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.

 

 

 

Grassroots activism and the Leaders’ Debate

Leaders’ Debates are always going to be unbearable on some level. The petty attacks, the narrowness of the discussions, the very limited time span, the tendency of some people to think that shouting loudly constitutes debate (meaning Nigel Farage in this case).

Nonetheless, it could have been a lot worse. Compared to the equivalent debates in the 2010 election, this one included reference to some relatively progressive ideas. There was talk of scrapping zero-hour contracts, cracking down on dodgy landlords, building more houses, ending NHS privatisation and challenging energy companies. While Farage blamed everything on immigration, the panel did not generally dance to his tune and for once his nasty xenophobic agenda failed to dominate the discussion.

I’m not being naïve. Discussion of progressive policies does not necessarily mean that they will be introduced, even if those who promoted them come to power. Also, things could have been considerably more radical. It’s a shame that in the education discussion, no-one challenged the power of fee-paying schools. Capitalism was not attacked explicitly. Only one leader (Nicola Sturgeon) repeatedly mentioned nuclear weapons.

This won’t stop me being glad that progressive ideas came up more than might have been expected. They may even have shifted the election debate slightly to the left (though this partly depends on which bits the media choose to focus on, and I’m not holding my breath).

So why did these progressive ideas come up in the Leaders’ Debate?

Partly, of course, it was due to the presence of three leaders to the left of Labour (Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon). Wood did a good job of challenging xenophobia, telling Farage to be “ashamed of yourself”. One of the best quotes of the evening surely has to be Wood’s comment, “It was not Polish care workers and Estonian bar workers who caused the economic crisis. It was bankers.” All three of them rejected the notion of austerity, with Sturgeon saying we can’t “afford any more austerity” and Wood saying Miliband offered only “austerity light”.

While none of these three went as far as I would have liked, I think we have a lot to thank them for.

Yet some of the progressive ideas were emphasised by Ed Miliband: ending zero-hour contracts, cracking down on corporate tax avoidance, raising the minimum wage, tackling private sector rent levels. I don’t believe that these things came up simply because Ed Miliband feels strongly about them. Indeed, when he became leader four and a half years ago, he had barely mentioned most of them.

These issues became noticed because of the work of people at the grassroots, in their communities, high streets and workplaces, speaking up and taking action. Corporate tax-dodging was noticed by the media and mainstream politicians only after UK Uncut took nonviolent direct action in tax-dodging shops in 2010-11. Zero-hour contracts and fuel poverty have been the focus of campaigns backed by trades unions, faith groups and others around Britain. The state of private sector renting has been a disgrace for decades, but the efforts of campaigning groups have combined with criticisms of rising house-prices to make people like Ed Miliband realise that challenging it can be a vote-winner.

Whether Labour – or for that matter, the SNP or others – will stick to these policies after the election is another matter. That’s why we will need to keep up the pressure after 7th May. But the fact that they are even talking about them demonstrates the effect that grassroots activism can have.

Elections are only one small part of politics, only one event in democracy. Real democracy means using our power whether or not an election is on. That’s why we need to keep campaigning after the election – through pressuring politicians, through direct action, through protests, boycotts and strikes, through living out our values where we find ourselves.  When we vote we hand over only some of our power, temporarily, to the people we elect.

We need to cut ‘defence’ spending, not increase it

The Daily Telegraph’s campaign for high military spending has gathered momentum. Tory backbenchers, retired generals and even some Labour MPs have backed calls to keep “defence spending” at 2% of GDP. Last week, in a Commons debate attended by very few MPs, the majority of those who bothered to turn up voted in favour of the proposal.

There are several facts that rarely get mentioned.

Firstly, when they speak about “defence spending”, they mean the budget of the Ministry of Defence. A great deal of military and war-related spending is from other budgets. This includes funding for research and much of the cost of fighting actual wars. When this is added in, the figure is far above 2% of GDP.

