Tuesday 13 March 2012

Sex-offenders and State-sponsored Abuse

Throughout lent a small group of us from our Church is meeting, in a local members club, to discuss a couple of stories from the papers and try and make sense of them in the light of faith.

I was shocked (which is a rare thing) when I heard in the group of trials in a Nottingham prison for chemically castrating sex-offenders.

The theory is that by destroying the libido of a registered sex-offender the state can reduce the individuals desire to re-offend; to abuse. The prisoners involved have all volunteered to undergo the treatment and it has the backing of both the Health department and the Justice Department.

My first thought, although it took a while to articulate, was: "but this is abuse!". Perhaps they get away with it because our culture has so dehumanised sex-offenders - "They're just animals!" - that we can do terrible things to them without conscience or protest from the tax paying, therefore complicit, public.

The Anarchist Black Cross: Setting Captives Free
In the limited training I've had on managing a community that includes sex-offenders (i.e. the Church) I've only ever heard people say that it is an issue not of sex but of 'power over'. This was something our small group this evening was agreed on.

Furthermore, most sex-offenders are people who themselves have been in some way abused and are acting out of the brokenness that comes with that.

So what we are seeing is a cycle of abuse: someone is abused so they abuse someone else; that person is then caught and submits to sexual abuse from the state in the form of chemical castration.

This makes sense to the "volunteer" who understands the world thus: the powerful predate the powerless and this is morally acceptable therefore the state predates me just as I did to my victims. 

The most powerful moment, for me, in the Eucharist - the act of worship where we break bread together is in this call and response:

"We break this bread to share in the body of Christ:
Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread".

For those who take up the invitation to God's feast in these words there is a new reality to our ethic. Whatever we do to others we do to ourselves and we do to God.

This at least gives us pause for thought, although the state has no such qualms, no such reality. For the state 'might is right' and the logic of the sex-offender only mirrors the logic of the state.

To have power over another makes violence a moral option and dehumanisation a natural result of human relations. The state is the offender is the state.

Monday 12 March 2012

Syria and the tyranny of the Saudi Oil Barons

Life in a Dictatorship

On a visit to the World Social Forum in Mumbai I sat, on the plane, next to a man from Syria. I can't remember all that he said but he spent many hours with me unpacking what was happening in his homeland.

What stays with me the most is something he described as "a great joke in Syria" when I asked him about freedom of the press.  He said, "There are two channels on Syrian TV: on is state sponsored and just shows speeches from Bashar Al-Assad. The other channel is independent; if you turn to that channel it shows a sniper holding up a sign, 'Please change channel'."

At one point the BBC was reporting over a hundred civilian deaths daily in Syria as the government there pounds and punishes the people of Homs. Following his father's three decades of tyranny, Bashar Al-Assad has only notched up 12 years. But why is the uprising happening now?

Saudi Arabia and the Christians of Syria

The reasons are always complex but here's one fundamental reason why Syria is under attack: The Al-Sauds want him out. 

In the Church Times this week we hear reports of Christians who support Al-Assad's government because under his dictatorship their traditions and identities are 'safe' from a Saudi-style of Islam. All dictatorships work this way: they justify tyrrany through providing peace and security to the many at the expense of some.

But the bigger picture is not one we hear about often in our own 'free press': "Throughout the Middle East, there is a growing fear that heavy-handed Arab diplomacy, led by Qatar and other Gulf states, looking out for their own particular interests, is pushing Syria expeditiously into civil war."

Al-Saud: A Global Mafia

It is amazing that, despite the involvement of the Al-Sauds in so many of the violent contexts in modern history they rarely appear in our news agencies stories. Perhaps it's because they own most of one of the biggest (News International)? Perhaps it's because they have such huge influence of powerful families like that of George W. Bush?

Perhaps it's because they may have enough oil to hold the entire planet hostage? I suspect that is exactly what they do.

Powerdown as we Fast for Peace

I can't think of any conflict that isn't about mineral resources and/or food in some way. We can look at the complicated mechanics of global violence, and we should, but ultimately people want food, shelter, and autonomy. Most of Jesus' parables were about these things and yet much of Christian public talk ignores them.

The move to 'powerdown' our addiction to fossil fuels should be at the core of any anti-war movement. I have stood outside military bases and trespassed at a nuclear weapons factory, and supported others in the same.

But I am increasingly aware that the violence I see on my TV screen leads directly back to me: a minority world person of privilege.

The prophet Isaiah wrote,

"Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa. 58: 6 - 7)

But Isaiah knew that we need both kinds of fasting if we are too see the connection between an emerging civil war in Syria and oil-dependent lives of rich and poor alike.

