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 underesti lives. 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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Breach of the peace? A strange morning at Church House

One of the things that people don’t tell you about direct action is how much it involves discussing complex philosophical issues in a highly pressurised environment.

By the time this morning’s protest at Church House was over, I had discussed the nature of private property with a security officer, the definition of peace with a police officer and the question of whether the armed forces protect the British people with a member of Church House staff.

The last of these conversations took place while I was sitting on the floor in front of the entrance to Church House with my arms linked to other Christians who were nonviolently challenging a militarist conference by blockading the main entrance.

If I have any regrets about this morning, they relate to this conversation. I don’t think I explained my position very well, or made the point that it is naïve to imagine that your own country’s armed forces fight for freedom while their enemies fight against it (a position taken by militarists in every country in the world). Perhaps my theology and philosophy seminars at university would have been more effective if we had been required to discuss complex ethical questions with police and security staff standing over us while we were squashed into a doorway.

We were protesting against Church House’s decision to host yet another conference sponsored by arms companies. This year’s Land Warfare Conference, organised by the militarist lobby group RUSI and sponsored by Airbus Defence and L3, is the latest arms industry-funded event to take place at Church House Westminster (as Church House Conference Centre now calls itself).

It was addressed by the “Defence” Secretary Michael Fallon, who we sought to question about arms sales to Saudi Arabia as he entered the centre. He refused to answer and we were dragged away from our attempted peaceful conversation by Church House heavies.

One of the oddest moments of the protest was when Robin Parker, General Manager of Church House Westminster, put in a brief appearance by the doorway. When I called out, “This is a Christian conference centre”, he replied, “It isn’t actually”. He’s still trying to keep up the claim that it is independent of the Church of England (in practice it is a wholly owned subsidiary business of Church House Corporation). While Robin likes to make this claim every time he’s challenged, I don’t remember him previously stating that the centre is not even Christian.

As the police sought to remove us, I attempted to walk into the building (or “force my way in”, as the police later described it). I didn’t get very far, but I was immediately arrested for “breach of the peace”. Less than half an hour later, I was “de-arrested”.

It’s an odd use of the word “peace”: those planning violence inside the building were not considered to be in “breach of the peace”, but rather those who nonviolently tried to stop them.

This is the approach that confuses order with peace and conformity with morality.

We took this nonviolent direct action after five years of Church House (and Church House Westminster/ Church House Conference Centre) refusing to engage with us, ignoring letters and even blocking critics on social media. Yesterday they received hundreds of tweets about the Land Warfare Conference, and do not appear to have been polite enough to have responded to any of them.

It was possible for me to join in this action because of the friends and comrades who played an equal part in today’s protest and because of the many hundreds of others who sent us messages of support. Their encouragement and solidarity makes an immeasurable difference.

I’m going to finish with a quote from Martin Luther King, because he makes a point I want to make much better than I would. It’s an important point to make in response to some actual and potential criticism of our actions today. As King put it:

You may well ask, ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Terror threat: Let’s not fall for it again

Do they expect us to believe it all again? With weary familiarity, I have been reading the government’s claims that we face a heightened “terror threat”. UK governments have been making this claim every so often since 2001. It is usually followed by a fresh restriction of civil liberties or the departure of British troops to yet another war zone.

Despite Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destructions, despite the killing of the entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes, despite the absurdity of tanks sent to Heathrow in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, despite the widespread distrust of politicians, we are for some reason expected to fall for it this time.

When the “terror threat level” was raised a few days ago, I predicated a new assault on civil liberties. I’d barely typed the prediction on Twitter before Cameron and Clegg began to fulfil it. We can apparently expect some sort of announcement from them on Monday about new measures to tackle the “threat”. Cameron has spoken of filling the “gaps in our armoury”.

Ed Miliband has loyally weighed in with his own suggestions for reducing our freedom. In his article in today’s Independent, he makes some good points about tackling the root causes of support for IS and working multilaterally. He then ruins it with a call for the return of control orders and a “mandatory programme of deradicalisation for anyone who is drawn into the fringes of extremism”. I’m not sure what this phrase is supposed to mean, but it seems to imply that people should be punished for their beliefs rather than their actions.

The odd thing is that the “terror threat” claim might be true. It could be the case that we face a greater than usual threat of terror attacks on British soil. But we’ve got no idea, because the claim has been used so often to mislead and manipulate us that a true claim would not stand out.

