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.