Saturday, 6 November 2010

MoD newspeak

Whatever the truth of the allegations against UK armed forces interrogation centre in Iraq, the response of their officials is a classic example of imperial deception, hubris, and political newspeak.

1. "Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat armed forces minister, said the MoD should be allowed to investigate the matter itself, adding: 'A costly public inquiry would be unable to investigate individual criminal behaviour or impose punishments. Any such inquiry would arguably therefore not be in the best interests of the individual complainants who have raised these allegations.'"

Brilliant argument: a government department should not be investigated in public because such an inquiry would make individual prosecutions difficult. Excellent stuff. At first I thought that he must be a lawyer, but it turns out that he used to work in marketing and public relations.

2. "Brigadier John Donnelly of the MoD's Judicial Engagement Policy department said: 'We have set up the dedicated Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) to investigate them as quickly and thoroughly as possible.'"

Excellent use of newspeak: to treat events that are alleged to have happened seven years ago as "historic allegations" nicely likens it all to, say, allegations about abuse during the Napoleonic wars. Nothing really to do with us now, to be sure. Perhaps they have some former advertising executives working for them.

The prophets used pretty vitriolic language to lambast their own rulers and the elite. According to the gospels, Jesus did not mince his words either. Not that there is any chance at all of this happening in the UK; certainly not in the leadership. Sadly, there are few churches left (anywhere, I might add) where such language, or any, can be used to hold the powerful to account. I suppose it makes us feel a little better to prevaricate; avoid social analysis; or, in some cases, turn around and oppress others ourselves: 'let's hunt down gays', for example.

Sometimes I wonder whether anyone can seriously remain a Christian without considering every day why we haven't left 'the church' yet. Personally, if I had not started quite some time ago to divorce my understanding of 'church' from the 'really existing churches' (to paraphrase East Germany's real existierender Sozialismus), I would long have left and shaken the dust off my sandals.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


I like to read several books at the same time (not to mention things directly related to teaching and research). At the moment I am trying to read, amongst other things, Achmat Dangor's "Bitter Fruit", and Stephen Clingman's "Bram Fischer". I am struggling with the latter, and had to give up on the former. Achmat Dangor's book in particular brings up too many bad memories: old stuff from South Africa is coming up in bad dreams.

This rarely happened before. Perhaps the crap from Pietermaritzburg (1987-1994) affected me more than I wanted to admit to myself: after all, nothing 'bad' ever happened to me. I never got detained and tortured; I never got shot or beaten up. I was so irrelevant to the regime that they did not even trouble themselves to deport me. Even with the few close calls included, when I managed to duck in time, run faster than the gunmen from Inkatha [1], or when Felicity smoothly found the reverse gear in her ancient Ford Escort, just in the nick of time to get us away from an Inkatha mob picking up stones to kill us - I was never injured. No physical scars, anyhow.

I know I am not a courageuous person by nature; there were years when I had a knot in my stomach every time I drove into Imbali township - I often had to fight the urge to stay behind. I guess that is why I refused to admit that the apartheid era could have damaged me. Thousands got killed, many more detained and tortured - what right do I have to feel troubled?

Where I am going with this? Heaven knows.

[1] Gerhard Mare & Georgina Hamilton, An appetite for power: Buthelezi's Inkatha and South Africa;
Monika Wittenberg, Einfach nichts tun, das geht auch nicht! Aus einem südafrikanischen Tagebuch: Aufzeichnungen und Briefe, 1985-1989;
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Videotape Collection.

Friday, 13 August 2010

R.I.P. Jimmy Reid

The sort of person who only makes it into the public spotlight today when he dies. Never met the man, and I don't know what he was like as a person, but ... what a life. Pity his 'rat race' speech is not available online. Ironically, given who he was and what he stood for, it's kept behind a paywall by the NY Times.

