A peace challenge to Christian radicalism

Sande Ramage
By Sande Ramage
28 Mar 2010

I first met Fr Peter Murnane in Auckland, Aotearoa / New Zealand. We sat sipping coffee surrounded by university students who probably had no idea that this quiet, going-on-for-elderly man was more radical than they had yet got around to.

'Radical', says Peter, means going to the root of the matter - and the root of the gospel is to not harm your brother and sister. For him, non-violent, direct action against systems of war springs from these deeply held values.

We had connected over an article I had written about my fraught year as a military chaplain. [1] Ironically, as I had struggled unsuccessfully to make sense of being part of a military machine, Peter, along with Sam Land and Adi Leason were on their way to try and disable one. They had travelled to Blenheim under the Ploughshares banner to enter the Waihopai spy base and shut down one of two satellite dishes (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/11563), part of the United States Echelon global surveillance system, in the belief that the system causes immense human suffering through providing information that contributes to war.

As underfunded as David was when he faced the empire in the shape of Goliath, this mission also had chutzpah and moments of humour. The truck that was intended to take them over the security fence got stuck in a ditch, and as the men reached the electric fence the bolt cutters were passed to Peter because he was the oldest of the three, had no family and was, therefore, more expendable. Sparks flew at the sixth wire but by then they were through and using their sickles, punctured the plastic dome covering one of the dishes.

Once the task was done, they sat down to pray at the shrine Peter had set up; red silk on a foldable cardboard box with icons of Jesus and the murdered South American Archbishop, Oscar Romero, to await the authorities.

It certainly was not Peter's first foray into direct action; he has previous form in annoying both the church and state. He was one of a group that sheltered the Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui and the Catholic Bishop of Auckland felt prompted to apologise after Peter and another man poured blood on the floor of the US Consulate to protest against the Iraq war. This time round, the stakes were higher.

Two years after the break-in, the activists' court date was set for the third week of Lent. The Sunday reading from Isaiah 55 and the background material made me smile, focusing as it did on 'empire' and the control it needs to operate. We can support empire by remaining silent when government policies benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak or resist by encouraging critical thinking and advocating for the rights of the politically marginalised. [2] The victims of war the Waihopai Three were concerned about seemed a neat fit for the politically marginalised camp.

The weekend preceding the trial, supporters began to gather at Katherine Mansfield Park opposite the United States Embassy. After changing my mind and arrangements several times, I was finally on my way to join them. It was difficult to explain to myself, let alone anyone else why I was driving for four hours to spend a weekend hanging out at a makeshift shrine with people I didn't know that well, or not at all. In the end, I had to run with the irrational notion that I just had to go.

In my younger days, I was never the protesting sort, having being mystified about Vietnam and politically blind during the '81 Springbok tour. It was only on a trip to Israel as an adult that I had begun to cross the line.

My friend Felicity and I were spending three weeks on pilgrimage in Jerusalem and had become overwhelmed by the wall the Israelis are building that is progressively partitioning the land. When we heard about the weekly protest at Bil'in on the West Bank, we felt an incredibly strong pull to go and stand with the Palestinian people.

We had only a scant idea of what we were getting into as we climbed aboard one of the small vans that leave just up the road from the Damascus Gate. As we processed slowly through the enormous and increasingly humiliating Qalandia checkpoint, the enormity of the situation became more apparent. Arriving in Bil'in via taxi from Ramallah, we disembarked into the Palestinian world of the West Bank and faced the walk through the olive groves straight towards the Israeli troops massed at the fence for this regular Friday ritual of engagement.

Eventually, beaten back from the partition wall by stun grenades and tear gas, we made our way back up the hill towards the village when out of the corner of my eye I saw an inside out biblical scene unfolding. A teenage Palestinian boy reached down, picked up a stone and put it into a slingshot which he started to swing. As it picked up speed an Israeli soldier advanced towards him, weapon at the ready. 'Run' was the order from our leader. We did, ripping the scarves from our heads as previously instructed so that our blonde tourist hair would inhibit the soldiers from firing into the crowd, we hoped.

