Pacifism in an age of terror and torture…

We live in an age of fear.

It often seems that this fear is fostered deliberately, as justification for actions which governments take on our behalf.

The newspapers are full of stories of so-called terrorists tortured by American soldiers, and the alleged complicity of British security forces.

Where are the voices raised by Christians in the US against the barbaric way that prisoners are being treated in the name of the worlds only superpower?

Well- here are some of them- courageous, powerful and moving. This film is not easy to watch- but it seems ever more important…

Rambo, Hollywood and war…

Rambo III was on this evening. I flicked past it, and found my eyebrows shooting upwards.

I have never been a fan of these films- which always made me laugh. The ridiculous plot lines, the wooden acting, the stereotypical bad guys- and the fact that no-one could shoot straight, apart from Rambo of course, who can dodge nuclear missiles. However, I had not realised that they could be prophetic- until just now.

So, a quick recap of the plot to Rambo III. Rambo’s former commander and side kick is captured whilst delivering missiles to some brave freedom fighters who are heroically resisting the evil Soviet invasion of their country- Afghanistan. The names of the freedom fighters? The Taliban. Of course, Rambo kicks much ass, kills all the bad people, and frees the Taliban from the oppressive heel of oppression.

Along the way, there is plenty of tub thumping American propoganda.

Check out this clip- and you will understand my raised eyebrows!

By way of further discussion- there is a good post by Brian McLaren in response to a recent speech by President Obama. He quotes Obama as saying this-

… mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The President of the USA has such  responsibility. The worlds only superpower, currently fighting wars in two foreign soils. But like many, I remain unconvinced that the response to violence should be greater violence. Jesus pointed us to a different way of being…

I loved McLaren’s comment on this-

I don’t judge the President; I’m just a citizen with a lot less intelligence (of whatever sort) than he has. But I wonder if someday he will see that he was right in his first assessment of Gandhi and King: they spoke not from naivete about evil and violence but from “a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Yes, one can be naive about the insidious reality of evil, but one can also be naive about the “germs of self-destruction” contained within our attempts to overcome evil through “the mass application of force.”Somehow we must live with vigilance against both kinds of naivete, Presidents and citizens alike.

Not for the first time, I find myself saying “Amen Brian, amen.”

Bonhoeffer- was he wrong?


Bonhoeffer is one of our Evangelical heroes.

The good German- an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Whose incisive faith saw through the evil that had overcome his people like a cancer, and allowed him to stand alone- a candle in darkness, a voice in the wilderness.

I sort of knew this. But I have read very little of his writings.

Michaela is persevering with ‘Life together‘ although it is not an easy read- this is partly because of the style.

The surprise to most of us is that Bonhoeffer was executed not for passive peaceful resistance of Hitler’s regime, but rather for plotting with Canaris and von Stauffenberg to overcome Hitler with a Coup- which included the assassination of Hitler- the famous bomb plot.

The great pacifist theologian, who had visited Ghandi in the 1930s in order to understand non-violent resistance had turned to violence and political power games. He became a double agent.

Did the potential ends justify the means? It is scarcely possible to conceive of a regime that is more evil within our modern experience. What else could a good man do, but seek to overcome by any means possible? Christians fighting against Hitler have long seen this as a ‘just war‘. I think I might have agreed with them had I been a child of Bonhoeffers age.

But history has a way of allowing us time to consider, and weigh the weight of the matter- and for us, the Spirit of the thing, the theology of the thing- this becomes important.

Other Christians resisted. I visited a prison in Berlin years ago where dozens of pastors were hanged much earlier in the war than Bonhoeffer for criticising Hitler. Leaders like Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller formed the Confessing church in protest against the Nazi appropriation of the  Church as part of the State machinery.

What did Bonhoeffer acheive with his part in the plot against Hitler? Probably very little. The plot failed, and by that time the war had been raging for years, and millions of Jews, Gypsy’s, homosexuals and ‘Untermensch‘ had already died and been processed through industrial ovens in Eastern Europe. History records the plot as too little, too late.

Would peaceful protests have achieved more? It seems that death would have come to him either way.

Bonhoeffers feelings about his chosen path appear to have been mixed. He had no doubt that what he was doing was a moral choice that he may well need to answer for before God. He refused to allow prayers for him by the Confessing church whilst he was in prison, as he suggested prayer should be for Christians imprisoned as martyrs, not through acts of direct resistance such as his.

So- what choices are we followers of Jesus to make in the face of war and violence and oppression? His words seem clear enough. But his followers have always found the reality more complex. Jesus seemed to be more than willing to mix with Roman Soldiers, and Peter carried a sword at least once in his company.

For me, violence is something to be resisted in itself- particularly when it is perpetrated by one state on another. Particularly when Christians appear to support this violence and claim that God is on their side. The American/British appetite for war post 911 is a case in point. But Bonhoeffer- his times were very different.

