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Martin Luther King Jr: bending the elbow of justice

06 April 2018

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Joe Ware speaks to Christians inspired by his call to action


Bust of Dr Martin Luther King outside Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama, the starting-point of marches in 1965

Bust of Dr Martin Luther King outside Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama, the starting-point of marches in 1965

IN THE early hours of a cold January morning, in Warton, just outside Nottingham, the Revd Dan Woodhouse cut the fence of BAE Systems and crawled inside, in an attempt to disarm British warplanes destined for Saudi Arabia and its lopsided war in Yemen.

To Mr Woodhouse, a mild-mannered, 30-year-old Methodist minister from Leeds, together with his Quaker friend Sam Walton, this had seemed a perfectly reasonable act, from the point when they finally got their hands on the location of the Saudi-bound planes a month earlier.

“The most peculiar thing about attempting to disarm multi-million-pound death machines is that at no point did it seem that odd,” Mr Woodhouse reflects.

He lists the conventional approaches already pursued in an attempt to stop the Typhoon jets from ending up in the hands of the Saudi government. Humanitarian organisations working in Yemen had presented evidence of war crimes. Independent lawyers had deemed UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be breaking British, EU, and international law. The EU parliament had voted to suspend arms sales to the Saudis. And British MPs had spoken out demanding that they should stop. All to no avail.

“Simply put: the Government of the UK, and BAE Systems, are complicit in war crimes, and will not listen to reason, justice, or even law,” Mr Woodhouse argues. “When such a weight of people and organisations cry out, and the Government and arms dealers refuse to listen, the conventional is no longer an option, and the unconventional becomes the most normal and vital thing in the world.”

Mr Woodhouse and Mr Walton managed to get within five feet of the planes that they had targeted, when they were stopped and arrested for causing criminal damage. They were both prepared to go to prison for years if found guilty; but they were cleared of all charges by District Judge James Clarke, at Burnley Magistrates’ Court, in October, on the grounds that their actions were motivated by the greater good.

Sam Walton (left) and Dan Woodhouse

In his verdict, the judge said: “They were impressive and eloquent men who held strong views about what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve. They impressed me as being natural in their delivery and honest throughout their evidence.”

Although they were unable physically to disarm the planes, the pair generated headlines around the world, shining a light on the unfolding tragedy in Yemen and the UK’s cosy arms-dealing relationship with Saudi Arabia. They also effectively added the UK courts to the list of those who believe British arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be wrong.

When justifying his actions, Mr Woodhouse turns to the response to “institutional injustice” described in the Gospel accounts of the cleansing of the temple. They tell of Jesus’s throwing out the money-changers in the Temple who were fleecing the poor through exploitative sales of sacrificial animals and extortionate exchange rates for temple currency. (“So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”)

His interpretation is that, rather than just make a verbal protest — which, as a Jewish rabbi, he may have already tried — Jesus went away, planned his actions, and then physically ended the injustice.

Christian opposition to arms sales has become an annual event outside Church House, Westminster, where activists have challenged events organised by the Royal United Services In­stitute for several years (News, 27 June 2014).

Last year, they attempted to blockade the Land Warfare Conference, sponsored by arms companies including Airbus Defence and Space, and L3, who have both been challenged over the provision of arms to Saudi Arabia (News, 30 June 2017).

Eve Waterside, a member of the Church of England from Oxford, took part in the protest. “A leading Christian conference centre is being used to plan large-scale violence, funded by companies that arm some of the world’s most oppressive regimes,” she says. “I am sad and angry to see the Church of which I am part profiting from war and the arms trade.”

THE Church’s record on women’s rights was under scrutiny this year, with the marking of the centenary of women’s suffrage. “Despite the radical social teaching of Jesus, the institution of the Church — claiming to be guided by the Spirit of God — stood against women’s suffrage,” the Baptist minister the Revd Steve Chalke wrote online. “Why does the Church so often lag behind rather than lead social change?” There followed heated debate about the accuracy of these remarks.

Among those campaigning for the cause of suffrage had been the Revd Claude Hinscliffe, who, with his wife Gertrude, founded the Church League for Women’s Suffrage in 1909. By 1914, it had attracted 5000 members. Its president was the Bishop of Lincoln, Edward Hicks (although he resigned once it took up the cause of women’s ordination).

