The statue-destroyers are teaching us history

With the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue today, there are probably some people in Britain who have learnt more about the reality of the British Empire this afternoon than they ever learnt at school.

No doubt the protesters will be accused of trying to “erase history”. Far from erasing history, they are teaching people about it.

History is not simply about remembering the past in the way that those with the power to build statues would like us to. It is about interpreting the past for ourselves, exploring the meaning of the past with each other, learning from the past for the sake of the present and the future.

As I emphasise when I’m teaching history for the Workers’ Educational Association, history is not just something that we learn. History is an activity. We do history when we act on our understanding of the past in the present, and seek to affect the present and the future as a result.

Doing history, interpreting the past, involves deciding what we will celebrate and what we will mourn. A statue is not a neutral piece of information. Building a statue of someone implies that the person in question should be celebrated.

The protesters in Bristol this afternoon have literally been doing history. They have been acting on their beliefs about what should and should not be celebrated from the past and upholding an interpretation of the past that is very closely related to their understanding of the present and the future.

Black lives matter. We cannot, as a society, meaningfully act on this message if our understanding of history involves celebrating the destruction of black lives by racist slave-traders. Nor can we do so if we see a symbol that celebrates such a thing as some sort of neutral representation of “history”. To change, we must address the realities of the past and the present.

During the time that Edward Colston was involved in the Royal African Company, the company abducted over 80,000 men, women and children from Africa and transported them across the Atlantic. Roughly a quarter of them are estimated to have died on the journey; many more after their arrival. The rest were enslaved for life.

We cannot build a just society, we cannot defeat structural racism, we cannot say and mean “Black Lives Matter” if we expect these enslaved people’s descendants to walk passively past a statue of a man who played such a part in this atrocity.

I am sure that right-wing commentators are even now desperately trying to write comment pieces attacking the removal of the statue without appearing to condone or downplay slavery. The criticisms they are likely to come out with are, on the whole, rather predictable.

The only criticism that seems to me to be at all valid relates to the Covid-19 pandemic. While I am worried that the protests of recent days may have helped to spread the virus, I am not going to condemn them. I have seen expressions of concern, particularly from black disabled people, about the need to maintain social distancing while protesting. In many places in which protests have taken place, social distancing has taken place (as photos from Carlisle, Cardiff, Oxford and elsewhere demonstrate). At times, I’m sure that protesters have intended to maintain social distancing but this has been made virtually impossible by the number of people turning up.

If someone has a genuine criticism about the lack of social distancing, I can understand and respect that. I have no respect, however, for people who will bring up social distancing as a convenient way of attacking the Black Lives Matter movement while avoiding the very real issues of race and power that have given rise to it.

The removal of Colston’s statue by protesters would not have been necessary if the authorities in Bristol had responded to the campaigns that have been going on for decades and removed the statue. Critics of the protesters are in no position to criticise their methods unless they have been personally involved in lobbying for the statue’s removal by other means. I doubt that many of them have done so.

There will be some who describe the destruction of Colston’s statue as “vandalism” and “violence”. They are inaccurate. Vandalism involves random destruction, not the deliberate removal of a particular object. Violence involves harm to people, or at least to sentient beings. The destruction of an inanimate object, whether it is right or wrong, is not in itself violent. I speak as a pacifist when I welcome the removal of Colston’s statue. Pacifism is not passive. Destruction of symbols is not violence. And we can be pretty confident that most of those who describe this action as “violent” are very happy to support actual violence when it comes to debates over war.

The repercussions of today’s events in Bristol will probably be felt for years. As a Christian, I am particularly keen to see how churches in Bristol and elsewhere react to this development. Christian churches in Britain have their own legacy to deal with regarding slavery and racism. We need to acknowledge this as we address the past, the present and the future.

History is not just about the marriages of kings and queens, about lists of dates or diagrams of battles. It is about the lives and actions of billions of people across time. Let’s be inspired by people down the centuries who have challenged the rich and powerful and acted to change the world for the better. And let’s do history by celebrating them, and following their example, rather than the the people and systems who oppressed them.

This is about class, not Cummings

This crisis is not about Dominic Cummings. It’s not about how far he drove, whether he tried to conceal it, his level of influence over the Prime Minister or his apparently eugenicist views.

