Death, mental health and Andreas Lubitz

My first reaction to the news of last week’s aeroplane crash was, of course, horror. Millions of people reacted in a similar way. For the friends and relatives of those killed, the reaction was naturally more intense. It is hard to imagine what they are going through, as for all those bereaved suddenly and without explanation.

The news that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane added a further level of stunned horror. In such a situation, some will naturally seek to understand, others to blame, others to prevent such incidents occurring in future.

Some airlines have said that they will change procedures so that no pilot can lock themselves in and operate the plane alone. While I can’t claim to know much about airline procedures, that seems to be a sensible decision.

In all this discussion, we seem to have forgotten just how rare such incidents are. I mean no disrespect to the dead and bereaved when I say that we should accord just as much respect to the hundreds of people killed every year in British road accidents and of course to the millions around the world who die of hunger and preventable diseases.

We have a hierarchy of death. When someone dies in an unusual way, we ask how to prevent it in future. When death occurs in a way we find routine, we simply allow the routine to continue. Questions of road safety, let alone global hunger, are rarely addressed as urgent questions.

Much of the media reaction to the tragedy in the Alps has been very sensational. But it is far worse than this. In seeking to understand, to blame or to sell newspapers, they have talked of the co-pilot’s mental health in a way that demonises everybody with mental health problems.

It is years since British newspapers produced such prejudiced front page headlines about mental health as we have seen over the last few days.

It has been suggested that Andreas Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly because he was depressed. Let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of people with depression and other mental health problems will never kill anyone. They are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others. The vast majority of people who kill themselves do not kill others with them. Behaviour such as Lubitz’s is very, very rare.

There are some who want to prevent people with mental health problems from holding responsible jobs, or jobs at all. Of course some people with mental ill-health are not able to work. They are as entitled to society’s support and respect as anyone else. Many other people with mental health problems (myself included) have jobs. There are so many of us that much of society would collapse if we were all prevented from working.

Certain newspaper editors and columnists seem to think that people with mental health problems should not be allowed to work, but those same editors and columnists would be the first to complain if such people received benefits as a result of giving up their work.

People with mental health problems are not some distant and scary group. They are people we meet at work, pass in the street, chat to after church. They are people who serve us in cafes and shops, drive our buses, teach our children, treat us when we are sick, preach to us on Sundays and yes, work as aeroplane pilots.

Are Christians who support same-sex relationships frightened of saying so?

Conservative Christian groups are forever telling us that people who oppose same-sex relationships are frightened of expressing their views. According to people such as Christian Concern, those with “traditional” views are shut out of debate. George Carey frequently rises from his seat of privilege in the House of Lords to tell us that the voices of “traditional” Christians are marginalised. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail occasionally echo these comments, meaning views trumpeted on the front of top-selling newspapers are described, with no sense of irony, as being views that are shut out of public discussion.

It may come as a surprise then to hear that many Christians who are frightened of expressing their views on sexuality are those who support same-sex relationships.

A survey of churchgoing Christians by Oasis, reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, found that 49.8% of respondents believed that same-sex relationships are not “wrong” and that being in one should not affect a person’s position in the Christian church.

However, 30% said that although they believed that churches should accept same-sex relationships, they thought that it would be badly received if they expressed this view openly in church. Another eight percent said they were in favour but considered it not to be “helpful” or “appropriate” to say so publicly.

If this survey is accurate, then while half of churchgoers are accepting of same-sex relationships, only around 12% may be saying so in their churches.

I admit to being baffled by the eight percent who don’t declare their support because it wouldn’t be “helpful”, implying it’s more helpful to go along with something they believe to be untruthful and wrong. I’m worried by the 30% figure. I don’t condemn anyone for being nervous of expressing their view – I’ve been there often enough myself. But we need to encourage each other to speak up and declare that loving same-sex relationships should be judged no differently to loving mixed-sex relationships. God rejoices in love and fidelity, not in gender.

It is not always easy to speak up, let alone to persuade others. At times, the arguments put forward by liberal Christians can make things difficult. They too readily get drawn by conservatives into discussing the precise wording of a small number of biblical passages rather than looking at the New Testament’s broader messages of radical love and liberation from law. Too often, their reasons for accepting same-sex relationships sound simply like a pale reflection of secular liberalism rather than a strongly Christian position. I failed to be convinced by these arguments for years.

There is an alternative. The New Testament presents a Christ who has freed us from the law and a Holy Spirit that empowers us to live by love, guided by Jesus’ teachings rather than the legalism of those who snatch lines of scripture from their contexts and set them up as laws. The Kingdom of God, present here and now yet mindbendingly eternal, offers an alternative to both legalism and hedonism, to the homophobia and sexual abuse of many churches on the one hand and the shallow, commercialised sexuality of secular capitalism on the other.

We need to give us each other courage, seek God’s guidance and speak up.

World War One: The overlooked opposition

Last year saw a flood of new books on World War One. When I saw a new one in a bookshop or library, I would pick it up and look up how much space it gave to the issue of opposition to the war. This was particularly so if it was presented as a general history of the war, or of Britian’s part in it.

