How radical is the Greenbelt festival?

The following article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 2nd September 2017. I wrote it after attending the Greenbelt festival the previous weekend.

Last weekend communist theologian Marika Rose called for the abolition of the police.

It’s nothing remarkable: she has been expressing such views for years. What was different this time is that she was addressing an audience at one of Britain’s largest religious festivals.

Greenbelt is a Christian-based festival of music, comedy, arts, talks, debate, politics, worship and theology. In recent years, it has projected a clearly left-of-centre image.

Taking place every August, it is now held in east Northamptonshire. It attracted over 11,000 punters this year, as numbers rose after falling from the high point of 20,000 some years ago.

Mariks’a comments triggered a mixed response. One festival-goer told me she was delighted to hear such radical views at a Christian event. Another wrote: “Shame on you” to Marika.

The controversy provoked a minor Twitter storm, with some apparently angry that such a view should be given a platform at Greenbelt. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more anger a few years ago.

This is not to say that Greenbelt is centre of communist activism, however its conservative detractors portray it. It has been described as “the Guardian does Jesus.” While this criticism comes from right-wing critics, there is a certain accuracy to it.

Like the Guardian, Greenbelt is liberal and centre-left, preferable to the powerful interests on its right, but broadly accepting of capitalism and compromised by its role as a large commercial institution.

You can hear repeated attacks on poverty and austerity at Greenbelt, but they often focus on specific policies rather than any deeper challenge to class structures.

Thankfully, there are exceptions: this year’s highlights included Teresa Forcades I Vila, often described as “Europe’s most radical nun.”

Pacifist activists Sam Walton and Dan Woodhouse spoke about their attempts to disarm a BAE warplane destined for Saudi use in Yemen. Anglican priest Rachel Mann offered a complex but accessible analysis of the link between militarism and masculinity. Interfaith events looked at how Christians can support struggles against Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Greenbelt has been a truly liberating event for many people. In the early 2000s, it was the first Christian event at which I saw a same-sex couple holding hands. Nowadays you can see almost as many same-sex couples there as mixed-sex couples.

At most Christian festivals, this would be unthinkable. For countless LGBT+ Christians, Greenbelt was the first place in which they could be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Socialists at Greenbelt this year welcomed a new tent hosting stalls from co-operative businesses and discussions on the co-operative movement.

There was for the first time a women-focused venue on site: the Red Tent, with a number of events open to all who define themselves as women. This seems particularly important when transphobia is so prevalent in churches, and when even some on the left wish to deny trans people equality.

There were a number of firmly progressive groups running stalls in the middle of the festival, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a radical peace organisation), Church Action on Poverty and groups promoting resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In important ways, however, Greenbelt fell short. The theme of this year’s Sunday morning communion service (the main event at Greenbelt) was disability.

There was an inspiring sermon by a disabled teenager as well as contributions from other disabled people about ways in which they are included or excluded.

Remarkably, however, despite all the discussions of poverty at the festival, not a single word was spoken in the service about the way in which disabled people are facing systematic attacks on their livelihoods by a government that is slashing and burning the welfare state.

And over it all hangs the shadow of an incident in 2011, when festivalgoer Ceri Owen was dragged from the festival by police as she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The most positive interpretation is that Greenbelt organisers overreacted and misunderstood the situation when they called the police. But far from apologising, they continue to defend their behaviour and Ceri has been banned from Greenbelt ever since.

At the same time, she has become an increasingly prominent mental health activist, frequently appearing in the media to speak about cuts to mental health services.

The importance of Greenbelt for promoting progressive views among Christians should not be underestimated. For some LGBT+ Christians in particular, it has literally changed their lives.

But as Ceri’s exclusion demonstrates, when push comes to shove large institutions tend to veer towards self-justification and conventional power dynamics.

Such problems can also be seen in a number of secular left organisations, including certain trade unions. Radical change requires people working at the grassroots from the bottom up.

Thankfully, the more radical punters at Greenbelt will soon be joining in with the large number of protests, vigils and direct actions planned for the run-up to the London arms fair.

Despite Christianity’s many compromises with wealth and privilege, we still have Jesus’s example of standing up to the rich and powerful. The reign of God is not compatible with the power structures of this world.

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The Church of England’s budget response reveals twisted priorities

Institutional churches can be pretty slow to respond to injustice, so I’m not surprised that some people were pleased to see that the Church of England issued a speedy response to George Osborne’s budget yesterday.

Did the CofE’s response challenge the cuts to disability benefits? Denounce the tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy? Demand more funding for public services and the protection of the welfare state?

No. It did none of these things. The Church of England’s press release began with the following words:

“The Church of England has welcomed warmly the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget today of a £20 million fund for works to cathedrals.”

It continued along similar lines.

Thankfully, many Christians, including both clergy and lay people in the Church of England, have criticised the budget – the last in a long line of Osborne budgets to serve the rich at the expense of the rest. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been known in the past to criticise some of the cuts to the welfare state, although I believe he has yet to respond to the budget.

Nonetheless, it says a great deal about establishment that the first official response from the Church of England as a whole was to “warmly” welcome the crumbs that the Chancellor threw in their direction.

Some may say that this was a press release about the cathedrals repair fund rather than the budget as a whole. That, of course, is the problem. Why should this be considered the most important part of the budget for the Church to respond to? It is a trivial detail.

