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The War of the Poppies

Sometimes the littlest things are intersections of pop culture and faith.  It can be a scene in a movie, or a snippet of a commercial.  You are probably all familiar with how my trips to Starbucks often fuels my muscles of introspection. Pop culture finds meaning in many things, sometimes in something as seemingly simple as the colour of a poppy.

Let me introduce to you Rev. Jon Martin, a priest in the Diocese of Ottawa, and our guest blogger this week.  John fits quite well on this pop-culture site, as he confesses to an abnormal affinity to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and is currently working on a Doctorate of Ministry in practical theology in the postmodern context.  He has written a blog about the recent white vs. red poppy controversy.  After reading his blog, please take a few moments and welcome Jon to the site, and offer your own insights and thoughts.  (If you wish to know more about Rev. Jon Martin, you are invited to visit his personal blog.)

john MartinThe War of the Poppies – 2013

Normally, I rather look forward to Remembrance Day. I think it’s good to take some time to be reflective on our past, to remember the major events that shaped our value system and our current realities, and I think it’s important to remember the times when great sacrifice and tragedy occurred because we have yet to figure out a way to settle our conflicts without violence. I should also add, I genuinely look forward to the discussion that happens, over the past few years, between the traditional participants in Remembrance Day and the various peace centers that also use this time of year to highlight, specifically, that it is essential that we continue to work for peace and non-violence lest we repeat our history.

Usually, this discussion (at least in my experience of it) is one that hits close to home for many people. Despite this, up until now, I had only experienced it as passionate but respectful dialogue that sometimes turned into debate, but always respectful. If we couldn’t support or understand the position of the other, at least we could respect their dignity as people and simply agree to disagree and leave each other the freedom to remember in their own way (in the rare occasions that the beliefs were so different that folks couldn’t do so together).

For me, this year was a totally different experience. There was name calling, public shaming, and on occasion, there were threats of physical violence towards people on Facebook posting and media comments across the area. I had hoped to spend the time engaging in passionate dialogue where we could all learn something and grow as people, and instead, I found myself trying desperately to mediate behaviours (sometimes my own) and make sure that actual social relationships weren’t lost, and my hope for deep dialogue quickly became a mission for damage control. It made me ask the question: What happened?

Before I go further I should point out that what I’m about to say is simply a reflection of my own research, experience and thought. It is not meant to exhaustive research piece where I even presume to say “I am now an expert on this”, or an attempt to say I am absolutely right and so if you disagree, you must be absolutely wrong. I am confident that there are things I will have missed. This is meant to be an offering of opinion, not a gauntlet throw down for a fight.

The first thing I noticed that was different for me this year, is that the comments and ideas quickly got very heated, and often ended up with name calling and shaming. “Morons”, “War Mongers” and other turns of phrase that essentially labelled each other as bad humans were very much part of the lingo this year. It seems that people, instead of simply feeling differently from each other, actually felt offended by some of the content and their response was to lash out, as though an offering of opinion or observation was an act of violence in and of itself. While I’ll get to the behaviour choices later, I think it is best to clear up a bunch of misinformation first.

The first wave of angry responses  seemed to come after a Sun article that suggested that the White Poppy movement believes that the Red Poppy (yes I’m using capital letters as they’ve essentially turned into their own teams) glorifies war, and that they don’t care if it’s offensive to veterans or not.

A quick bit of research shows a few things of interest:

  1.  The Rideau Institute, the MCC, and Public Response (the supporters of the various peace movements) didn’t say either of these things.
  2. The person who did make the comment was a university student from Ottawa who was not speaking on behalf of the movement.
  3. She was greatly misquoted. While she did say that “Young people don’t want to celebrate war”, she did not say that others feeling didn’t matter. She did say that “We can’t account for other people’s feelings” and that is, as I have mentioned in other postings, normal practice for good social boundaries. We are not responsible for the feelings or actions of others. More on that later.
  4. When asked, the Rideau Institute clearly said that they were reconsidering the campaign because their intention was not to offend anyone or disrupt what was happening. They simply wanted to promote discussion and start conversation.

So perhaps you’re like me and at this point wondered, “So where did all of this come from?” Once again a very quick bit of research (imagine all the stress we could avoid if we checked things out with curiosity instead of lashing out in anger) shows that part of the purpose of this movement came because of some research done in 2012. It was a nationwide survey that went out to young adults aged 18-30 to see what they thought the main focus of Remembrance Day was. 71% responded that it was to honour veterans and soldiers killed in war, 25% said it was about a reminder of the need for peace, and 4% said that it was about celebrating Canada’s military achievements.

