The Christmas story is a political story

The New Testament opens with a story of conflict. It is a political conflict.

By any standard, King Herod was a vicious ruler. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, he is frightened. He feels threatened – not by another ruler, not by an army, not by his masters in Rome. He is frightened of a baby.

Herod tries to fool a group of astrologers (not three kings) into passing on information about Jesus, but they are warned and outwit him. They proclaim Jesus, not Herod, to be king. In his desperation, Herod inflicts the unimaginable horror of a massacre of children. But Jesus survives. Mary, Joseph and Jesus become refugees in Egypt.

The story has been distinctly odd even before Herod appears. We have a Jewish couple who look set to break up when Mary becomes pregnant. But Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Instead of feeling shame or outrage, he trusts her and goes through with the marriage. Social and family norms are overturned. No “traditional family values” here. Jesus had two fathers.

We are presented with contrasting images of kingship. We have the worldly kingship of Herod, rooted in wealth, violence, deceit and political manipulation. Against that, we have the child of an almost-single mother who becomes a refugee. As the child grows up, he mixes with the marginalised, sides with the poor and exemplifies active nonviolence.

Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, many churches have shown more affinity with the sort of power represented by Herod than with the upside-down kingship of Jesus.

Few elements of Christianity have been domesticated more thoroughly than Christmas. Stories from Matthew and Luke have been welded together, mixed in with Pagan imagery and used as the sentimental background music to a festival of consumerism.

It is sometimes said that we are losing “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not sure that people in Victorian times or the Middle Ages were focused on the radical nature of Jesus’ message any more than we are – at least not if they were listening at the pulpits of state-aligned churches.

The nativity stories are among the parts of the gospels that scholars tend to regard as least likely to be factually accurate. I accept that judgement. Nonetheless, I suggest that these stories mean a lot because they are a microcosm of the conflict and choice that is at the heart of the gospel. The nativity story is not merely a romantic myth but an invitation to take sides.

Will we choose the kingdom of God or the powers of this world? The tyrant or the baby? One side has money and armies. The other has love and nonviolence. It’s up to us.

 

The above article is adapted from a piece I wrote for the December 2016 issue of Reform magazine, in which I was one of four people asked to respond to the question, “What does Christmas mean to you?”. Many thanks to Steve Tomkins, editor of Reform, for asking me to write this.

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

Will anti-Trident churches now back direct action?

My abiding memory of today’s debate on Trident will be the sight of Labour MPs falling over each other to declare their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, their support for the Tories’ policies and their opposition to their own leader.

Playground-style arguing saw at least one Tory MP suggesting that opponents of Trident need to “grow up”, as if a belief in using violence to resolve conflict were a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, Theresa May failed to answer one of the first hostile questions she has received from an MP since becoming Prime Minister (from Caroline Lucas) and stumbled through her answer when challenged by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about costs.

Today’s vote can hardly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the childish antics and macho posturing that pass for democracy in the House of Commons. The question for opponents of Trident is: What do we now?

Last week, five major church denominations – the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the United Reformed Church – collectively urged MPs to reject nuclear weapons and vote against Trident renewal. This was excellent.

It will be even better if they will follow through on their principles and encourage peaceful struggles against Trident to continue by other means.

Parliament is only part of the process. We all share some responsibility for what our society does. Nobody has a right to prepare an act of mass murder. Today’s vote should make us determined to back nonviolent direct action for disarmament, whether in the case of nuclear weapons or others.

The churches’ voices would be stronger if they would vocally back nonviolent direct action, at least against Trident if not against militarism generally. Most of them maintain chaplains in the armed forces. What an impact it would make if they would declare that their chaplains will encourage troops to disobey orders if Trident is renewed.

While several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have, as individuals, criticised nuclear weapons, the Church of England as a whole has generally shied clear of lining up with other denominations to oppose it. Last year, however, a Church of England statement suggested that the arguments for Trident need “re-examining”.

