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Tackling Violence, Building Peace - Rowan Williams' parliamentary lecture

12 May 2014 - Our Chair, Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury delivered Christian Aid’s inaugural parliamentary lecture to mark the launch of Christian Aid Week. Here is the transcript of what he said:

The meaning of security

If you invited people to do a quick word-association for the word ‘security’, I suspect that most would go for ‘forces’; possibly ‘council’; perhaps (for North Americans) ‘homeland’.

Security, it seems, is first and foremost something that needs protecting or enforcing, it is about defending ourselves against unspecified others and containing dangerous tensions. 

Talking about ‘security’ issues has become entangled with surveillance, suspicion, complex procedures at airports, espionage and intelligence-gathering; a cluster of meanings that is overwhelmingly about anxiety, with not much that sounds like a positive aspiration or inspiration.  And that’s without even touching on the odd way in which ‘securitisation’ as a financial term has somehow come to mean a strategy that makes everyone more insecure.

Redefining the word

Part of what I hope to do this evening is to suggest how we might rehabilitate the word, or at least bring some other aspects into focus. 

After all, when we speak about ‘food security’, for example, what we clearly mean is a condition in which people don’t have to waste energy on desperately worrying whether they can feed their children for the next 24 hours.

Rather than suggesting a state of barely subdued panic, it is supposed to designate a stable situation in which people don’t feel powerless and frightened. 

And when we are talking, as we are this Christian Aid Week, about ‘Tackling Violence’ and ‘Building Peace’, what we have in mind is simply security, in its proper and central sense. 

What we have in mind is not the obsession with defence and containment that has come to define the word for so many, but a situation where there are things to rely on, one in which people feel an adequate level of confidence that they are not at the mercy of unknown others or unseen events to the extent that they must give their best energies to self-protection and forestalling every imagined threat.

Our top priorities

And it’s possible to see the three current major priorities of Christian Aid in terms of pursuing this sort of security.  In the last few years, as most of you will know, CA has more and more focused its work on building lasting capacity in younger and vulnerable economies, and on joining local struggles to resist those economic, political and cultural elements that hold people back from exercising their capacity to the full. 

Three elements have emerged consistently as powerful and troubling, and they share a place at the head of Christian Aid’s agenda – with the third most recently recognised as a major new focus, internally and externally.  They are:

  1.  the chronic insecurity caused by climate change: salination of soil and inland waters, inundation of cultivable land, the need to relocate communities as low-lying territories become uninhabitable – all these are the most  immediate and observable effects of climate change among the poorest communities in our world;
  2. the damage done to vulnerable economies, and indeed vulnerable and struggling democratic structures, by the irresponsible attitudes of many large corporations in respect of tax; the creation of ‘shell’ companies as fictional holders of funds, the use of tax havens and a general lack of transparency in this entire area have caused increasing concern.  If governments cannot rely on substantial and consistent tax contributions from those concerns that make most profit from their labour and natural resources, they cannot sustain a secure national social environment for their citizens and provide essential common goods; and
  3. the prevalence of violence and discrimination against women in so many situations of conflict or deprivation or both, which robs half the human race of its freedom to nurture, educate and develop its own capacity and that of the next generation.  If – as all experience currently suggests – women are likely to be the key agents in health care, nutritional education, micro-finance operations and the rehabilitation and care of the traumatised wherever they have the chance, gender-based violence clearly becomes not simply a question of unacceptable individual behaviour but a matter of intense social damage.

To speak about the search for ‘security’ in all these contexts is not to look for mechanisms that will protect people from risk by surrounding them with elaborate defences.  It is to ask first how people achieve self-confidence, how they come to believe that their choices and actions have value and effect. 

The sense of helplessness in the face of environmental danger can lead either to apathy or to savage conflict over limited resources. 

The impotence of elected governments to raise the revenue they need can erode people’s faith in democratic processes and reinforce patterns of corruption and clientage that keep the mass of a population at a distance from effective power.

The dehumanising treatment of women often reflects attempts by economically or socially disempowered males to assert authority; it signals a contempt towards what women do to sustain social goods; it limits or even destroys an immensely significant capacity for transmitting to a new generation the values and possibilities of human culture. 

So to have these three challenges firmly in view is to grasp that economic development is unthinkable without confidence, and that we have to go to the roots of fear if we are to build – not only ‘peace’ in the sense of the absence of conflict but the active, creative, co-operative wellbeing traditionally understood as contained in the Hebrew word shalom. 

Breaking the vicious circle

The truth is that poverty and a sense of powerlessness are regularly among the major drivers of violence; while violence in turn is a major driver of poverty.  And so what we must do is recognise the vicious circle here, and ask where and how we break it.

People turn to violence when they feel they have no other resort, when they are sure that their voices are not being heard or that no other action will bring about the change they seek. 

To say this is certainly not to suggest that violence can bring about lasting and positive change, in the rather romantic language of revolutionary enthusiasts of earlier generations; we have learned something from the bitter history of revolutionary terror. 

