This is the text of a talk I gave to an ecumenical group of ministers from a wide variety of church traditions in Birmingham in 2016, which was followed by lively discussion. Most of the pastors were from churches in deprived inner city or other urban areas. It is just as relevant today.
Whose discipleship are we reflecting on today? Our own, or that of our church members, or our neighbours? I am not a pastor of a particular church, although I have recently been getting more involved with my local Catholic parishes in Sparkhill, Digbeth and Balsall Heath. I have been celebrating the Eucharist with them, and preaching, so I have to reflect on this question too. Of course we have to reflect on our overall context to also reflect on our place within that, and that of our neighbours and church members.
I want to mention in passing two issues that we can come back to later:
One, it is easy for those of us, including myself, who have an education and apparently comfortable background, to speak to those in deprived inner city communities, and tell them they should be in solidarity with each other and the poorest, and therefore should not be upwardly mobile: is this just a new way to keep the poor poor, and in their place?
Two: it is easy to speak as if we have a large or strong or thriving church community. Maybe some do, maybe some don’t. Overall, I think its still true we are a shrinking community, perhaps bolstered by immigration. Given the wealth of the society we live in, despite the varying experiences of that prosperity, we should perhaps not be surprised. For Jesus did not say “blessed are the rich”. Also, and there may be some debate about this, but according to some, those who do remain are generally becoming more active corporately at least, in some of the ways I will speak of later, in witnessing to the Gospel as a faith with counter-imperial values.
Our theme today is Discipleship in a Babylonian context.
Babylon was an imperial city: that is, it was the centre of power and wealth in its empire, where that power was used to oppress and extract wealth from the peoples it had subjugated through violence, war and the threat of these.
Babylon has a central historical and also mythical role in the Biblical history. The leadership of Israel was deported there. A central theme of the Old Testament was of the struggle to remain faithful in the face of its threat, and in the reality of exile, whether that was oppressive or alluring and seductive, or both. All the prophets spoke about how God’s people should relate to the threat or reality of imperial domination, with Babylon as the ‘great city’ which was the model of all the others. This was transposed into the New Testament, in the book of Revelations, onto the Roman Empire.
So, to say ‘Babylon’ in this context is to talk about Empire. Empire is a constant reality in our world: centres of power and wealth, that use that power to extract wealth from others through the reality and threat of violence, war, propaganda systems, and the control and sense of inevitability that these enable. Empires use propaganda systems to promote false values and their false gods.
We know from our Biblical tradition that Empires come and go: they have a limited lifespan: “a time, two times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7 and cf Revelation 11:3 and Daniel 7:25)
In more recent times the big world Empires have been the European empires, the largest of which was the British Empire. The UK was ‘number one nation’ globally probably for about two hundred years. Next came the American Empire, although not claimed as such by that country. Now, we all live in the ‘global capitalist empire’, where global corporations struggle with nation states for power and wealth. At least 50 of the 100 largest economic entities in the world are corporations, with no democracy, and no provision within their structures for the poor, or those left outside. Many of them are headquartered in the UK, others elsewhere in Europe or the USA. Their leaders and owners are among the 1% of the 1%, and many of them live in the UK, mostly in London and the surrounding areas.
So we live at or near the heart of Empire in our time. At the same time, physical proximity to the centre is not the same as being the beneficiaries, as the working class and peasants of England from the 16th century onwards knew. However, certainly since 1945 and we can go back probably to 1900, a large proportion of people in these islands have been at the very least collaborators with this empire, perhaps like Peter at the fire in the palace courtyard, ‘warming our hands by the fire of minor privileges’, while of off-stage we can hear the screams of those being tortured, in preparation for crucifixion.
So where are we in this, and our neighbours and church members? I would think that pretty much all of us in this room are from the class who benefit secondarily from Empire. We are expected to be its functionaries, to help it keep moving along, smoothing out the dissatisfactions, the dysfunctions and the contradictions. We have received an education and probably certain material privileges so that we are able to do this, and see things from the perspective of those invested in the status quo.
