Although our Anabaptist peace position calls us to speak against the evils of war and to work as peacemakers, we live in a country that has participated in many major world conflicts. Each November 11, Canada commemorates these battles and remembers the soldiers who fought. Is it right for Christians to participate in Remembrance Day traditions, such as wearing a poppy to memorialize the dead?
I do not wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. OK, there, I said it. I’m afraid to admit it publicly because I know it will invite scorn from others.
I promote a website about conscientious objectors (COs), and some of the emails I receive include comments such as, “your website clearly points out what is wrong with your way of life” and “I lump the COs in with the ‘Zombies’ of 1944 who refused to go overseas and fight for Canada. I have no respect for either group.”
I still believe remembering is important, however. Instead of a poppy, I wear a red pin made by Mennonite Central Committee that says, “To Remember is to Work for Peace.”
Remembering is central to who we are. Our memories inform us of everything we have learned, seen, smelled, heard, felt, and tasted. The use of symbols is powerful and those who strive to win the hearts and minds of Canadians know it.
Canadian schools accepted the present symbol of the poppy which was introduced in 1921. There was discomfort with how it was being used early on, however, and in 1933 some women began wearing white poppies to emphasize peace. The white poppy symbolizes the belief that there are better ways of resolving conflict than killing. Unease with the red poppy has had a long history.
Too often remembering is used to glorify war. When we speak of those who died in war, we often say “hero,” “buried with full military honours,” “he believed in the mission,” “died fighting for her country,” or “died for our freedom.” If we didn’t use such language, fewer would probably join the army.
Remembrance Day services make me uneasy because they focus too much on those who died on “our side,” and, by implication, on God’s side. How often do we recall the larger picture – the loss of hopes and dreams, loss of innocence, psychological torment, and broken bodies regardless of allegiance? In WWII Canada lost some 45,000 soldiers. Germany lost 4 million soldiers and 2 million civilians. In total, more than 50 million people died as a result of the war.
Many people link their yearly commemoration of Canadian soldiers with support for current military missions. Take for example the classic and oft-cited Canadian poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Even though author John McCrae witnessed the horrific events of WWI, in part his poem is a call to continue the fight – to “take up our quarrel with the foe . . . ”
I believe it’s possible to acknowledge the sincerity of those who served but also question the use of force to achieve political goals. I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones but not in order to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” For me, the poppy carries too much of this baggage.
The Mennonite Brethren church stands firmly in the Anabaptist peace tradition. Our confession states, “We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace. In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible. Alleviating suffering, reducing strife, and promoting justice are ways of demonstrating Christ’s love.”
In WWII nearly 11,000 men of various backgrounds and faiths chose not to participate in violence but to serve in other ways. Mennonite Brethren leaders were instrumental in securing alternative options to carrying a gun designed to kill other humans. Over 7,500 of these COs were of Mennonite faith. The contribution they made was significant and still ongoing. It’s a part of Canadian history that needs attention in Canadian schools.
The CO story is vastly overshadowed. We are shelled everyday with images, stories, and glorification of war and violence. We need to hear our church’s viewpoint on this issue more than ever because the voices of the world are loud and penetrating with little thought of collateral damage.
U.S. president John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” Even if J.F.K. is only half right, we whose history is rich in promotion of peace need to take every opportunity to tell the conscientious objector story for the good of our church and the world.
That’s why I don’t wear a poppy.
–Conrad Stoesz is archivist at the Centre for MB Studies and the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg. View his website at alternativeservice.ca