Yesterday was warm and bright and despite the high winds that buffeted parts of Britain in recent weeks, there was still some semblance of colour in the autumn leaves, most of which now deck the ground, leaving the bare trees, a sure sign of winter.
Leaving the fabulous old Tudor farmhouse where I’d stayed at friends overnight, blue skies and sunshine accompanied my drive through the beautiful Oxfordshire, Cotswold stone villages and countryside. Reflecting on a phenomenally busy November, I was thankful for those moments and days of rest and reflection, drawing on the wisdom of the monastic tradition in the way of life embraced within our Community, of learning to be a contemplatives in a world of action.
Incredibly busy and demanding weeks, and Saturday conference speaking engagements have been punctuated with opportunities to travel with Shirley and enjoy time together with friends in the snow capped hills of Scotland, a late rooms, (3 hours notice!) overnight stay in a hotel by Ripley Castle and a further special deal to celebrate her birthday at a delightful spa hotel, where we were joined one evening by other members of the family.
So I was in good heart yesterday and the weather outside reflected my feeling that, “all was well with my soul”. Locked in meetings with friends and leaders within the Baptist Union, discussing serious and weighty matters, my spirit remained calm, if not upbeat by the close of our deliberations that evening.
Journeying to stay with the family overnight, (and taking another opportunity to be with some of our grandchildren) I turned on the car radio and listened to the debate in Parliament over whether Britain would engage in bombing as part of its war with Isis. I arrived in Oxford just in time to hear Hilary Benn and Philip Hammond roundup and conclude the debate.
The commanding performance and remarkable oratory of Hilary Benn earned him applause from both sides of the house, (a feat that is rarely witnessed in the House of Commons). Having read many and listened to some of his father Tony Benn’s speeches, Hilary clearly possesses a remarkably compelling way with words, as did his ‘old man’. His speech was riveting, politically elevating and remains impressive in the cold light of the following day. What his father would have made of it is beyond question; he might have been impressed, as I was with the impressive delivery, but he would have refuted it soundly. Thanks to Nick, my son in law, having listened to Hilary, we then listened to his father Tony’s speech opposing war in Iraq. Equally compelling, brilliantly delivered but vehemently in opposition to bombing our enemies. See: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/03/hilary-benn-speech-syria-labour-mps-war and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPL-IaFpcZA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfXmpJRZPYI
When the inevitable results came through following the debate and a massive majority ensured that the Government’s motion to bomb Syria would be carried, I went to bed with a heavy heart. The concluding words of evening compline, “the peace of all peace be mine this night” no doubt helped me to sleep well but seemed hollow upon waking this morning and hearing that we had already deployed four RAF tornadoes to carry out what will be the first of many airstrikes in Syria and the consequent loss of many innocent lives.
The idea that you can defeat the enemy on the ground by bombing them from the air is militarily nonsense. I just can’t believe that we have engaged in a bombing campaign. Have we not learned anything from the mistakes made in respect of bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan?
We have committed over £60 billion on arms, bombing and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and yesterday’s airstrike, (each one of the missiles costing over £100,000) triggers further expenditure, which to my mind is madness and does little if anything to promote peace. We can’t find funding to care for the sick, elderly and vulnerable in our society; we have people dependent upon food banks to feed themselves and their families; we can’t afford to take in many refugees fleeing from war zones, homeless and destitute but we can spend billions on weapons of war. America has spent over $1 trillion on the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Wow! Imagine that sum of money, together with our £60 billion being spent on feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, funding aid and development of nations across the world, countering the environmental destruction of the planet we are creating and fanning the flames of peace not fuelling the fires of war. How many enemies would we have made had we ‘blessed’ rather than bombed? It was Albert Einstein who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results“.
I know the situation is incredibly complex and cannot be viewed through the lens of conventional warfare. There are myriad groups within Syria, many conflicting and fighting small armies, some aligned with the ruling Assad regime, others fighting Isis or other factions. The Americans have been bombing for over a year and what has it achieved? Conservative estimates tell us that Isis, during that period, has recruited in the region of 10,000 new members. Bombing for groups like Isis, acts as a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for such terrorist organisations. The Americans reckon that they have killed over 15,000 people but Isis has not shrunk, it’s actually grown in numbers and influence since bombing commenced.
