EKKLESIA has a long history of promoting white poppies, which aim to help us remember all victims of war, and to do so in a way that encourages the search for nonviolent alternatives to armed conflict. Indeed, some years ago we got into hot water for this in the media.
Back in 2006, our then co-director, Jonathan Bartley, wrote a piece for the Church Times in which he linked the symbol of the white poppy to the Christian message of peacemaking and reconciliation. He lamented the frequent association of the red one with militarism, and sympathised with Ipswich-based Baptist minister Andrew Kleissner, who had himself hit the headlines by daring to suggest that the two poppies could be worn alongside each other. The move was branded “disgraceful”, and provoked a public row at the time. Now, thankfully, it is increasingly common.
The article also reminded people of the origins of the white poppy. In 1926 it was suggested, not least by the widows of men who had died in the First World War, that the British Legion should imprint “No More War” in the centre of their red poppies. But no change was made. So the Co-operative Women’s Guild produced the first white poppy. They did so as an important reminder of the lives that had been lost, but in a way that also committed the wearer to finding alternative solutions to war in the future.
For those and other reasons, Ekklesia proposed that it would be good for churches to make white poppies available alongside red ones. The very idea caused apoplexy in sections of the media. Ekklesia was denounced by several tabloid newspapers, and The Times (wrongly, and demonstrably so) suggested that we somehow wished to ban red poppies. They refused both to correct that misleading attribution, or to print a letter challenging it.
Over the years, hostility towards the white poppy has continued. But its use, recognition and acceptance has also grown considerably, as a recent newspaper article acknowledged. Our friends in the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), who produce, promote and sell white poppies, have also gone to considerable lengths to challenge misinformation about them. See their FAQs.
Like PPU, we argue that whatever the good work of the British Legion, veterans and victims of war should be supported by the state, not made reliant on charity. Equally, it is wrong to limit remembrance to ‘our side’ in armed conflicts, to forget the millions of civilian victims of war, and to use the red poppy as a symbol of the justification of war (which in recent years has increasingly been the case, sadly). The best way to honour those who have lost their lives in war is to commit to ending it.
In 2009 we commissioned and published a detailed report entitled Reimagining Remembrance (written by Kate Guthrie), which made a number of practical proposals for change. Both of these are archived on our old website. A subsequent professional opinion poll indicated overwhelming support for remembering all victims of war.
This year the poignancy of remembrance (today, on 11th November, and over the weekend) is heightened by the appalling war in Ukraine, occasioned by the Russian invasion in February.
Thousands have died and continue to die, and the threat of nuclear escalation – which could end up killing millions – remains real. Climate change could also be worsened by the additional burning of gas and the growing emissions cost of the war. The need for a resolution is more urgent than ever. The International Working Group at the Vatican, among others, has come up with practical measures based on the Istanbul Ten-Point Plan. Ending the slaughter will not be easy, but it has to happen, along with an agreement which contains Putin and restores security in Europe.
The path to a just peace in Ukraine and other parts of the world will be incredibly painful and messy. But it is what remembrance of past and present tragedies should propel us towards. “We must either learn to live together as brothers [and sisters], or we are going to die together as fools,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once bluntly put it.
© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia.