Saturday, 9 November 2013

And that's why I wear a white poppy: on our failure of moral imagination

I've worn a white poppy for a few years now. I can't make any grand claim to be radical, pioneering, trend-setting - it's something I 'caught' from friends whose commitment and creativity in real, costly work for peace and justice far exceeds mine. But I am increasingly convinced of its importance as a small, symbolic act, within a 'big picture' of global scope and deep seriousness.

Red poppies & 'future soldiers'

This was the moment it got to me this year. A photo, shared by a friend on Facebook. Now, I know nothing of the story behind this picture. (That, in itself, is one of the big issues about Remembrance Sunday / poppy issue - a multitude of individual, deeply personal stories are entangled in some powerful, largely unquestioned 'big stories'.) I can make no judgements about the personal reasons behind the T shirts, and the photo. But as a symbol - and it's certainly a photo that 'says something' profoundly symbolic - it's tragic, in the most literal sense.

I'm reminded of the origins of the white poppy, in a request from war widows to the Royal British Legion to put the words 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppy - and when the Legion refused, in the determination to develop an alternative symbol that bore that same message. The white poppy began with the insistence that the future could, should, must be different: we remember, not to fall into and repeat the same tragic violent entanglements again and again, but to seek an alternative future, a future where war is not an inevitability, a necessity, a normal part of life.

The tragedy of the photo, then, is that the future it imagines is a future where today's children have become tomorrow's soldiers. A future where war remains a given - an inevitability, a necessity, a normal part of life. It's even more tragic, though, because these 'future soldiers' are smiling. War, and the armed human bodies that make war possible, are not simply inevitabilities, necessities, normality - they are, in at least some sense, something to look forward to, something to be proud of.

Of course, there's nothing about the colour of the poppies that makes all the difference to the message of the photo, just as there's nothing inherent to a red poppy that means its wearer is explicitly or implicitly promoting future warfare. But the fact that such an image can be cheerfully posed for, taken and shared is witness to a wider, national - global, even - failure of imagination. And the white poppy, in even just a small way, probes that failure, that dominant, unquestioned story, and invites, provokes, the imagination of alternative possibilities.

Fig trees & 'proximate' relationships

Something similar was highlighted in the recent trial of the 'Waddington 6', which I was privileged to witness. The six men and women broke into RAF Waddington, creating a hole in the fence inviting others to follow them. They began planting a peace garden, and splitting up, searched the base for the control centre for the armed, unmanned drones that have been attacking unsuspecting, often civilian, 'targets' in Afghanistan for the last few years. Their stated aim was to enter this 'war zone', to interrupt the drone controllers, to prevent casualties and deaths in Afghanistan.

The trial judge, 'with a heavy heart', felt he had no choice but to find the six guilty, on the basis of the lack of 'proximity' between the protestors and the potential victims of the drones. The protestors, however, were working within a different moral imagination, in fact, an imagination that in many ways more accurately reflects the interconnectedness of our globalised world: that children at school and families celebrating weddings in rural Afghanistan are as much our 'proximate' neighbours as those people who live next door to us, or share the same queue in the supermarket.

The difference, of course, is in how we feel about those different neighbours, and that is in great part shaped by how we are told to feel by those who dominate our media, our politicians, the purveyors of the 'big stories' within which we so often, unquestioningly, live. And that is another reason why I wear a white poppy. Because the 'big story' behind the red poppy is about remembering 'our' war dead, supporting 'our' troops, taking pride in 'our' nation - at the expense of 'them', the 'enemies', or even simply those countless innocent others who are not 'us'. The white poppy says that 'they' are our neighbours too, that 'their' lives are just as precious, that 'their' deaths are just as grief-worthy, that 'their' future is inextricably tied up with 'ours'.

Remembrance Sunday in Hodge Hill

Tomorrow, Remembrance Sunday, people of all ages will come to church in Hodge Hill. Many of them will come wearing red poppies. Quite a number of them will come with personal losses and wounds from at least one World War, and from other conflicts in which the UK has participated over the years since WWII. Some will come with pride in servicemen and -women who they have known. Some will come with pride in a nation which, at its best, they believe acts with restraint, decency and humanity.

And as their priest, I will invite them to lay their red poppies down, in the circular space of the worshipping community, close to the altar of communion and the font of baptism. And I will lead them in prayers of penitence, both individual and corporate, for the violence of our world, our nation, and for our part and our complicity in it. And then, after our sharing in two-minutes' silence for 'all who have given their lives, or have had them taken away, in the war and violence of our world', I will invite them to take up a white poppy, as a sign of their own personal commitment to seeking peace and justice in our own lives and relationships, in our own neighbourhoods, in our world. As their priest, I will then lead them in the celebration of the Eucharist, remembering together the one and only 'sacrifice' - we will affirm - that truly inaugurates a world of peace, the loving-even-to-death of the innocent victim of the world's violence, in whose resurrection he returns to us breathing not revenge, or resentment, but forgiveness and peace.

Many of those who come to church tomorrow will, at the end of the service, pick up their red poppies again and replace them in their button-holes. Perhaps for them the red poppy does not mean what our society's dominant stories say it does. Perhaps it does, and our shared liturgy will simply have not changed their minds and hearts on the matter. But I live in hope that, even in small, barely perceptible ways, our words, symbols and shared actions tomorrow will open at least a crack or two in our world's 'business-as-usual' for an alternative imagination, of a world where Afghans are our 'proximate' neighbours with whom we have relationships of compassion and joy, a world where 'future soldiers' are an oxymoron, because war is finally no more.


  1. Thank you for articulating so much that I feel about Remembrance. I am glad you allow the Eucharist to speak in your service.

  2. Please go and talk to a service family who have lost someone they love. You'll find wearing a red poppy is not about being proud. Respect, loss, love, not vainglory.

    1. I'm really sorry that's what you've heard in my post. It wasn't what I said - or indeed what I intended to be heard.

  3. It wasn't what I heard either. I am sure those who have lost family members or friends in war would not wish others to go through the grief they experienced, so would support work for resolving conflict without resort to arms.

  4. Al, I love what you did at your service. My thoughts and feelings on this Sunday when many churches honor the living and dead veterans of our wars are conflicted, and I could not bring myself to attend church today. Had I known mine would be a service such as yours, I'd have been there.