Certainly, the announcement is convenient ahead of the NATO summit in south Wales next week. The front page of today’s Independent shows residents of Cardiff passing through metal detection barriers in order to be allowed to walk around their own city. Restrictions on peaceful anti-NATO protests, and the arrest of protesters, will no doubt be justified on the grounds of the threat of terrorism.

The concept of protecting NATO from terrorism would be funny if it were not so sickening. Unlike Iraq, several NATO members actually do own weapons of mass destruction (the US, UK and French governments own nuclear arms). NATO’s explicit policy is to encourage high military spending among its members, inevitably reducing spending in socially useful areas such as healthcare and education. NATO’s attitude to Ukraine is every bit as aggressive and imperialist as the Russian government’s.

In short, the leaders of NATO have at least as much blood on their hands as anyone that they want “protecting” from.

I’m not denying that there is a chance, perhaps a strong chance, of terror attacks in Britain. The British government’s killing of innocent people around the world makes it likely that some will wish to respond by killing innocent people here. I am not for a moment suggesting that this makes such killing justified. To identify someone’s motivation is not to condone it. Nor will I pretend that the UK government is in a better moral position than those it condemns.

Cameron’s government sells weapons to the vicious regimes of Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia. British drone pilots have been killing civilians in Afghanistan for years. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith have snatched away the livelihoods of some of Britain’s poorest people, who may well feel more under threat from their own government than from terrorists in Iraq.

Whatever the “terror threat”, I cannot support efforts by Cameron and Clegg to defeat it. I detest “Islamic State” as it now calls itself. It is a gang of mass murderers and no decent-minded person of any religion will offer them the slightest measure of support. Nor do I support the terrorism carried out by the US and UK governments. I oppose NATO as much as I oppose Putin, and the IDF as much as Hamas.

In short, I will not unite with one group of killers against another. The people of Britain, of Iraq, of Ukraine, of Palestine, of Israel, of Russia and of the US share a common identity and future as human beings. We have too much in common with each other to give in to those who kill in our name.

Nick Baines is mistaken: Cameron’s policy is coherent, but morally foul

This morning, I was invited onto BBC Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme to discuss my response as a Christian pacifist to the situation in northern Iraq. Our discussion followed headlines reporting that English church leaders have criticised the UK government’s response to Islamic extremism.

The story appears in more detail on the front page of today’s Observer, which declares that the Church of England has launched a “bitter attack” on the UK government’s Middle East policy. The “attack” consists of a letter to David Cameron from the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

I don’t object to bishops criticising the government; I wish they would do it more often. However, this “attack” – which is really more of a polite criticism – is far too soft on the government, making no mention of the militarism and commercial exploitation at the hear of UK foreign policy.

Baines’ letter suggests that UK foreign policy is not “coherent”. In contrast, I believe it is fairly consistent – and morally wrong.

On one issue, I applaud Nick Baines’ intervention. The letter raises vital questions about asylum, saying:

“As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse.”

The bishop is quite right to push the government on the question of asylum. There are several right-wing columnists who want to bomb Iraq, supposedly out of concern for the plight of Yazidis and Christians. I have no doubt that many of them would show far less concern about these people’s plight if they were to turn up claiming asylum in the UK.

If Baines had confined his letter to the asylum issue, it would be stronger and the press reports would be focusing on it. But his letter includes comments on the Middle East generally, as well as UK government policy on “Islamic extremism”. Predictably, much of the media have picked up on these questions rather than on asylum. Baines’ comments on these issues may well do more harm than good.

Baines writes:

“We do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon.”

In this passage, “we” appears to mean the UK (in effect, the UK government). The examples that Baines gives are both manifestations of Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, talk of this “developing across the globe” plays down the many differences between types of extremism and the variety of contexts that have given rise to them. It also implies that Islamic extremists are somehow more of a problem than other violent and terrorist groups – from the Israeli government carrying out massacres in Gaza to Buddhist extremists burning mosques and churches in Sri Lanka.

The bishop unfortunately writes about Christians in an equally unhelpful way:

“The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others?”

