Will anti-Trident churches now back direct action?

My abiding memory of today’s debate on Trident will be the sight of Labour MPs falling over each other to declare their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, their support for the Tories’ policies and their opposition to their own leader.

Playground-style arguing saw at least one Tory MP suggesting that opponents of Trident need to “grow up”, as if a belief in using violence to resolve conflict were a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, Theresa May failed to answer one of the first hostile questions she has received from an MP since becoming Prime Minister (from Caroline Lucas) and stumbled through her answer when challenged by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about costs.

Today’s vote can hardly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the childish antics and macho posturing that pass for democracy in the House of Commons. The question for opponents of Trident is: What do we now?

Last week, five major church denominations – the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the United Reformed Church – collectively urged MPs to reject nuclear weapons and vote against Trident renewal. This was excellent.

It will be even better if they will follow through on their principles and encourage peaceful struggles against Trident to continue by other means.

Parliament is only part of the process. We all share some responsibility for what our society does. Nobody has a right to prepare an act of mass murder. Today’s vote should make us determined to back nonviolent direct action for disarmament, whether in the case of nuclear weapons or others.

The churches’ voices would be stronger if they would vocally back nonviolent direct action, at least against Trident if not against militarism generally. Most of them maintain chaplains in the armed forces. What an impact it would make if they would declare that their chaplains will encourage troops to disobey orders if Trident is renewed.

While several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have, as individuals, criticised nuclear weapons, the Church of England as a whole has generally shied clear of lining up with other denominations to oppose it. Last year, however, a Church of England statement suggested that the arguments for Trident need “re-examining”.

I suppose this is progress of a sort. At least the Church of England is beginning tentatively to lean in the right direction. It’s also profoundly mistaken. The arguments do not need re-examining. They have been examined for years. We need to get beyond the call for debates and take up the all to action. Let’s get on with it.

Trident: Real security or playground politics?

Owen Smith, the absurdly self-described “unity candidate” for the Labour leadership, will be one of many Labour MPs voting in favour of the Trident nuclear weapons system today. Indeed, he has already gone further. Yesterday, he gave an explicit “yes” to the question of whether he would be willing to deploy nuclear weapons as Prime Minister.

While I can never agree that Trident is morally acceptable, at least some argue for it as a deterrent, rather than as something they would put to use. Even Neil Kinnock, after his about-turn to a pro-nuclear position in the late 1980s, refused to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he would be prepared to press the button. But Owen Smith said yes when asked – in effect – if he was willing to commit mass murder.

The Tories may have hoped that the Trident vote would split Labour in two. They will no doubt be delighted that it seems instead to have split them into three.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis are calling for a deliberate abstention, while Jeremy Corbyn will vote against. His Deputy Leader Tom Watson, along with leadership candidates Owen Smith and Angela Eagle, look set to vote in favour. Many – perhaps most – other Labour MPs will sadly follow their example.

By holding the vote earlier than expected, the Tories have seized the chance to hit Labour when the party is so weak by forcing them to debate the very issue that most divides them. Given how much the Tories have been tearing themselves apart over Europe, they will gain some comfort by addressing an issue on which they are virtually all agreed.

Theresa May will be able to use her first Commons appearance as Prime Minister to boast about her support for “national security”, “defence” and other such euphemisms for military power. As often happens on such occasions, a good many Tories can be relied on to jeer at anti-Trident MPs with a similar level of debate to that employed by school bullies mocking children who don’t fight as much as they do.

Opinion polls suggest the British population is split roughly evenly on Trident renewal. You won’t be able to tell this from the House of Commons today, as Labour MPs stuck in the 1980s are determined to believe that anything other than gung-ho militarism will lose them elections.

Nuclear weapons are one of the worst manifestations of a militarist culture. Let’s be clear that we do have a militarist culture in Britain. Militarist myths are treated as common sense: it’s taken for granted that violence solves problems, that nation-states have a right to our loyalty and that unquestioning obedience is something to be admired.

People who make arguments in favour of Trident often undermine their own case by revealing the depths of their militaristic thinking. They talk about a “deterrent”, as if threats to security consist solely in governments or groups that can be scared, rather than underlying causes of conflict such as poverty, inequality and climate change. They speak of weapons protecting “us” and what “we” would do if other states maintain nuclear weapons. 