The new  books are still coming, but I have largely given up on this practice. I became rather demoralised with books that failed to mention the anti-war movement, or confined themselves to a single paragraph on conscientious objectors or – worse still – claimed that almost everyone in Britain supported the war.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about the peace activists of World War One. Everywhere, I am met with surprise about the level of opposition. Here are some much-overlooked facts.

  1. There were peace demonstrations throughout the war. Around 15-20,000 people demonstrated against the war in Trafalgar Square on 2 August 1914. About 5,000 protested in Glasgow at the same time, with thousands of others around the UK. The Women’s Peace Crusade organised protests around Britain from 1916-18.
  2. The Tribunal, newsletter of the leading anti-war group, the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), had 100,000 readers in 1916, despite being a semi-underground publication.
  3. On 9th July 1915, a Captain Townroe wrote from the West Lancashire Territorial Force to Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He reported that: “Over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”.
  4. Women from around Europe and North America gathered in the Hague in April 1915 for an international peace congress. The UK government prevented most British delegates from sailing, but three of them managed to make it.
  5. In early 1917, around 200,000 people in the UK signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace (Germany had offered peace talks and the UK government had declined).
  6. In January 1917, a pacifist called Albert Taylor won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Rossendale by-election, standing on an anti-war ticket.
  7. At least 16,100 people (the lowest estimate) refused to join the British army and became conscientious objectors (the highest estimate is around 23,000).
  8. Over 6,000 British conscientious objectors were sent to prison after refusing exemption or rejecting the conditions for partial exemption.
  9. 35 British conscientious objectors were sentenced to death in 1916, although the sentences were commuted to ten years imprisonment following political campaigning on the issue. Over 80 conscientious objectors died in prison, military detention or work camps, mostly due to ill treatment and poor conditions.
  10. Dozens of peace activists, both women and men, spent time in prison under the Defence of the Realm Act for offences such as handing out anti-war leaflets, producing illegal publications and encouraging people not to join the army.
  11. There was industrial unrest throughout the war, particularly in 1918. The summer of 1918 saw strikes in arms factories and on the railways, including a strike by female cleaners on the railways calling for equal pay with men. On 30 August 1918, the majority of the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
  12. There were a string of mutinies among British soldiers between November 1918 and February 1919, as the government failed to demobilise them despite the end of the war. Some of the mutineers elected Soldiers’ Councils and set up soldiers’ trades unions.

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.

Low pay in church: I hate to say it, but the Sun’s right

It’s a rare day that I find myself agreeing with the Sun.

The Sun has run a front-page piece today about the fact that various parts of the Church of England are advertising jobs at below the recognised Living Wage. This is despite the CofE bishops backing the Living Wage in their pastoral letter last week, a letter attacked by the right-wing press for its (mildly) left-of-centre outlook.

Of course, some of us have been calling for years for churches to pay the living wage to all staff. On one level, when you’ve been campaigning on an issue for a long time, it’s frustrating to see it become headline news for the wrong reasons. I doubt that the Sun’s editors are motivated by a concern for church employees’ livelihoods. They want to discredit bishops who have criticised Tory policy. But the Sun’s hypocrisy does not make the Church’s hypocrisy OK.

Justin Welby is fairly media-savvy and has handled the controversy better than many church leaders could have done, although it’s remarkable that he does not seem to have seen it coming. He described the payment of low wages to church employees as “embarrassing”. He would be more convincing if he had described it as downright outrageous. Welby is right to point out that the Church of England is made up of various parts that are to a large degree independent and that he cannot force individual churches, cathedrals or dioceses to pay the Living Wage. However, Canterbury Diocese is one of those at fault. It would be good to see churches acknowledging their mistreatment of workers rather than getting defensive about it or making excuses.

I am not suggesting that all CofE workers are underpaid or mistreated. But some of them clearly are. Of course, this applies to other churches as well as the Church of England. Some may be good employers in some ways but fall down considerably in other areas. The Quakers pay the living wage, but this has not stopped the mistreatment of café workers in the Quaker headquarters who spoke out against the way things were run. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Salvation Army, who are colluding with one of austerity’s gravest injustice by running workfare schemes.

These organisations, like the Church of England, do a great deal of good work tackling poverty and speaking out against injustice. That’s what makes their treatment of some of their own workers so shocking and so sad.

Let’s not get distracted by the role of the Sun in today’s controversy. This is not about defending the church against the Sun. This is about defending the rights of low paid workers. However much we mock the Sun’s motivations, we can still take advantage of what they have done. This is an opportunity to push churches to pay decent wages and treat workers better. This is vital if churches are to provide any sort of prophetic witness on issues of economic justice – issues that are central to the Gospel.

The bishops’ election letter is mild, not radical

The Church of England’s bishops have issued a letter giving advice to Christians about issues to take into account when casting their votes in May.

