Saturday, 11 November 2017


Poppies - when to start wearing them, and what colour?

When I was an idealistic teenager, and through my twenties, I either didn't wear a poppy, or wore a white 'peace pledge union' poppy.
I identified as a pacifist, and was convinced that if attacked I would not retaliate. Whilst volunteering as a church youth worker, this was put to the test, and I can remember with horrific clarity the time when a tall youngster drew a knife across my cheek, because I required him to remove himself and the weapon from the youth club, (thankfully he had used the blunt side of the blade so no permanent damage was done - although I seem to remember barring him for 6 weeks). I also recall certain friends in the SWP (when I was an active Trade Unionist), used to talk in terms of 'come the revolution'. At which point I would always reply 'well you'll have to shoot me first', they would be perplexed and say - but you are on our side, however I would point out that as a pacifist I would feel compelled to resist peacefully. (Whether I would have had the courage of my convictions I very much doubt, but I hope it caused them to pause and think!)
This all changed however, once our children were born, and I became more self aware. The instinct to protect them was overwhelming, and I realised I would have no compunction in resorting to violence if they were threatened. I also became painfully aware that I had within myself a terrible tendency to lose my temper, and that violence in each one of us is not so far beneath the surface.
With these contradictory feelings in mind, I gave up wearing a poppy for a long time, as I felt that the red poppy 'celebrated' war, and had connotation of  nationalistic pride. I did however, feel that the work the British Legion did among veterans was important and should be supported. Working for a couple of years in homeless charities made me acutely aware  of the number of ex-service personnel on our streets. People who had been so traumatized by war that they found it difficult to fit back into society. Families that had suffered break and domestic violence because those returning from active service had turned to alcohol or drugs to dull the memories of what they had seen, and then taken out their problems on their families.
Then I came into the ministry. I was expected not only to take Remembrance day services in churches, but also take part in Civic ceremonies.  It seemed disresectful not to wear a red poppy.
Until the day I realised that I wasn't being true to myself. I bought myself a white peace poppy again. I put it onto my cassock, and added a red poppy. I wore this at a local Anglican church near Hemel Hempstead for the afternoon Remembrance service where I was preaching. As I climbed up the pulpit steps I felt the glares of the row of veterans following me, including the local MP who had served in the SAS, all looking at my white poppy alongside the red one. I explained during my sermon how I felt, how we should remember all the casulties of war, combatants, civiials and conscience objectors. How privileged I was that others gave up thier lives so that I and people like me might have freedom of speach, and how it is incumbant on us all to remember but also to work for peace and be true to our own beliefs.
I still take issue with the innate pressure via the media to wear a poppy and to start wearing them at the beginning of November. I still have concerns about the hijacking of extreme right wing groups of the poppy symbol on social media, and the implication that if you don't wear a red poppy you are unpatriotic. But overall I feel that the white and red poppy together pinned on the week before Remembrance Sunday is right for me. And I am still convinced that peace needs to start with the individual, ie with ourselves, there is no point in praying for a peace 'out there' if we don't tackle the issues within ourselves.
So as in previous years in my ministry - this will be the prayer that will start our service tomorrow:

We light this candle, as a sign of hope for the world, which God created and loves, and for which our Lord Jesus Christ died.
Today we think especially of those who work for justice and peace by serving in our Armed Forces, and those who watch and wait for their safe return.
We pray for peace in our hearts, and in our homes, in our nation and in our world.The peace of Your will and of our need.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

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