Most of us have more in common with the people of other nationalities than we do with anyone who has command of an army, let alone a nuclear weapon. Yet we are supposed to believe that the government maintains weapons of mass destruction for our own protection. This is the same government that is itself attacking the British people, with heavy cuts to public services and the welfare state. People queuing at food banks, or shivering because they can’t afford the heating, are not going to be helped by nuclear missiles.

If maintaining nuclear weapons makes a country safer, this is logically an argument for every country in the world to have nuclear weapons. Supporters of Trident insist that they don’t mean this. When pressed, I have often found that they resort to using expressions such as “top-table nations” and saying the UK is one of these.

As soon as these phrases come out, it is clear that they are giving up the argument about security: Trident stops being about defence and becomes simply a matter of power and status. We are expected to put millions of lives at risk for the sake of appearing like a tough child in a playground. Militarism, in a very real sense, is about never growing up.

In Parliament today, we will hear people arguing that Trident exists to preserve peace. Like politicians around Europe in the years before World War One, they will keep repeating the Roman saying, “If you want peace, prepare for war”.

They were proved wrong in 1914, as they have been proved wrong so many times before and since. History shows time and again that if you prepare for war, you will get what you have prepared for.

 

100 years ago: Conscription passes into law

100 years ago today, the Military Service Act received the Royal Assent, introducing mass military conscription in the UK for the first time.

The Act stipulated that, from 2nd March, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales would be deemed to have enlisted in the armed forces. In May, the Act was extended to married men.

As a result, thousands of people were sent to needless deaths, while thousands who resisted found themselves in prison.

Those who claimed exemption were required to go before a tribunal to put their case. Most exemptions were on grounds of occupation, health or responsibility for dependents. The Act allowed for the possibility that some could be exempted on grounds of conscientious objection. In reality, this provision was largely ignored, with almost nobody being given total exemption on these grounds.

The “conscience clause” in practice

Many conscientious objectors were turned down altogether, while others were told they could join the “Non-Combatant Corps” (NCC). This was a unit of the army that did not carry weapons and was supposed to satisfy the consciences of objectors. It was absurd. Its members were required to swear the military oath, obey orders and observe military discipline. It played a direct role in facilitating the war. Despite this, there were several instances of NCC members refusing orders when they came too close to participating directly in warfare.

Others were allowed to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), a body set up by Quakers (by mostly upper middle class Quaker men, on the less radical wing of the Movement). However, many objected, saying that everyone who joined the FAU freed up someone else to go and fight. Later in the war, some were sent on the “Home Office Scheme”, a form of “alternative service” that seemed not dissimilar to being sent to a prison camp.

It used to be estimated that there were just over 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs) in World War One. Most scholars of the issue now accept that this is an underestimate, with the figure likely to be above 20,000.

Many of these were forced into the army against their will, where some refused to put on uniform, drill or obey orders. They found themselves in military detention and later in civilian prisons. Over 6,000 COs spent some time in prison during the war. Forty-two were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted. However, more than eighty COs died in prison or military detention, or shortly after being released on health grounds. Others never recovered their physical or mental health.

These numbers sound low compared to the millions who died fighting. The pacifists were the first to insist that they had not suffered as much as the soldiers had. They were suffering precisely because they were trying to stop the war in which these soldiers – and many civilians – were dying.

The COs were only part of the peace movement. They were by definition male and relatively young. But women and men of varied ages campaigned alongside them, liaising with opponents of war in Germany, France and elsewhere to resist the unspeakable mass slaughter.

Marking the centenary

This evening, I’ll be going to a reception at Parliament to mark 100 years of conscientious objection to conscription in the UK. It’s run by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who played a major role in resisting conscription a century ago, although the Society in 1916 was more divided than is sometimes thought (between firm pacifists and government sympathisers).

In 1916, some right-wing (or relatively right-wing) Quakers insisted that pacifists should “thank” the government for recognising the right to conscientious objection. Others replied, rightly, that no thanks were due when the right was not being observed in practice. Furthermore, the right not to kill is so basic that we are in a grotesquely twisted world when we have to thank our rulers for acknowledging it. While this evening’s event will, I’m sure, celebrate the resistance to conscription, I hope there will be no praise for the government of the time for inserting the largely meaningless “conscience clause” into the Act. As much as anything else, its inclusion was a sop to Liberal backbenchers who supported the war but were reluctant to vote for conscription.