This, frankly, sounds petty. Baines is right to speak up for the plight of persecuted people and we all naturally tend to be more worried about the suffering of people with whom we can identify. But these comments add to the impression that Christians should be more worried about the persecution of other Christians than about the persecution of Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Jews, atheists or anyone else. Let’s challenge persecution because it is wrong and because we are called to love all our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s not sound as if we think the rights of Christians matter more than the rights of others.

Early on in his letter, Baines says that “it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect”.

Again, the use of “our” identifies Baines – and by extension the rest of the Church and the British population – with Cameron’s government. Cameron’s foreign policy is, if not clear, then at least more coherent than the bishop suggests. It may seem inconsistent for politicians to wring their hands about Islamic extremists in Nigeria while preparing to bomb Islamic extremists in Iraq. It may appear absurd for Philip Hammond to condemn Russia for arming separatists in Ukraine while happily selling weapons to Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But while ministers’ words are inconsistent, their actions are not. The government’s foreign policy is based on the commercial and strategic interests of those who hold power in the UK and the class that they represent. This is a government thoroughly committed to promoting the concerns of the super-rich. This has after all the basic purpose of the Tory Party throughout its existence. While I’m sure that some ministers believe that they are acting out of humanitarian concern, their domestic policy has involved rapid redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. We cannot expect their foreign policy to be any more ethical.

The problem is not that UK government policy is incoherent. The problem is that it is wrong. It makes sense within the context of the values by which Cameron and his cronies abide. These are the same repugnant values of militarism and colonialism that led Cameron to back Blair in invading Iraq, triggering a downward spiral to sectarian civil war.

In his letter, Nick Baines follows the common practice of using the words “we” and “our” when he really means the UK government and its armed forces. This is unhelpful, as it implies that nationality is the primary aspect of our identity and that we are basically on the same side as those who hold power.

As Christians, our loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. I owe no more loyalty to David Cameron’s government than I do to ISIS.

If we stopped one arms deal, it was worth it

“Superglue protesters avoid jail” declared a headline on ITN this week. As one of the protesters in question, I’m pleased to report that we didn’t only avoid jail. We were acquitted.

The judge declared all five of us “Not Guilty” to the charge of aggravated trespass. I really want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of people who have sustained us with encouragement and support. I also want to give my best wishes to other peaceful protesters arrested at the arms fair, who will be on trial in the same court later this month.

I was one of seven Christians who blocked an entrance to the London arms fair (known euphemistically as Defence & Security Equipment International, or DSEi) last September. We did so by kneeling to pray and sing hymns. We delayed arms dealers for nearly an hour.

Five of us – James Clayton, Chloe Skinner, Chris Wood, Dan Woodhouse and me – were arrested and held in cells for most of the day in a police station near King’s Cross, before being charged and released on bail. The other two – Alison Parker and Angela Ditchfield – played an important role in the protest but left before the arrests took place. Others had also been very involved, standing nearby to support us, join us in prayer and help us to negotiate with the police.

Over the last few months, and particularly the last week or two, we have received hundreds of messages of support. Many have come from Christians, of different sorts. There have been several from people of other faiths. I know that those praying for us on the day the trial began included a Muslim in Birmingham and a Pagan in Oxford, as well as lots of Christians. A good many of the messages came from people of no religion, or who did not mention religion, but who shared a common human disgust with the sale of arms, particularly to oppressive regimes.

I have no doubt that the trial, stressful though it was, would have been many, many times harder without all this support and encouragement, from both friends and strangers. I thank God for everyone involved.

There was a reminder of the foul reality of the London arms fair on the very day that we were arrested. Two companies were removed from the fair for selling illegal torture equipment. This happened only after their presence was raised in Parliament. This is the sixth consecutive occasion on which dealers in illegal weaponry have been removed from the London arms fair (always when revealed in public, never proactively). Despite this, not a single prosecution has been brought against any of the companies involved. It is peaceful protesters who end up in the dock.


A significant moment in the trial came when a Ministry of Defence policeman gave evidence for the prosecution. I won’t give his name, as he came off rather badly and I don’t want to humiliate him. He was the officer who arrested me and I can honestly say that I couldn’t hope to be arrested by a nicer person. There was an amusing moment when he testified that while being arrested, I was “shouting loudly throughout in a religious manner”. Or as I would call it, “praying”.

More importantly, the officer admitted under cross-examination that the police on duty at DSEi had been briefed about possible activity by protesters but been told nothing about possible illegal behaviour by arms dealers. This is despite the removal of illegal weaponry on the previous five occasions.

