Arms fairs, Ortolans and the Apocalypse

Last week I was present at the ‘No Faith in War’ day, part of the ‘Stop the Arms Fair‘ week of action. Here are my reflections on what I witnessed.
The ortolan is a small bird, considered in some countries to be a delicacy. It is kept in darkness, or perhaps blinded, causing it to gorge itself on grain. It is then drowned in brandy and roasted. When the ortolan is eaten, a veil is placed over the diner’s face and plate. The act of eating is hidden, either to preserve the dignity of the eater as they spit out the creature’s tiny bones, or, as some say, to hide such a cruel and shameful meal from the sight of God.
When we know our actions are wrong, we want to keep them hidden.

DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) is taking place in London’s Docklands this week. Despite being one of the world’s largest arms fairs, it aims to keep out of the public eye. According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade: ‘DSEI takes place in secret, behind heavily protected security fences and police lines – designed to allow arms dealers to trade their wares unhindered by transparency or public protest – and is subsidised by the UK taxpayer.’
Within the Biblical narrative there is a recurring theme – what is done in secret will come to light. In my Quaker tradition, we affirm that the Light of God shows us our darkness, bringing us to new life. Jesus said that
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. [Luke 12:2-3]
In the Book of Revelation, God brings everything into the open by leaving nowhere to hide. The sky is torn away and the mountains are levelled:
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” [Rev 6:12-17]

This is an apocalyptic moment, a moment of revelation. The word apocalypse means to remove the veil, showing things as they really are. The apocalypse is not about destruction, but about justice. To tear away the napkin that hides the gourmand crunching down on an ortolan is an apocalyptic act.
The ‘Shut Down DSEI’ week of action is also an apocalyptic event. It’s an attempt to reveal to the world the horror of what is occurring within the Excel Centre. Through creative campaigning – such as street theatre, art exhibitions, dancing and Daleks – and direct action – such as blocking the entrances to the exhibition centre – activists tear away the veil of secrecy and respectability and expose DSEI for what it is.

I took part in a Quaker meeting for worship at one of the entrances. In the middle of the silent circle, a Quaker was arrested by the police for obstructing the road. A priest placed a row of Bibles on the tarmac, which the police later removed. With the eyes of the worshippers on them, as well as many cameras, the police treated the trespassing Friend with great respect. Even the Bibles were picked up carefully and respectfully. For me, this was a moment of revelation – where I stood, a book was being picked up with such reverence it might have been a living thing, while across the street, preparations were being made to sell technologies destined to blow fragile bodies apart.
I am so grateful to all those who’ve worked on this campaign, and those who’ve put themselves in the way. DSEI is set to return in 2019, and I plan to be there to witness its unveiling.

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