Simon Barrow

Giving peace a chance proves highly controversial

By Simon Barrow
November 12, 2006

Remembrance Sunday in Britain is rightfully a day for sombre reflection. It is also, lest we forget, a day when national and military flags are paraded and saluted in churches - sometimes even being placed on altars. Along with red poppies there are regimental colours and monuments to the armed forces. Frequently presiding at cenotaphs are chaplains and other clergy. And prayers are said for currently serving soldiers in controversial conflicts - again, sometimes with great pastoral sensitivity, sometimes in a more directly sanctioning spirit.

It is worth noting all this, because the received 'common sense' in response to Ekklesia's suggestion that churches could make white poppies available too, to symbolise peace and the non-violent sacrifice of Jesus upon which they are founded, has been to deny (often angrily) that the existing symbolism embodies military codes of thinking and has 'anything to do with religion at all'.

The assumptions of this culture are so ingrained, it seems, that we simply do not notice its character. And if anyone raises questions and suggests alternative perspectives, they are immediately jumped upon as being 'militant' and guilty of 'febrile egoism' (to use the words of Tristam Hunt in The Observer, 12 November 2006).

There are many other difficult aspects of our present pattern of war remembering that get overlooked, too.

In most instances, the main conflicts recalled are the two world wars of the twentieth century, along with the latest headline one, Iraq. Those remembered are largely soldiers of our nation and its allies, not others, not 'the enemy', not the civilans of Dresden, not victims of shameful ventures like Suez, and not those killed at the hands of British colonial overlords.

Indeed, the people of all nations who have died across the globe in some 400 conflicts since these 'wars to end all wars' are mostly ignored, as are many civilians and those who lost their lives as objectors or in alternative service. When we really examine it, our 'remembrance' looks painfully selective and somewhat self-serving. There are shining counter-examples, like Coventry Cathedral and its Community of the Cross of Nails. But they are exceptions.

We recall the military downfall of Hitler, for example, but not the aftermath of the extravagantly wasteful war that helped bring him to power. According to John Gaunt of TalkSport Radio, I am 'despicable' for even mentioning this complexity - just as President Bush has recently called those who question the impact of American military adventurism 'enemy comforters'. These are political attempts to repress different memories. The awkward truth is that it is always might, and not always right (when those two things can be clearly distinguished), that wins wars.

Presiding clergy and other secular officiants often wrestle hard with these matters around Armistice Day. But they know that sensitivities around the defence of an ingrained 'natural' patriotic and military outlook are so high that there will be hell to pay for even the least sign of dissent.

Mention the fact that Britain has armed all its own most recent enemies (notably Argentina before the Falklands and Iraq under Saddam) and there will be discomfort if not outrage. Suggest that an altar is not the place for national flags and military symbols, because it is a symbol of reconciliation for all, and you will be accused of being 'a troublesome vicar' (as a friend of mine was no so long ago).

Another friend who is a German minister in Britain was even required to bless military colours, though in her own country (given the terrible experience of 'church and nation' being identified so disastrously under Nazism) this is little short of blasphemy - as it is in the Anabaptist congregations who are heirs to decades of persecution by the Constantinian church and its state allies.

Recently I was in Flanders, as part of a deeply moving tour of the battlefields and war graves. There is no room for triumph there. And I have distant relatives who died in the senseless slaughter. There are no red poppies on German graves either, just as this 'international symbol' is little-known in large parts of the Americas, in the majority-Muslim world and in many other places, even in our own land.

These, too, are issues we are barely allowed to raise without being shouted down in an over-confrontational media culture. Which is why the question of 'political correctness' is not an illegitimate one to consider, as Michael Portillo has noted in a column (Sunday Times, 12/11/06) even though he disagrees with Ekklesia.

However, time and again last week, on interviews and phone-ins, I was told that such basic issues to do with the content and shape of remembrance 'obviously' had 'nothing to do with individuals wearing a red poppy', as if we all walk around in bubbles isolated from social and political mores. Another way of putting it would be to say that it is very much a case of the fish not noticing the water it swims in, let alone its colour.