I suppose this is progress of a sort. At least the Church of England is beginning tentatively to lean in the right direction. It’s also profoundly mistaken. The arguments do not need re-examining. They have been examined for years. We need to get beyond the call for debates and take up the all to action. Let’s get on with it.

Christian Concern have crossed a line to outright racism with their attack on Sadiq Khan

The right-wing lobby group Christian Concern are well-known for their vocal homophobia and for stirring up prejudice against Muslims. With their attack on the man set to be the new Mayor of London, however, they seem to have crossed a line from nastiness to racism.

Sadiq Khan’s Tory rival, Zac Goldsmith, has rightly been accused of running a campaign that encouraged thinly veiled racial language and anti-Muslim prejudice. Christian Concern have gone further.

I have no brief to defend Sadiq Khan. I once shared a platform with him at a Fabian Society conference. He was friendly and seemed genuinely down-to-earth. But I disagree with him on too many issues for it to be likely that I would ever vote for him. I am angry not because I am a Khan supporter but because I am disgusted by racism, and furious when I see it promoted in the name of Christianity.

The day before polling day, Christian Concern published an article on their website entitled “Londonistan with Khan?”. It was written by Tim Dieppe, the organisation’s “Director of Islamic Affairs”. I was unaware that Christian Concern employed anyone in such a role; I think it’s fairly new. This being Christian Concern, it’s safe to assume that they mean “Director of Islamophobic Affairs”.

Dieppe’s article is truly vile. Some of Khan’s attackers accuse him of association with “Islamic extremists” but insist that they are not attacking him for being a Muslim. Christian Concern offer no such qualifiers. Dieppe states simply, “It is well known that he is a Muslilm who is devout in his adherence to the faith”.

The article then goes on to repeat some of the accusations about his “links” with extremists. Dieppe states that they have been “well-documented”, though the only link provided is to an allegation that he shared a platform with some extremists twelve years ago.

There is a list of six bullet points about why Khan is so terrible.

At least one of the points is factually inaccurate. Khan has not opposed the criminalisation of forced marriage but rather a particular law about it. Whether or not he is right about that law, this is not the same thing as wanting forced marriage to be legal.

But by far the most bizarre bullet point is the first. This states that, in his capacity as a lawyer, “Khan wrote a ‘how-to’ guide for people wanting to sue the police for damages”.

So whatever else he might be blamed for, it seems that Khan has been willing to help people who have been the victims of police racism or brutality. So why is this on a list of bad points?

Underneath his list, Dieppe has written, “Particularly concerning are his encouragement of suing the police for racism”. The implication is that the police should be allowed to get away with racism.

This becomes more explicit a few lines afterwards, when Tim Dieppe’s foul arguments reaches its height. He writes:

It is hard to see Khan supporting the police being more proactive in upholding the law in areas with high Muslim populations… Knowing they lack political support, the police are likely to continue in their politically correct ways, with disastrous results. Fear of causing offence will rule. We have already seen some of the effects of such politically correct policing in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities where Islamic rape gangs have been allowed to run riot, with the police terrified of being called racist.”

Well, at least Tim Dieppe and Christian Concern are not terrified of being called racist. They are blatant and open about being racist. I doubt they would describe groups of child-abusing priests as “Christian rape gangs” but when the perpetrators are Muslim, they blame the crimes on Islam.

The organisation says little about sexual abuse more generally or asks whether wider social attitudes and police prejudice contribute to the lack of rape convictions. Nor is such prejudice likely to be challenged by people who damn lawyers for writing guidelines on how to challenge the police.

There’s a thin line between Islamophobia and racism. Christian Concern are now clearly promoting the latter as well as the former. To suggest that police racism should not be challenged goes hand in hand with their focus on rape committed by ethnic and religious minorities rather than others.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern have never denied or confirmed the allegation that they held a planning meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the English Defence League. That tells you a great deal about Christian Concern.

I have no doubt that Christian Concern are, at least in many areas, entirely sincere about their beliefs. What I will not accept is that these beliefs have any basis in the teachings of Jesus.

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.

