Pacifism in rural Hertfordshire

Rural Hertfordshire is not known as a hotbed of radicalism. I was surprised – but pleased – to be asked to give a talk about pacifism in the village of Ayot St Lawrence this week. As I arrived there, I encountered a village that looked both affluent and physically remote. I instinctively started to make assumptions about the likely political views of its inhabitants. But of course, I was wrong to make guesses before I’d met them. As it turned out, the views expressed at the event were fairly varied.

Amazingly, Ayot St Lawrence – despite having only about 100 houses – has a regular “tricky issues” group that discusses ethical questions. This is great. More villages should take it up.

They’ve looked at topics including euthanasia and religious experience. This week, it was pacifism versus “just war”. I put the pacifist case, while the argument for “just war” was made by Chris Pines, head of religious studies at a school in St Albans.

I have to admit that I was very tired after working flat out for four days at Quaker Yearly Meeting, which had finished the day before. I had been reporting for The Friend magazine. As a result, I wasn’t at my best and was sometimes too keen to talk rather than to listen. Nonetheless, it was a good and thought-provoking discussion. It was vigorous and passionate but people were very friendly, both before and after the debate. I was given really good refreshments, including some truly excellent home-grown apple juice.

The event benefited from the presence of several people with experience of the armed forces, including someone who had recently left the forces after several years. She was very much in favour of the arms trade and soon Chris and I were agreeing with each other as we both challenged her argument that it was “just business”. On most other questions that came up, Chris’ views differed sharply from mine.

There was very interesting discussion of aspects of World Wars One and Two. However, I regret not making more of an effort to explain my position on the nature of nationality and the role of national armies. Several times, the discussion focused on what “we” can do if we are aware of atrocities being committed overseas.

In this case, the “we” refers to the UK government and its armed forces. The question was when those forces should be sent into battle against an oppressive regime. Several people present – including several who made clear that they were not pacifists – agreed with my point that governments tend to intervene when they have a strategic or commercial interest in doing so, even when they wrap it up in humanitarian language.

What I didn’t explain so well were my feelings about the whole notion of talking about what “we” can do. Each of us in the UK has a very small amount of power to contribute to the policies of the government. Most of what we can do about injustice is not about what we can ask our government to do. It is about what we can do as individuals, as communities, as churches, as charities, as NGOs, as campaigning groups.

It is vital to remember that for every atrocity denounced by UK ministers, another one is defended. For every tyrant they criticise, there is another to whom they well arms. As people in Bahrain and West Papua are viciously assaulted with British weapons by their own governments, what “we can do” is to resist the injustices committed by politicians and companies in our own country. This is why I make a priority of campaigning against the arms trade and resisting the militaristic outlook promoted by the government and much of the media. We can continue to support people resisting tyranny around the world, whether the tyrants in question are defended or denounced by the rich and powerful in Britain.

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