Perhaps circumstances will always demand of us- choices. Extreme circumstances demand the more black and white ones. For the rest of us, we have theory, and theology. Bonhoeffer had enough of theology that was not anchored to practical activity in the service of the oppressed.

But I still wonder if he got it wrong…

There are a few films out about his life- usually American. Bonhoeffer seems to be able to be appropriated as a Saint by the conservatives and the liberals. There are a few clips of You Tube if you are interested-

A time for war…

I started a new poetry thing the other day as part of a collection called ‘lists’. A result of chewing on passages in the Bible- the beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit etc. The list I am working on at the moment is Ecclesiastes chapter 3-

There is a time for everything- and a season for all things under heaven…


A time for war

There is a time for all things under heaven

A time to dig trenches and put up barbed wire
Then run to our deaths into withering fire
A time for mass graves, for mothers to wear black
Time to kill and to maim, a time to attack

A time to dehumanise, a time to breed hate
A time to decide the whole nations fate
A time when all truth is wrapped up in lies
For secret policemen and neighbourhood spies

A time to manipulate the news and the media
A time of unassailable powerful leaders
A time of expedient centralised power
Cometh the man in this our dark hour

A time for Guantanamo, a time for Auschwitz
A time of gas chambers and motherless kids
A time to throw rocks and let loose the rockets
A time for dead eyes fixed in dead sockets

A time for insurgents, a time to suppress
To disappear dissidents, and people oppress
Of brave freedom fighters and terrorist cells
A time for Robin Hoods and William Tells

In some foreign field or in our back yard
In red sucking mud or ground frozen hard
Lie the bones of our children who answered the call
Now glorious dead with their names on a wall

A time to break up and time to destroy
A time to make men of every small boy
Over by Christmas or just a bit more
Now is the time for us to make war

The universal declaration of human rights, and Jesus…


On December 10, 1948 (60 years ago today) the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This incredible document was written as a response to the horrors of the second world war, and brought the hope of a

Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish Language version of the UNDHR, 1949

Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish Language version of the UNDHR, 1949

council of nations who would regulate the governance of the people of the world by a new, commonly agreed yardstick.

I have heard and read several discussions about whether this document has really made any difference to the people of the world. After all, the imperative to support and to enforce it remains the prerogative of the superpower of the age- and at present, we have only one- the United States of America.

For the past 60 years, the tradition of convenient alliances and an acceptance of all sorts of injustices for the sake of political expediency has continued in a way that seems indistinguishable from the preceding 60 years.

And even if the world was willing to unite behind a military solution to uprooting a despotic regime- and after all there are still plenty of these around, even if only a few ever make the media front pages- do we think that violence is the answer?

Does violence not only ever bring legitimacy to more violence?

And then, of course, the lawyers get involved. The UN declaration found it’s place alongside other other national and federated law- the European Convention on Human Rights for example. A huge machinery of sophistry was the inevitable, if necessary, outcome.

So, is this anniversary to be celebrated?


One discussion I listened to brought me up sharp. A commentator said something like this;sermon-on-the-mount

…of course, the declaration is a bit like the sermon on the mount- it is aspirational. No-one ever expects that it will work in the real world.

Of course, I beg to differ on the sermon on the mount.

I think the words that Jesus left us with from Matthew 5 are far more than aspirational, they define for humanity the very best of what we are, and could ever be. They set a direction of travel and a yearning for better things. And they start from a heart to heart connection with something blessed and eternal. Something undefinably GOOD.

And in that moment a Kingdom like no other finds it’s foundations.

Of course, we fail. And the systems that try to organise a response to these words in the form of church and state- well they fail too.

They fail because of legalism, and because of indifference. They fail because of the idolatry of accommodation and compromise.

They are very different documents- the words of Jesus as quoted by Matthew, and the great humanistic declaration drafted by Canadian Lawyer John Peters Humphrey .

But perhaps their application might find some commonality.

Here are the words in full- you decide!

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

War- those who objected…


One more post about the Great War…

I have often wondered what would have been my fate if I had been born about 60 years earlier. The Sherwood Foresters Regiment, raised around where I grew up, were decimated in several of the huge battles of the First World War- including the Battle of the Somme, where they were almost wiped out.

Eight of these men and boys were court marshaled and executed for cowardice and desertion (check out this record here, which seems even sadder than the names on war memorials that I grew up with.)

What drove men to walk towards destruction? It is a strange testament to the fragility and contradictory nature of humanity that we regard such a thing as noble, admirable whilst still valuing life (at least our own) above all things.

It is interesting to note that even in war-drunk imperial Britain in the middle of the war, there were those who were able to show a different courage, and protest.


