Martin Newell, an ordained Catholic priest, is well-known for his hands-on approach to peace-making. He has confronted the British dragon of war in its many dens: the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall, the obscene military bases that litter our countryside and the headquarters of the arms manufacturers. His tactics have included the cutting of perimeter fences, “criminal” damage to nuclear-weapon storage facilities, picketing, vigils, pray-ins and graffiti written with “blessed charcoal”.
As a member of an intentional community (the London Catholic Workers) he is rarely alone in these actions as he can call on a big band of supporters that includes nuns and ex-soldiers, as well as non-Catholics, and even non-Christians such as myself.
The timing of his actions often relates to the church’s calendar. For example, the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the massacre of new-born babes by Herod at the time of the Nativity. For Martin this is an apt moment to pray for those innocents being slaughtered every day by British troops in the Middle East (“collateral damage” as the army calls them). Or to make the point more vividly by going further than just praying….
Ash Wednesday is celebrated by using ashes, or at least “blessed charcoal” as a symbolic substitute, to write slogans on the Ministry of Defence walls. Last year Martin’s comrades distracted the MOD police long enough for him to write slogans four feet high and twenty five feet long: “GOD SAYS DISARM TRIDENT NUCLEAR BOMBS”, “TRIDENT = DEATH MACHINE”, and “GOD IS PEACE AND LOVE”.
Other actions take place on the anniversary of Jesus’ non-violent cleansing of the temple (i.e. driving out the money-lenders). This is the day of Non-Violent Resistance in some Christian circles.
- Thanks to him, an (empty) nuclear weapons convoy truck at RAF Wittering was put out of action for 6 months, after he inflicted £32000 worth of damage on it. This “Ploughshares” action was inspired by the prophecies of Isaiah: ” He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.” (2:4) (Micah chapter 4 echoes these sentiments precisely.)
- Thanks to him MOD personnel as well as members of the general public have been sensitised to the questionable nature of taxpayer-funded atrocities being committed in our name in lands far away.
- Thanks to him people are becoming aware that there is an alternative (non-muslim) way of looking at Britain’s involvement overseas besides the one purveyed in our media everyday.
The price he pays: Activism doesn’t come cheap. Martin “puts his money where his mouth is”. The trouble is, he is no longer a parish priest but is in charge of a night shelter for homeless refugees in London, and he hasn’t got any money! His unwillingness to pay fines in court means he often gets jailed for his actions. He has lost count of the number of times he has been arrested, but he thinks it’s about twenty. He has been imprisoned four times, usually one to two weeks at a time, for non-payment of fines. The longest stretch was six months after the Wittering Ploughsares action. When I interviewed him in May 2013, he had just received a bailiffs’ letter subsequent to his latest refusal to pay up.
He has been banned by his bail conditions from going anywhere near the MOD, and it is because he accidentally broke these conditions that he spent two weeks in a police cell during Easter this year.
Motivated by his faith: Martin’s account of what motivates him is not easy for me, as a non-catholic, to grasp. It involves a way of seeing things that is new to me. Bear with me. I hope I have got it straight. Martin’s key phrase when he explained it to me was “redemptive suffering”. By “redemptive” he means “bringing individuals to wholeness”. By “suffering” he is referring to the suffering that one receives when one participates in any Non-Violent Resistance whether to evil, injustice or violence. Practitioners of N.V. must therefore expect to suffer the consequences of their actions, but by “suffering away” the evil they confront they are breaking the “spiral of violence”. This is the desired outcome, their “reward” if you like. They are called to express a “suffering love” wherever they find a situation where people are victims. The practitioners’ suffering is not just a loss – a fine, a defeat, incarceration; it is an act of witness (my phrase), a deeply meaningful event. The hoped- for outcome is an escape from the spiral of violence.
Surely this imitates the crucifixion of Jesus: death at the height of his powers, demoralisation of his followers; an event implying total defeat by any “sensible” criteria an analytical outside observer might employ. Yet….Look what happened subsequently!
Positive outcomes: People are transformed, whether participants, onlookers or MOD personnel. At least one person can be expected to have a crisis of conscience, (probably Catholics more than others, I speculate) at each of these non-violent events. When people are touched they start to question the official line- “here are a priest and a nun and others with pictures of Jesus and crosses- all questioning the very means by which I choose to earn my daily bread!” Such sentiments can reverberate around the military. Even the hard-boiled MOD police in Whitehall may be influenced: “We’re just doing our job” doesn’t exactly resonate with conviction!
In court Martin said “If the Ministry of Defence’s preparations for mass destruction are not a crime, then the word has no meaning.”
Find out more about the Catholic Workers on their website: londoncatholicworker.org
and see my previous zingcreed blogs “Now that’s what I call practical christianity #1 (Shannon) and #3 (Homeless)”.
Please note that Martin’s kind agreement to be interviewed by me for this blog in no way implies approval by him of the contents of other pages. Zingcreed is a christian/atheist polemic that pisses off atheists and christians alike.
Peter Turner (25.5.2013)