Tag Archives: Peace

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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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 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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The Challenge of Campaigning

A couple of weeks ago I went to Shenstone, just outside Birmingham, to show my support for the eight activists who had shut down an Israeli-owned factory making engines for drones by camping out on the roof. The factory remained closed for forty-eight hours before the protesters were removed and charged with aggravated trespass. I was not on the roof. In fact, due to a perhaps slightly over-zealous local police force, I was not even close enough to see those who were.

Nevertheless, I wanted to be there. I wanted to be in that sleepy small town, outside an inoffensive looking industrial unit, to stand in solidarity with the suffering people of Gaza; and, more concretely to say that yes, I wanted this Israeli drones factory closed down. To say, in fact, I want all drones factories closed down.

AZ Palestine Roof Protest - August 2014 029This protest, like the march through Birmingham in solidarity with the people of Gaza a couple of weeks earlier brought into sharp focus one of the challenges of joining with others to campaign against injustice, to speak for peace. It is a challenge it is important to be aware of and acknowledge, because by doing so, we free ourselves to be true to what we think and believe.

I wanted to be there, to be counted among those calling for an end to the bombing of Gaza, calling for an end to the building of drones, calling for an end to the export of arms made here to commit atrocities around the world. I wanted to stand with others who cared, deeply, passionately about these issues too. But some of what was said and chanted, some of what was thought and felt and expressed, these were not things I wanted to add my name to.

The building of drones engines by UAV systems in Shenstone is not ok. But to my mind, some of the views expressed by those supposedly on the same side were also not ok.

It has, of course, a wider relevance. A choice to associate oneself to a campaign can always subtly, or not so subtly, be twisted into suggesting associations with other issues; or be accidentally or deliberately misunderstood as meaning something slightly, or even completely, different.

But perhaps because the Palestine question provokes particularly heightened emotions, and because it is a cause whose complexity attracts people who approach it from very different perspectives, it was more immediately evident that whilst there was certainly some common ground among those who felt the suffering of the people of Gaza was unacceptable, there were also a range of views being expressed which didn’t all have either the same starting point, or the same final aims.

And thus it served as a reminder of the challenge of every campaign: the challenge of finding common ground and solidarity with others to build a mass movement which can effect real change, balanced against the need to be true to the essence of my own vision and faith.

Because for me, the theory, at least, is very simple (even if putting it in to practice is infinitely complicated): To campaign for peace is to say no to the violence that pervades every level of our society and our world. To say no to the aggression, hostility and fear which feed our economy and our education, our relationships with those close to us and those far away. To campaign for peace is about much more than just an end to warfare and weaponry (although that would be nice), it is about changing our words, our actions, our mindsets. To campaign for peace cannot mean calling out in vitriolic language imbued with the same violence that the drones manufacturers espouse.

To campaign for peace and justice is to also seek those virtues within ourselves, and, little by little, to allow them to fill our hearts and imbue our words with a different vision.

This is what I wanted to speak for in Shenstone. If I do so with those around me, so much the better, but even if I do so alone, I hope I have the strength to acknowledge my differences from those by my side as well as our shared understanding and to be true to that message, the message of peace.

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When there are no words…

Writing the next post for this blog has been on my jobs list all week. It is now Saturday, and it is still on my jobs list.

Because I have no words.

I can’t think of anything to say right now which doesn’t sound empty and meaningless.

I have no words for the people of Gaza.

Nor for the people Of Ukraine. Of Iraq. Of Syria. Of the Central African Republic. Of South Sudan …

I have no words.

What words can I speak or write into these situations in this world which we have created? What words which do not feel like the meaningless platitudes of someone who lives a safe and comfortable life? What words that do not sound cheap and hollow in the face of the senseless pain and death which surrounds us?

But maybe this is exactly what I have to say. To acknowledge that sometimes there are no words, no simple answers, no easy clichés to cover a multitude of sins, no “it’ll all be all right in the end”s. There is just a litany of death and pain and suffering and anguish.