It’s not about Boris Johnson either. It’s not about his bizarre attachment to Cummings, his hypocrisy or his shocking, overwhelming, mindnumbing arrogance.

Of course I am exaggerating. To some extent it is about all those things.

But primarily it is about class. It is about how members of the ruling class – or the elite, or the rich and powerful, or the 1%, or whatever term you wish to use – are able to get away with behaving in ways that are denied to the rest of us.

To be sure, most of them are most subtle about it than Johnson and Cummings. If this had happened when Cameron or May were Prime Minister, it would be possible to imagine them pushing the adviser in question to offer profuse apologies, and saying he had done the wrong thing in difficult circumstances, before telling us to move on. Johnson and Cummings cannot even be bothered with insincere apologies. They are arrogant enough just to assume they can get away with it, and more or less tell us that they don’t have to follow their own rules.

But it’s the level of arrogance that varies, not the basic structures. This issue at its heart is about the divide between those who control most of the wealth and power in society on the one hand and the vast majority of the population on the other. Unlike some savvier members of the elite, Johnson has never put much effort into denying whose interests he is serving.

It is easier for Johnson when he can wrap himself in the Union Flag and talk up his faux patriotism. Then he can claim to be representing the “national interest”, a phrase which in pretty much every country means the interests of those who hold the power in that country.

Of course, there are many variations of wealth and power in society. This too affects how the lockdown is implemented. For example, the lockdown was introduced with almost no thought given by the authorities to the support of people with mental health problems. Further, it was no surprise to see that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are 54% more likely than white people to be fined for breaking lockdown rules.

This does not mean that the lockdown is wrong. It means that the basic structures of society are wrong. They need changing, lockdown or no lockdown. The promotion of inequality during the pandemic is simply an intensification of the inequality that grips British society all the time. The majority or near-majority of people in virtually every top profession is made up of people who went to fee-paying schools – who form 7% of the UK population.

It is important that opposition parties and critical commentators don’t fall into the liberal trap of talking as if this issue were all about individuals rather than structures.

This is about power and wealth in a vastly unequal society. The many forms of inequality in the UK cause varying levels of harm to almost everyone in it. And the most important form of inequality is between the ruling class and the rest. Now is a good time to say so.

75 years ago: 3 British peace activists sent to prison for their views

On 27th April 1945, three people were sent to prison in the UK for their distribution of leaflets and newspapers opposing the war. In effect, they were political prisoners, locked up for expressing their opinions.

Incidents such as this don’t get talked about very often. They undermine all the claims about how the war was fought for freedom and democracy.

Philip Sansom, Vernon Richards and John Hewetson spent nine months in prison. The war was over by the time they were released.

Technically, they were convicted of conspiracy to engage in “incitement to disaffection”: that is, encouraging armed forces personnel to question or disobey their orders. Their publications, in particularly the anti-war anarchist newspaper War Commentary, had been sent to a small number of members of the armed forces. Most if not all of these recipients seem to have been people who had chosen to subscribe to the paper, but this didn’t stop the court convicting them.

War Commentary

The three writers were tried alongside another contributor to War Commentary, Marie-Louise Berneri. She was found Not Guilty on an obscure (and sexist) legal technicality: she was married to Vernon Richards and the law on conspiracy specified that a husband and wife could not be guilty of conspiring together. This at least allowed her to keep War Commentary running while the others were in prison.

Democracy and free expression are often among the first casualties of war and militarism. It would of course be absurd and offensive to suggest that the imprisonment of British activists was in any way on a level with the horrors of the Nazi regime, or the Stalinist government of the Soviet Union. The four defendants strongly opposed Nazism and Fascism and did not believe that the rulers of the Allied powers were motivated by a concern for democracy. Ironically, the state proved their point by imprisoning them for saying so.

A common feature of militarism is the assumption that soldiers should have fewer rights than civilians: they should not be allowed to hear anti-war views. Those who sent them anti-war publications were imprisoned. As Philip Sansom later put it, “Soldiers are not supposed to think and it is a criminal offence to encourage them to do so”.

