To wear a white poppy or a red one. In case you haven’t run into this emotionally charged decision, here it is. A red poppy honours the fallen. A white poppy is for peace.
There are those who see a red poppy as a glorification of war - a suggestion that war is necessary and that all those who engage in it are to be praised. They see in the red poppy a suggestion that war is justified and is essential for our well being. They recognise that the red poppy takes account only of our own war casualties and not the millions who are or were not on “our side.”
And there are those who see a white poppy as an insult to soldiers who gave their lives for this country - as an affront to their courage, a denial of their sacrifice, and an insult to their memory. They see a white poppy as a sign of cowardice - an unwillingness to fight when it is necessary.
Red and white poppies bring to our hearts some of the most emotionally charged subjects we face: death and peace. Red poppy wearers are focused on remembering and honouring the dead. They want to ensure they can remember in a way that makes death meaningful - that shows that the loss of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers and others was not in vain.
And white poppy wearers are focused on the dead in a different way. They want to make sure there are no more war casualties to mourn. Ever.
The current US Secretary of State, John Kerry was a decorated war hero for his role in the US war in Vietnam. When he ran for president, however, he was vehemently attacked for being a peace activist.
Kerry himself added something terribly important to the polarised conflict when he said this: “I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service.”
We need to understand and to help others to see that honouring the casualties of war is not in any way in conflict with working for peace. What better honour could there be for the fallen than to help ensure that no one else need give their lives as they did.
If you knew someone who was lost or forever harmed by war, I invite you to come forward now to light a candle and speak a name.
Fighting for Peace?
Let’s remember clearly what the first world war was termed. It was “the war to end all wars.” War, it was said, was the way to quell evil and thereby to make peace.
Almost from the moment that phrase was coined, it attracted cynicism - cynicism that was well earned.
Baruch Spinoza, that 17th century Jewish philosopher reminds us that peace is not what you get simply by the cessation of violence. Peace, he says, “is a virtue; a state of mind; a disposition for benevolence; confidence; and justice.”
Defeating one’s enemies without working for this kind of true peace is a virtual guarantee for the exact factors that invite more conflict: poverty, a desire for vengeance, powerlessness, bitterness…
We - unlike our Quaker cousins - have never held an absolute pacifist view. We have never agreed amongst ourselves that no fighting should ever take place. Would you have supported war against Nazi Germany if you knew that death camps were gassing and incinerating human beings with industrial efficiency? Would you have support violent intervention to prevent the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda? Would you have intervened militarily to prevent the genocide of Armenians by Ottoman empire. I know I would answer yes to all of these questions and many more.
But fighting to end killing, is very different from securing peace. Securing peace can not be achieved through war.
And peace, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “is not only better than war, but infinitely more arduous.”
We cannot wage peace with sticks, or stones, or missiles, or drones, or planes, or guns, or swords or bombs. We cannot wage peace with embargos or boycotts or sanctions or threats. All of these, at best, can provide a temporary end to hostilities.
To wage peace, we must to the much more expensive work of building up economies, and self-sufficiency, and trustworthy, free systems of government.
To wage peace, we must do the much harder emotional work of finding compassion and love and respect for our enemies. We must recognise that their worth and dignity equals our own.
To wage peace, we must fight for justice, we must fight hunger, we must fight disease, we must fight poverty, we must fight for equality.
To wage peace, we must arm ourselves head to toe with love. There is no other way.
I invite you now into a time of silence where each of us may contemplate how we can find our own ways to wage peace, whether within our families, our communities, our nation, or our world.