Secondly, the UK’s military (or “defence”) expenditure is not low by international standards. It is very high. According to academic research in Sweden in 2013, the UK has the sixth highest military budget in the world. Even if it has fallen slightly since then, Britain is still spending far more on war than most of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. The Daily Telegraph itself published a chart illustrating that the UK is spending a higher percentage of GDP on “defence” than almost every other member of NATO and the  European Union.

Thirdly, “defence” is clearly a euphemism for spending on warfare and preparations for warfare. Despite the choice of wording, much of this expenditure has little or nothing to do with defending the British people. Supporters of “defence” spending talk about “national security” as if only weapons and soldiers can make anyone secure. In reality, the use of British troops as a support act in US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan has increased terrorist threats to Britain, making us less secure. All sorts of things help to make people secure – including a warm home, enough to eat and healthy relationships. These are being denied to increasing numbers of people in Britain by vicious cuts to public services, the welfare state and local authority budgets – cuts that are much larger than cuts to “defence” spending. The British people are threatened more by their own government than by any foreign power.

The militarists are increasingly vocal and well-organised in lobbying for high military spending in the UK. As the pressure grows, those who believe in real security need to speak up and expose the reality.

Conscription – in 1916 and today

Ninety-nine years ago today (2 March 1916), every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces. It was only a few months before another act was passed, extending conscription to married men.

A few months later, on 1 July, over 19,000 British troops were killed in a single day at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. They were not conscripts, for the first conscripts were still being trained. Nonetheless, conscription made the Somme possible. Commanders were able to send thousands of men to their deaths knowing that were now many more to replace them. Thousands of German and French soldiers joined them in death, fighting for competing sides in an imperial war that had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with money and power.

In World War One, between 16,000 and 23,000 British men refused to accept conscription and became conscientious objectors (COs). The vast majority of COs were denied exemption by the tribunals set up to deal with them. Many were offered partial exemption, which some accepted but many did not. Over 6,000 COs went to prison, while others were held in work camps run by the Home Office in which conditions were only slightly better than prison. Others – both men and women – were imprisoned for anti-war activism under the terms of the draconian Defence of the Realm Act.

The COs’ witness against militarism is an inspiration today. We no longer have physical conscription in the UK, but it is a reality in much of the world, from Israel to South Korea to Colombia to Eritrea. In the UK, volunteer troops theoretically have the right to leave the forces if they develop a conscientious objection during their term of service. In practice this is not upheld, as shown by the case of Michael Lyons, a member of the navy imprisoned in 2011 after having a change of heart and refusing to use a gun.

In the UK, our bodies are not conscripted. But our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the highest military budget in the European Union. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and that soldiers are heroes. Our very language is conscripted, as we say “defence” when we mean warfare, “security” when we mean fear and “conflict” when we mean violence.

The struggle against militarism and warfare is as vital in 2015 as it was 99 years ago. Earlier today, the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Burghfield, Berkshire, was peacefully blockaded by people determined to stop the development of nuclear arms. Yesterday, thousands of people marched in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Russian and British people have more in common with each other than they do with their warmongering governments. Every war opposed, every weapon disarmed, every aspect of militarism denied, every refusal to put our nationality ahead of our humanity is an act of resistance to the idols of violence that were rejected by the pacifists during World War One.

Harry Stanton was a blacksmith’s son from Luton. As a Quaker, he refused to accept conscription in 1916. He was forced into the army, where he refused to obey orders. Within four months, he had experienced imprisonment, torture, hunger and a death sentence that was commuted to ten years in prison. He was 21.

As Harry listened to his death sentence being commuted, he felt that “the feeling of joy and triumph surged up within me, and I felt proud to have the privilege of being one of that small company of COs testifying to a truth which the world as yet had not grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance”.

Nearly a century later, we are still struggling to grasp that truth. Let’s honour the COs’ legacy by continuing their struggle. We need to object, conscientiously, to warfare and militarism today.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.

New Year Revolutions

A number of my friends have today written “Happy New Year” messages on Facebook with strongly political content: 2015 is the year to “get rid of the Tories” or “kick out the ConDem coalition”.