This is one of the paradoxes of militarism: cheerleaders for war like to talk of respecting the armed forces, but in practice they take away the rights of military personnel, while pacifists and other anti-militarists uphold them.

I know I would have disagreed with all four of the defendants on several issues. This does not stop me supporting their right to speak out, and the right of both civilians and military personnel to hear them.

I admit that I had intended to write this blog post on 27th April, to mark the 75th anniversary of the conviction. I hope it’s still relevant a few days later. The UK’s imprisonment of anti-war activists is not likely to be mentioned much when the 75th anniversary of VE Day is celebrated next week.

50% off The Upside-Down Bible during lockdown!

I’m pleasedUpside-Down Bible to say that my book The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence is temporarily available for half price as an ebook.

You can now get it for only £5.00. If you would like a print copy, you can buy it for £9.99.

This is thanks to my publisher, Darton, Longman and Todd, who have made a lot of their ebooks available at half-price during the lockdown. I’m not sure how long this offer will last, so I encouarge you to buy the book soon (OK, so I may have a vested interest)!

The book explores Jesus’ teachings based on the insights of people reading them for the first time, reflecting on their reactions in the light of scholarship and asking questions about how Jesus’ teachings relate to our own lives.

You can read what various people have said about the book.

If you have any questions about the book – either before or after reading it – please feel free to comment below and I will do my best to get back to you.

The military top brass are using the Covid 19 crisis to promote their own power

I wrote the following article for Left Foot Forward, which published it on Thursday (23rd April).

Has Britain become a country in which government briefings are given by a man in military uniform?

General Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, popped up next to Dominic Raab at Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing. He was supposedly there to tell us about the role of the armed forces in tackling the pandemic. In practice, he produced a lot of words while saying very little.

Nonetheless, three things have become clear.

Firstly, Carter provided one solid piece of information. He said that between 3,000 and 4,000 UK armed forces personnel are involved in tackling Covid 19, with another 20,000 available. The latter group is not active because “the sort of skills and capabilities that are in the remaining 20,000 are not necessarily the ones that people need at this point in time”.

Like most people, I am grateful to everyone who is building hospitals and delivering medical supplies, including military personnel. The impression given in parts of the right-wing media is that coronavirus has become the armed forces’ main focus. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claims that the “entire” Ministry of Defence is devoted to tackling it. This is, to put it bluntly, a lie.

According to the latest figures, the UK armed forces have 192,160 personnel. Of these, 132,360 are full-time trained troops. So what are the other 108,000 or so doing? Whatever Nick Carter’s intention, he has made clear that the armed forces are not focused on tackling coronavirus. Over 87% of them are not involved at all.

Carter talked vaguely of what the rest of the armed forces are up to, referring to “operations in Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East and further afield”. Perhaps “further afield” includes Saudi Arabia, where the RAF are training and assisting the Saudi forces who have spent five years targeting Yemeni civilians. While some troops are helping to build hospitals in Britain, other UK troops are helping Saudi forces to bomb hospitals in Yemen.

The second thing we learnt is that the military establishment is increasingly shameless about using the coronavirus crisis to promote and increase the role and power of the military.

In a particularly bizarre moment, Carter used Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing to express his belief in “defending the homeland with the nuclear deterrent”.

On Wednesday morning, ahead of Carter’s appearance, the Times ran a story based on anonymous quotes from a “senior army source”, suggesting that the armed forces should take over responsibility for logistics from the NHS. Two days earlier, Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh used a string of inaccurate statistics to make an attack on Public Health England and contrast them with how well the army had done.

This power-grab is entirely consistent with the recent behaviour of the militarist lobby. In the last 15 years or so, everyday militarism has become an increasingly prominent feature of British life.

Armed Forces Day is now an annual institution, the UK government funds “military ethos” programmes for “disadvantaged” school pupils in England and the Cadet Expansion Programme has seen millions of pounds of public money going into military cadet units across the UK just as other youth services are cut.

The third point we can take away from yesterday’s events is that the armed forces are the last people who should be responsible for security.

Carter’s alarming view of the world was revealed when he finished talking about coronavirus and then said, “Despite all of this we are still involved of course in protecting the country”.