Our neighbours and church members may be in a similar position, or they may be among those who are also exploited to keep the system running, or even among those who are left over and simply discarded. I would think that most of our neighbours and church members do not think of themselves as beneficiaries of Empire, even if some or many are, to varying degrees.
What are we to do? First of all, acknowledge the reality of Babylon, of Empire. Secondly, analyse what our place in it is. Thirdly, make sure we are in solidarity with those who are exploited or left over, near or far. If we are among the exploited, then that means solidarity among those like us: otherwise, we either have made, or have to make, a shift, make a move, in our thinking and priorities, away from what our heritage and background expects of us.
For all of us, we have to be able to ‘see through the veil’: the veil that Imperial propaganda creates around us, and the veil between time and eternity. This is what the writer of the book of Revelation was trying to do for the people of his time. Being marginalised on a prison island was a good place to see through Imperial pretensions, and to see them from the perspective of Eternity, from the ‘heavenly realm’. It was for him what the Irish call a ‘thin’ place. This is why the book by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther about Revelation is called ‘Unveiling Empire’.
To see through the veil we need to clear our heads of the propaganda: the advertising, the media line, the cultural icons. We need to be careful what we watch, what we see, what we read. Adblocker is a good idea at the very least, in this internet age. We need to read and study the Bible and its stories of struggle and resistance to Empire. But we need to read it through the eyes of Jesus. How did Jesus read and interpret the Jewish scriptures? Which parts did he focus on, and which parts did he ignore?
There appear to be at least two main traditions in the Bible, or at least the Old Testament [ cf ‘Come Out My People, by Wes Howard-Brook]. There is the tradition that affirms the place of kings and temples and hierarchical social structures. And there is that which critiques them and opposes them, and emphasises the Reign or Kingship of God alone.
There is one tradition that says , in the words of the psalms, “God blesses the righteous, riches and wealth are in his house” (Psalm 112) , the implication of which is that the wicked will suffer and be punished (cf Proverbs 11) and so that those who are poor must have sinned!: The other tradition is that which says “God is close to the poor and the broken hearted” (cf Isaiah 61) and “blessed are the poor” (Matthew 5:3, Luk3 6:4), while it is the rich who are wicked ( Luke 16: parable of the rich man and Lazarus : Job 21 : Jeremiah 12 : – as opposed to Ecclesiastes 8)
It is clear which of these traditions Jesus affirms. “blessed are the anawim”, the rich man is in hades, and the rich young man must give up his wealth and privileges in order to follow Jesus.
Discipleship in Babylon requires a disciplined approach so as not to get swamped by the incredibly powerful propaganda machines of our ages. It requires a focus on the stories in our scriptures and traditions of resistant churches, communities and individuals. It also requires a life aimed at maintaining our sense of dignity and simplicity, and it also requires action. Not to get caught up in what our society tells us is necessary for a ‘good life’, but to focus on what is essential. To try to build communities of resistant values in our churches and church communities.
To do this we also need to worship and pray with confidence, assertively. One suggestion is that the European tradition of quiet and reflective prayer and worship is not enough, at least on its own. Public liturgy on the streets, worship and prayer, confronting the centres of power and injustice, can also help us to clarify where we stand, and for others too.
Action could be many things: for example, involvement in tenants and residents associations, or trade unions. We can affirm the right trade union membership at work, and the duty of Christians to support the unions where we work – with the focus on those among the low paid, and insecure work and conditions, and on justice, not merely on self-interest and private gain.
It could be supporting living wage campaigns and community organising. It could be benefits unions. It could be international solidarity in finances or activism etc… supporting inclusion and anti-racist attitudes: supporting families trying to bring up their children with different values and experiences, bring them up to see the difference between discipleship and keeping up with the ’image race’… It could be prayer and protest about climate change, international injustices, wars, … and bringing these things to our communities from a faith filled and scriptural perspective. We need to remember that our Mother and Sister Earth is also our neighbour, and one of the main victims of Empire in our times, (as always, but on a bigger scale) and look to defending future generations too.
In the Book of Revelation, there are passages of violent and threatening language from God, threatening retribution and disaster for the evil and the exploitation of Babylon, of Empire. These passages also say that thousands from the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ will be saved. But these words are not effective, nothing changes. It is when ‘the lamb that was slain’ – but who is still alive – comes on the scene that things change: and “people from all languages, peoples and nations” are united in worship before the throne of God. It is the unconditional, non-violent, sacrificial presence, solidarity and love of God revealed in Jesus that makes the difference.
The lesson here for us, it seems to me, is that we have to model what we want to achieve. We have to live it in our own lives if we want to inspire others with our words. If we who have at least some privileges are not able or willing to make sacrifices, and sacrifices that really look like sacrifices to those among the exploited and left- out among our neighbours and church members, then we will not be seen to have an authentic voice of Christ, the lamb that was slain, was sacrificed and rose again.
[This is an adapted version of a talk I gave recently for the Birmingham Diocese Catholic Justice and Peace Lent Retreat, 2019]
“The Passion Of Christ Is The Most Overwhelming Work Of God’s Love”
– St Paul Of The Cross, Founder Of The Passionists
In what way or ways is this true, how can it be that the Passion of Jesus is “the most overwhelming work” of God, and of love, in the words of St Paul of the Cross, Passionist founder? I want to reflect on two aspects of this overwhelming, unexpected, love of God. The first is expressed in the phrase “The Crucified God”. The second aspect of God’s love, is expressed in a dimension of Jesus’ life and teaching that led Him to be tortured and executed, and that can be called “Active Non-Violent Resistance”, which is something Pope Francis wrote about in his 2017 World Peace Day letter, “Nonviolence: A style of politics for peace” .
The Passion and Cross of Jesus as the Suffering of God
In the Marlon Brando film, “The Waterfront”, set in 1930’s USA, a young woman’s brother has is murdered by the gangsters that run the dockers so-called Union, and the priest is called to anoint his body. Just before he leaves, the priest says to the sister, “If you need me, I’ll be in the church” . Her response is one of anger. In effect she says, what is the use of a priest who stays in the safety zone of the church, while injustice and violence are happening around him? If the priest is going to remain in his comfort zone, in the safety of his church and house, it is no use to her, or to her brother and those in situations like them. She – and they – need him to come out of his protected zone – recognise where suffering humanity is, and to be willing to risk suffering with them.
To read more see here to read as a download, OR continue reading below
I’m posting here a download of the abridged version of this inspirational book.
Seeing the life and ministry of Jesus through the perspective of non-violent activism was not my idea. I got it from Ched Myers in the first place, with his study of Mark’s Gospel, “Binding the Strongman”. I read it in condensed form during Bible studies in the 1990’s. While I was at Seminary, I used to go to a small room in a church near Oxford Street, to meet Chris Cole, Virginia Moffat and others to read and discuss what it had to say. We had one copy of the full size book, Bibles, and we each had copies of the abridged version Chris had put together from articles Myers had published in Sojourners magazine in the USA. It blew my mind, and I think its blown many others since. It was electrifying. My only criticism of it was that at times it could be a bit reductionist, reducing what were deeply multi-layered events and actions of to only the political dimension. But its not called a ‘political reading’ of the Gospel for nothing. Myers highlights the amazing challenge of Jesus’ call to ‘follow the way of the cross’ and his journey to Jerusalem, towards that final confrontation that led to the cross. And then the Resurrection. And even that was illegal.
The original book is published by Orbis and its still available. At over 500 pages, its not the type of short book I usually like to read. That’s why I still like the 48 page abridged version. Both can be inspirational for a more radical discipleship, and I’m sure some readers of the abridged version will want to get the full size one.
On Thursday, I am leading a class at St Mary’s University Twickenham, on the Catholic Worker movement and its place in Catholic Social Tradition. In particular, in relation to liberation theology and Catholic Social Teaching. So I have been looking up some old Catholic Worker articles from some years ago, that impressed me and stayed with me in their clarity and inspired me with their Gospel radicalism.