This Lent many Christians are finding ways to reduce their carbon footprints as well as focussing on issues of injustice. To me that's a sign of hope. We fast from our lifestyles because we see the 'bonds of injustice' fastened up to the lives we choose to live.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Police PLC is nothing new but neither is a world without Police

Con/Dem Government plans to further privatise the police force have shocked even the Police Federation into making a response. But a long view of policing may help us understand what 'core policing' really is and why for governments that prioritise the interests of elites the privatisation of the police force is a natural evolution of the institution. 

Policing As Usual
As a priest I have lots of experience of working alongside PCSOs who are loved and trusted in our community. Though they were originally thought to be 'policing on the cheap' what they are to us is an encouragement for those involved in community organising around the estate. 

My experience of police, however, is rarely that good. When I got beaten up in night club they said, "well if you're injuries were worse we could find 'em but as it is we can't". When my bike was stolen and I found the person who did it on CCTV the police "forgot" to pick up the tape. When my neighbours attacked our visitors and stole our camera we asked the police to arbitrate they declined, "you can press charges if you like, but that's it." 
But when I exercised my right, with others, to protest the Iraq reoccupation they kettled us in telling us "this is for your own safety", in a loud hailer. When I joined a Critical Mass bike ride they gave out leaflets with intimidating misinformation and tried to provoke violence by pushing at the rear riders and stalling the ones in front. The police will defend the rights of corporate institutions to evict poor communities from the land or from property and will not discuss the matter with anyone less they be deemed as getting 'involved'. 

So the privatisation of the police force is terrible but it does not mean a huge change in policing. Yes, it will be far more expensive for the tax payer, that's a 'no brainer'. Yes, it will decrease accountability and transparency of policing. But the tax burden of policing will always be born by those with the least to gain from their presence and the number of unaccountable deaths in custody in the UK continues to rise without much investigation. Write now the Leveson inquiry is looking at issues of endemic police corruption over recent years because of the corporate interests of the media. 

Police who Protest!
But even the police are taking a strong political position now. And that's almost without precedent. Vice chair of the Police Federation Simon Reed writes, "This is not a solution. Chief officers must no longer bury their heads in the sand; they should instead stand up for what is right for the public and protect the police service from any further dismantling by this government." 

Police PLC (Business as usual)
Former (disgraced) London Met. Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair - no stranger to bullshit - claims that what is taking place is "not privatisation" at all; it's "outsourcing" which is different; apparently. What has forced this issue into public consciousness recently is the move by West Midlands and Surrey police to contract out not only the work but the oversight of the work of what is often considered to be core policing: this may include guarding prisoners and taking witness statements and other tasks that rely on what we have come to believe to be the political neutrality of the police force. 

So how did it all begin. One of the most important Christian writers on the subject of policing is co-founder of 'Jesus Radicals' Andy Alexis-Baker. Andy is a Mennonite and has been sharply critically of the way the Mennonite tradition, with origins and a proud identity as a peace church, has given concessions to the violence of the state.

Alexis-Baker traces the police back as far as the estate-manager roll of the Norman Sheriff, imposed on the people under William the Bastards reforms from 1066 onwards. But we needn't go that far back to discover that policing has always been about preserving an unjust status quo. In 1829 when the Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced his more formalised Metropolitan Police Force it was met with huge resistance from libertarians of all kinds and was seen as an infringement on human rights and an attempt entirely focused on what was seen as social disorder among poor people without reference to the rich. Indeed, it was often possible to buy ones way into the police force in its early years.

Whether directly governed by the state or sold off to the private sector the police force has always primarily to persuade ordinary people to follow rules set by a ruling elite who have been bought out by an even more elite class of landowners.

A World Without Policing is Possible
We struggle to imagine a world without police mostly because we have hardly begun to build a world without police. Our dependence is such that we cannot imagine what we do, in situations of conflict, were it not for their intervention; even if they too are helpless in response to crime.

Saint Francis's refusal to accumulate possessions, or have anything to do with money, was, in part, a deliberate refusal to be complicit with the violence of those who took the role of protector. He realised that if he did not possess then he could not be stolen from and, for the most part, the issue of good or bad policing becomes a moot point.

When the police failed to help me with violent neighbours it was the local residents group and the Church I turned to for support, both groups were already an important part of my life and of the community. But we had built few mechanisms for helping one another with conflict: we relied on the police out of our own helplessness. In the end my partner and I chose to love and serve our neighbours, despite the continuing abuse. The apostle Paul was right: it "heaped burning coals on their heads" and as their brains warmed up a bit they learned to love back. Well, a bit, anyway!