I couldn’t agree more with the desire to get rid of this nasty, petty, poor-hating government. The government is so awful that many people would understandably accept almost any alternative. This is itself is a problem, for if we choose the lesser of two evils, we are still choosing evil.

I will have a sense of relief if Labour replaces Cameron in the general election this May. But I do mean “relief”, not joy or celebration. A Labour government would be slightly better than a Tory one.

Despite Tony Blair’s attempts this week to portray Miliband as some sort of radical leftie, the reality is that Miliband’s policies are basically pro-austerity. Miliband has bought into the ConDem rhetoric about “reducing the deficit” (although the deficit is not high in either historical or international terms). He is not committed to reversing most of the Tory benefit cuts and is firmly behind the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

True, Labour is committed to scrapping the bedroom tax, introducing a mansion tax, raising the minimum wage and taking action on zero-hours contracts and energy prices (although the details seem worryingly vague). If all this happens, I’ll be very pleased, although it’s only scratching the surface in terms of building a fairer economy. My fear is that Miliband will be pushed to the right once in office and these policies will be watered down or scrapped altogether. Virtually every Labour Prime Minister has moved to the right once in power; the exception is Tony Blair, who was already too far to the right to move any further.

Things might be better if a minority Labour government has to do deals with the SNP (or, if things are very close, even with Plaid Cymru and the Greens) to remain in power. However, I’m not optimistic about Trident renewal being prevented in this way alone (a minority Labour government could rely on Tory votes to get Trident through). Further, we would need to keep campaigning to hold minority parties to their progressive pre-election promises once the sniff of power reaches them.

Nonetheless, I will never agree with those who say that the election result makes no difference. Even a slight improvement on the current situation is welcome. This does not mean that a slight improvement should be our aim.

When the suffragists and Chartists campaigned so hard for the vote to be extended to women and working class men, they believed the vote was the most powerful tool for bringing about change. Indeed, the vote has been used to bring about some pretty massive social changes: the National Health Service would not exist at all were it not for the Labour landslide of 1945. At the same time, we must remember that this was an election result made possible only by the growth of left-wing ideas during the second world war, ideas which spread at the grassroots rather than through formal political processes.

Most suffrage campaigners did not foresee that power would move away from Parliament, making the vote less relevant. Economic changes that are sometimes lumped together as “globalisation” have globalised wealth and power but have not globalised democracy. Even if a genuinely progressive government were to be elected, it would struggle to follow progressive policies in the face of the vast power wielded by multinational corporations and other unaccountable vested interests. As it is, most party leaderships are stuffed full of people who have an interest in basically preserving the status quo and who see corporations as their allies rather than as a threat to democracy.

This is why I respect people who take a principled decision not to vote. They do not want to legitimise an unfair system. But while I respect them, I take a different position. I believe in using what power we do have, as well as taking advantage of the results – however limited – of our ancestors’ campaigns for the vote. The system is already morally bankrupt; low turnouts have not led to is rejection.

Voting is only a small part of democracy. If we had to choose between voting or working for change in other ways, I would choose the later. If voting makes anyone feel that other forms of activism are unnecessary, I would rather they did not vote. However, it is possible to vote and at the same time to take to the streets, to the media, to the internet and to the picket lines to work for change.

So I will go out on the morning of 7th May and vote for what I believe in, or as near to what I believe in as I am able to. I do not yet know who I will vote for; I don’t know who the candidates will be in my area. The constituency I live in goes by the quaint name of Cities of London and Westminster, although I am not sure that I will still be living here in May. It is a rock-solid Tory seat and you might well say that my vote will make no difference. This will not stop me expressing my view through the ballot box, just as I will express it on the streets and in the media.

So what should someone like me do during the election campaign? Carry on as normal, as I believe the election is only one event in democracy? Throw myself in to campaigning for left-wing candidates, hoping that a strong vote for parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru will send a message even if they have no chance of taking power?

