a superhuman decision?

I had one of those moments on the bus earlier on reading these words from Aleksandr Solzhenistyn which are taken from one of his books ‘The Oak and the Calf’.
(I wasn’t reading them in that though. I was reading them in a study book by Os Guinness which I had grabbed quickly of a shelf in one of those moments when you feel that you you should buy something to show support for the small shop that you had wandered into)

‘From dawn to dusk the correction and copying of Gulag went forward; I could scarcely keep the pages moving fast enough. Then the typewriter started breaking down every day, and I had either to solder it myself or take it to be repaired. This was the most frightening moment of all: we had the only original manuscript and all the typed copies of Gulag there with us. If the KGB suddenly descended, the many throated groan, the dying whisper of millions, the unspoken testament of those who had perished, would all be in their hands, and I would never be able to reconstruct it all, my brain would never be capable of it again.
     I could have enjoyed myself so much, breathing the fresh air, resting, stretching my cramped limbs, but my duty to the dead permitted no such self indulgence,They are dead. You are alive. Do your duty. The world must know all about it.
    They could take my children hostage – posing as “gangsters,” of course. (They did not know that we had thought of this and made a superhuman decision: our children were no dearer to us than the memory of the millions done to death, and nothing could make us stop that book.)’

It was those last lines about making a ‘superhuman decision’. One of the questions Os Guinness asks is:-

‘ What was Solzhenitsyn’s decision about his children? How does this compare with the common modern maxim that “work” never comes above “family”? Which of the two is closer to the teachings of Jesus?’


that droning noise

I notice that apart from the widespread complaint that the German pilotless planes ‘seem so unnatural’ (a bomb dropped by a live airman is quite natural, apparently), some journalists are denouncing them as barbarous, inhumane, and ‘an indiscriminate attack on civilians’.

After what we have been doing to the Germans over the past two years, this seems a bit thick, but it is the normal human response to every new weapon. Poison gas, the machine-gun, the submarine, gunpowder, and even the crossbow were similarly denounced in their day. Every weapon seems unfair until you have adopted it yourself. But I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because, unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won’t stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance before the engine cuts out. In other words, you are hoping that it will fall on somebody else. So also when you dodge a shell or an ordinary bomb—but in that case you have only about five seconds to take cover and no time to speculate on the bottomless selfishness of the human being.’

George Orwell, 30 June 1944


“Said a day laborer, “I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there … I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light. Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared.” Added a politician, people “often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming because they are hallucinating about drones.”


Would you have nightmares if they flew over your house?


“When children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time so they’re always fearful that the drone is going to attack them,” an unidentified man reported. “Because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed, women, men, and children. … Twenty-four hours, a person is in stress and there is pain in his head.”

‘Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones’: The Strikes’ Effect on Life in Pakistan

Dirty Wars

Some of the camera work and hushed voiced commentary in this Oscar nominate documentary nearly drove me demented. Also the fact that what most seemed to shock Jeremy Scahill was that the US would assassinate US citizens. He was shocked that the US would kill Yemeni and Afghan women and children but once it was a US citizen it seemed to really shocked him. Why is this particularly beyond the pale?
It tells the story of how the US fights covert wars using JSoc (Joint Special Operations Command ) which seems to be an unaccountable hit squad who have to answer no one except the President himself. They are assassins, covert secretive Special Forces who can take out targets in the middle of the night. If they get things wrong they don’t have to face the music because they are doing it in secret They have struck in over 70 countries. 70 countries! In a way they are like Obama’s paramilitary or death squad. What happens if the guy after Obama is even worse than Obama? What happens when they couple this with the intelligence gathering from the NSA? Someone who voices dissent about the US and stirs up trouble (trouble as defined by some secretive people we know nothing about) could find themselves in deep trouble.

