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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.

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12 Responses to The War of the Poppies

  1. IIf you have lost someone its about temembering

  2. if you want a reasonable response ask the real vetrans, they don’t support a pacifist white poppy

  3. Poppies are about remembrance. That was their original intent/point after the First World War.

  4. The poppy is actually an old symbol for sleeping. “If you break faith we will not sleep though’ poppies grow…” There is lots of poppy imagery in graveyards since Laudanum came from poppies. We have distorted it today to be for remembrance, but that was not the intent of McCrea. And I am a veteran.

  5. Hi Jon and Kyle

    Here in the London area, we had news stories about a school decision to hold their own Remembrance service rather than send kids to one where “prayers” would be offered. That raised some considerable discussion, not all of it charitable.
    In my days in Seminary in Saskatchewan in the early 1990’s, I walked into a neighbouring college wearing a poppy and was immediately told by a senior student that my “object of glorification of war” was not welcome.
    First some thoughts on the subject at hand and then a comment or two on the seemingly growing need of people to take stridently opposing views.
    At the heart of the Remembrance tradition is those who fought to defend our freedom. In that, we also find the call of those who went to war, to seek peace. Those traditions include red poppies and the prayers used by those brave men and women. To take those traditions away would be to take away from the understanding of those who began the traditions. What we have is people trying to introduce their issues into a tradition that, at it’s heart, doesn’t want that debate. The issues are valid and they are issues we need to talk about. The venue into which they are trying to be introduced is the wrong place for the discussion.

    However, I note on a daily basis the increasingly strident difference of opinions that society wishes to express and no middle ground is allowed. What is most distressing is that the one thing we are willing to sacrifice to hold these strident views is truth, based on the facts as presented. Reasoned debate is sidelined in favour of brow beating those on the opposing side into submission. The people who are most disenfranchised by this are those who are in the middle, oft the majority. When the rhetoric starts to fly those who have carefully crafted opinions based on solid information, simply tend to walk away rather than be assailed from both sides.
    Perhaps the best example of this comes in the comment sections of online newspaper editions. There are times that I would very much like to enter into a reasoned discussion about the topic, but already there is a lengthy line of mean spirited, immature and seemingly unintelligible conversation rife with much name calling and unsustainable opinion. One simply clicks on the next story and an opportunity is lost.
    It would seem reasonable to suggest that with the great increase in communications opportunities, we would find much more well thought out, open minded discussion. Instead, there seems to be an explosion of partisan opinion designed to stop reasonable interaction and allow like minded individuals to express the same sentiments over and over to the applause of those who are left in the discussion, namely, those of the same opinion.
    Do we not also see this in the church? Is there not a growing tradition of abandoning the discussion for the safety of division in which one can claim their side has the truth.

  6. Very measured reflections, though Fr Martin makes the vitriol out to be rather more bi-directional than I observed. I did notice that the comments on news articles weren’t totally dominated by “Reds” as in most years, but I too would have been rather puzzled if I had seen pacifists “lashing out” violently.

    • (This was in response to the post itself, but for some reason seems to have posted as a reply to Keith Nethery’s reply. His insinuation that peace is somehow tangential or off-topic to Remembrance Day, and being inappropriately injected therein, is to be deplored).

  7. Kyle Norman

    I have to be honest that Remembrance Day has never been a big day in our household. Growing up we never went to the parades or the cenotaph. Much of this is because November 11th is also my brother’s birthday. But one question has always intrigued me regarding this day: If remembrance day is a day where we remember those who died in the war defending our freedom, then is not within our freedom to wear a poppy of a different colour, or even no poppy at all?

  8. For Geo McLarney, I think we have a failure to communicate. I in no way intended to suggest that peace was off-topic to Remembrance Day. In fact I said ” we also find the call of those who went to war, to seek peace.” That is at the heart of Remembrance Day.
    For Kyle, absolutely that is your right, under the freedoms won for us by veterans. Most, if not all veterans I know would concur. But I personally would always want to respect the traditions of those who won me that right and find another forum for the discussion of todays issue.

    • There are many reasons people go to war, but “to seek peace” is not one of them. Your post exemplifies the problems with how Remembrance Day has come to develop: it’s okay to work for peace as long as we don’t challenge the “traditions” of militarism in any serious way or question the assumption that those who went to war were basically well-meaning and “brave” people who were “defending our freedom” in a project that warrants our “respect.”

      Much as critics of the white poppy try and soft-peddle it, McRae’s poem itself is clear that the poppy represents the pledge to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” To this, those who wear the white poppy say, No more. We will not continue the cycle, but will “abolish ancient vengeance.” War will not bring about the end of war, and bloodshed will not “protect our freedoms.” Indeed, most veterans seem to recognise that the white poppy is one of those freedoms. (Fr Malcolm French, ret. from the RCN reserve, has a very worthwhile post over at Simple Massing Priest on why he is wearing both poppies together this year) . It seems to be not veterans but their self-appointed advocates who insist that “the debate is not wanted.” (Finally, as a historical point, the white poppy is actually the elder of the two, so arguments from “tradition” are on shaky ground indeed. I have not heard anyone argue that veterans should find “their own day” simply because the red poppy is a later version!).

      One hears reports that “darkest Huron” is not what it was, but it would seem that when it comes to the menace of civic religion the Irish roots still run deep …

  9. I must first say thank you to Geo McLarney for coming back and posting a little more as to why he would posit that my opinion “is to be deplored.” I would suggest that he is doing a lot of reading between the lines to make my thoughts into something they are not. I would also suggest that for the most part he provided a clear and concise summary of his understanding around these issues. While I may not share his opinions, as I understand them, I respect the passion he has for his beliefs and his willingness to attempt to counter that he would disagree with. Might I do the same.
    I would not shy away from a discussion about “militarism” in todays world and perhaps Geo would find our opinions on that matter are closer than he might expect. I would however stand by my suggestion that the WW2 veterans I know did go to war to seek peace and having had the pleasure to interact with an minister to many such fine men and women who saw no glory in what they did, only duty, I would continue to suggest that we need honour the traditions of these veterans while we still have them with us. That is simply what I think and I don’t expect that everyone will agree with me.
    I have read the post by Malcolm French on Simply Massing Priest and as usual Malcolm presents a well thought out position that argues for inclusion of both colours of poppies. The key thing being a good discussion of both sides of the question and suggesting a middle point for his own position.
    Geo’s assumption that it is not veterans but their self appointed advocates that are creating the controversy has no factual basis attached. He further manages to drop in a short quote from my post in a weak attempt to make me one of these advocates that he so deplores. In honesty, I have to admit that I didn’t read a significant amount about this debate over poppies and certainly was surprised in the original article by Jon Martin to read of the depth of anger and vitriol that had ensued. There is never a reason to sink to that kind of reaction and I clearly stated that in the second portion of my original response as a reason why I don’t oft wade into the online debates and exit when the discussion leaves the realm of debate and enters into insult, disrespect and strident claims that only “my opinion can be valued.”
    That Geo feels the need to end his response with a crack about “deepest darkest Huron” leaves me somewhat bewildered. I can say with certainty he does not know me, has never met me, has never talked with me, but seems to feel justified in making assumptions about me based on my response to one article and his apparent beliefs about the Diocese in which I serve. Hardly seems to me an attempt to have a discussion.

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