The sword and the cross
I have subsequently been told the idea came originally from an event I organised. In November 2016, on the 100th anniversary of Australia voting against conscription in World War I, I put on an event to draw attention to Australia’s history of resistance to war. The venue I chose was the “Temple Of Peace” in Toowong Cemetery, built by Richard Ramo in 1924 as “an appeal to all nations to cease from war”.
That day there were a number of people gathered for the event. Among them was Jim Dowling. Jim has been active in the cause of peace (among other causes) for nearly 40 years. He is also, like me, someone involved in the Catholic Worker movement – a tradition of christians who aim to take personal responsibility for creating a better world. Catholic Workers traditionally operate houses of hospitality (like the one I live in in Brisbane and Jim’s farm just outside the city) where we open our doors to anyone in need. We also tend to live lifestyles of voluntary poverty and engage in public acts of witness like political activism.
As we told stories of creative and courageous resistance to militarism, Jim noticed the war memorial barely 50 metres away from the temple of peace. Also built in 1924, the monument was a large cement christian cross with a sword hanging down its middle.
To Jim, this symbol represented perfectly a christian religion fatally compromised by its cooperation with violent regimes. Jesus’ message of radical love has been co-opted time and again by kings, warlords and governments seeking to baptise their conflicts as “holy wars”. And too often, the church has been too happy to acquiesce (plus occasionally wielding a few swords of our own).
The cross in christianity, it should be remembered, is the ultimate symbol of Jesus’ refusal to violently resist his opponents. Jesus would rather willingly suffer brutal execution than break with his radical message of love for enemies. As he was arrested, he literally told his friends trying to violently resist to “put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” As he hung there dying, his words were not of vengeance or justice, but “father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This was the ultimate example of an ethic Jesus had earlier set out when he said rather than loving our neighbours and hating our enemies we should love our enemies; that rather than taking eye for eye and tooth for tooth we should turn the other cheek.
And yet here was the cross with a sword hanging in the place of Jesus. It was there to commemorate the first world war, that mass slaughter that killed 15 million people for the sake of imperial territories. Weren’t soldiers on both sides professing christians? Weren’t all those casualties people made in the image of God? Wasn’t that sword a complete perversion of the message of the cross? Jim turned to my friend and housemate Tim and said “I want to take that sword off”.
The first time I heard of it, a plan had been formulated. There would be a ceremony to take place on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 days of sacrifice and repentance that leads up to Easter in the Christian calendar. Jim would lever the sword off the cross as an act of repentance for all the wars and violence christianity had been used to justify over the last two thousand years. Tim would reshape it into a garden hoe, symbolically enacting the words of the Old Testament prophets Micah and Isaiah: “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” They would do the act openly; with prayer, reflection and song; and then wait for the police to come and arrest them.
My feelings about the action were conflicted. I agreed with their feelings about the symbol, and I liked their portrayal of the reshaping as an act of contrite repentance rather than righteous anger. The only thing was, I knew this action was going to be a bit, you know, controversial.
My concern was not theological disputes about pacifism and just war. It was the war memorial I was concerned about. In our very secular society (where Easter means chocolate eggs and Christmas Santa Claus), ANZAC Day is our most significant religious occasion; war memorials our holiest icons. They represent Australia’s genesis story of bloodshed at Gallipoli, our holy commandments of mateship and national sacrifice. To alter a war memorial would be the ultimate heresy.
Now that was a concern, but not necessarily the primary one. Australia’s religion of Anzackery has problematic consequences and dubious origins of which I’ve written about elsewhere. My real concern was that we would be seen as disrespecting those people who had died in the war, though I knew that wasn’t the intention. The worry was compounded by the fact the war memorial was located (even if only just) within a cemetery.
Still, I had to agree with the overall message, and I admired the courage of Jim and Tim who had thought these things over and were still willing to do it. So I said I wouldn’t be volunteering myself to be arrested, but I would help out how I could.
