Why I wear a red and white poppy

A Sermon by Anne Padget given on why she now wears a white poppy and a red poppy.

Remembrance Sunday.  A very important day for many, and a difficult one for others.  It can in itself, and perhaps ironically, bring about conflict between those who feel deeply the need to acknowledge comrades and veterans and those who fear that it is a celebration of war.  The approach and attitude to it has changed so much and so many times over the years, it is hard to stand here and feel that there is any way to represent what it means.

One way in which I remember seeing this journey in action was when the white poppies came out.  Many of you will know that my father was a WWII veteran.  He was in the Royal Navy for 5 years and was there when the Japanese surrender was taken in Hiroshima Bay.  He and John Roach were very close as a result and in fact I don’t think dad really talked to anyone about the war except John, although I do remember the community of veterans here that would talk together, including Roy, who will later be reading during the Act of Remembrance as John had always done.  Dad was also naturally a very peaceful man, a gentle-man, and memories of the war always haunted him, which led to his feeling an inner conflict because at the same time he was proud of doing what he felt was the right thing at that time in fighting for freedom.

White poppies have been around since 1933, but I remember they started coming to prominence again in the 1990’s, I think as a response to the first Gulf War.   When this happened, it was one of the few times I ever saw dad angry.  He felt hurt.  He felt that people were saying that what he had done had been wrong, and that the white poppy should replace the red poppy.  I remember feeling it on his behalf as well.  It was rare for dad to show such deep feelings.  There was confusion, a misunderstanding I think of people’s intentions.  Some of you here will remember that there was evidence of this in St. Mark’s.   War is a painful thing.  Nobody – unless a disturbed megalomaniac – truly desires war and it evokes intense feelings.  Feelings that are rooted in our very deepest values, which are often the hardest feelings to articulate.  It isn’t surprising that people – whether wearing a red poppy or a white one – would find it difficult to say why that symbol meant so much.

But with the poppies, as time went on, the desire to listen and hear each other resulted in an understanding that developed on both sides.  What had felt to some like a reactionary response to the red poppy was recognised as being both a desire for peace, but also a genuine recognition of the hideous experiences that war veterans have been subject to, laying a foundation for striving for a world that means no-one should ever have to suffer that again.

Although he never wore a white poppy, my father came to understand this.  As a war veteran he related to that desire.  One of the few stories he ever told us was that of an exchange he had on deck with a fellow sailor.  My dad was responsible for loading the 15″ guns on the deck of the King George V, the flagship of the Royal Navy in the Pacific, and as such he saw a large number of Kamikaze pilots shot down into the sea.  One day, when he had seen this yet again, he turned to his friend and said “I wonder who that was”.  His friend looked at him and replied, “I don’t know.  But he was some mother’s son”.

How do we reconcile a desire for peace with the knowledge that peace does not necessarily mean the absence of conflict?  The truth is it becomes very messy.  Rarely, if ever, are motivations clear.  Politics and money play a huge part, along with a deep desire to fight for justice.  What do you do when someone such as Hitler marches across Europe, eliminating all who get in his way?  Equally, what tough and self-examining questions should you be asking when going into a country where certain incentives, such as the resource of oil, are evident in amongst the motivations for that conflict?

Either way, what is left are people; and often damaged people.  And there has to be a way of remembering and honouring them.  There are those on both sides who will always either see the red poppy is a dangerous focus on war, or the white poppy is a hurtful dismissal of people’s sacrifice.  But I wonder if both of them can actually present us with an important challenge.  The respect and remembrance of the past that the red poppy represents, combined with the movement towards peace in the future that we see in the white poppy, challenging us to live honestly and for justice in the present.

It is interesting when considering the word “remember” that if you go back to the Latin, re-memorari means “to be mindful of”.  So it is not simply remembering what has gone before. The implication is that we learn from that, striving to make it different in the years to come, whilst also acknowledging what people have given and sacrificed.

None of this is easy.  It can cause anxiety, distress even.  I am for the first time this year wearing the white poppy as well as the red, and I have to confess that I found that difficult.  There was something about it that made me uncomfortable.  And I had to ask myself why that was.  There are many times in life when we are outside of our comfort zones.  Sometimes that is because we have gone somewhere where we are not ourselves and we rightly make the decision to go back.  But sometimes, it is because we are being stretched in order to become more ourselves, more the person we can be.  And I know now in this instance, for me it was the latter.  In all conscience, if asked, I would not be able to call myself a pacifist, but that does not mean I do not long for peace in the world, or that I would not stand by those who would call themselves a pacifist.   So I do not know why I found the white poppy initially so uncomfortable to wear.  But, as the week went on, wearing both poppies started to feel more congruent.  It started to feel like somehow it could incorporate a sense of hope.  This was unexpected, but also, I recognise, a very personal response.

In remembering victims and veterans of conflict, the reconciling becomes not just about nations, it is between each of us, within ourselves and in our relationship with our God.  In this church we have as many differing points of view as there are people sitting in the pews.  And this is important.  It is important that whatever colour poppy a person wears that will have a story for them and may represent something others may never know or be able to fully understand.  Somehow we have to make this desire for peace a reality in our relationships.  We need to ask how we then take this out into the world.  How do we fight for justice and strive for peace, out there?  As Christians we have Jesus as our guide – a man who shows us what it is to stand up for justice.  We also have the resource of prayer, an opportunity to sit with God and open our hearts to the strength and wisdom we may receive in moving forward.  And we have a community to share this journey with.  The love and faith that we can share with each other in the pain of our memories and the vision of the future is something to embrace, something to use in pursuing peace and justice in the world.  It is God’s peace that Christ leaves with us, and we work to take that out into the world that it may be known, in whatever form, by all those that we meet, acknowledging that every Sunday we make that promise to live in remembrance of Him.

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