Interview with General Shaw Clifton in English
‘DER BUND': Mr Clifton, The Salvation Army has been in Switzerland for 125 years. Is it a church or a social service?
SHAW CLIFTON: We are a church with a strongly developed social conscience. We want to reach those who live on the edges of society and to fight against the causes of social need.
B: In Switzerland, Austria and Hungary, which make up one Salvation Army territory, you have 5,000 members. That's not exactly a lot.
SC: Five thousand is not a lot, not enough, but - if I may make the comparison - the wonderful thing about The Salvation Army is that it, like a good lightweight boxer, always manages to fight above its weight!
B: Does that mean that figures are not so important to you?
SC: No, we are always glad when people find their spiritual home in The Salvation Army. But lack of numbers does not depress us. The fact is, we are active in 112 countries and we are larger now than we have ever been. Worldwide, we are the second largest provider of social services after the United Nations.
B: From the biographical information which I have read about you, I see that in New Zealand you got to know the challenges presented by ‘a highly secularised society'. Isn't that really the same in all Western countries today?
SC: Yes, material values dominate and religion is not popular, even when, in my opinion, interest in religious belief is increasing. People have an innate need to express their spirituality, but they find that organised religion meets this need less and less.
B: What is The Salvation Army doing in this situation?
SC: We try to understand and do not pretend that everything is as it ought to be. Furthermore, we ask ourselves whether we are still in contact with the man (and woman) in the street. We constantly look at ourselves and re-invent ourselves, without losing our identity.
B: ‘Soup, soap and Salvation' - in years gone by that was the motto of The Salvation Army. In the western world, do you now work mainly for the salvation part, as soup and soap are now generally easier to come by?
SC: Our experience is different. Even in rich countries, such as the USA, Switzerland and Canada, The Salvation Army is still needed to distribute food and clothing. Something isn't quite right with the structure of our society in the early 21st century. The gap between the rich and the marginalised is getting bigger and bigger. The Salvation Army is called to [fill] this gap.
B: Now you are sounding like a critic of the capitalist society.
SC: When dealing with these problems I don't express myself politically. We acknowledge the advantages of capitalism, its contribution to [increased] affluence and the creation of jobs. But at the same time, we have to be aware of those who have been victims of the system. Of course, there are always victims of [any] system - communism was no better.
B: Can you imagine a society in which the problems of capitalism do not exist?
SC: Good question. I can imagine it and we are working towards it, centimetre by centimetre. But in order to make such a utopia reality, we would need a total turn-around in the thinking of the majority of the population: away from egotism, towards selflessness.
B: And that's an illusion.
SC: It is possible, I have seen it, it has happened ...
B: ... when and where?
SC: When people start to believe in Christ. Then their thinking changes from self to others. From our point of view, we consider the proclamation of Jesus Christ is central to this revolution. Is that just an illusion? No, it can happen, it happens from individual to individual.
B: But not in millions - as we said, The Salvation Army in Switzerland only has 5,000 members.
SC: We are not the only ones helping - and we are aware that many help who do not profess any Christian faith. Kindness and helpfulness are not the monopoly of religious people.
B: What is The Salvation Army's view on politics - does it stand back from politics completely?
SC: No, we involve ourselves in politics, but in a non-party way. The Salvation Army has its views on questions such as the value of human life, abortion, euthanasia, sexuality etc. but we would never tell people, including our own members, how they should vote.
B: You were born in Northern Ireland. You must be interested to see that Northern Ireland is now finally on the road to peace.
SC: I am very happy that Protestants and Catholics are sharing power in Northern Ireland. I come from a protestant background and I understand Ian Paisley. I think he has been misunderstood. Irish people are loud and love exaggerating, they pretend to be militant, even when, inside, they really aren't.
B: Did you also understand the struggle of the Catholics against discrimination?
SC: Yes, and we want it to disappear. We are interested in justice for all. The Salvation Army in Northern Ireland was able to bridge the gap between the parties. Catholics and Protestants trust us. We were allowed to visit political prisoners of both sides.
B: You involve yourselves with questions such as abortion. I am assuming that The Salvation Army is against it?
S.C. That's too simple. We are not as conservative as our catholic brothers and sisters. There are situations in which abortion is the lesser evil, for instance in cases of severe deformities of the foetus, [or] rape. We try to support women who find themselves in this situation and to be loyal to them, even if they make decisions that we ourselves might not have made.