It turned out, as it often does (especially when working with these Luddite Catholic Worker types), that meant technical assistance. I would film and photograph the ceremony and then be responsible for publicising the action. So as we gathered at our house on Ash Wednesday, the 1st of March, and prepared all the necessary tools (pinch bar, hammer and anvil, bread and wine); I packed a camera.
It was early afternoon when we headed out to Toowong. There was a couple of carloads of us. The plan included the removal and reshaping of the sword; some singing and reading of bible passages, and a short mass presented by a supportive priest. Given the memorial is next to a busy road and the cemetery workers’ cottage, we didn’t know if we would be able to get through any of those proposed stops. We thought we’d leave it up to the spirit.
Still, we didn’t waste time once there. We unloaded the ladder and Jim got to work on the sword. The first couple of pins came out easily as he thought they would, but there was a slight snag when he got to the hilt – it was fastened much stronger than he had expected. He struggled for a while before realising the blade and hilt were not actually connected. He popped the last pin of the blade and down it fell.
While Jim fixed a sign saying “turn your swords into ploughshares” to the top of the cross, Tim set the sword over the anvil and began putting the words into practice. The guitar was brought out and Franz, another of my housemates, sang some spiritual songs suited to the occasion. Others present read some bible passages and quotes from christian history. Tim had reshaped the sword into a reasonable garden hoe and tilled a bit of soil just to test it out. I filmed and took photos.
Amazingly, the police had not yet arrived. In fact, nobody else had made any appearance besides a lone jogger who ran past uninterested in what was going on. So we set up for mass. Our friend the priest did a bit of liturgy, shared a short reflection about Jesus as a prophet – part of his vocation was to show all humanity how things are and how they could be. That was what we were trying to also do that day. We shared the bread and wine of communion and, after all the rushing around, stopped to reflect for a while. It was very moving in the quiet of the cemetery; in the company of people who, though from different backgrounds, were united in our belief in the transformative power of the message of Jesus; and in our desire to live our lives accordingly.
We stayed there for quite some time, until it was apparent the police were not going to show up. This wasn’t what we had expected; but Jim and Tim left a note with their names, phone numbers and motivations for the action on it next to the sword/hoe. We picked up our stuff and headed home.
The next question was what do we do now? Do we make it public? Nobody saw a reason not to, so the press release I had made with quotes from Jim was sent out. I had a lot of good photos and videos (it was of course a very visually symbolic action), and Jim and Tim would either be at work or in the watch house the next morning. So I put my own name on the bottom of the press release as someone who could be contacted for visual media.
Possibly not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but in my defence, I have many times done the same thing for previous actions where people had been arrested. And besides, I don’t really believe in secrets. “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not brought out into the open.” said Jesus; “let your yes be yes and your no be no”. I believe in not doing things you will later be ashamed of. And despite the butterflies in my stomach that had been my constant companion that whole day, I wasn’t ashamed of what we had done.
With that sent out, I also posted a report on the action on social media and turned the computer off. We had our regular Wednesday night open community meal. A bunch of people came around and we talked about the action. People who hadn’t been there expressed their gratitude and support. It had been a nerve-wracking day, but there was a kind of peace in the room. Jim went home, Tim went to do an overnight shift of support work. And I, after lying awake a long time with the nervous energy of the day running through my veins and thoughts about it running through my mind, eventually drifted off to sleep.
There were a few things I had to do the next day, so first thing when I got up was to pick out good images to send to the media. As I sat on Franz’s computer doing this job, I was interrupted by another housemate. The police were here, and they wanted to speak to me. I hit send, and walked out to see them. I didn’t want to say much, as I was sure they had already seen what we had publicly put out explaining it all. They told me I wasn’t under arrest – yet – but they wanted me to come to the station “just for a chat”. Knowing full well that just for a chat in police language never actually means just for a chat, I got in the car with them.
