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Interview: David Gee, writer and activist

10 September 2021

‘Creation is a place of promise. Life here deserves to be loved’

Charlotte Ogilvie

I remember seeing CND posters of mushroom clouds when I was about seven, which made me afraid the whole world could just come to an end, just because someone pressed a button. I mean, why would someone do that? It gave me a sense of the fragility of life, and the need to care for it, though I was too young to know how.

I’ve been involved in the peace movement for 20 years,
writing about peace education, global security, and other issues. Some of my work on peace and children’s rights is paid for. It’s enough to get by, as I live on a budget boat, moving around Oxford. I don’t have many bills. If I lived more conventionally, I couldn’t do most of the stuff I do.

It’s a beautiful life.
I feel fortunate every day — though I can see it’s quite an odd life: kind of improvised, with bum notes to prove it.

I’ve given most time to the global campaign to end the military use of children.
But it’s important to situate these single issues in an overarching vision of shalom or salaam, which widens the meaning of peace to something like the integrity of relationships or the dignity of our common being. There’s room for everyone to be involved, according to our own passions and interests.

There’s no place for the military use of children anywhere,
including here. It’s time we moved on from training 16-year-olds to impale a body on a bayonet and calling that “an opportunity” — especially when a third of recruits drop out of the Army within a few months, and find that they’ve lost educational opportunities. It’s a high-risk strategy for their economic future, and the evidence in favour of raising the enlistment age to 18 is pretty overwhelming. See the Child Rights International Network website.

I was listening to activists talk about their exhaustion in terms of hopelessness.
“I don’t see what the point is any more. . .” So I wrote Hope’s Work to encourage them and others to keep hold on hope. I’m wary of optimism: I’ve tried to describe a kind of difficult hope which doesn’t hang its value on the expectation that everything will turn out OK, because it might not.

I began my book with the Enuma Elish
[the Babylonian creation myth] because it’s as close as we get to a kind of foundational myth of Western civilisation, and because its norms of violence are where we’re starting from when wondering about hope. It set the tone with its story of a man-god who proudly slays the feared mother-dragon to impose order in the name of peace, but actually primes history for violence. Although I use words and phrases from the original text, I tell it from the imagined point of view of a dissident in Babylon. Dissenters remember origin myths in their own ways, which, of course, are never formally recorded, but are passed on in stories.

I end with the Emmaus story,
because it’s fascinating for what it leaves out and invites the reader to imagine. What are those two disciples actually saying to each other on their long walk out of Jerusalem, as their hearts burn? I imagine they’re talking about the defeat of the hope they’d placed in their friend and Messiah, now dead. But as they walk they find hope in each other, as friends among those who gathered around Jesus. Finally, after their epiphany, they know their only true road is back into Jerusalem, and that the spirit of their friend will always be with them. It’s a story for us today.

Most of us can relate to the predicament of feeling disturbed by tragedy in the world around us,
feeling an impulse to respond, but also feeling powerless, and so want, instead, to protect ourselves from it all. The world is a place where tragedy happens — and it’s hard to witness it, even at a distance, without feeling overwhelmed. And political power is indeed concentrated in the hands of a few people; so where does that leave us?

But creation is also a place of promise.
Life here still deserves to be loved, and there are many ways to do that, and not only through activism. Hope is also the choice to treat life as if it matters, in the present, without knowing the future.

Be careful if you’re asking for hope:
it’s unsettling. It’ll carry you through just about every feeling there is, but not often reassurance. Rowan Williams says all theologians are trying to wriggle themselves off the hook the Bible presents. Hope is challenging, and the natural response of the psyche is to avoid it — slipping into complacency or fatalism. We can’t excuse ourselves from hoping: it’s the only real place to be, and we’re stuck with the work.

A palliative-care nurse told me that there’s lots of hope in his work,
just because it doesn’t depend on things turning out well. He cares for patients because they are living here and now, and they are worthy of love.

Deep comfort waits for those who, in hope, mourn the losses and love the life that abides.
So, no, I don’t think we need to be at rock bottom to be in hope, but difficult disillusion is part of it.

We can’t do it alone.
Churches are places where hope is held in common: personal hope, hope for the world. People there can hold hope for you till your sense of being overwhelmed has passed.

It gives me hope that I, somewhat forgetfully, inhabit a messy, fitful, but ultimately sufficient love
— of friends, family, the natural world, and whatever I don’t know I mean by “God”.

I don’t think of God as coming and going in my experience,
but that in every experience, if you can dwell in it, God is there with you. I feel loved and believed in, that’s all. It’s the most deeply comforting, and deeply unsettling experience I know. I call it “God” just to have a word for it.

It gives me hope to know the life within and around us is always trying to flourish
— and will keep trying, no matter what we do to it. To hope is to count ourselves as belonging to that life. The earth is always trying to heal itself, and will if we allow it, and will teach us how to do the same for ourselves.

Social movements, like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, ask us anew what really matters,
and what doesn’t. Asking that is hope’s first question.

Whenever I feel grief, which is often, anger is there, too,
and, when I’m angry, my body’s telling me that I’m hurt.

Dancing makes me happiest.
The slow mazurkas and rambunctious waltzes of Balfolk are my paramour. Balfolk’s roots are in rural France, and it’s is not that well known in the UK yet. There are partner, line, and circle dances: very simple, and any one can join in straight away. The music transports me.

This last year’s taught me that I only need a few people to love me,
and I absolutely do need them. Although it’s been a techie year, with the rise of Zoom and the rest of it, it’s the low-tech stuff I’ve most appreciated: one-to-one walk-and-talks, time to wander and wonder, swimming in the river. . . I’ve never noticed so closely the turn of the seasons. I hope this stays with me.

But the impact on the mental health of many people has been huge.
It’s really brought home to me how important we are for each other — and to look out for people who feel alone. If we only do one thing to “build back better”, let it be this.

I love the sound of the barking geese when they splash down by my boat just after dawn.
I imagine they’ve been doing the same for a million years, and I hope they’ll still be doing it a million years hence. I hope human beings will be around to hear the same sound.

I do pray, but not often for something.
I tend just to pray that God be with someone, and that they may feel it to be so. Sometimes that someone is me.

I’d like to be locked in a church with James Baldwin.
He looked a violent world in the eye, and all he gave it was guts and love. He disavowed the Church, but I think the gospel sang in him, and still sings in the words he left for us.

David Gee was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Hope’s Work: Facing the future in an age of crises is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9). hopeswork.org

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