Many, however, opposed the cause, including the Dean of Westminster, who complained that the Church had been “usurped by a faction and exploited by fanatics” (Features, 31 May 2013). Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, kept his support for women’s suffrage private, for fear of being associated with the militant tactics of the suffragists. Letters held at Lambeth Palace reveal the frustration that his stance elicited.

“Our view is that the Church is very responsible for militancy, because it has failed to realise the spiritual meaning of the women’s movement and has not helped women to get the vote,” Norah Dacre wrote to Archbishop Davidson in 1914. Alice Kidd, the secretary of the Suffragist Churchwomen’s Protest Committee, condemned the “servile attitude of the heads of the Church towards an unjust and irresponsible Government”.

Bishops in the House of Lords did not oppose the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”, which facilitated the harsh treatment of imprisoned suffragettes, and the Archbishop refused to visit Emmeline Pankhurst when she fell victim to it.

When another campaigner, Annie Kennie, tried to seek sanctuary in Lambeth Palace, she was arrested, although Davidson argued afterwards that he had treated her with the “utmost consideration and kindness”.

CHRISTIAN CLIMATE ACTIONHolly-Anna Petersen takes part in a staged wedding outside Church House, last year, depicting the Bride of Christ torn between Jesus and the fossil-fuel industry

FRUSTRATION at the pace of change is evident today among those seeking to secure climate justice. In November, five retired bishops and more than 40 Anglican clergy, including the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Canon Sam Wells, and the broadcaster the Revd Richard Coles, wrote a letter calling for the Church of England to sell its shares in Exxon Mobil on the grounds that the oil giant had misled the public on the dangers of climate change since the 1970s (News, 10 November).

The fossil-fuel disinvestment movement has grown apace with the recent announcement by the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, that the city’s vast pension fund would be divesting from fossil fuels, and rumours that Paris and London may follow suit.

The movement is led by 350.org, whose founder, Bill McKibben, is a Methodist. A number of churches and religious organisations have already divested, such as the Church of Sweden and the Anglican Province of Southern Africa, encouraged by the lead of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation. But the Church of England, so far, continues to invest in all but the most polluting tar sands and thermal coal (Feature, 23 March).

In 2015, three members of Christian Climate Action lowered a protest banner from the public gallery at the General Synod, calling for the Church to get out of fossil fuels. One of the activists, Holly-Anna Petersen, explains: “When you’ve spent your time and energy dedicating your life to a Church because you care passionately about its philosophy and principles, it’s painful to see it acting in a way that undermines those principles.

“To me, the side of Jesus which I find most captivating is the way that he gently yet fiercely challenged the oppressive powers of his time, which were acting to maintain systematic sin. I feel that challenging these forces in our own generation is the only way that we can bring about earth as it is in heaven in any meaningful way.”

On occasion, Christian Climate Action has take direct action beyond banners. In 2016, members helped to close off access to a Welsh coal mine by lying in the road (News, 6 May 2016).

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, suggests that dissent is healthy. “Sometimes, it’s painful to receive; but an organisation as large and long-standing as the Church of England needs challenge. It can help us get our priorities right.”

GEOFF CRAWFORD/CHURCH TIMESThe Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker

This year, he stood in solidarity with protesters outside the General Synod who were calling for a stronger response from the Church on sexual abuse and safeguarding. The fourth of the five Anglican Marks of Mission — “to seek to transform unjust structures of society” — is, he says, “a hugely important part of our Anglican heritage”.

As a long-standing campaigner for social justice, Dr Walker has taken a particular interest in housing and homelessness, and currently chairs the Manchester Homeless Partnership. Asked if it is harder to stay radical in a position of Establishment authority, he says: “It’s important we don’t lose that cutting edge. I’d like to think I’m just as ardent a campaigner of social justice as I was as a young parish priest, and continue to cry out for the needs of my patch.”

From a bishop’s quarters — which, in Dr Walker’s case, includes a place on the bishops’ bench in the House of Lords — it is possible to amplify dissent. In recent months, Dr Walker has challenged the roll-out of Universal Credit (“Jesus had some pretty stern words for those who withhold payment from the poor”), and criticised the Government’s housing policy, drawing on his experience in a housing association as a young vicar in Rotherham in the 1980s.