The first is by Frank Cordaro, probably the best known Catholic Worker in the USA today, at least among those in the movement. His “Call to a Resistance Church” outlines how to read the life of Jesus as the life of a non-violent activist, as well as God incarnate. While Frank was writing in the 1990’s, this is a reading of the Gospels that is today being integrated into a ‘christology from below’. According to Scripture scholars there can be little doubt that the Gospels show us a Jesus whose non-violence was a “central part of his life and teaching” (Terrence J Rynne in “Choosing Peace – The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence”, edited by Marie Dennis of Pax Christi).
Frank outlines “Four Marks of A Resistance Church”: Downward mobility, identification with the poor and oppressed, non-violent resistance to injustice, and intentional communities. Download it here as a PDF: A CAll to a Resistance Church – Frank Cordaro
The second was written in the late 80’s. Originally entitled “Christian Radicalism in the United. States: The Catholic Worker Tradition” this article by Mark White and Angela Jones into the true Gospel radicalism of Catholic Worker thought and practice: radical in the sense of the Latin meaning of the word. The Latin ‘radix’ meaning ‘root’, indicates how the Catholic Worker vision gets down to the fundamentals of the Gospel as well as the issues of our age, such as the what it means to ‘live’ God’s Kingdom or Reign as a ‘spiritual revolution’. Reading this it is crystal clear why most of today’s radical movements are not too radical, but not radical enough, as they do not get to the spiritual roots of our crises. See here for their article.
See here for the text of my talk on “The Catholic Worker and Liberation Theology” (Note: I have developed some of the ideas further in the year since it was originally written). And here for a further reading list about the Catholic Worker.
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into sickles.
Nation shall not lift sword against nation,
and there shall be no more training for war.
Everyone shall live under their own vine and fig tree
with no one to make them afraid”
(Micah 4:3 – 4)
MiChA is a small Christian peace group in the Midlands. There are two branches, one in Birmingham, and one in Nottingham. We are dedicated to planting our mustard seed of God’s reign of peace and justice. We try to play our small part in bringing alive this beautiful vision of the prophet Micah, so that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. We are trying to live in this reign of God which full of life and joy, by witnessing to God’s peace.
We have done this in four ways so far.
First, on the streets of Birmingham with our regular prayer, protest and witness vigils outside HSBC on the corner of New Street and Corporation Street. We are calling for HSBC to cease its involvement in financing the arms trade. It is one of the big players in supporting the arms trade. Andrew Feinstein, author of “Shadow World” has called the arms trade “the most corrupt trade in the world”. The dates and times for our upcoming Advent 2018 vigils are on the leaflet posted above.
Second, we have organised protest and prayer vigils outside the Roxel factory outside Kidderminster, where propulsion systems are made for missiles, including the Brimstone and Stormshadow missiles being sold to Saudi Arabia. It is known that Saudi Arabia is firing missiles into Yemen as part of their aggression there which is leaving millions of innocent people at risk of death by starvation and disease.
Third, the Nottingham branch have been praying and vigilling monthly outside the Heckler and Koch arms factory there, and have had some interesting dialogue with passersby coming to and from Gregory Street tram stop, Warhammer World over the road, and people going into and out of the industrial estate where the Heckler and Koch factory is based. Among them, have been members of Trent Vineyard Church which is next to the arms factory. We pray that their members and leadership will hear the Gospel call to witness for peace, given the scandalous activities taking place next door.
We have also taken part in the ‘No Faith In War’ days at the the ‘Stop DSEi’ Arms Fair protests at the ExCEL Centre in east London. We hope to be there again in 2019, assuming the arms fair continues. The Stop the Arms Fair week will run, during the arms fair set up week, from September 2nd – 7th. The arms fair itself is on September 10th – 13th.
TO CONTACT US:
Phone: MiChA Birmingham: 0121 772 7933 / 07985 728 464
MiChA Nottingham: 07804 640 643
A BIT OF HISTORY
Our current globalized world began to come into being in the 19th and 20th centuries. Christians and the Churches struggled to adapt to this new world, no longer primarily rural and agricultural, but increasingly a mass, urban and industrial society. A key aspect of this was integrating the struggle for social justice into our understanding, celebration and practice of our faith, of what it means to love our neighbour, oppose sin and co-operate with God’s grace. We now face an environmental crisis brought on by that urban industrial society. Again, Christians and the Churches have struggled to adapt to and understand God’s call to us in this new moment in history. Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Si has marked a key moment in that process among not just Catholics but the wider Christian community, at a critical time in human history, which for Christians is also salvation history.
