models of the society which has tried to adopt him.

Extremist has become a dirty word. Maybe it was then too, but Martin Luther King embraced that identity

“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love”

It is up to us to ensure that it is his true legacy which lives on. Martin Luther King was a man of faith and integrity who, committed to non-violence, fought the systems of oppression to the point of giving his life for the cause. We have much to learn and much to live up to.

 

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Of Sodom

The Old Testament story of Sodom is not necessarily the most obvious choice of a text to reflect on for a Christian pacifist: God destroying an entire city because of their misbehaviour can hardly be described as helpful in speaking of a God of Peace.

And yet, when part of this text cropped up in our prayer this week, I felt it spoke into the heart of at least one of my reasons for objecting to military action in Syria.

Before the destruction of Sodom, we read an interaction between God and Abraham.

Abraham speaks to God saying “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” Genesis 19:23-24. For righteous, a word that perhaps doesn’t have the same power today, we might read innocent lives.

And God replies that for the sake of fifty he will not destroy it.

The dialogue continues, with the number of innocents gradually reducing until God answers “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” Genesis 19: 32

And this is where, suddenly, the Sodom story is not so inaccessible to those of us who want to speak for peace.

Will ten innocents die?

Because if so, God’s answer is clear, even in the midst of one of the most violent biblical stories; even in the very earliest days of this people’s walk towards understanding the true nature of the God who loves them; even here, for the sake of ten innocents, disaster is stayed.

Why, oh why, do we still have so much to learn?

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Bombing in Syria

Tomorrow there is going to be a House of Commons vote on the questions of whether the UK should take part in the bombing of Syria.

Please email your MP and ask them to vote against these air strikes.

We’ve collected together the following links which will help you in doing this, or will inform your discussion with your MP.

Pax Christi: http://paxchristi.org.uk/2015/11/27/no-to-airstrikes-against-syria/

Fellowship of Reconciliation: http://www.for.org.uk/

Stop the War Coalition: http://act.stopwar.org.uk/lobby/stopbombingsyria

You can find some prayer resources produced by Fellowship of Reconciliation here: http://www.for.org.uk/resources/pray-for-peace/

and some very interesting background information here: http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers_and_reports/islamic_state%E2%80%99s_plan_and_west%E2%80%99s_trap

Please pray for Syria and Iraq.

When you hear of War and Rumours of War, do not be alarmed (Mark 13:7)

Sometimes the lectionary throws up very timely readings. After Friday 13th November, a day which saw deadly attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad, on the Sunday (15th Nov) we were given Mark 13, perhaps the longest teaching on how Christians are called to respond to War and violence in the whole of the New Testament. The following Sunday (22nd Nov) we read another pertinent text from John 18; Jesus tells Pilate “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…but as it is, my kingdom is not from here”. Tomorrow we have another text of war and turmoil, Luke 21:25-36. “There will be signs … nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world”

These readings speak very powerfully in the context of a wealthy world racketing itself up with war fever; in a context of millions of refugees fleeing war and seeking safety elsewhere; and in a context of multiple guerrilla armies, backed up by religious beliefs, filled with young men willing to die for their cause.

The bible’s words read in the current international climate have much to teach us, I urge all of you to spend some time reflecting on these passages. I believe they proclaim a very different gospel from that of our tabloid newspapers and political leaders, and equally very different from the ideology of Islamic State.

We are in a moment when the loudest voices on all sides are proclaiming a message of redemptive violence, if we kill these bad guys then all will be well. This message is fatalist, there is no other way, only through the use of violence can we end this evil which threatens us. Evil must be separated from good in very clear and distinct ways, our group is Good and the other is Evil. Righteous are those who strike to destroy this evil.

Against the overwhelming momentum of this ideology of redemptive violence those voices speaking for a different way will likely be drowned out, too quiet to be heard above the shouting, those that advocate alternatives will be quickly attacked as being weak, or dangerous.