B: What is your standpoint on homosexuality?
SC: We take our standpoint on sexuality from the Bible. According to the Bible, the right context in which to live out our sexuality is the marriage of man and woman. But we don't ask people who apply for work with us whether or not they are homosexual.
B: What happens if you know someone is homosexual?
SC: If a person's sexuality has a negative effect on their work or their clients, that would be dealt with according the local labour laws. We expect that a person's sexuality should not hinder their work.
B: Does that mean you would appoint a homosexual?
SC: Yes. There are even homosexuals amongst our clergy. But of course we expect them to lead celibate and abstemious lives.
B: In the USA there are quarrels between creationists, who believe in the creation of the world as it is described in the Bible, and evolutionists. What does The Salvation Army think?
SC: (Laughs). Congratulations, you are the first person to ask me that! You see, we are not fundamentalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible. There are varying views amongst our members. I, personally, can quite happily live with the idea of what you call ‘evolution', and science gives us fairly conclusive evidence on the age of the earth. For me, however, the actual age of the earth is not important. The important thing is: who created it?
B: Did God create it?
SC: Yes, and it [the earth] belongs to God. Science is powerless when it comes to the bottom line: Who was responsible for creation? The scientists tell us that this question is unscientific - thank God we have the freedom to put unscientific questions!
B: You are sitting front of me in uniform. Is it a still a good idea for all Salvationists to wear uniform?
SC: I believe that The Salvation Army was called by God to be a visible part of the body of Jesus Christ. I'd rather wear old jeans but, because God called me into The Salvation Army, I accept the wearing of uniform.
B: The need to wear uniform frightens people off - particularly young people.
SC: In some cases, for instance in youth work, you will find Salvationists who are not so strictly uniformed, but are nevertheless easily identifiable, and many never wear uniform at all. However, we do insist on uniform wearing by our clergy, our officers.
B: Is The Salvation Army an army of pacifists?
SC: No, we were never a pacifist organisation such as, for example, the Quakers. However, there has always been a small minority amongst us who have taken the pacifist stand.
B: Therefore there is [such a thing as] a just war?
SC: The majority would say yes. In both world wars Salvationists on both sides were involved in humanitarian service.
B: Is there still in The Salvation Army the mission, the attempt, to convert people?
SC: Yes, and that's our most important task, even before our social work.
B: Doesn't that bring you into conflict with other religions?
SC: No. My wife and I worked from 1997 to 2002 in Pakistan, where there are only three million Christians, who are oppressed. Our relationships with Muslims were very warm. We deeply regret the present-day demonisation of Islam by a few political leaders.
B: But surely, if you are trying to convert people to Christianity, conflict must be unavoidable?
SC: We never speak negatively about other religions. In discussions, we don't seek to convert but rather to understand each other. And the more ‘christian' I was in Pakistan, the more I was respected by my Muslim friends.
B: With your experience in Pakistan, how do you see the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?
SC: It is very difficult to see how the conflict could be ended. The Salvation Army is not present in these countries......
B: Why not? I would have expected to find you in Israel.
SC: Israel is already full of religious people. I'm saying this with a smile: perhaps there is too much religion in this area! One can never have enough of Jesus, but much too much religion. As far as the conflict in the Near East is concerned, we try from time to time to make a contribution through prayer. Just before I became General of The Salvation Army, the war in Lebanon broke out. The silence which emanated from the White House and from Downing Street disturbed me greatly.
B: George Bush and Tony Blair should have stopped Israel?
SC: Yes, they should have quickly put pressure on Israel. In that way they could have saved thousands of lives.
B: That's a very political statement.
SC: But not party political. I am interested in the victims, not the reputations of politicians. This silence remains a blot on these important political world centres. They could have stopped the bloodshed, but they did not do so. One day they will have to answer for that, not in this life but in the life to come.
B: Have you never tried to become active in the Palestinian areas?
SC: No, but we are preparing to extend out activities into Greece, Mali and Burundi and into Nepal, where I have discovered that Salvationists are already active without having asked me for permission.
B: What will happen to them?
SC: If God has placed them there, who am I to stop them? At the moment we have nothing planned for the Near East. I have no adequate explanation for that, but it seems that the necessary doors have simply not yet opened.