There has to be a strategy that involves more than the political gesturing and military tokenism of bombing. The spurious claims that there are in the region of 70,000 people who could form an opposition army to Isis, will, I believe, turnout to be as potentially damaging to David Cameron as Tony Blair’s deceiving Parliament over the spurious reports of Iraq being able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes against Britain and America. It was a key feature of the dossier about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that was released by Blair in 2002. He published the information to bolster public support for war. Similarly, the 70,000, ‘army’, is in fact the sum total of many so called ‘moderate’ groups. There are at least 120 different groups among this potential army, many with differing aims and objectives. Some of them have as few as 100 members. They are factions, splintered and most of them are limited to a narrow geographical area, hundreds of miles from where Isis is operating. The one thing that these groups do share in common is in opposition to President Assad’s regime. Their main focus is fighting Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian army. To think that they will divert their attention away from their main focus, to somehow rally around to David Cameron’s new opposition army is ridiculous. The idea that some of them are moderate is also ridiculous; many of them share the same ideology of Al Qaida!
As Julian Lewis, the Tory chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee said in yesterday’s debate, drawing parallels with the discredited intelligence in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq; “instead of dodgy dossiers, we now have bogus battalions of moderate fighters”.
So herein lies the source of my disquiet; I am deeply grateful that we live within our society where we are able to freely debate such issues and thankful that we have a democratic system of government. However it is incumbent upon those who seek to serve as our representatives in Parliament and who are given titles such as “The Right Honourable Member” that they behave honourably. To persuade is one thing, to manipulate and deceive is something very different. To fail to listen to the voices of those who those members of Parliament represent brings discredit to the House of Commons and undermines the democratic process. We now know, what millions of us at the time knew, spoke out against and marched in protest for, was that the millions of British people were opposed to the way in which we intervened militarily in bombing Iraq back in 2013. Crass stupidity, blind belligerence, self interest, vengeance, together with poor leadership and political gain seeking led to an illegal invasion of Iraq that has stirred the hornet’s nest in the Middle East, fuelled the fires global conflict and recruited hundreds of thousands to the cause of global terrorism which poses one of the greatest threats to human civilisation across the world.
I drove through Witney last night on my way to Oxford and I earnestly prayed for the Prime Minister who has spearheaded this campaign to bomb Syria. He carries enormous responsibility and Scripture reminds us to pray for him and other political leaders. I pray that he might have wisdom and humility, compassion and mercy and that he would act justly and righteously pursue the paths of peace. I also prayed and hoped that he might recant and apologise for his allegation that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Opposition, was with others who were opposed to bombing, in any way, “terrorist sympathisers”. It was a disgraceful and dishonourable thing to say, as it is clearly not true. Such an off-the-cuff but recorded remark, reveals much about the true nature of someone who can be a smooth talker, confident persuader and clever communicator. Tony Blair was equally an able leader and great persuasive orator and negotiator who commanded huge respect and support prior to his handling of the Iraqi crisis. Prime Minister and politicians of all parties, take heed, your attitudes as well as your actions and policies will come under close scrutiny in the years ahead.
The debate in Parliament has come at the beginning of Advent, a season where we focus on the coming of Christ into the world, retelling and reminding ourselves of the motivation and means by which God waged war with the powers of darkness; conquering evil with good, hatred with love, bringing peace through redemption and reconciliation, an end to conflict through suffering and servanthood and bringing transformation by grace and compassion. Challenging and subverting the ways of an unjust and cruel world by the ushering in of a new way for living that brings hope, peace and love to bear upon all people. Jesus, who came in vulnerability, revealing the love of God, is hailed not as a conquering military hero but the Servant King, the Wonderful Counsellor the Prince of Peace.
Oh how we need people of peace in our fractured world of conflict and violence. Reading the Beatitides this morning I am reminded that it is the peacemakers who are blessed.
In relation to the evil, terrible atrocities committed by such groups as Isis, both in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Mali, France, Belgium, Kenya, America and here in Britain, how we respond is complex but a Christian response has to be more than any endorsing of a military air strike campaign. Even if it could be argued that military intervention in Syria can comply with a ‘Just War’ theory, other options should be seriously considered before embarking upon the bombing of any people and nation.