Interestingly, one group to support Ekklesia's stance in favour of choice about how we remember has been the Green Party in Northern Ireland, whose co-leader Dr John Barry said that 'those who do wear a white poppy are simply using a different symbol to remember and that it is equally as valid and needs to be respected.' Given their context, they know more than a little about sectarian bile and armed religiosity.

Yet it is the character of our 'natural' predispositions about the efficacy of war as an instrument of policy which are thrown into awkward relief when the option of the white poppy is raised. It is, incontrovertibly, a sign of peacemaking without arms - though it can be worn by people of both 'just war' and pacifist convictions, and often has been over the years, albeit as a distinctly minority tradition. Around 50,000 get sold in Britain and Ireland compared to millions of red ones.

I frequently point out that I wear both the blood red poppy, to remember all who have died, and the white one to commit to seeking alternatives to military conflict. Yet even this causes offence. It is as if peace-building outside the framework provided by military endeavour can have no place in Remembrance ñ for those who then go on to claim, somewhat contradictorily, that the dominant symbol is 'neutral'.

Likewise, it is seen as 'political' to talk about non-violent conflict resolution in Iraq, but it is not political to 'salute the courage of our boys' in a war which is widely regarded as illegal under international law, and which, while it has thankfully displaced a tyrant, has produced endless bloodshed and suffering in its wake.

The point here is most definitely not one of lack of respect. I have great respect for the courage and commitment of the military (including members of my own family) - I just wish, along with Ron Sider in the famous speech which helped give birth to Christian Peacemaker Teams, that we could ask another question. 'What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war?'

This was a key implication of Jonathan Bartley's article in the Church Times - directed to a Christian audience - which was the source of the recent fuss, along with newsreader Jon Snow's refusal of what he called 'poppy fascism'. To its great credit the British Legion backed free choice, though many of its supporters were angry about the questioning of their symbolism.

Jonathan Bartley has pointed out that a 'No More War' inscription was refused for the red poppy in 1926, which is partly how the white one came to emerge in 1933. And as I have illustrated, the context in which it has been employed is far from undecided on the issue of war, but accepts it as both necessary and heroic.

By contrast, the cross of Christ - a symbol which stands at the heart of Christian faith - embodies a message of deliverance not through might, but through a love which is prepared to endure even death rather than go on perpetuating cycles of blame, scapegoating and murder.

This, we suggested (to Christians) is why we might consider alternative ways of remembering. That was not an attempt to 'Christianize' these ceremonies (though that has happened pretty comprehensively under Christendom), as some suggested, but to look at the issue of the specific responsibility of the communities who claim to follow Jesus.

Again, this is incredibly difficult for many to hear, for two reasons. First, the interests of church and nation state have been elided in the constitutional and symbolic fabric of England, where much of this argument has taken place. This means that some people object to the church they do not belong to having any different stance on questions like war and peace, and it also means that many Christians assume that the view they take of these matters should follow the same logic as everybody else because we are there to 'serve the community'.

That means, second, that the theological questions involved in all of this get submerged completely. These are not about arcane 'religious' matters, they are fundamental questions of allegiance - who and in what do we place our trust? Who and what will deliver us from hatred and death?

The Gospel's answer is that the power of love, which resides in a God whose favour-free love cannot be manipulated, is alone capable of overcoming the tragic consequences of our love of power. To be baptised into Christ is to enter into his death-by-execution recognising that God alone gives life. It is also to join a community whose witness to the possibilities of justice and peace is not circumscribed by national, tribal, racial, gender or any other interests (if it understands itself rightly).

