Prologue to Catholic Worker Pamphlet on East Timor
g.maclennan at SPAMqut.edu.au
Sat Aug 12 01:38:47 MDT 2000
Here in Brisbane long time Catholic Worker and Ploughshare Activist, Ciaron
O'Reilly, asked me to supply a prologue to his pamphlet on East Timor. It
has already caused some controversy in Catholic circles. Listers might
find it of interest.
When Ciaron asked me to contribute a prologue to this book, I said 'yes'
immediately. After all I have known him as a good friend and fellow
activist for over 20 years and his father, Garret, is one of the people I
admire most in this world. Yet, for all that I often boast of being able to
write 2000 words on anything, I found this task a difficult one. In truth
reading through these pages has proved to be a deeply confronting
experience. I would like if I may to face up honestly to what caused me
To begin with there is the stumbling block of Ciaron's faith. This book is
the testimony of a deeply spiritual and profoundly religious man. His many
actions frequently centre on a symbolic act. Always he turns to prayer and
meditation. The prayers and symbols themselves are drawn largely from the
Roman Catholic Church. Thus there is much talk of sharing bread and wine.
I would like to be clear here that my objections or negative reactions are
not drawn from the tradition of rationalist opposition to Christian
obscurantism. I am far too Irish for that. No the problem is that Ciaron
and I share the same religious background. I too was born into the
Catholic Church. But I now regard that same church as nothing less than a
monstrous evil. Moreover leaving it for me was the moment of liberation of
my lifetime - a moment that I will never betray.
Ciaron is of course aware of the history of Catholicism. He is aware too
of the silences and compromises that the Australian Catholic Hierarchy
perpetrated in the face of genocide in East Timor. As with that other
great moral test of the 20th century, the genocide of the Jewish people,
the Catholic Church was tested over East Timor and it was found wanting.
Here Ciaron quotes Albert Camus to great effect
For a long time during those frightful years (pre-WW2) I waited for a great
voice to speak up (in the Church). I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I
knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not offer a cry of
condemnation when faced with force
What the world expects of Christians is
that Christians should speak out loud and clear
That they should get away
from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on
today. The grouping that we need is a grouping of people resolved to speak
out clearly and pay up personally (Albert Camus).
It must be said that we now know that the Church was not simply silent in
the face of the rise of Nazism. It was, rather, a willing partner. Thus
the Pope instructed the Catholic Party in the German Parliament to vote for
Hitler's accession to power.
As for the case of East Timor, despite their almost certain knowledge of
the massacre of thousands of Catholics, the Australian Catholic bishops
remained resolutely silent. No doubt their compromise was justified to
themselves in the name of preventing a greater tragedy for Catholics
elsewhere in Indonesia. Perhaps their Holinesses told themselves there was
nothing they could do. The truth is otherwise of course.
East Timor was invaded in 1975, and all the powerful connived at that
invasion. The invading army did what invading armies always do. They raped
and murdered. The same army had massacred over two million Communists a
mere nine years before in the mainland of Indonesia. In the eyes of the
Western powers their anti-communist credentials were impeccable. By the
time they had finished in East Timor, their victims numbered in excess of a
quarter of a million.
How was such an evil possible? The answer lies as always in the
specificities of the political conjuncture. Vietnam had just fallen to the
Communist Viet Cong and the West was hungry for revenge. The talk of
Marxism in East Timor, and it was never more than talk, was all that it
took. Presidents and Prime Ministers agreed to the invasion and the
subsequent sowing of the killing fields. They said 'yes' to power and evil
and for that may they all rot in eternal damnation.
That solemn curse brings me to the other source of my difficulty with
Ciaron. His theology has two aspects. One is resistance to power. I
agree with this of course and willingly record my admiration for Ciaron's
long struggle against Babylon. However equally important for Ciaron is the
emphasis on repentance. I refuse this. I do not agree that we all sinned
in East Timor. Those who sinned were those who had power to prevent what
happened. The sinners were those who mobilised the butchers.
To talk of universal guilt and the need for universal repentance here is to
draw attention away from those who have blood on their hands. Similarly I
believe Bill Graham talked of universal sin at the massacre in My Lai to
cover over the crimes of the US military in Vietnam. The people
responsible for the rapes and massacres in My Lai were the leaders of the
American Military-Industrial Complex. As always, it was the powerful who
gave the go ahead for rampant evil.
Having said that Ciaron's book was also difficult for me in that it was a
powerful reminder to me that I too had forgotten to remember East
Timor. Yet the invasion of East Timor in 1975 was the occasion for my
first political protest in Australia. Called by the Communist Party of
Australia a few hundred of us gathered in King George Square on a hot
summer day. I recall hearing Dan O'Neill speak for the first time. He
talked with great feeling of the fires of resistance 'all along the
archipelago'. Twenty-five years were to pass before his words came true.
We had come with our children that day and many of them stripped off and
dived into the fountains. The next day the Courier Mail coverage dealt not
with the facts of the invasion or our protest against it. Instead the
report concentrated on what kind of parents we were to let our children
dance naked in the fountains. The implication was of course that we were
not respectable people.
I was reminded of this coverage by a recent letter in the Catholic Leader
attacking Ciaron. It was written by someone, who styled himself as
'respectable'. Again the implication was that like us in 1975 Ciaron was
not respectable. I think we all have to plead guilty in this instance. I
know it is not in Ciaron's nature to enter a plea of guilty without at
least a three-week trial. Nevertheless the simple truth is that in a world
where it is respectable to plan and execute the murder of over a quarter of
a million people, Ciaron O'Reilly is far from being a respectable person
and for that he has my undying admiration.
