Challenging the Politics of Fear

Below is the text of a talk I gave at the recent Pax Christi event “Australia’s Security and the New Nuclear Threat”, complete with bad jokes and shameless self promotion.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet tonight, the Wurundjeri people, and acknowledge the way in which they have been victims of the politics of fear.

Speaking of the politics of fear, as people about to be subjected to a monologue by a Baptist preacher you have every reason to be quaking in your boots. But in a demonstration that even irrational hope can win over fear, this Baptist preacher has been given 20 minutes maximum. I don’t know if that’s brave or hopeful or just naïve. At least it should calm some of your fears.

I want to talk with you this evening about how we might begin to challenge the politics of fear. I’m pretty sure we’re all reasonably familiar with this idea of the politics of fear. It’s a tool that has always been used by governments and those in authority to keep a population under control, as famously observed by the Nazi Reichsmarshall and Chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goering in the Nuremburg trials, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders. All you have to tell them is that they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” As we have seen here, whether it’s the children overboard, or Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, or more recently Sudanese refugees, it really does work the same in any country. When people are kept in a constant state of fear, no matter how much they are told to be alert not alarmed, they are much more susceptible to control, to unquestioning obedience, and to maintaining the status quo.

But I think we need to acknowledge that it’s not just conservative governments who use fear to keep populations under control, the left uses fear as much as right does – global warming, nuclear power, even dare I say it here nuclear weapons. There’s no denying there’s much to be afraid of, but it’s worth acknowledging that the left is not immune to using the politics of fear, they’re just different fears with different outcomes. Whereas the right tends to use fear to enforce the status quo, the left tends to use fear to undermine the status quo. Both methods, dare I say it, are mirrors of and reactions to each other, a transferral of the same types of destructive dynamics. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the ends of both are, in fact, quite legitimate, but if the means by which these ends are achieved is fear, I believe it’s illegitimate regardless of your motive.

What I want to propose is that not only must we transcend these categories of left and right, but we must transcend fear as a way of motivating people, whether that motivation is designed to sedate or inflame. Gandhi had this idea that means are like the ends in seed form; so in the same way that if you plant an acorn you have to expect an oak tree, if you use fear you have to expect a world of fear. So a world without fear will require different means.

So what I want to suggest is that one of the best ways that we can begin to challenge the politics of fear is to refuse to cooperate with it at all. That is, we must refuse to allow it to control our lives and our decisions, but also that we must refuse to use it ourselves to control others’ lives and decisions. I agree with Thoreau who said, “If you want to convince someone that they are wrong, do right. But don’t try to convince them. People believe what they see.”

Of course refusal to cooperate with fear is not without risks – indeed, the very basis of fear is usually the idea that something we have is under threat. Whether it’s our freedom, or our possessions, or someone we hold dear, we are indeed a people with much to lose, particularly in the West. But if we only fear losing that which we hold on to, then perhaps letting go of all we do not need is the key to freedom. As Aung San Suu Kyi has famously said, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”

At the heart of Christianity is this idea of the costliness of this freedom – we talk of following Jesus, often somehow conveniently forgetting that Jesus’ resistance to empire and fear led to his crucifixion. The very central motif of Christianity is the cross, the idea that one must lose one’s life in order to save it. So bearing the costs of our resistance should not be alien to the Christian life. I’m involved with a group of Christians who for some time now have been exploring the power of nonviolent resistance to empire, and beginning to recognise the costs associated with that.

We have been greatly concerned for some time about Australia’s increasing reliance on violent military strategies to engage international conflicts rather than nonviolent ones. In June this year 20,000 US troops joined with 12,000 Australian troops in a series of military exercises called Operation Talisman Sabre. It takes place in a pristine wilderness area called Shoalwater Bay, which is about 80 kilometres north of Rockhampton on the central Queensland coast. Talisman Sabre involves live fire exercises which includes bombing and the use of active sonar, which has a devastating effect on the marine life and the Great Barrier Reef. They were practicing, amongst other things, offensive invasion tactics.