There are too many wounds that words won’t heal.

But in my wordlessness, in my inarticulate horror at the world outside my window, somewhere in a place in my heart that has no words, I cling to the knowledge that if it is true that there are no words, it isn’t because bombs or weaponry should be allowed to speak instead.

I cling to the hope of other possibilities inspired by those who have the courage and determination to break the infernal cycle by answering war and violence with peace, destruction with creativity, fear with a trusting hope, hatred with forgiveness.

In the midst of the harrowing crucifixion scenes, I cling to a belief in the God of resurrection and life.

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Fear and other motivations…

Since our most recent blockade at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Burghfield last week, I’ve been thinking a lot again about fear, stress, and what it is that guides and motivates us. On our way to the base, I was feeling particularly nervous – the combination of the practical things that needed to happen to make our action work well, combined with the potential legal penalties made for a rich cocktail that fed fear and nerves, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that way! Fear can be pernicious and I’ve found one of it’s little tactics is found in the desire to ‘find a way out’ can be powerful; the little voice saying “you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to be here, it’s OK to bail out…” can sometimes be making a lot of sense, but it can also be a voice driven by fear.

On that journey, driving through the Berkshire countryside at half past six in the morning, I found myself looking for a source of motivation, of something to be guided by that wasn’t stress, fear, or even determination and desire to be effective (whose counterpoint is the fear of being ineffective) – I was looking for something that put the action we were about to take into a wholly different context, beyond the pressure of being right or wrong, beyond effectiveness and failure. I wanted my actions that day to be born out of love, and while that feels easy to type, and easy to say in comfortable, warm, safe spaces, it didn’t feel immediately easy while sat in that van!

Looking out of the windows though, we were met with a deer running across the road, beautiful rays of dawn light through big, leafy trees, gentle mists, and – as we approached the boundary fence of one of the most abhorent places in the country- a bird (a Jay, I think) flew briefly fly alongside the van. Breathing gently and purposefully – finding those little seeds of joy and love, as Thich Nhat Hanh might say – and thinking about the beauty of the creation we’re so blessed to live among, every day, became a wonderfully rich source of guidance and strength, taking me a long way from the logic of fear. As we approached the gate of the base, opened the doors and got the lock-ons out of the van, jumped into the road, and blocked the gate, I felt glad to be where I was and doing what I was doing – once we were in the road, I felt happy and content (a long way from where I’d felt a few minutes previously!) Managing to see the world with eyes of love felt like a deep moment of prayer; I felt like was able to carry my fear much more gently afterwards.

Reading back, it can seem almost trite to recall those minutes in the approach in such a way, but the experience was once again a lesson in not letting fear be the sole, overwhelming force that it can become. There are other, brighter, lighter, more gentle emotions and experiences to be guided by, and we’re surrounded by them every day. While we were locked on, we witnessed a Red Kite treat the SOCPA law – which consider anyone who dares enter designated areas as a terrorist – with a beautiful disregard for the ridiculous contractions humans have set around particular areas of land, as it flew over the base! Even when legitimate and logical, fear is paralysing and disabling; it can stop us acting with the love we hope to. Seeing the world with eyes of love, even just very briefly, is empowering and nurturing. I felt lucky to be able to take the action we did, and glad to briefly find those little seeds of joy and love that fed my spirit while lying in that road.

In peace

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“Arms are the main reason for the war. … We pray for those making and selling arms, that compassion fill their hearts. May God change the hearts of the violent and those who seek war and those who make and sell arms. And may he strengthen the hearts and minds of peacemakers and grant them every blessing,” Pope Francis, Amman, Jordan, May 2014

“Arms are the m…

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Crucifixion

As we approach Easter, Christians are struck with something of a dilemma. This ‘faith’ we ‘practise’ throughout the year, with a God we can identify and align with, with it’s comfortable, reassuring rituals, it’s (broadly speaking) agreed upon beliefs and structures and doctrines all suddenly, brutally, turns in on itself. We’re suddenly faced with the horror of a story in which our God – that we think of as the source of our meaning – is tortured to death. On the cross, we witness God abandoning God, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – and as Christ dies, there is a shocking image, of the temple curtain being ripped in two; the very centre of the most holy space is shown empty. That which kept people distant, estranged from from God (and a path to God) was destroyed. God on a cross, denying the presence of God, and the structure that humans had constructed around God being emptied of it’s meaning.