To be honest, I’m not sure and I haven’t decided. I’m willing to campaign for candidates and parties when I share many of their views, as long as they do not believe that elections are the only way to achieve change. I have a lot of time for the Green Party and back many of their policies, but I am nervous of how Greens elsewhere in Europe have moved rapidly to the right, notably in Germany and the Republic of Ireland. I could campaign for the Greens while being to the left of many of their members, but part of me wonders if I would be very different from those left-wingers who join Labour despite disagreeing with many of its policies. When it comes to much smaller outfits such as the Peace Party, my instinct is to ask them, “Why don’t you just join the Greens, who you agree with on most things?”. But is that any different to Labour left-wingers asking Greens why they don’t just join Labour?

As you can tell, I have more questions than answers about involvement in election campaigns. They are questions to myself at least as much as to anyone else, and I would value your thoughts. I know that several of my friends and comrades will refuse to vote and see participation in the election as collusion with an unjust system. At the same time, other friends and comrades, who in many ways are just as left-wing, will be enthusiastically campaigning for particular candidates or parties.

There is one thing I am confident about: we can use the election to campaign, whether or not we vote. With the media focused obsessively on the party leaders for several weeks in April and May, creative protests and interventions can have at least some influence on the course of political and media debate. For example, the four leaders on whom the London-based media will concentrate – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – will not be talking about Trident. We can be thankful that Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett will talk about it, but let’s not rely on this alone. If we can find opportunities to challenge leading politicians about Trident, face-to-face or as close as we can get, during election time, they will at least be caught on camera and draw some public attention.

It’s only one tactic, of course, on only one issue. But effective activism requires creativity as well as persistence and a diversity of methods. That’s why I’ll be trying to do things like this, as well as casting my vote according to my beliefs. And whatever the result, I’ll be out on the streets after the election as well as before, because justice comes from below and never, never from above.

Faith is a question of loyalty

I was recently asked to preach at Kensington Unitarian Church in London. The church community there were very welcoming and it was a real privilege to worship with them on 30 November. My sermon and the rest of the service can be heard on a podcast available on the church’s website. 

The text of my sermon is below. Although I know the spoken version deviated from it at times, the gist remained the same.

I would like to introduce you to Harry Stanton. Not personally, because he’s been dead for a while, but as a historical figure. Harry was the son of a blacksmith from Luton. He was a Quaker. In 1916, at the age of 21, he was conscripted into the army. Denied exemption as a conscientious objector, he was forced into the army against his will where, like many others in the same situation, he refused to obey orders.

Harry was imprisoned as a result – as were about 6,000 other British pacifists over the course of the war. But thirty-five of these pacifists were forcibly taken to France, where they could be deemed to be on “active service” and therefore shot if they continued to disobey orders.

Taken before a court-martial, Harry knew that his life was in their hands. But he refused to plead, because he would not recognise the right of any military body to exercise authority over him. He gave a speech in his defence, in which he said that “all warfare is contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ”. He said that when the claims of the state conflicted with the laws of God, “I must obey the higher authority”. Along with the 34 other British pacifists in France, Harry was sentenced to death.

Campaigning back in Britain thankfully had an effect and the sentences were commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.

One of the comments I hear most often about religion is the phrase “religion is dangerous”. It is true that religion is often violent and oppressive. I agree with people who want religion to stop being violent and oppressive. But I do not want religion to stop being dangerous. I suggest that religion is supposed to be dangerous.

Most religions speak in some way about transcendence. They speak of God, the gods, the Truth, the Divine, the Ultimate Reality or the Power of Love. And once you speak of God, or the divine or transcendent, you imply that God, or the divine or transcendent, should have our ultimate loyalty. If I seek to follow God, then my first loyalty must be to God. Therefore no king, no government, no army, no nation-state, no church can claim my ultimate loyalty.

This is why so many kings, governments, armies and churches have sought to equate themselves with God. When Henry VIII claimed that his thoughts were directed by God, he made clear that loyalty to God meant loyalty to the king. The claims about the Japanese emperor’s divinity had a similar effect. It is no surprise that people make these sort of claims. For if we are serious about placing our ultimate loyalty in something other than the governments and structures around us, we become a threat – a threat to convention and, if we persist, like Harry Stanton, a threat to authority.

