Nuclear idols at Westminster Abbey

Trident On Friday 3rd May, people will gather in a religious building to thank God for weapons. Not any weapons, but weapons designed to kill thousands of innocent people.

The building in question is not, as some might imagine, a fundamentalist mosque. It is not a way-out church in the USA calling on its members to bomb abortion clinics. It is Westminster Abbey, a prominent Christian church in the centre of London and at the heart of the British establishment. It is one of London’s most prominent landmarks and a leading tourist attraction.

The Abbey is holding “a service to recognise fifty years of continuous at-sea deterrent”. In this context, “deterrent” is a euphemism for nuclear submarines. 

Each warhead on the Trident nuclear submarines owned by the UK government has about eight times as much destructive power as the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima in 1945. There are five warheads on each Trident missile, and each submarine carries up to eight missiles. There are four Trident submarines.

In other words, the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system is about 1,280 times as destructive as the Hiroshima bomb. The Hiroshima bomb killed at least 140,000 people.

This is the weapons system that Westminster Abbey will be thanking God for on Friday.

The Abbey’s spokespeople have insisted that this is not a service of “thanksgiving”, although it has been alleged that invitations for the service originally used this word. Instead, the Abbey describes the service as:

A service to recognise the commitment of the Royal Navy to effective peace-keeping through the deterrent over the past fifty years and to pray for peace throughout the world.”

With this statement, the Abbey has adopted a clear political position in favour of Trident. The use of the word “deterrent” implies a belief in the dubious claims made by apologists for Trident. The Abbey claims not only that the Royal Navy is committed to peacekeeping but that this peacekeeping has been “effective”. 

I recognise that there are arguments in favour of Trident, unconvincing though I find them to be. But these arguments make no sense in Christian contexts. As Christians, we can all too easily fall back on the habit of reaching conclusions on the basis of the principles that dominate in the secular world. I admit I have fallen for this trap at times, as have many other Christians. However, surely our aim is to begin with a different starting-point, to seek to base our decisions and choices on Jesus – his teachings, actions, life, death and resurrection.

Fundamental to such a faith – and shared with many other religions – is the notion that our ultimate trust is in God, not in earthly institutions and inventions that promise to protect us if we submit ourselves to their power. Such submission is the essence of idolatry: putting our ultimate trust in things that we have made, rather than in the God who made us. As Jesus said, no-one can serve two masters. We can either trust in God or in the powers of weapons, money and nation-states. We cannot worship both.

Jesus’ practice of active nonviolence is, I suggest, linked to this principle. I accept that in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians tend to call the Old Testament) there are several examples of God endorsing violence. But Jesus taught something different. Furthermore, even in the Old Testament, the Israelite armies are instructed to trust God, not their own might. Gideon was even told to reduce the size of his army so that they would not think they had won through their own strength. I am guessing that passage won’t be read in Westminster Abbey on Friday.

The service is “by invitation only”. The idea of an invitation-only act of worship angers me almost as much as the fact that the service is celebrating nuclear weapons. The Christian Gospel is fundamentally at odds with “invitation only”. Jesus did not preach to people by “invitation only”. The Kingdom of God is not open only to the rich, powerful and important people who attend by “invitation only”. It s difficult to imagine anything more contrary to the essence of Christian worship than “invitation only”.

I respect many people, including many Christians, who reach different conclusions to mine on a variety of subjects. I appreciate that many Christian churches differ from my own outlook and preferences, and I am glad that such churches are worshipping God and proclaiming the good news of Jesus.

This service at Westminster Abbey is different. By promoting weapons of mass destruction, by encouraging trust in military might, by proclaiming loyalty to a nation-state ahead of the Gospel and by excluding those who are not invited from an act of worship, Westminster Abbey will be championing outright blasphemy and idolatry on Friday 3rd May.

I am glad that there will be many protests going on near the Abbey, as well as alternative acts of worship and genuine prayers for peace. As a supposedly Christian church champions military idolatry, I cannot help but conclude that to nonviolently challenge, prevent, delay or disrupt this service could be a profoundly moral and Christian act.

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Change UK is a party of war

A few days ago I spent some time looking back through the voting records of the MPs who are now part of so-called “Change UK”. I found that they had nearly always voted for the more militaristic of any two options placed in front of them.

As a result, I wrote an article that appeared in yesterday’s Morning Star. You can read it on the Morning Star website.

