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Interview: Sue Claydon, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship chair

21 December 2017

‘A US major told me: “you people serve a very important purpose’”

Central to Jesus’s teaching are the two great commandments: to love God and our neighbour — including, specifically, our enemies; and we’re directed to do good to those who attack us, and not return violence for violence. The Anglican Pacifist Fellowship [APF] is here to witness to that teaching, even as the stresses of the 21st century increase.


If you’re against war, you can never stop working for peace. When people hear the word pacifist, they think it’s spelled “passive-ist”, i.e. “I won’t be involved in this nasty world.” Or else it’s just unrealistic. Some think you seek reconciliation after violence. In military terms, peacekeeping forces can sometimes defuse conflicts using little actual violence.


The APF is celebrating its 80th anniversary. It was founded in 1937 by Canon Dick Sheppard and others, attracting people like Vera Brittain, who wanted to voice opposition to using war again to solve differences — after “the war to end wars”. If the world is to be saved, the power of non-violence will help save it.


We’re in a minority in the Church: we must show that our dream of a world without war is realistic. It’s a daunting task — but then many things once considered unrealistic, like abolishing legalised slavery, did come to fruition.


I read somewhere that only about $10 billion was spent on peacebuilding in 2016, which is about half a per cent of the $1.72 trillion spent on the military in the same period, and less than one per cent of the $1.04 trillion lost to economic growth caused by war. Every $1 invested in peacebuilding reduces the costs of war by $16. So peacebuilding works, if it’s consistent and well-funded.


Violence hasn’t worked. And we’re still paying for the fallout from the Civil War, Germany in the 1920s, the Middle East. . . We really don’t learn from history. But war has changed. They don’t now start one day in August and end years later one day in November. And rape, always consequent on war, is now planned and on a massive scale.


Wherever I wear my “War is expensive. Peace is priceless” T-shirt, people stop me and say, “Boy, is that ever true!” There’s a general yearning for peace in the whole world — apart from among arms dealers. How we avoid the knee-jerk reaction of violence to violence is far more elusive.


For me, the duty to protect is very important. But that doesn’t mean that violence is the only, or even the best, way to protect. Police have a duty to use force to protect someone being attacked, but not to beat the attackers. We need peacekeepers. The UN is very flawed, but we must have it.


The APF supported conscientious objectors, and became involved in social projects as an alternative to military duties, including the Hungerford Club, which sheltered Londoners during the Blitz. Conscientious objection still is an issue in many places. Many Somalian refugees are men and women who refused to do mandatory military service. President Kennedy said: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”


We help schools with peace education. We publish The Anglican Peacemaker. We work with the Network of Christian Peace Organisations. We help people take action. If you take assemblies, please use Peace Education Network materials.


We issued a Call to Prayer for World Peace in 1974; 43 years on, the Week of Prayer for World Peace is held in many countries. We also sponsor the Wilson/Hinkes Peace Award for grass-roots peacemaking.


We work closely with Christian CND, and just applied to join the Community of the Cross of Nails at Coventry. We’re sponsoring the Peace and Faith project at the Peace Museum in Bradford, bringing women together from across faith groups. We’ve a new travelling exhibition for British cathedrals, “Faith and Peace”, looking at the three Abrahamic faiths, using textiles created by the women in Bradford.


Lance Robinson and Paul Oestreicher launched APF New Zealand in 1952, spreading to 37 countries of the Anglican Communion, together with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship in the United States. Their perspectives are important to help us understand. I first learned this when the lecturer asked my postgrad class: “How many people died in Vietnam last week?” One woman said: “Forty-five. I know, because my son is there.” That shocked me — but then he told us 2700 had died in total. We see it from only our viewpoint, naturally. That started making me question what we’re told.


In Zimbabwe, the APF set up peace clubs in schools and youth centres two years ago, to promote non-violence to settle disagreements, before the general elections in 2018. Those skills are being applied in the current transition. We’ve ongoing “peace footballs” for youth groups in Kenya, and we’ve also made a grant for reconciliation training for pastors among the South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia.