Our gospels were written in a context very similar to that in which we now live. Mark was likely written in the midst of the Jewish Roman War of 66-70; the other gospels were written a little bit later. War, destruction, refugees and persecution are realities which hang over the gospels.

Mark 13 was probably written during a moment of crisis. The Jewish rebellion of 66ce has momentarily been successful, but everyone knew that the Roman Empire will return for revenge. In this moment of coming war each side is polarised. Both sides’ absolute belief in the justness of their cause is solidifying, no dissension from this ideology will be tolerated. Each person must decide, are you with the Romans or with the Jewish fighters.

Jesus’ words in Mark are striking, his advice is that his followers should run away! Redemptive violence is a dead-end, so run for the hill (Mark 13:14). As Christians we are instructed to reject the very idea of participating in this violent struggle and simply step aside.

This stepping aside, or running away, is not a passive act. Mark 13 makes it clear that non-participation in violence is itself seen as a threat to those who have chosen the way of violence, persecution will follow from both sides.

Following Mark 13 in which the myth of redemptive violence is thrown down, Mark’s gospel moves into the passion narrative in which Jesus’ alternative ideology is presented, the way of redemptive suffering, or as we modern day Christians might call it, the way of creative non-violence. Jesus does not run away from conflict but neither does he participate. His way is to challenge the very heart of our belief in redemptive violence, to make visible in his own body the consequences of such a path. The centre of Christian discipleship is to embody this way of peace.

We are not called to simply ignore the suffering of others and pontificate on the wrongs of war from the comfort of our cosy warm homes. We are called to challenge the ways of redemptive violence wherever we find them and to risk the consequences of walking such a road. We are called to suffer alongside the victims of violence.

We find ourselves in an historical moment with many similarities to that of Mark’s community in the midst of the Jewish Roman War of 66-70ce. A radical, violence group, motivated by a religious identity of martyrdom and willing to fight to the last man, has taken control of a large swathe of Syria and Iraq. The great military powers of our world are preparing to engage this group in battle.

As Christians we need to find a response fast. All too quickly events will leave us behind. Some Christians will actively bless this coming war and declare it righteous. Most of us will likely find it all too depressing and turn over to watch Bake-Off, Strictly Come dancing or the Premier League.

The real question for all of us is how to avoid these two temptations, how can we reject the ideology of redemptive violence? While still taking the suffering of Syria, Beirut, Iraq, and Paris seriously?

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” Mark 13:37b. Events are moving very quickly.

You are the Salt of the Earth

To follow Jesus is to be Salt in our World (Matthew 5:13). What can we make of this obscure metaphor?

Salt has many uses. In cooking it is best used in moderation, just a small amount of salt in a pot of food can make a difference while too much can spoil a meal. We are often called to be this gentle, almost imperceptible, transforming presence which makes a positive difference to those around us. This difference can be so gentle that it can be all too easily missed by the wider world. Simple acts of kindness, money given without great fanfare, hospitality offered, the homeless fed and sheltered, food banks stocked and staffed. As Christians we are called to a gentle gospel of quiet humble service to those most in need. Even if we can only do a little bit it is important to begin, to do something and to trust the fruits to God.

But salt is not always a subtle substance. There is the expression “To rub salt in the wound”. Salt can be used as a way of cleaning wounds, in the immediate moment this cleaning causes pain but this pain is for a greater healing. As Christians we have a vocation to be this salt in the wounds of humanity. There are times when we are called to make painful challenges in the pursuit of healing. We are called to challenge our society’s addictions to over-consumption, to sectarianism, to excluding the foreigner and to the accumulation of wealth. We are called to challenge unfair trade, tax evasion, the trade in arms, destructive fossil fuel extraction and cuts in services for the most vulnerable. We are called to challenge the demonization of the poor, the immigrant and the Muslim. When we become this salt in the wounds of humanity those we challenge will inevitably feel pain, and in their fear will undoubtedly send some of this pain back in our direction. Such is our privilege as part of the body of Christ, to share in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

We are salt of the earth. We must not lose our saltiness.