Change UK and the Brexit Party: Two sides of the same coin

Recent days have seen a succession of ex-MPs, commentators, absurdly posh people and people-who-used-to-be-famous unveiled as candidates for the forthcoming European elections. They range from Rachel Johnson and Annunziata Rees-Mogg to Stephen Dorrell and Anne Widdecombe.

These candidates are all standing for either the Brexit Party or Change UK, both of which have been launched only in the last few weeks.

On the surface, these two parties might seem very different. The Brexit Party was founded by Nigel Farage, former UKIP leader, privately educated stockbroker and man of the people. They insist that leaving the European Union is more important than any other issue.

Change UK on the other hand was founded by former Labour and Tory MPs who like to describe themselves as “moderate” and “centrist” despite their support for welfare cuts, fracking and the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Change UK’s interim leader Heidi Allen described her party as the “natural home” for remain voters. She talks as if remaining in the European Union was more important than any other issue.

Despite being respectively strongly pro-leave and strongly pro-remain, these two new parties have much in common.

Firstly, they both talk as if Brexit were the only issue that mattered. They want us to put aside other concerns in order either to achieve Brexit or to stop it.

Secondly, neither of them are interested in any fundamental change to the social and economic structures of the UK. Both the Brexit Party and Change UK are firmly committed to capitalism.

Nigel Farage’s right-wing views and love of Thatcherism are well-known. Change UK have said they would back Theresa May in a no-confidence vote. They may be to the left of Theresa May on economic issues (which isn’t saying much) but they have all to some extent accepted austerity and consistently voted for pro-war policies (the four who were MPs at the time of the Iraq invasion all voted for it, with Joan Ryan acting as a teller for the Ayes in the crucial vote).

A glance at the candidates announced this week reveals that Change UK and the Brexit Party are united in their loyalties to the interests of the wealthy.

Anne Widdecombe once called for anti-capitalist demonstrations to be banned. Rachel Johnson’s vile quotes include the line “a house without an aga is like a woman without a womb”. Annunziata Rees-Mogg defended massive bankers’ bonuses just after the financial crash on the grounds that “if people cannot earn the big money here, they will simply move to where they can,” (is she unaware that the vast majority of people cannot “earn” this sort of money anywhere?). Change UK had to drop Joseph Russo as a candidate for saying “black women scare me”.

Another Brexit Party candidate is Claire Fox, hilariously described as a “left-wing activist” in some of the media coverage this week. Back in the day, Fox was the sort of Trotskyite who refused to condemn IRA murders. She now spouts equally vile, but far more right-wing, views on Radio 4. When I appeared on The Moral Maze some years ago, Fox suggested to me that young unemployed men should be deprived of literally all benefits. She justified this by claiming that her comment was merely a “thought experiment”.

It’s no surprise that people who think that Brexit is the only issue that matters are also people who don’t want to change anything else.

I’m in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, and am opposed to a hard Brexit in particular. But I have nothing in common with those whose reasons for supporting EU membership are about making it easier to manage the international movement of finance and people in the interests of capitalism. I am as far away from right-wing remainers are as I am from right-wing leavers. And while I may profoundly disagree with socialist leavers, I probably have more in common with them than I do with the sort of remain-voting MPs who cheer austerity, fracking and arms exports.

Thankfully, I can vote for a left-wing anti-Brexit party by voting Green. But if forced to choose, I’d choose a left-wing leaver over a Tory remainer.

Any claim that a particular issue is “the only thing that matters” involves doing nothing about other issues. As such, however radical the people who make such a claim, they tend in effect to be people upholding the status quo. The left needs to resist any party that offers no challenge to the injustices of capitalism – whatever their position on Brexit.

Brexit: Your guess is as good as mine

There are lots of newspaper articles about “what will happen next” with regards to Brexit, mostly written by people whose previous predictions have already turned out to be wrong.

So, on the basis that my guess is as likely to be right as anyone else’s, here’s my prediction of the next stages of the Brexit process. As you can see, each stage is worse than the last.

1. UK government asks EU to extend Article 50.

2. EU refuses to extend Article 50.

3. Parliament again votes against No-Deal, despite having no deal to prevent No-Deal.

4. No-Deal Brexit.

5. Closure of the Irish border.

6. Food shortages.

7. Medicine shortages.

8. Troops on the street.

9. Daily Mail celebrates our new-found freedom.

10. A plague of locusts.

11. The Thames turns to blood.

12. Opening of the Seven Seals.

13. Unleashing of the Four Horsemen.

14. War, plague, famine and death.

15. Appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

On this day in 1661: Religion, rebellion and repression

On this day in 1661, a group of religous and political radicals occupied St Paul’s Cathedral and proclaimed the overthrow of Charles II’s government and the imminent reign of King Jesus. The radicals were known as the Fifth Monarchists.