The resistance to World War One was as global as the war. Only a small part of it was in Britain. It was resisted in France, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil and beyond. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that overthrew the royal rulers of Germany and Russia. A century later, we are still resisting conscription. This is literal in the cases of countries such as Israel, Eritrea, South Korea and Turkey, which still force people to kill. In Britain, our bodies are no longer conscripted. Instead our taxes are conscripted to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our minds are conscripted, with militarist ideology so engrained in us that we believe that violence is the ultimate solution to conflict. Our very language is conscripted, so that we talk of “defence” when we mean “war” and “doing nothing” when we mean “doing something other than fighting”.

We need to learn from those who resisted war a century ago. Their struggle is as relevant and vital as ever.

 

 

 

100 years ago: Pacifists prepare to resist conscription

100 years ago today (30th December 1915) a 31-year-old Quaker bank clerk called Howard Marten wrote a poem about the development of the Great War over the proceeding year.

Howard was preparing to face a crucial test. The cabinet had just agreed to propose a bill to Parliament that would introduce military conscription for unmarried men aged 18 to 40. Howard knew he was likely to be conscripted. As a pacifist, he was determined to resist, whatever the cost.

I came across this poem when exploring Howard Marten’s letters and cuttings in Leeds University Library. The poem was handwritten in one of his notebooks, dated 30th December 1915.

I had the privilege of editing some of Howard’s writings as part of my work for the White Feather Diaries, a online storytelling project run by Quakers in Britain, which explores the lives of five Quakers in the first world war.

It may well be said that the poem has little artistic merit. On the face of it, there is nothing particularly remarkable or outstanding about it.

To me, however, it reads differently when I remember that the man writing it was struggling to know what he might face as a result of his faith. At this stage, it was unclear whether the conscription bill would include any provision for the right of conscientious objection, let alone whether any such provision would be honoured in practice. The No-Conscription Fellowship, of which Howard was part, had resolved to refuse to fight even if faced with the death penalty.

Here is the poem.

“The year of strife has nearly run its course,
And still is heard the clash of armed force
On and o’er the ocean’s wide expanse
Gone is the glamour and the false romance
Of battle. Yonder the desolated lands
Bear witness to the devastating hands
Which make God’s garden a bleak wilderness
And rob the earth of all its comeliness
Still the all-patient Love looks ever down
In deep compassion, which men strive to drown
The tender voice of pleading from above
Telling in accents clear that God is Love.”

Six months later, Howard Marten became the first British pacifist to be sentenced to death in World War One. The sentence was commuted to ten years in prison.

You can follow Howard’s story through the White Feather Diaries, which already include extracts from his writings relating to his experiences in 1914 and 1915. The site will soon be updated daily with accounts from 1916, written by Howard and four other Quakers.

I will also be blogging here on dates that mark significant centenaries in the development of conscription, and resistance to conscription, in 1916.

New historical evidence reveals Christmas Day mutiny in 1915

New historical evidence has come to light that is exciting for anyone engaged in researching resistance to World War One.

But this is not just good news for researchers. It is further evidence that resistance to World War One was stronger and more widespread than many would like to admit.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has long been celebrated and romanticised. Soldiers on different sides on the Western Front put common humanity first, at least for a day, sometimes with the encouragement of their officers. What’s less often mentioned is that commanders on both sides issued orders after the incident declaring that it must not be repeated.

A year later, ahead of Christmas 1915, the British army issued strict warnings that soldiers would be punished if the truce were repeated.

This has long been known by historians. What wasn’t known until now is that some troops openly defied such orders.

The new evidence is in the diaries of Robert Keating, a teenage private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which have been made public for the first time.

According to Keating’s account, members of both the Royal Welsh Fusliers and the Scots Guards responded to a request from German troops not to fire on Christmas Day. Troops on both sides got out of the trenches and shouted greetings to each other, although they don’t appear to have actually met in No Man’s Land as happened the previous year.

Keating writes that a senior officer came round the trenches and ordered the troops to fire on the Germans, which they refused to do. They only backed down when a machine gun was turned on them at the order of their own commanders.

Peace activists sometimes describe the more well-known Christmas Truce (of 1914) as a “mutiny”. This is probably an exaggeration, given that many junior and middle-ranking officers appear to have allowed it. The orders against it were only issued after it had taken place.