Despite their work on coronavirus, they are involved in protecting the country? Do Carter and his colleagues not regard tackling a pandemic as a matter of protecting people in Britain? Clearly not.

Militarists live in a world in which protection and defence are mere euphemisms for war and preparations for war. If you’re in hospital with coronavirus, or you’re a care worker without protective equipment, or your mental health problems are getting worse in isolation, or you’re struggling to pay the rent because you have lost your job, the immediate threats facing you do not include a military invasion by a foreign power.

Yet in the privileged world of the military elite, such things are of secondary concern to preparing for war.

On the same day that Carter appeared at the briefing, nineteen charities and NGOs published an open letter calling for military resources to be diverted to tackling coronavirus and related problems.

Covid 19 is a deadly reminder that armed force cannot make us safe. We urgently need to transfer military budgets and resources to protecting us from real threats to human security, including pandemics, poverty and climate change.

While some see the pandemic as an opportunity to promote armed force, the rest of us need to take the chance to restructure our society and economy based on real human needs and security.

Covid 19: We need co-operative communities, not patronising politicians

Is Matt Hancock trying to live out a fantasy of being an old-fashioned schoolteacher? Increasingly, he seems to be giving the impression that he thinks that the key to saving us from coronavirus is to patronise us as often as possible.

This morning, Hancock said, “If you don’t want us to have to take the step to ban exercise of all forms outside of your own home, then you’ve got to follow the rules.”

These are the condescending and insulting words of the sort of teacher who threatens to punish the whole class for the behaviour of one or two pupils. The notion of “follow the rules or I’ll make the rules harsher” sounds as absurdly illogical to me today as it did when I heard some of my own teachers make similar comments three decades ago.

Perhaps at Hancock’s next briefing, a bell will ring as he finishes. If people get ready to leave, he will say “The bell is a signal for me, not for you!”. Then if they start talking to each other, he will say, “It’s your own time you’re wasting, you know.”

But this is about something that matters more than Hancock’s irritating condescension. At the heart of this issue is a conflict over two ways of attempting to deal with the pandemic: one based on people working together co-operatively as equals, the other based on the rich and powerful controlling the rest of us.

Like the vast majority of people, I am observing the physical distancing principles that have been put in place. In my daily walk, and in my occasional trip to the Co-op, I keep at least two metres from others as I walk (usually far more).

It seems to me that the vast majority of people are already following these guidelines. I suspect most of us are doing so because we appreciate the urgent necessity of tackling coronavirus, rather than simply because there is a rule about it. These guidelines are working because most people see them as a community effort to protect each other and save lives, not because we’re frightened of Matt Hancock.

I have no wish to defend the people who were photographed gathering in groups in parks yesterday. They should have not done so, and I would be happy to see them dispersed. We need to remember that these people are a very small percentage of the population as a whole. However shocking these pictures are, photos of the parks in which people were observing the rules are considerably less likely to make the news.

Other politicians may be reluctant to disagree with Matt Hancock today. Perhaps they will be concerned about not sounding tough. But they can sound tough by asking why the police were not dispersing the people gathering in parks, as they have the power to do within the existing rules. I have heard from several friends who have been questioned or criticised by police while walking far away from anyone else and behaving well within the guidelines. Stories of over-the-top and ineffective policing are starting to appear, and there will almost certainly be a lot more of them.

Sadly, there are police who seem keen to follow in the old policing tradition of throwing their weight around to no good purpose and beyond the limits set out by the law. Surely some police could use their power to disperse the gatherings that have been pictured in parts of the media?

Like the sort of old-fashioned teacher who he seems to be channelling, Matt Hancock fails to explain why he thinks that people who are breaking existing rules will adhere to stricter rules. People already breaking the rules would be likely also to break new rules.

The people who will lose out if all outdoor exercise is banned are not the sort of people who cheerfully gathered in London parks yesterday. The people who will suffer are those who are carefully following rules out of concern for others, and who will be prevented from taking safe and careful walks distant from anyone else. Some of them are people without gardens and without spacious homes; some are very lonely, others lack any chance for physical or emotional distance from the people they live with. Despite this, many have gladly observed the rules because they want to save other people’s lives.