THE CATHOLIC POSITION – and CLIMATE CHANGE
In the Encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis called us to act to protect and renew the life of the earth, God’s creation. He wrote that the earth is our neighbour which is being abused, and is also our mother that provides us with the nourishment and conditions for life that we need. At the 2015 UN Paris Climate Summit, the Vatican pushed for a target to keep global temperature increases down to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average. In the first place, to protect the poorer and lower lying nations who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, like Bangladesh and Burma. At Paris a 2 degree target was agreed with 1.5 degrees an aspiration. Now, in October 2018, the IPCC (Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change) have said the increase must be kept below 1.5 degrees to avoid the damage further rises would cause, and the risk of runaway climate change, and the Presidents of the Continental Catholic Bishops Conferences have issued an unprecedented statement calling for “urgent…rapid and radical” change, to meet the 1.5 degree target.
Nevertheless, we are crucifying God’s earth, creating ongoing climate change that will cause disasters that, to make a massive understatement, would completely undermine any practical good work otherwise done. As a Christian and a Passionist, I am called to act in solidarity with the crucified, to witness to God’s sacrificial love for His people and His creation. This is why I have been looking into this, and what needs to be done.
CLIMATE CHANGE: WHERE ARE WE? THE BAD NEWS
I have been studying what various climate scientists and others have been saying. This includes for example Kevin Anderson of Manchester University, one of the UK government’s own climate advisers, and who Andy Burnham (Mayor of Manchester and moderate Labour Party politician) invited to speak to a Conference in Manchester. I will explain my understanding of mainstream analyses of climate change and its impacts. Things could turn out a bit better, or it could be worse.
My understanding, in a very summarised way, which I will explain briefly, is that we are in a dire global emergency with radical change needed urgently. I will explain this belief briefly.
The 2 degree target agreed at the Paris Climate Summit has now been acknowledged by the IPCC as too high. Even that target requires much more rapid action than governments have stated, up till now, to reduce the carbon emissions that cause most of the warming. In addition, those emissions not falling, even in line with currently stated requirements. In fact, they are not falling at all. In 2017, they rose by about 1%. The IPCC have now agreed that a 2 degrees rise is highly likely to cause extremely dangerous changes in weather patterns. In fact, the 2 degrees target was only chosen because it was thought to be a politically achievable agreement, not for scientific reasons.
Global temperatures have already risen by over 1 degree, and are currently rising by 0.17 degree per decade. This will probably speed up as global emissions saw large rises in recent decades, and there is a lag effect between the emissions and the warming. Even if carbon emissions stopped right now, temperatures would continue rising close to the 1.5 degree target at least, by 2030 to 2050. Worse, the climate could reach a ‘tipping point’ at around 2 degrees rise, into ‘runaway climate change’, due to forest fires, melting polar ice, permafrost etc, and associated methane releases, such that further increases would be impossible to stop. Just a 2 degrees rise would likely cause massive catastrophes: droughts and famines, floods, destruction by hurricanes, massive refugee movements, wars over water, etc. Even without the scenario of ‘runaway climate change’ starting around 2 degrees rise, current economic and energy policies point to a world in the range of 3 – 5 degrees warmer by the end of the century, the consequences of which for everyone would be unimaginably catastrophic.
All of these predictions are probabilities, and there is a range. Outcomes over the last 30 years have been at the worst end of the range predicted 30 years ago. Many of the most expert climate scientists would say I am being very optimistic. Often the truth has not been faced or publicised because it is such bad news that it is too much to face, or is thought to be so. There has been a fear that denial and depression would make people less likely to act. But we need to act on the truth.
The above summary leads to the conclusion that drastic and urgent action is needed. The words of the prophet Ezekiel come to mind: “Repent and live” (18:32). This might seem incredibly bad news that we cannot to do anything about. However, I do believe we have the ability to ‘repent and live’.
