Militarism should not be glamorised in our schools

In my part-time job at the Peace Pledge Union, I am pleased to work alongside teachers, parents and school students who are challenging everyday militarism in their schools.

On 12th April, I wrote about the growing problems of militarism in schools for the Morning Star. However, I’m not always very good at remembering to re-post my articles on this blog site after they have been published elsewhere! You can read my latest article on the issue on the Morning Star website.

Ukraine: A British pacifist responds

Peace News recently asked me to write an article about the war in Ukraine from my persepective as a pacifist in the UK. I was pleased to be asked and my article appeared in the April issue.

Following this, I was invited to speak at a Peace News event on Ukraine, in which I was asked challenging questions about pacifism in the light of the Russian invasion. This has now been posted on YouTube.

Of course, there are many pacifists in Britain, and many more around the world, whose views on the war in Ukraine no doubt overlap in lots of ways but are not identical. I have no authority to speak on behalf of British pacifists as a whole. This is only my perspective, although it is informed by the thoughts of many other people from whom I have learnt much. If you’re interesteed, you can read my Peace News article here or watch my interview here. Many thanks to Peace News for running the article and event.

Christianity, pacifism and the war in Ukraine

I wrote this article for Premier Christianity magazine, who published it on 25th March 2022.

For some people, the question, ‘Can there be a pacifist response to the Ukraine crisis?’ is actually a prelude to insisting that there cannot be.

I find it frustrating that many of those who hold this view never seem to speak with any Ukrainian pacifists.

Ukrainian Pacifists have been challenging war and militarism since long before Putin’s invasion. Yurii Sheliazhenko is secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. He lives in Kyiv and every so often his home shakes due to “explosions nearby, because of Russian missile attacks”. Yurii’s friend Ruslan Kotsaba spent a year and a half in prison without trial after being accused of “treason”. His crime was to encourage people not to co-operate with military mobilisation against separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In both Ukraine and Russia, you can find peace activists of several faiths and none. For some, it is their faith that motivates them. “We, Christians, cannot stand idly by when a brother kills brother, a Christian kills a Christian,” declares a petition signed by Russian Orthodox priests.

As Christians, our starting-point is the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ. However, we are all influenced by our context and culture and Christians are not immune to the temptation to accept dominant assumptions without question. We can easily slide into assuming that violence is the solution to conflict and that the armed forces of the country we live in are the good guys.

Jesus’ life exemplified active nonviolence. As a resident of the Roman Empire, he lived under a particularly vicious and oppressive regime. He did not engage in violent resistance to it. This does not mean he did not challenge it. His teaching to “turn the other cheek” is an encouragement of nonviolent defiance. If he had meant it as a call to passivity, he would hardly have followed it with his action in the Jerusalem Temple, when he challenged the religious establishment who were puppets of the Roman rulers. Jesus’ forceful protest involved attacks on property rather than violence against people.

Social media is full of similar examples. Unarmed Ukrainian civilians are sitting in front of tanks. They are challenging Russian soldiers to their faces. They are marching daily in anti-occupation protests in cities controlled by invading troops.

“Reporting on conflict focuses on warfare and almost ignores nonviolent resistance,” says Yurii Sheliazhenko. “Brave Ukrainian civilians are changing street signs and blocking streets and blocking tanks, just staying in their way without weapons.”

Meanwhile in Russia, over 15,000 people have been arrested for peacefully protesting against war. Ioann Burdin, an Orthodox priest in the village of Karabanovo, was arrested after an anti-war sermon. He became the first person to be charged under a new law that allows up to three years in prison for “discrediting the use of the armed forces”. In Belarus, opponents of war have slowed down railway lines transporting Russian troops and equipment.

As I sit in relative comfort in Britain, it is not for me to judge people in desperate situations. I will not judge someone in Ukraine who feels that they have no choice but to use a weapon. While I cannot encourage such choices, it would be outrageously arrogant of me to condemn them.

Picking up a weapon in desperation is very different to planning a war. Several British commentators are recklessly calling for a “no-fly zone”. This would mean the RAF and US Air Force shooting down Russian planes and killing Russian troops (including teenage conscripts). It would mean a war between nuclear-armed states. Such calls are possible because we live in a militaristic society in which it is hard to reject the absurd assumption that the only effective response to violence is more violence. This is like trying to put out a fire with petrol.

As Brian Zahnd, an evangelical pastor in the US, puts it, we need to recognise that Mars, the god of war, is still being worshipped “under an assumed name”. As we criticise Russian Orthodox leaders for supporting Putin’s war, we must also notice the plank in our own eye. How many British church leaders are speaking out against Boris Johnson’s supply of weapons and military training to Saudi Arabia? Saudi forces are bombing civilians in Yemen just as Russian forces kill civilians in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Pacifist Movement suggests that peace protests in Russia and the West could push world leaders to the point at which they feel that they have no choice but to engage in meaningful peace negotiations. Militaristic attitudes include the assumption that it is politicians and generals who solve problems. But the hope I feel is strengthened when I see footage of Ukrainians standing in front of tanks and of Russians writing anti-war slogans in the snow. Christ stands with the victims, the marginalised and those who hunger for righteousness.

