Remembering the child deaths of war
A report of Holy Innocents Peace Procession
Melbourne, 28 December 2012
The old Officers' Quarters of Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, is a three story pile of ivory clad blue stone with a flag station on top. Out front on the lawn three captured cannon from three different wars point to the sky and display a suspended review of the technological evolution of military violence.
On this lawn the Reverend Simon Moyle of GraceTree Community, Coburg, dressed as if he had just come from a building site, lay down a car rug, a pair of well used anti banners ("End the Afghan war" and "Blessed are the Peacemakers") and an array of white wooden crosses to hold these from wind.
Full summer but chill, Melbourne was playing its weather tricks and as the circle formed light rain fell and umbrellas came out. Just twelve of us. Holiday season and both pedestrian and motor traffic in St Kilda Road few.
But no sooner started on our ancient ritual of remembrance than a security guard appeared. He was tall, grey of head and stiff of joint. Maybe a former Guardsman or retired Regimental Sergeant Major, i speculated.
He approached our gathering and, declaring the land to be owned by the Department of Defence, ordered us to move on.
There was something pathetic about this.
Veterans of Swan Island Peace Convergence, Occupy Melbourne and other direct actions were present; there was no way we were going to move and no way the security guard would find a force to move us. We knew this in our hearts.
Not my gig really but i was the closest and the eldest. Besides i had been on site first and noted the guard and his patrols just has he had noted my presence. And Peacebus.
"We have heard you," i said. And turned back to our ritual. A cold shoulder, a provocation by disrespect, I know, but I like to arc up security. It brings the cops and bolsters the numbers.
At this sign of non compliance, the poor deluded man drew himself to full military statue and proclaimed as if reading the riot act: "You are now trespassing."
But we ignored him and went on with our business which at that moment was listening to a reading from the Gospel of Matthew which describes King Herod's slaughter of the 14,000 innocents and how "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more." (Matthew 2:18).
This was the fourth year of the Holy Innocents Peace Procession had assembled at this spot. The more concilatory Simon slipped to the security guard's side, listened to him respectfully, spoke briefly of our purpose, conveyed our immovability and returned to the circle to sermonise.
The security guard got on his radio and before Simon had finished speaking about the ruthless Herod's fear and desperation to maintain power and status, the first of the police cars drew up; two red ones (Federal Police) and a white and a blue checked paddy wagon (VicPolice).
For Simon the key message of Advent is what the angels repeatedly inveigh: "Be not afraid."
"Incredible as it may seem," he said. "In a time of empire and permanent war, as prophesied, a child is born in a manger, marginal and vulnerable, to bring an end to empires of violence."
We were not afraid and the first arriving uniformed police were quick to sum up the situation as non threatening.
They comforted the security guard and regarded us benignly, smiling at every opportunity. But the word was out and cops kept arriving. One pair turned up fluoro yellow jackets, armored vests and Tasers. Soon we had more cops than innocents.
Simon read from a recent speech made by President Obama about child deaths. These moving words were uttered in response to child shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut USA.
How come similar words and fine feelings are not expressed by the President for the children killed by the US military in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia? Simon also read of drone pilot who told of killing children. Some of us were moved to tears by this.
In our tears and powerlessnes we bear witness that Obama is just another ruthless Herod killing innocents to maintain power and status.
Simon invited us to take a black pen and to take turns to write a message upon a white cross. To name the innocents for whom we want protection.
"For my grandchildren. For all grandchildren." i wrote.
Reading the news confirming that the US military was targeting children in Afghanistan and tallies of child deaths in the covet drone war the US president is waging in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, had shaken me.
I had a vision of a drone strike on my daughters house in Sydney and imagined a blasted house and body parts, my grand children as 'bug splats' to some teenage drone pilot in Nevada.
Until then i had thought the annual Holy Innocents Peace Procession which the GraceTree community was promoting to be a quaint neo-Christian revival event. After this jolt i became passionate about it and set to making a processional banner for it as my Advent meditation. Three days head down painting. Three days reflecting on the story.
The design was negotiated by email with Simon. The image chosen came from a Google search on Holy Innocents. It had a Byzantine in style and at first i assumed it to be a representation of the escaped Mother Mary hearing the news and grieving for the 14000 slaughtered babies of her kinspeople. But i soon learned that the weeping Rachel is an Old Testament reference.
She, first mother of the tribes of Israel, is weeping unconsolably in her tomb which was believed to be near Ramah for her babies who are 'no more'. These killed or taken into slavery by the Babylonians. It is a primal voice from under the Earth. Heard through out the land. Touching everyone, every mother, every father, with its lament.
Where is heard in this time such a voice of anguish and bitter weeping for the children dead in US wars of empire?
When we gathered ourselves to process our crosses along to St Kilda Road, Simon asked me to carry the banner.
Before leaving i informed the security guard and police that i would be leaving Peacebus parked with flags attached for i could find no free hands for carrying them. Okay by them, they said. Primo position for signage.
We set out along the pavement under the plane trees, me out front and Simon, Megan and others struggling in the wind with the clumsily made banners. Past Victoria College for the Arts, past the National Gallery of Victoria to Flinders Street Rail station where a street cartoonist put up a sign; "Christians for cartoonists."
We were a ragtag visual presence but not an aural one - no songs, music or spruiking.
We drew much curiosity but no hostility. Many an Asian tourist clicked their cameras at us, and many were the smiles. We got more than a few unsolicited honks from passing motorists noting us to be an Afghan war protest - all signs of how deeply unpopular is this war.
We crossed the road into Federation Square but walked on by south down St Kilda Road talking amongst ourselves about why we had come.
On a patch of grass across the road from where we had started, with the Shrine of Remembrance overlooking us, we sat for a closing circle.
"A sacred place of remembrance of soldier war dead," Simon pointed out. "But nowhere is there a memorial to civilian deaths which make up 90% of the deaths of modern wars. Our witness today is that Shrine." We were few but our spirit was strong.
"Bearing witness means being awake," he said. The banner painting had been a Christian-Buddhist dialogue between Simon and i by email. Here was common ground. The word 'Buddha' means awakeness and the first of the Triple Gems, "i go for refuge to the Buddha." means I go for refuge to awakeness.
Simon reckons the way forward for peace in this time of permanent war is to be not afraid. To live and to bear witness with our vulnerability and powerlessness freely showing.
This simple, beautiful, deeply moving and totally apropriate event, i knew in my heart, had legs. With future vision I can see its autheniticy, so in contrast to tinsel shopping, attracting thousands to the Melbourne CBD on 28 December in years to come.
Across the road outside Victoria Barracks, a red AFP patrol car had been parked behind Peacebus and it flags. While we paraded it had stayed on guard there and on our return soon drove off.
Here was proof of our Christmas pudding. Our vulnerability in the face of over policing had changed trespass to service.
29 December 2012