But if we ignore the role of powerlessness, the sense of having nothing to lose, in fostering violence, we shall fail spectacularly to see why our world is racked with such murderous insecurity. 

To be secure, I need to know that my neighbour shares with me both problems and solutions and that it is possible for us to identify these together; that there are dependable procedures for managing conflict or rivalry; that justice will be done to those who have violated the safety and well-being of others; that there is redress for injury and unfairness.  If none of these can be taken for granted, I will be more likely to be tempted to pre-emptive attacks on those I see as rivals, unofficial action to punish aggressors and so on; and the spiral of destruction continues to wind itself around our necks. 

Cooperative action

A development agency cannot of itself solve the issues of governance that arise here.  But it can and must identify the mechanisms at work and help both to diagnose and to heal the underlying dysfunctions. 

It must be involved in the building of civil society networks and institutions that embody the worth and effectiveness of local cooperative action. 

Peacekeeping activities at the diplomatic and military level are crucial in situations of extreme unrest; but they will be (at best) short-lived in their usefulness unless they are accompanied by policies that nourish the roots of capacity and confidence. 

Getting to the root of the problem

It is estimated that between one fifth and one third of armed conflicts in the world that have been halted at some point by peace agreements start up again within five years; and, just as with recidivism in prisons, we need to know why that is and look, very critically at some accepted practices and priorities if we are ever to move forward. 

And that certainly implies that our sense of what ‘security’ means has to be reworked: security policy addressed through wars on terror and intensified surveillance and intelligence-gathering has not made us conspicuously safer. 

Whatever the role of security forces and strategies, security as a lasting situation of confidence in human capacity and in the possibility of justice requires something more.

In recent years, some sceptical observers have said that the UK has managed to preserve its aid budget at a respectable agreed level partly by redefining security-related projects as forms of overseas aid. 

Whether or not this is fair (and it should not obscure the rather substantial achievement by successive governments of avoiding direct cuts in aid expenditure), it’s tempting to suggest that we expand our aid budget by redefining aid projects as security-related. 

In all seriousness, a stable world, with reduced levels of terror and armed conflict, will inexorably demand investment in creating the grass roots conditions for security – and so will demand seriousness about what we spend on development.

The thing that makes this complicated is, of course, that real investment in development at this level involves redistributions of power.

Redistributions of power

When people say indignantly that we cannot solve the country’s or the world’s problems by redistributing wealth, I’m actually inclined to agree – but only because the problem is not so much gaps in wealth as gaps in power, that is, in the freedom to take responsibility for your economic conditions, for the circumstances that enable or frustrate a future of human dignity for you and your family and so on. 

Inequalities of power, in the form of radically unequal levels of access to decision-making, process of law, education and civic freedoms, are often described as forms of ‘structural’ violence.

And this should help us see why inequalities in these areas are so often generators of other more direct sorts of violence.  They stand in the way of that confidence we’ve been thinking about, the assurance that our voice or vote or presence matters.  So they help create the environment in which, with nothing to lose, people may risk extreme behaviour and aggression.


The reaction of the prosperous world cannot simply be endlessly ratcheting up the technology of control when faced with such behaviour; it must address basic causes.  And addressing basic causes means looking at where power lies and where it ought to lie.

Stable political structures

Once again, it needs to be said that aid and development agencies can’t be the main agents of changes in governance; but they unmistakably have the task of insisting on the connections between what they do and the possibilities of stable and accountable political structures.  And without such structures, the cycle of deprivation continues and so does the cycle of political dysfunctionality. 

It will sound risky to insist on allowing an agenda to be set by those on the ground in a vulnerable young economy, and there is no virtue in being uncritical or passive in discussing how such a priority should be worked through. 

It will sound risky to advocate for further rounds of cancellation for unpayable debt in struggling economies. 

The question is – given that there are no risk-free options – whether these things are more dangerous than the assumption that we simply know what is best and can export our agendas without listening to the particular needs of another country and culture. 

Such an attitude reflects a dangerous innocence about how power is seen and exercised and reacted to; it is a further turn of the screw for those battling to sustain a viable and secure political settlement. 

Most aid agencies are now trying very hard to listen to the priorities defined ‘on the ground’ and to think again about issues of power.

And part of what I am pleading for this evening is that governments and financial institutions in the wealthy world show more courage in doing the same, grasping that all those attitudes which reinforce existing perceptions of an agenda set from elsewhere have the effect of tightening the grip of the cycle of violence.

Human responsibility of climate change

What was said earlier about the effect of climate change is a case in point: too much discussion in our context sounds abstract – arguments about the exact degree of human responsibility or about the exact level of threat to our own local environment. 

It confirms most people in Bangladesh or the Pacific islands in their conviction that they are not only carrying a burden for which industrialised economies must have a measure of responsibility, but also being ignored, and their challenges trivialised, by those who benefit most from that same economic legacy. 

