CHRISTIAN COMMENT: Changing the world for the better

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The horrendous death of a British soldier in Woolwich has held our imaginations this past week.

The act appeared to come out of nowhere and to express a hatred of British actions abroad that is without foundation or reason.

As terrorism or as retaliation, it remains a thing of nightmare – sudden brutality in a place where we expect to be safe, the perpetrators unrepentant and implacable. The news sent a cold wind across the country.

I felt that chill as much as anyone and thought ‘I want to respond to this’. But how? How on earth can I make a specifically Christian comment on something that everyone already recognises as being what it is – a sterile act of inhumanity?

Yesterday I was directed to an article written by John Pilger in Sunday’s ‘Guardian’. In it the writer details the links between American and British policy in the wars against Iraq and the practical legacy of that policy, primarily in the long-term effects of radio-active weaponry we appear to have used. To make his point, I’ll quote at some length....

‘A US military physicist assigned to clean up the Gulf war battlefield across the border in Kuwait said, “Each round fired by an A-10 Warthog attack aircraft carried over 4,500 grams of solid uranium. Well over 300 tons of DU was used. It was a form of nuclear warfare.”

Although the link with cancer is always difficult to prove absolutely, the Iraqi doctors argue that “the epidemic speaks for itself”. The British oncologist Karol Sikora, chief of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme in the 1990s, wrote in the British Medical Journal: “Requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs and analgesics are consistently blocked by United States and British advisers [to the Iraq sanctions committee].” He told me, “We were specifically told [by the WHO] not to talk about the whole Iraq business. The WHO is not an organisation that likes to get involved in politics.”

Recently, Hans von Sponeck, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations and senior UN humanitarian official in Iraq, wrote to me: “The US government sought to prevent WHO from surveying areas in southern Iraq where depleted uranium had been used and caused serious health and environmental dangers.” A WHO report, the result of a landmark study conducted with the Iraqi ministry of health, has been “delayed”. Covering 10,800 households, it contains “damning evidence”, says a ministry official and, according to one of its researchers, remains “top secret”. The report says birth defects have risen to a “crisis” right across Iraqi society where depleted uranium and other toxic heavy metals were used by the US and Britain. Fourteen years after he sounded the alarm, Dr Jawad Al-Ali reports “phenomenal” multiple cancers in entire families.

Iraq is no longer news. Last week, the killing of 57 Iraqis in one day was a non-event compared with the murder of a British soldier in London. Yet the two atrocities are connected.’

That was John Pilger. How do I, as a Christian, respond?

Too often, faced with the more immediate demands of life, all I can muster is a sense of revulsion – then I move on. But that is to deny that each of us carries a measure of responsibility for the world – human and natural – that we inhabit. Each of us is able to do something to relieve the mess that we collectively have brought about. I may not have made any decision about military policy in Iraq but I do have the means to make results of that policy better known. Writing this column may be only a tiny contribution to making change but it’s within my scope. In the same way, each of us has the power – however small – to improve a bad situation.

‘All of us have messed up and fallen short of the way that God requires us to live’ We all need forgiveness for our part and we all need to forgive others. No-one’s better than anyone else in that sense. ‘While we have the time and opportunity, let us act well towards everybody.... As far as it’s within your power to do so, live at peace with everyone..... Everyone has a measure of grace to offer others....’ And so on.

No, you and I didn’t give any orders to kill people far away but we can each help to improve the life experience of the person next to us. These tiny changes are the way to the big changes that we long to see.

By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church, and lives and works in Worthing.