Taking Up Arms: An Exorcism at the Arms Fair 31 October 2013

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Weapons and military systems are among Britain’s biggest exports. The Reverend Keith Hebden shares his experience of conducting a public exorcism at the 2013 DSEI Arms Fair in London, the world’s largest international defence exhibition.

Exorcism at the arms fair

“A Church of England priest prepares to do spiritual battle against one of the world’s largest arms fairs”. Radio 4 presenter William Crawley introduces an incredulous line of questioning on the “Sunday” program in response to an ecumenical plan, led by Anglican clergy, to exorcise an arms fair in London later that day. From the line of questioning, and my conversation days earlier with his producer, this ‘Exorcism of the Arms Fair’ went far beyond their understanding of both faith and public ethical debate. With two other Anglican priests, and Christians and ministers from various traditions, we had decided to perform a public exorcism of the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) Arms Fair. Our intention was to gather, as followers of Jesus, and bear public witness to the social, spiritual and moral evil that is the DSEI Arms Fair. We would walk onto the road at the entrance to the fair and perform an exorcism of the event.

That afternoon, on a usually quiet East London side road, we stood or knelt as a group of about thirty Christians, surrounded on three sides by a protective and supportive layer of protestors. I needed to keep the incense alight, and manage the sprinkling of holy water, while negotiating with an increasingly disgruntled line of police. Singing, praying, and ‘naming the powers’ of violence and greed, the ability to stay calm and focussed were essential.

The DSEI Arms Fair takes place every two years in the docklands of East London and is the largest of its kind in the world. Weapons design and manufacture are some of the UK’s biggest exports so the event is the highlight of the financial calendar. Those who regularly attend these events as protestors tell stories of smartly dressed traders who, when questioned, speak of the importance of war as “good for business” or insist that weapons are neutral objects and that it’s up to the buyer to make moral decisions about their use.

Many of the countries who come to buy or sell at this event are dictatorships; countries whose governments or factions wreak havoc on civilian populations or, like the US and the UK, have used them in a series of invasions in the name of democracy and the “war on terror”. This year we were to discover, thanks to Caroline Lucas MP, that some companies were also displaying weapons of torture illegal under UK and International law – the Speaker of the House of Commons made a little joke about it when Lucas raised the issue in parliament.

Exorcism at the arms fairBut the Church is not immune from what Catholic activist Dorothy Day called “this filthy rotten system”. A few days before our public act of witness I received a call from the Independent on Sunday asking me what I thought about the Church of England’s financial investment – up to £10m – in General Electric (GE). GE is a massive technology firm that designs and makes components for weapons as part of its portfolio. Because less than ten per cent of its business is in arms they fall into the Anglican Church’s “ethical” criteria for investment but they were to be one of the biggest players at this year’s Arms Fair. My response, although unquoted in their report, was that the Church needs to change her approach to investments entirely. Instead of thinking ‘How can we invest with minimal harm?’ she should be asking ‘How can we invest to bring about the greatest good?’ But we are a long way from a missional approach to money in the Church and so I must, for now, stand at the margins, blessed water in hand, and try to exorcise the demon of violence and capitalism.

We arrived at the eastern entrance to the DSEI event at the Excel building in East London at around 3pm on the Sunday before the official Tuesday-start of the Arms Fair to find a great deal of activity already underway. Crowds of people of all faith and good faith had gathered at the entrance to block the road so that weapons companies couldn’t bring their goods in and set up their stalls. Soon after we arrived the columns of police vans emptied out onto the pavements and the process of removing protestors began – by 3:30pm most of the road was cleared. Our exorcism was planned for 4pm but getting out onto the road to do it looked like a challenge – although my bigger challenge was attempting to light the charcoal in the incense burner while holding it with the tips of my fingers.

At exactly 4pm we began with a song. Revd Chris Howson, an Anglican priest from Sunderland, spoke the preface:
Sisters and brothers we gather to exorcise the demons of militarism and violence, to call an end to the evil horrors of the arms trade and to cast out the spirit of warfare and barbarism from this place. We remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the continuing global arms race, the failure of the nuclear powers to observe their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the polluted earth, the world governed by fear instead of justice, the futility of deterrence, the waste of public money, the horrors witnessed by Syria, Iraq, Rwanda, Palestine, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo.  We call for peace instead of war!

And with a song of peace on our lips we walked calmly, confidently, and non-violently onto the road, resisting the open-palmed punches to our shoulders, backs, and chests from police officers until, unable to stand up to them any further, we knelt in the middle of the road to pray. As I stepped out I let the words of the Bismillah fall from my lips – Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim – In the name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate. Many of the weapons displayed at the Arms Fair would go on to be used in the neo-liberal project of domesticating Islamic nations and it seemed fitting to use the beautiful prayer that begins every Muslim task and the chapters of the Qur’an at that moment of spiritual and political confrontation.

With the sweet smell of incense reminding us of the cloud of witness – those martyrs who went before us – we sang the words of Jesus in the Gethsemane garden: “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray…” I stood and turned to face the Excel building and began to sprinkle blessed water in that direction; this simple act led to the first threat of arrest from the police, “If you get another drop of water on me or my mate here, I don’t care I’m going to arrest you”.

I was threatened with arrest about a dozen times during the ten minutes it took us to complete our prayers. At first I explained to them that we would leave the road in a few minutes if they left us alone but eventually I was reduced to Gallic shrugs and finally a wry smile as I heard them arguing loudly among themselves about whether to arrest us at all. What moved me most was the way the other protesters rallied around us to bear witness to our witness, to shout down the police attempts to undermine our action and to decry any police violence. Many of these people would have good reason to distrust or dislike the institutional church and yet here we were together in common cause and with shared values taking care of one another.

Despite the seemingly exotic nature of our actions they are deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching, the Anglican “Marks of Mission”, and the ministry of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. It was the narrative of the latter that best explains what we were doing: specifically Mark chapter 5, verses 1 – 20. The Evangelist Mark generously layers the story of Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5: 1 – 20) with political and culturally emotive references, mostly obscured in English translations. Biblical scholar and activist, Ched Myers, in his socio-political hermeneutic has done a great deal to uncover this dimension to the story in the overall context of Mark’s use of language and thematic / narrative landscaping of events.

Myers makes much of the discrete but out-of-place military language in this story. Pigs do not form a “herd” as most English translations suggest. The Greek word used suggests a ‘militia’ of pigs who were ‘dismissed’ and ‘charged’ down the bank and into the sea. While they resided in the man they were “legion” – the only military word interpreters normally choose to accurately translate and they use the religious titles of the foreigner “Most High God”, when they address Jesus. All this frames the story in the socio-political crisis faced by local people under a foreign military occupation.

Our exorcism took place two days before the formal opening of the Arms Fair and was made possible by the work of Occupy London who had spent much of the day blockading the entrance and making the space that we used. During the week there were numerous revelations – as well as the revelations about torture instruments and the complicity of the Church of England, we learned of repressive regimes representing both buyers and sellers of arms and of the hypocrisy of Western states who sell and use chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction and then use the presence of these as a pretext for invasion.

Naming the powers, or ‘systems’, takes place in many ways. BBC’s William Crawley, taking a sceptical line, accused us of creating a “publicity stunt”. I replied that if he wanted to call it a stunt – which he was welcome to do – then we’d have to accuse Jesus of the same and unpacked the theology behind Jesus’ interaction with the Gerasene demoniac, explaining the connections between empire, the market and violence gleaned from that story. In reality Christian prayer was finding its proper home – doing business with what St Paul called “the principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:4) and standing for the Shalom – the wholeness, peace, and justice – of God.

Rev Keith Hebden’s book ‘Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus’ is available to purchase here.

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About Keith Hebden

Rev Keith Hebden is an associate of the think tank Ekklesia.co.uk and an Anglican pioneer minister and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on Dalit theology, Christian anarchism, green spirituality and spiritual activism. Some of his workshop material can be found at Compassionistas.net