Throughout the country on Sunday, and yesterday, people wore a poppy to mark Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day. It is one of the most potent symbols we have. I wore two poppies on both days - one red, and one white. And I would like to explain why. What colour poppy you wear, and indeed, whether you wear a poppy at all, seems to have become more and more politicised in recent years, which I find very sad.
The red poppy is the more traditional one, sold by the Royal British Legion throughout the land. According to their current publicity, by buying and wearing a red poppy, the wearer is choosing to help bereaved families, wounded service men and women, younger veterans seeking employment and housing, and older veterans needing age-related care, to Live On.
And that is great, and I would support all those aims. I believe that we should honour the fallen, from all wars, and from all countries. In the words of Chris Goacher, "We gather in thankful remembrance of those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom and safety of others." But I believe that we also need to find a better answer to the question posed by Canon Dick Sheppard, in 1936: "Of what would they wish us to think? Not that they were heroes; not that there was any special virtue in the manner of their dying; not of the tragedy of youth snuffed out; not even that we loved them, and still remember. They would wish us to think of what they died for."
The dead of the First World War died in a "war to end all wars." And yet, twenty years later, precisely because of the way the politicians made the peace after 1918,
Europe and the world were
embroiled in war once again, and all the sacrifice came to naught.
I am a pacifist, but I do believe that part of the meaning of Remembrance Sunday is that we should also remember the men and women who are currently serving in the armed forces, the world over, and acknowledge the high price they pay to defend us. Many do not return, and of those who do, many bear the physical and mental scars of conflict for the rest of their lives. And so do their families. And that deserves my respect.
What I am not so happy about is the adoption of the symbol of the red poppy by far-right organisations such as Britain First, or about the cynical fashion in which the present government is using it to make themselves look good. Nor about the underlying nationalism that has come to be associated with it. Nor am I happy about folk being criticised for not wearing one - surely it should be a matter of conscience? After all, nobody is criticised for not wearing (for example) a pink ribbon to support breast cancer awareness, or a Pudsey Bear badge to support Children in Need, so why should the poppy be different?
The white poppy is a symbol of peace. White Poppies for Peace made their first appearance on Armistice Day in 1933. With the rising domestic and international tensions at the time, concern grew that the war to end all wars, in which so many had died, would now be followed by an even worse war. The white poppy was an expression of that concern, and became a symbol of our inability to settle conflicts without resorting to killing, but more importantly, a symbol of hope and commitment to work for a world where better, more peaceful answers could be found. The white poppy’s aim is to promote debate and rally support for resistance to war. And as Secretary of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship, I am proud to wear my white poppy.
Some Unitarians today also wear a purple poppy. These are sold by Animal Aid, who explain "Throughout history, animals have suffered and died as a result of human conflicts. Animals killed as a result of human conflict are not heroes but victims. They do not give their lives, their lives are taken." I honour this position too, and may well wear a purple poppy next year, alongside the red and white.
The point of all this is, it doesn't matter so much what colour poppy you wear. What matters is whether wearing one and remembering the fallen, makes you want to work for a better world, in which veterans are looked after and respected, and governments really try to work for peace, instead of reaching for war as an off-the-shelf solution to the latest international problem.