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Why I don’t wear a poppy

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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?

Click here for “Why I wear a poppy”.

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

10 comments

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10 comments

Jean Thiessen McLeod November 11, 2017 - 18:22

I know that this is an opinion piece but even opinion pieces should contain facts. As a public school teacher of more than 26 years, I’ve never saw children receive a message that glorified war. Nor did I witness any service NOT talking about ALL the victims of war. When veterans come to talk to students they don’t say anything positive about war. Remembrance Day is about “never again”. It is to remind us of the casualties of war. It is about peace. Your interpretation of what Remembrance Day is about is marred by your peace at all cross bias.

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John November 12, 2017 - 10:14

The freedom to bellyache and be a pacifist was made possible by those who fought to secure that freedom.

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Miriam Wiebe November 14, 2017 - 13:11

Thank you SO MUCH for this opinion. Though I was raised by a Mennonite father and American Southern Baptist mother, I heard only her opinions in my household (her father a great hero from World War 1) growing up. My father kept quiet and I only learned of pacifism much later in Bible School. I now lean toward pacifism, though quietly, as other members of my family do not. There is still a great “reverence” about this one grandfather and now even more of the American influence in my Canadian family of origin. It is a difficult place for me to be in. I have just signed up for this website.

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Jean McLeod November 14, 2017 - 15:12

It isn’t an “either/or” situation. You can be a pacifist and still respect and/or honour those who put their lives on the line for Canada and for countries all over the world. You can hate war and armed conflicts and still wear a poppy as a symbol of “never again”. You can disagree with the politics and still respect the individuals who volunteered or were drafted, who died, were injured or survived. Wearing a poppy says “I remember” and “Thank you for your service” and “Sorry for your loss”. It DOES NOT say “I LOVE WAR” or “I SUPPORT WAR”

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Matt Balcarras November 14, 2017 - 13:26

Thanks for your thoughtful and very necessary piece Conrad. I agree that the images and messaging around Remembrance Day are not centred around “remembering in order to make war no more” as some might think, and that there is much glorification of the nobleness of fighting “just wars”. Certainly there is much unacknowledged (in church circles) association of Remembrance with the ‘nobleness’ and ‘necessity’ of our current military operations, which is disconcerting to me as well.

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Jean McLeod November 14, 2017 - 15:15

Matt, I think you are mistaking the American perspective for the Canadian. If your church circle is delivering that message you should be concerned. If you listen to veterans, you would get a different message.

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Harvey Goossen November 16, 2017 - 17:36

As the author of article on the the other point of view on wearing a poppy, I remain unconvinced of the premise and assumptions behind the argument of my co-opinion writer. It is overly simplistic, and in the context of World War Two, disrespectful (although doubtless unintended) to reduce the sacrifices made by Canadian men and women to a choice to “use force to achieve a political goal”. This demonstrates a complete lack of compassion for those who were suffering under fascist tyranny in Europe during those years. I am glad some Mennonites living here could get CO status, and I respect those who chose alternative service. However, many of our churches were less than gracious with those young men who made a different choice, and helped to free a continent. Ask anyone living in France, Belgium or the Netherlands, or even in Germany if they aren’t grateful for those who came to liberate them. The poppy honours that sacrifice – and we should wear it, humbly.

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A. February 18, 2018 - 10:47

We could all support this letter more enthusiastically if Canadian Mennonite communities seemed more grateful for the peace and prosperity they found here in Canada. Often those of us with non-Mennonite heritage who live near you are treated very badly indeed by your people. Also, there is some accountability that needs to be done by Mennonites and their apparent dalliances with Aryan identity and privileges apparently given to them by Hitler during WWII. See Ben Goossen’s work from Harvard “Chosen Nation” and the upcoming conference in Kansas on “Mennonites and the Holocaust.”

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M.E November 13, 2019 - 10:08

I think I couldn’t have said it any better

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Bryan Born November 18, 2019 - 17:44

I don’t think this has to be an ‘either-or’ option. I wear a poppy to remember the sacrifices of those who gave their all so that we could live in freedom. I also wear the MCC pin, “To remember is to work for peace.” From conversations with those who have experienced war first-hand, I believe we should do all we can to prevent the horrific bloodshed, hatred and destruction that war inevitably brings. Part of the way we do that is to remember and honour those who sacrificed and suffered in past wars, while at the same time engaging in peace and reconciliation efforts. Don’t create unnecessary conflict – build peace.

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