No Faith in War

On 8th September 2015, members of Put Down the Sword in partnership with Quaker Peace and Justice, Pax Christi, London Catholic Worker and Campaign Against the Arms Trade, took part in a vigil outside the Excel centre to say no to the Arms Fair and to disrupt the setting up of the fair

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International Day of Peace

Today, 21st September is the UN International Day of Peace. This year’s theme is Partnerships for Peace, Dignity for All.

I call on all warring parties to lay down their weapons and observe a global ceasefire. To them I say: stop the killings and the destruction, and create space for lasting peace

Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the UN

No Faith in War

Over coming days, as those involved process the experience, I’m sure there will be more to be said about Tuesday’s “No Faith in War” day of action outside the DSEi arms fair. There will be photos certainly, and maybe some video footage too. But some first thoughts from me:

On Tuesday 8th September, Christians gathered outside the ExCeL centre in London as it prepares to host one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Travelling from across the country and representing diverse denominations and groups, we maintained a presence at the gates throughout the day.

Peacefully, prayerfully, many stepped out into the roads, successfully preventing access to the entrances to the centre where preparations for next week’s exhibition are underway. Multiple blockades through the day were part of a whole week of creative action to disrupt the set-up of the DSEi Arms Fair. Informal prayers sat in front of a growing tail-back of lorries and a funeral procession for the unnumbered victims of the arms trade were among the powerful moments which took place in the approach roads to the ExCeL gates.

Supported by those maintaining prayerful vigil on the surrounding verges and pavements, the atmosphere remained one of respectful peace and of passion steeped in gospel values: a stark contrast to preparations for an event which will contribute to the continuing escalation of instability and conflict; the human cost of which is becoming increasingly evident.

DSEi takes place every two years and brings thousands of arms manufacturers and dealers together with representatives of global governments including those from some of the world’s most repressive regimes. As the refugee crisis in Europe draws our attention to increasing global conflict and instability, there is an almost sickening irony in knowing many of those conflicts are fuelled by a trade which being encouraged here, in our capital.

The theme of the Beatitudes reverberated through the day, with different groups independently choosing their inclusion in their liturgies. The power of Jesus’ words, spoken to an audience living under a military occupation, resonated through acts of repentance and resistance, in the face of a system which continues to perpetuate violence and oppression.

The sense of joy and community, which pervaded the day, even in the seemingly impenetrable face of death and destruction, allowed us to experience the truth of the blessing, that the peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for justice will know happiness.

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War Starts Here

In a month’s time, the DSEi arms fair will take place in London. Once again, our capital will play host to arms dealers and military personnel – the arms dealers there to sell their wares, the military there to browse the weapons and other equipment that will be used in the wars of the future. The global arms trade is worth billions of pound20130910_090118s – in 2013, global military expenditure was $1.75 trillion, and DSEi is one of the biggest events of it’s kind.

The scale – of DSEi, of the arms trade, of the sums being spent – is almost beyond comprehension. The economic and political interests behind the global trade in weapons can seem insurmountable. Yet, what this industry is really, really reliant on is our acquiescence, our sense of powerlessness  – as soon as people refuse to allow such an industry to take place in their own backyard, it runs into trouble. Like in 2008, when the Australian government cancelled the APDSE arms fair due to the massive opposition mobilised against it, or kayakers set off into the Thames to slow down advancing war ships, or protesters sit down in the gates and hinder access to the arms fair. The arms trade relies, more than anything, on our silent complicity – as soon as we decide to get in it’s way, it slows and falters, we see it vulnerable, and we can imagine new futures, a different way, something new, vibrant, light, and beautiful.

In September, members of Put Down the Sword will be praying for peace outside the DSEi arms fair – come and join us!

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