Waiting with Brian Haw

Tile: Waiting and Groaning
Texts: Rom 8:12-25
Date: July 17, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains…
and not only creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly (Rom 8:22-23).

For the past ten years, Brian Haw camped in Parliament Square in London, England. At night he slept in his tent, and during the day he sat in an old canvas chair, holding signs, and speaking to the people who passed by: tourists, commuters on their way to work, and politicians on their way into Parliament.

Most people learned to ignore him—too busy talking on their cell phones, or in a rush to get to a meeting. But, of course, some people noticed him. Frequently, someone on his way to work would roll down his window and, full of working-class resentment, would yell at Mr. Haw, “Get a job!”

But he did have a job; it’s just that no one cared about his work. For a decade Brian Haw never left the square because he had work to do, a vocation, a calling from God. His job? To get people to wake up, to rise up. To get them to realize that the governments of England and the United States were killing babies, hundreds of them, dying every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He set up a wall of shame, with photographs, pictures of dead children, of children missing an arm or a leg, little children with bloated and mangled bodies, suffering from the poisons of war, depleted uranium munitions, poisoning the soil, contaminating the groundwater.

He was there, he said, because bombs and sanctions were killing children. So, he would yell, from his megaphone, at the crowds and the politicians walking in and out of Parliament, he would yell: “Arrest George Bush, war criminal!” “Hi Tony, hi Mr. Blair, Mr. B-L-I-A-R, Mr. Liar!”

He posted signs around his campsite in the middle of the bustling city of London, in the middle of Parliament Square. “Food Yes, Bombs No.” “War Is the Enemy of the Poor.” “Support the Troops—Bring em Home!” “Stop Killing My Children.”

He said he was there because he was a Christian, an evangelist, and as a Christian he loved his neighbor’s children as his own. “Stop killing my children,” he wrote on a cardboard sign. Considerate people would ask if he was sleeping okay, if he had enough provisions to sleep comfortably on the street. He would respond by saying that he couldn’t sleep much, because of the nightmares: How could you sleep if your babies were being killed every day, your children, by the hundreds?, he would ask in response.

One time some city punks joined Mr. Haw in his daily protest. They hugged him and yelled alongside him: F**k Parliament, F**k Blair, F**k ‘em all! But Haw quickly and gently let his rowdy comrades know that they were missing the point. Love and Peace and Justice, he said; Love, Peace, Justice, and tell them to stop killing my kids.

When Haw spoke with his megaphone, Tony Blair could hear him, and so could others in Parliament. At first, when reporters asked for a comment from Blair regarding Brian Haw, Mr. Blair would say something like, Oh yes, Mr. Haw is a fine fellow, an important voice in our community, a champion of free speech. After a while, however, Tony Blair changed his tune. He tried to pass a couple laws to get rid of Haw. But the High Court ruled against Blair’s attempts at silencing Haw’s public groaning about war and the death of his children.

Despite the protection of the law, he soon was the focus of police harassment—disruptions in the middle of the night, random searches of his private property. Finally, in 2006, 78 police officers converged on his campsite and tore down his wall of pictures, ruined his signs, and smashed and trashed his tent. But Brian Haw stayed, to continue his public mourning, his lament, his protest against “the bondage of decay,” as the apostle Paul puts it in our passage from Romans, the forces at work in this world that damage, disfigure, and vandalize creation.

At the heart of God is a groaning, a groaning with creation, as God’s children suffer under the dominion of sin, the powers of slavery and death. And as Christians, we have given ourselves to a way of life that draws closer and closer to this God, the God of life, of freedom from death. We are on a pilgrimage of intimacy with God, letting ourselves be pulled into the life of God, allured into the heart of God as our spirits are joined to the Holy Spirit.

All creation “has been groaning,” Paul says, “and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit [the Holy Spirit], groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23).

And Brian Haw would add, not just our bodies, but the redemption of the bodies of the children, our neighbor’s children, neighbors near and far, across the street and across the ocean, that we love them as if they were our own—which is what the Spirit of adoption is all about (v. 14): God adopts us and brings us into communion with all of God’s children.

So, Mr. Haw asks: How could you sleep if your babies were being killed every day, your children, by the hundreds? There’s a kind of madness to Haw’s way of life, to his campsite with the pictures of dead children, and his signs, and his megaphone, and his responses to questions from passersby and reporters.

I wonder if this is the kind of madness that comes with living without illusions about the evil all around us, and, perhaps, even in us—and not just living with it, but living as a protest against it, letting the groaning of the Holy Spirit echo within us, and learning how to let those groans because a prayer, a protest of hope, a cry to God, “Abba! Father!”—the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirits, Paul says (v. 15).

How could you sleep if your babies were being killed every day, your children, by the hundreds? I am reminded of a passage from Blaise Pascal, the brilliant French mathematician, physicist, philosopher-theologian, and mystic, writing in the 17th century. This is what he said: “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world. There must be no sleeping during that time.”[i]

Brian Haw died last month. Towards the end of his life, when people took the time to talk with him, they all reported the same thing: that Brian seemed tired, exhausted, in need of rest. But despite his fatigue, he didn’t lose hope; despite his frustration at the persistence of the world’s bondage to destruction, he couldn’t help but be a “prisoner of hope” (Zech 9:12).

So, even in the later years of his life, Mr. Haw was known to stop mid-sentence, in a conversation, pause and sing a few lines from a favorite song: he would sing, “Last night I had the strangest dream I’d ever dreamed before; I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.”[ii]

Let me close with the words of the apostle Paul, from the end of our reading from Romans: “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv. 24-25).

With the madness of our world, maybe the only sane people are those like Brian Haw, who join in the agony of Christ, growing weary from sorrow, crying out to the Father in the darkness of night, with sweat like blood falling to the ground, becoming one with the groans creation, the pains of labor, and waiting with patience for hope to be born again, that we might wake up from the strangest dream we could ever dream, and find ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.

[i] Blaise Pascal, The Mystery of Jesus, # 919 in Pensées, Trans. by A. J. Krailsheimer (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 289.

[ii] Everything I include regarding Brian Haw is adapted from, “Obituary: Brian Haw,The Economist, 7/2/2011, p. 75. Also see the BBC News, IndyMedia UK, and The DailyMail.

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