The Annual Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture (given by Bishop Phillip)

World Conference of Religions for Peace

2009 Annual Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture


Bishop Rubin Phillip

Diocese of Natal, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

Twenty-five years ago, when the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) was founded, our country was in crisis. A minority state was at war with its own people. Resistance to state repression was mounting. The state retaliated, sending troops into the townships for the first time. No more could the lie be spread that South Africa was facing an external threat of invasion by communists from beyond our borders.

It is significant that WCRP shares its 25th anniversary with the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), also founded in 1984. The ECC mobilized in the white community. It was founded by a coalition of white youth objecting to being forced to fight a racist war against South Africa’s own people, white university students politically aligned with the United Democratic Front (UDF) formed in 1983, and white activists mainly from the churches and human rights groups such as the Black Sash – all of whom were working for a just, non-racial democracy in South Africa. The ECC was arguably the most effective grouping from their own community to expose and undermine the white Nationalist block who depended increasingly on military might to keep itself in repressive, precarious power.

WCRP for its part worked across the spectrum of religious faiths in the country, using its interfaith base to support the struggle for liberation and justice, for reconciliation and democracy, for a truly new society in which the colour of one’s skin would no longer be the determining factor in shaping a young person’s whole life.

Here in South Africa we didn’t have the time or the inclination to notice how our environment was becoming more and more degraded by the implementation of apartheid policies: the forced removals, the cramming of black people into overcrowded and squalid resettlement camps and poorly-resourced townships, far from places of work. We were too busy resisting the evil. Our skills and energies were needed to support the struggle for an end to apartheid and the creation of our new society.

We also didn’t have time to notice much of what was going on in other parts of the world. But other struggles were taking place: liberation and justice were in the air.

From a nuclear stand-off between two power blocks, the world moved into the age of globalization. The United States of America came to dominate the world.

And now, in the year 2009, we stand once more on a knife-edge. Not only is the balance of world power slowly shifting in ways unthought of a few years ago, but we are faced with a crisis far beyond any the inhabited world has faced before. This world, our only home, is threated with human-induced extinction.

If there is to be any hope for a future for anyone on this world, our quest has to become one for environmental justice – inextricably linked with economic justice.

“But is it really so serious?”, you may ask. I don’t propose this evening to present all the evidence for the statement I have just made. The evidence is all around us, before our eyes, as well as enumerated and explained in academia, at conferences, on the internet, in all the media. It is now inescapable – except for a few deniallists, whom we are used to in this country.

From the toxins seeping into the public water systems across the Witwatersrand and in Mpumalanga to the changes in the climate being experienced right now across the world; from the over-fished seas to the degraded land; from the excessive use of scarce energy by a tiny proportion of the population to the growing restiveness of deprived people with no water, no sanitation, no proper housing, struggling to feed themselves and their families: wherever we go, if our eyes and hearts are open, we will face the harsh reality.

Environmental justice is the challenge for the world today. The survival of planet earth, our only home, depends on it.

But, you may ask “What has peace got to do with it?”

Well – the world is at war. It’s an undeclared, multi-faceted war. It’s a war largely hidden from the world’s headlines except for occasional perceptive stories from bold journalists and writers. But it’s a war that people of faith who stand for peace, as I presume all of us here tonight do, need to discover, analyse and confront. For we know from our long struggle in South Africa that there is no peace without justice.

Let’s start with the arms industry.

Since the time of the Boer War, when arms manufacturers Krupp supplied guns to both Brits and Boers, through all the decades of the last century up to today, the arms industry and the vast wealth to be made from the arms trade have provoked and fuelled wars across the globe.

That is the point of arms manufacture. By definition the purpose of a gun, a tank, a Casspir, a battleship, a nuclear missile, is to kill, maim and destroy people, buildings, nations and the environment of our planet. There is no positive value to weapons of any kind. They can neither supply human needs for food, clothing, shelter, nor can they enhance human development, culture or civilization. They are made and sold with one purpose only: to destroy.

In South Africa we are all aware of the abrupt change of economic policy of the newly-elected democratic government in the mid-1990s. Coming into power intending to put the poor first and with not a single country in the world hostile to our new nation, the intention was simply to ensure that the revamped defence force would have sufficient basic erquipment for maintenance at a projected time of extended peace.

We all know what happened. Within months the country was flooded by so-called ‘consultants’ from the power-brokers of the world, the planned economic system was changed, policy-makers shifted into GEAR. And sleek agents of destruction arrived to tempt decision-makers with arms company sales advertising and promises of massive support from governments promoting their countries’ key industries and aggressively seeking new markets, in potentially corrupting ways.

The fiasco of the arms procurement policy and the ‘arms deal’ is well-known, and yet actually still largely unknown. What we do know is that corvettes and submarines lie rusting in the water in Simonstown, that fighter aircraft stand hidden in hangars because there are no pilots trained to use them (and one does have to ask again: against whom?), while ordinary soldiers protest at the Union Buildings because they are paid a pittance and their equipment is largely outdated and unusable, even for the peace-keeping operations we are called to support as a leading nation in Africa.

In the meantime, the country is in deep debt for unusable, destructive purchases, and an elite is extremely wealthy from the ‘private proceeds’ of ‘facilitating’ the arms deal.

One is a little hopeful that the possible prosecution of British Aerospace, the world’s second-largest arms company, with 80% of their research funded by the British taxpayer at a cost of £16bn a year, may shed more light on how South Africa was ‘persuaded’ into this catastrophic deal.

But one is not too hopeful when one discovers, from research done by Pax Christi in London that, in spite of Britain signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1970s declaring it would work towards the abolition of nuclear weapons, renewing its commitment in 2000, and despite huge opposition, in March 2007 the UK parliament voted by a narrow margin to replace Trident, updating its nuclear arsenal. Trident is Britain’s nuclear weapon system – with four nuclear armed submarines, one of which is out on patrol 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each submarine carries 48 independently-targeted nuclear warheads – each able to be sent to a different target. Each warhead has eight times the explosiove power of the first atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. One Trident submarine can destroy any country on earth. A fleet of Trident submarines can end life on earth. [Pax Christi 2009]

From the destruction of lives, forests and crops from large parts of north-east France during the three-and-a-half years of trench warfare in World War I to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in World War II, to the use of Agent Orange and napalm to burn away all living trees and crops as well as the skin of people in the Vietnam War, to the transformation into wasteland of large parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, down to what happened in Gaza ten months ago, it is only too clear that those who support and encourage the arms industry, and live disproportionately well on its profits, bear a huge load of responsibility and guilt for the death of millions of people and the attack on the very life of our planet.

This brief scan of the arms industry and its trade reminds us – people of faith on a quest for peace with justice in the world – of how deeply intertwined good and evil are. We understand that the potential for both good and evil lie within us. It is part of our own personal spiritual journey to cherish and encourage the good.

Modern technology, of course, has this same double-sided potential. While the arms industry has been only one of the modern industries that has been built on the systematic rape of the earth’s mineral resources, water and air, it is the field of scientific enquiry that gave birth to that child of terror – nuclear energy. In what might, philosophically, be seen as a attempt to redeem the horror of the atomic bomb and its nuclear progeny – still being produced today by companies around the globe as our one example of Trident reminds us – the twin born of this pursuit of science has been nuclear energy for generating electricity to supply not only the world of industry but also the increasingly sophisticated requirements of modern civilization.

However, as those who remember the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster many years ago will recall, the melt-down of part of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine had repercussions across great swathes of Europe for years – quite apart from the total devastation of its immediately surrounding environment. Decades later, the soil is still toxically radio-active and people continue to die of cancer; decades later there are farms in Wales, thousands of miles away but in the prevailing winds, where farmers are still not allowed to grow mushrooms in their soil, toxic with nuclear fall-out from Chernobyl.

As we struggle here in South Africa with a public energy provider which has suffered neglect for so many years that it now seems unable to get to grips effectively with its task, except by further degrading the environment by coal mines and their consequences on water and land, one of our tasks in our quest for environmental justice is to use all our powers of persuasion and advocacy to turn Eskom away from the untested, outrageously expensive technology of nuclear pebble-bed reactors to which it seems so inexplicably wedded, towards sustainable technologies.

We have an almost unlimited supply of sunshine in many parts of our country for solar generation; we have famously windy, endless stretches of coast for wind generation; we have rivers for short-stretch turbines; we have mountains of waste for conversion. And all this technology for alternative power generation exists already, hardly any research is needed.

What is needed is the political will and the economic wisdom. So, as we stagger from the recent power tariff increases and look forward to paying another 60% a year for each of the next five years, let’s use our energy to promote sustainable power generation and leave out the nuclear option altogether, with its dangers in the present and its hazardous waste for hundreds of thousands of years into the future. And let’s find ways of persuading Eskom to reduce the use of coal-fired power stations that pollute the land and water. and add a disproportionate amount of global warming-producing pollution to our air – which is already one of the major contributors of CO2 in the world.

Now I want to talk briefly about water.

There’s an ad on the radio at the moment for an organization that collects and treats used motor oil. They have cleverly made their own a catchy phrase that was used by a prominent environmentalist earlier this year. “The next world war will be fought over water.” That seems quite a surprising thought. One would have thought that, like the local wars of the past decades, declining supplies of oil or other key mineral resources would have been the trigger. But it makes us think, doesn’t it?

Do we know where our water supply comes from? Or what processes it goes through before we turn on the tap for a seemingly inexhaustible supply? Those of us who venture beyond our safe suburbs know that in the informal settlements growing all around us, as well as in the far rural areas, water is a precious commodity that has to be obtained by determined efforts.

Environmentalists have been telling us for a few years now that water supplies in the world are drying up. But we havn’t really taken much notice on the whole. Climate change seems so much more obvious, we experience it already, it’s easier to acknowledge.

The poor are an integral part of our struggle for environmental justice.

Take the Kennedy Road informal settlement as an example. Here was a community of poor folk who made themselves a home as close as possible to scarce amenities, such as water, schools, transport, the possibilities of employment. But the authorities decreed that there shall be no informal settlements in the city. Some of the community, organised into the Shack-dwellers Association, took the authorities to the Constitutional Court and their right to live there was confirmed. But strategic trouble-makers with other particular interests aroused feelings about certain people, including about their ethnic origin. The result? A sector of the population was attacked and chased out of the settlement, their shacks and possessions were destroyed, and two people were killed.

We see once again the classic apartheid strategy of ‘divide and rule’ turning poor people against each other rather than against the authorities of whatever kind who, it seems clear, actually instigated the attack. Until there is decent housing, water, sanitation and refuse removal for everyone there will continue to be conflict. And politicians will continue to divide and rule to get their own policies through.

This is a war against the poor. And once again we have to say that dealing justly with poor people has to be at the centre of our quest for peace, our quest for environmental justice, inextricably interlinked with economic justice. All over the world people in poverty are at the heart of environmental degradation.

Because of temperatures rising and the Sahara desert moving southwards, rural pastoralists have to move into wetter areas to find grazing. There seems to be no room for this influx. Conflict arises, armed militias are sent in, and suddenly an area in Africa is deemed to be at war – often characterized by the ethnicity or tribal affiliation of those concerned, and by the role of armed milities with a particular political agenda.

Similar environmental migrations take place already in many places around the world, and will intensify enormously once climate change speeds up – as it will very soon unless the whole conscious world takes immediate remedial action. Once the ice caps have melted and the water level of the oceans rises permanently, millions of environmental refugees will flood into the nearest habitable land. The results are unimaginable in the case of, for example, the Indian sub-continent, already under intense pressure from over-population. At the same time, once mountain glaciers have fully melted, what are now strong, full rivers will reduce to trickling streams, and the water crisis will be upon yet another part of the world.

But the rich can much more easily escape. It is the poor who cannot.

In discussions at the World Council of Churches Central Committee recently, a hearing was held on ‘ecological debt’ – a measuring of the real cost that policies of expansion and globalization have had on developing nations. The global South has frequently been victimised by the greed and unfair use of its resources: many examples were given. Prof Martinez of Spain said: “Climate change, unequal trade, bio-piracy, exports of toxic wastes and other factors have added to the imbalances,” which were called “a kind of war against people around the world, a kind of aggression.” Dr Ofelia Ortega of Cuba pointed out that this is a spiritual issue, not just a moral one. [WCC e-NEWS; 31 August 2009 quoted in Inselelo September 2009]

And she is right, of course. That is why we as people of faith are deeply concerned for the environmental justice linked to economic justice that makes for peace and which is part of the ethic that brings the world’s religions together. Respect and compassion for all people must include respect and compassion for the planet that bears us, that nurtures and nourishes us, that provides the air we breathe to live, the water we drink to live, the food we eat to live, and the beauty that cherishes our inmost being. With all the brilliant modern technology that scientists have produced, we and all living things still need air, water, food, and beauty from this earth, our only home.

I want to encourage you as we face the coming peril together. You see, it’s not only about what ‘they’ must do – whether they be our own government or the United Nations or whoever. It’s about what we can do – each of us as individuals, but above all each of us in community, whether as family, where we live, where we share our faith, where our ancestors come from. For that is our African way. We may occasionally feel close to despair, but together we can bring hope and beauty to each other and to the earth, our only home.

In closing, I offer you a poem called God is weaving by M. Rienstra translated by Yvonne Dahlin, from an anthology The Way of Peace.

God is crying.

The tapestry of creation

that she wove with such joy

is mutilated, torn,

made into pieces,

its beauty worn apart with violence.

God is crying.

But see!

She is gathering the pieces

to weave something new.

She collects

the pieces from hard work;

the aim: to defend

the initiative for peace,

the protests against injustice,

everything that seems

small and weak;

words and deeds given

as sacrifice

in hope,

in belief,

in love.

And see!

She is weaving them together

with the golden threads of joy

to a new tapestry;

a creation richer, more beautiful

than the old!

God is weaving,

patient, persistent,

with a smile

that is shimmering like a rainbow

over her face, striped with tears.

And she invites us

not only to continue

to give her

our works

and our suffering pieces –

But even more –

to sit beside her

at the loom of Jubilee

and weave

together with her

the tapestry of a New Creation