Making armed force redundant

Edinburgh will be awash with military symbolism and celebration today (25 June 2011), as the city hosts the national event for Armed Forces Day - which David Cameron last year said should be “an explosion of red white and blue all over the country.” That thought may cause SNP First Minister Alex Salmond at least a moment's hiccup as he stands next to the PM on the podium!

As it happens, I will be out of town: heading to the London Mennonite Centre to honour 58 years of unarmed action for justice and peace, rooted in nonviolent Christian witness. In particular, we will be saying farewell to the LMC's long-standing home in Highgate, as the Centre begins an uncertain but hopeful journey to a new (as yet unknown) location and future.

The two occasions are separated not just by geography, but by culture, conviction and different understandings of what brings security and peace in a troubled world. For me "armed force" is not a matter for celebration, but for regret and sadness. I have huge respect for the courage of those who serve in the military, but my commitment is to work nonviolently for a world where the weapons they deploy will be silent and, preferably, redundant.

In 1984, Mennonite theologian Ron Sider asked: "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?" Part of the answer was the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.cpt.org), which intervenes without the use of violence in many dangerous conflict situations across the world. Theirs is no 'woolly pacifism'. Unarmed forces are both necessary and possible - and wholly overlooked by Armed Forces Day.

It has been argued that the Day (http://tinyurl.com/673gqcr) is really about respect for service people and their families, not the justification or sanctioning of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. I wish that was so. But much of the rhetoric, symbolism and substance would appear to betray the distinction, sadly. For example, the flags for AFD festooning my city bear the logo and legend of arms manufacturer BAe Systems - a company notorious (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13819) for plea-bargaining its way out of charges of corruption and illegality, fined £500,000 for 'accountancy failings', and long criticised by human rights workers for arming repressive regimes around the globe, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

The company has now faced allegations of malfeasance in five continents and has often been accused of undue influence within the UK government. It is no innocent bystander. It profits directly from war and conflict. Yet its emblem sits proudly alongside a national flag and adorns the streets of Scotland's capital.

Ron Sider again: "Never has the world needed our message more... Now is the time [for us Christians] to risk everything for our belief that Jesus is the way to peace. If we still believe it, now is the time to live what we have spoken." That is the path that CPT and countless others involved in nonviolent activism - both those of faith and those of no religion but plenty of 'good faith' - have chosen. They too deserve to be remembered and honoured on 25 June. For, as German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his opposition to the Nazis, said: "Peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe."

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a resident of Edinburgh, and a trustee of the London Mennonite Centre. His book Threatened with Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ will be published later this year, and he will be speaking on war and peace issues at the 2011 Greenbelt Festival.

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