How are we meant to even begin to understand this?

Maybe, that’s the wrong question. To ‘understand’ means to ‘perceive the intended meaning of’ –  to understand something means to appreciate why and how it works, but it can also mean to find something comfortable within the boundaries of our own lives, to incorporate an event into our world view. We understand each other only as much as we can make each other palatable; understanding means reconciling something with our own framework, within our own narratives. This is because, whenever we ‘perceive the intended meaning of’ something, we are seeing that thing – whatever it is – through our own lenses, from the benefit of our own journeys, through our own experiences, and we attach meaning onto the object of our gaze from all of those experiences and encounters. And of course, this is often a good thing; our ability to understand is an incredible function that helps us to interact with the world we encounter in a whole multitude of different ways, all the time, with barely a thought; we are incredibly good at understanding things!

However, we cannot, I believe, “understand” the crucifixion – the crucifixion cuts through our understanding, uncouples it, takes it away. At the heart of the Christian story is a radical death of meaning. There is something utterly beyond this story; rather than explaining it, understanding it, we’re faced with the fact we don’t know, that we’re lost, that we’re broken, that we’re alone. To make the crucifixion familiar – to understand it – is to miss the point entirely. To encounter Christ on the cross means to see our own temple curtain ripped in two. We’re exposed to the reality that the narratives we put together – and we see them all the time in our religions, in our cultural practices, in our economics – do little to fill a gap we believe exists between us and God; indeed, that the very gap has been taken away (that the curtain has been destroyed). The crucifixion shines a light back on to the very thing we believe will fulfil us, that will take us beyond the curtain – our Church, our image of God, our ethical or religious framework, our money, our jobs, whatever – and it declares that these things are no longer necessary.

This was something that the disciples encountered; right up until the garden of Gethsemene they were ready to tool up, to take Jerusalem, to rise up violently against the Romans. They had a very powerful story and narrative, and (literally) in the name of Jesus Christ they were sticking to it! However, at the very point that they went to defend Christ – or, perhaps, to defend their belief in that structure of meaning – Jesus turns to them and tells them to put down their weapons, that something different was going to happen. The crucifixion cut the disciples loose from the narrative – of, it seems, revolutionary violence – that they had built around Christ and what he was going to lead them to do. No wonder they ran away – I think I would have done too! The disciples were estranged from the dominant understanding within their particular group, they were left lost, broken, and meaningless, they were forced to encounter their Christ – who was ‘meant’ to lead them to victory – instead removing the very thing (their narrative) that they thought would save them.

I found myself thinking about the crucifixion last week when reading Tony Blair’s piece on the Rwandan genocide; on a day that perhaps we should have been encountering the senseless barbarity of that 100 day genocide – and reminding ourselves that any narrative we try to attach to it will fail to allow us to encounter the reality of it – Blair instead encouraged us to remember the 8% economic growth that Rwanda is enjoying, that the country is open to investors, that education is blooming, that the country is “healing”. Somehow, this grated; meaning and understanding were being drawn out of an event that was ultimately meaningless, beyond our narratives, beyond our comprehension. Blair was trying to make the most horrific genocide palatable, understandable and therefore – perhaps – forgettable. For me, remembering the Rwandan genocide means denying it meaning, remembrance means not trying to understand it, it means not compartmentalising it into something I can get my small little mind around.  For me, Blair (probably without meaning to) wanted us to think “we can’t understand this utter barbarism, but we can understand economic growth, so let’s think about that instead!” Instead, we should be reminding ourselves that we have no ability to grasp the reality of what happened there, and that, on some level, that that’s OK. To fail to understand, to be powerless in the face of reality, is a big part of what it means to be human. It is in that position that we might begin to encounter reality, with all it’s struggles, pains, incomprehensions, antagonisms. Rather than building a (new) construction of meaning, encountering the crucifixion is to demonstrate the weakness of our narratives, the destruction of meaning.