The day before had been a day of nerves, but this was something else. I had, after all, specifically opted out of being publicly associated with the action. Now it seemed I would be facing the full consequences – legal (up to a potential prison term, when I already had another one hanging over my head from an anti-war protest) and social (people were going to be furious, and I am a fairly easily identifiable person). In the police car we had a bit of a theological discussion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cops didn’t agree with my position.
At the station I was arrested. Jim had already been, and we briefly shared a cell. He had been thinking about if for weeks and was at peace. I was a bit of a wreck. We were bundled into police cars and transferred to the city, past television cameras waiting outside. I wasn’t exactly feeling joyful, but I was neither ashamed nor angry (the expected emotions of people arrested), so I smiled for the camera.
Another conversation with cops in the car. One woman had been part of arresting Jim so had heard all about the catholic worker movement and was full of questions about our house. It’s a good idea never to trust people in uniform, but she did seem genuinely interested and was quite supportive. Talking to her was at least a welcome break from my own thoughts. Once we were at the Roma St watch house, with a cop forcing a DNA swab into my mouth, she walked past on her way out the door. She mouthed “good luck” to me.
It’s hard to put a name on my feelings in that cell other than just anxiety – that purely bodily response of fear beyond any immediate threat. I’ve been fortunate in my life to rarely have had to deal with what for some people is quite a common experience. But it was my turn now in that cold cell, and I sat there virtually curled up in a ball.
Eventually, I got talking with the guy I was sharing a cell with – always an interesting experience. He was a straight looking guy who had worked at a bank for ten years and at some point had started siphoning money from his employers. He had been caught, then had tried to leave the country but been arrested at the airport and was now facing indefinite imprisonment while he waited for his trial. He was very critical of the banking system, but the encounter still left me grateful that, conflicted about our action as I felt, at least my crime had been one with altruistic motivation.
After a couple of hours we were charged and released on bail. Willful damage to cemeteries, monuments etc. was the charge; maximum penalty seven years in prison. There was a tv crew waiting for us outside. Jim offered for the first time what would become his standard line – he didn’t damage the cross, he improved it. The damage was when the sword had been put there in the first place. We caught the bus home.
Tim was arrested the next day after he finished work (in the cell he was punched in the face and had his head smashed into the wall by a random psycho who didn’t even know what he was in there for), while a week later Franz was also arrested. He had been seen in the video and had been recognised at our house. That one was even more of a shock – if I hadn’t been expecting to be arrested at least I was used to the experience and had played a fairly active role. Franz was 19 with only one previous arrest. His only crime was playing guitar.
Before we got to all that though I got home from the watch house. There were messages from the media. It was already in the news. “Religious fanatics vandalise war memorial” was one headline, “Crusading cowards charged with smashing up a Brisbane war memorial” another. Brisbane lord mayor Graham Quirk had expressed his outrage, while the Catholic Archdiocese had disowned us, saying the catholic workers had no ties to them. I don’t put much stock in the opinions of church hierarchy, but for devout catholic Jim to be tossed aside by his church was an unpleasant feeling.
I had some lunch. There was a tv crew at the front door (another had already been and gone that morning apparently). I told them I could send them film of Jim explaining why he did the action. That wasn’t the footage they were after though. They stood at the door, cameras rolling, demanding an interview. When I reluctantly agreed to answer a few questions, I was grilled with a rare hostility. “How could you do this to this ANZAC memorial? THIS SACRED SITE!” was literally one of the questions. After trying my best in difficult circumstances to convey the spirit of the action, that night on the news I was naturally edited to look like a maximum scumbag.
I went back inside a bit shellshocked. The cameraman was on the footpath filming the (very distinctive) front of our house. Looking back now, I can’t remember whether we actually locked our front door for the first time that night or if we just spoke about it, but that was the point we were at.
I went out to a couple of meetings – normal commitments. The mundanity of everyday life was reassuring, as the morning had felt a bit like my life was in complete turmoil. On my way home though, the kind of bizarre incident that seemingly only happens at times like this. I stopped on the bike path to help a guy whose bike was broken down. We got his bike fixed, but I was stung by a bee. I’d never had an allergic reaction to a bee sting before, but my foot soon swelled up to a ridiculous extent. By the time I ran into a nurse friend the next afternoon, her horrified response was to send me immediately to the pharmacy for anti-histamines.
Upon seeing my foot, the chemist prescribed me the strongest pills he had. “They might knock you out a bit,” he told me, not knowing how welcome a bit of sedation was right at that moment. I managed to still fulfil my regular commitments the next few days, but all in a bit of a daze. I could hardly eat due to a stomach constantly in flux. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on a computer. To this day I have never read the 100+ comments on my original facebook post (I’ve been told a couple of friends put in the extraordinary effort of responding to the various comments). Same goes for most of the 30 messages sent to me from strangers in those few days (the glance I have given them shows up mostly a mixture of abuse and threats of physical violence).
And yet the response we had feared never came. Someone pulled into Jim’s driveway yelling at him to “come out like a man”, but that was as close as it got. Most of us in the catholic worker movement have had people in our own home tell us to our face they were going to bash or kill us, so a few threatening phone calls or internet posts aren’t the end of the world. The feelings of anxiety took a while to subside, but over the next week or so they slowly began to as everyday life kept going on.
That process was helped by messages of support that came in. A close friend baked biscuits and brought them round with a lovely note. A supportive card came from Tim’s home country of New Zealand, signed by over 30 attendees of the Catholic Worker hui there. Long-term catholic worker peace activist Ciaron O’Reilly sent round a letter of support asking people to sign, especially those who were military veterans or families of veterans. Responses came from all over the world, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire.
I think it’s because my anxieties over people’s responses were so heightened that even now I can vividly remember so many of the individual conversations I had. “I think everything you guys do is great”, said a woman who frequents the free shop in the front room of our house. Friends with intellectual disabilities were very excited to see us on tv. “Someone’s got to take a stand!”, one of them told me. On that insane first day, as irate commentators lined up to denounce us, a camera crew turned up at the office of local Councillor Jonno Sri. Poor Jonno has enough hassles from the media without being dragged into ours, yet that night on the news he was saying “people may disagree with this action, but the catholic workers do a lot of great work in the community.”
I was a bit worried about the reaction from the footy club I had recently begun training with, given there were a number of military personnel at the club. What I got from the coach and board was a heart-warming and kinda humourous example of Australian egalitarianism – “everyone’s got a right to their beliefs; and to be honest people at this club get arrested for all kinds of things. All we ask is that you don’t bring the club into it by wearing a club polo shirt while you do it.” Later on, after the court case was all over, a couple of the army guys told me they didn’t take it as a disrespect to soldiers.
Two weeks into Lent, it was time for our first court appearance. Purely a formality in terms of court proceedings, it was nonetheless an opportunity for the media to report on it again, which they certainly did. Of most interest to them seemingly was the fact that we turned up to court barefoot. In between filming our feet and asking why we didn’t wear shoes though, they did manage to touch on some other topics. As ever though, the soundbite nature of tv news was something to grapple with. I was hoping to let Jim do the talking to the media, but they swarmed around me too leaving me without much choice. One reporter asked me if our action didn’t didn’t violate the right to freedom of religion. The question caught me off guard. The basis of a freedom of religion is a separation of church and state, which that memorial (with its religious symbol commemorating a state war) certainly does not represent. I couldn’t think of a way of cramming that into a soundbite though, so after a pause I said I had no comment. Naturally, despite all the other questions I did answer, that was the clip that went to air that night.
I don’t expect much from commercial news sources, so in a lot of ways I thought the coverage was ok (even at its most ludicrous) because they at least reported our reason for doing the action somewhere in the article. But we certainly got a show of all the tricks, from sensationalist headlines to judicious editing. They didn’t always feel compelled to report our calm responses to some of their more sensational claims. While news reports compared us to Islamic State destroying religious temples in Syria; we replied that, controversial as our act may have been, we were actually the ones saying religion should never be used to justify violence – it was the war memorial which gave the opposite message.
