Conversation with Shane Clifton

This was written by Shane Clifton in his blog which you can read at

I really appreciated him writing it, and then posting my reply also on his blog. My reply is printed below here.


A former student of mine, Andrew Paine, has been blogging about his recent experiences protesting against the Australian military in North Queensland:

Andrew has become what might be labelled a radical disciple of Jesus. Describing his faith he notes “This is why despite everything I’m still proud to call myself a Christian. Because the incarnation of Jesus, and his message of a kingdom where power and wealth are rejected for love and service; where the weak and broken are lifted up; is still completely radical and counter-cultural. In a world so broken and so unjust; and I include in this the trouble I have in my own life trying to live out this kingdom; the message of Jesus gives me hope.” From what I can gather in following his Facebook profile he has taken to squatting in St Michael’s College at Sydney Uni – a vacant building and by the Catholic Church – in protest against a lack of affordable housing, the high rate of homelessness and unjust “capitalist” systems of property ownership (see news story here). He recalls his recent experience of activism against war, “It was a pretty busy couple of weeks, full of demonstrations, blockading roads (getting arrested), trespassing on US military property (getting arrested again), court cases (my own and my friends), peace concerts, vigils and marches, talking to locals about war, trying (and occasionally succeeding) to talk to soldiers about war, doing media duties, facing the wrath of people with opposing viewpoints both”.

Andrew (“Mudgee” as I used to know him) is a great guy and in many ways his lifestyle presents a challenge to the unthinking passive faith of too many of us Christians. But while I don’t want to be one of those spewing “wrath” against his heartfelt convictions, I do not think I can endorse his current approach. I will leave aside his analysis of capitalism for the present (an economics degree biases me in any event), and concern myself with his active pacifism. My difficulty is twofold.

First, he seems to presume that the military is simply about unfettered violence – “those guns are for killing people and nothing else.” This is extremely simplistic. There is such a thing as a just war – the wielding of the sword for Justice – and to deny this (those guns are just for killing) is to allow evil regimes their victories. It is Thomas Aquinas who first sets out the principles of just war, grounding them in principles of virtue ethics. At the least a just war requires legitimate authority, a just cause, a right intention, proportionality, a reasonable hope of success and it must be a last resort. These are complex principles that require explanation beyond what is possible in this brief blog. It is true, however, that a strong case can be made that some of the current wars Australia is engaged in do not meet these just war principles: is there legitimate authority in Iraq when the UN did not endorse the invasion (but is the UN, with all its foibles, a place of meaningful authority)? Is the ’cause’ and ‘intention’ for going to war the protection of Western oil interests (or is it justice for the Kurds who had experienced the genocide under Saddam Hussein or the liberation for those oppressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan)? Is a military response proportional when our weapons so greatly outweigh the opposition’s (or does this military superiority facilitate proportionality)? Was there a reasonable hope of success when war seems to be interminable (or did the military might of the West imply the likelihood of success)? Was there other ways of confronting injustice (or were oppressive regimes likely to resist calls to change other than those at the end of the sword)? And beyond all of these questions, having gone to war (since we cannot go back in time), it is not as simple as saying “take our troops home.” To leave now might well create a power vacuum that would be very unlikely to bring the peace that we all hope for. All of this to note that the ethics of war are complex, and it is a complexity that the sort of direct action undertaken by Andrew does not and cannot address.

Okay, so we disagree on the theory of war – pacifism versus the possibility of a just war. In fact, this disagreement might not be as massive as one might assume, since I would like to be a pacifist (if I could) and generally I am not an advocate of American military aggression, nor of Australian support therein. But my second and more serious difficulty with Andrew’s action is the discourtesy it displays to our service people and their families. To join the army and fight for one’s country involves a certain fortitude or courage, apparent when a soldier risks harm to themselves, even death, for the sake of the defence of their community and for what they believe to be a just cause. Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues (the principal virtues upon which other virtues depend). A courageous person does not seek danger for dangers sake but nor do they remain passive in the face of injustice and the threat of death. Instead, they stand firm, rising above fear, for the sake of others. So while Andrew has faced the wrath of those with opposing views (as well as a police force and a court case) the people he pickets face death. He was especially concerned about the family opening day for a three-week event of military training. He was shattered by “the spectacle of war being promoted as a fun family activity, with camouflage face paint and kids sitting in the driver’s seat of a tank”. What this misses is the fact that this event enables families to appreciate something of the experience of their loved one – yes, even to celebrate their achievements: the virtue of their courage in travelling away from their families and friends at the command of their parliament.