100 years ago: Conscription passes into law

100 years ago today, the Military Service Act received the Royal Assent, introducing mass military conscription in the UK for the first time.

The Act stipulated that, from 2nd March, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales would be deemed to have enlisted in the armed forces. In May, the Act was extended to married men.

As a result, thousands of people were sent to needless deaths, while thousands who resisted found themselves in prison.

Those who claimed exemption were required to go before a tribunal to put their case. Most exemptions were on grounds of occupation, health or responsibility for dependents. The Act allowed for the possibility that some could be exempted on grounds of conscientious objection. In reality, this provision was largely ignored, with almost nobody being given total exemption on these grounds.

The “conscience clause” in practice

Many conscientious objectors were turned down altogether, while others were told they could join the “Non-Combatant Corps” (NCC). This was a unit of the army that did not carry weapons and was supposed to satisfy the consciences of objectors. It was absurd. Its members were required to swear the military oath, obey orders and observe military discipline. It played a direct role in facilitating the war. Despite this, there were several instances of NCC members refusing orders when they came too close to participating directly in warfare.

Others were allowed to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), a body set up by Quakers (by mostly upper middle class Quaker men, on the less radical wing of the Movement). However, many objected, saying that everyone who joined the FAU freed up someone else to go and fight. Later in the war, some were sent on the “Home Office Scheme”, a form of “alternative service” that seemed not dissimilar to being sent to a prison camp.

It used to be estimated that there were just over 16,000 conscientious objectors (COs) in World War One. Most scholars of the issue now accept that this is an underestimate, with the figure likely to be above 20,000.

Many of these were forced into the army against their will, where some refused to put on uniform, drill or obey orders. They found themselves in military detention and later in civilian prisons. Over 6,000 COs spent some time in prison during the war. Forty-two were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted. However, more than eighty COs died in prison or military detention, or shortly after being released on health grounds. Others never recovered their physical or mental health.

These numbers sound low compared to the millions who died fighting. The pacifists were the first to insist that they had not suffered as much as the soldiers had. They were suffering precisely because they were trying to stop the war in which these soldiers – and many civilians – were dying.

The COs were only part of the peace movement. They were by definition male and relatively young. But women and men of varied ages campaigned alongside them, liaising with opponents of war in Germany, France and elsewhere to resist the unspeakable mass slaughter.

Marking the centenary

This evening, I’ll be going to a reception at Parliament to mark 100 years of conscientious objection to conscription in the UK. It’s run by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who played a major role in resisting conscription a century ago, although the Society in 1916 was more divided than is sometimes thought (between firm pacifists and government sympathisers).

In 1916, some right-wing (or relatively right-wing) Quakers insisted that pacifists should “thank” the government for recognising the right to conscientious objection. Others replied, rightly, that no thanks were due when the right was not being observed in practice. Furthermore, the right not to kill is so basic that we are in a grotesquely twisted world when we have to thank our rulers for acknowledging it. While this evening’s event will, I’m sure, celebrate the resistance to conscription, I hope there will be no praise for the government of the time for inserting the largely meaningless “conscience clause” into the Act. As much as anything else, its inclusion was a sop to Liberal backbenchers who supported the war but were reluctant to vote for conscription.

The resistance to World War One was as global as the war. Only a small part of it was in Britain. It was resisted in France, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil and beyond. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that overthrew the royal rulers of Germany and Russia. A century later, we are still resisting conscription. This is literal in the cases of countries such as Israel, Eritrea, South Korea and Turkey, which still force people to kill. In Britain, our bodies are no longer conscripted. Instead our taxes are conscripted to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our minds are conscripted, with militarist ideology so engrained in us that we believe that violence is the ultimate solution to conflict. Our very language is conscripted, so that we talk of “defence” when we mean “war” and “doing nothing” when we mean “doing something other than fighting”.

We need to learn from those who resisted war a century ago. Their struggle is as relevant and vital as ever.

 

 

 

100 years ago: Pacifists prepare to resist conscription

100 years ago today (30th December 1915) a 31-year-old Quaker bank clerk called Howard Marten wrote a poem about the development of the Great War over the proceeding year.

Howard was preparing to face a crucial test. The cabinet had just agreed to propose a bill to Parliament that would introduce military conscription for unmarried men aged 18 to 40. Howard knew he was likely to be conscripted. As a pacifist, he was determined to resist, whatever the cost.

I came across this poem when exploring Howard Marten’s letters and cuttings in Leeds University Library. The poem was handwritten in one of his notebooks, dated 30th December 1915.

I had the privilege of editing some of Howard’s writings as part of my work for the White Feather Diaries, a online storytelling project run by Quakers in Britain, which explores the lives of five Quakers in the first world war.

It may well be said that the poem has little artistic merit. On the face of it, there is nothing particularly remarkable or outstanding about it.

To me, however, it reads differently when I remember that the man writing it was struggling to know what he might face as a result of his faith. At this stage, it was unclear whether the conscription bill would include any provision for the right of conscientious objection, let alone whether any such provision would be honoured in practice. The No-Conscription Fellowship, of which Howard was part, had resolved to refuse to fight even if faced with the death penalty.

Here is the poem.

“The year of strife has nearly run its course,
And still is heard the clash of armed force
On and o’er the ocean’s wide expanse
Gone is the glamour and the false romance
Of battle. Yonder the desolated lands
Bear witness to the devastating hands
Which make God’s garden a bleak wilderness
And rob the earth of all its comeliness
Still the all-patient Love looks ever down
In deep compassion, which men strive to drown
The tender voice of pleading from above
Telling in accents clear that God is Love.”

Six months later, Howard Marten became the first British pacifist to be sentenced to death in World War One. The sentence was commuted to ten years in prison.

You can follow Howard’s story through the White Feather Diaries, which already include extracts from his writings relating to his experiences in 1914 and 1915. The site will soon be updated daily with accounts from 1916, written by Howard and four other Quakers.

I will also be blogging here on dates that mark significant centenaries in the development of conscription, and resistance to conscription, in 1916.

100 years ago: Home Secretary resigns in protest against conscription

100 years ago yesterday (28th December 1915), the British cabinet agreed to introduce military conscription. The Home Secretary, John Simon, resigned in protest.

It is sometimes said that the government was “forced to introduce conscription” because of the way the first world war was going. However, John Simon was one of many who ardently supported the war but opposed conscription.

The issue had been one of the biggest controversies in British politics over the proceeding year. Thousands of troops were dying ever day and they were no longer being replaced by equal numbers of volunteers. Some on the political right had campaigned for conscription for years – since long before the war began. Others now supported conscription on pragmatic grounds, believing it was necessary to win the war.

Many were opposed. Of course, those who opposed the war naturally opposed conscription. But it is important to recognise that there were many people, particularly in the Liberal Party, who supported the war but who opposed conscription.

The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith had given into pressure in May 1915 and formed a coalition government with the Conservatives and the pro-war wing of the (very divided) Labour Party. A small group of Liberal MP refused to support the coalition and sat as “Independent Liberals”.

The Tories in the government, along with certain Liberals such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, began to push hard for conscription (Churchill was on a political journey that saw him join the Conservative Party a few years later).

Asquith had not been keen on conscription, nor had Reginald McKenna, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, or John Simon, his Home Secretary. After lengthy debate in cabinet on 28th December 1915, Asquith backed plans to propose a bill to Parliament that would introduce conscription for unmarried men. McKenna was reluctantly persuaded to go along with it. John Simon was having none of it, and resigned the same day.

When Parliament debated the bill in January 1916, John Simon provided a powerful voice of opposition from the backbenches. But the bill was passed into law on 27th January 1916. On 2nd March 1916, every unmarried man aged between 18 and 40 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces.

The provision was soon extended to married men, and the age limit was later raised. Provisions guaranteeing exemption for conscientious objectors turned out to be almost worthless and opposition to conscription continued for the following three years.

I will be blogging on the centenary of significant events in this struggle. Watch this space.