I’ll finish with this – the crucifixion-resurrection story is about hope, but rather than restoring our sense of hope (which I think is the most common reading), the crucifixion cuts us loose, it sends us spiralling off, it removes hope. To ‘have hope’ means to have hope in something; a story, a narrative, a construction of meaning that even in the overwhelming face of reality, it will all be OK  (“you never encounter an atheist in a foxhole.” – i.e. at the point where reality is becoming brutally real, we demand a narrative (“God”) that will remove us from it.) Instead, the crucifixion invites us to encounter a God of absolute weakness, of a a complete lack of hope – again, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m quite in to the Guardian’s weekend supplement, especially the “This Column Will Change Your Life” towards the back, which this week was entitled ‘The case against hope‘. After exploring how people react differently to different trauma’s, the writer quotes Derrick Jensen – an environmental activist – as saying “A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realise you never needed it in the first place… you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”

In peace.

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Resistance

To my eyes, resistance relies on the passion and conviction of the individual – you can’t legislate resistance, you can’t force it, you can’t conjure it out of thin air, and you can rely on larger systems of power for reassurance or support for it. There is a real temptation to turn to existing, powerful institutions to act alongside us, or on our behalf – perhaps because we’ve been brought up to believe in the power and morality of the state, the church, the media, the corporation, we abdicate power and responsibility, or seek tacit or active approval, from the structures we hope represent us. However, to my eyes, it so often turns out that the real acts of resistance – those rooted deeply in love and peace – come from individuals and small groups, often acting independently, and often in direct conflict with the institutions they are a part of.

A stunning recent example of this is found in the words and actions of Revered Christopher Senyonjo. Senyonjo is in Uganda, and continues to affirm and support the LGBT community there, despite the recent laws banning homosexuality in the country. By being openly supportive of the LGBT community in Uganda, Senyonjo has made himself exceptionally vulnerable, and it is the most vulnerable that he has aligned himself with. Senyonjo could be sent to prison for many years because of his open resistance to institutionalised hate and fear. While such powerful institutions, like the Ugandan state and church, support the ‘kill the gays’ bill – the original legislation pushed for the death penalty for open homosexuals – we can look to defiant individuals like Senyonjo for courage, for a story of hope. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the Kingdom of God is ‘now or never’; for me, there is little that resonates more than that than the brave actions of people like Christopher Senyonjo.

Another example – in recent months, John Dear has written powerfully on his reasons for leaving the Jesuit order; because of his regular and ongoing actions in pursuit of peace and justice, those in positions of authority and power have first sought to silence him and his peace work, before he finally took the decision to leave. Rather than being supportive of his work, it seems Dear experienced active opposition from the very institution that he joined, presumably for nourishment and leadership. Instead, he tells a story of an institution that succumbed to pressure from those who opposed his work, who he believes were ’embarrassed’ by it. And yet, there is real hope to be found in Dears’ refusal to be silenced, to act in a way that upholds his own convictions to love and peace.

In these – and so many other – stories, I see a common theme about acting with integrity, and passionate commitment to an order of peace and justice, despite the personal risk, and very understandable fear that so often blinds and neuters us. We are all on a similar journey, of finding ways that allow us to act, not without fear, because fear is something that is natural and normal, and exists for very good reason, but to act in a way that acknowledges, even loves our fear, and then finds a way to remember that there are other motivations to root our actions in, too. Our other sources lead us to acts of love for the persecuted and marginalised, to put our bodies in the way of the machines of war and death despite the risk of arrest and prosecution when we do that, to remember that we speak and act for something other – beyond – the dominant narratives of greed, power and violence that sometimes feel like they dominate our world.

In peace.

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