They took their name from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel suggesting that the four major monarchies of the world would be succeeded by a fifth monarchy, which in the seventeenth century was interpreted as meaning the Kingdom of Jesus.

The group had been more active around a decade earlier, when the overthrow of Charles I encouraged them to believe that more radical political and economic change was possible. They combined passionately apocalyptic language with a commitment to equality and economic justice. Many, perhaps most, of their active members were women.

With Charles II on the throne from 1660, radicals generally were disheartened. Charles II had the most prominent Fifth Monarchist, Thomas Harrison, hung, drawn and quartered as a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant. But the Fifth Monarchists weren’t giving up, and on 6 January 1661, Thomas Venner led a final attempt to overthrow earthly monarchy and bring in the reign of Jesus.

It took the authorities several days to suppress the rising, despite the relatively small numbers involved. The Fifth Monarchists resisted violently, although most of the violence seems to have been carried out against the radicals by the state’s troops . The leaders, including Venner, were hanged for high treason. Over 4,000 other radicals were rounded up and imprisoned without due process. Most of these were Quakers, but they also included Fifth Monarchists and Baptists.

The Venner Rising, as it tends to be called, is generally seen as a footnote to the tumultuous history of mid-seventeenth century England. In Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles II, for example, it takes up only half a sentence. But the rising led to other events of great importance, and probably of greater historical significance than the rising itself.

Firstly, in the wake of the rising there was a crackdown on religious and political dissent. This was a straightforward betrayal of Charles II’s promise the year before that he would respect religious liberty. This promise had been part of the agreement under which he had been invited to take the throne. Now it was abandoned. Over the next few years, a string of laws was passed aimed at the persecution of dissenters.

Secondly, the Quakers responded to the incident by denouncing violent rebellion and producing the first formal statement of Quaker pacifism. This is sometimes seen as an attempt to assure the king that they were not a threat to him. However, the statement was not as straightforward as this. While rejecting violence, it also seemed to reject serviility to earthly kings. After delcaring that they would not fight “with outward weapons” for either “the kingdom of Christ or the kingdoms of this world”, the Quakers went on to say, “As for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less fight for them…”.

There’s a final point of interesting historical confuson about all this. The Quakers’ pacifist declaration is frequently misdated to 1660 rather than 1661. This is because at the time the year was considered to begin on 25th March, not 1st January. Thus what we would call 6th January 1661 was viewed as being 6th January 1660. The date 1660 therefore appears on the Quakers’ statement. A number of reputable books, including many written by Quakers, mistakenly attribute the declaration to 1660. By modern reckoning, however, this is impossible: it followed an incident that took place on what we call 6th January 1661.

Busy but not blogging

I didn’t blog much in 2018. I was very busy – not least with my part-time (but sometimes very intense) job with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which had a busy year in 2018. I’ve also continued to teach history for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Oxfordshire, as well as doing some occasionaly writing.

I’m determined to blog more in 2019! It helps me clarify my thoughts on all sorts of things, and I hope it’s at least a bit interesting for those who choose to read my blog.

In the meantime, here’s more about the Peace Pledge Union’s recent work. I’ll be teaching two courses for the Workers’ Educational Association this term: in Abingdon (on the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century) and in Goring (on British peace activitsts in the First World War.

Resisting everyday militarism

Glancing at my blog, I’m alarmed to realise how little I’ve blogged lately. This has partly been because of a period of bad health and some related problems. I’ve also been busy with my work with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU).

A major concern for the PPU is the growth of militarism in everyday life in the UK. Following widespread public opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British establishment whipped up support for the armed forces as an institution, attempting to secure support for war by the back door.

Thus we have had Armed Forces Day every June since 2009. The number of cadet forces in state schools in the UK more than doubled in four years after 2012. The government has ploughed millions into schemes with a “military ethos” in schools in England. Even anti-war politicians trip over themselves to express admiration for the armed forces.

It’s not been entirely successful. The British army is still failing to meet its own recruitment targets.

But the army continues to target the poorest and most disadvantaged young people for recruitment. Militarism and poverty follow each other round in a neverending cycle.

For more on these issues, you can follow the Peace Pledge Union on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye on the website (which is in the process of being thoroughly updated). You can also read my article for the Morning Star back in May, when I wrote about the links between militarism and poverty and the encouraging news of more opposition to militarism in local communities around Britain.