Last week, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, issued a call to prayer, after visiting people arrested after breaking into Stansted Airport, where they tried to stop a chartered night flight bound for Nigeria. It had been chartered by the Government to deport people deemed to be staying in the UK illegally. The group, who lay on the tarmac in high-visibility jackets for ten hours before being detained, have been charged with a range of offences, including terror offences under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act.

In his call, which noted concerns about the process deployed in deportations, Bishop Cottrell described the group as standing “in a long tradition of civil disobedience which has close ties to Christianity through figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.”

He wrote: “Whether or not you view the group’s non-violent methods as justified . . . their deep concern over the denial of human dignity and failure to give access to due legal process is a concern that all of us should share, especially those who this week walk in the footsteps of Christ to the cross.” He urged prayers “for all involved in the case, especially the judge and jury; for justice in this matter; and for the protection of human dignity and access to justice for everyone in our society”.

PAThe Revd Paul Nicolson outside the High Court in London, in 2016

RADICAL action is not the preserve of the young. The Revd Paul Nicolson, an 85-year-old retired parish priest, has, as an act of civil disobedience, refused to pay his council tax since 2013, in protest at the way Harringay Council punishes late payment of a tax that many people in the borough cannot afford (News, 9 August 2013).

In the 1990s, he set up the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust to help end the poll tax, “named after a wicked tax collector to defeat a wicked tax”. Research commissioned by the trust formed the basis of the London Living Wage, and Mr Nicolson has since set up Taxpayers Against Poverty. He lives in Tottenham, in north London, where he worships at his parish church on the Northumberland Park estate, one of the most deprived places in the country.

“The whole purpose of Christian activism is to work with and for those who are suffering poverty, injustice, and inequality,” he says. “That’s where we have to put ourselves. This is not an ‘extension’ of my faith: it is fundamental to it. My faith is the very root of my activism; they are intertwined.” He adds, though: “Don’t make me out to be a saint. I’m just a normal person that has found my way to a cause that demands action.”

The simplicity of faith-inspired social justice is echoed by Holly-Anna Petersen: “The term ‘activist’ makes it sound inaccessible, and allows us to come up with a list of excuses as to why we can’t do it, when, actually, all you really need is a bit of courage and a willingness to engage.”

WEDNESDAY was the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the great Christian campaigners in history, and an inspiration to Mr Woodhouse in his activism today. “It must have seemed like such a mammoth battle,” he says, “but people had a hope that things might change and be better. Maybe not even in their lifetime, but they took steps that got them beaten, imprisoned, and ridiculed, and then things started to change.”

Dr Walker, too, cites Martin Luther King as a source of great inspiration. “[He] was a game-changer. We try to emulate his example to speak out from the gospel on matters of justice.”

This idea of bringing heaven to earth is what motivates Mr Woodhouse. “Jesus regularly refers to the Kingdom of heaven, or the Kingdom of God, as a present reality happening on earth,” he says. “He taught us to pray: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ The emphasis is on the earth. The account of the rich young ruler is a perfect evangelistic opportunity for Jesus. Instead of preaching heaven, he gives him practical things to do that will change things here.”

Standing up for social justice has proved to be a powerful act of witness, he says. “I’ve had so many great conversations about the radical nature of the gospel, because people are shocked and interested that a Methodist minister would do such a thing. People start to realise that Christianity is more than just boring Sunday services and guilt.”

ALAMYThe Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr sits in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, in November 1967

It is this unseen impact that can be the gospel’s most powerful legacy. There is a thread that runs from the fight for women’s suffrage to the protests supporting refugees today. Three days after Mahatma Gandhi arrived in London in 1906, women battling for the right to vote occupied Parliament. Eleven of them were arrested, refused to pay their fines, and were sent to prison.

The incident had such an effect on Gandhi that he wrote about how, although the women were the laughing stock of the nation, they would surely succeed.

He went on to use the same tactics to liberate the Asian subcontinent from British rule, which, in turn, inspired Martin Luther King to deploy the same non-violent approach and the same determination to win rights for black people in the United States.

These, in turn, were used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid movement. And only last year, John Lewis, one of King’s contemporaries, whose skull had been cracked in a lunch-counter sit-in, was leading the protests against President Trump’s refugee ban.

As Michel Foucault has said: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”

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