This is clear evidence that, however decent the motivations of individual police officers, the police are deployed at DSEi for the benefit of the arms dealers rather than the impartial enforcement of the law.

This is yet another reminder that the authorities in the UK are in bed with the arms industry.

After a trial lasting a day and a half, the judge acquitted us on the grounds that we had reasonable grounds not to understand a police warning, which the Detective Constable in charge of the case admitted should have been delivered differently.

I am delighted with the outcome of this case. However, I will be happier when people who sell torture equipment on the streets of London are standing in the dock that we recently left.

Nonetheless, I am aware that we held up the arms and torture dealers for nearly an hour. Trains were backed up at Custom House station. I cannot tell who was stopped getting in, or what meetings were prevented, because of our action. But I can say this: If we stopped one arms deal, it was worth it.

Arms fair court case: Moved to tears by support

Last week, I appeared in court – alongside Chris Wood, Dan Woodhouse, Chloe Skinner and James Clayton – charged under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. We had knelt in prayer in one of the entrances to the London arms fair on 10th September.

We pled Not Guilty. We are expecting to be tried on 3rd and 4th February in Stratford Magistrates’ Court in London.

I have literally been moved to tears by the support we have received. People who had been involved in the original protest met with us before the court hearing to pray and share communion.  Several people sat in the public gallery to show their support. I had no idea that most of them would be there. Two others had made a banner the night before, urging courts to “convict arms dealers” and “not human rights defenders”. They held it outside the court as we awaited the hearing. Many people prayed for us and sent us messages of support. One person even wrote a poem about us.

I was overwhelmed. I am more grateful than I can say for all this and am quite sure that I don’t deserve it. People do far more remarkable things every day with far less support and attention. But I can’t deny that the support is helping me through this process. I can’t speak on behalf of the other four, but I know that the support has made a big impact on them too.

As a Christian, I firmly believe that it is the power of the Holy Spirit that is sustaining us. Yet I am delighted that support has come from people of many religions and none. We stand united against the evil of the arms trade and the hypocrisy that defines morality by order rather than justice.

New war, old story

There are people who could be very confused by the UK government’s support for human rights in Syria.

People in Bahrain have been banned from protesting by a government that has killed countless numbers of peaceful demonstrators. Far from supporting the protesters’ peaceful struggle, UK ministers are continuing to sell arms to the Bahraini regime that is killing them.

People in West Papua have for years faced violence and oppression at the hands of the Indonesian authorities that occupy them. Indonesian troops have bombed West Papua with British-made aeroplanes.

People in the West Bank continue to suffer the restrictions and humiliation of Israeli occupation. Israeli troops use aircraft and other equipment sold by UK-based companies with the approval of the UK government.

People in Saudi Arabia, who face imprisonment, torture and death to quietly assert their rights, know that their government has for years been making arms deals with the UK government, which looks the other way whenever the topic of the country’s human rights record is raised.

And, perhaps most shockingly, people in Syria will wonder why companies that supply Assad’s vicious regime look set to be allowed to exhibit their products at the London arms fair next month.

The arms fair, euphemistically called Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi), will almost certainly include representatives of all the regimes mentioned above. They are invited by the UK government. DSEi happens every two years, subsidised with taxpayers’ money.

David Cameron and his colleagues may be genuinely horrified by what is happening in Syria. Most of us are more inconsistent than we like to think. I don’t claim to be any less hypocritical than David Cameron. However, we cannot be expected to swallow the government’s a humanitarian argument for war in Syria two weeks before some of the world’s nastiest dictatorships are invited to send representatives to London to meet arms dealers.

The march to war is eerily familiar. The government are talking about human rights. The opposition are frightened of disagreeing. The media are contrasting war with “doing nothing” as if these were the only two options, and using the term “intervention” to mean “military intervention” as if they were always the same.

Whatever people in Syria need, they do not need yet more weapons and soldiers in their country. They do not need more war, more lies, more feeble excuses. They do not need to be the victims of profiteering or the pawns in other people’s strategic plans.

Arms dealers will benefit if UK and US troops go to war in Syria. Few others are likely to do so.

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The London arms fair takes place from 10-13 September, with the main protest on Sunday 8 September. Click for more information.