On Poppies and Pacifism

I am personally convinced that Jesus taught and modelled non-violence. As did Paul. As did the early church for the first three centuries. I still have questions about the practicalities of non-violence in action, but if pushed I would (rather than pushing back!) call myself a pacifist, although for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere I find the P-word unhelpful.

So I find Remembrance Day a strange, moving, but complex day. Sometimes people ask me what I think about the day: should someone committed to non-violence commemorate Remembrance Day? And if so how?

I’ve never found that an especially difficult question. The question of how to lead a church in a corporate act of reflection whilst not contravening my own personal convictions is perhaps the harder question. (Like Corbyn’s conundrum about singing a song about two figures in whom he doesn’t believe?) But even then it’s not rocket science.

How should a pacifist commemorate Remembrance Day? Much the same as anyone else would. With due respect.

Remembrance Day is not a day for getting on a non-violent soapbox. It is a day when we should mourn bloodshed, long for peace, look forward to an age when peace will reign, and trust in the one who can bring it about. And that is common ground for both the Christian pacifist and Christian non-pacifist. All of us long for peace, even if we differ on the level of violence that is acceptable in the meantime. So when I lead a reflection in our service this Sunday, I can lead us to think about the areas on which we agree. Beyond that, I don’t want to use a day that should be sombre and honouring to those who lost their lives, as a platform for me to preach a message that many will not agree with me on. The day is not about me.

Secondly, it is possible to honour those who fought in war without glorifying war. And again, I think we can all agree on this. Even those who believe that war can be necessary and just will still see it as an evil; something to be avoided if at all possible, and something to mourn. I often arrive at church a little early on Remembrance Day and make my way up to St Paul’s Cathedral where I see the Veterans gathering for their commemorations. I find it sobering and it does me good, because it’s quiet, and respectful, and very real. Last year on Remembrance Sunday I took a walk up to the Tower of London in between our services to look at the exhibition of ceramic poppies. I found it horrifying and moving and it did me good to be there and pray as I walked around.

What turns my stomach is the rather more crass form of militarism that you sometimes see in churches, often (though not exclusively) on the opposite side of the Atlantic. War is celebrated and glorified with a level of bloodthirstiness that is frankly sickening. I think I would struggle to worship, for example, in the Cadet Chapel; constructed to look like a row of fighter jets; the ends of the pews shaped like propeller blades; and in the place of a cross, a sword. That inspires worship, no doubt… But it’s worship of Mars more than YHWH!

Admittedly that is an extreme example. But you don’t have to look hard for more down-to-earth stories of how war, or simply entrenched nationalism, is given pride of place in churches. Check out any of these books by Greg BoydBrian Zahnd and Preston Sprinkle for a litany of examples. I find it distasteful, because it is so opposite to the way that God wins His victory at the cross, and we so often mistake our own kingdoms for His.

But as I’ve said, it is certainly possible to commemorate the sacrifice people made and continue to make, without glorifying war in the process. It’s to do with the tone. We celebrate the courage of many, whilst mourning the fact that their sacrifice was ever necessary. And we can honour their sacrifice by realising that it is far greater and deeper and far more horrific than simply the loss of life.

War is a thief. And it robs us at a global level and a personal level. The following two quotes help me as I ponder the sacrifice of war. I return to them frequently.

War robs society by directing time, effort and finance away from those who need it most. Every warship invested in represents mouths left unfed. Even if one feels war is necessary and ought to be invested in, we ought still to mourn the true cost of military spending. In a speech in 1953 President Eisenhower put it like this:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.’

Or bring it down to the more personal level. War robs those who engage in it of their very humanity. Stanley Hauerwas said this in an interview last year:

One of the great challenges for those of us who represent non-violence is how it seems to not honour those who have conscientiously participated in war and I certainly do not want that to happen. Remembrance Day is a day of appropriately remembering the sacrifices of those who have gone to war. But their deeper sacrifice is not the loss of life. The deeper sacrifice is that they have had to sacrifice their normal unwillingness to kill and then we don’t give them any help about how to come to terms with that fact.’

There is plenty in those two quotes alone to stand in silence about, and plenty to reflect on as we approach Remembrance Day.

So – this Sunday I will wear a poppy. And I won’t wear a white one. To do so would draw more attention to me than I would want on a day that is not about me. And I find it strangely powerful, if uncomfortable, to wear something that is blood red. It reminds me of the tension of living in an age that is full of war, whilst longing for the day when no more blood will be shed. It makes me long for that day all the more.

And this Sunday I will take a minute’s silence. And I will use it to pray. I will pray in thanks for the freedom I have and those who gave their lives for it. I will pray for wisdom for our leaders – political and military – that they will treat war as the final option and will find ways of forging peace through non-violent, diplomatic means. I will pray for peace, and I will long for the day when wars will cease. And I will pray for those currently engaged in war, recognising that they are placed in an awful situation they should never have had to face, performing tasks that rob them of their humanity. I will ask for God to restore and heal them, in anticipation of the restoration and healing He will one day bring to all of Creation.

Image: Poppies: Wave by Ric Jackson, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


3 Comments Add yours

  1. John F says:

    The German comedian Henning Wehn has a good line ‘selective Remembrance Day’.

    I think the problem with the Poppy, that a lot of Britions people don’t get, is that it’s promoted by the Royal British Legion, which represents British ex-soldiers and while I’m sure it does try to foster links with other nations’ veterans’ organisations it is not a peace and reconciliation movement. Britons can tell themselves that they’re peace-loving and not triumphalist, but try telling that to German people or Irish nationalists.

    Is the Poppy a tarnished and unredeemable symbol? No, but Britons need to see and understand the problems behind it.


    1. liamthatcher says:

      Ha! I like Henning Wehn, but have never heard that… it’s a good line that makes a good point!

      I find that the poppy does help me to think about people in my nation who have lost their lives, which helps to make it more real for me. But when praying or reflecting on war, I find it far more beneficial to mourn the loss of life from every nation. A British life is worth no more or less than a German one, for example, and we ought to mourn every drop of blood shed!


  2. Michael Snow says:

    Just discovered your blog. I would say that on this side of the Atlantic, a major reason that 11 November is more militaristic (to put it mildly) is due to the fact that it was renamed Veterans Day in the 50s, broadening its focus. These days, few will Remember that it was once Armistice Day, the celebration of the end of the bloodshed.
    As a pacifist (and yes, it can be an un-helpful term), it was the red poppy I ‘bought’ one November that spurred me on to write a book on the Christmas truce. It has an important significance. (We have no white ones here as far as I know. And the red ones have become rare in most places.)
    I see you reiview books, if you would care to take look at my book on pacifism and consider it, I’d be glad to send the pdf. (Only 100+ pages). Currently, it is out of print and only in ebook format. [I think this comment will show you my email address. If not, there is a contact link on mikesnow.org) https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/living-our-resurrection-faith-following-our-king/


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