The Flanders poppy is an enduring symbol of the futility of war, confronting us with the memory that in the Great War – the War To End All Wars – over 9 million human lives were sacrificed for...what? No one won. Everyone lost. Eventually, all sides utterly exhausted, war collapsed into a fragile and increasingly wary truce while everyone regrouped, re-armed themselves, realigned their allegiances, and only 18 years later re-engaged battle.
It need not have been that way. They went off to war in the summer of 1914 expecting to be home by Christmas. Finding themselves not home, men on both sides bravely went over the tops of their trenches on that first Christmas morning, not to be cut down by machine-gun fire but to walk out to each other in No Man’s Land; to tentatively exchange gifts – given out of their lack – in honour of the Prince of Peace; to embrace, and to see, through their tears, a brother in the eyes of those they had been told were enemies; to play football. The next morning men on both sides were ordered by their officers to resume killing and dying, or be shot for desertion.
Ninety-six years on, I wear my poppy not with pride but with sorrow:
sorrow that so many died in vain;
sorrow that we continue to choose not to remember;
sorrow that the symbol of the futility of war has been conscripted by those who glory in war (many of whom have, like me, never experienced war firsthand).
And as I hold before God every British, Commonwealth or other Allied combatant who lost their life in conflict, so I also hold before God every life ended by a British, Commonwealth or other Allied combatant in conflict. For the blood on our hands, innocent or not, Lord have mercy.
Being conscripted into the forces does not automatically make someone a hero. Neither does joining the forces as a career choice. Men and women of great integrity and none, of noble and ignoble character and motive, have signed up.
Dying for your country does not automatically make you a hero. A tragic loss, yes. A victim of the insanity of others, perhaps; perhaps often over the history of human conflict. A hero, possibly – but not necessarily, not automatically. Nor automatically a villain, where they are on the other side from us.
That men and women have fought and died is not something that we should be fully and unquestioningly grateful for – and if gratitude is not our deepest response, then that does not automatically make us unpatriotic. We are right to remember, wrong to forget. But we may choose to remember with anger that they died, or with sadness at how little their dying achieved, or with a flammable cocktail of emotions.
Christians take a variety of positions in relation to war. Some choose to be pacifists – which is not an easy option. Others view pacifism as naive. Some take a view of Just War – which is not an easy option. Others view Just War as too impossibly hard to discern from unjust war. Some accept war as a reality of this life – which is not an easy option. Others view such a reality as something that needs to be confronted and transformed by the kingdom of heaven, not settled for.
Regardless of the position they arrive at, every Christian should recognise that war always disturbs our certainties, interrogates our prejudices;
that the death of another – friend or enemy – is always regrettable, always to be grieved, even where it brings some form of liberation;
and that in the midst of war our response must always include crying out to the Prince of Peace, “How long, O Lord? Come, Lord Jesus!”
Whatever and however you choose to remember today, do it before God,
seeking to turn from any thought that leads us away from him,
and seeking to bring peace wherever there is dissonance,
and reconciliation wherever there is hostility.