The newly revealed second truce (of 1915) is different. It involved open refusal of strict orders from a high level and was brought to an end by a British machine gun.

This was a mutiny. This was British troops choosing to put common humanity ahead of orders from on high. It is an incident every lover of peace can celebrate – and that future histories of World War One must include.

 

Cameron wants us to remember Jesus’ birth – but not his life

David Cameron has just released his Christmas message, calling on us to mark the birth of Jesus and to remember those who are hungry or lonely at Christmas.

I find Cameron’s message hard to stomach. David Cameron speaks of the meaning of Jesus even as his government wages class war on the poor and pursues endless war in the Middle East.

I do not claim to be a better Christian than David Cameron. I fail to live up to Jesus’ teachings all the time. I sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’ meaning. I do not assume that all my conclusions about Jesus are right.

This does not stop me expressing my revulsion when Jesus’ name is invoked to back up a government whose policies are geared to promoting the short-term interests of the rich and powerful.

Let’s have a look at Cameron’s message. It begins with these words:

“If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having their family around them and a home that is safe. But not everyone has that.”

Cameron goes on to talk of those living in refugee camps. Are these are the same refugees who the UK government has been so reluctant to welcome? He then adds, “Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone.”

Hunger and loneliness do not happen by chance but are due to inequality, capitalism and an individualist society. More people are hungry, more people are lonely, as a direct result of Cameron and Osborne’s policies. Rough sleeping in the UK has gone up a whopping 55% since Cameron became Prime Minister.

Cameron goes on to pay tribute to nurses, volunteers and others who work to support “vulnerable people” at Christmas.

I am happy to pay tribute to those who support vulnerable people, as well as those working to change the situations that make them vulnerable. More such workers and volunteers are needed as Tory policies increase poverty and remove support from people in need.

The Prime Minister then praises the armed forces, saying “It is because they face danger that we have peace”.

Cameron seems to think that peace is the absence of violence. UK armed forces are sent to fight in wars for commercial and strategic interests in which innocent people are routinely killed. War does not lead to peace any more than promiscuity leads to chastity.

The message talks of those who are “protecting our freedoms”. We are very fortunate to have a great many freedoms in this country. We have them because our ancestors campaigned for them, not because the powerful graciously handed them down.

Referring to peace, the Prime Minister says:

“And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Britain is not, and never has been, a Christian country. Jesus did not call for “Christian countries”. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, in which “the first will be last and the last first”. This is a challenge to all the kingdoms, powers and hierarchies of this world.

Jesus sided with the poor, called on the world to change its ways and was arrested after leading a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. He was executed by the Roman Empire with the collusion of religious leaders.

Most of today’s politicians, had they been around at the time of Jesus, would have labelled him a dangerous extremist. Editorials in the Daily Mail would have demanded his crucifixion.

Jesus said, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was aware of the inequality and injustice in his own society, but it sounds like an equally good description of the UK government’s current policies.

My prayer at Christmas is that we will follow Jesus’ call to look into our hearts and that we will reflect on how we contribute to both justice and injustice in the world. In the light of this, I pray that we will end our subservience to systems of exploitation and war and follow Jesus’ example of resisting them.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, has just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

More famous parables reconsidered

Upside-Down BibleLast week saw the publication of my new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence.

My publisher – Darton, Longman and Todd – have been publishing a series of blog posts I have written about Jesus’ parables, based around some of the parables explored in the book.

The fourth post, Sex workers and the Kingdom of God, was published today. It explores Jesus’ comments on sex workers and the “parable of the two sons” in Matthew 21.

The previous blog posts are

Offended by the Lord’s Prayer? You should be!

There has been a minor media storm over the decision of certain cinema chains to withdraw a Church of England advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps they were hoping to avoid controversy by avoiding religion. In reality, of course, religion is unavoidable and they have generated far more controversy than would have been the case if they had gone ahead with the advert.

The decision to refuse the advert is pretty ridiculous, but I’m sorry to see that many of its defenders have responded by insisting that the advert is not offensive. There are two issues that are being overlooked.

Firstly, there is an assumption that adverts generally are not offensive. Personally, I am offended by about ninety percent of adverts. Many of them promote values I don’t believe in, encourage consumerism, champion narrow gender stereotypes and tell me that my life will be better if I buy a load of wasteful junk. I’ve seen army recruitment adverts in cinemas, romanticising war and promoting an organisation rooted in violence and hierarchy.