“Put not your trust in the powerful,” warns the psalmist (Psalm 146:3). It is advice that is never more relevant than when we are faced with war.

A new anti-war movement is gaining traction in Russia and Ukraine

I wrote this article for the Morning Star, who published it in their issue of Satruday 12th March 2022.

There’s a new joke going round Russia. What’s the easiest way to clear the snow from your street? Write “No To War” in the snow – and the police will clear it for you.

Footage on social media shows police obliterating anti-war messages written in the snow. But the Russian peace movement will not be so easily stamped out.

The size of anti-war protests in Russia has taken everyone by surprise. Russian police have carried out over 13,000 arrests of peace protesters since the invasion of Ukraine. Over a million people in Russia have signed petitions against the war.

Vladimir Putin accuses Russian peace groups of being friends of NATO. They are not. Anti-militarist groups in Britain are accused of supporting Putin. We do not.

The imperialism of NATO and the imperialism of Putin are two sides of the same coin. The real division is not between Russian capitalists and western capitalists but between the world’s ruling classes – whether Russian oligarchs or US billionaires – and the mass of the population in all countries, who never benefit from war.

As the Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg put it, “Any war is destruction, blood, violence, innocent victims”.

Presidents and prime ministers will not save us from war. Putin sits pompously at his absurdly long table, looking like he is auditioning for the role of a Bond villain. Zelensky is hero-worshipped by Western commentators who disregard his actual policies and record of militarism. Johnson is sighing with relief that the headlines are no longer about Downing Street lockdown parties.

Meanwhile, working class people are resisting war in Russia, Ukraine and around the world. They, not politicians and generals, are the people who offer hope of an end to war.

Hope amidst the horror

Like millions of people, I watched with horror as Russian tanks entered Ukraine on 24 February. I have no time for hypocritical ministers who condemn atrocities in Ukraine while providing weapons and military training to Saudi forces killing children in Yemen. Recognising this is no reason to feel less concerned about people in Ukraine. It was difficult to feel anything other than fear and sadness on the day the invasion began.

At the Peace Pledge Union, we quickly published a statement condemning Putin’s aggression and pointing to the background of militaristic policies pursed by both Russia and NATO.

It was not until that evening that I was uplifted by glimmers of hope. News came through of anti-war protests in Russia. I was cautious, aware that US or Ukrainian authorities could exaggerate or even fabricate such stories. But soon longstanding Russian peace groups, known for opposing NATO as well as Putin, were posting footage of thousands of people protesting in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Protests in Russia are now too big for politicians to ignore.. A law passed in Russia on 4 March provides for jail terms of up to three years for “discrediting” the “use of Russian troops”. It allows jail for 15 years for people guilty of spreading “fake” information about Russian military operations. Last week, I heard from Boris, a Russian activist who had been visited by police every day since the war began, putting pressure on him not to speak out. He said he would continue campaigning

Putin would be impressed by the Police Bill that Priti Patel is pushing through the British parliament, similarly suppressing rights to nonviolent protest. The ruling classes of supposedly opposing countries can be remarkably similar.

Rejecting militarism

In the Russian Duma, two members of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party have proposed a law to conscript anti-war protesters and send them to fight in Donetsk and Luhansk – so that they can “see with their own eyes” what the Ukrainian authorities have done.

But Russian peace campaigners are already aware of such things. Amongst all the anti-war statements produced by peace groups in Russia, I have not come across a single expression of support for the Zelensky regime or NATO.

As the Russian group Feminist Anti-War Resistance puts it, Putin has “never been concerned about the fate of people in Luhansk and Donetsk”. Russian Communist MP Vyacheslav Markhaev, who initially supported the recognition of the separatist republics, now accuses Putin of being “motivated by entirely different intentions” leading to a “full-scale war”.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Zelenksy has handed out rifles to untrained volunteers, incorporated the neo-nazi Azov battalion into the Ukrainian army and banned men aged 18-60 from leaving Ukraine, so they can be conscripted.

Thankfully the resistance of Ukrainians on the ground has been much more creative and effective. “Reporting on conflict focuses on warfare and almost ignores nonviolent resistance to war,” notes Yurii Sheliazhenko of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. He points out that “brave Ukrainian civilians are changing street signs and blocking streets and blocking tanks, just staying in their way without weapons”. In the mostly Russian-speaking city of Melitopol, residents are marching daily in protest against Russian military occupation.

I suspect it is only a matter of time before we hear stories of individual Russian soldiers following the advice of the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objectors and refusing to fight.

An international struggle

A demonstration by the Moscow group of Food Not Bombs was violently broken up by police a few days after the war began. Food Not Bombs also has groups in the West, who challenge NATO militarism as their Russian members challenge Putin’s militarism. Members of Food Not Bombs in Southampton were physically assaulted as they protested against Armed Forces Day in 2018. It is a reminder that resistance to militarism must be as international as war itself.