I have no time for Obama or the US Government and pontificating about Ukraine and the Crimea or international law. Putin is creepy, Obama is creepy as well.To blow up women in children with cruise missiles in countries or drone strikes or to tell foreign presidents to keep journalists locked up for telling the truth is wrong. The Navy SEAL’s etc aren’t modern day folk heroes, they’re men who kill their enemies and killing isn’t something to be proud of.
So I recommend the film if you can stick with the camera work.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Although as a child I was aware of The Troubles on my doorstep I was too young to worry about the state of the wider world.  Things such as the Cold War didn’t effect me. But it must have played on the minds of people like my parents.
I remember dad mentioning in passing that some people thought a meteorite that fell in the late 1960’s over Ulster  was a nuclear bomb. What else would have caused the night sky to light up like that?
Ever since reading Hiroshima last week I have been reflecting on the nuclear arms race and wondering why men raced to produce bombs so powerful and destructive.
It seemed like as good a time as any to watch Dr Strangelove. My feeling about the film is that it is overrated. Yet I am watching now in a world that hasn’t just experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis. So maybe it is like Bob Dylan. I think he is over-rated as well, but if I had been living through the 60’s how would that change my perspective?

There is one line in the film that stands out, a line about one B-52 carrying bombs with the same amount of explosive power as all the bombs exploded by all the sides during World War II. And as for things going wrong by mistake, this is the sort of incident that happened in the 60’s. Part of me is grateful for not being aware of this stuff growing up.

Hiroshima, a terrible book


I liked the retro look of this Penguin book yesterday, it seemed vintage and cool. Never judge a book by it’s cover though as it is easily the most horrific book I have ever read.

First published in 1946 it  recounts the experience of six  eyewitnesses on the day that the first first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima . What follows is hell on earth as far as I can see, human beings suffering or in pain and literally not knowing what has hit them.

In general John Hersey shows little emotion and just tries to tell the story of these survivors without adding too much of his interpretation on events. At one point though when describing the effect of radiation on survivors he writes:-

‘And, as if nature were protecting man against his own ingenuity, the reproductive processes were affected for a time; men became sterile, women had miscarriages, menstruation stopped.’

One thing that caught me of guard was the two of these eyewitnesses (and survivors) where Christian  voices, one a German Jesuit and the other a Japanese Methodist minister.

At one stage in the unfolding carnage this Methodist minister, Mr Tanimoto is called to the house of a dying wealthy man in the city, a man who had been anti-Christian and accused Mr Tanimoto of being a spy for the Americans. He goes to help this Mr Tanaka and finds him in a tomb like shelter, his face and arms puffed up, eyes swollen shut, covered in pus and blood, As John Hersey recounts:-

‘Standing at the shelter stairway to get light Mr Tanimoto read loudly from a Japanese-language pocket Bible: ” For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told…”
   Mr Tanaka died as Mr Tanimtoto read the psalm’

Dresden – 14th February, 1945

Dresden - 14th February, 1945

I’d read Eagle and Victor comics in bed.
Sometimes I’d curl under the blanket and pretend that I was snug in the gun turret of a Lancaster bomber somewhere over the German countryside.
I was ace on that gun. I took out Messerschmitt’s.

I wonder if any boys fought or died in Iraq, Afghanistan after being stirred into action from reading comics and dreaming in blanket gun turrets?

the war came down on us here


The end of Nimmo’s Pier is a nice spot in Galway, you can look up the river towards the town and imagine Christopher Columbus  sailing in and going to St Nicholas’ church all those centuries ago.
Apparently it is all a good place for birdwatching, particularly gulls. Though I’m a bird watcher and admired the oystercatchers and  curlew , I don’t pay particular attention to gulls. But perhaps  now is the time to start. I’m by the sea!
The little lectern at the end of the pier reminds me of pulpit a  minister might use to preach at the city, but instead of holding  sermon notes it holds a bronze plaque dedicated to the poet Louis MacNeice with a poem he wrote on the pier at the start of World War II.


O the crossbones of Galway
The hollow grey houses,
The rubbish and sewage,
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.

Salmon in the Corrib
Gently swaying
And the water combed out
Over the weir
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.

