Shopping Cart


Pine Gap Peace Pilgrims: lament and healing

Tuesday, 5 December 2017  | Simon Moyle and Margaret Pestorius

I first met Margaret Pestorius almost ten years ago, when she travelled from Cairns in far north Queensland to Yeppoon in central Queensland to support me and three other Christians facing trial for trespassing on a military base during military exercises. Despite living at opposite ends of the country (she in Cairns, I in Melbourne), we have kept in regular contact, supporting one another’s efforts for peace and justice when we can.

In late September 2016, Margaret and five other Christians – Jim Dowling, Andy Paine, Franz Dowling, Tim Webb and Paul Christie – were arrested at Pine Gap, the secretive US spy base near Alice Springs. This act of civil disobedience has recently been the subject of a criminal trial where they faced up to seven years’ prison.

Margaret and I have been conversing about these actions for a few weeks, and that conversation is presented here in distilled form.


Simon: Tell us about the tradition of faith-based nonviolent direct actions. Why do this rather than nothing, or persisting with mainstream political advocacy?

Margaret: It’s about truth: seeing it, and responding to it. We are paying careful attention to what is going on in society. We are watching the rise in militarism.

If you watch carefully, you find that there are many very harmful activities being hidden: they are often hidden in plain sight because some people simply do not what to face them. Some are benefitting from these activities; while others feel there is nothing they can do about them.

But, as Christians, our attention is called to really see these activities. We are called by God and by our community. We keep these activities in front of one another. And we are called then to weep, and to do something to witness, and to interrupt if we can.

Witnessing to the truth is ancient Judaic practice: for example, Isaiah 43:10 says, ‘You are my witnesses, says the Lord and my servant whom I have chosen’; and John 18:37 says of Jesus, ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. Truth, denial, witness, faith; truth cuts through the denial, which requires a witness acting in faith.

We have found that ‘advocacy’ or ordinary forms of democratic practice can be a way of being corralled by the system away from the truth. Many people try advocacy, and one of two things happen: either they find a paid leadership job in the advocacy system; or they give up. The government acknowledges advocates and finds them a narrow pathway hemmed by fences that keeps them controlled and, I think, ultimately dims creativity. Also, those processes are ultimately ‘of this world’ and for that reason they can lose a sense of prophetic imagination.

We as Christians are called to have a sense of something much, much better than the world we have. We believe in God’s great interventions and ultimately an inclusive eschatological feast at the end of time. So we are called to creative, disruptive nonviolence because it both appears to fit our personal values and is effective.

Martin Luther King was a great strategist. He learnt from Gandhi who practiced nonviolence for over 40 years. King was formed in the Southern Baptist tradition and knew the power of the Word, the power of symbol and ultimately the power of people putting their bodies – the body of Christ – somewhere new.

Simon: One potential danger of an action like this is that it isn't seen either by the public or by people in power, because it’s hushed up or deemed too far out of the way to report on. How do you avoid such actions simply being self-referential, or only about the activists' own experience, rather than about concrete and measurable change? ‘Faithfulness not effectiveness’ is sometimes the catchcry of certain parts of the Christian activist scene. How was this action more effective than alternatives, and how would you measure effectiveness in this kind of action?

Margaret: You hope that other people in the movement might take the opportunity of the moral courage, even if it's small and invisible. For example, our friend got 60 famous people to sign a letter saying it wasn't reasonable to send six devout Christians to prison for praying with weeping and for exposing the denial. Now, more than 560 people have added their names so that our action becomes visible and supported. We hope Christians will pray for us and hear God's call to them to speak up about injustice.

Simon: Tell us the story of what happened on the night.

Margaret: We decided to go to Pine Gap, to get close to it – to see it – and to acknowledge the harms and suffering created there. And then, once there, to weep and lament over it. We wanted to pray for God to intervene there.

We walked through the night from a place nearby – it turns out it’s not so hard to get to. And the country is beautiful and safe – especially if you are with friends.

When you are with friends it is truly a kind of pilgrimage where you have a vision of something and you head out ‘toward Jerusalem’ – to be closer to God. I was with my friends, three young men and an older man.

We prayed and we moved across the country. We heard dogs barking in the distance. But eventually we got close to the facility and moved quickly up the hill.

We played our music as we walked – a musical lament on viola and guitar – in recognition of the harm and suffering done to ordinary people just like us. Then we prayed – briefly, because the police were already upon us.