And so five of us began our resistance, our challenge to the politics of fear. As part of a wider peace convergence, we headed north to demonstrate that another world is possible. We wanted not merely oppose them, but do so in such a way that our very actions would point the way to a better alternative – in the words of Gandhi, literally be the change we wanted to see in the world. We knew that if the military had any reason to believe that there were civilians in the training area, they would have to stop the exercises, so the best thing for us to do would be to gain access to the restricted military zone and make our presence known.

Inspired by the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a day when people will “train for war no more”, we wanted to see the base transformed from somewhere where war games were played to somewhere peace games were played. And so we brought a frisbee with us. It was a ridiculous gesture, in many ways; walking into the middle of thousands of troops engaged in war games, asking them to stop in order to play frisbee and talk about nonviolence with five Christian peace activists.

We entered the Shoalwater Bay Military facility armed only with a peace flag, a frisbee, and two letters for the generals explaining why we were there. After three hours of walking through the bush, we found the main air force base where the generals commanded their troops and began to walk up the middle of the landing strip, where we could be seen easily, to invite the soldiers to talk. When we found them, we told them we were peaceful, unarmed people, that we wanted them to stop their war games and play peace games instead. Expecting to be told at gunpoint to lie down on the tarmac, we were rather surprised when they agreed not only to talk with us, but to play frisbee as well. At that point they shut down the base, and miraculously we got our wish – for more than an hour and a half we saw the base transformed from a place where people trained to kill those they disagreed with, to a place where people talked respectfully with those they disagreed with. From a place where missiles, bombs and bullets cut through the air to a place where frisbees glided gracefully through the air. When it started raining we were invited into the hangar area where we were given food and drink and talked with the soldiers for about an hour and a half about violence, nonviolence, Iraq, and US foreign policy. Shortly thereafter Queensla
nd police arrived, arrested us and charged us with trespassing on Commonwealth land. Our trial is likely to be around March next year.

For us, this act of noncooperation with fear was deeply empowering. One, we were not cooperating with a system that says you need a violent military in order to be safe. We believe that violence only breeds fear, only nonviolence can breed love and peace. Secondly, we were not cooperating with a system that says do not challenge the status quo. The fences and signs around military bases and threats of legal action are all designed to frighten the average citizen into silence. By refusing to have our resistance dictated by those barriers, we demonstrated in a very small and humble way that it is possible. And thirdly, we were and are continuing to challenge a system that says if you do challenge the status quo, we will unleash sanctions on you that will make you think twice about challenging it again. The whole legal system is designed to intimidate and control you. When we were arrested we were thrown in a large police truck that is designed to cause sensory deprivation – metal walls, and no windows. In the watchhouse there is a total lack of privacy down to the toilet facilities. But the whole time we maintained our joyful attitude. As we sat there making jokes, singing and telling stories one of the policeman said to us, “You guys are enjoying this way too much.” When the system designed to intimidate does not intimidate, it loses its power.

I’m aware that many people think these kinds of acts are strange, but I don’t think they are. Not doing anything is strange. Failing to resist, accepting the way things are, that’s what is strange. Allowing the government to spend $55 million dollars a day on military machinery we don’t use while our own people go hungry and homeless for lack of resources – that is strange. Putting the needs of the economy before the needs of people and the earth on which all of our lives depend, that’s strange. We need to redefine normal back to what is proper for human life and society instead of the economy.

And I think that’s exactly what is at stake here, our very imaginations. Instead of seeing a world that is catastrophically irredeemable, we need to see a world that is pregnant with possibility, ripe for change.

Like I said earlier, that’s not to say that there aren’t costs involved. But if we’re prepared to send our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters off to fight war, how much more ought we be prepared for peace to cost us? And if we are not prepared for it to cost us anything, why are we surprised there is no peace?

