Interview : Fr Peter Murnane OP

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 54, Spring 2010

Interview Fr Peter Murnane OP

Fr Peter Murnane OP, Waihopai Ploughshares peacemaker, recently spoke about his experience.

What does Waihopai do and why is it so important?

For twenty years the Waihopai base near Blenheim has been used by the US National Security Agency (NSA), whose headquarters are in Fort Meade, near Washington DC. The NSA is larger than the CIA and gathers signals intelligence (sigint) which the US uses to wage its wars, and to dominate the world as a super-power.

Shortly after Aotearoa New Zealand banned US nuclear ships from its ports, the US ‘persuaded’ our government to build this base on our soil, one of its chain of six spy bases around the world. These bases use echelon software to collect – often illegally – unimaginably large amounts of data from commercial satellites. Among these emails, phone conversations, faxes etc the NSA can find details about individuals – even you and me – just as Google does for general knowledge.

We do not know details of how the spy base tracks this or that individual person, or helps with a given ‘mission’, but the whole world can see the results of US policies. It has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq; uses ‘drones’ – pilotless aircraft controlled from afar – to bomb targets, often killing civilians; it kidnaps people and imprisons them without trial, or sends them to be horribly tortured. It could not do these things without ‘intelligence gathering’ from bases such as Waihopai. Such activities are inhuman and immoral, but we have become complicit in these crimes. Because the spy network claims to be essential for our ‘security’, New Zealand taxpayers continue to pay up to $40 million each year to run the Waihopai base. Over twenty years we have paid more than $500 million, without any accountability on its part.

How do you explain damaging property belonging to others? Isn’t this against Church teaching?

Human life is more important than property. In the classic case, if we see children trapped in a burning house, it is our moral duty to break in to save them. We will not be charged with intentional damage or burglary. After deliberately cutting the huge Waihopai dome with our sickles, hoping to interrupt its activities even briefly, we waited to be arrested because we knew our action – like saving children from a burning house – was against the letter of the law, but completely moral.

The judge carefully prevented us from using that defence of ‘necessity’. He claimed we could not prove a link between the spy base and any specific crime it had helped to commit. But jury found us ‘not guilty’ because we sincerely believed that it does those things. With many others who have studied the base, we are convinced that it plays an essential role in US atrocities. We took action against an instrument used to commit grave crimes.

Why do so many Christians continue to support war when Jesus taught ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘love your enemies’ and his final command was ‘lay down your sword’?

We each need to answer this question for ourselves, but some general reasons seem to be:

Lack of knowledge: During the first half of my life I never heard a Christian, or a Church authority, tell me that taking part in war might be against Jesus’ teaching to love all our enemies and to put aside the sword, that is violence. Boys in my Catholic secondary college eagerly joined the army cadets, wore uniforms and practised with rifles and machine guns. We accept as an integral part of our culture the rituals of war: the band music, uniforms, flags, war memorials, Anzac Day. Good people get caught up in all this, but we fail to recall that war is actually ‘legalized murder’.

Since at least the fourth century under the influence of the Emperor Constantine, the Christian Church has accepted a role in wars and developed a theory of ‘just war’ to explain itself. Ever since, many Christians, including priests and bishops, presumably because they want to be accepted as ‘good citizens’, have become soldiers, military chaplains, or – as many US bishops do each year – enjoyed an annual dinner at the Pentagon!

We have forgotten and reversed Jesus teaching with an alternative belief, and we are caught in what at best is a deep ignorance. However there have been hero-prophets who refused military service at great cost to themselves. They penetratingly see that ‘Jesus taught us how to live and die, not how to kill’.

Fear: When we are afraid that another country is going to invade us, or that our family might be harmed, we will act often in ways outside reason’s control. But as Dorothy Day pointed out, if her country joined in a war, even after an attack like Pearl Harbour, it would end up committing atrocities just like those it was fighting to prevent. This is exactly what happened when the US destroyed Tokyo with firebombing, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were slaughtered.

Counter-teaching: Vested interests actively promote war: governments; the industries that make weapons and equipment; academics; the armed forces themselves. Often the public accepts uncritically what they say. Because most people fail to turn away in horror from war, we do not object to popular war-toys and computer war games which are aggressively marketed and become an accepted part of most children’s world. Thus we are influenced from childhood to accept war as part of the human condition – in direct contrast to what Jesus taught.

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