If anyone can choose to follow God over following human structures, the consequences may depend on their view of God. Take Yigal Amir, a Jewish fundamentalist who assassinated Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Amir said he was acting “on orders from God”. Other murders have been committed on the basis of similar claims.

But a god who orders murders is a god whose values are all too close to those of the world around us, rather than the principles of a higher power. People of many faiths emphasise that faithfulness means acting with compassion. Some religious groups, such as Quakers and Rastafarians, have developed communal practices for exploring an individual’s feeling of being led to a particular course of action by God. Faith is not about certainty.

Let’s take a look at the passage we heard earlier about paying taxes to the emperor – Luke 20, 20-26. It’s a passage that’s often used to encourage Christians to be loyal to the state. Those who want us to obey authority are more likely to quote this passage than the many examples of civil disobedience that run through the Bible. However, many biblical scholars challenge the common interpretation heard in churches.

Luke tells us that the spies sought to trap Jesus by what he said, so that they could hand him over to the governor. In other words, if he had said that taxes should not be paid to Rome, they would have got him arrested.

Jesus was no doubt aware of this, and chose his words carefully. He responds by saying “Show me a denarius!” Why does Jesus have to be shown a coin? Why doesn’t he have one with him? Well, many devout Jews, even those who reluctantly used Roman coins for buying and selling, avoided carrying them, because they regarded them as idolatrous. The coin portrayed the emperor as a god. As Jesus does not have a coin himself, this suggests he was one of those who avoided it as idolatrous.

Jesus asks “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They say, “The emperor’s”. Jesus thus draws attention to the idolatry, already highlighted by the fact that he’s not carrying the coins.

He then gives an ambiguous answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ listeners were “amazed” by his answer. If he was simply telling people to pay taxes to Rome, there would be nothing to be amazed about. What he does instead is dodge the question with a statement that encourages everyone to think about what is really the emperor’s and what is really God’s. As the biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it, Jesus “is inviting them to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as opposites”.

The Greek word “apodote” translated as “give” also means “pay back” or “return” – “Give back to the emperor that which is the emperor’s”. There are many ways to read this and I don’t claim for a moment that my interpretation is the only valid one. However, I suggest that Jesus is advocating something more radical than simply withholding tax: he is saying that the imperial system of which the coinage is part should be sent back to the emperor, back to Rome. By saying it in an ambiguous way, however, he avoids the trap.

Jesus encouraged his listeners to think for themselves about how to make decisions. It seems to me that ethical decisions are about where we place our loyalty, our trust, our faith.

What’s the sin mentioned most often in the Bible? It’s idolatry. We tend to think of idols as statues, but this misses the point. An idol is something that people put in the place of God. An idol is, on some level, not real; at least, we ascribe a power to it that it does not have.

Politicians today talk about “not upsetting the markets” as if markets were supernatural entities that must be appeased. In reality, markets were created by people. People can change them, run them differently, or get rid of them. We make an idol of the market when we talk as if it controls us. Really, we control it.

In the same way, we are encouraged to be loyal to “our country”. Countries are things that we have created, yet we speak of them as if they were natural. We demand loyalty to this abstract concept. It is a short step from idolising nationality to idolising armed forces. For much of the time when British troops were in Afghanistan, there were constant debates about whether they should be there. Much of this seemed to involve the question “Should we be in Afghanistan?”. Should we be in Afghanistan? And I would think, but I’m not in Afghanistan. Why do we describe the armed forces as “we”?

Whether we speak of the power of love, or the Kingdom of God, or of practising active nonviolence, we are talking about choosing to live by faith in a different power to the powers of markets and military might.

It is often said that we no longer have conscription in the UK. It is true that our bodies are not conscripted into the army. However, our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our language is conscripted, when we speak of “defence” and mean warfare. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and to regard as natural a situation in which millions live with hunger in a world that has enough to feed us all.