Jesus and the apostle Paul said we should "love our enemies," it is difficult to see how locking someone up, beating the shit out of them, or using restraining techniques that are proven to cause fatalities is an act of love. If we want a safer, happier world then state policing or Police Plc neither will create the changes needed. That's our job. Or as Gandhi put it: be the change you want to see in the world. A world without policing was possible and could be possible again.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Moral Intervention: The New Just War Theory

Moral intervention is the new Just War Theory that's all about liberating the people good and hard. National sovereignty is sacrificed to the moral violence of a United Nations dominated by the usual suspects vying for power around the world. Meanwhile both the cost and causes of war are forgotten. 

Tony Blair and the Moral Military Imperative
For nearly three years, from 1992 to 1995, a horrific international conflict took place in what was Yugoslavia. In interviews, before and after the reoccupation of Iraq, Tony Blair called UN intervention in Kosovo a "moral crusade" borrowing the language of the centuries earlier slaughters in the name of western 'Christian powers'. Intervention into selective regimes has become the new catch all for Just War Theories and we seem to love it.

Blair then used this conflict as an example of the value of international intervention in domestic conflicts. Comparing the Yugoslav war to the present and continuing reoccupation of Iraq. New documents released by wikileaks, pointing to the IMF as at fault, remind us that Tony Blair's remedy and Blair's disease are not far removed one from the other: violence begets violence. 

We will never know what else could have been done sooner or instead of UN military intervention but we can know that those who wage war always seem to have the most to gain and the least to lose and that social unrest doesn't come out of nowhere – the violence begins with the way empire exploits and frustrates poor communities around the world.

The moral argument for 'pre-emptive humanitarian intervention', or 'just war theory' as we used to call it, has levered open the case for war against the governments of Libya and Iraq and will soon be used against the government of Iran. It hasn't been used against the DRC, Zimbabwe or Israel despite each having among the worst human rights records in modern history. But there are reasons in each case for western moralisers like Blair to look away. 

Finding the real Causes and Cures for Conflict
In order to truly understand a humanitarian response to conflict one must first understand the causes of a conflict. A fire is not always put out with water, for example, an oil fire would only be exacerbated by water and needs smothering instead. Or, if we are in a boat that is filling with water we may choose to bail out but first we should find out where the water is coming in. If someone is using a pick axe to bail out the boat you can be pretty sure that's the cause of the problem and not the solution.

Previously secret documents from the private intelligence agency 'Stratfor' have been released by Anonymous and Wikileaks relating to the Bosnian conflict. They reveal one of the most important causes of the war: the IMF. Blair, then British Prime Minister, did more than any other British premier - even more than Margaret Thatcher - to push the sort of global neo-liberal economics that crippled countries like Bosnia. 

In the document from 2009, titled 'Europe Analytical Guidance', Stratfor speculate as the possible violence that may result from IMF austerity measure imposed on countries like Greece. They write: “Don’t forget, the IMF austerity measures imposed on Yugoslavia was in part to blame for the start of the war there. We need to be aware of any economically motivated social discontentment.”

The document only pins part of the blame on the IMF, and that's fair enough, any conflict is complex and it wouldn't honour anyone to boil it all down to one despotic supra-national and monstrous institution. 

But we know there is a link between economic injustice and social unrest. If the 1930s depression taught us anything it's that mass feelings of powerlessness lead masses to hand over authority the strong-arm powers and find scapegoats for their abstracted problems.

What Bosnia needed was not more intervention from the UN it was less intervention from world banks and transnational corporations that were allowed to roam free across the lands for Serb and Croat alike, atomising households, alienating neighbours and creating an insatiable restlessness for whatever privileges 'the other' seems to have.

Colonial powers never stop claiming to be a force for good in the world. It's what Alexander the Great, the Caesars, and The British Raj did and it's what Tony Blair never tired from doing and continues with to this day with his 'Faith Foundation' that continues his programme of lining the pockets of the few at the expense of the many.

Tribute to the Powers but Peace from God
The early church knew of this propagandising of war first hand. St Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Church, 'They say “peace and security” but sudden destruction will come upon them' (1 Thess. 5: 3). “Peace and Security” was the Roman Peace promised through brutal Roman conquest of land and expropriation of resources. But the peace of Jesus was not the peace of pacification; it was the peace of self-sacrificial compassion and reconciliation.

Tertullian , the theologian who most carefully articulated the doctrine of the Trinity of God, called idolatry. This remains obvious in its inversion in the Churches these days. The Archbishop of York, writingin 'The Sun' newspaper recently, called on the people of Britain to “pay tribute” to armed forces – borrowing directly from Roman Imperial language: a tribute is a tax exacted by a conquered and humiliated people to show submission to the powers-that-be. 

Recently the Syrian government has been killing Syrian people in unprecedented numbers. Russia and China vetoed any UN resolution that threatened 'humanitiarian intervention'. There reasons may be as immoral as US/UK reasons for firing up the drones of war but their case was solid - intervention is never moral, it is always political.

Drone Wars: Public Meeting and Peace Vigil