The words of Trappist monk and nonviolence hero Thomas Merton have become one of my mantras, “If this task of building a peaceful world is the most important task of our time, it is also the most difficult. It will, in fact, require far more discipline, more sacrifice, more planning, more thought, more co-operation and more heroism than war ever demanded.”

And so with Christian peacemaker teams I want to ask you what it might be like if people committed the same resources to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?

It is this kind of imagination, and willingness to pay the cost that will characterise any effective challenge to the politics of fear. It’s a challenge I would invite anyone to take up.


5 thoughts on “Challenging the Politics of Fear

  1. If we committed those resources to humanitarian causes that we currently commit to ‘defense’, someone would take advantage. We live in a world of scarce resources, amongst human beings who aspire to wealth and power. I don’t think that will change.

    There are good reasons for maintaining an army, and our armed forces do charitable deeds at home and overseas that wouldn’t be possible without the training and resources that are committed to them. Quoting Goering reminds me that there are also times when I believe taking up arms is the only thing to do.

    I do believe, however, that our military funding ought to be directed towards more “defensive” than offensive strategies and that achieving this objective is complementary to your stated ideals.

    In my perspective, the politics of fear works because of personal ignorance and the only solution to this is education. However, I agree that a refusal to cooperate with the politics of fear is a valid means of protest and I commend your act for this reason, if not entirely its motive.

    It may have been personally empowering, but your act would have been more influential if you had involved the media to explain your message. Achieving the ‘explain’ part is difficult, particularly with a sensationalist journalist, but possible, and as a pastor you may be in a position to succeed.

    Of course, education wouldn’t necessarily solve the other cause of political misappropriation of power, individual apathy.

    If one is to transcend the simplistic generalisations of ‘left’ and ‘right’ as a political divide, one must engage in the political debate without them. Any argument to transcend them is weak when they are used as a reference point. As a pastor, you would know that language too can be a physical act.

    Your gaoler may have felt powerless, but you still didn’t have your freedom! So, I would encourage you to vote, to engage with the political process and express your point of view. And if your view is not represented, then I suggest that you stand as an independent, or start a political party to express your views, because a closer reading of history suggests that stunts are rarely ever successful at achieving change.

  2. Hi Anonymous! Appreciate your comments here. I’d like to respond to a couple of the points you’ve made.

    When you say “someone would take advantage”, I think that you’re probably right, and the question then becomes how one should respond to that, rather than “how can we continue the culture of fear?” Having some good processes around humanitarian aid and some solid (nonviolent) defence is absolutely the best response (I believe).

    I agree our armies do good work as well as bad work, and that much of the good work is done without guns. My desire is not to see us get rid of our armies but to transform them into nonviolent ones. I don’t agree at all that taking up arms was the only thing to do against the Nazis – in fact, all of the nonviolent measures taken against the Nazi regime were more effective (in terms of resource costs, and cost to human life) than the violent measures.

    Education is important – relationship, I think, is better.

    Our act was as much about us being us as about any effect it would have. We did also try to engage media but very few were interested. We continue to gain a little bit of media around the trials we’re going through, but they were much more impressed by the big shiny tanks.

    As a Christian I’m wrestling with the issue of voting and my engagement with the political system, and at the moment don’t see much hope for it. Like many others, I’m looking at working outside the system, as much as a vocation and identity as for effect. I think that an even close rreading of history suggests that governments and regimes never change (for the better) except from outside pressure. As a good friend of mine often says, “Good lawmaking most often comes from good lawbreaking.”

    Thanks for your comments and feel free to respond to mine!

  3. Sure, I agree that the answer to someone taking advantage cannot be found in the politics of fear, but it is foolish to wait until the advantage is taken.

    The non-violent measures (can you provide examples?) taken against the Nazi’s may have been cheaper, but what non-violent measures would have been enough to defeat Nazism, to stop the genocide? I too would prefer our military were focused defensively, but unfortunately in the game of weapons, one must play to avoid defeat.

