Christian activist: We exorcised the arms fair
I’ve never seen police looking so confused. After clearing protesters from the road outside the London arms fair (Defence and Security Exhibition International, held from 10 to 13 September), 18 people who had refused to move had been arrested. Others retreated to a roundabout. The police paid little attention when some of those on the roundabout began singing hymns. Then the group split apart and three Church of England priests, in their robes, stepped out onto the road.
A surprised policeman asked them to turn back. Other officers gathered as journalists and bystanders took photographs. The priests advanced, one swinging a thurible, followed by several more singing Christians. As one of those singing, I wondered how far we would get.
Several things happened very quickly. The police formed a line to block our progress. The priests stopped. Despite not having planned this, the rest of us quickly dropped to our knees. The police surrounded us. It was a kettled act of worship. The majority of protesters, who had remained on the roundabout and were not Christians, now knew something was happening. They rushed over and surrounded the police who were surrounding us.
Chris Howson, chaplain at Sunderland University, began to pray the words of a pre-arranged liturgy. A policeman put his arm on Chris’ hand. A number of non-Christian protesters began to chant: “Don’t nick the vicar!” as the liturgy continued. The police tolerated us, though possibly because they had no idea what to do.
A police officer who attempted to tell us to leave was drowned out by prayers and songs. Chris declared we were there to exorcise the demons of greed and militarism, and to pray for an end to the arms trade. Keith Hebden, a priest from Mansfield, splashed holy water in the direction of the arms fair. The water crucible Symon Hill is a writer, activist and member of the of the Campaign Against Arms Trade steering committee. The water crucible was held by Chris Wood, an Anabaptist not used to such high church practices. Ecumenism is at its best under pressure.
As the police seemed likely to move in, Leicestershire priest Helen Hayes invited us to share a sign of peace. Suddenly people were hugging and shaking hands. Nearly all the protesters, many of whom had no connection with Christianity, joined this act, cheering and thanking us for what we had done. There were several attempts to share the peace with police officers. Most refused to respond, but one said: “And also with you”.
As we retreated to the roundabout, people asked questions; they wanted to know who had organised this (it was Christianity Uncut, with support from others) and some asked about the theology behind it.
That morning, when interviewed by BBC Radio 4, Keith had been asked whether the planned exorcism was a “stunt”. If it was a stunt, he said, Jesus and his prophets did stunts. Giving the example of Mark 5:1-20 (where Jesus restores a demon-possessed a man), Keith argued that in biblical context, demonic possession was synonymous with sinful forces occupying the land. Britain today is possessed by the false gods of militarism. We challenged this at the London arms fair. The fair’s formal title bears the word “defence”, but has nothing to do with defence. Guests – invited by the UK government – included regimes which have turned weapons on civilians, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Uzbekistan.
Two days after the exorcism, I was arrested along with four other Christians as we knelt in prayer with our arms linked to block another entrance to the arms fair. Two companies were thrown out of the fair for marketing illegal instruments of torture. Our action, which delayed entrance to the arms fair for nearly an hour, may have prevented a sale of torture equipment. The dealers in torture were not arrested. We, on the other hand, face trial in February.
Our group has been overwhelmed with supportive messages from people of several religions and none. I have also received messages saying: “Christians should obey the law,” some quoting Paul’s advice for Christians to respect governing authorities (Romans 13:1). When Paul wrote this, the law required everyone to worship the emperor. Christians broke this law every day. Today, we are pressurised to serve the idols of money, markets and military might. The first step to breaking free from their power is to refuse to worship them.
This article was published in the November 2013 edition of Reform.
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