R.I.P, comrade.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


Conflict brutalises all sides. Nothing new in that, of course. But language is often the first thing that you notice unless you are right in the middle of it (and then it's even harder to notice your own brutalisation). It works at all levels - it is not just the people who beat or shoot their victims; it affected Adolf Eichmann just as much as his concentration camp guards, and in its own way also the victims inside, as Elie Wiesel and others have shown in their recollections. I am not talking about guilt and sin here: what I mean is the sometimes slow process of becoming less sensitive, more hateful (or whatever), and so on.

It should therefore not be a surprise us that the Metropolitan Police Force in Britain decided on a bizarre plan to limit prostitution by posting photos, names and dates of birth of sex workers in a certain area, even if they had never been convicted of a crime. Some newspapers (if you can call the Sun, for example, a newspaper), then printed this information. Note that their clients are not 'named and shamed' that way. I hope that some lawyers will take the Met to court over this, but is not my point here. Nor do want to mention it to highlight the process by which the police forces' obligation to keep the law (supposedly), regardless of what it is, also leads to a disregard for what we used to call common sense, but which turned out to be a special skill called social analysis. No, what I am really want to say here is this: it seems to me that police officers have to deal with the awful, depressing, and sordid side of humanity so much, ever day of their working lives, that they become brutalised through that process (assuming that they all went in as "nice people" in the first place, which is not realistic either). Down that track lies abuse of power. That is why good supervision is so important, not to mention political oversight. But the latter, precisely because party politics is understood and practicd as self-entrenching power politics, is usually missing.

The same goes for the curious remarks of the current immigration minister in Britain, Mr Damian Green concerning the Oakington detention centre (oops, I mean, immigration reception facility). There is that odd idea of speaking about 'detention estate', meaning the range of prison-like facilities available to lock up certain people accused of being in the country illegally. And there is that curious slippage from accusation to conviction and execution, all in the form of one institition (the executive), when he states:

"For the past 10 years, Oakington has housed hundreds of immigration offenders and allowed us to remove those with no right to be in the country."

Actually, it's been many thousands of people who have gone through that prison-like place. And it's a nice populist thing for a government to say, of course; new labour, tory - whatever. Xenophobia always works.

The point is, however, that the police and immigration officials accused them of being in the country illegally. The legal avenues open to them (to challenge the immigration officers' determination of their situation) had not been exhausted yet. Put differently, for people like Mr Green, people are 'offenders' if he says they are. Sod the law.

This is particularly important to note because the previous government introduced a deliberate strategy to use Oakington and other places to subvert the whole legal process by routinely turning down asylum claims in the first instance with the most pathetically flimsy decisions, many of which were overturned in the process later on. After all, if you simply turn down almost everyone in the first instance, you have effectively removed it as a real legal instance. In fact, Oakington was created for a 'fast-track' process of getting people through the legal instaces and out of the country as quickly as possible. Only callous, brutal disregard for people's lives can cause this kind of awful strategy. Not surprisingly, the immigration officials who were given the task of putting this strategy in effect were the first to be brutalised by the system (not to mention their victims). Once again, the effects of brutalisation at all levels: a government is faced with the task of dealing with a large number of often desparate immigrants (for whatever reason), and has to respond to this by inventing a system. That is where bureaucracy comes in; that is where brutalisation (at the level of bureaucracy) comes in.

[I mention these examples here only because I still keep an eye on British politics, having lived there for eight years and a bit. The same thing happens everywhere, of course; Britain is just like every other place. But the fact that "others are doing it, too" is never an ethical argument.]

Brutalisation also affect those who are victims of the system, and/or those who fight it. It is part of a self-defense mechanism, I suppose, to avoid ending up crying in a corner every day. For example, I think it is almost impossible to work with people who have been beaten up, shot, or callously mistreated in other ways, without becoming desensitised in some ways. You can't go to funeral after funeral of victims of violence without shutting down something in yourself. How much worse for the victims, if they are still alive, and their relatives. And it is hard, really hard, to love your enemies. That is where brutalisation kreeps in. I certainly know that it happens in me, and I have seen it in many others.

