Bruce Kent

Vocation for Justice

When I was asked to speak at this meeting celebrating the 25 years of Vocation for Justice I knew there was no point hesitating. They have long memories up at the Columban House on Reddington Road and do not forget that I played my part years ago as a member of the British army of occupation in Belfast. No point, I thought, in giving further aggravation to a group of muscular Irishmen of whatever religion.

But there was no real hesitation. I doubt if we have ever paid a penny for it but regularly Vocation for Justice comes though our letterbox and every issue is full of useful and inspiring information. How Ellen Teague gets the Columbans to meet deadlines and produce photographs as well I don't know, but she too has her little ways. Mostly persistence and charm.

Is it different from any other missionary journal? I think so. Its central theme is justice. Each issue makes the connections between war, racism, refugees, the environment, poverty and commercial exploitation. It is a regular reminder that peace is not just a matter of no-shooting.

"Peace", said Pope Paul, "is the fruit of anxious daily care to see that everyone lives in the justice that God intends." Real peace has justice as its foundation. Justice demands change and change is not always popular with those who have power and no wish to share it. War is an ancient curse but not an inevitable one. We no longer eat our neighbours if we are short of food. We do not have to kill them because we disagree.

We have made some progress. The number of nuclear weapon states has stalled, so it seems, at 9 for the moment. We do have a detailed draft 100-page nuclear weapon abolition convention as a basis for serious abolition negotiations. Most of the world wants such negotiations to begin but the major nuclear powers, with the exception of China, do not.

The excellent 1978 UN Special Session of Disarmament and later sessions did have some effect on public opinion - though our country has entire failed to set up the public education programme then promised.

More positively, thanks to the work especially but not only of NGOs, we do have a working International Criminal Court. Not perfect but it exists. We also have bans, more or less effective, on cluster bombs, landmines and bacteriological weapons. Thanks to the work especially of the Campaign Against the Arms trade there is a much greater corporate sensitivity about the arms trade but not unfortunately restraint. Our current Minister for Defence Procurement wants the trade to expand.

There is plenty on the global gloomy side as well.

When Vocation for Justice started Cold War division still dominated the world. Despite the subsequent hope for a peace dividend the world now spends in real terms more on war than ever before - a staggering one and a quarter trillion US dollars a year. About 20 wars disfigure the world at the moment and most of them are civil wars. This country has been involved in five wars in the last twenty years. Before getting into two of them, Afghanistan and Kosovo bombing, we did not even bother to try for a UN Resolution. In the other three we twisted the powers given to the Security Council. It has no authority under the Charter to call for military action unless all nonviolent ways of resolving conflicts have been exhausted (art 42). But we seem to learn no lessons and now we are into the mire once more in Libya. Why more military don't refuse to undertake operations which arguably do not have international authority I do not know. "Traditional" absolute obedience I suppose.

New forms of weaponry develop all the time. The most recent and extraordinary is the Drone unmanned aircraft which can be operated to deadly effect from an armchair thousands of miles away from its victims. How does a Drone tell the difference between armed militants and farmers on their way to their fields?

The worst thing that has happened recently is not the extra judicial execution of Bin Laden a revenge operation if ever there was one just like many that take place between youths on our streets - but the lack of criticism which it aroused. God Bless the Archbishop of Canterbury for standing up for the rule of law.

Thanks to grass roots movements like Pax Christi, Progressio and the Network of Justice and Peace groups that have sprung up in parishes I think it true to say that the most important change has been the attitude in our Church. I am long enough in the tooth to remember when "Peace" meant communism. Peace meant cowardice. Peace meant appeasement. Peace was definitely bad news. After all we had the Just War theory what more did we need?

So at parish level there was lots of support for the works of mercy. But issues like nuclear weapons or the arms trade caused raised eyebrows. How well I remember during the Falklands war what happened when I in gave a hint in a sermon that there might have been other ways of solving that conflict. A respectable gentleman rose to his feet slammed down his missal, slammed his kneeler and eventually slammed the church door on his dramatic way out.

Yesterday I went to a Catholic University for the opening of a Peace garden. 30 years ago no sensible university would have thought of a Peace garden. The endless and convincing drip drip of Peace Sundays and Peace vigils have had their results. I am sure that now the people in the pews in this country are well ahead of their Episcopal leadership. They understand the gross imbalance between money spent on war and money NOT spent on humanity's real needs. They have had evidence enough in recent years that war does not solve problems it only multiplies them.

Elsewhere there is no shortage of top-level church voices to remind us of our obligation to be peacemakers. The Pope is not my favourite on many issues but on peace and war I warm to him. The clear judgements of Cardinal Keith O'Brien on Trident and all its works and pomps have come winging over Hadrian's wall.

Pax Christi's work on nonviolence has made its way into many schools. The need to follow a brave conscience is well understood by many who have heard the story of the life and death of the now beatified Franz Jagerstatter. We even have now a Movement for the Abolition of War which you don't have to be a pacifist to join. Many Catholics have done.

But what about further progress? Building a culture of peace to replace our current culture of war will take time. There are practical ways to start. Perhaps every student beginning secondary school education could be given a bound copy of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sort of global citizenship passport. So many times I have been to schools where no one has ever seen let alone studied these key documents.

Remembrance Sundays? The best way to honour those who have died in war (and most today are civilians) is to work for the abolition of war. Of course acknowledge British bravery but the bravery of so many others in other countries as well. May 15th is international conscientious objectors day. Could we not honour their courage too?

Our Royalty are deep into war culture. Would it not be possible for some of them to serve in the Fire Service or on Life Boats? A couple of weeks ago I wondered what a demilitarised Royal wedding might look like. The happy couple arriving on a Fire engine? Courage is not only a matter of military uniform. A bridal bouquet laid on the monument outside the Abbey to the innocent victims of all war and violence?

Peace history needs to be taken seriously. The military dominate our monuments. We have our peace heroes as well but they are rapidly forgotten. First prize to anyone in this audience who can tell me the name of the Englishman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1903. His hidden grave in North London is buried in brambles.

Every church to have a copy of the preamble to the UN Charter posted up with the other regular notices. Every church or deanery twinned with a community in another country supposedly "enemy". A parish trip to Tehran this year instead of to Lourdes?

Military chaplains to be civilians? Selling weapons or being willing to use nuclear weapons to be in the confessional list of possible sins?

Justice and Peace work to be well funded and directly from central church funds and not via CAFOD which, effective though it is, has become the cuckoo in the nest of church good works.

Where could the development of the Church's witness to peace be discussed? That is the problem. Despite all the fine words about participation and co-responsibility I have to say with regret that there was as much of both in the days of Cardinal Heenan, immediately after the second Vatican Council as there is today 50 years later. In other words, no progress. Said the '71 Synod. No one can speak about Justice who is not first seen to be just. The same goes for peace.

Part of justice is to acknowledge that lay people have a voice to be heard. As it is, our church remains a clerical body with power in the hands of very few. If we want real peace then we have to acknowledge the potential for peace in the entire community.

Do not be discouraged. Perhaps peace is a bottom up not a top down process. We might not have had a Catholic peace movement in this country were it not for four young people who met in London 75 years ago this very week. Against all the odds they started an organisation called PAX because they wanted Catholics to become as well known as Quakers for their stand against war.

Our faithful and creative following of the gospel will make a difference. That is the lesson of Vocation for Justice we are celebrating tonight. 25 years of scattering the seeds of peace, justice and environmental responsibility. They are sprouting now and are already a wonderful force for good. Thank you to the Columbans. The Big Society?? We got there long before David Cameron.

April 2011