    I’m interested in your idea of relationships as a means to reduce a submissive response to fear-mongery. There is no point in being personally gratified by ones own actions. To advance a point of view it is necessary to engage with and convince others, to build relationships, as you say. Without the support of a community, acts of defiance are too easily dismissed as acts of extremism.

    How does one build relationships as a means to combating claims that interest rates will be higher under Labour? It is difficult to have a personal relationship with everybody, and this is why education is the most effective means of combating fear.

    I think there is a certain naivety in believing one can work ‘outside’ of the ‘system’. Change in government is often achieved, as you say, from outside pressure, but would be impossible without a compliant government. This is the objective of modern democracy. The regular election cycle gives the public the opportunity to express their dis/satisfaction for the incumbent government and this is meant to exert pressure on the government to make decisions representative of the majority population.

    Unfortunately, the majority public seems to have different priorities to the ones you and I, if I may be so bold, would advance. The simple fact that the majority of Australian’s do not even consider voting for independent candidates speaks to that.

    At the same time, perhaps a million Australians marched against the Iraq war, yet the Liberal party decided they were not subservient to such public pressure. Their argument being that the public had entrusted them at election time to serve in Australia’s interest and that marchers were a vocal ‘minority.’ As long as the public continues to vote back into government a party that ignores them, the government will continue to feel that they are justified in their actions.

    Positive change in government can be achieved without vocal minority or broad public pressure and frequently is achieved, through the hard work and consultation of policy advisors and authors. Such improvements often happen over long periods, but they are impressive achievements nonetheless. The rights of workers is an excellent example.

    What religious argument are you advocating for not voting and what do you hope this achieves? From the ‘individuals’ point of view, voting feels ineffective because there is less sense of community in our modern lives. But voting is an expression of the desire to have your point of view represented. To oppose that right of expression is to ignore the reality of democratic culture. What reality do you propose to put in its place?

  4. You said, “It is foolish to wait until the advantage is taken”. Two things here – 1, are you proposing a system that declares people guilty until proven innocent? and 2, there’s no reason to wait until the advantage is taken. Simply having good processes together with good relationships can circumvent the advantage being taken in the first place.

    There are heaps of nonviolent measures taken against Nazism, too many to mention here. Largely they’re not perpetuated often because they’re nonviolent, and that undermines . Certainly some of the reaction of the Bulgarians and Danes to the rounding up of Jews rates a mention. Also the total noncooperation of the Danish people made it impossible for the Nazis to rule over them, and the same in Norway as I understand it.

    If enough people had marched in and liberated the concentration camps, then the genocide could have been stopped. If enough people were willing to die for it, then every nation the Nazis invaded could have refused to cooperate to the point where it made it impossible to rule them. But we’re so schooled in violence as a way to save ourselves, so schooled in fear and the “fight or flight” response, that what happened happened.

    In terms of relationships, I’m thinking of situations like the current one in Burma. The junta there realised that some of the military were refusing to fire on crowds because they were their own people. (The junta has since moved the various military squads to different areas and the crackdown resumed – making building new relationships necessary) The same thing happened in Serbia in 2000, when police refused to fire on the crowds approaching the parliament house, partly because they knew their kids were in the crowds. And more personally, at Urban Seed where I work (a place of hospitality next to one of Melbourne’s heroin hotspots) our safety is based not on separation from the “dangerous druggies” but on respectful relationships with other human beings. I’m under no illusions about this being an easy task, but I do see it as the primary way to break down the differences between people on which we base our fears.

    You said, “There is no point in being personally gratified by one’s actions.” Why not? There is all the point in the world. How do you act if not in ways that make sense to you? Be the change you want to see in the world, Gandhi said. It’s the only way to live. That’s not to say that you make it absolutely unintelligible to others, but that’s as well as, not instead of meaning for yourself.

    I think the regular election cycle is more often the illusion of democracy. I’m not interested in democracy anyway frankly – my belief is the Catholic worker idea that we build a new world in the shell of the old. We positively embody the new community, economy, etc. while battling to bring down the old (nonviolently).