Whether any particular battle is “just” is beside the point. These people do not deserve protests and pickets, and so it is not surprising that Andrew and his “comrades” (his term) were subject to abuse. If there are concerns about the wars currently being waged, these are better directed at our parliamentarians. As I write this post Micah challenge is gathering in Canberra for the Voices for Justice 2011 gathering (see here). This involves “hundreds of passionate advocates in Canberra for four days of action, to call for MORE and BETTER aid – Using their voice to ensure environmental sustainability for the poor and to help save the lives of thousands of women and children in the world’s poorest communities.” It is a legal protest properly aimed, targeting our politicians who decide where and how to spend our government’s budget. And precisely because it is legal and properly organised and, most importantly of all, civilly conducted, it is more effective – or at least more likely to be effective then trouble making at military family days and training exercises.

Andrew, let me say again that I applaud your passion and conviction. I am challenged about my own passivity. But perhaps in reflecting on your own experiences you might also have something to learn from the more deliberate wisdom of groups like voices for Justice. In any event, as you might remember me saying to end my class, “go in peace.”


My reply:

Hey Shane, thanks for writing this and I appreciate your views. I think that there should be discussion on these issues, so I love to hear reasoned debate from people even when they disagree with me. Just to clear things up, I actually was involved in the chapel squat in spirit only. I’m squatting in Brisbane though for similar reasons (although that is another issue that could be discussed elsewhere in more detail).

Firstly, while I don’t claim to be a greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas, I disagree with the theory of just war. Well I don’t necessarily like to make absolute statements but I will say that I certainly don’t believe there has been anything just about the wars Australia has been involved in recently. While I’m aware and constantly trying to grapple with the more bloody parts of the Old Testament, I find it hard to justify war from the message of Jesus (after all, he did say we are to love our enemies). Instead, we find in Matthew 5 Jesus advocating forms of non-violent resistance to an oppressive imperial power at the time (there is lots written about this in a lot of detail, especially by Walter Wink, for anybody interested in checking it out).

Your second point though is something I am always conscious of and still trying to work out. I don’t really enjoy confrontation or abuse and I definitely don’t want to alienate people. I have always tried (probably not always successfully) to show as much respect as I can for military personnel and everyone else I have come into contact with while doing these kind of actions. But I think it is worthwhile here to explain why I believe in direct action as a method of protest and have taken the actions that I have.

I think it’s great that groups like Voices For Justice are lobbying the government, and I definitely agree that our politicians need to be faced with these issues more than the troops. But I also think that politely asking politicians to change their minds is not necessarily the best way to bring about social change. Even in theory, in our democracy politicians are in power because they were voted in by a numerical majority. Because a majority of the population believes something, does that make it right? Like if the majority of people in one nation believes it is right to destroy the Earth to perpetuate our lifestyles? Or that it is right to go to war in another country?

But the reality is that our politicians do not represent a true majority. When our policies affect other nations, where is their voice? On trade, on climate justice, on war? Do they even represent a majority in Australia? (It’s worth remembering that the majority of Australians have never been in support of the Afghanistan war.) Large corporations certainly seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power compared to most Australians, either through corporate political donations or just brute economic strength. If I pay a visit to my local MP, they might listen to me (or at least, someone will pass on the message), but will they pay as much heed to my concerns as they will to the company that is funding their party?

Who is actually represented in our parliament? A quick scan of our politicians seems to represent a limited sphere of ethnicities and of socio-economic backgrounds. Both our major parties represent also a pretty limited range of policies. It’s hard to find much difference in their ideology when it comes to issues like military, asylum seekers, aboriginal issues or the environment.

So what is left for the rest of us? Those who represent the minority? Who stand for values that are not held by either major party? And remember the kingdom of God is based on very different values to earthly kingdoms. Do we wait until a majority of people believe the things we do? Do we exercise our power once every four years when we vote, or once a year when we travel to Canberra to meet with politicians? Because those whose values are wealth and power don’t seem to wait around.

Direct action is an ideology that says that we can stand for the things that we believe in now, and try to build a movement that will influence those in power. That we can demand our voice be heard, by acting on the things that we believe. Non-violent direct action was used by Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the USA, and countless others over the years, as a way of expressing views that were contrary to those in power, until their voice could no longer be resisted.

Of course, direct action should not be read just as protest marches, or blockading military vehicles. True direct action is about creating the world that we want to live in, making our lives our picket lines. It’s about not accepting that this is just the way it is, but instead searching for creative alternatives. So in my personal relationships and by my personal choices I attempt to create a better world. But my personal lifestyle choices are not enough to stop innocent people dying in Afghanistan, or stop the elite minority destroying the Earth. In these instances we must use whatever means we can to get our message heard. By breaking the law we make it impossible for the state to ignore our dissent. When powerful people around the world put a lot of effort into war and the preparation for war, those of us who believe in peace need to recognise that just believing in peace without action is not going to be enough.

Of course, the other reason that we take actions that may end in us being arrested is that creating controversy is a way of trying to bring attention to this issue, which mainstream media refuses to touch and most Australians would rather not think about. The fact that you have written this post says to me than in a small way we have succeeded. May the conversations continue. Go in peace.

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