That night, safe in a way the villagers never would be, we picked the YMCA hotel to debrief instead of our usual German Quarter restaurant. However trivial and meaningless that choice was in the larger scope of things, we wanted to be somewhere that might have a heart for the complexity of the conflict we had just had a tiny, but frightening interaction with.

This experience travelled with me into military chaplaincy and was now snuggling up again under my heart as I plonked myself down on the grass with other Ploughshares people as the welcoming powhiri drew to a close. Food arrived, then and at regular intervals, courtesy of the Urban Vision group whose calling is to live among the poor in any neighbourhood.

Fed and watered, we gathered by the shrine to hear protest songs and stories of other non-violent, direct actions around the world. The evening ended with night prayer and Taize chants before I scuttled off to my comfortable accommodation, leaving the long night vigil to others.

Next morning, Peter led us in a Eucharist which had a raw, authentic simplicity about it, separated as it was from the usual trappings of formal church, while the security man pacing inside the fence of the American Embassy offered a peculiar counterpoint to the liturgical drama. The afternoon was taken up in pilgrimage around peace sites in Wellington before another evening of conversation and planning for the trial vigil.

Monday dawned clear and bright as we gathered at the Cenotaph, courting media attention while commuters streamed past from trains and buses, before we walked Sam, Adi and Peter to the court building where they would spend the next week.

During the trial the men relied on a 'claim of right' defence, explaining that they were acting in the honest belief that the greater good was served by doing something to disable the spy base. Their view was that information obtained via such bases is used for unspeakably evil acts like torture and missile strikes. The jury believed them and returned a not guilty verdict two hours after they retired to consider the evidence.

The New Zealand public, however, may have a different view. Most of the post trial debate has ranged around the legal technicalities. In one online poll, 77 per cent of the 7645 votes recorded at time of writing were opposed to 'the greater good defence' being acceptable in New Zealand courts. Saturday's Dominion Post carried an editorial and letters that drew parallels between the actions of the Waihopai Three and the invasion of Iraq by former United States President George Bush, because he similarly believed he was right. Talkback radio has had a vocal poke at the issue and two regular columnists feature the story in today's Sunday Star Times.

In this beginning of Holy Week, when we still recall the death of Oscar Romero, murdered because he sided with the underprivileged against what passed for empire in El Salvador, I think it is important that another perspective continues to be put.

The law, while offering an important framework in civil society, can only ever be one part of how we manage the messy business of living. As we know, dictators and unjust regimes often have the rule of law on their side which means that people are forced to reach for a deeper source of ethics to determine right action, even though it may mean their imprisonment or death.

Although many New Zealanders want to believe otherwise and have developed a kind of Disney view of the military, we are participating in international conflicts and are as culpable as the larger Western nations with whom we buddy up.

The secrecy of the jury system means that we cannot ever know what happened in that room as our representatives mulled over what they had been presented with. That always seems to me to offer a kind of fragile long shot, valuable in a world of argument and counter argument where facts and evidence hold sway but might not necessarily paint the whole picture.

In that courtroom, more than facts and legal arguments were heard and experienced. The voices of people we prefer not to know about; people that are maimed and killed by war, were ringing through the stories and moral decisions of Adi, Sam and Peter. I suspect the jury heard those voices and in saying yes to the Waihopai Three were saying no to a much bigger evil.

I did not know why I felt that this particular journey was important this Lent and maybe I will never understand the pull of it that seemed to drag disparate parts of my life together. Despite that confusion, I am left with the understanding that while peace groups still lobby for the wall to come down in Israel and for countless other injustices to cease around the world, the Waihopai Three challenge us about how radical our Christianity needs to be. [3]

References:

[1] 'Testing the tiger: Reflecting on military chaplaincy' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9955

[2] Nancy McKay and Scott Douglas, Everyday Empire, Seasons of the Spirit Congregational Life Lent-Easter, p53. See (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file): http://www.united-church.ca/files/sales/magazines/mandate/2008/may/2426.pdf

[3] Further links connected with this article can be found here: http://www.spiritedcrone.com/?sid=45

The news brief underlying this reflection can be found on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/11563

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(c) Sande Ramage is an Anglican priest who explores spirituality in a way that is "not restricted by institutional religion". Her regular writings can be found at: http://www.spiritedcrone.com/ Sande is an Ekklesia partner.

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