Switching Off The War


I am one of four people who, in the week before Easter, made their way onto Swan Island, a secretive intelligence and special forces training base off Queenscliff, Victoria. We were seeking to intervene in the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan by taking responsibility for what is happening in our local area.

Two members of our group stood in front of the gate leading to the base and the other two made their way inside the compound, where they switched off power to at least one sector and a satellite dish.

Our group is called the Bonhoeffer Peace Collective, named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who was executed for actively resisting Hitler. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has referred to Bonhoeffer as "the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century" — however, Rudd’s $100 billion long-term military spending plan and his pursuit of the war in Afghanistan belie a commitment to his hero, who acted to end war.

Our own actions were taken after much thought, and after we had tried other approaches also. We have marched, held vigils, written letters to politicians and Defence staff, and held public meetings.

Yet despite the fact that more than half of Australia opposes this war, politicians have continued to use our military to wage it. We decided it was time to act democratically — not with our votes but with our bodies and our lives.

In the mainstream media, people who take action are often marginalised by being painted as irresponsible fringe radicals. "Activist" is made to sound like a dirty word. Yet the four of us are actually very ordinary people. Each of us has a family — two of us are married with children. We are all Christians with stable jobs and responsibilities (despite the epithets hurled at us by our arresting officers, such as the stereotypical, "Why don’t you get a job, you f***wit?"). I, for example, am a church minister.

It’s unfortunate that many Christians have historically been compliant, if not complicit, in the wars of empires. This is despite the fact that the Church remained true to the active nonviolence of its founder for its first 300 years. Far from sanctioning wars and violence, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, to be peacemakers, and to overcome evil not with more evil, but with good.

But Jesus refuses to be passive in the face of injustice, and encourages us to employ the weapon of active nonviolence. One of the most well known Bible stories is that of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. Jesus, having ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey in a parody of kingly rulers of the time, then proceeds to the temple. Aware of how this system oppressed the poor and vulnerable, he symbolically and actually disrupts that system. While he hurts no one, this act of civil disobedience is the final straw for authorities bent on doing away with this dangerous subversive, and they crucify him.

It was this story which inspired our action, and it was for this reason that we chose the week before Easter.

But the simple act of switching off some equipment being used to support war has given me reason to reflect on what it might mean if we all took more responsibility for switching off what we think is wrong about the world, and accepted the consequences.

Significantly, this term "switching off" has a dual meaning in our society. First, we often talk about "switching off" after a day at work, maybe channel surfing through different TV shows to distract us from "real life".

Second, as I have used it above, the phrase could denote intervening in a situation of injustice, making it difficult for that situation to continue. One is passive; the other requires something of us. One is escape from reality; the other runs headlong into it.

Much of our society is geared towards escape. Generally speaking, we can avoid being confronted by the reality of starvation in our world, or by the brutalisation and terror of war, or the indignity of poverty — we just change the channel. Engagement in issues of global justice — or even local justice — is often restricted to clicking a Facebook link or wearing a t-shirt.

At least when the drumbeats of war began to sound for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country turned out in the streets; hundreds of thousands of people declaring, "Not in my name". But then the war began, and the people returned to their homes, most never to reappear.

I wonder what might have happened if instead of the personal distancing of "Not in my name" the slogan had indicated personal responsibility — something like, "Over our dead bodies" or "If you want to get to them you’ll have to go through us"?

Could it be that our refusal to be personally involved, to bear personal consequences, is the reason this war has dragged on for so long against our will and against the national interest?

Here are the facts: Australia has invaded and occupied Afghanistan for more than eight years. This war has killed tens of thousands of civilian men, women and children in two countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan), both from starvation and direct killing (2,412 civilians killed directly in 2009 alone).

The war has caused millions of people to become homeless, or terrorised by the possibility that, at literally any moment, unmanned Predator drones could drop their deadly payload of Hellfire missiles on their home.

We have been militarily propping up an unrepresentative, corrupt, inept government in the country for that period, and have inflamed and fuelled an internal civil war. Collectively US and ISAF forces have spent more than US$1 trillion doing this to one of the poorest countries on the planet, instead of spending that money building peace.

In the face of all this, Australians have, by and large, been silent, ignorant, and inert. If Gandhi was right, that "nonco-operation with evil is as much a duty as co-operation with good", then our failure to intervene carries moral responsibility too.

Perhaps it’s because, in the developed west, war usually requires little of us.

With the significant exception of the men and women of our armed forces who bear a disproportionate degree of responsibility and reap a corresponding degree of brutalisation, including physical injury and mental illness, it’s easier for us to go on with our regular lives, paying our taxes and delegating responsibility and real costs to others.

In contrast, an engaged peace requires personal work, time, resources, even preparedness to accept suffering.

The reality is that this war will soon enter its 10th year, with few signs of slowing or of achieving any of the purported reasons for our being there. We all face the choice of whether or not we will merely "switch off" on the war or take responsibility for "switching off" the war ourselves.

The Bonhoeffer Peace Collective will face Geelong Magistrates Court on 12 May on charges of trespass on Commonwealth land. Simon Moyle will be speaking at a free forum at Melbourne University’s Centre for Theology and Ministry this Sunday 11 April for people considering taking action for peace in Afghanistan (for more information, click here, or call 03 9893 4946). There are also monthly vigils for peace around the city of Melbourne. The next one will be on the steps of Flinders Street Station, April 20, 4-6pm. All are welcome.

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