Jeremy Corbyn is continually derided and ridiculed by the Government and slandered, lied about and defamed by the vast majority of the press. They detest him and understandably so as he would be a serious threat to them if ever a Labour government that was socialist in outlook and expression was elected, which is very unlikely for the foreseeable future. I believe however that Corbyn has not only stood by his principles but raised questions and proffered some solutions which should be considered. He is not going to be a great leader of the Labour Party. I doubt if it was ever his intention to be so. He carries the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members, a party that is growing in numbers and strength every week; he won a resounding victory to become leader but is severely handicapped by his inability to command the loyalty and respect of a significant number of Labour MPs. It’s not surprising, given that he has operated on the backbenchers throughout his political life that he faces opposition both within the parliamentary party, from the government and the predominantly right-wing media.
All that drowns out some serious contributions that he has sought to make in the current debate. For example, his contending for initiatives to be taken against those people and powers that our funding groups like Isis, which appear to go unheeded. The idea that the West should place sanctions on banks and states that are funding Isis. It seems to me an eminently significant thing to do; to thwart Isis from functioning by cutting off its resources, its funding, its supply of arms and its trade. Saudi Arabia, if not at government level, but certainly at aid-level, is providing support for Isis. And herein lies some of the complexity but also the duplicity of our own Government’s response to the situation. To criticise or take any measures against Saudi would be detrimental to our relationship with the country. It would affect trade relations, our interests, investments and our still heavy reliance upon oil in the Middle East.
We know that prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family were major donors to Al Qaeda in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, prior to the 9/11terrorist attacks on America. The hijackers in the September 11 attacks were 19 men who belonged to Al Qaeda. 15 of them were citizens of Saudi Arabia!, one came from the United Arab Emirate’s, one from Egypt and another from Lebanon. Not one of them was from Iraq! A fact that most people, notably in America are oblivious to. America’s response under President Dick Cheney, (well the front man who got the title ‘President’ was called George W. Bush but the man pulling the strings was none other than Cheney), was determined to invade Iraq and let’s not pretend any more that it was simply to defeat Saddam Hussein because he posed a military threat to the West. Oil reserves, arms trading all played their part in the illegal war that Britain and America engaged in.
The evils and barbarity of groups like Isis are wicked in the extreme and are inexcusable but if we are to combat such evil we must do so not only with right intentions but with the right means and methods. Our hands are covered in blood and we must bear some responsibility for the death of over 4 million people, predominantly in Iraq and Afghanistan, since the first Gulf War in 1990. Victims of the two Gulf Wars in those two countries, combined with the 1.7 million Iraqi civilians who died as a consequence of the West’s brutal sanctions regime, half of whom were children. Sanctions that people like Jeremy Corbyn, often a lone voice, campaigned tirelessly against on the grounds that it was not Saddam Hussain and his comrades who suffered but his people. These are undisputed UN figures. We have waged war and it is absurd to think that we have done nothing to provoke anti-Western hostility which in turn has become the breeding ground for the rise of terrorism and groups such as Isis. We will never be able to address the many and complex issues of peace and reconciliation without looking at root causes and unintended consequences and seeing things from others, including our enemies perspective.
God grant us as much resolve to build peace, exercise justice and mercy and promote the education of minds that have been twisted and deceived by subtle but wicked propaganda. Expenditure is required to defend and bolster security against terrorism but resources must also be found to counter terrorism through education, dialogue, collaboration, reconciliation, peacemaking and justice initiatives. The transformation of hearts and minds is what contributes to changes of attitudes, behaviour and actions and helps to build a just and compassionate world. Things like help and hospitality, bringing hope and healing combats fear and fighting, compassion counters conflict and love conquers hatred.
That’s the Good News, prophecied by Isaiah that one day: The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. and announced by the angels in the Christmas story, a message of hope: Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth.
As a Community we have often sung Paul Field’s Blessing. May it be our song through Advent and into the coming new year:
Go peaceful, in gentleness, through the violence of these days.
Give freely, show tenderness in all your ways.
Through darkness, in troubled times, let holiness be your aim. Seek wisdom, let faithfulness burn like a flame.
God speed you, God lead you and keep you wrapped around His heart.
May you be known by love.
Be righteous, speak truthfully in a world of greed and lies. Show kindness, see everyone through heaven’s eyes.
God hold you, enfold you and keep you wrapped around His heart.
May you be known by His love.