Ruskin on the Arms Trade and Petroleum

In an open letter to workmen and labourers entitled Charitas (1871) John Ruskin quite boldly asks his readers to make three promises. The first is this:

Mind your own business with your absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet pease you are producing, – not gun powder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: – You must really rather die than make any destroying mechanism or compound… In your powder and petroleum manufactory, we work no more… There is no physical crime at this day, so far beyond pardon, – so without parallel in its untempted guilt, as the making of war machinery, and invention of mischievous substance. Two nations may go mad and fight like harlots – God have mercy on them – you who hand them carving knives off the table for leave to pick up a dropped sixpence, what mercy is there for you?”

There are so many problems with this statement – not because it is wrong but because it is right. The problems involved in extracting ourselves from the industries of empire and violence are overwhelming.

I recall late on last year, the job of administration for the NHS was to be privatised and outsourced to an arms dealing company. The bid was abandoned after a petition, praise God. But it raises the question: how can we abstain from such things when everything is increasingly being mixed up together? Will we refuse to pay our taxes one day? What has it come to when it is proposed that the NHS be administered by the arms trade? That juxtaposition is a joke.

We could also ask the question from the other side of a war, ie. what resources are wars fought to secure? If its true, as Adam Curtis’ documentary Bitter Lake sees it, that our endless adventures in Iraq are ultimately about our commitments to Saudi Arabia (that is, our addiction to their oil), then it becomes a question of not only of the “arsenic and gunpowder…” we produce, but also what we consume. If we add to this the new information that our reliance on fossil fuels has itself turned into a war on the sublime cosmic sphere that God’s put us on, we are confronted with a question…

Addressing our fondness for petrol is something like the book on the shelf that we know is there, but put off reading. At what point do we decide that this choice is upon us? One part of what Ched Myers calls radical discipleship involves protest, activism and petitioning the powers – and this is growing, praise God. But if this is all we do then we confirm our total reliance on the powers to change the world for us. Are they going to be the sole agents of Good News? Another side is the rearrangement of ordinary life in spite of the powers. I believe that ordinary life can and must be rearranged radically, and that the Spirit of change empowers ordinary people to change the world in ways the powers cannot.

Ched Myers describes the moment Jesus told some fishermen and a tax collector to quit their jobs and join His movement like this:

The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the Kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich are unable or unwilling to respond to…” (from Binding the Strongman)

And now let the disclaimers begin. Just as Zacheus the tax collector kept his job, and St Paul continued making tents, and Nicodemus stuck to politics, and there is no sign that the Roman centurion quit even his job as the teeth of imperialistic power – ordinary life is not to be rearranged arbitrarily, nor is it always possible to make very necessary changes all at once. Likewise, a plumber needs a van, families sometimes need cars, and I don’t want to go to hospital with a broken leg on a bicycle (anymore than I want to be checked in by arms dealers on the reception desk). When we think of our petrol addiction, and the wars fought to supply it, we’re not talking about something like quitting smoking (a personal change), rather we are challenging the very things that ordinary life is arranged around. We will have to change the world outside ourselves in some way, to rearranging it around something better than the motor car.

The change is impossible without re-forming grass roots geographical community and will inevitably involve reforming life around some kind of geographic village well – a life shared with others in a walkable, or bike-able, locale, and shareable resources. We can’t make the change until we emerge from the identity of individualism and consumerism.

Grass roots community resists empire. Empire dismantles grass roots community. Amongst numerous new technologies of the last century our reliance on the motor car (for all it has given us) has helped to dismantle grass roots community. I am not suggesting that none of us should have them – it actually helps a lot if some of us do. But I am, unapologetically saying that we will not be able to emerge from empire as long as our lives, as individuals and families, are arranged around the motor car rather than around our local community.

It is an odd paradox, in keeping with Myers’ observations above, that it is far more difficult for the rich to rearrange ordinary life in this way than the poor.

The less we, as a people, are reliant on such mediums for life, the richer life will be and the less Western bombs will be dropped on oil rich countries.

For the record, Ruskin’s second and third requests are these: to “seek to revenge no injury…” and lastly to “learn to obey good laws… and subdue base and disloyal ones… ruling over those in the power of the Lord of Light and Peace, whose Dominion is an everlasting Dominion, and His Kingdom from generation to generation.”

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