“Faith-based backlash” to weapons needs precision guidance

OPINION – one of our diocesan whānau had contributed this article, sharing another perspective on the recent protest against the Defence Industry Association Forum held in Palmerston North.  You can read the original Movement article here.

In the recent Movement article about the Defence Industry Association (DIA) Forum (aka the “weapons expo” with no weapons), I enjoyed reading about the “faith-based backlash” the forum was to receive, supported by our church. However, as someone who has served both the Anglican church, and, for the last 18 years, in the New Zealand Defence Force, it did make we wonder what we Anglicans are trying to achieve. I don’t think anyone will disagree with the abhorrent nature of warfare, and we all recoil at the terrible scenes on the news after a chemical attack or an innocent hospital or school has been targeted by one side or another. The 100 year anniversary of World War One brings this all into context. At the DIA protests, I saw people marching in protest with signs protesting conflict in Syria and Yemen; sign me up, I’d love to see it end! But it can be difficult to understand the connection between a logistics forum and a foreign war.

Security, the purpose of the Defence Force, is no longer about military forces protecting borders from the enemy on the other side, hoping that safe borders means safe people inside. Instead, we now talk about seven aspects of “human security:” environmental, political, food, economic, personal, health, and community. This theory says that if the people in the country are safe in these seven ways, then that country as a whole must be safe. We don’t need border walls, we need healthy, well-nourished, free and safe communities. This is exactly what the modern NZ Defence Force does.

I have been part of each of these aspects of security. Delivering meals to those stranded by natural disaster, saving people lost in our mountains or at sea, helping promote free and fair elections in Papua New Guinea, flying rescue missions in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, helping clean up beaches after Rena ran aground, winching people from rising flood waters. The list goes on. This doesn’t seem like anything the church would be against; it’s another form of caring for the least, the last and the lost. A group of people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to serving the community around them, at home and overseas, reaching out to the lost, the hurting, the broken, believing that even today, and as a small group in the world, they can make a positive difference. Is that the church or the Defence Force?

It’s true I haven’t just been on peace-keeping missions and helped elections and shipwrecks; I also deployed to Afghanistan, but we need to be clear. War is not the goal, conflict is not the purpose; these are simply the environments in which we must at times be willing and able to operate if we are to continue to be a force for good, and a force that can ultimately bring peace and security to our nation and the world around us. We are called to be light in the darkness; we can’t stay in the light parts of the world, nor can we withhold the one true light from those who need it most. If we are truly to embody Luke 1:79, it is not ok to walk past those on the other side of the road because they are not our race, our religion, or because we’re in a rush to get to the temple; I read a story about that once. We can’t ignore the other side of the street, nor can we avoid the other side of the world. Our Defence personnel go overseas on occasion not to find or fight wars, not to seek or start them, but to fight and strive for their end. This seldom involves pulling a trigger, but it often involves helping the kids, the parents, the schools, the health clinics and the communities in those places. That has certainly been my experience and that of my friends. To do this they need the right equipment to keep them safe so they can come home to their families when the job is done. Hence the DIA conference.

It doesn’t have cluster bombs, nor does it sell them, though I did talk to someone about a building for rescue training there once. It is a conference for companies of all sizes who are part of the wider defence industry in NZ, largely logistics and infrastructure, and some technological companies such as those who design and sell simulators for rescue helicopters. Frankly, it’s pretty boring and not that exciting at all. So what is it that the church and others are protesting?

It can’t be conflict in Yemen or Syria, as NZ is not involved in either of these places, and those protests would be better focused at countries and companies who are actually involved. Despite some action targeting defence personnel, protesters say they support NZDF. The focus of the action promoted in Movement, we are told, is “companies that profit from war and killing.” This is where it gets confusing. Many companies attending are small or local companies, providing logistics, infrastructure, clothing and other supplies. No one is manufacturing weapons in NZ that I’m aware of. The most commonly targeted company is Lockheed Martin who are openly reported to maintain and repair vehicles for both Defence and Police in NZ. No-one seems to protest Police cars however, so it can’t be the job they do in NZ that we are concerned with, but if it is protesting an association with the company, this seems a bizarre division of blame. These companies profit from defence, but not from NZ seeking or supporting war. As stated above, the Defence Force doesn’t do war, they do serving communities at home and around the world.  It’s just that sometimes those communities are in conflict and defence personnel are stuck in the middle. And if such companies were the target, a Google search would show how much Boeing made from defence, and Airbus too. I haven’t seen many protests at Wellington Airport lately.

In my view, this is at best a mis-guided protest, singling out a NZ-based logistical division of one foreign company, and placing the protest at the feet of only one of the two key stakeholders in NZ: Defence. But my wider point here is not what the church is doing, it’s what the church could be doing. At General Synod / Te Hīnota Whānui, the Church made an intentional decision to ensure that its investments (St John’s and Pension Board) were moved out of unethical companies or companies who profited from weapons of war. This was a smart way of ensuring the Church maintained its own ethical standards, and also tried to influence companies in the financial terms they understood. This was on the back of a wave of other NZ and government funds doing the same thing. If our complaint is the profits, which the recent Movement article said it was, then targeting profits is a logical and understandable step, far more-so than protesting people who service vehicles. But I would argue that even more important is the work done by those in the church tackling important issues such as poverty, human trafficking, exploitation of child labour, homelessness. We have friends working to save people from the sex trade in Thailand; they deserve more medals than I’ve ever got from Defence, and that is a great example of the church doing what it does best.

I don’t remember Jesus protesting anything except what the church of the day was doing. We need to follow His example of loving others, caring for others, healing others, and being willing to lay down our lives for them if called to do so. Jesus didn’t need to protest or march for change, He brought it about by living a life that others could follow. Maybe that’s where we could start.