Nor should it be said that this announcement was more relevant to the Church than the other parts of the budget. It was not. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who led by example in showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised. He did not set up a charity for maintaining interesting old buildings.

Don’t keep calm. Don’t carry on.

As I write, it is unclear whether the Conservatives will have an overall majority. If not, I suspect they will try to rule as a minority government, although they may try some sort of deal. In the latter case, they could well be defeated in Parliament on at least some issues. In the former, they will still be vulnerable to rebellion from their own fractious backbenchers.

Either way, let us remember that politics is about far, far more than parties, elections and polling days. We need to resist the plans for a massive extra £12bn in welfare cuts, the privatisation of the National Health Service, the ongoing attacks on education and the welfare state, the fuelling of climate change, the sale of arms to tyrants and the plans to throw £100 bn into a new generation of weapons of mass destruction.

It is tempting to run away and hide. So I’m trying to remind myself that we can resist such policies in Parliament, through fresh ideas, in the media, on the streets, in our workplaces, in our communities and faith groups and places of education, through strikes, through protests, through nonviolent direct action and in our daily lives.

Politics is about people. It belongs to us, not to politicians. The election circus is nearly over, but real politics continues well beyond #GE2015.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.

The Royal British Legion insults the victims of war

The Royal British Legion, who run the Poppy Appeal, have in recent years shown a tendency to misuse the message of remembrance to encourage a pro-war, jingoistic agenda. They have now taken things a step further by using an anti-war song in a fundraising film – after taking the anti-war lyrics out.

No Man’s Land (also known as Green Fields of France) is one of my favourite songs. Written by Eric Bogle in 1976, it concentrates on Willie McBride, a soldier whose grave Bogle finds as he walks through a first world war cemetery. The song is addressed to McBride himself:

“I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916.”

There are four verses in the song. The Royal British Legion have produced a fundraising video that includes the first two verses and misses out the last two. Thankfully, some references to the horror of war have been left in:

“Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?”

However, by cutting out the last two verses, the Legion have clearly removed the song’s main point, which is about the futility of war:

“But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land.
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.”

Not long after World War One, the message on Remembrance Day was “Never Again”. This has now been forgotten, at least when mainstream politicians, the Royal British Legion and the right-wing media have anything to do with it. Now we are encouraged to “support our troops” rather to work for a day in which there are no troops, and no war.

Of course, the Royal British Legion (or anyone else) have every right to disagree with the song’s anti-war message. This is very different to using the song  to promote a message contrary to its original meaning.

Some will argue that the Legion does good work supporting wounded soldiers and bereaved relatives. This is true to an extent, and I don’t blame anyone in need of help for turning to it.

However, we might ask why anyone who’s disabled or bereaved needs to rely on charity in the free and democratic country for which British troops have been told they are fighting. The initial cost of war – the weapons, the uniforms, the training – are paid for by taxpayers out of public funds. You never see anyone rattling a tin to fund a Eurofighter. But the longer-term costs of war – support for those who are physically and mentally harmed – is far less of a priority for the public purse, and groups such as the Legion and “Help for Heroes”, rather than objecting to this, go out into the streets with their collecting tins.

I know I am not the only taxpayer who would much rather pay taxes to support disabled people to live equal lives (whether or not their impairments have been caused by war) than to fund the UK’s war budget, which is the sixth highest military budget in the world.

However helpful the Legion’s charitable work may be to those who benefit from it, it is undermined by the Legion’s nationalistic and militaristic messages. The organisation is not neutral on the question of war. The clue’s in the name “Legion”, a term for a military unit (the words “Royal” and “British” also give it away, of course).

I’m sure that many people who wear the Legion’s red poppies wish to remember both civilian and military victims of war. Many might also wish to remember those who were not British. However, the Legion itself is quite clear that the purpose of the poppies is to remember British military dead. That is what the red poppy, according to those who design and sell it, is for. It is not to remember children killed in the bombing of Coventry, let alone in the bombing of Dresden.

The Royal British Legion state clearly on their website that the red poppy “is worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today and their loved ones”.

To suggest that a civilian is less worthy of remembrance than a soldier seems to me to be morally repugnant. To remember only the British dead and not the French, German, American, Austrian, Brazilian, Iraqi or Afghan dead is not only offensive. It is directly contrary to the internationalist attitudes that are necessary if we are to build peace instead of war.

I respect the intentions of many of those who wear red poppies, but I cannot wear one when those who produce it practise such an excluding, nationalistic form of remembrance. Nor can I “support those serving today”. I have nothing against people in the armed forces and I pray for their safety. But I do not support the British armed forces, or any other armed forces. I choose to wear a white poppy, to remember all victims of all wars and to honour the dead by calling for an end to war.

The best way to remember those killed in war is to tackle the causes of war and to refuse to participate in war. War is not inevitable. People created war and people can end it. Only by doing so can we ever hope to achieve the early Remembrance Day aim of “Never Again”. The alternative is an endless repetition of the situation described in the last verse of No Man’s Land, a verse you won’t hear on the Royal British Legion’s fundraising film:

“Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying: it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again.
And again, and again, and again, and again.”

———-

You can sign a petition about the Royal British Legion misuse of the song at https://www.change.org/p/royal-british-legion-please-apologise-for-cutting-the-words-of-the-poppy-appeal-song-the-original-song-condemns-the-folly-of-war.

You can buy white poppies at http://www.ppu.org.uk/whitepoppy/index.html.

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.