The next day Tim and Franz had their first appearance (our staggered arrests was the reason for the different court dates). They, both introverted and inexperienced public speakers, were quite worried about the media. But as it turned out, they shared a courtroom with a couple accused of murdering their baby. As a journalist friend told me, for the commercial media a crime with an identifiable victim trumps an act of vandalism every time. We slipped past the cameras unnoticed.
I went away for a couple of weeks after that, which certainly helped take my mind off the issue. The drama at home didn’t end, though that was the result of violent, unstable or anti-social house guests rather than this particular issue. We were able to check up on each other to see how we were handling it all. Easter came, bringing an end to what had been an extraordinary Lenten season.
Our next court appearance came, with it the surprising news that we would not (as we had assumed) be facing a jury trial in the district court. Though our charge was an indictable offence, the reported damage of $16,000 made us only small time criminals to be dealt with in the magistrates court. Rather than dragging on for months, the hearing would be the 19th of July.
It was with trepidation that we approached that date. We took time to chat to a few people who had done recent prison stints to prepare ourselves just in case. Yet as the trial drew closer, our spirits lifted. This was due mostly to the sudden appearance in Brisbane of supporters from around the country and across the Tasman. By the time the court date came around (and the events we had organised to coincide with it; our house was a bustling community of about 25 people from different places and generations, breaking bread and sharing life together. We started to actually feel excited about court. I have never in my life experienced to such a degree the power of communal solidarity.
The court tactics themselves were slightly complicated. Despite the all-in solidarity we had with each other, we felt it was best for myself and Franz to try as much as we could to get off; given the precedent it may set for future protest actions. I had a number of older activists warn me of the dire consequences for journalism that would come from me getting a conviction just for filming. There was a slight tension between this and the usual unashamed honesty that is my normal approach in court. We would be representing ourselves, though a helpful lawyer friend had given us some suggested legal arguments.
So it was a crew of about 40 of us, holding signs and banners and proceeding in silent single file, that turned up to the court that morning. When chief magistrate Ray Rinaudo walked in to see our supporters overflowing out of the gallery, he said “this won’t work” and moved us into the biggest courtroom in the building.
The prosecution got the trial underway, with a series of police and council witnesses testifying of discovering the altered monument and arresting us. We broke for lunch (a picnic in the park behind the court) and came back for more of the same. As witness after witness appeared, it became clear that the trial would not fit into a single day though that was all that had been allocated. The courts were booked out for the next day. It was ruled we would come back the following Monday. The suspense would be prolonged.
Before the day ended though we did get the chance to begin our case. To be honest the prosecution had kind of began it for us by playing Jim’s half hour police interview explaining the action, as well as an interview I had recorded of Tim and one Jim had done with ABC radio. Our argument in essence was that we were not damaging the monument but restoring the cross to its proper (swordless) state; or at least we had a sincere belief that was what we were doing.
Assisting our case was our first witness, heard that afternoon; Dominican priest Peter Murnane. Despite spirited arguing from the prosecutor, Peter outlined the symbol of the cross in christian theology and how it was incompatible with that of the sword. It was a great way to finish the day.
The next Monday we returned to court with only a slightly smaller group (a few people had to return to their lives interstate or overseas). All that was left now was each of us getting up to make our case. The magistrate had already seemingly thrown out the prospect of me and Franz getting off as merely bystanders, so we were free to speak our hearts on the stand. “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial”, Jesus told his disciples, “do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” That was what we were hoping for.
There were a few nerves to contend with though. Franz had intended to sing an anti-war hymn on the witness stand, as that was what he had done on the day. A slightly flustered Jim though interrupted him as he was about to hit the opening note. I had wanted to pick up the bible kept on the stand for taking oaths and read from it. When I was inevitably interrupted I would say “that’s just it – the bible’s used as a prop to give human institutions some kind of divine legitimacy, but you’re not allowed to mention what it actually says.” In the end though, under pressure on the stand, I chickened out and let that golden opportunity slip away forever.