This protest, attended by a future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, caused a near riot.

Then there were the conscientious objectors- according to the National Archive, about 16,000 of them, who refused to fight. Many spent time in prison- particularly the 1500 ‘absolutists’, who refused to participate in any activities that gave any support whatsoever to the war. Prominent in this group were the Quakers, and other Christian groups who saw the taking of human life as wrong (more info here.)

These people were loathed by the society that they were part of. They were branded as cowards and traitors. Could I have been strong enough to stand with them?

Or would I have joined up in 1915 along with my pals, answering Kitchener’s call to arms? And would my name then have been entered on a monument after the pointless slaughters of 1916?

Historical hindsight is a rather indulgent pastime, but I hope I would have been able to protest.

And I hope too that in this new and very different age, I will also be able to find inspiration in the story of 16,000 people, whose names are on no monument. What would they have made of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

These are not simple issues. I am not sure that there is nothing worth fighting for, but I am sure that there is no such thing as a just war…

In the words of Derek Webb, from the song ‘A man like me’ from the Hummingbird album.

I have come to give you life
And to show you how to live it
I have come to make things right
To heal their ears and show you how to forgive them

’cause i would rather die
I would rather die
I would rather die
Than to take your life
’cause how can I kill the ones I’m supposed to love
My enemies are men like me

So I will protest the sword if it’s not wielded well
’cause my enemies are men like me
Peace by way of war
Is like purity by way of fornication
It’s like telling someone murder is wrong
And then showing them by way of execution

Because my enemy is a man like me

The Sentry- Wilfred Owen

Following on from my last post, here’s a bit more of Owen’s poetry.

I have just watched a programme on Channel 4 about the excavation of a dug out near Ypres in Belgium dug in 1917. It has been clogged with the mud and bones of some of the hundreds of thousands who died there for 90 years, but was found in remarkably good order (check out here for more details.)

It made me think of this poem.

Preserved like the shadow of Owen, who died aged 25, fighting a war that he did not believe in.

For people like me, Owen speaks clearly and immediately of things unimaginable to us- but where to him everyday normality.

Our fascination for stories of war is not healthy, or at least I do not think so. For every John Wayne or Bruce Willis, or docudrama about the Third Reich- there should be 100 Wilfred Owen’s.

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Remembrance day and war poetry


Michaela and I have just sat and listened to the Remembrance day ceremony from the Cenotaph in London. This ceremony is held every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, to honour first the dead of the ‘great war to end all wars’ (1914-1918) and then the subsequent second world war, along with all the post-empire skirmishes and border confrontations that our soldiers have died in ever since.

We were silent first through the emotional beauty of laments played by brass bands, then for the official minutes silence

I have had a mixed relationship with the ceremony. At worst, it seems to glorify and exalt the business of war. For a while, I refused to wear a red poppy, finding instead the white ones with an overtly pacifist stance to be more appropriate. It seemed to me the only response that followers of Jesus could take.

I spent some time working as a therapist in GP surgeries, and met several ex-soldiers struggling with post traumatic symptoms years after conflicts in Cypress, the Falklands or the wars in the Gulf. I heard their matter-of-fact stories of broken bodies and a culture of brotherhood, booze and easy violence that was both intensely supportive and ultimately destructive to the rest of their lives. I now wear red poppies with respect and humility.

But still, this balance between remembering those who suffered and died, whilst wanting to de-glamourise war and pursue peace- this is a hard thing to find at times.

This was highlighted too by my reaction to the front page of our local paper- the Dunoon Observer. In a creative response to Remembrance day, they printed a famous poem from the Great war on the front page. It is this one;


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lt Col John McRae

This poem was written in 1915, after a terrible battle, but still in an early part of the war, when glory still beckoned, at least for some. McRae was a staff officer, and the second verse always seemed to me to fit uneasily alongside the first. Some have called it ‘recruiting office rhetoric’- handing on the torch to others to have revenge…

But I applaud the Observer for printing poetry. I just would have preferred them to print another famous war poem- the one below.

I remember reading the first world war poets at school- Seigfreid Sassoon, and most of all, Wilfred Owen,

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

who was killed by a snipers bullet at just about the very end of the war. It was these men who first showed me that poetry can be something powerful. It can be healing, challenging, therapeutic, revolutionary, beautiful and harrowing- all at the same time.

This poem captures the whole thing of war for me. Here it is (with some notes pinched from here.)


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares
2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest
3 began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped
5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.

Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets
8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime
9 . . .
Dim, through the misty panes
10 and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,
11 choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent
14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

8 October 1917 – March, 1918

1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country

2 rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)

3 a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4 the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5 outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle

6 Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7 poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8 the early name for gas masks
9 a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10 the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11 Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12 normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13 high zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14 keen
15 see note 1