The recent Christian Aid report, Taken by Storm, underlined how deeply damaging this is to international trust and confidence and to any serious degree of hope for change among those directly affected. 

We may say that we cannot know precisely what effect behaviour modification in developed economies may have; but those who are already bearing the cost of climate change are begging us, simply, to try it and find out, since there seems no other intelligible or intelligent course of action.

A long way to go for tax justice

Likewise with the controversies around tax: national economies that have had to manage the effects of tax evasion (which is said to account for some 5% of the entire global economic product) or less nakedly illicit forms of noncompliance (as in the creation of fictive holding companies) will inevitably see the very modest and rather grudging regulatory or investigatory practices of the wealthy world as simply denying redress – one of the most obvious forms, you’ll remember, of structural violence. 

It is certainly welcome that greater transparency is now demanded around tax liability and ‘shell companies’, and that tax havens have come under more pressure; our governments are responding to the scale of malpractice. 

But there is still a long way to go; and once again, what matters most in the middle term is whether we allow our discussions here to be genuinely shaped by what is said to us by those directly carrying the burden.

Making women’s voices heard

So, naturally, with the third priority mentioned earlier – the foregrounding of women at risk of violence – the same concerns apply. 

It is not enough to discuss this in the absence of women at risk, or to try and imagine it as simply a matter of rectifying some small malfunctions in a male-dominated system. 


‘Building peace’ here too means redistributing power (and yes, I’m aware of how deep a question this poses for the churches); looking for the kinds of forum that genuinely make women’s voices audible worldwide, looking for the ways in which attitudes can be changed and looking too for the ways in which all this can be experienced as good news for men - often, as we have seen, men who are themselves humiliated and disempowered in other settings and whose fear and confusion equally needs addressing along with their behaviour.

Building a stable human environment

Tackling violence is first about the positive building of whatever sustains proper confidence and the commitment to a just and stable human environment. 

It has to be more than the struggle to control violence when and where it breaks out; and to be aware of these underlying factors is at least to have the makings of an ‘early-warning system’ that can help us see where intolerable strain is building up. 

But this will then involve a serious shift in how we think (and act) about power – a shift towards a refusal to discuss and decide in the absence of the poor, a refusal to hold on to unexamined habits of patronage, keeping others dependent – ‘knowing better’.

It’s ironic that those who most deplore a ‘culture of dependence’ can so often be found shoulder-to-shoulder with those who want nothing to change in the relations of rich and poor – and that agencies committed to creating and supporting new structures that promise better access for the poor to participation in decision-making are still accused of somehow reinforcing ‘dependence’, presumably by suggesting that the wealthy take their share of responsibility to change....

Development and discipleship

Christians take it for granted that the community St Paul calls the Body of Christ is the supreme touchstone for human society, the optimal shape of living together. 

And this community is based on a complete and radical mutuality; there is no one who has nothing to give, no one who has nothing to receive, no one flourishes without all others flourishing, all are damaged when one is, all are equipped by the Spirit to be able to make some transforming gift to the life of the whole. 

When we talk about justice and peace as Christians, this is what we mean, and this is why issues of development are basic issues of discipleship. 

But if we really believe this is the optimal form of togetherness, it is something we want to foster and promote for all, not only Christian believers. 

And this in turn means arguing persistently for seeing violence in terms of all those things that undermine mutuality – that sense that we can be secure in the promised faithfulness of the neighbour which is ultimately so closely connected with confidence in the promised faithfulness of God.

Achieving lasting security

What makes for security? And how might we reclaim the ideal of security as something positive and not anxious? 

Part of the answer I have sketched is that lasting security is inseparable from trusting one another, being sure that the other person or group isn’t seeking to live at my/our expense. 

In the simplest terms, security means redistributing power so that such trust can grow.  It means behaving in ways that reckon with the cost to others of what I do.  It means developing an acute eye for those who aren’t there in the discussion.  And so it means working for a world where the seedbeds of violence are cleared. 

We need:

  • environmental policies that can be trusted by countries on the front line of environmental crisis;
  • tax policies that no longer allow funds to be diverted away from the context where they have been earned and the people who have made profits possible; intensive support for women’s education and enablement; and
  • an end both to collusion with various forms of hidden violence and to the open use of rape and mutilation as tools of war (and how vividly focused all that has been in the past week or so in Nigeria).
Tackling violence and building peace means all of these things.

It may be a somewhat untraditional agenda for  Christian Aid Week; but we – governments and NGOs alike – do need to move beyond just ambulance work, to engage with the deepest roots of our ‘contrariousness’ – to borrow an expressive  word from the greatest of English contemplative writers, Julian of Norwich, whom the Church commemorates at this time of the year.

With her, we can pray that ‘all shall be well’; but with her too, we recognise that believing this calls on the deepest resources of faith and imagination. 

I hope that Christian Aid Week, this year and every year, will be able to help our countless faithful supporters and volunteers to access those resources and to come a little closer to letting the vision come alive.

Read the press release which explains more about Dr Williams' lecture.

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