WHAT CAN WE DO? THE GOOD NEWS: “REPENT AND LIVE”.
Theoretically, we have the ability to make rapid changes to the economy through a ‘World War 2 style’ mobilisation of the economy: reducing energy use, installing renewable power, decommissioning fossil fuel power plants, retro-fitting housing and heating, replacing fossil fuel transport, changing farming practices, etc. It would require a massive political earthquake to create the will for fundamental change in our economic system and investments in renewable energy.
Time is very short. At current rates of global emissions, the pre-Paris IPCC forecast the 1.5 degree carbon budget will be used up before 2030. The IPCC now say that globally we need net-zero emissions by 2050. As one of the richest countries in the world, and the first to industrialize, the UK has to act much faster. People in poorer countries like India and China say ‘you have had your carbon fueled industrialization – now we want ours. Why should we change and our poor miss out on development, when you are not willing to change and make sacrifices’. So we have to provide an example and show another way is possible, by aiming for UK net zero emissions by 2030 at the latest.
Part of the problem is that the lag effect of emissions makes it hard for us to realise the reality of the crisis now. Therefore, action is needed to create a political crisis, to bring the future into the present. This sounds impossible. However, research from the last 100 years around the world shows that only 3.5% – 4% of the population is needed to commit to civil, nonviolent resistance to create a serious and real political crisis. ‘Rising Up’ have a plan to try to create a mass civil resistance movement over the environmental crisis, the climate emergency and the crisis of mass species extinctions which human activity is also creating. They believe the current economic system needs fundamental change to prevent catastrophe, which could even possibly cause human extinction.
Relatively large scale, nonviolent, protests are planned. Going to prison in a large group is judged to be necessary, due to what one of the founders of Rising Up calls the ‘mysterious power of voluntary suffering’. For Christians this is the redemptive power of the Cross. The plan may not be perfect, but it seems to me the best worked out approach there is to try to create the needed political crisis and change. For more information, see the Rising Up! website at https://risingup.org.uk .
The second edition of our new Passionist magazine is out now. See here: Passio 2
I particularly like the article about “Re-Formed”, two sisters from the black community in Liverpool 8 who have re-bounded from their own experience of prison to work with gangs in inner city Liverpool. I’m proud that by supporting their work, we are able to continue the legacy of Austin Smith CP, the first Passionist I heard of.
It was back in 1989. I was living in Liverpool 8 and volunteering at a couple of local charities working with people with mental health problems. It was part of a year spent with the Jesuit Volunteer Community 12 month program. I shared a small council flat with three others including Helen who had lived there for three years previously as a student. She had met Austin and also knew Nicholas Postlethwaite CP who had been living on the ‘front-line’ in what the media call Toxteth since 1971. The third Passionist living there was Joe Ward.
I was impressed to hear of these priests who had been living in the area for 18 years by then, who had stood outside their home as the ‘disturbances’ or ‘riots’ had raged outside their door. And who had remained. I can understand now the significance of that presence which is not just about being there, but about being their in the hardest of times. And not leaving. The people of Liverpool 8 and Granby went through the same traumas again in 1987. And the Passionists were still there.
In our evening prayer at 29 Berkeley Street L8, we were reading ‘A City Not Forsaken’ the Jerusalem Community ‘Rule of Life’ . I was inspired by the vision I found there of a contemplative community in the heart of the suffering city. These Passionists seemed to be living this vision less than a mile away.
Somehow I never met Austin, Nicholas or Joe then. But when I went to Seminary to train for the Diocesan priesthood a year later, I found Austin’s books in the Seminary library. I was about to be led on a long and wandering path that has led me to this Passionist life.