As a VSO volunteer in South Sudan in 2012 and 2013, I saw the war’s devastation there — and their joy at peace; then saw it all taken away. I left Juba at noon, one Sunday, just before Christmas 2013, happy crowds in the streets and churches. Twelve hours later, people were being killed in the streets I’d walked along. The Bishop of Yei said: “Sue, we simply haven’t had the leadership we deserve. We cannot go back to the bush again.” Sadly, in July 2016, that’s exactly what happened. That war is being fought in a tussle for political power. So, first-hand, I can say that three causes of war are: poor leadership, greed for power, and the wealth that comes with power.


Remembrance doesn’t mean glorifying war. Prayers for peace are central, and it’s very appropriate for the Church to lead. When the British Legion set up the Poppy Appeal, it was to help look after people who’d suffered in the recent war, and to remind us of the human cost of war — and encourage us to work actively for peace.


And remember: in the most recent wars, the vast majority of those killed and injured were non-combatants.


Remember, too, that the Lambeth Conference has said several times that war, as a means of solving disputes, is incompatible with Christ’s teaching. The Church is aware of the contradiction of war, and lives with it, sometimes uneasily, as it must in many areas. While there are men and women serving in the Forces, I believe they have the right to Christian pastoral care.


One day in ninth grade, our teacher said he couldn’t teach that afternoon, as he didn’t know if we would all be alive the next day. I was paralysed with fear, though no one else seemed to react. The date was October 1962: the Cuban Missile Crisis. That night I realised there had to be a better way.


Both my parents were veterans of the war. Dad was in the Battle of the Bulge, and never really recovered mentally from the war. We Americans believed our parents’ generation had saved the world, and quite a few voted for Donald Trump. I understand why people voted for him — and why people voted for Brexit. The sad part is that they did it not knowing what they were actually doing. They wanted to give a black eye to all those people who aren’t like them. We all tend to associate with people who are similar to ourselves; so I sometimes have to remind myself that many don’t think the way I do.


Many boys in my class died in Vietnam. My brother-in-law is a disabled veteran. I wasn’t challenged to consider conscientious objection, as my father gave me an X and not a Y gene. Had it been different, I don’t know what I’d have done; but when Cruise missiles arrived on my front doorstep — I don’t live far from Molesworth now — I was active in stating my abhorrence of these weapons.


During the build-up to the first Iraq War, I was driving across the Fens, and heard from the radio that scud missiles had been fired into Israel. I prayed hard for no retaliation. By the time I crossed the Big Fen, I’d decided that no war is ever right. I remembered an AFP advert saying “Say no to war”, and I joined.


About 22 years ago, I was speaking with a woman major in the US Army, who asked me about my AFP badge. What she replied still sustains me: “You people serve a very important purpose. You remind us there’s another way.”


I grew up in New Jersey, the eldest of five sisters. We had idyllic summers in the Bronx — yes! My grandparents lived on Long Island Sound, and that’s where I got my love of water and swimming, especially snorkelling: I may have a porpoise gene somewhere. I love the sound of water coming down over rocks in a stream.


John and I have two children, and two grandchildren. Most of my working life was spent in Cambridgeshire, helping adults into education and work, with times in Africa doing VSO.


The centre of Christmas at home was a manger scene; so Christmas, for me, begins with setting one up, with figures bought by my dad and me from the five-and-ten-cent store: the dog with the wonky leg, three kings from two different sets, mother’s cow cake-decoration with springy horns — all in a smack up-to-date (well, 20-year-old) stable my son made. The infant is put in the crib on Christmas Eve by the youngest person present.


My eclectic collection of Christmas-tree ornaments goes back to my grandmother’s, made of Depression glass and cardboard, with other family ones, and others from the African countries I’ve loved.


I pray mainly for the people and issues closest to me. I find, as I get older, I also say a lot more thanks.


You won’t be surprised that I get angry about the arms trade. Billions are made by people who never dirty their hands while millions suffer. When I give talks, I show a spent cartridge shell John picked up while visiting me in South Sudan. Immediately, some man — always a man — spots that there are no markings on it. I point out that that’s how the arms trade works.


I do have hope for the future. Do you know any grandparent who doesn’t? Years ago, I was a volunteer in Lesotho when people thought that only a bloodbath would end apartheid. While South Africa has problems, the fact that the bloodbath never happened gives me hope for other parts of the world where peace seems so elusive.


I’d choose to be locked in a church with my dad, Jack Dempsey, Joseph Mutungi of Kenya, and Bishop Colin Scott. They never met, but their lives all touched mine.


Sue Claydon was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.anglicanpeacemaker.org.uk

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