Challenge to political correctness of the poppy

By staff writers
November 8, 2006

As services of remembrance are held around the country, churches are being urged to acknowledge the 'political correctness' surrounding the red poppy, and make alternatives such as the white poppy, more widely available.

Writing in the largest Church of England newspaper, the Church Times, today (Thursday) director of the religious think tank Ekklesia, Jonathan Bartley, suggests that the white poppy can actually be considered more in keeping with Christianity than the red variety.

A degree of 'political correctness' - behaviour calculated to provide a minimum of offence - may, however, be holding people back from exploring alternatives says Bartley.

The idea of an alternative white poppy dates back to 1926, just a few years after the red poppy came to be used in Britain. A member of the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion be asked to imprint 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppies.

This did not happen, so in 1933 the Co-operative Women's Guild produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (later called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. The following year the Peace Pledge Union joined in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion.

However when they were originally produced women lost their jobs for wearing them. Since then, those wearing white poppies have often been accused of causing offence. last year, Baptist minister Andrew Kleissner hit the headlines by suggesting that the white poppy be worn alongside the traditional red one at his church in Ipswich. Even yesterday, controversy broke out in Canada over the sale of the white poppy.

"Such controversies, the recent debate over the display of religious symbols in public, and the church's opposition to the war in Iraq, all bring the issue to the fore" says Bartley.

"The Christian tradition, and specifically the crucifix, have a great deal in common with the poppy. Both are linked to sacrifice. Both take a location of bloodshed and violence and make a statement about it. And both attempt to give us hope in the face of death. They imply that those who died did not do so in vain", Bartley writes.

"But whilst apparently banned from wearing one symbol of hope (the cross), public figures in Britain are simultaneously urged, indeed in many cases, required, to wear another (the red poppy) ñ almost as an article of faith. There is a political correctness about the red poppy, which often goes unnoticed.

"But there is a crucial difference between the red poppy and the crucifix. Whilst the red poppy implies redemption can come through war, the Christian story implies that redemption comes through nonviolent sacrifice. The white poppy is much more Christian, in that respect, than the red variety.

"The historical alignment of churches with Governments and the national interest has meant that churches have often giving their blessing to war. However as was seen over their widespread opposition to the invasion of Iraq, churches are increasingly willing to oppose military action, as churches become less aligned with both the state and British culture.

"Whether you are from a 'Just War', or a pacifist tradition, Christians believe that there is no redemption in war. Churches, who host so many services of remembrance, should at least give people the choice, and make white poppies more widely available, alongside red ones.

"The crucial question is not whether we should remember. The question is how we should remember. And how we answer this question affects not just the memory of those who died, but those who are still dying in wars around the world."

Also on Ekklesia: Well-known theologian Walter Wink explains the roots of the "myth of redemptive violence" in ancient religious mythology - and its perpetuation today in both secular militarism and religiously sanctioned justifications for war.

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.