Coverage of Russian anti-war protests – which should be one of the big stories of the war – has been minimal in British media. The establishment tends to think that news is about the actions of powerful individuals, and to assume that such people determine the political future alone. They do not. Change comes from below, and war will end when people refuse to go along with it.

Blair’s knighthood is a distraction from resisting war

A lot of people are understandably angry about Tony Blair receiving a knighthood. But while some decent people receive knighthoods, the honours system is full of people so dodgy and disreputable that I am amazed that any progressively minded person ever wants to receive one. A knighthood is militaristic in itself; the knights of the Middle Ages were little more than mercenary soldiers.

Let’s not put our energy into worrying about what absurd and antiquated titles members of he establishment choose to give each other. Instead, let’s focus on resisting war and its causes – including the undemocratic structures that allowed Blair to send troops to invade Iraq against the wishes of the British people.

I expanded on these points in an article I recently wrote for the i paper, which you can read here.

‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – Celebrating Jesus or controlling children?

There can be few lines in Christmas carols that are more disturbing than the third verse of Once in Royal David’s City:

And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey
Love and watch the lowly mother
In whose gentle arms he lay
Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as he.

A celebration of Christmas is turned into an attempt to control children, based on the claim that Jesus was “obedient”.

This is not perhaps surprising. The carol was written by Cecil Frances Alexander and appeared in her Hymns for Little Children in 1848. Other hymns that she introduced in this book include All Things Bright and Beautiful, containing the verse “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them, high and lowly/ He ordered their estate.”

That verse, suggesting that the social order was created by God, is now usually omitted when All Things Bright and Beautiful is sung in churches. But we still seem to be singing Alexander’s child-controlling lines at Christmas.

The only biblical story about Jesus’ behaviour as a child shows him being distinctly rebellious, spending his time debating in the Temple when his parents expect him elsewhere. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “obedience”. Obeying God involves resisting the sinful structures of a world in which power is based on violence, hierarchy and coercion.

I suggest that instead of

Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as he

We could go with

Christian folk are called to be
Wild, rebellious and free.

OK, I’ve been suggesting that for a while. I’ve also been questioning the dreadful theology of Christmas carols in general. Now I admit I’ve gone further: I am feeling so frustrated with Once in Royal David’s City that I have had a go at rewriting the whole carol. The original has some good bits, such as acknowledging Jesus’ humanity: “tears and smiles like us he knew”. So I have not changed everything! (You can read the original words here).

I don’t claim to have Cecil Frances Alexander’s skill as a songwriter, but I do reject her theology. Here’s my alternative version:

Once in Royal David’s city,
Power was turned upon its head,
Where an almost-single mother
Had to improvise a bed,
Mary defied tyranny,
Jesus came to set us free.

He appeared on Earth from Heaven,
Born a child where life was tough;
Though he is our God and saviour,
They laid him in a feeding-trough.
With the poor he lived and died
And showed that he was on their side.

And through his chaotic childhood
He would love and laugh and pray,
Learnt the power of love and justice,
Knew there was another way.
Christian folk are called to be
Wild, rebellious and free.

For he is our human pattern,
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he cries with us in sadness,
And he cheers with us in gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord, here and above.
And he leads us every day,
Guiding us into God’s way.

Not in poverty or privilege,
Living under tyranny,
Shall we see him, but in heaven
When the whole world’s been set free.
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall be around.

What if armed forces were abolished?

New Internationalist magazine publishes a regular “What if?” feature. It is a space to consider a radical suggestion that is not often debated.

I was pleased to have been asked to write the “What if” feature for the September/October 2021, with the question “What if armed forces were abolished?” It’s a big question for a short article, but I did my best!

I forgot, however, to post it on my blog site as well. You can read it on the New Internationalist website here.

We shouldn’t rely on charity to support veterans

The need for charity on a mass scale in one of the richest countries in the world is a sign of major failure.

I wrote about this issue for the i newspaper in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday this year. You can read the article on the i newpspaper’s website here.

I’m sorry I forgot to post the article here at the time. In the run-up to Remembrance Sunday I was working with other members and allies of the Peace Pledge Union to promote white poppies and the message that they represent: remembrance for all victims of war of all nationalities, a commitment to peace and a rejection of militarism.

Britain, the arms industry and the ‘war on terror’

I have recently written a couple of articles for Tribune about the arms trade and the influence of the arms industry on British politics and British foreign policy.

Last week, as I joined protests against the DPRTE arms fair in Farnborough in Hampshire, as I wrote an article for Tribune about the need to resist the arms industry at a time when the UK government has implemented a sharp rise in military spending. You can read it on the Tribune website here.

A few weeks earlier, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, I wrote for Tribune about the failure of the so-called “war on terror” – in which arms dealers were the only real winners. This is also available on the Tribune website.

I will try to get better at remembering to post my articles on here at the same time as they are published elsewhere!