Because of this, the group wanted to do something to balance the focus (that both sides have said has been there from the beginning) between remembering the sacrifice of others, and remembering to work for peace. They used social media to get this message across and different people and groups have engaged it in their own way.

Personally, described this way, I see no problem with both the traditional and peace movements working together as I think they can complement each other well. When I was a young lad growing up in Ingleside, Ontario, I was taught that Remembrance Day was about those who gave their lives in the Great Wars. The turns of phrase that always stood out were, “The war to end all wars” and “Never Again”. For me, to remember was to naturally be reminded that others had sacrificed in the hopes that nobody else would have to do so again. Our job now was to find a different way. To work for peace because the price of war is too high.

Several of the blogs I read on the topic discussed that they had observed that in their areas, Remembrance Day ceremonies had started to take on more of a feel of a “support out troops” celebration than what they remembered the purpose of the day to be. For them, the peace campaign was to remind themselves (and possibly others) that this day was different from the others. Remembrance Day was about just that, remembering. Remembering those brave souls who were confronted with evil in the world and the choice between doing nothing and doing something. Both would require they give up a piece of their humanity and they did so with the hopes that nobody else would have to make that choice.

Do I support the use of lethal violence as a means to conflict? No. But given that same situation, with only those two options, I’m not sure I’d choose differently. Even if I did, I wouldn’t look down on those who went off to stop tyranny.

Speaking of choices, let’s talk about behaviour and the choices we make. During this past week, I have been appalled at the behaviour of us as people. I’m not sure when it happened, but it was like all respectful dialogue and the recognition of human dignity went out the window. We name called, we bullied, and we publically shamed. There was no need for any of it. I recognize that for many of us, this is a topic that hits close to home, but we are adults in a country that, up until recently, has been known for its patience, graciousness, inclusiveness, and our ability to keep cool heads in heated situations. We are supposed to be the peacemakers.

Let’s be clear about a few social norms that counseling best practices, and mediation practices give us:

  1. You are responsible for your own words, actions and feelings. You are not responsible for anyone else’s, and nobody else is responsible for yours.
  2. You are responsible for your words, not how others interpret them. It is the responsibility of the listener to make sure they understand what the speaker is trying to say. If you’re not sure, or it seems bad, clarify before you react.
  3. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “What’s the meanest or dumbest thing I can do or say today?” If you think that is what is happening, you’ve probably missed something.
  4. Be curious before you react. Curiosity opens us up to understanding. Defensiveness shuts down everything.
  5. No matter what, you always have the choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Reacting with social violence, even if you think it is warranted, will never help. Rarely does anyone get “out argued” into seeing the point of the other.
  6. When you lash out with violence, bullying, or shaming, in the eyes of your peers who are emotionally and socially mature, you lose credibility and so does your point.
  7. If you find these guidelines difficult to follow, it is not the responsibility of others to cater to your brokenness in a particular situation. Remove yourself, get it sorted, then re-engage.

I was really disappointed this year.

We had the opportunity to talk about things that clearly matter a great deal to us. At a time when we are supposed to remember those who fought for freedom and human dignity so that those values would not be lost. We chose disrespect the freedom of each other express ourselves, and to engage Remembrance Day in our own way. Freedom and remembering are not things that any one camp has a monopoly on. Not only that, on a day that both sides agree should have peace as one of the focuses, we chose to engage in the Great Poppy War of 2013, and we used social and emotional, and even threatened physical violence to one another. When we do that, no matter which poppy you wear or why, we do a disservice to them both.

At a time when we could have learned that not all activists and pacifists are antagonistic, self centered and ungrateful wretches, and not all who serve the military are war mongering death machines, we chose to stand for the tradition of peace and sacrifice for others in the one way humanity has always known to resolve conflict with each other: we went to war. At a time when we hear the words “Lest we forget”, a reminder that if we forget, then it may happen again, I start to wonder if we haven’t actually forgotten already.

We had the chance to show each other that hope and change is possible. All we showed is that we can’t stop emotionalism and fighting. Worst of all, we tried to defend from attacks that we not actually attacks in the first place. Instead of learning, both sides lashed out. Pacifists and service people united by the one value they seem to share: the use of violence. If there is any shame to be had, it is shared by us all.

How does your faith, and your commitment to the Gospel, influence your participation in Remembrance Day celebrations? Does the colour of the poppy matter to you? Would you wear a poppy of a different colour?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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  • Kyle Norman