A radical peace activist

Kathy Galloway is a practical theologian, campaigner and writer. The major focus of her work has always been peace-making and social justice issues, especially relating to poverty and gender. She was Head of Christian Aid Scotland from 2009-March 2016, a former Warden of Iona Abbey, and Leader of the Iona Community from 2002-9, the first woman to be elected to the post. She is the author of a dozen books on justice issues, spirituality and poetry and her writings have been widely anthologised.

A history teacher in an exclusive girls’ school in Glasgow sounds an unlikely candidate for civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. Helen Steven did not fit the stereotype of the subversive radical. With her hair up, her polite, well-modulated tones, her love of climbing and gardening, her enjoyment of Scottish country dancing, she could have been any well-read, middle-class Scotswoman living quietly in rural Scotland.

But she wasn’t! Helen had a burning passion for peace that led her to the gates of nuclear bases and into prison, to the offices of NATO commanders and round tables with army generals, into the white heat of the Vietnam War and the freezing chill of vigils, demonstrations and marches. She spoke to thousands of meetings, went on television and into print, preached, prayed and kept silence. She inspired, infuriated and challenged, and was a thorn in the flesh to many. To the core of her being, Helen was at one and the same time a peacemaker and a dangerous woman.

As a young woman, Helen went as a volunteer to Vietnam to do relief work with the Peace Corps. She ended up campaigning for the cessation of all work that simply facilitated the smooth running of the war machine. Face to face with the horror of modern warfare in a war in which civilians suffered in a proportion never seen before, she came to question not just the justice of that particular war, but of all war. She returned to Scotland with the woman she had met in Vietnam and who became her lifelong partner, Ellen Moxley, another dangerous woman. Together they raised an adopted Vietnamese daughter. She became a member of the Society of Friends, attracted by their commitment to peace-making, and commenced her life’s work. Many years later, she wrote:[1]

History has shown time and again that justice won by violent means already sows the deadly seeds of the next conflict. When I worked in Vietnam, my sympathies were almost entirely with the North Vietnamese revolutionary struggle, and it seemed that the quickest way to achieve justice for the suffering Vietnamese was for the North Vietnamese to win the war as quickly as possible. Which is what, ultimately, they did, but, although the immediate prospect of peace was welcome, already, a new powerful group was oppressing, killing, torturing, and the cycle of violence and injustice remained unbroken.

This is where, I believe, nonviolence can provide a way forward. I totally agree that nonviolence which allows violating to go on is a form of violence itself-in fact, it is not nonviolence. The very essence of nonviolence is that it resists and opposes all forms of injustice and oppression to the last drop of its blood. It can never consent to anything that degrades the human spirit.

Nonviolence is about revolution. It is about finding creative, imaginative ways to overthrow all forms of tyranny and oppression, without becoming the oppressor in the process. It widens the options and holds out a possibility of a way out of the cycle of violence where dignity can be maintained.

From 1979 to 1985, Helen was the Justice and Peace Worker for the ecumenical Iona Community, whose members make a binding commitment to work for justice and peace at every level. Under her leadership, the Community opened a justice and peace centre and Fairtrade shop in the middle of Glasgow (Centrepeace), which raised awareness of development issues and offered training in non-violent direct action. With and through the Iona Community, the Quakers, CND and Trident Ploughshares, Helen campaigned tirelessly for the removal and disarmament of nuclear weapons and the ending of the arms trade. She attacked the injustices of poverty and oppression that breed wars, and acted as a mediator in conflict resolution. She embraced the base at Greenham Common and travelled thousands of miles to speak on a variety of platforms, from large church councils to small meetings in village halls. She spent each summer on Iona, organizing conferences and seminars, enabling young people, volunteers, parish groups and people of every shade of political and religious opinion to engage constructively with the issues of peace and justice. The most notable of these was probably a series of Options for Defence events, where military generals and experts gathered alongside peace campaigners for a week living together in community.

In 1985, supported by the Iona Community and the Quakers, Helen and Ellen opened Peace House in Perthshire, both a residential centre and their warm and welcoming home. Over the following 12 years, more than 10,000 people visited, stayed and took part in a whole range of courses, training, mediation and reflection. It was in Peace House, in the winter of 1990-91 that GulfWatch had its genesis. GulfWatch was a daily bulletin of news and information about the first Gulf War, much of it differing or extending what was presented through normal media channels. Well before the almost universal and immediate internet access and social media available today, Gulfwatch information was collected from GreenNet, an early example of such networks, from fax messages and one telephone contact inside Iraq. It was mailed out each day of the war to church and peace groups, photocopied and redistributed to many thousands of people internationally. It became an alternative news service of global value, and linked activists concerned with building peace internationally.[2]

In 1999, Helen was involved in setting up the Scottish Centre for Non-Violence in Dunblane, which developed and widened the work which Peace House had been doing, with a strong emphasis on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. However, making friends with NATO generals, finding the common ground with them wherever possible, refusing to ignore the humanity of the other-none of this prevented Helen from her consistent and persistent campaigning against Trident. She spent hundreds of hours outside the naval base at Faslane on the Clyde, watching, waiting, speaking to military personnel, supporting the peace camp there, and on occasion, locking on to, climbing over or cutting through the fence. She attempted to take the British Government to court. She was arrested twice and on being convicted, refused to pay her fine and elected to go to Cornton Vale prison- civil disobedience was a hard boundary for one of her background to cross. But one of the things that made Helen dangerous was that in her non-violence training, she opened hundreds of people’s eyes to the idea that ‘their power comes from our obedience.’