This fairly mild document has triggered condemnations from right-wing Christians and church-bashing Tories, with Conservative MP Conor Burns labelling it as “naive” (this from a man who believes that Tory economic policies can alleviate poverty). Nadine Dorries said the Church should have focused on talking about abortion, as if Christianity had nothing to say about poverty and violence, though she did make a good point about the Church’s own failings in regards to equality.

The right-wing press can be relied upon to react to the bishops’ letter with simulated shock. I can confidently predict that tomorrow’s Daily Mail will say that the bishops’ letter has caused “outrage”. The Mail, of course, will have ensured this by phoning up the likes of Conor Burns and asking them if they are outraged (they are).

There will also be comments from some quarters about keeping politics and religion separate, a concept that would have been bafflingly incomprehensible to anyone living before the eighteenth century, and most people since then. Politics is about the running of society, about wealth and power and how they affect our lives. Politics is about everyday life. Apolitical religion is impossible; if it were possible, it would be largely pointless.

It’s quite right that the Church of England should give advice about voting. As the bishops point out in their letter, “Religious belief, of its nature, addresses the whole of life, private and public”. The letter does not endorse or condemn any one party.

According to the Guardian, the bishops’ letter constitutes “a strongly worded attack on Britain’s political culture”. However, the sort of comments that appear in the letter are now commonplace outside of the Westminster bubble. The letter suggests that politicians are employing “sterile arguments” and that “our democracy is failing”. Such views can nowadays be read in mainstream newspaper columns, as well as in pubs and coffee-shops up and down the country. They are not radical.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to see the bishops joining in the criticisms of what passes for democracy in Britain. There is much in their letter for a progressively minded person to celebrate. It emphasises the importance of tackling poverty and social isolation, mentioning in-work poverty in particular. It condemns attempts to demonise unemployed people and other benefit recipients. I’m pleased that it raises doubts about the Trident nuclear weapons system, although it does not oppose it outright. It condemns attempts to “find scapegoats” in society. It calls for a “fresh moral vision” in politics.

Despite this, it is not the radically left-wing document that parts of the media are reporting it to be. The Mail and Express will hate it for what they perceive it to be, not for what it is.

The CofE letter is far more mild in its comments on Trident than the denounciations of Trident renewal produced by most other Christian churches. The bishops declare that the “traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining”. Their wording implicitly accepts the claim that nuclear weapons are primarily about deterrence. Further, it is a big leap from re-examining something to opposing it.

The arguments for Trident, and other nuclear weapons, have been examined, re-examined and re-re-examined many times over, by Christians and others, over the last few months as well as over several decades. We don’t just need to “re-examine” the arguments for Trident; we need to oppose them.

If the Church of England is inching towards a collective anti-Trident position, this is better than nothing. But if so, the CofE is only very slowly catching up with most other Christian denominations in Britain. Trident renewal is explicitly opposed by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Federation, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Religious Society of Friends, the Union of Welsh Independents and the United Reformed Church (please let me know if I’ve missed any out). The Church of England has a lot of catching up to do.

The bishops’ letter states that “military intervention by states such as Britain is not always wrong”. While I can welcome the implication that it is usually wrong, I’m disappointed by the casual rejection of a firmly anti-war position. Let’s not forget that it was the Lambeth Conference – representing Anglican bishops from around the world – that in 1930 declared, “War, as a method of settling international disputes, is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Similarly, the Church of England’s welcome comments on tackling poverty are not accompanied by any critique of the neo-liberal capitalist system that fuels poverty (and, indeed, relies on it). The letter calls for a revival of the “Big Society” idea, now largely abandoned even by the government. As a phrase, it was always popular with right-of-centre Christians, but in practice it was only a euphemism for the effects of the cuts – leaving charities and faith groups to pick up the pieces as community services were slashed.

The reality of the CofE’s attitude to the general election was made clear by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. Asked whether people reading the letter could take its advice and still be led to vote Conservative or even UKIP, he replied, “I believe they could be.”

This is sad. The Church of England has condemned the British National Party, but they won’t condemn another far-right party, UKIP. Of course, UKIP looks respectable and middle class. It even has Church of England priests among its candidates.

There are also Christians in the Conservative Party. I don’t doubt their faith, but I question their judgement. As the CofE’s letter says, Christians should be concerned about poverty. Over the last three centuries, the Conservative Party has opposed every major measure designed to alleviate poverty, from old-age pensions in 1910 to the NHS in the 1940s and the national minimum wage in 1997. The Conservative Party is for the rich, in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes and a bread knife is for slicing bread. You can try to use them for something else, but it doesn’t really work.

Politics, like religion, is messy, complicated and frightening. It also calls for courage and commitment. Jesus’ teachings will not tell us who (if anyone) to vote for, or lead us to the same conclusions as each other. But they can remind us that Jesus constantly and explicitly sided with the poor and marginalised, practised active nonviolence, challenged us all to change, promoted love and inclusivity over the idols of Mammon and violence and was arrested after taking direct action in a temple.

What would happen if church leaders called on Christians to adopt similar attitudes today? The Daily Mail really would be outraged.