Such selfless behaviour should be met with gratitude, not with new rules that prevent safe behaviour while contributing further to the epidemic of mental ill-health that is likely to follow on from the coronavirus pandemic.

But as Matt Hancock knows very well, every time newspapers or social media posts focus on individual behaviour, they are not focussing on the systemic problems that make this crisis even worse than it would otherwise be. Even the fairest and most well-prepared society would struggle to deal with Covid 19. But it could cope with it a lot better.

We are now being told to “Protect the NHS” by a party who have spent years underfunding it. We are relying on the dedication of carers, cleaners and drivers whose pay and job security are among the worst in the UK. We are trying to cope with measures that inevitably increase loneliness in a society in which loneliness and social isolation are already endemic. And while NHS staff struggle with insufficient protective equipment, the government maintains the seventh highest military budget in the world, spending billions on nuclear submarines that are pathetically powerless to make us any safer.

So let’s follow the guidelines. Let’s support our neighbours. Let’s save lives. Let’s exercise safely and carefully. And yes, let’s disperse groups of people gathering in parks or elsewhere. And let’s not allow the government to attack people who are behaving safely as way of diverting attention from their own failures and the failures of the systems that they uphold.

Covid 19 reminds us that weapons won’t keep us safe

What makes us safe? What makes us secure? For years, “security” and “defence” have been euphemisms for war and preparations for war. But the Covid19 crisis is a deadly reminder that bombs and guns cannot protect us from a pandemic.

For years, the government’s own researchers have identified possible pandemics as a realistic threat to our safety. Yet the government had done little to prepare us for it – indeed, they have presided over an underfunded NHS and grossly inadequate social care system – while focusing on the supposed “security” that can be found in warships and missiles.

I’ve written two articles about this recently (both of which cite the government’s own security reviews, which have listed a pandemic as a serious possibility):

I wrote these articles in my capacity as campaigns manager of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), my main (part-time) job, alongside my teaching and writing work. You can read more on the PPU website about our call for military budgets to be diverted to tackling coronavirus.

Self-isolation: Some non-medical predictions

I’m not qualified to make any medical or epidemiological predictions, but here are some linguistic predictions:

1. When the Oxford English Dictionary choose their Word of the Year for 2020, it will be “self-isolate”.

2. In the next few weeks, there will be lots and lots of online articles with titles such as “10 top tips for self-isolating” and “15 great Netflix choices when self-isolating” and “How self-isolating taught me more about self-care /silence /friendship /cooking /prayer /sleep /relaxation /insert-something-else-relevant-to-particular-publication”.

3. In future years, the phrase “self-isolate” will evolve to mean “giving yourself a bit of space away from other people because you need to look after yourself”. In 20 years time, young people will say they’re “self-isolating” and we’ll say to them, “That word used to mean something a lot more serious. Do you know it derives from the Great Coronavirus Outbreak of 2020?”. They’ll say, “Yes, we do, because you keep telling us.”

My trial: prosecution backs down at the last minute

I was due to stand trial last week, nearly six months after being arrested while taking part in the resistance to the DSEI arms fair in London.

After months of confusion – and a massive waste of taxpayers’ money – the Crown Prosecution Service decided at the last moment to drop the charge. This followed a written submission by my barrister pointing out that the footage (which the prosecution had had from the beginning) disproved the charge of which I was accused.

I owe many, many thanks to everyone who has supported me and sent me encouraging messages, as well as to my lawyers and my comrades in the Peace Pledge Union. Thank you!

If you’d like to read my reflections on this absurd situation, you can find them here in an article I’ve written for Left Foot Forward.

Christians don’t need bishops’ permission to have sex

The Church of England bishops have once again alienated large numbers of people with a predictable, prejudiced, ill-informed and unbiblical statement about sexuality and relationships.

The Church of England bishops rarely produce collective statements of their position on anything. Issues of marriage and sex seem to be almost the only exception, as if the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus is somehow less relevant to all other areas of life.

Some of the people most upset by the statement are themselves members of the Church of England. By now, however, I suspect they are less surprised.

The statement is a response to the introduction of mixed-gender civil partnerships. Its basic point is that sex should take place only between mixed-gender couples in monogamous and state-sanctioned marriages, and no-one else.

