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.

When silence is evil: praying and protesting against the arms fair

At the beginning of September, some of the world’s most oppressive regimes will be sending representatives to London. They will be there to meet arms dealers, ready to profit from war and oppression.

Their meetings will not be illegal. They will be actively encouraged by the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Mayor of London.

The London arms fair, which runs from 10th-13th September, marks a key date in the calendar of arms-dealing corporations such as BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin. It regularly welcomes oppressive and aggressive regimes such as Saudia Arabia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Israel and Bahrain.

Christians from across the UK and beyond will join with people of many religions and none to take nonviolent action against the arms fair. An important date is 8th September, the Sunday before the fair, which will be Stop the Arms Trade Day of Prayer.

The London arms fair is one of the largest in the world. It is subsidised by taxpayers’ money and the regimes that turn up are invited by the UK government. But it is euphemistically entitled Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi). This is misleading. The arms trade is not about defence and security.

David Cameron and his allies like to promote the arms industry by arguing that democratic countries have a right to defend themselves. But there are no arms companies that sell weapons only to democracies to use for self-defence.

Arms trade apologists also speak of the number of British jobs that arms exports supposedly provide. This argument was also central to supporters of the slave trade over 200 years ago. Not only are the figures generally exaggerated, but arms companies have themselves been rapidly moving jobs out of the UK in recent years. Engineering skills could be put to better use through government investment in socially useful projects such as renewable energy.

The sins of war and economic injustice are brought together in a trade that ensures that war is profitable for a few. Every UK minister who signs off on an arms deal to a dictator is weakening anything the government might say in defence of human rights. Every pound spent on bombs and bullets is a pound less for vaccines and school books. The arms trade kills before a gun has been fired or an aeroplane left the ground. And it thrives on the lie that violence is the answer to conflict.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.” Let’s speak up, pray and protest in the week beginning on Sunday 8th September.

We will pray – at church, at home, in the street, outside the arms fair. We will protest – in our communities, in universities, at the headquarters of local arms firms and of course at the arms fair. We will speak out – to our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues, our politicians, the media and the arms dealers.

Prayer and action cannot be separated. Let’s pray that we will speak out sincerely, in love and not in hate, acknowledging our own collusion with injustice, celebrating what’s already been achieved and seeking transformation for ourselves, others and society. May God guide us to take effective and radical action so that we are – as Jesus put it – “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

The prayers and actions will continue throughout the week of DSEi and beyond.

There are many people resisting DSEi. Most of the groups involved, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), have a firm commitment to active nonviolence.

Of course, we are all different. We can speak out in different ways. Not everyone can, or should, travel to the arms fair to pray and protest in person. Below are a few suggested actions. Your choice may depend on your time, personality or other considerations. Please feel free to suggest others.

* Ask your church if they will mark the Day of Prayer. They can include the arms fair and the protests in their prayers of intercession – or go further and have a special service or themed sermon. CAAT’s Christian Network have produced some suggested resources.

* Pray for all those involved in the arms fair and all those resisting it.

* Tell at least one friend or colleague about the arms fair and why you’re against it. You can find out more about DSEi here.

* Find out whether there will be any actions in your local area at the time of the arms fair. If not, how about organising one?

* Write to your local paper, national paper or Christian publication about the arms fair. You can find out more about DSEi here.

* Write to your MP, MEP, MSP or AM, challenging him/her to oppose the arms fair in public.

* Come along to DSEi. There will be a massive protest on Sunday 8th September, two days before the arms fair begins. A strong Christian presence, in solidarity with people of other religions and none, will be great.

* Join in the multifaith vigil at the arms fair on the evening of Monday 9th September.

* Read more at the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the Stop the Arms Fair coalition or Christianity Uncut.

The power of love, the power of justice, the power of the crucified God is a subtler, stranger but ultimately stronger power than the power of money, markets and military might. As the apostle Paul said, God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Focused on that power, let’s pray and protest against the arms fair. The arms industry, like all sinful structures, will one day be defeated. This is an important step along the way.

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The above article formed my latest column on the website of the Ekklesia thinktank.