I went to Belfast on Thursday (9th Nov) for the Festival of Social Science. I was contributing to a panel on women’s ministry with my Women in Ministry in Ireland research project. I was to meet the chair and other panelists in a pub close to the hotel where I was staying. As I walked the short distance I noticed that everyone was wearing a poppy. I began to wonder whether other panellists would be wearing one and how it would be received if I did or didn’t have one.
When I lived in England I used to wear a white poppy. This, for me, expressed remembrance without any kind of nationalistic celebration of war or victory. I felt I wore it for British and all other fallen military personnel, whether German, Japanese, French or Russian. This was my theoretical position and it was fine.
I have recently started to think about remembering the fallen in a new and more personal way. My sons are now at the age at which they would have been conscripted if we had lived at the times of the world wars. I cannot describe the horror that this realisation brings. The thought that these gentle lads who are just stepping out into the world, bringing their good humour, wisdom and sense of justice with them, could be used and disposed of in this way offends me to my core. It was gendercide. The contributions which these young men could have made to the world were reduced to how much damage they could inflict on other young men before some of them died.
Recently the world seems to have become even more violent and unstable. I look at my sons and wonder whether, at some time in their future, the world may expect violence of them or inflict terrible suffering on them in the name of a cause or country. It mustn’t. Our remembering needs to include an element of resistance – of anger at the futility of the wars which killed these men – as well as sorrow at their loss. If we call the fallen ‘heroes,’ then we must find a way of doing so which refuses to accept that this was the only or best way of addressing international problems.
With the European project under threat we must remember the dream which has sustained it. With the movement of peoples and reactionary politics we must be heard in defence of peace and co-operation. We must make our work for peace practical and effective. Theologians and churchpeople who have not previously explicitly included the quest for peace in their work should begin to do so. Philosophers, politicians, sportspeople, parents and young people – everyone – should start to make it part of our focus. This is respect and remembrance for today.
It turns out that wearing the poppy in Belfast is complicated as symbols often are. This Catholic of English, Welsh and Irish heritage would only have added to the confusion had I hastily pinned one to my coat. But I remember and make a pledge to work for peace in my own corner of our shared world.