Canon Dr Paul Oestreicher delivered the following speech in Coventry Cathedral on 13 November 2017.
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They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their
nuclear weapons into MRI scanners
NEITHER SHALL THEY LEARN WAR ANY MORE
(Micah 4:3 adapted)
We desperately want a more just world. Who doesn’t? So much in our nation – and in the world – cries out for change. In almost every sphere of life, things fall far short of what they should be. Just think of our disintegrating welfare state, our struggling Health Service, our shameful prisons, not to speak of the tragedy of Brexit. Politicians are no longer trusted to work for the common good; rather they all too often sabotage it. Maybe it’s the whole system that needs to change, a peaceful revolution. Look beyond our borders and the cry for justice is almost unbearably painful: drowning refugees; a whole Muslim community brutally driven from their homeland, murdered and raped, in this case by ostensibly peace-loving Buddhists. Every religion is busy betraying its ideals. I could go on for hours and only touch the world’s misery at the fringes.
That’s half the truth. At home and abroad, there is a determined struggle to right the many, many wrongs. Locally, nationally and internationally, the peaceful struggle for greater justice is being waged. Often it takes generations to make things better. Innumerable people work to make the life of others worth living. Much of that needs organisation. It is being well organised by the Red Cross, by Amnesty International, by Médecins sans Frontières, by Shelter, by Oxfam, by Christian Aid, by Womankind Worldwide, by the many working for gender equality, for an end to modern slavery, for an end to unjustifiable poverty, for an end to the humiliation and sexual exploitation of millions of women, not just in the Congo, but right here. People in your street are caring for a lonely neighbour, welcoming a refugee family. This struggle is about the restoration of dignity to every human being.
The quest for greater justice has a history that goes back thousands of years and – if the human race survives – will go on for thousands more. It is testament to the Quaker insight that there is that of God in each of us. Together, our participation in the quest for the common good makes us searchers and workers for the world as it should be, a world that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. It has many other names. There are many paths to Nirvana. Together, we are called to join this struggle for a radically changed world. Are we passionate enough? Do we love enough to join the struggle for what the Bible calls righteousness, to embrace the politics of change? To swim against the tide, to speak truth to power? To be political? The word politics simply describes how we live together, well or badly. Politics, from its roots, is about the welfare of the Polis, the city. It is a word to embrace.
This longing for justice, this pilgrimage of hope depends on the survival of humankind. That is no longer anything like certain. Species can die. Some are already dying. We humans are not – yet. We now know that the abuse of the natural world could lead, as the scientists tell us, to that natural world taking its revenge. If we destroy nature, it will destroy us. Climate change demonstrates that this has begun to happen. Our children’s children may be the inheritors of a final deluge, with no Moses and all the animals leaving the arc to begin again. This is not a fantasy. Given the will, we may just avert it.
With a broad brush, I have spoken of the cry for social justice and of our threatened environment. Both matter enormously. Both depend on our world remaining at peace and not descending into a vortex of violence.
The Priority of Peace
Against that background and in this Coventry Peace Week in this nuclear free city, let me say against the odds, that peace is possible, peace defined as the absence of the collective violence that we call war. Without wars, the ongoing struggle for justice would be greatly enhanced and so would our ability to preserve the environment. War creates injustice and pillages the natural world.
I shall argue that the maintenance of peace must take priority over humanity’s unending struggles for justice. Tomorrow’s wars, and the highly probable destructive unleashing of the atom, as Albert Einstein – whose discoveries made it possible – warned, would wipe out every social advance in human history, would wipe out – us. That is a rational statement, not scaremongering. I shall try to justify it.
Before I do that, allow me a personal testimony. The early Christians were not willing to worship the Emperor, nor to obey his command to join his legions. Many of them were killed for that refusal. To love their enemies, as Jesus had taught, was not compatible with killing them. The Church changed direction tragically when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. Henceforth it would be permissible to serve God and the Emperor in one. Ultimately for that reason, in every British military cemetery, a large cross has superimposed upon it a sword.
I have recently visited the battlefield of the Somme where hundreds of thousands died. My father was among the survivors. On his belt buckle were the words, in German: God with us, Gott mit uns. Those fighting for the British Empire had recruited the same God to their cause. In the Crusades, centuries before, killing Muslims was seen as a certain path to heaven, as was killing Christians for the other side. The aftermath is still with us now. Isis is no accident.
The pacifist and Quaker that I am, weeps when I see the cross and sword embracing. Justice and peace, the psalmist says, will ultimately embrace, but not yet. They are often at odds, and we may have to choose one, or the other. Over centuries, Christian Europe has lived in comfort with the blasphemy of violence in God’s name. Britain and its churches are still at ease with that. The message is still: If need be, it takes violence to oppose injustice and oppression.
Do not get me wrong, I have no personal quarrel with the officers who man – and woman now – our nuclear submarines. Some of them were my parishioners in Blackheath, a stone’s throw from the Royal Naval Academy. Royal Naval Academy. This is about deeply ingrained traditions in our national fabric. The Royals, and what they stand for, are hard to imagine appearing on any solemn occasion, not in military uniform. War, when the nation calls, the call to kill and if need be to be killed, calls forth on both sides what is deemed to be the ‘ultimate sacrifice’, with heavy religious overtones.
