White Poppies

Sunday 18th November 2007
Year C, The Second Sunday before Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 21:5-19

With 24 hour news we are never far away from wars and rumours of wars and, as time goes by, they seem to make less and less sense, to be more and more messy. So this year, for the first time, Father John allowed white 'peace' poppies to be put at the back of church; and I have been asked to talk about them.

Within the Christian tradition there are many who are pacifists, who would not fight under any condition, not even in self defence. There is, however, within our tradition, a set of theological bench marks for a just war. The first three were set out by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologica 2.2.40); a war must be:

Later, two further conditions were added; that a war should be:

Some people add a sixth bench-mark; that a war should:

It would be easy at this point to get into all kinds of discussions about how these six bench-marks apply to modern warfare; but I will give just one example of a problem with each bench-mark:

I should say, for the record, so that you do not think that I am simply theorising, that I was in favour of all the wars in which the Uk has been involved in the last two decades: in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan; and the fact that I have changed my mind does not mean that I think we should pull out of these places now. I particularly want to make it clear that those who will not go to war without a unanimous vote of the United Nations (a rare occurrence) have to accept the corollary, which applies to Afghanistan, that they must support a war unanimously approved by the United Nations, even if things are going badly. The bench marks do not include pulling out if you think you were right but are now losing heart.

It is also important to note that the bench marks do not say that the only wars that are justified are those fought in self defence; In the 21st Century that would be a particularly difficult condition to accept.

Having supported these four wars, why have I now changed my mind? The answer falls into two parts:

My conclusion is not easy to sustain. are we to stand by, as the Dutch did at Srebrenica, and watch innocent people being slaughtered? Are we to stand by now while thousands are raped and murdered in Darfur? Are we to let dictators and terrorists thrive while we do nothing, strengthening their belief that we will do nothing and will let them do what they want?

This is why I wanted to promote the white 'peace poppy. It is not that I am totally against war - I am certainly not a pacifist - but I do think that the way in which we think about war in the 21st Century bears no resemblance to the way we thought about it at the beginning of the 20th Century. If we are to go to war we must:

But above all, we must be clear that the default position in international relations - the benchmark of last resort - must be peace with all the unpleasantness that goes with it. Many people will argue that the position I have outlined precisely reflects the views of many people who wear the red poppy; and that is no doubt true; but in spite of the good intentions, for me at least, the red poppy has been devalued by sentimentality and the failure to construct a peace agenda.

It is a pity that I have to say this, that it is not readily accepted by those who will disagree with me, but I do not deny the heroism of those who fought, particularly in the First World war; but in saying that I do not accept that we should have sent them. I also believe that the death of soldiers should be repaid by us with honest discussion. We now live in a society that wallowed in the death of Diana, which wears black, pink or yellow ribbons at the drop of a tabloid. The red poppy is in danger of being dragged into this emotional whirlpool and so, for now, I want a poppy but not everything that goes with the red one. Some people will regard that as an unpatriotic sell-out, others will regard it as a failure to go all the way; I wish war was that simple but we know it is not. For me at least, wearing the white poppy is a public commitment to think and pray; not just about the past but also about the future.

St. Luke's Gospel says that we have to live with wars; it is part of our condition; and we will be mistreated by the wicked and the aggressive. If we are to transfer our collective danger from ourselves to soldiers, we need to be very clear about the reasons for going to war; and not going to war.