Simon: Why did you pray and lament there? Why not pray and lament somewhere legal, and perhaps more public? Or even - why not lament in the places where these weapons land (i.e., war zones) rather than the places from which they are operated?

Margaret: We took action in this place because it is the place for which Australians are responsible. There are many complex reasons why we choose particular places to act. To some extent this place was chosen by our friends and colleagues in the peace movement who chose to recognise the 50-year anniversary of Pine Gap in 2016. We were called there. Our witness is not determined by the state that creates the problem in the first place. In other words, the state creates the problems of war and militarism, so to only respond to it on their terms is foolish.

Simon: Can you tell us about how you see the role of lament in the Christian life generally, and in this action in particular?

Margaret: The lament is so important for breaking the denial. It’s the first step, really, of recognising death or negative change. If we see human suffering up close, our bodies respond. If we let them, they just do. Jesus becoming human shows us this grief, the way it manifests physically.

Simon: Which is part of the significance of the cross for all humanity - here is a victim, a clearly innocent victim, whom we have crucified in a lynch mob. For Christians, the victim therefore stands at the centre of our life, exposing our violence and victimisation, constantly calling them into question.

Margaret: Yes. Our bodies are so important in helping us find the truth, both as individuals and in the communal ‘Body of Christ’. It is our bodies that weep spontaneously upon the death of a close one. In Jeremiah 8 and 9, the prophet calls people to reclaim lament and break the denial. This is such an important stage in driving creativity:

Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains,

          and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness,

because they are laid waste so that no one passes through.

After our bodies cry, we become able to see and think again. Our minds are free to be creative and active with the bodily power God gave us. That’s part of the significance of the incarnation: God sent his son, as a human with a human body.

Simon: The biblical witness is mostly written to and about the underdogs, the oppressed. How do you wrestle with the difference - if you see any - between the lament of those who are responsible for military oppression versus those who are its victims? Obviously it's not clear cut - one or the other - but given the power differential between poor and rich nations, particularly in current conflicts, how is our lament as members of rich, oppressor nations different to those of poorer ones, particularly in light of the biblical witness?

Margaret: You lament when you see. We are all humans, and if you stand in relationship with those who suffer you start to see. Denial is broken. Lament drives transformation and action.

We wanted to take our bodies close to the military operations because being physically separate from sites of suffering means we avoid grief and cement denial. We wanted to challenge the idea that you can’t go near, that you can’t see the suffering.

At night, the Pine Gap facility emanates light in a dark desert landscape - it's not actually that hard to see or find if you're looking. Others shine light on it metaphorically through journalism, or their practice of human rights law – they are often doing courageous work in showing it to us more clearly. They often share our prophetic imagination, because they see Pine Gap for what it is, and they share that knowledge with us.

Simon: Tell us about the trial and what you're facing.

Margaret: We’ve been charged with an old Cold War era law called the Defence Special Undertakings Act, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. We have a trial with a jury who we hope will listen to our stories. Our stories don’t quite fit the legal system, which is often the case for Christians who try to live within a different type of paradigm.

We are representing ourselves because the lawyers of the secular world are not very interested in mounting the kind of defence we want to make. The legislation is tight. It will be left to the jury to decide if it is right or wrong.

Postscript: The Pine Gap peace pilgrims were found guilty, and fined between $1,250 and $5,000 each depending on the extent of their previous criminal records. None were given custodial sentences, but all had their convictions recorded.

Margaret Pestorius (pictured), 53, is a long-term Christian activist, therapist and classical musician. She formed CairnsPeacebyPeace.org with her late husband, Bryan Law (deceased), who himself was a member of the Pine Gap 4. Margaret was involved in the campaign to challenge operations at Pine Gap during the trials (2006-2008) of the Pine Gap 4. She has conducted several pilgrimages against the militarisation of the Indigenous lands at Shoalwater Bay during Talisman Saber exercises, a key fortifier of the Australia-US alliance.

Simon Moyle is an elder at GraceTree, a Baptist church community in Coburg.


Ian Hore-Lacy
December 10, 2017, 4:19PM
Good questions, Simon!

But less than convincing answers.

The protest being 'to acknowledge the harms and suffering created there' and asserting that 'the state creates the problems of war and militarism' are rather sweeping rationalisations for objecting to a defence facility.

Certainly it's a fallen world, but pragmatism is more appealing than pacifism for most Christians.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles