A different legacy: Lessons in peace from the first world war

Yesterday, it was 100 years since Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia – the beginning of World War One. Today, it is 100 years since the first shots of the war were fired. Next Monday, 4 August, will be the centenary of Britain joining the war.

I’ll be writing a lot more about the first world war over the coming days and weeks, especially about the people who campaigned against it. The New Internationalist yesterday published an article of mine on their website, entitled A Different Legacy, about what the peace movement of today can learn from the peace campaigners of the first world war.

You might like to watch out for my writing in the Morning Star on 4 August, which will also be translated into German and appear in the German newspaper Junge Welt on the same day. Also on 4 August, the White Feather Diaries, an online storytelling project about first world war Quakers (which I’ve been working on) will go live.

Remembering the people who resisted World War One

A week today (on 28 July), it will be 100 years since World War One began. Two weeks today (on 4 August), it will be 100 years since the UK entered the war.

Amidst all the many discussions of this centenary, there has been relatively little discussion about the people who opposed World War One and campaigned against it. Yet the leading anti-war group of the time – the No-Conscription Fellowship – had 100,000 subscribers at its height. There were at least 16,000 conscientious objectors (far more than the government expected), of whom over 6,000 went to prison. Other peace activists were imprisoned under laws restricting criticism of the war.

For the last few months I’ve spent lots of time researching the peace activists of World War One. It has been a real privilege to spend time reading diaries, memoirs and letters from prison, many of them unpublished. Most of this work has been because I was hired by Quakers in Britain to edit the White Feather Diaries, an online storytelling project exploring the lives and dilemmas of five pacifists from the time.

The White Feather Diaries will go online on 4 August.

I will also be teaching a course on the World War One peace movement for the Workers’ Educational Association in Richmond (in London). It will begin in September and run on Tuesday afternoons. And I’ll be writing about these issues in various places over the coming weeks and, I hope, years. Many thanks to everyone who has encouraged and questioned me and is continuing to do so. Watch this space!

We need a right to live, not a right to die

A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair was recently approached by a stranger who crossed over the road to talk to her. Without knowing anything about her, he told her that he supported her right to die with dignity through assisted suicide. She told him that she was more concerned with her right to live than her right to die.

This man’s clear implication was that any disabled person would want to die. The assumption that a disabled person’s life is not worth living lies only slightly below the surface of the debate on the Assisted Dying Bill, presented in the House of Lords today.

In the midst of depression some years ago, I contemplated suicide several times. I am more grateful than I can say that I never acted on those thoughts and that I have them no longer. I am grateful to the friends who helped to dissuade me. Today I am wondering whether, if I had also had a physical illness, some of them would have encouraged me to kill myself.

I am not suggesting that all supporters of the Assisted Dying Bill take this attitude. However, the debate in the media is going ahead with very little reference to the realities of life for the thousands of disabled people thrown into poverty and isolation by the abolition of Disability Living Allowance, the end of the Independent Living Fund, the bedroom tax, the biased Atos assessments, the cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance and the removal of hundreds of local disability services following cuts to local authority budgets.

It is well documented that some of these cuts have already led to deaths. They will lead to more. There is something horrifically ironic about Parliament debating the right of disabled people to die (if they choose to do so) when they have recently approved measures that have led to disabled people dying when they have not chosen to do so.

Middle class columnists in both right-wing and left-wing newspapers are demanding their right to die in articles that attribute the opposition to narrow-minded religious leaders. You would never guess from these columns that most disability rights campaigners are against this bill.

The campaign group Not Dead Yet – formed by disabled people opposed to euthanasia – points out that “Opposition to assisted dying is not confined to the medical profession and religious groups. Most importantly, it includes the very people whom would be most affected by any change in legislation.”

Significantly, not one disabled people’s organisation is backing assisted dying.

Today’s Times lists supporters and opponents of the bill. Thankfully, they do list “disabled campaigners” amongst the bill’s opponents, but they are last on the list, after “doctors”, “religious figures” and “party leaders”. Are the views of disabled people not more important than that?

The media have focused on the cases of terminally ill individuals who have wanted the right to assisted suicide. I have no wish to judge these people. I cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through. If they are certain that they wish to kill themselves, it would of course be wrong to treat their relatives as out-and-out murderers for helping them to do so. This is very different from arguing that this should be legal, let alone that mechanisms should be set up to kill such people in hospitals or similar settings with state approval.

