If you can play football on Christmas Day, why shoot each other on Boxing Day?

Shortly after Christmas 1914, an order was issued by John French, the general in charge of the British troops on the Western Front. He had heard of the informal truces that had broken out along the front on Christmas Day. He ordered that such events must never be repeated. A year later, ahead of the following Christmas, soldiers were reminded that they would be charged with disobeying orders if there was another truce.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 varied along the front. The frequently mentioned football matches may have happened in only a couple of places. More commonly, soldiers met in No Man’s Land, shook hands, chatted and swapped food.

After the war, John French conveniently forgot that he had issued orders against truces. He instead spoke of the Christmas Truce of 1914 as an example of soldierly chivalry. Pro-war politicians and commentators today also tend to talk positively about the Christmas Truce, as if it were an innocuous fluffy event that we can all celebrate. I think they would have taken a different view if British soldiers had chatted and exchanged food – and even played football – with enemy soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Falklands.

The spontaneous truces of 100 years ago must surely have undermined the propaganda of each side’s government, which sought to portray the soldiers on the other side as inhuman fiends. When people meet their enemies and discover how much they have in common, they become a threat to those who want them to fight each other.

The question we should all be asking is the question asked by the pacifist Labour MP Keir Hardie when he head about the Christmas Truce a century ago. “Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other?” he asked. “They have no quarrel… the workers of the world are not ‘enemies’ to each other, but comrades.”

If it’s acceptable to play football with someone on Christmas Day, why is it OK to shoot him on Boxing Day?

There has been much criticism of Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement this year, which uses the story of the Christmas Truce to promote a supermarket. I had expected to be annoyed or angered by the advert, so was surprised when I first viewed it.

True, the advert exists to make sales for a corporation. It was not made to draw attention to the futility of war. Nonetheless, this is to some extent what it does. After they have shared food and played games, the soldiers depicted in the advert return to their trenches and continue firing at each other. Some of the people who have watched the advert must be asking themselves why.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event. It was not explicit disobedience, as the orders against such truces had not been issued at that point. Nonetheless, it was a rejection of the propaganda that demonised the enemy. If not a mutiny, it was at least an informal strike, celebrating common humanity over the demands of militarism and jingoism.

No wonder the generals on both sides were worried. If they had kept on “fraternising”, these soldiers might have brought the war to an end. That’s why I’ll celebrate the Christmas Truce – because it was a rebellion against war.

A Christian protesting against anti-porn laws

In recent years, Britain has slowly begun to wake up to the reality of sexual abuse. The Jimmy Saville scandal triggered shocking revelations about abuse carried out by respected entertainers in the 1970s and 80s. Child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have been followed by increased reports of similar outrages in the Church of England. Only this week, it was revealed that the Scout Association had paid out thousands to settle legal cases brought by survivors of sexual abuse.

There is a very long way to go. Research by children’s rights charities suggests that child abuse is still rife. The conviction rate for rape is dreadfully low. A string of opinion polls suggests that significant percentages of people believe rape is less serious if the victim is drunk or has previously consented to sex and changed her mind.

Challenging and reducing sexual abuse should be an aim that unites people of many different political, religious and non-religious persuasions. Unfortunately, some seem to be more keen on restricting unusual sexual behaviour between consenting adults – including consenting adults in loving, faithful relationships.

The latest “anti-pornography” laws will do nothing to reduce sexual abuse. On the contrary, they will perpetuate inaccurate ideas about abuse while restricting civil liberties and demonising sexual minorities.

That is why I will join the protest against them outside Parliament at noon today (#pornprotest). I am sure I will not be the only Christian there.

I am not naïve about pornography. I have no doubt that the majoirty of pornography is exploitative, abusive and misogynistic. It contributes to the commercialisation of sexuality, which is also seen in the pressure to spend vast sums of money on weddings and the way the advertising industry promotes narrow types of romantic relationships for the sake of profit (though many who criticise pornography overlook these more respectable forms of commercialised sexuality).

Whether you regard pornography as inherently unethical depends to some extent on how you define “pornography”. Some years ago, like many other Christians, I simply dismissed anything described as “pornography” as immoral. I do so no longer. This is not because I’ve adopted some ultra-liberal approach to sexual ethics (something which I’m occasionally accused of), but because I see the hypocrisy behind mainstream attitudes to sexuality.

Conservative Christians sometimes accuse me of simply accepting the dominant values of British society. On the contrary, I oppose the hypocrisy of conventional sexual morality – which idolises narrow ideas of romance and condemns those that don’t fit into them, which tells people that love is what matters but pressurises them to spend thousands of pounds on weddings, which screams outrage at child abusers on street corners but ignores the abuse that takes place within apparently respectable homes. And which condemns sexual activities and relationship structures that look a bit odd – such as kink and polyamory – even when they involve love, honesty and meaningful consent.

