'Canada's Golgotha', based on the World War One legend of 'The Crucified Soldier'.
It’s been a noteworthy week or so. One that could be described as ‘vision forming’, to use a phrase that might draw a few groans due its propensity to be used by the visionless! (This may well include me, though of course I wouldn’t know.)
I visited Oldham Unitarian Chapel not last Sunday but the Sunday previous, to take part in the service there and to see the work being carried out on the One World Café. The chapel doesn’t appear much from the outside, a flat-roofed sixties or seventies building surrounded by a ‘moat’ of a car park. Yet it proved to be a hugely encouraging experience to witness a Unitarian and Free Christian congregation working at the very heart of a post-industrial town long neglected by central government, bringing together a broad mix of people towards a vision of a better future.
The One World Café will eventually reach out to the local community, local charities and – quite importantly in terms of the future of the chapel, which exists within a denomination currently suffering a terminal decline – the opportunity to reach out to the next generation attending the sixth form college next door, some of whom may even become active Unitarians and Free Christians.
The week that followed was marked particularly by the build-up to Remembrance Sunday with the prevalence of poppies being a pressing reminder. In many ways, Remembrance Sunday is one of the few times when British people genuinely take part in an act of worship. As a student of modern history, I have given particular attention over the years to reading the testimonies of soldiers, pilots and civilians caught up in World War One and World War Two. In turn, I found myself – even during years where my faith had waned – making an effort to attend remembrance services.
Last year, having started attending a Quaker meeting on a regular basis by this point, I broke off from attending meeting for worship to gather with others around our local war memorial. I still felt a draw and duty to take part, even if my thoughts around the most recent military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were starting to become far more critical. This position – shifting from tacit support to conflicted passivity to active opposition - can be traced back to the BBC One documentary ‘The Fallen’ from 2009, covering the grief of fallen soldiers' families. Watching the documentary, I found myself particularly struck by the story of Aaron Lincoln – who joined The Rifles to escape limited employment prospects – and the continued suffering of the family he left behind after being killed by a sniper in April 2007. At 16 years of age, facing an unknown future and limited employment opportunities, I considered joining the Army, getting myself signed up as far as the fitness tests before pulling out. The fate of Aaron Lincoln could have been mine.
The more recent documentary - 'The Lost Platoon - from the BBC Three ‘Our War’ series which covered the last moments of Mark Evison who bled to death from injuries sustained fighting in Afghanistan also had a huge impact. Not long after leaving university I again looked to join the armed forces – this time as an officer – with a view to putting my education to good use, to making a difference. The fate of Mark Evison could have been mine.
I highly recommend both documentaries, although I would add a pre-warning that the grim realities these films depict will leave the viewer shaken to the core.
In Quaker folklore there is a story of William Penn in conversation with the prophet-like George Fox. William Penn, a powerful Englishman and early convert to the Quaker faith, was struggling with his conscience over the carrying of his sword. On seeking the advice of George Fox, he is said to have been met with the response, “Wear it as long as thou canst…”
It seems to me that there is a common perception from the perspective of the outsider that the pacifist holds a solid, unshakeable objection to all forms of violence, all forms of war. Whilst the outsider might view it as a principled stance, they may also look at the pacifist as naive – as having made a snap judgement that does not stand to the realities of history, the realities of the modern world.
Admittedly, this was my view as an outsider. However, I now find myself viewing things as someone who increasingly feels like an insider. Pacifism, for me at least, is a growing commitment to working things out differently - step by step, inch by inch - rather than a simple, fixed position.
I read Harry Leslie Smith’s piece 'This year, I will wear the poppy for the last time’ published this Saturday just gone in The Guardian and felt a great relief as someone – with much more life experience and credibility than myself, as a former RAF veteran of World War Two – expressed their concern over what the poppy has come to represent in 2013 and what it will come to mean even more so in 2014, the centenary of World War One.
“Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector. We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.
I can tell you it didn't happen that way because I was born nine years after the first world war began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain's population in 1913.
This is why I find that the government's intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.”