Still, we gave the best account of ourselves that we could. To a media and court hostile to our actions; we wanted to at least give a display as sane people acting out of sincerely held beliefs, as a community of people that supported each other and took seriously the message of Jesus in all its radical implications. To that effect, the way we interacted with each other and the court were as important as what we said on the stand. Our bare feet, so beloved of the news cameras; were a symbol that the court, like our society’s infatuation with violence and economics, was an imposition to which we were not willing to compromise our essential selves. If the media never quite came around to supporting our action, I think they at least gave their audience a glimpse of this. They definitely seemed to get less antagonistic with each report.
In the end, without needing much time for consideration, the magistrate found us guilty. Sentences were read out in ascending order of severity – Franz $1000 fine, me $1500, Tim 100 hours community service, Jim the same plus a three month suspended prison sentence (though Mr Rinaudo later discovered it was beyond his powers to give both these penalties, so the community service was rescinded). Between them, Jim and Tim were ordered to pay the $16,000 restitution.
Jim had repeatedly said he was willing to go to prison (he had previously done a few stints in the old days of Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland), but we all breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced his sentence would be suspended. Prison does no good for anybody, and someone has to be on the outside to grow all those exotic fruits and vegetables and to keep pricking the conscience of society and church.
Outside the court there were hugs and smiles and time for one last media interview. Jim repeated his previously made offer to pay for repairs as long as the sword was not put back. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t be paying. Tim said the same.
We returned to the park for a relieved picnic. The relief was because none of us would be going to jail, and that the court process was over, but also because in the end none of those fears of savage retribution had come to pass. We had seen powerful support from friends and strangers, and we had come through with our faith intact that Jesus’ way of love for enemy and non-cooperation with the powers was indeed preferable to our society’s cult of violence and power.
We could even laugh at some of the courtroom fun. One moment of levity was in the magistrate’s sentencing remarks to me. Regarding the fact that I had merely been documenting the event, he said apparently without any sense of irony: “What you did here was not report dispassionately and independently as some of the reporters that are here today are doing.”
We stayed in the city that afternoon. A Chilean couple we had met at Food Not Bombs, the street kitchen we do every Friday in West End, were getting married at the registry office on Ann St. It was a small and informal wedding, but it was great to be able to be there and celebrate their love even as their families and friends were far away. When the ceremony finished we returned to our house for the reception – a dual celebration! Franz had of course been up late the night before his big court date baking a vegan wedding cake.
Even at the time we felt this was the perfect ending to the whole episode. Because these were really just two notes in the one song of following Jesus and living as part of the community gathered in his name. Times of celebration mixed with times of trial, fears in the end countered by the love of others. We went to bed that night free – not because of the benevolence of the state (something we were admittedly grateful for), but because we had resolved to do what we believed was right and would continue to do so through good and bad circumstances.
To be honest, my feelings about the whole thing are still somewhat conflicted. It’s taken me this long to feel able to write about it, and even as I do this some of those old butterflies have been testing out their wings in my stomach. But I can honestly say I’m grateful for the whole extraordinary experience. And when it comes down to it, we should remember what that cross actually symbolises. It was the method of execution a court somewhat similar to ours passed down on another criminal who challenged the religion of the day. If that cross doesn’t mean occasionally raising the ire of the society around us it means nothing at all. Another quote from Jesus to his disciples: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”
But that cross is not just a pathway to persecution and masochism. It also represents a wild, utopian hope. The idea of loving enemies and turning the other cheek was as ludicrous in Jesus’ time as it is now. Yet countless people through history have given all out of belief in it. It was for repentance we took that sword down but also for prophecy. The desire to communicate that the cross represents something more than the violence, injustice and self-centredness that surrounds us daily. With some justification, many have come to believe Christianity means nothing more than an affirmation of the status quo. I hope that, aided by those images that brought me so much trouble and were relayed by a media not always very sympathetic, our action at least placed the seed in people’s minds that the cross invites us to so much more.