The night was gay
with the moon’s music
But Mars was angry
On the hills of Clare
And September dawned
Upon Willows and ruins
The war came down upon us here

remembering ‘our armed forces’

I know that this is a hard day for many people because it is a chance for them to reflect on loved ones who died in the horrors of war. Coming from Northern Ireland and a Protestant community in Northern Ireland I know that it has special significance because of the victims of terrorism, some of you reading this, maybe all of us who grew up in Northern Ireland know victims no matter where we grew up. If I’m being honest though I would mainly know victims on the Protestant/Unionist side of the community and none on the Nationalist side of the community.

I know that yesterday many churches in Ireland incorporated some type of  Remembrance Sunday aspect into their morning service to remember (amongst other things) those who gave their lives in war serving their country.

When I say that many churches in Ireland incorporated some type of Remembrance aspect into their morning service I probably mean ‘many Protestant churches in Ireland‘ and ‘their country‘ usually means something to do with the United Kingdom or Commonwealth.
I haven’t seen a single poppy out about in Galway whereas up in north in Lisburn or Belfast I would have seen many, it is part of story of Northern Ireland
In fact this is the first time that I can remember without seeing any poppy worn by a member of the church or around the city. There wouldn’t have been that many around Dublin when I lived there, but you would have seen something. Perhaps poppies in a box on the way out of church or a plaque on the wall with the name of some young men who died in the Great War.

That is not because of anything anti-British or not remembering about war in Galway but a reminder that Ireland has two different countries with all the history, hurts and baggage associated with that.
It is also a reminder that my particular denomination, the PCI straddles two very different countries. So if someone where to speak at the Presbyterian General Assembly about chaplains in ‘Our Armed Forces’ they would be wrong. For members of the PCI there are two armed forces.

Actually, that isn’t even right.

Because for members of the PCI from different countries around the world what does ‘Our Armed Forces’ actually mean?
For those members of PCI who might come from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Hungary, South Korea, USA, India, Malaysia, Brazil etc who are ‘our armed forces?’ We live in such a globalized world now that our church might easily have members from countries that fought each other in World Wars. We might easily have someone from Argentina or Iraq in  church.

The Republic of Ireland does hold a version of Remembrance Sunday on the Sunday nearest the 11th July, the ‘National Day of Commemoration’ but I don’t know of any church that holds an act of remembrance on that Sunday to remember those Irish soldiers who died in past wars or United Nations peacekeeping  missions. Perhaps there are, but I am unaware of them.

When I see video clips of people wearing poppies on the BBC down here it seems very obvious that it is a largely a symbol or remembrance for the British and Allied Forces. Some people might dispute that it is something bigger than a British, Commonwealth or Allied Forces thing, it is about remembering all those who died in the madness of war. Perhaps so, but the British aspect seems to main thrust of it to me, if only for the reason that the Poppy Appeal is organised by the Royal British Legion.

According to Wikipedia Remembrance Sunday is held:-

“to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”

Under the section about Northern Ireland the Wikipedia entry says:-

‘In Northern Ireland, Remembrance Sunday has tended to be associated with the unionist community. Most Irish nationalists and republicans do not take part in the public commemoration of British soldiers.’

For years I have found Remembrance Sunday to be the hardest Sunday to go to church as a Presbyterian because it is a Sunday that seems to say (even if that is not the intention) that being Presbyterian is somehow tied up with being British and Unionist.

The reason that I find that so hard is that I think it puts a barrier up between my neighbour and I in the one place that should rise above national identity.

Lots of Irish people aren’t Unionists and ‘God Save Our Queen’ (whether we like it or not) in their ears is the national anthem of a foreign country and to some a foreign country of the oppressor, not the soldier who fought for our freedom.

Personally I think that church has to be neutral ground, a place for the healing of the nations and not just our nation, or those who identify with our nation. That is why I feel sick anytime the British National anthem is sung in church as if it was a hymn of praise.

If a German Christian or Irish nationalist Christian would feel uneasy at coming to our Sunday morning worship to come and worship Jesus because of the way we remember the horrors of war from a British perspective I think we are in the wrong. That is not because of wanting to lessen the hurts of war and death or help people deal with their hurts, or to remember the victims of war.

The other thing is that there  are many other wars that our brothers and sisters in Christ have had to live through and are living through right now that have nothing to do with the fields of France where the poppies grow.

What does the poppy symbolize for the people in Congo or Syria, for the people in Iraq? Or if your grandmother is blown up by a remote controlled drone airstrike what does wearing a poppy mean for them?

The phrase ‘our armed forces’ seems wrong to me as a Christian. Would we feel comfortable in a church service in Berlin where there was some act of remembrance for members of the German military?
If we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven   can we go to church on a Sunday morning to celebrate that unity we have as brothers and sisters in Christ then go home to support ‘our armed forces’? The Germans Christian supporting ‘our armed Forces’, the Irish Republican Christian supporting ‘our armed Forces’, the American Christian supporting ‘our Armed Forces’ and the Iraqi Christian supporting ‘our Armed Forces’? What does that even mean if we’re supposed to be peace bringers and united in Christ? This video clip from Tony Campolo comes to mind.

Voices Against War

the last tycoon336‘Violence is concerned with power and greed; people seek their own advantage to the detriment of others in the world. The financial people who swindled pensioners out of their pensions showed violence towards these people’

Leslie Hardie, CO, Second World War

So I finished a book I’ve been reading, Voices Against War by Lyn Smith a book based on the testimony of ‘those who participated in protest – from the Great War of 1914-1918 through to….the ongoing conflicts in Iraq in Afghanistan’

So much to think about. It’s all very well thinking you’re against war, but what if a Nazi with a gun came for Helen or my mum, what would you propose to do about the concentration camp?

But that is the theoretical side of things, what about the violence of our daily lives, the violence that we experience every day? The voice of Leslie Hardie above reminds me the violence I commit by merely being human in a very complex word.

For instance, last night I sold a book on Amazon, something which I’ve been doing the last few years. A considerable % of the price I sold it for went to Amazon as it has with the various books, DVD’s and CD’s I’ve sold. In effect I’ve done some work for Amazon.

Yet I also know that Amazon are less than honourable in their tax affairs using tax loopholes to avoid paying corporation tax.

Because of their size and power they are able to gain an unfair advantage over those who can’t afford to move to The Channel Islands yet have to pay their taxes. I know this happens and I know that by selling books on Amazon or buying books on Amazon I am swelling their coffers.

Of course our lives are so complicated these days. Not that lives weren’t always complicated, but now everything is comlicated because we can find out about stuff at breakneck speed with electronic communication.

Everything is so complicated and it has to power to depress you (well me at any rate) because you’ll go mad. Can we go around worrying about how every action has consequences? Perhaps one of those virtues that we need most but rarely talk about is wisdom. Not training, or education, but wisdom, the power to make wise decisions in day to day life. I know I need more of it.

trying not to boil away

I was reading this book in Belfast today as PSNI choppers hovered above, riot police blocked roads with white landrovers and  ‘peaceful’ protesters went  protesting about east Belfast with a healthy slice of rioting and destruction.
I am trying to deal with contempt for these people, to understand their issues or show compassion but it’s hard as most of you will probably understand.
At one point I was imagining the police helicopter armed with Hellfire missiles to fire into the streets of east Belfast and unleashing something that would really encourage people to give up and go home.


Still, violence isn’t going to halt violence.
This testimony from a medic serving in Syria during World War II reminded me of that, maybe also of my responsibilities if I claim somehow to be a Christian. If we can’t offer something radically different from an eye for an eye then what’s the point?

‘Once we heard of someone giving information about us to the Germans. We thought we knew who he was, so my gang went and captured him and brought him in front of me. He was very frightened. The boys said, ‘Let’s beat him up.‘ I had absolute power over this man and I felt the desire rising up inside me to smash him, to break him. It was really a terrifying feeling because it went against all my instincts, a violence erupting out of the very depths of myself. And I came to realise that this was the Hitler in me. That was a fundamental, mind-changing thing. I suddenly knew that the violence I was fighting against – the concentration camps, the sadism, the torture – was boiling up inside my guts. That has been a profoundly important insight for my life – that one should recognise the darkness. I sometimes feel that if you become a total pacifist, the danger is that you begin to think that you haven’t got these things in you. You become very gentle and smiling, but underneath you’re boiling away’

(Bishop) Stephen Verney, medic with HSU, Syria