For “Passion for the Inner City” : and “Journeying With God: Paradigms of Power and Powerlessness” – both by Austin Smith: See Passion for the Inner City
Thanks to Bible Alive for interviewing me and publishing the article below in the March edition of their magazine, and also on their website. It followed other media interest in my continued refusal to pay £515 the courts have wanted from me for 9 years after my participation in a nonviolent witness at the DSEi Arms Fair in Custom House, east London, in 2009. Stories were also published in the Birmingham Mail and the Sunday Mercury here in Birmingham, as well a story about my February court appearance for non-payment on the Archdiocese of Birmingham website. See below for the article. (The court ducked the moral dilemma and gave me another 28 days to pay. Five months later and the bailiffs are threatening to come around again)
We are familiar with the phrase ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ – Fr Martin Newell is an example of someone putting his faith where his mouth is – we met up with him to talk about his courageous witness in standing up against the scandalous and unjust arms trade.
(Above: with Sr Katrina Alton CSJP, at DSEI Arms Fair 2009. We were then at the London Catholic Worker)
Most Catholic priests who find themselves in prison are there as chaplains. Not Fr Martin Newell, though: he’s been an inmate several times, and is likely to be so again.
Fr Newell, 50, who is based in Birmingham, is what might be called a protest priest: like the Catholic priests and nuns who were arrested in Washington last week after demonstrating in support of US immigrants, he believes his vocation is not only to the religious life, but also to making a stand on issues he believes Christ, if he was on earth today, would have championed.
He’s currently facing legal action over an unpaid fine dating back to an act of civil disobedience at the 2009 London Arms Fair, when he and a religious sister covered a sign near the entrance to the fair in red paint. ‘We did it to symbolise the blood of innocent people,’ says Fr Newell, who was arrested, charged with criminal damage, and later fined £515. He has consistently refused to pay the fine, and was recently recalled to court to explain himself; magistrates have given him another 28 days to pay, although he made clear in court that he will not do so.
If he’s eventually sent to prison, he does at least know what to expect: in 2000-1 he spent six months inside after deliberately damaging a vehicle used in nuclear warhead convoys. ‘We got into the base and used hammers to damage the vehicle,’ he says. ‘It was symbolic, of course, but it also meant the vehicle couldn’t be used for something that is immoral.’ Fr Newell argues that direct action like this is the 21st century’s version of conscientious objection. ‘In traditional wars, governments needed young men to fight,’ he says. ‘But these days they don’t need men to fight, they just need all of us to stay silent, and to pay our taxes.’
His six months were served mostly in Bedford and Belmarsh prisons, and there were some unpleasant experiences. ‘Being admitted to the prison for the first time was terrible: the reception staff wanted to intimidate new inmates, and they were very aggressive,’ he says. ‘It was a horrible start.’ He also felt unsafe at times, and on one occasion had to intervene when a fellow inmate tried to commit suicide. ‘He’d slit his wrists – he survived, that time, but I’ve no idea whether he’s still alive now,’ says Fr Newell.
Being a priest as well as a prisoner made him a figure of some interest inside the prison. ‘I think the officers thought I was someone they could trust, and that I wasn’t likely to make any trouble,’ he says. There were some unusual situations: at one prison, the chaplain was a priest with whom he’d studied at seminary. And on one occasion, says Fr Newell, he was able to celebrate Mass in the prison chapel; at other times, he said the prayers of the Mass alone in his cell.
Born in Walthamstow and raised in South Woodford, Fr Newell first thought about becoming a priest at the age of 14, having been an altar server from the age of seven. After grammar school he studied economics at Southampton University, before doing voluntary work with, amongst others, the Jesuits, before going to Wonersh Seminary. After being ordained in 1997 he spent five years working in parishes in Brentwood diocese, before joining the Passionists in 2001.
But it was an ‘epiphany moment’ when he was a student that put him on the road to life as a protester. ‘I was looking for a way of being more radically committed to the option for the poor, and I had this sudden realisation that justice and peace work was what being a Christian was all about,’ he remembers. ‘I realised that, for me, being a Christian would mean living alongside the poor, being with the poor, working for them; and working for the causes I believe Christ would have worked for. I believe Jesus was a pacifist, and I believe that means I should be one as well. And the implications of that are using non-violent means to work for justice; I’m convinced that non-violent action is a legitimate and positive way of standing up for what I believe in.’
