The veteran campaigner and ex-MP Tony Benn has insisted that religion can be a source of peace in the world as well as a source of division. He criticised those who use religion to stir up hatred and emphasised that all major religions teach people to treat others as they wish to be treated.
Benn was speaking yesterday evening (13 September) at an event organised by the Charities Parliament, which brought together Christian and secular campaigning groups to explore links between personal, local and international peace.
He was applauded as he emphasised “the plain truth that I'm sure most people realise: you cannot have peace without justice”. Encouraging his audience to focus on the causes of war, he spoke of those who “do well out of war” - arms manufacturers, newspaper owners and weak political leaders.
Benn said that his grandchildren have set him an example by seeing themselves as part of the human race rather than focusing on their nationality. He added that if we see the world in this way, then “civil war and international war are indistinguishable”.
Benn, now 85, was a cabinet minister in the 1960s and 1970s and remained a Labour MP until 2001, when he left Parliament to give “more time to politics”.
He was one of several speakers at the event, organised with the support of the Christian organisation Oasis.
The evening involved a choice of talks and a musical performance followed by a “Peace Fair”. The campaigns on display covered issues including sex trafficking, unarmed drones in Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament and gang violence in London.
Tony Benn joined the panel for a discussion at the end of the evening chaired by Steve Chalke of Oasis. At least 200 people were present. An unusually diverse range of ages, races and backgrounds included a visibly high number of participants aged under thirty.
The panel answered questions on subjects including Afghanistan, conflict between religions, the justifications for war, the role of education in preventing violence and the meaning of peace itself.
Challenged on his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, Benn insisted that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. He said he trusts people to develop democracy where they live, with the support of friends from elsewhere. Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance agreed, pointing out that “even England has gone on a journey” to achieve the level of democracy it has today.
Obunge said that Christians needed to overcome their fear of conversation with Muslims and of engaging in discussion on issues of sexuality. His own work grew out of his experience of youth violence as a London pastor. He explained that he had decided to work outside as well as inside the church because, “I didn't feel that I had the right to bury young people that I'd never ever tried to reach out and speak to”.
Labour MP Paul Flynn was particularly outspoken in his attacks on the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, a policy supported by both Conservative and Labour leaders. He described Trident as a “virility symbol”.
Alexander Rose of STOP (Solve This Ongoing Problem), which works against gun and knife crime, described peace as “the absence of fear and the radiance of love”. He said that love was the basic motivation for working for peace.
Steve Chalke called a straw poll on the question “Is there such a thing as a just war?”, which resulted in a roughly equal show of hands on each side. But over a third of the audience appeared to abstain.
Will Nerard, 23, of Hertfordshire told Ekklesia that the evening “really helped broaden my perspectives on the whole peace issue and how it affects so many areas”. It was the first time he had attended a Charities Parliament event.
“I found it quite moving, the passion that came across,” explained Sara McKinley, 27, of London. She added that as a Christian she was motivated to work for peace because of “The link to justice – that's what Jesus is all about”.