The respectable revolutionaries

The acquittal of four women after an attack on a military jet highlights the moral confidence of a network of campaigners

Andrew Brown,David Cohen
Wednesday 31 July 1996 23:02

There is a new dissent abroad. It is feminist and loosely Christian, and its members are taking up causes which seemed to have disappeared after the Eighties.

The acquittal of four women, Andrea Needham, Lotta Kronlid, Joanna Wilson and Angie Zelter, on charges of causing and conspiring to cause criminal damage after beating a British military jet with hammers, shows that a Liverpool jury was sympathetic to their arguments.

They had insisted that morality ought to override expedience where the arms trade was concerned, and that a war condemned by the United Nations ought not to be prosecuted with British material.

The four Christian peace activists yesterday announced they will try to bring a private prosecution against British Aerospace for aiding and abetting murder in East Timor. It was an example of the great moral confidence of the loose network of peace campaigners and feminists to which they belong.

Ms Zelter said yesterday: "What the judgment shows is that ordinary people do know the difference between right and wrong. The judge was squirming in his seat when we were talking about the Geneva Convention and the principles laid down at the Nuremburg trials.

"The implications of the judgment are incredible. They said we were the law breakers by disarming these planes. What we've said is, `No, you're the law breakers: breaking a UN Resolution as well as the Nuremburg principles. If you are aware that international laws are going to be broken, and you aid and abet that, then you're a war criminal.'"

The tactics of attacking military hardware stem from the Ploughshares movement of the Sixties founded to oppose the Vietnam war by the Berrigan brothers, two American Jesuits. The Berrigans were regarded as dangerous radicals. But the doctrine that condemns the sale of military hardware for use in unjust wars is orthodox Christianity.

Fr Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher and theologian, says: "It is almost impossible nowadays to justify killing people." The catechism of the Catholic Church puts it less flamboyantly. A just war, it explains, must be defensive: "The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success [and] the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

This demand - that the weapons used be proportionate to the evils they are meant to quell - has been read by some to mean all nuclear weapons ought to be banned. It can also be interpreted to rule out the use of ground attack aircraft, such as the BAe Hawk jet.

The fuse that drives these arguments into action is feminism. The Christian pacifist movement is as much in favour of female priests as of peace. But in the present climate of the opinion in the Vatican, world peace may be easier to achieve.

Some of the most respectable, middle-class stalwarts of the Anglican Movement for the Ordination of Women used to spend time at Greenham Common. Lala Winckley, a member of Catholics for Women's Ordination, makes the connection clear. "We believe in biblical justice, but not biblical patriarchy," she said.

Ms Zelter was converted to left-wing politics by her experience in Africa, where her husband was working on an aid project.

"I learnt that most of the problems Africa was experiencing originated in the way we lived our lives in the West ... Ever since then, I've tried to live in a way that is not going to exploit other people, and to take responsibility for what British companies are doing," she said.

Ian Linden, of the Catholic Institute of International Relations, is wry about the women's sudden fame. They have achieved more for the cause in 10 minutes with their hammers than his group had managed with 15 years' campaigning, he says. But the link between Christian feminism and peace is clear to him.

"Both in US and in this country the spearhead of radical thinking has been women, largely because the whole area of gender is such a dog's dinner and so hypocritical.

"There is a kind of democratic moment in which, without barristers, without counsel, the women speak directly to the good people of Liverpool, through the jurors; and the people of Liverpool say: `Yes, sisters, we agree.'"

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