The English Football Association is angry at FIFA again. This time it isn’t because FIFA is a laughable den of corruption but because they won’t let the English soccer team wear poppies on their shirts when they play a meaningless friendly against Spain this weekend.
This reminds me of a time David Cameron, the humanoid robot who co-ordinates the economic cutting machine that is the British government, angrily refused to take off his commemorative poppy while on an official tour to China. He was not going to let some godless Commies tell him what to wear.
Of course, in the eyes of the Chinese, a British man wearing a poppy didn’t make them think of Flanders’ fields but the Opium War. As long practitioners of the peaceful activity that is free market global capitalism, Britain resorted to military action when China tried to block their efforts to flood their nation with opium made from poppies grown in India. It was of course illegal in Britain. But like almost all globalised capitalist scenarios, the commodity existed so a market had to be created. Britain offloaded 900 tons of the narcotic in 1820, 1,400 by 1838. The Chinese had to settle at the end of three years of conflict in 1842 with the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing. Britain took Hong Kong and subjugated China to its imperial trading agenda. Other western powers rushed in and a period that the Chinese call the Century of Humiliation began.
That is a useful chapter of history to keep in mind when we consider the growing British tendency to wear a poppy in November to remember the war dead.
Symbols are rarely universal. While their adaptation over time cannot be predicted, that doesn’t for a moment suggest that their development is mere coincidence. The poppy is not just a way to remember those who should be remembered. It is a very intentional attempt to solidly situate certain values at the centre of British discourse and exclude others.
Now why am I writing about poppies. I am an Irish man living in Dublin. What right have I to share an opinion? Well first of all, 50,000 Irish volunteers died in World War I. Secondly, I work for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and it seems my employer is dedicated to supporting this peculiar little red symbol. In the recent edition of our church magazine, notable for a frankly brilliant letter by Prof. Stephen Williams and a superb article on the experience of members of the LGBT community in Northern Irish churches by my friend Pádraig O’Tuama, you can find two articles about “rememberance” and on the front cover you can see the poppy placed prominently.
The poppy became a symbol of remembrance of those who died in the war called “Great” in the 1920’s. It is a long tradition. It seems to stem from a poem written by a soldier named John McCrea in 1915 called In Flander’s Fields. The poem begins:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
One is upset by the sentimental attribution of bravery to larks but the imagery is powerful nonetheless. We can understand why this poem would capture the imagination and lead to this mode of commemoration. But this poem is actually a piece of militaristic propaganda. No Dulce Et Decorum Est here. Read the opening lines of the final stanza:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
It is appropriate that we remember the men who died in World War I. But let us remember them rightly. In the case of the dead of World War I that requires nuanced sensitivity and an unflinching examination of the truth. The 50,000 men who were raised in Ireland and died on the fields of that war were wasted. The remembering that honours their lives is not one that brushes the futility of their deaths to the side. The way to esteem their contribution to Europe is to recognise and clearly declare that they were abandoned by Europe in an insane and uncomprehensibly disgusting sacrifice to the gods of war.
Let us not murder the mankind of their going with a symbol that costs us nothing and that accrues only capital in the accounts of those groups that want us to continue to resort to military “solutions” when problems arise between nations. The television hosts and the bus drivers and the politicians and the clergy who proudly display the poppy may intend only to respect the courage of the men who went to fight. My fight is not with them. It is with the way in which their honest intentions are ill served by a charity run by the British army that encourages this mass display of a military mythology that dishonours the reality of the waste that was 1914-1918 and occludes the waste that continues in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This issue of remembering rightly is especially critical for those of us who follow Jesus, a man we claim is God and was never more clearly so as when he was violently nailed to a tree and hung there to die. He who had cause and capability to use violence chose a different path. So too must we. Even without accepting that the Gospel compels non-violence, the Gospel compels remembering rightly.
Another poppy poem that had a huge influence was written by an American woman called Moina Michael. In We Shall Keep the Faith she tells us:
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
There can be no doubt but that she is continuing the violent imagery of McCrea’s poem. Take up the cause against the foe and (this is instructive) keep the faith! The gods of war are jealous. They know that allegiance to that Jesus-God is incompatible with the sacrifices that keep them sated. They demand your faith. To win it, Michael will remind you that “That blood of heroes never dies”. Those who died in Flanders are heroes and if we honour them in faith they need never die. We can undo the carnage with this liturgy of remembrance. In the final paragraph she tells us:
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
They have not died for naught. That at least is true. They died for the nation state, the cause of capital and the delusion of race hatred. There were reasons they lived in those hellish trenches and died among those mine-strewn fields and when we wear the poppy we satisfy ourselves with easy answers that amount to a refusal to mourn. We blaspheme down the stations of the breath with further elegies of innocence and youth. We famish our imaginations, leaving them unable to conceive of God’s Kingdom. We dine out on the ghoulish satisfactions of patriotism, sentimentality and havoc.
We betray the dead and the living.
Your Correspondent, He ain’t no super genius, or are he?