In the third part of his meditative poem addressed 'To those who will be born after us', Bertold Brecht expressed it thus:

Auch der Hass gegen die Niedrigkeit
Verzerrt die Züge.
Auch der Zorn über das Unrecht
Macht die Stimme heiser. Ach, wir
Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit
Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.

Hard to translate (I don't think the translation offered in the link above is all that accurate, but that is understandable - neither is mine):

Hatred of awfulness, too,
will distort your face into a grimace.
Anger about injustice, too,
makes your voice hoarse. Oh we
who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
were not able to be friendly ourselves.

Brecht's mistake is to accept that those who struggle against injustice are doomed to accept their own brutalisation. It happens, of course. But this brutalisation has to be fought, not just in our enemies, but also in ourselves.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Intercessory prayer

"Intercession is:

not an alibi for some kind of passivity;
it is the continuation of the struggle with other means;
it is the indispensable prolongation of political action and of participation in the class struggle on the side of the victims of exploitation and domination.

It is an act of modesty,
not of demobilization,
the expression of lucid realism,
not of discouragement,
even less of any sort of resignation.

What matters is that I am always conscious of both the indispensable character and the relitivity of the work in which I am engaged with others; waiting for that great final liberation, there are small steps, limited advances, towards more justice and respect for man in this world in which we live. As long as I breathe, I will not rest nor be indifferent toward these brothers, comrades, companions, and those I do not know, who are reduced to the last moral and physical extremity..."

Georges Casalis, "Torture and Prayer", International Review of Mission 66 (1977) p. 240.

The language of George Casalis (1917-1987) is that of his time, but I find his point still worth remembering. Casalis was a remarkable man; his story is hardly known in the English-speaking world (and it isn't that much better in German or French either). His most well-known book, Correct Ideas don't fall from the Sky (orig.: Les idées justes ne tombent pas du ciel, 1977) gives us one, relatively late, insight. I wish I had the time to read more by and about him, and perhaps write, too.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Cluster bombs, and those who want to continue using them

The 'Convention on Cluster Munitions' comes into effect tomorrow, 1st of August 2010. The ICRC's website has useful information on what these infernal devices do, and why we need to get rid of them.

So, today the Convention becomes binding international law. Well, ... for the states that signed the Convention, that is. It does not affect the proud countries (or rather, their governments) that chose not to. The list of signatories shows, or rather does not show, a number of important countries that have refused to sign: USA, Russia, Israel (who have recently used them), Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, and North and South Korea. What a lovely bunch of truly "rogue states".

A lament to God which holds together both trust and desparate plea in the face of the enemy (Psalm 13):

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Monday, 26 July 2010

If involved in conflict resolution, don't go to the USA

A lot of lawyers and humanitarian law workers will have to think hard about whether it is safe to set foot in the US. This includes people working in conflict resolution organizations. Advising prescribed armed groups, for example, that it is a good idea not to lay anti-personnel landmines (something the USA incidentally still does not wish to ban), is now a crime.

(By the way: humanitarian law = law of armed conflict.)

In "Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project" (21 June 2010), the US Supreme Court concluded that giving legal advice to groups proscribed by the US government as "terrorist organizations" is to be construed as 'material support', and hence a crime (18 U. S. C. §2339B(a)(1)), punishable by up to a life-term in jail. The prosecutions have not started yet, but that is no guarantee that you won't be the first.

What can I say to that? Well, actually, the hypocricy of the system leaves me almost speechless. Once again I turn to Job's rhetorical questions:

"Shall one who hates justice govern? Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty, who says to a king, 'You scoundrel!' and to princes, 'You wicked men!'; who shows no partiality to nobles, nor regards the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands?" (Job 34:17-19)

Well, one might say to brother Job, it must be said that in many places, including the USA, those who hate justice do indeed govern. They do have lots of company in other places, but that's no excuse.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

(No) justice and police violence

In some countries, it is normal for police to meet out its own form of "justice" right there and then - beating up suspected 'criminals' as a matter of routine, in public or behind closed doors, with or without subsequent arrest and trial (for the accused, not the police, naturally). In some countries, this is just the way it is, even though it is usually officially denied.