As well as the arms trade, Fr Newell has protested against the use of drones in warfare, and he’s currently directing his energy towards stands against climate change. ‘Climate change is the thing that keeps me awake at night,’ he says. ‘To me, it’s the equivalent of protesting against nuclear weapons in the eighties; in fact, it’s worse than nuclear weapons in one sense, which is that the damage is already being done. With nuclear weapons you could argue that it was about preventing them from being dropped: with climate change, the damage is already taking place. We’re currently sending carbon bombs into the air that will detonate in ten or 15 years’ time – and for some reason, we’re nothing like as scared about the implications as we ought to be.’
Now based in a house where he lives alongside asylum seekers, Fr Newell is part of the leadership team for the Passionists in England and Wales. He helps out in parishes, saying Mass and doing baptisms and funerals: but his vocation, he explains, is about hospitality and resistance. ‘This is my parish, this is my community,’ he explains. ‘The thing I often remember is that Christ was arrested, and so were most of his earliest followers. Should we obey God, or should we obey man? Being arrested isn’t the issue here; the issue is, why have you been arrested? Being a Christian is about being a faithful witness to Christ. We’ve got used to a Church that is part of the establishment, but is that right? Should we be on the side of the establishment?’ That, it seems to him, is one of the biggest questions the Church should be asking itself today.
It has been a busy month. It was great to be at the launch of the Faith and Resistance Network on July 15th. http://www.faithandresistanceblog.wordpress.com I believe the Gospel based non-violent direct action we are trying to support and promote through the network are a true way of ‘keeping alive the memory of the passion’ of Jesus, as well as a realistic effort to ‘explode the dynamite’ of the Gospel.
(Above: Faith and Resistance Network launch)
As an example of the kind of the resistance meant, on July 6th – 7th I took part in a protest outside of, and then a blockade of the UAV Engines factory in Shenstone, just to the north of Birmingham.
The factory is owned by Elbit Systems, the biggest arms Israeli arms company. I’ve been there before for small vigils and other protests in the last three years ago. The factory makes engines for Elbit drones, many of which are sold to the Israeli military, who have used them to bomb Gaza, among other things. Later on I was blocking a gate with a chain wrapped round me, and was one of five arrested. We were taken to Burton police station and held from noon till 2am.
As I see it, we were keeping alive the memory of the passion of Gaza, and entering into the dynamics of the cross. The practice of evangelical non-violent resistance is good news in that it promotes conversion in the sinner, the oppressor, and breaks out of the spiral of violence.
I’ve also beeen helping to gather Christians to take part in the ‘No Faith In War’ day of vigils and direct action, as part of the Stop the Arms Fair week of action before the DSEi Arms Fair. www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk/events/stop-the-arms-fair-week-of-action/
My faith was and is nourished by being part of the ‘great tradition’ of the Church, as seen in the example of the Saints and mystics. In an effort to return the favour, to share an experience of life among the poor and of a Gospel radicalism that is yeast in the dough, we invited Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster Diocese to visit to the London Catholic Worker: www.indcatholicnews.com/news/33002
These are connections of faith and resistance. That is, with Bishops and parishioners on the one hand, and Palestine Solidarity activists – secular, atheist, Muslim as well as Christian – on the other. This I believe to be significant, to bridge the gaps in our world, to enable mutual cross fertilisation of traditions and movements. This is akin to where Jesus stood too. He shared the life of the poor, was faithful to yet critical of his tradition, and sought to resist the powers of his time, with zealots, rebels and and prophets among his followers and inspiration.
This blog is an attempt to ‘keep alive the memory of the Passion’ of Jesus, as Passionists say. It is an attempt to ‘blow the dynamite of Catholic social teaching’ as Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to say. The Passion of Jesus Christ continues in our world today in the crucified of today, the crucified people and the crucified earth. Our crucified God continues to suffer with them and in them. Jesus the non-violent revolutionary showed us and taught us what it means to love and suffer as God does.
My hope is that this blog will inspire and challenge. That it will communicate what I’ve been up to and why. That I will be able to share with those who read it my thoughts on what the world, the Gospel and the God of Jesus Christ call us to.