It all starts young. More schoolboys, our Prime Minister wishes, should learn to be child soldiers, army cadets, making the military a natural part of their life. We may not be as showy about it as the French, or as the Germans used to be, nevertheless, militarism flows in our national life blood.
I have not come to Coventry today to turn you into pacifists, although if I do, praise be to God. Let me, however, astonish you. President John F Kennedy is on record as saying, shortly before his assassination: ‘War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today’ [Arthur Schlesinger: 1000 days: John F Kennedy in the White House, 1965].
No! No! to Trident
Let me now come to the essence of this lecture: Do we choose life or death in a world with weapons of mass destruction? The hoped for distant day that JFK spoke of, may never come. Our world may not survive that long. In 1982, Bishop John Robinson, who was then my Bishop, gave an address that was both prophetic and penitential. He had not only written Honest to God, the theological best seller that was even read in pubs, he had written and spoken on a wide range of social and political concerns. But in a flash of insight, he woke up to the fact that he had, like almost all his fellow bishops, like the wider church and most of the nation at large, been silent on the one thing that matters most and that threatens the future of all of us, our possession of nuclear weapons. He had not become a pacifist, but he now recognised that the technology of war – as Albert Einstein had warned – had reached a point where, if these weapons were not eliminated, they would, sooner or later, eliminate us (J.A.T. Robinson, ‘The Church’s Most Urgent Priority in Today’s World’, Lecture held in Hamilton, Ontario, 3 October 1982). In that address, he spoke the truth to power and to his Church, indeed to all of us.
John Robinson wondered how he could have failed to see this earlier – and to speak out. His lecture was a scholarly exposition of the real danger to us all. I will spare you the small print today. The scientists, but alas not the politicians, knew that the world would never be the same again.
Do you know the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice? The apprentice thought he could master his master’s magic power. Instead, it mastered him. It all ended in disaster.
In 1958 and the years following, thousands of people saw the danger and were afraid. We marched, Canon John Collins and Bertrand Russell at the head, from Aldermaston, where the weapons from hell were and still are produced, to Trafalgar Square, and we spoke out. We marched again in the 1980s, when the danger of nuclear war seemed imminent. So many marched that the Ministry of Defence felt genuinely threatened by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When I was Vice Chair of CND, the then Minister of Defence, Michael Heseltine, told me that CND was undermining Britain’s security. Doing Stalin’s business. Bruce Kent was, according to Heseltine and much of the right-wing press, an unwitting Soviet agent.
When the Cuban Missile crisis came in 1962, the world had come within a hair’s breadth of meltdown. The cool heads of Krushchev and Kennedy just saved us from disaster. This was not the only near point of no return. An officer who controlled the Soviets’ intercontinental ballistic missiles received the signal that the USSR was under attack. His duty was to launch hell on earth. He disobeyed, wondering whether a technical failure might have given him a wrong signal. It had. Thanks to him, I am alive to give this lecture, and you to hear it.
Today the danger has immensely increased. But where have all the peaceniks gone? A ‘strong and stable’ world with Trump and Kim Jong-Un! I must be joking. There is no security until these weapons have gone.
What of our very own Trident submarines, with an unbelievable payload of death? These are not useable weapons, but vastly expensive symbols of super power make-believe, a pretence to greatness that once was. Should we ever use them against another nuclear power, it would be simultaneous suicide and genocide. Should we ever use them against a non-nuclear power, we would simply have to hold our heads in shame.
The readiness to kill on such a vast scale can never be a legitimate form of defence. That is what Jeremy Corbyn, my fellow Vice-President of CND, personally believes, even if his Party, and public opinion – as some claim – will not follow. The very notion of using Trident’s missiles is an indication of the moral decay of our nation. Every other failure pales beside it.
I will dare to risk a comparison. Adolf Hitler genuinely believed (a totally insane belief) that the Jews were a threat to the future of German civilisation, so great a threat that he set out to kill them all. He ‘only’ managed six million. That rightly horrifies us. Yet as a last resort, how many people are we prepared to kill to preserve our way of life?
Take moment to reflect on that. Is there really no limit to what we are prepared to do to put Britain first?
In international law, chemical and bacteriological weapons have been banned. An international conference has just been held with the aim of similarly making nuclear weapons illegal. A draft treaty on the prohibition of all nuclear weapons has been agreed by many nations. New Zealand, of which I am proud to be a citizen, put it forward. The United Kingdom did not attend and has explicitly refused to sign.
Britain has, however, signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits those signatories who possess nuclear weapons to work towards their elimination. Instead, we are updating Trident to last for the next 30 years. Given that, on what basis do we have the right to prevent Iran or any other nation from doing what we claim to be necessary for our security? The days have long gone when little Britain can aspire to be a world policeman. At least some of our military leaders, were they free to speak in public, would much rather see our conventional forces better equipped.
As for the immense cost of Trident, it is an immoral waste of our money. Of all the arguments, I still think that the cost is the one that matters least, until I consider: how many new hospitals, how many decent and humane prisons, how many homes that people can afford, how many hungry people fed, how many children’s lives saved by giving them clean water? There should be no need for the poppy appeal to give war-damaged veterans what they need. ‘Remembrance Day has become another charity event, reduced to the compulsory corporate poppy, a military parade, a validation of war by embracing its horrors in religiosity’ (Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 9 November 2017).
I have recently wandered across the killing fields of the Somme where my father survived the most bloody and senseless of battles, there where the poppies grow. Britain has made of the poppy a symbol of national pride, rather than of the grief and the pity of war. To those who wear it in the spirit of ‘never again’, I say: all is forgiven,
So back to our national embrace of nuclear weapons. Where have the protesters gone? A much smaller CND remains as an essential witness to sanity, much more than a brave remnant. How many people today even remember what the initials CND stand for? How inspiring were the determined and angry women camping in all weathers at Greenham Common! Who remembers them? One of the most undaunted of them, Helen John, saying ‘Fight War, Not Wars’ and often in prison for her peaceful direct action, died last week. In her memory, we should renew our commitment to transform Aldermaston into a place where scientists make the peaceful products on which this country has largely given up.
Where have all the peaceniks gone? Lost in a nation that does not live at ease in our green and pleasant land, not a happy nation, unhappy, but often for the wrong reasons. We have beggars in our streets, yet huge resources for the arts of killing. Will we stop and think and choose life? Will we reflect on what is done in our name? There is so much potential in us for a better Britain. In the battle between decadence and the common good the odds are even. Is it the good of all people, everywhere, or is it Britain first?
In 1983, in a moment of enlightenment, the General Synod of the Church of England appointed a working party to consider what the Church’s policy on nuclear weapons should be. One of the Church’s few outstanding theologians, Bishop John Austin Baker, was in the chair. Neither he nor most of the working party were pacifists. After long, painstaking work we finally produced The Church and the Bomb. That Report came to the unanimous conclusion that on theological, ethical, economic, political and even military grounds, Britain should cease to possess and threaten the use of nuclear weapons.
At about the same time the American Catholic Bishop’s Conference, in a masterful document, came to the same conclusion.
There was huge public interest. The Synod debate was carried live on BBC television. That would not be so today, so much respect has the Church lost. The outcome was a classic Anglican fudge. Yes, the Synod said, to abolishing the British bomb, but not yet, not until the Cold War and its balance of power is over. That Cold War has long gone. The Church has forgotten what it said then. Had it not, every bishop should now be wearing a CND badge and speaking out publicly.
The Church’s silence is deafening, and not only the Church of England’s, as deafening as the generally complacent mood of the nation, even though the danger has greatly increased. That, as John Robinson woke up to recognise, is a failure to care, to care about the most important of all policy decisions. Instead we feebly leave it to the politicians and to powerful vested interests. Worshipping Caesar and the Market has a long tradition in society and in the churches. Nuclear weapons cost a lot, but produce huge profits for the few. Their profits be damned. Prophets are what we need.
The Vatican and the Pope are not constrained by national and economic interests. Pope Francis recently reminded the Church by tweeting that the command of Jesus to love our enemies lies at the very heart of Christian discipleship. Take these words from the document Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s: ‘Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas is a crime against God and humanity which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation’.
Let there be no doubt: our possession of Trident merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.
Our two Anglican archbishops whom I know and cherish and respect are rightly not afraid to speak out on matters of public policy. Neither is the Cardinal. Today, religious leaders may not carry a secular nation with them. But they still matter as voices of conscience. I challenge them to do what their office requires: to firmly and unequivocally condemn our Trident submarine fleet and to challenge others of every religion and of none to do the same. This is not a matter of opinion, but the moral imperative that John Robinson woke up to recogise.
The refuseniks are in good company. It is inconceivable that Jesus would bless the bomb. In his words: ‘They that take the sword shall die by the sword’. That great humane cartoonist Vicky produced a fine drawing of good Pope John carrying a large CND banner. Then there were all those other prophets: not only Einstein, but Albert Schweitzer, the 20th century’s greatest Christian humanist; Martin Luther King; Pastor Martin Niemöller, who spent eight years as Hitler’s prisoner and then led the German peace movement; Lord Donald Soper and Lord George McLeod; Desmond Tutu; Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker in New York’s Lower East Side, when not in prison; the poet Daniel Berrigan S.J. and his priest brother, in and out of prison, Dorothee Sölle, challenging protestant mystic; Kate Hudson, long-time General Secretary of CND; and the many, many with no public face but with a passion for peace. Finally, back to John Robinson, to whom I dedicate these words, and to my tireless friend and fellow campaigner, Bruce Kent, the uncrowned leader of the peace movement in Britain, Catholic priest who gave up his public priesthood in order to devote his whole life to peacemaking, Bruce, the founder and self-effacing President of the Movement to Abolish War.
The hopeful struggle continues, in memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On the Doomsday Clock, it is two and a half minutes to midnight. Still time to let love win.