Before I vested for this morning’s Eucharist, I was wearing a red poppy, as part of our annual remembrance of those who died in two world wars and in more recent conflicts.
I remember being surprised in my teens to learn that there were white poppies too, and that they had been first worn in 1933 and adopted by the Peace Pledge Union three years later. Perhaps I have led a sheltered life, but I have never yet seen anyone selling white poppies. I have never even seen anyone wearing one, though I knew one old soldier who was said that he’d be proud to wear both colours. He had done his duty in Europe’s theatres of war, and valued his comrades and the lasting friendships made in wartime, but recognised, even during the tense years of the Cold War, the vocation of peace. Although he was not a pacifist, he abhorred all glorifying in war, and respected profoundly those Christians who unlike him were pacifist by conviction, and so should we.
The oldest Christian position on war and armed conflict is pacifist, from the teachings of Jesus, through Tertullian until the fourth century. Even if we take a different line, in recognition of the mystery of evil and humanity’s capacity for inhumanity, cruelty and destruction, we benefit from the prophetic witness of the pacifist tradition. For so easily we can become too superficially worldly-wise for our own good, and swallow unthinkingly the glib dichotomies of the popular media on both sides of the Atlantic, where all is black and white, good or evil.
To see red poppies fall silently, or to stand at Ieper’s Menin Gate and hear the bugle sound, and scan the familiar surnames engraved there, or to visit a WW2 Allied and Germany cemetery outside Tilly-sur-Seules, with its Gordon Highlander graves from casualties in late June 1944, or to walk along an English country lane on a long distant summer morning with a survivor of the Somme, and hear him comment on a field of poppies – these things are moving. But to try to make the poppy a test of patriotism, is narrow-minded and judgmental.
Joe, that Somme veteran never wore a poppy, though I had always brought one from school, and the other ex-serviceman I knew best, was proud to wear his medals, but for him that was usually quite sufficient. We need to beware of an easy patriotism that forgets the horror, expense and suffering of war. In extreme circumstances, a true patriot puts God, neighbour and the good earth before perceived national interest, as in Dietrich’s Bonhoeffer’s support of the failed plot against Hitler and Nazi idolatry.
Even though I was described by one bishop as one of the most collaborative of people, I was once likened to Marshal Tito. Was it thought that I was a benevolent dictator or firm and ruthless leader? I had taken on a parish with three different traditions and histories and four churches, and worked hard for thirteen years in establishing at team identity, co-operation and unity with diversity. It was when I was about to move here to Blackburn, that one colleague suggested, “Ian’s like Tito in former Yugoslavia, keeping a lid on things” or combating warring church tribes.
Unfortunately, we have seen too much simplistic politics. If we cannot accept in a fallen and fragile world, the pacifist tradition of non-violence, and opt for Christian realism, we should not be taken in by any Manichean inclined heresy that sees the international situation and its leaders in old-fashioned black and white.
Too easily in the West, we have we thought that the removal of a tyrant or harsh regime in one country or another in the Middle East would bring in heaven on earth, or at least, a politics more conducive to our own interests. We have seen the destruction and human loss, civilian and military too, that regime intervention has brought in Iraq and Libya, and we see at a distance the continuing sore of Syria.
There is for place for action, and sometimes force, as the lesser of two evils, but there is a place for talk and co-operation too, for this too is part of the Christian tradition.
We realise the violent inhumanity of which Assad’s Syrian regime has been accused, but we may know that there are Syrian Christians and others who valued and supported his protection.
Sometimes we have to recognise the lesser of two evils. As Churchill co-operated with Stalin, so we may recognise that Assad is part at present of a bulwark against the pseudo-religious and criminal totalitarianism of ISIL. Just as governments talk with China, so conversations with Iran and with Vladimir Putin’s Russia are important for the world’s peace. It is better that dialogue takes place.
As Christians we are surely committed to try to understand the other and not to demonise others made in God’s image. God in Christ shows us a better way, for God reaches out to the other with truth, justice and love, and with the expense of crucifixion.
Having worked briefly in the Baltic states in 1991, I believe that we do well to recognise their continuing fears, the size of their Russian minorities and Russia’s own fears of encirclement.
We see the world’s volatility, the dangers to peace and stability, and the waves of human hope and misery in the refugees finding their place on Europe’s shores, roads and cities.
We need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, to work both with those who seek peace and those who take up force of arms. We may feel helpless, but we must learn to read the signs of our times, to value those who are different from us, to avoid the western arrogance in thinking that we can by force solve the world’s problems.
By God’s grace we may still live with remembrance and hope, as long as we seek truth, justice and peace.