We need to be conscientious objectors today just as much as Harry Stanton was – although the risks for most of us are unlikely to be so great. We can object by how we talk, how we think, how we regard ourselves and others, how we make our decisions and – first and foremost – by to what we give our loyalty and our faith.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about living with a different loyalty. It’s a lot harder to do it, or even to know how to do it. We are all part of unjust economic and political structures. We participate in them even as we seek to resist them. At times, we benefit from the injustices that we oppose. We too commit the very sins that we speak out against.

It is vital that we are aware of this and equally vital that this does not stop us speaking out and aiming to live differently.

We glimpse the Kingdom of God not through a set of rules but in a way of living. For most of us, this way of living is not consistent and we often fail to follow it. Nonetheless it is there and can be seen. From small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. In people imprisoned for peace protests, in people choosing to buy Fairtrade tea, in those determined to see that of God in their neighbour and both the good and the bad in themselves, in hesitating steps towards prioritising love over legalism, in the courage to speak up for what is truly in our hearts and not what the world tells us should be there – in all these ways people proclaim the way of love, a challenge to the powers of this world. Sometimes, the way forward seems clear. At other times, we’re struggling in the dark.

My own commitment to love, to justice, to active nonviolence is much, much weaker than I would like. But I would rather stumble on the road to liberation than walk firmly down the road to oppression. If we know where our loyalty lies, if we know that we are aiming to live by a different power than the powers of this world, a stronger and subtler power, then we may have confidence that we are at least facing in the right direction. I pray that we will have – in the words of a song by the band Jars of Clay – “days that are filled with small rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from our souls”.

The Royal British Legion insults the victims of war

The Royal British Legion, who run the Poppy Appeal, have in recent years shown a tendency to misuse the message of remembrance to encourage a pro-war, jingoistic agenda. They have now taken things a step further by using an anti-war song in a fundraising film – after taking the anti-war lyrics out.

No Man’s Land (also known as Green Fields of France) is one of my favourite songs. Written by Eric Bogle in 1976, it concentrates on Willie McBride, a soldier whose grave Bogle finds as he walks through a first world war cemetery. The song is addressed to McBride himself:

“I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916.”

There are four verses in the song. The Royal British Legion have produced a fundraising video that includes the first two verses and misses out the last two. Thankfully, some references to the horror of war have been left in:

“Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?”

However, by cutting out the last two verses, the Legion have clearly removed the song’s main point, which is about the futility of war:

“But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land.
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.”

Not long after World War One, the message on Remembrance Day was “Never Again”. This has now been forgotten, at least when mainstream politicians, the Royal British Legion and the right-wing media have anything to do with it. Now we are encouraged to “support our troops” rather to work for a day in which there are no troops, and no war.

Of course, the Royal British Legion (or anyone else) have every right to disagree with the song’s anti-war message. This is very different to using the song  to promote a message contrary to its original meaning.

Some will argue that the Legion does good work supporting wounded soldiers and bereaved relatives. This is true to an extent, and I don’t blame anyone in need of help for turning to it.

However, we might ask why anyone who’s disabled or bereaved needs to rely on charity in the free and democratic country for which British troops have been told they are fighting. The initial cost of war – the weapons, the uniforms, the training – are paid for by taxpayers out of public funds. You never see anyone rattling a tin to fund a Eurofighter. But the longer-term costs of war – support for those who are physically and mentally harmed – is far less of a priority for the public purse, and groups such as the Legion and “Help for Heroes”, rather than objecting to this, go out into the streets with their collecting tins.

I know I am not the only taxpayer who would much rather pay taxes to support disabled people to live equal lives (whether or not their impairments have been caused by war) than to fund the UK’s war budget, which is the sixth highest military budget in the world.

However helpful the Legion’s charitable work may be to those who benefit from it, it is undermined by the Legion’s nationalistic and militaristic messages. The organisation is not neutral on the question of war. The clue’s in the name “Legion”, a term for a military unit (the words “Royal” and “British” also give it away, of course).

