Shoalwater Bay is about 80km north of Rockhampton in central Queensland. As well as being home to endangered dugongs, whales and dolphins, and within the Great Barrier Reef marine park, it is a pristine wilderness area. In the middle of all of this sits the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA), a military base the size of Belgium.
For the past two weeks, over 30,000 Australian and US troops have combined in SWBTA for Operation Talisman Sabre, a series of live fire exercises, including bombings of land and sea and use of active sonar.
For a while now, we as members of the Christian Activist Network have been writing letters, participating in street marches, holding vigils, information nights and public meetings to raise awareness and demonstrate our opposition to these military exercises and other related issues. Of particular concern in this case are the environmental impact (on marine and land life), and the increasing reliance on militarism and war (Australia spends $55m per day on its military). We felt we had exhausted every legal avenue of dissent, and that therefore the actions we took were the next logical step.
As Christians, we follow the tradition of Isaiah who calls us to “beat swords into ploughshares, and train for war no more” (how’s that for appropriate?), and most particularly of Jesus who calls us to “love our enemies”, “put down our sword” and be “blessed peacemakers”. Inspired by people like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, we take up the weapon of active nonviolence to work towards those aims. Nonviolence means being neither passive nor violent; it is an active, creative, third way that confronts and transforms oppression and violence.
As part of the wider peace convergence, Simon Moyle (Urban Seed, Melbourne), Simon Reeves (Jahwork, Melbourne), Krystal Spencer (Jahwork, Melbourne) and Sarah Williams (Jahwork, Melbourne) travelled to Shoalwater Bay on Jun 17th. Two days later Carole Powell (Pace e Bene Australia, Brisbane) joined us there. After four days of intense planning (preceded by several weeks of planning), and a long walk through the bush in the rain, five of us (all Christians) arrived at the fence which marks the boundary of the restricted military base. Soon after, we entered the military training area, found the main control centre base (Samuel Hill) and walked openly down the middle of the airstrip in an attempt to be as obvious as possible.
The focus for us was threefold:
1. To establish a reasoned and respectful dialogue with the soldiers. As protests are often restricted to yelling from behind a fence, we wanted to change the dynamic, to engage face to face with the people behind the uniform, and for them to do the same with us.
2. At the same time, we knew that any presence of civilians on the base would immediately halt the war games. Therefore another aim was to disrupt the exercises with our presence.
3. We wanted to see the base transformed from somewhere war games were conducted to a place where peace games are played. Hence not only did our presence cause the shutting down of the military activities, but we invited the soldiers to play frisbee with us on the tarmac.
Despite our openness, it took quite some time for anyone to notice us. When they finally did we approached them, assured them that we were unarmed and peaceful, and asked them to play frisbee with us. To our surprise and delight, they did. I asked to see their generals as we had two letters to give them. They then called their commanding officer who shut down the base, and they invited us inside for coffee and lunch. We spent about an hour and a half talking with both Australian and US soldiers about Iraq, violence and nonviolence, and the exercises themselves before being arrested by Queensland police and taken to Rockhampton, where we were charged with trespassing under the Commonwealth Crimes Act. Our first court date is August 2 in the Yeppoon Magistrates Court.
For me this was a deeply empowering experience, and one I have come out of with a clearer sense of the good news of Jesus Christ, as well as solidarity with the oppressed, and a deep experience of the peace, comfort and joy of the Spirit. At no stage did we feel at all nervous or like we were doing something wrong; on the contrary, there was a real freedom and joy to our actions at all times.
If you’re interested in hearing more, you can download the 3 1/2mb file of an interview I did with RTRfm, a Perth community radio station I spoke with last Monday afternoon. For anyone in Perth (or with access to the internet), there will also be an interview with me talking about it on Sonshine FM on Wednesday morning (in place of Ross Clifford’s normal spot at 10:10am Perth time). My blog will also feature updates and more information as I find time to write more fully about the experience.
We would appreciate your support and prayers as we decide how to plead.
Let me leave you with the question that has shaped and guided Christian Peacemaker Teams the world over: “What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”