All the more important, one would think, that in countries where this is not supposed to happen, all efforts are undertaken to prevent the abuse of power by police officers in its most obvious form: physical violence. Of course, the old (German) saying applies: eine Krähe hackt der anderen kein Auge aus (a crow won't hack away at the eye of another), something for which I haven't found an equivalent in English yet. The system will see to it that the police will get away with it.

[Update, 28 July: perhaps something will happen after all.]

And so, on the very anniversary of the extra-judicial murder of Juan Charles de Menezes in 2005 (or should we say, accidental killing due to racist incompetence - ater all, it was de Menezes' own fault that he 'looked Middle Eastern' and happened to live in the wrong building), the British Crown Prosecution Service decides to announce that it will not prefer charges against the police officer who struck Ian Tomlinson. Tomlinson, a passer-by at a demonstration in London in 2009, had been struck from behind while walking home; he died soon after that.

Excellent timing, not to mention the bizarre legal twist to this:

First of all, apparently the statute of limitations on common assault is six months. This means, it would seem, that this police officer cannot even be charged with assault (instead of culpable homicide or some greater charge), even though it seems obvious that he struck a man from behind who had not physically threatened him. There are eye-witnesses and there is video footage of the attack.

Secondly, the reasoning of the CPS was that three pathologists had come to different conclusions: the first had not found a connection between Tomlinson's assault injuries and his subsequent death; the other two pathologists did. However, the first pathologist is known for alleged incompetence in several cases, as for example George Monbiot points out:

"A Home Office standards committee had already ruled that [the first pathologist] had not maintained professional standards in three other cases, after he had failed to detect what appeared to be clear evidence of injuries. He is facing a disciplinary hearing before the General Medical Council for alleged incompetence in 26 cases."

Great stuff. One can only hope with de Menezes' cousin, that the Tomlinson family (and their lawyer) won't give up in their search for some kind of justice. Not that it will give life to to the victims. Not that it has helped (so far) the de Menezes' family - absolutely nobody has even been reprimanded, never mind charged, for de Menezes' execution.

The scriptures take it for granted that justice is applied in a society that is governed wisely. Hence Job's rhetorical questions:

"Shall one who hates justice govern? Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty, who says to a king, 'You scoundrel!' and to princes, 'You wicked men!'; who shows no partiality to nobles, nor regards the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands?" (Job 34:17-19)

Or the solemn curses of Dt 27:

"'Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.' All the people shall say, 'Amen!'" (Deuteronomy 27:19

Of course, the perversion of justice happened all the time, but it was always seen as a sign of a perverted state of affairs:

"When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. ... Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice." (1 Samuel 8:1-3)

And thus the Psalmist's prayer:

"O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear, to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more." (Psalm 10:17-18)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

22 July 1944

66 years ago, the most well-known plot to kill Hitler and carry out a coup, was attempted - and failed. If Stauffenberg had remained with his bomb to ensure its effectiveness, sacrificing himself, it might have worked. But it was thought necessary to use him in Berlin for the aftermath - with fatal consequences, since (it is thought) the briefcase containing the bomb was moved after he left. No other plan ever got as far as this, apart from Georg Elser's one-man-show in 1939, which missed Hitler by 20 minutes, and a bomb smuggled on one of Hitler's aircraft in 1943, which failed to explode.

It is true that some of the participants were part of the old military and Prussian aristocratic elite, with some rather odd ideas about where Germany should go once the Nazis had been gotten rid of. Some had influential posts in the military and justice system, and had no qualms, for instance, about having deserter shots. But they were by no means the only ones involved. There were trade unionist, social democrats, dedicated civil servants in the liberal tradition, and so on.