As is usual, the CofE bishops have failed to define “sexual intercourse” and “sexual activity”, making it extremely unclear what sort of behaviour they believe to be allowed in contexts other than mixed-sex marriage.

Their discussion of the meaning of marriage is brief and unclear. Their define marriage as “a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman making a public commitment to each other”. The phrase “legally sanctioned” implies that sexual relationships are valid only if approved by the state. In effect, the bishops are saying that you need the state’s permission to have sex.

And unsurprisingly, the document does not discuss definitions of “man” or “woman”.

Despite varied views on these issues within the Church of England, and even among the bishops, they have once again gone along with the homophobic “family values” lobby.

As a Christian, I am all in favour of standing against the dominant position in society when that position goes against Jesus’ teaching. I oppose “traditional family values” not because I want to accept common practices in secular society, but because I want to uphold the Gospel. So-called family values are utterly unbiblical.

I have searched the Bible in vain for any promotion of nuclear families based solely around sexually exclusive mixed-gender marriages. Nuclear families are a modern invention. Responsibility for raising children has differed considerably across times and cultures. Understandings of marriage and divorce have varied so widely that we need to be careful even about using these words to apply to different contexts.

Of course, there are a few lines in the Bible that the homophobes and supposed traditionalists like to quote, but they are ripped from their context. By focussing on individual lines to the exclusion of wider themes, the “traditionalists” miss the wood for the trees. The Gospels show Jesus defying social norms by being unmarried and wondering around with a more-or-less egalitarian group of followers who were accused of failing in their family responsibilities. Jesus redefined family, saying that whoever did the will of God was his brother, sister or mother. The tradition of the virgin birth undermines biological notions of family, with Jesus brought up by a man who was not his father.

The anti-family tradition in the Gospels has long been recognised by New Testament scholars, although of course scholars differ from each other in how they interpret it and how radical they regard it as being. This is one of the biggest contrasts between academic New Testament studies and the way the New Testament is preached in many churches. Academics recognise the Gospels’ problems with families; clergy more often ignore them.

This is not to say that the New Testament is unconcerned with sexual ethics. Jesus spoke about marriage and sexuality many times. Jesus challenged men who blamed women for their own lustful thoughts, telling them to take responsibility for sexual immorality in their own hearts. Jesus rejected easy divorce, which in his society allowed a man to throw a woman into poverty on a whim. Jesus allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking (although he never initiated the contact). Jesus was criticised for socialising with sex workers and saying they would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus challenged all people to love their neighbours as themselves, a dauntingly demanding ethic.

This is very far from an “anything goes” approach to sexual ethics. It is equally far from a legalistic approach that seeks to privilege some people over others because of their gender or because their relationships have been recognised by the state. Both legalism and hedonism are contrary to the Gospel.

The CofE bishops’ latest statement has triggered comments on social media from pro-LGBT Christians who are disappointed because of all the supposedly inclusive conversations that have gone on about these issues within the Church of England. While I am saddened to see so many people disappointed, I find it hard to see how anyone can still find these sort of statements surprising. Over the last decade, the Church of England has run a bewildering number of consultation processes about sexuality, at least two of which produced recommendations that involved yet another long consultation process.

If anything good comes from the fallout of the bishops’ statement, it may be that more pro-LGBT Christians refuse to go along with more of these absurd consultation processes. I am more than happy to engage in genuine dialogue with people who have different views to me, including those who have problems with same-sex relationships, as long as we are all willing to listen to each other. What I will not do, and what I strongly discourage others from doing, is to help the bishops to give the appearance of inclusion and dialogue by holding endless discussions before producing statements that merely repeat what they said last time – and the many, many times before that.

As Christians, let us listen to each other and learn from each other. Let us act as communities and not only as individuals. Let us pray that God will show us when we are wrong as well as when we are right. But don’t let any of this be an excuse to think we cannot act or change without permission from church leaders. The CofE’s leaders (and, to varying extents, the leaders of most other denominations) have made clear that they cannot lead us in responding to the liberating Gospel of Christ when it comes to issues of sexuality.

They will not give us permission to respond to the Gospel as we understand it. Fortunately, we don’t need their permission. We need to stop acting as if we did.