My conversion to non-violence as a core identity-marker of a follower of Jesus came when I realised three things. First, that the cross says that God absorbs violence, instead of inflicting it (in contradiction to a lot of the dangerously distorted preaching you hear these days). Second, that it makes no sense at all to belong to a community called the Body of Christ if I am prepared to kill its other members when ordered to do so by a nation or political cause. Third, living in such a community is ñ against all odds - about learning the difficult business (and it is difficult) of how not to wound or kill each other - or our neighbours. What more important lesson is there to learn?

All this goes a lot deeper for me than a doctrinal argument over Jesus - who, though he warned of division, condemned religious hypocrisy and grabbed the tables of the temple money launderers, is presented by the Gospel writers as disarming Peter and encouraging people to love their enemies, do good to those that hate them, and to pray for those who disdain justice.

What has happened, it seems, is that the Christendom church has developed doctrines about this Jesus in abstraction from the actual pattern of his living and the testimony of his earliest companions. It has also 'spiritualised' and individualised the Gospel, in the sense of elevating it above the actual corporate circumstances in which we live - so that the very idea that its Word might take flesh in us becomes incomprehensible.

If we are to remember well (that is to bodily rejoin, to re-member, what has been torn apart) the Christian community needs much more of a sense of its own difficult calling. It also needs much less of an instinct to conform to what is expected of it, much less of a desire to seek power for itself, and much less of a willingness to go around blessing bullets and bombs as a means of deliverance.

In doing this, old solidarities will break (and the habit of putting flags on altars will certainly need to go), but surprising new alliances can emerge with those of other faith and none. As Ekklesia has also been trying to say this week, there is a massive debate to be had about the cultural ubiquity of 'the myth of redemptive violence' in this and every culture.

The archetype of the mighty military avenger (Rambo, Bush, Bin Laden) who saves the good and punishes the bad is deeply rooted in religious mythology ñ but also in the assumptions of secular politics and world views. We need to work together within-and-across boundaries of ideology and belief to confront this deep rooted problem, which faces us every day on TV, in the cinema and on our games machines. The issue is not one of censorship, but of deep self-knowing.

All this is, of course, like loving your neighbour, easy to talk about but bloody hard to do. Which is why the last word should be about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He has long been one of my exemplars, both in his life and his thought. A deeply prayerful Lutheran, he was prepared to push difficult theological agendas to the furthest boundaries, spurred on (but never controlled) by the commanding heights of modern European Enlightenment culture.

In imbibing the Gospels - especially the Sermon on the Mount - Bonhoeffer became a pacifist both by instinct and by intellectual enrolment, in a context where such attitudes were despised. He wanted to meet Gandhi, but never did. Yet impelled by the need to resist Hitler, he became involved in the church struggle, in criticising mistreatment of the Jews, in counter-espionage, in attempts to get the British to take German resistance seriously (they didn't) and finally in an anti-Fuhrer plot which involved a failed assassination attempt.

Bonhoeffer mostly resisted nonviolently. This is possible. He was never closely involved in the regicide aspect of the conspiracy, but he well knew what he was caught up in. Yet he did not try to justify it theologically, let alone to turn it into a policy - as the writer A. N. Wilson tried to suggest in having a go at Ekklesia in the Evening Standard (and presuming that we knew nothing of the man).

Instead he 'threw himself on the mercy of God', recognising that the issue was not personal purity but the need to take responsibility, even if we get it wrong. Yet others decided to fight. And some decided to refuse to fight. The issue is not to assign moral worth or blame, but to ask how and on what basis - and with what degree of moral maturity - we look at what is at stake in remembering war today. And in doing something about it.

My choice is to seek to encourage churches to put all their efforts not into defending themselves or seeking to conquer society, but into practical peacemaking in a world of violent despair. And I will keep as my companion the failed pacifist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who yet remained faithful to Jesus the crucified lover right through to his strangely dignified (yet plainly sordid) death in Flossenburg concentration camp on 9 April 1945.

'Give peace a chance', John Lennon said. We could at least start by asking why it is so difficult to do so with any real resolve in a season of Remembrance.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.