No doubt it did not help that the Allied forces had no interest in co-operating with or even encouraging a coup. The British foreign minister, Anthony Eden (who had been told about the plan in 1942 by Bishop George Bell), apparently thought of the coup plotters as traitors and told Adam Trott, the courier, that no encouragement could be given unless the plotters revealed themselves and offered a visible sign of their intentions. It is hard to think of something more naive than that. By the same token, Churchill's speech in the House of Commons in August 1944 grossly and perhaps deliberately misinterpreted the events of the 20th of July as in-fighting among the Nazi-elite.

Hitler used the attempted coup to have many thousands of dissidents, whether involved in the plot or not, murdered. A new way of hanging was used: hanging on a butcher's hook, being slowly throttled to death by a piano wire. Hitler had some of the murders recorded on film. Others died, in ways no less cruel, by guillotine or bullet.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alfred Delp, and other Christian martyrs were among those who died. In one of the preparatory meetings, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been asked by his friend and fellow 'plotter', Hans von Dohnanyi: what about Matthew 26:52? After all, this plot had a real chance to succeed, and could have brought an end to the murderous regime. 'Yes', said Bonhoeffer. Mt 26:52 applies. The consequences have to be born by those who commit the sin. Guilt has to be accepted, as well as its consequences. There is no simple 'right or wrong'. (J. W. de Gruchy, Daring, trusting spirit: Bonhoeffer's friend Eberhard Bethge, London: SCM, 2005, p. 46)

And hence they went to their deaths.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

On not accepting torture

The wheels of justice systems turn very slowly (if at all), but sometimes things happen, or at least promise to happen. Let's see whether something will happen here:

Foreign Office officials 'backed Guantanamo detentions'

Classified documents reveal UK's role in abuse of its own citizens

If we take the torture preceding the judicial murder of Jesus Christ seriously in the context of a theology of the atonement, there cannot be a Christian justification of torture. Of course, for most of our history, Christians have used the instrument of torture, both among themselves and on 'the other', abandoning the witness of the scriptures, not to mention the memory of the terrible experience of torture by the first Christian generations.

Literature relevant for the issue of torture and theology is actually relatively limited. Some examples include:
  • Casalis, Georges, 1977. Torture and prayer. International Review of Mission 66 (263), pp. 240-243.
  • Cavanaugh, William T., 1998. Torture and Eucharist: theology, politics, and the body of Christ. (Challenges in contemporary theology.) Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Cavanaugh, William T., 2006. The Sacrifice of Love: The Eucharist as Resistance to Terror and Torture (Newman College Dom Helder Camara Lecture Series, 1 June 2006).
  • Cavanaugh, William T., 2009. Telling the truth about ourselves: torture and eucharist in the U.S. popular imagination. .
  • Herbert, T. Walter, 2009. Faith-based war: from 9/11 to catastrophic success in Iraq. London: Equinox.
  • Hunsinger, George ed., 2008. Torture is a moral issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of conscience speak out. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Kolbet, Paul R., 2008. Torture and Origen's hermeneutics of nonviolence. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76 (3), pp. 545-572.
  • Ortiz, Dianna & Davis, Patricia, 2002. The blindfold's eyes: my journey from torture to truth. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  • Rejali, Darius M., 2007. Torture and democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Scott, George Ryley, 1940. The history of torture throughout the ages. London: T. W. Laurie.
  • Tombs, David, 1999. Crucifixion, state terror, and sexual abuse. Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53 (1/2), pp. 89-109.
  • Yearsley, David Gaynor, 2009. Bach on Torture: Mr. Cheney, They're Playing Your Song. Counterpunch June 12-14.

Homo Christianus est homo politicus

Being a Christian means being political - not in the sense of party politics, but in the broader sense of politics as that which affects the life of the polis, the city, that is, human life. Since the 1980s, much of public discourse on Christian faith and politics has been dominated by a right-wing political agenda. This blog is a small voice to fight this by redirecting our perception of what happens in this world by means of evaluating it in terms of Jesus Christ, the liberator of the poor and oppressed (Luke 4). Put differently, it is an attempt to read, as Karl Barth said, the newspaper (as a metaphor for what happens in the world) and the scriptures (as a witness to Jesus Christ) together. A luta continua.