    Your point about the Iraq war demonstrates perfectly the failure of democracy. If this were a representative democracy, we would never have gone to war.

    I think there are lots of religious arguments for not voting, and some of them can be found at There’s also a good solid Christian anarchist logic, which places Christian power in servanthood and humility and self giving love rather than in coercive power over others.

    What do I hope to achieve? Faithfulness to the reign of God, amongst other things. And basically to undermine all that is anti the reign of God. I might make some more posts based on some emails I’ve written recently rather than write them out again here.

    Voting feels ineffective not primarily because of a breakdown of community but because it IS ineffective. I don’t want my point of view represented by someone else, I want it represented by my own life. You’re right, I do ignore the reality of democratic culture. Call me naive or idealistic, but I believe it’s the sedated masses who think they’re achieving something by writing a few numbers on a sheet of paper every four years are the ones who are deluded about their impact. I advocate voting with your entire life, your freedom, your economy, everything you are, rather than at the ballot.

  5. I’m certainly not advocating people be assumed guilty until proven innocent, I was simply pointing out that taking a submissive position in a world of weapons allows others to take advantage. Having good processes is one thing, but having good relationships only works with people who want to have them with you.

    Non-compliance worked for the Scandinavians because Hitler didn’t send enough troops to invade. Still, I take your point and agree that non-compliance may have worked if the tactic were employed in an organized fashion. I suppose it is possible, given broader acceptance and localized efforts to build community networks and communication that non-compliance might work to fight a violent invading force, but I think a violent response would continue to be an unfortunate necessity.

    Ok, so relationships work where they already exist and can be built through local community work, no question. However, much of modern warfare is effective at removing the human element, just as modern lifestyles are effective at removing community relationships. Not that I disagree with what you say, just to point out the limitation of a reliance on relationship building to combat fear.

    I think most people act in ways that make sense to them, I just don’t believe one should advocate for personal satisfaction from doing so. A terrorist, a child molester, a murderer gets personal satisfaction from their actions. If everyone went around acting in ways that made them personally gratified, there would be anarchy. A successful life, like a marriage, is built on compromise. In order to find the means and methods of such compromise, one must educate the public and advocate for a position through building relationships, but inevitably, one must compromise.

    I think you would be more interested in democracy if you lived in Burma. Unfortunate though it might be, the regular election cycle is the reality of democracy. In a world where people are entitled to differing points of view, representation is inevitable. Voting may feel ineffective, but you would be wrong. Recently, in many democracies around the world, a large number of marginal seats have been won by less than 100 votes. A few more votes for Gore in Florida would have won him the election and the Iraq war would never have happened. I don’t deny that everyone should vote with their life actions, but choosing not to vote at election time because you believe your vote is ineffective is delusional. If one independent candidate wins election to the Senate, they might hold veto power over all of the legislation that passes through government for the next three years. The Democrats proved that through such actions, positive results can be achieved.

    I’ve just had a look at the site you referenced. The argument that one should not vote because our political system doesn’t fit the strict dictionary interpretation of Democracy is ludicrous. The other arguments revolve around the current government or party not representing ones interests. Refusing to vote is not going to improve this situation. Standing as an independent or campaigning and voting for someone who does represent your interests will help.

    I believe the focus of government should be to manage essential services, to provide quality education and healthcare to the general public and to regulate towards the fairer distribution of wealth. I know these interests are not currently represented. Indeed, they are not even supported by a majority of the Australian community. But I don’t deny the necessity of government, nor would i deny others the right to their own point of view. I don’t deny our Democracy is not perfect and that I too am disappointed and often disillusioned with our political system. But I know I am fortunate to live in a democracy and am disappointed when others take it so lightly. And I know that not voting will achieve half as much as encouraging those who share my values to get involved in politics, to be in a position to make decisions where these values can be put into action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s