I’m sure that many people who wear the Legion’s red poppies wish to remember both civilian and military victims of war. Many might also wish to remember those who were not British. However, the Legion itself is quite clear that the purpose of the poppies is to remember British military dead. That is what the red poppy, according to those who design and sell it, is for. It is not to remember children killed in the bombing of Coventry, let alone in the bombing of Dresden.

The Royal British Legion state clearly on their website that the red poppy “is worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today and their loved ones”.

To suggest that a civilian is less worthy of remembrance than a soldier seems to me to be morally repugnant. To remember only the British dead and not the French, German, American, Austrian, Brazilian, Iraqi or Afghan dead is not only offensive. It is directly contrary to the internationalist attitudes that are necessary if we are to build peace instead of war.

I respect the intentions of many of those who wear red poppies, but I cannot wear one when those who produce it practise such an excluding, nationalistic form of remembrance. Nor can I “support those serving today”. I have nothing against people in the armed forces and I pray for their safety. But I do not support the British armed forces, or any other armed forces. I choose to wear a white poppy, to remember all victims of all wars and to honour the dead by calling for an end to war.

The best way to remember those killed in war is to tackle the causes of war and to refuse to participate in war. War is not inevitable. People created war and people can end it. Only by doing so can we ever hope to achieve the early Remembrance Day aim of “Never Again”. The alternative is an endless repetition of the situation described in the last verse of No Man’s Land, a verse you won’t hear on the Royal British Legion’s fundraising film:

“Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying: it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again.
And again, and again, and again, and again.”

———-

You can sign a petition about the Royal British Legion misuse of the song at https://www.change.org/p/royal-british-legion-please-apologise-for-cutting-the-words-of-the-poppy-appeal-song-the-original-song-condemns-the-folly-of-war.

You can buy white poppies at http://www.ppu.org.uk/whitepoppy/index.html.

Mainstream parties have been defeated by the monster they created

Nigel Farage’s smug grin is all over the media this morning. But the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have been defeated by a monster of their own creation.

They have failed to speak up for the benefits of migration, they have not provided decent housing, they have bailed out banks and punished the poor, they have pandered to the super-rich. It’s no surprise that people look for an alternative.

Unfortunately, the alternative is provided by Nigel Farage’s ragtag army of racists, sexists, homophobes and climate change deniers. Farage, a privately educated former stockbroker, presents himself as anti-establishment. UKIP’s policies include a tax system that would harm the poor and those in the middle while slashing taxes for the rich. UKIP politicians also advocate a big increase in military spending at the same time as greater cuts to the welfare state.

Most of these policies are barely mentioned in the media, which concentrates on UKIP’s views on migration and the European Union. The BBC must bear some responsibility for UKIP’s success. Fascinated with Farage, keen on sensational change, they have given the party vastly disproportionate attention.

Not that this is any excuse for voting for UKIP. I won’t patronise UKIP voters by suggesting they don’t know what they’re doing. Let’s not forget, however, that around two-thirds of UK voters did not even vote in this election. UKIP have received the support of about one in ten of the adult population. Even the majority of those who did vote supported parties that favour EU membership.

The Tories have already shown their willingness to cave into UKIP’s agenda, attacking migrants and the EU at the same time as they demonise the poor to justify their austerity agenda. Labour have a chance to speak up for migration and point out the real problems of spiralling poverty and inequality. Sadly, Labour politicians are already mentioning the need to talk more about immigration – a euphemism for being more anti-immigration and blaming migrants for problems they have not caused.

Thankfully, there is more to politics than choosing between four parties that marginalise the working and middle classes in the interests of the rich. There are alternative ways of voting – such as Green, Plaid Cymru and others.

More importantly, we can aim for a better world in our own lives and communities – by refusing to scapegoat migrants, Muslims or benefit claimants; by staging grassroots campaigns against austerity, prejudice and war; by supporting each other in resisting poor working conditions and dodgy landlords; by choosing kindness over consumerism. We can defy this rotten system not just on polling day, but every day.