We are not debating an abstract ethical question in a university seminar. We are discussing real ethics in a real context. I will not support assisted dying when there is a good chance that people might choose it because they cannot cope with physical or mental pain that could be alleviated by treatment or services that are denied to them by a state that slashes services for the most vulnerable while ploughing billions into weapons.

There are some on the left who oppose the government’s cuts but make no mention of them when they declare their support for assisted dying. Then again, there is a hideous consistency in the views of former archbishop George Carey, who strongly backs welfare cuts and now wants those who suffer from them to be allowed to die.

The few ministers who back assisted dying include care minister Norman Lamb, who has colluded with cuts and presided over growing poverty amongst disabled people. It is also supported by Anna Soubry, a “defence” minister whose job involves maintaining a military system that had killed thousands of innocent people in recent years and has the potential to kill millions more.

There are those who will dismiss my argument against the Assisted Dying Bill on the ground that I am religious. Thankfully, most non-religious people are not this prejudiced. My position is shared by many people who do not share my religion. For me, it is my Christian faith that leads me to support equality and human rights, but these principles are supported equally strongly by others. My faith also leads me to believe that society should share its resources and give to each according to their need.

I will never support any proposal based on the idea that one person’s life is worth less than another’s, or that offers death as an alternative to a decent welfare state.

Church welcomes arms dealers – but tries to ban pacifists from singing hymns

Church House vigil 140709The most bizarre moment of today’s vigil outside an arms conference at Church House was when Westminster Abbey’s staff told us that we were not allowed to sing hymns on their land.

A group of around twenty people, mostly Christians, were holding a vigil of prayer and protest outside Church House, whose conference centre is hosting an “Air Power” conference sponsored by arms companies such as BAE and Lockheed Martin. The area outside one entrance to Church House is on Westminster Abbey land.

Our vigil had largely been silent until we started to sing “We are marching in the light of God”. A member of Westminster Abbey staff came over to us and said we should not sing. She insisted that the Abbey had been “very generous” in allowing us on to its “private property” and that we would not be allowed to continue there if we sang.

I said it was odd that an arms dealers’ conference is welcome but that Christians singing hymns were not. The Abbey representative told me that the Abbey had nothing to do with the arms conference, which is hosted at Church House.

This is a fair point as far as it goes, even though the Abbey own the steps up which the arms dealers walked to get to Church House. But I asked why we could Church House vigil 140709 - 2not sing hymns in the grounds of a church built on Jesus Christ.

The Abbey staff member (I’m sorry; I don’t know her name) said she worked for the Dean and Chapter. I said that they were part of a church built on the teachings of Jesus. She said, “I don’t know what the church is built on” and insisted that she was accountable to the Dean and Chapter.

I asked if this was an admittance that Westminster Abbey is basically a secular institution rather than a church of Christ. She said, “It’s a royal peculiar”. This is a legal term regarding the Abbey’s official status and its relationship to the monarchy.

I replied that I had no interest in “royal peculiars” as the only royalty I recognise is Jesus Christ. I explained that Jesus is my king and queen and that Elizabeth Windsor is not.

She seemed offended at this point and said, “Queen Elizabeth the Second is my queen.” I replied, “She’s not mine” but she soon returned to talking about the Abbey being a “royal peculiar.”

Even if you accept monarchy, private property and so on, this does not explain why the Abbey should object to people singing hymns on its grounds. She never explained this, only saying the Abbey were “very generous” by allowing us there. Perhaps I should have put this point more, rather than got into an confused exchange about the monarchy.

I suggested that her words were an admission that the Abbey was more concerned with its loyalty to an earthly monarch than to Jesus. She didn’t answer, but walked off angrily to consult with uniformed staff as we continued to sing.

We sang hymns, prayed and read the Bible aloud for more than half an hour after that without being disturbed. The arms dealers enjoying drinks on the balcony above us could clearly hear us.

Of course, this comes less than a fortnight after Westminster Abbey’s staff called in the police for a violent eviction of a group of disabled protesters. Their behaviour on that occasion made St Paul’s Cathedral’s treatment of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp seem mild by comparison.