Moreover the respectable letter writer would do well to ponder that when
Christ charged through the temple whip in hand driving the money lenders
before him there is little doubt that he was not respectable. Indeed such
was the depth of his non-respectability that he was ultimately tried in a
court of law, found guilty and executed as a criminal by the respectable
people of his day. But of course the letter writer to the Catholic Leader
has forgotten the past of the founder of his church. That church too has
forgotten the message of the gospels and instead has opted for a shabby
compromise with the existing state of affairs and the powerful few who
benefit from it.
This brings me in turn to my final difficulty with Ciaron's book. He comes
out of a tradition, theological and political, that I, as a Marxist, do not
share. His mentor and example is the saintly Dorothy Day, the founder of
the Catholic Worker movement. This anarcho-Christian movement has been
extremely powerful in the United States. It is less so in Australia due to
the especially degenerate nature of Australian Catholicism. The absolute
alienation from the sacred, which is the true mark of today's Christian, is
especially strong in Australia.
Thus not one of Australia's Catholic leaders strikes me as being even
remotely touched by holiness. The paradigmatic case here is surely the
powerful Bishop Pell from Melbourne - a man who seems destined for a
'distinguished' career in the Vatican. Something of the measure of his
humanity may be gained from the incident when he personally intervened to
prevent nuns running safe injection programs for addicts in Sydney. The
nuns aimed to save lives, but the good bishop remained resolutely respectable.
The truth though is that, here, I am comfortable in the contemplation of
the likes of George Pell. Everything I say and hint at about him and his
kind is true and transparently so. There is not one to gainsay me. Every
word and deed of Pell and his colleagues confirm me in my opposition to his
church and all of its works and pomps. But Ciaron's narrative eats into my
comfort zone. It reminds me that perhaps I have assumed the moral high
ground with a touch too much alacrity and maybe not without a good deal of
Ciaron's book provides nothing of the easy targets like Pell. As I have
said his mentor and example is the saintly Dorothy Day. She was a woman
whose every moment was lived as quiet, non-violent opposition to the
powerful and the respectable. Her influence is every where in this book
and indeed in Ciaron's life. That in truth is the source of the
considerable gulf between Ciaron and me. It seems to me that Ciaron dreams
of repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. By contrast I dream of Dies
Irae. His thoughts are full of images of the sharing of bread and
wine. Mine are of tumbrels and the dispensing of slow justice to the powerful.
But I will live with my difficulties with Ciaron's book. I will struggle
with them for his stories have moved me deeply. His is nothing less than
the simple chronicling of many little acts of kindness and of love by
people who will never make it into the ranks of the respectable.
The highlight for me was the story of the four Ploughshare Activists on
trial in Liverpool for their attacks on a Hawk aircraft. Their names are
Andrea Needham, Jo Wilson, Angie Zelter and Lotta Kronlid. All honour to
them. In the cockpit of the plane that they had disarmed the women left a
videotape explaining why they felt compelled to confront the evil of the
In their stupidity the prosecution played the tape to the jury. These
ordinary decent working class men and women were asked to listen to the
tape that also included a plea from an East Timorese woman that said,
'Please stop your arms trade with Indonesia if you are really human.'
The jury was confidently expected by the powerful and the morally
challenged to use this tape as evidence of guilt. Instead they were moved
deeply and the tape became proof of the guilt of the rich and the powerful
and all those who have profited from the trade in death. The subsequent
acquittal of the four Ploughshare Activists was greeted with great joy by
their supporters and with fear and dismay by the powerful.
I cannot read the whole tale in Ciaron's book without shedding tears.
Ciaron's act of remembering renews my faith in the basic decency of
humanity and it strengthens my conviction that if ordinary people can only
have access to the truth they will choose the side of goodness. For that I
am profoundly grateful and all the difficulties that this book (and Ciaron)
have caused me are as nothing.
There is much more in the book that I can commend to the reader, but my
prologue is in danger of overstaying its welcome. It is time that the main
act was allowed on the stage. I will conclude though with Walter Benjamin's
great image of the Angel of History. It comes from his Theses on the
Philosophy of History. In the second of these theses Benjamin argues that
every generation is endowed with what he terms a 'weak Messianic
power'. Our coming was expected by the dead. There is a 'secret agreement'
between them and us. They have a hope that we will redeem their suffering
by remembering. It is within our power to perform that remembering. The
past has a claim on this Messianic power but as Benjamin warns, and
Ciaron's book amply testifies, the claim of the dead on our capacity to
remember them cannot be settled cheaply.
In the Ninth Thesis we read of how the angel wishes to turn back and heal
the wounds left by the slaughter bench of history. But progress or
capitalist modernity will not let it stay to remember and heal. It seems to
me that Ciaron's book is best understood as an impulse to resist the forces
of so-called progress and to instead do witness to our humanity by
remembering and to fulfil our commitment to the dead
Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit
Ich kehrte gern zuruck,
Denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
Ich hatte wenig Glück.
-Gerhard Scholem, "Gruss vom Angelus".
A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he
is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes
are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one
pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where
we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps
piling wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls it in front of his feet. The
angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been
smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his
wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This
storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned,
while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we
call progress (Walter Benjamin).
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