It appears to me that increasingly we live in a culture that refuses to honestly question the worth of the fate of so many young people who for various reasons – through genuine calling to serve their country, through a thirst for adventure, through a wish to escape their social-economic background – join the military and have their lives either drastically altered due to injury or their lives ended by the flash of a bullet or explosive device. The Sun recently published a piece by Katie Hopkins known for her ‘straight-talking’ - if you can call someone who deliberately seeks publicity and profit from voicing contentious views as ‘straight-talking’ – which denounced conscientious objects, including those who served in previous wars as medics and firefighters and miners, as cowards. Although an extreme opinion in some ways, it is not far from what is regarded as the ‘middle ground’ in this country which tends to view all those who have fallen as having fulfilled their God-given purpose - with an undercurrent that those who have actively opposed war are somehow avoidant, somehow disloyal.
With the approach of World War One, I have felt the pressure literally building inside of me. And just as William Penn eventually found, I have worn my red poppy – my support for war - for as long as I could.
It is not an easy decision, it does not offer easy answers. I admit I still cannot answer the easily-put question to pacifists, “So how would Adolph Hitler have been defeated without military force?” However, we can – albeit with the benefit of hindsight – note that had the Treaty of Versailles not been so suffocating of Germany's post-war recovery, the rise of extremism in the following decades may have been prevented. Indeed, we can point to a cycle of repeated violence across the 20th century which finds root in the so-called Great War. A cycle that continues until the present day and needs to be broken in some way.
In adopting a pacifist stance, nor does it mean I ignore or dismiss the huge sacrifices made by men and women serving as military personnel. I think my perspective on their loss has subtly changed. I mourn not their defeat in the name of great causes but rather, mourn them as victims – as victims of the successive failures in leadership by our governing elites, as persons each with a potential for greatness that could have stretched beyond their name being carved on a plaque somewhere.
This sympathy also extends – without attempting justification or excuse – to those who, having being trained intensively to seek and destroy, experience hellish tour upon hellish tour of doing just that and eventually overstep the boundary between what is seen as a ’just war’ and what is seen as a ‘war crime’. I found some agreement with Kevin Godlington’s piece ‘The Royal Marine Murderer’, published by the Huffington Post, which ends with John 8:7, “Those who are without sin, cast the first stone.” It seems to me the sins of that camera footage shown to a restricted-access military tribunal last week stain many more than the man known only as Marine A. And those sins arguably go beyond the military hierarchy and policymakers, reaching across our entire culture – from Hollywood, to HBO box sets to the latest Grand Theft Auto computer game. What is more, who can be sure that the fate of Marine A, the terrible deed he committed, could not have been ours had we been in the same situation?
I write this as a human being concerned for my kind. But, I guess, I also write this from a particular frame of mind and state of heart – one informed by the Christian faith. The Christian world clearly continues to be divided on the issue of war, which is why we have army chaplains sharing the same faith as CND members. However, I find the arguments of the peace church movement – of which the Quakers are a founding member and of which a significant number of Unitarians & Free Christians find affinity with – to be persuasive. Put simply, their argument is that there is no Christian basis for pursuing change through violence - alternatives to war must be sought, and sought, and sought.
This does not mean the Christian faith is ultimately one that is so adverse to conflict it is rendered impotent in the face of injustice. After all, according to Matthew 10:34, Jesus did warn his followers his Way may cause dispute and division, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And there is a fairly credible argument that Jesus may himself have been part of the militant Jewish insurgent group known as the Zealots before beginning the last stage of his life. Yet Jesus also spoke of forgiveness and reconcilliation, resisting the urge to meet violence with violence and praying for – which for the non-religious can be rephrased as attempting to emphasise with and understand through reflection – those deemed to be enemies.
I drove to the Quaker meeting on Sunday morning just gone, resolved in my decision not to attend a remembrance service this year. I had decided to go sit in the stillness and reflect quietly with my pacifist Friends on those lost. As it happened, en route I found the road blocked arbitrarily by a car and a crowd gathered around a small war memorial. Any other day I may have expressed irritation - daily life navigating the overcrowded roads of Manchester has this effect. Instead I looked on with a level of recognition and respect – a sense that for many this is the still the right thing to do, yet no longer for me – before turning around and journeying back home.