In fact, it was Ellen, one of the Trident Three, whose civil disobedience became better known. Helen, whose support for Ellen before her action and during her months in prison, and whose advocacy and public organising on behalf of Ellen and the other two were as faithful as Ellen’s had always been for her, later wrote of this time:[3]

Friends (Quakers) speak of holding someone in the light, and I have always found this a particularly helpful way of expressing it. The idea of going beyond words to a different level of being, to enfold another in the Light and Love beyond our physical experience, is a very attractive image.

 A powerful experience of holding someone in the light occurred during the trial of the Trident Three at Greenock Sheriff Court. Ellen Moxley, Ulla Roder and Angie Zelter were on trial for dismantling part of the acoustic testing facility for the Trident nuclear submarines by throwing the computers in the loch. The three maintained that their actions were to uphold international law, basing their defence on the ruling of the International Court of Justice at The Hague in July 1996 that nuclear weapons are in contravention of international humanitarian law.

Only a few days into the trial, Sheriff Margaret Gimblett was faced with a crucial decision whether or not to allow this defence under international law, or to treat it as a straightforward case of criminal damage. Everything hinged on her decision. She adjourned the court while she considered the case. Immediately a small group gathered on the pavement outside the court and stood in silence holding Margaret Gimblett in the light. In many ways similar to upholding the Clerk at Yearly Meeting, this was one of the most powerful experiences of focused prayer that I have ever had. An hour later, the Court reconvened, and her decision to allow a defence under international law became legal and campaigning history, as the trial moved on to the acquittal of the Trident Three four and a half weeks later. Sheriff Margaret Gimblett’s profoundly moving summing up reflected the moral courage of the decision she took, influenced, I am certain, by the power of prayer.

Later on, after retirement from paid work, Helen and Ellen moved to Raffin Stoer, Lochinver, becoming an active part of a vibrant local community. But she continued to lecture and to write, and her work – as well as Ellen’s – was recognised in 2004 with the joint award of the Gandhi International Peace Award..

What people do and will remember about Helen is not just what she did, but how she did it. Her life’s passion was demonstrated in her seeking after the consistency of ends and means; she fully owned the principle that there is no way to peace, for peace is the way. Her inspiring leadership and strategic brilliance was not just motivated by anger at war and the death-dealing arms trade. She was passionate for peace because she was passionate for life. Her protests at gates and fences were not simply gestures of dissent, but efforts to reach across where the borders were most agonized and most threatening. She proceeded with respect, reason and with reverence for that of truth in the other. She was a great listener, not just to the words of others but also to their silences, and responded with grace to their stories. And she loved the land and wrote about it with passion:[4]

One of my main reasons for believing in some kind of divine purpose comes from the sheer wonder and beauty of creation. Where we live in the far northwest of Scotland, we are privileged to be able to enjoy the darkness, and even occasionally the wonder of the Northern Lights. Seeing great curtains of light flickering like searchlights in a great canopy across the sky, or pausing to reflect on the time it has taken for the light of an individual star to reach our tiny planet, makes me so aware of how infinitesimally small we are in the whole cosmos.

It is this love of the environment we live in, and of the infinite variety of people around me, that inspires in me a deep reverence and gratitude for life, and so moves me to action.

That gaiety, humour and delight of the lover of life often made her a somewhat disconcerting presence. Judges sentenced her with regret and admiration. Police officers hailed her as an old friend, having built up a relationship with her on so many demonstrations. And nobody wanted to send her to prison, because they could not be sure she would not start a branch of CND there.

After her death, the inspiration she was to many is living on, not least in the continued work of Women in Black. At her funeral, these words of Norman McCaig’s were read and stand well as her memorial.[5]

There will be nothing deathly in your death

For your love always was the laughing sort

That quickened life and would not die with death.

And when you’d gone, I would not want to weep –

That loving gaiety would still be there

Filling with its own peace the quickened air.



[1] From ‘An idea whose time has come’, ©Helen Steven, Coracle, the magazine of the Iona Community, Issue No. 3/8.

[2] ‘The Gulfwatch Papers’ published in The Edinburgh Review, Issue 87, Edinburgh University Press 1992.

[3] From ‘No Extraordinary Power: Prayer, Stillness and Activism’, Quaker Books, Swarthmore Lecture 2005.

[4] From ‘No Extraordinary Power: Prayer, Stillness and Activism’, Quaker Books, Swarthmore Lecture 2005.

[5] From ‘If’ in ‘The Poems of Norman McCaig’ ed. Ewan McCaig, Polygon, Edinburgh 2009.