What’s this got to do with the arms trade? It’s about loyalty and authority. In what culture do Christian organisations operate? I frequently fail to live in loyalty to Christ. I do not love my neighbour as myself, I behave selfishly and am complicit in the sins of our society and economic system. The task of a church is to bring together people as they struggle to live in loyalty to the Kingdom of God, and to witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Loyalty to the Kingdom of God means a rejection of the powers of this world. Sadly, Westminster Abbey and Church House seem to be in thrall to the idols of Mammon, monarchy and militarism.


To sign an email about arms conferences at Church House to the Archbishop of Canterbury, please visit http://act.caat.org.uk/lobby/churchhouse.

Resist the arms conference at Church House

The Church House Conference Centre, located in the Church of England’s administrative headquarters near Westminster Abbey, is again to host a conference sponsored by arms dealers.

The “Air Power” conference, running today and tomorrow (9-10 July), is sponsored by some of the world’s most vicious arms companies, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and Finmeccanica.

All these companies are complicit in human rights abuses around the world, through selling arms to tyrannical regimes that have turned weapons against their own people.

The Church of England’s own investments policy rules out buying shares in any of them (and any other company that makes more than ten percent of its profit from arms). But the Church of England is now profiting from these companies by renting its facilities to them. Many Anglicans, other Christians and other people of goodwill are naturally angry about this.

When Church House hosted a similar conference – on “Land Warfare” – last month, a senior Church of England spokesperson told the Church Times that it was not an “arms conference” because the booking had been made by a thinktank.

It’s true that both conferences are run by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a militarist thinktank. But the fact that RUSI is a thinktank does not mean it is independent or unbiased. More importantly, the authorities at Church House must know very well that this conference is sponsored by arms firms.

To claim that it is not an arms conference is either staggeringly naïve or wilfully misleading.

To resist this appalling event, you can:

London LGBT Pride – giving publicity to human rights abusers

This week, I’ve seen two movements that I love become sullied by complicity with the arms trade. First, Church House (a leading Christian conference centre) hosted a gathering of arms dealers and generals. Now, London LGBT Pride are about to allow a section of this week’s march to be used to publicise a company that is complicit in homophobia– and other human rights abuses – around the world.

BAE Systems, a multinational arms company that sells weapons to dictatorships, has been allocated its own section at the Pride march in London on Saturday. This is a march to promote and celebrate the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Yet BAE’s biggest customers include Saudi Arabia, one of the most viciously homophobic regimes in the world.

Thus the Pride march will include the symbols and branding of a company that actively works against the very things that the march is calling for.

BAE is not one of the “official sponsors” – though these include some very unethical multinationals, such as the tax dodgers at Starbuck’s and Barclay’s. BAE is one of the companies that have been allocated a section on the march for their workers. BAE have an LGBT employees’ group and it this group that will be on the march, in the same way as there will be other groups of workers from John Lewis and the Direct Line Group. There are also religious and cultural groups (most of them placed near the back, as usual). I will be marching with Christians Together at Pride.

I don’t want to stop BAE’s workers marching at Pride. If BAE employees support LGBT rights, I’m pleased to hear it (especially as their bosses clearly don’t). But they will undoubtedly be wearing, carrying or otherwise displaying logos and publicity from BAE. This will help the company’s bosses in their relentless drive to present themselves as being ethical and pro-human rights.

I tweeted the organisers of the march (@LondonLGBTPride). I’m grateful to them for replying very quickly. However, their reply made a very unclear argument. It said:

“Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves”.

I’m pleased if the LGBT workers at BAE strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves. I’m glad they’re coming on the march. But it’s either naïve or misleading of the organisers to overlook the fact that by listing BAE Systems as one of the groups on the march, and allowing BAE branding to appear, they are actively helping the company to promote itself.

Of course, I accept that this issue is part of  a wider problem with the commercialisation of Pride. There are various other unethical companies involved. I wouldn’t rate Barclay’s or BP as much better than BAE. You could make an argument that this is just as bad. However, I suggest the nature of an arms company is different.

An arms company cannot become ethical, because of the very nature of the arms trade, which involves selling weapons to virtually anyone who will buy them (if they can get away with it, which they usually can). Further, BAE actively promotes homophobia by arming homophobic governments that oppress their own people. I don’t know what “change” the Pride organisers imagine will “come from within”, unless it’s by the active rebellion of the workers against the BAE bosses (which would be great, but seems unlikely).

Despite the commercialisation of Pride, despite the excessive alcohol, the high prices and the vacuuous celebrities, despite all the things I don’t like about it, I must admit that the Pride march in London has played an significant part in my life. Going toPride was an important moment for me as I decided to be public about abandoning my former homophobia. London Pride was one of the first places in which I told a stranger I was bisexual. In 2011, when I walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my formoer homophobia, the Pride march was the last leg of my pilgrimage. The significance of the Pride march for me makes me feel even sadder and angrier about its misuse by arms dealers.

Please tweet @LondonLGBTPride, or otherwise contact them, about this issue. And remember, you can always wear a Campaign Against Arms Trade badge on Saturday.

Planning land warfare – in the Church of England’s HQ

Where will a group of generals and arms dealers gather tomorrow to discuss the future of land warfare? A military camp? The Ministry of Defence? An underground bunker? No, it’s the headquarters of the Church of England.

Church House Conference Centre is part of Church House, the building in Westminster that houses the administrative headquarters of the Church Commissioners, the Archbishops’ Council and other parts of the Church of England. The Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary company of the Church House Corporation, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is sad news for many Anglicans, other Christians and other people of goodwill. The Christian Church is founded on Jesus, the Prince of Peace, whose life was a model of active nonviolent resistance to injustice. That’s why the Fellowship of Reconciliation have organised a silent vigil outside tomorrow’s conference.

The Land Warfare Conference is organised by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. It is sponsored by SAAB, an arms company. The speakers include top generals from the UK, US and elsewhere as well as NATO.

Topics for discussion include “Generating fighting power” and “Preparing for future operating environments”. Another topic is “honouring the equipment programme beyond sustainment to development of future capabilities”, which sounds incomprehensible, though I suspect it may be about pushing for high military spending.

Church House came under considerable criticism for hosting an arms dealers’ conference booked by RUSI in November 2012. People gathered to pray outside the event and hundreds more emailed to complain about it. I was invited to meet with a senior member of Church House staff, who defended the decision to host the event.

Despite all those discussions, they are doing it again. And this time it’s worse – because it’s happening twice. In addition to tomorrow’s event, there will be an Air Power Conference on 9th-10th July. That one will be sponsored by some of the world’s largest and most vicious arms dealers, including BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Finmeccanica, all of whom sell weapons to dictatorships as a matter of course. Speakers include not only top air force officers but the head of exports at the Ministry of Defence.

Christians have a variety of views on warfare. I can respect Christians who believe that violence is sometimes justified, even though I disagree with them. But these conferences are not about dialogue or discussion on ethical issues. They are about planning international warfare, which by its nature involves the deaths of countless innocent people. Furthermore, arms companies would hardly be sponsoring these events if they did not think it was good for business. These are conferences that will help the arms trade.

The Church of England rightly rules out investments in companies that make more than ten percent of their money from arms. Several of its bishops – along with many of its clergy and other members – have spoken out strongly against certain forms of warfare, particularly nuclear weapons. Many have condemned the arms trade. Justin Welby and other bishops have rightly attacked many of the coalition government’s cuts to public services and social security, although they have not generally pointed out that cuts to military spending have been minor by comparison (the UK has the sixth highest military spending in the world).

No Christian church should be running a conference centre in an ethically neutral way that merely takes bookings from whoever comes along. To allow these bookings confers an appearance of moral legitimacy on them that they do not deserve. While churches understandably run businesses to fund their work, it is this work – the promotion of the Kingdom of God – that should be our focus. I lose that focus as often as any other Christian; we need constantly to be brought back to it.

Let’s remember Jesus’ teaching that “a bad tree cannot bear good fruit”. Or, as Gandhi put it, “the means are to the end as the seed is to the tree”. We cannot promote the Gospel with profits from arms companies. Let’s seek to be loyal to the Kingdom of God, not the idols of money and militarism.

I hope to see you at the silent vigil tomorrow, running from 8.00am until about 9.00am (if you can’t get there for 8.00, you’re still very welcome). Please feel free to bring banners and placards with messages about peace, faith, nonviolence and the arms trade (without any personally abusive messages of course – let’s love our enemies).

The vigil’s been organised by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (England). The vigil is listed on Facebook. Please invite your friends. If you can’t make it to Westminster in person, please keep the conference and the issue in your prayers and thoughts.

And let’s urge Church House to tell the militarists and death-dealers that they will need to find a new venue for the future.