If you do not share my values, these things may not offend you, but I’m sure some other adverts will. Almost anything that promotes a product or an idea will offend somebody. But I do not have a right not to be offended, and nor do you.

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be offensive – at least to those who benefit from the status quo. One of its most important lines is, “Your kingdom come”. A prayer that the Kingdom of God will come is implicitly a prayer that the kingdoms and powers of this world will come to an end.

Theologians from Augustine onwards have made tortuous arguments for the idea that Christians can support both the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms they live in. But the Kingdom of God has inherently different values to the idols of money and military might that dominate our world. No-one can serve two masters.

Let’s have a look at the actual content of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is attributed in the New Testament to Jesus himself, although it’s likely that only parts of it were said by him and other parts were added by others.

It’s opening words are:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

This may sound fairly innocuous, but in Jesus’ time, the word “father” implied authority over others. Not only was a father seen as in some sense the “owner” of his wife and children, but the Roman Emperor was described as father of the empire. According to the New Testament, Jesus encouraged his followers to “call no-one ‘father’ on earth”. Titles that involve authority belong only to God. This was subversive of both family structures and the emperor.

The prayer continues:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our food for the day. Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”

God’s kingdom is an alternative to the kingdoms, nation-states and other powers that we live under. Jesus prayed that God’s will would be done. What does this mean in practice? The next line prays for us to be fed. If God’s will is done, everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus chose this as his first illustration of a world which follows the will of God.

This is followed by a prayer for the cancellation of debts. In some translations, the word is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. It can refer both to literal financial debts, metaphorical debts and the guilt that comes with sin. It is pretty shocking to call for the cancellation of any or all of these things, and certainly contrary to the values that dominate our world, which insists that debts must be paid.

The prayer goes on:

“Save us form the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

Speaking in a setting in which his followers expected persecution, Jesus prayed that God would save them from the trials and evils that they were likely to expect. He finished with a reminder that the power and glory lies in God’s hands, not anyone else’s (such as the rulers and persecutors of this world).

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the overthrow of all existing social conditions. Of course some people should find it offensive.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published this week by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

Many people in the UK wear a red poppy at this time of year out of a laudable desire to honour and remember the victims of war.

I have often been told by red poppy wearers that they wish to commemorate all those killed in war. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that this is not the stated purpose of those who produce the red poppy, the Royal British Legion.

According to the LegionRed poppy, the red poppy does not even commemorate all the British dead.

The Legion is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. At a stretch, they will commemorate allied military dead. But civilian dead don’t get a look in.

What about civilian stretcher bearers in the Blitz, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others? Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day? No, says the Royal British Legion.

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

If you click on the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website, you will found this blatant statement:

“The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.”

I do not wish to engage in such partial and sectarian remembrance. But it gets worse. The front page of this year’s Poppy Appeal website includes a large picture of a current soldier, with the headline:

“The poppy doesn’t only support veterans of the past”.

Current members of the forces are now given at least equal, if not more prominent attention, by the Royal British Legion on the web. The Legion clearly has a political position of encouraging support for the British armed forces as an institution, and by implication supporting war as a means of addressing conflict and celebrating military values such as unquestioning obedience.

Of course, the Legion has every right to adopt this position and to make an argument for it. But let’s not pretend it’s politically neutral.

Despite all this, the Legion does some good work. Their website includes a relatively prominent section about supporting veterans with mental health problems. Sadly, this is overshadowed by all the nationalism, militarism and romanticising of war with which their publicity is glutted.
White poppies
I want to commemorate all those killed, injured and bereaved in war. That’s why I wear a white poppy, symbolising the need to remember all victims of war and to honour them by working for peace in the present and the future.

You can buy a white poppy at http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop.

Nuclear weapons and bisexuality

My apologies for the lack of blog posts in recent weeks. I usually post a link to articles I have written elsewhere, but I admit I’ve not kept up with this lately.

Here are links to a few articles I’ve had published recently.

Corbyn should stick to his guns on defence policy (21.09.15)- My latest piece for the Huffington Post

Freeing sexuality from an either/or model (18.09.15) – My opinion piece for the Church Times to mark Bisexual Visibility Day

Hiroshima was an act of mass murder (06.08.15) – My blog post for Premier Christianity magazine, as part of a debate on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing