Peace vigil

November 2015: Peace Vigil, Hexham Abbey

Hexham Abbey peace vigil: Voices and Choices

As war memorials in Hexham, Newcastle, Durham and across the region attest, the North East has a long and notable association with the armed forces. My own family has seen many men serve in the Durham Light Infantry and the Northumberland Fusiliers. But our region can also be proud of its lesser-known peace history. For example, this includes an active Newcastle auxillary of the 19th century Peace Society, whose President, Joseph Pease, was a notable Durham Quaker MP.

A highlight of this peace history is arguably the visit of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1967. He came to Newcastle University to receive an honorary degree, Newcastle being the only UK city to so honour him. This visit subsequently took on added poignancy as being his last trip outside the Americas before his murder. It also had a humorous side: in arranging the visit, his aides displayed bafflement at UK geography, writing to the university to ask whether it was a taxi ride away from Heathrow Airport!

In his impromptu acceptance speech – captured on film and now available on YouTube after being discovered decades later in the archives by historian Brian Ward – King identified racism, poverty and militarism as the three ‘great and grave problems that pervade our world.’ For King, these problems were interrelated because they presented a challenge to the inherent dignity of life. The cornerstone of his life and work was the idea from the Hebrew Bible that humans are made Imago Dei, in the image of God, and therefore inherently worthy of equal rights and dignity. ‘Every human being has etched in his personality the indelible stamp of the creator,’ King repeatedly insisted. As he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life.” This was the basis of King’s civil rights activism against racist laws and practices; but also basis of his campaign against poverty and inequality, which degrade human dignity; and it was the foundation of his opposition to war and militarism – including nuclear weapons – which are the ultimate affront to life.

Today, the Northumbria and Newcastle Universities Martin Luther King Peace Committee seeks to honour King’s legacy by actively building cultures of peace. Working out of the chaplaincies of the city’s two universities, we’ve worked with schools, activist groups, trade unions, and even the military. We run schools peace studies days; hold public meetings to work towards a more pacific UK foreign policy; train young people from around the world to be peacemakers; help communities celebrate peace histories such as the WW1 Christmas Truces and next year the bicentenary of the founding of the Peace Society; and meet regularly to pray for peace. We have a close relationship with Quaker peace groups in the region, and so are delighted to have been invited to join you today in this creative and important recognition of the different voices and choices men and women made a century ago.

WW1 was infamously seen as ‘the war to end all wars’, which is another way of saying the point of the war was to end injustice not just temporarily, but permanently. Obviously, we know it didn’t, and so the question remains: how is injustice to be tackled? I would like to end by quoting from an article King wrote in 1957, entitled ‘nonviolence and racial justice,’ where he addressed this directly:


How is the struggle against the forces of injustice to be waged? There are two possible answers. One is resort to the all too prevalent method of physical violence and corroding hatred. The danger of this method is its futility. Violence solves no social problems; it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Through the vistas of time a voice still cries to every potential Peter, “Put up your sword!” The shores of history are white with the bleached bones of nations and communities that failed to follow this command…

The method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is deep faith in the future that causes the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation. He knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very centre of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. So… we can walk and never get weary, because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice.”