The new anti-porn laws will restrict “kinky” porn in particular. Producing spanking, caning and face-sitting images, for example, is likely to be illegal – even if the producers of the image are the people participating in the sexual act it depicts. By targeting kink, the law is unlikely to damage big corporate pornographers. It will instead restrict “home-made” and specialist small-business porn, which is, of course, less likely to be exploitative in the first place (although I accept that some of it is). Any meaningful government attempt to prevent physical harm caused by such activities would surely involve consultation with people who practise kink, who tend to know most about the health and safety issues involved. This certainly does not seem to have happened in this case.

There are at least four good reasons for opposing the anti-pornography legislation.

Firstly, there is the importance of free expression. I am not absolutist about free speech. For example, I do not think people should be allowed to stand in the street and promote violence. But free speech should be restricted only when there is a very strong case that doing so will reduce or prevent violence or other forms of abuse. No such case can be made in regard to this legislation. Any unjustified restriction of free expression is an attack on the civil liberties of us all, regardless of our sexuality or beliefs.

Secondly, the proposed laws tend towards sexism and homophobia. Most of the activities they will restrict are more common amongst women and within same-sex relationships. Many of them are related to female domination (which can be practised in a playful way between people who nonetheless regard each other as equals).

Thirdly, the laws demonise sexual minorities by singling out certain sexual practices, even though taking place between consenting adults. Of course, some forms of kink can be abusive. Kink, at times, can be used as an excuse for abuse. Marriage can also be used as an excuse for abuse. It is dangerous and wrong to encourage the idea that conventional sexual relationships are all fine and unusual ones are immoral. Sexual abuse can be found within the most outwardly respectable marriages – as can love, mutuality and compassion. It is the values present in relationships that make them moral or immoral, not how they look on the outside. I am, of course, talking about relationships between consenting and honest adults. There is nothing healthy or ethical about sexual activity that is without consent, that involves children or is deceitful.

Fourthly, these laws may make it harder, not easier, to challenge sexual abuse. They confuse abuse with oddness, criminalising sexual activity because it is unconventional rather than because it causes harm. I am against these laws precisely because I want to tackle sexual abuse. To do so, society must place a much higher value on meaningful consent. Let’s celebrate healthy sexual expression between compassionate, consenting adults while striving to eliminate the vicious, outrageous abuse that still pervades the sexually hypocritical society in which we live.

Faith is a question of loyalty

I was recently asked to preach at Kensington Unitarian Church in London. The church community there were very welcoming and it was a real privilege to worship with them on 30 November. My sermon and the rest of the service can be heard on a podcast available on the church’s website. 

The text of my sermon is below. Although I know the spoken version deviated from it at times, the gist remained the same.

I would like to introduce you to Harry Stanton. Not personally, because he’s been dead for a while, but as a historical figure. Harry was the son of a blacksmith from Luton. He was a Quaker. In 1916, at the age of 21, he was conscripted into the army. Denied exemption as a conscientious objector, he was forced into the army against his will where, like many others in the same situation, he refused to obey orders.

Harry was imprisoned as a result – as were about 6,000 other British pacifists over the course of the war. But thirty-five of these pacifists were forcibly taken to France, where they could be deemed to be on “active service” and therefore shot if they continued to disobey orders.

Taken before a court-martial, Harry knew that his life was in their hands. But he refused to plead, because he would not recognise the right of any military body to exercise authority over him. He gave a speech in his defence, in which he said that “all warfare is contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ”. He said that when the claims of the state conflicted with the laws of God, “I must obey the higher authority”. Along with the 34 other British pacifists in France, Harry was sentenced to death.

Campaigning back in Britain thankfully had an effect and the sentences were commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.

One of the comments I hear most often about religion is the phrase “religion is dangerous”. It is true that religion is often violent and oppressive. I agree with people who want religion to stop being violent and oppressive. But I do not want religion to stop being dangerous. I suggest that religion is supposed to be dangerous.

Most religions speak in some way about transcendence. They speak of God, the gods, the Truth, the Divine, the Ultimate Reality or the Power of Love. And once you speak of God, or the divine or transcendent, you imply that God, or the divine or transcendent, should have our ultimate loyalty. If I seek to follow God, then my first loyalty must be to God. Therefore no king, no government, no army, no nation-state, no church can claim my ultimate loyalty.

This is why so many kings, governments, armies and churches have sought to equate themselves with God. When Henry VIII claimed that his thoughts were directed by God, he made clear that loyalty to God meant loyalty to the king. The claims about the Japanese emperor’s divinity had a similar effect. It is no surprise that people make these sort of claims. For if we are serious about placing our ultimate loyalty in something other than the governments and structures around us, we become a threat – a threat to convention and, if we persist, like Harry Stanton, a threat to authority.

If anyone can choose to follow God over following human structures, the consequences may depend on their view of God. Take Yigal Amir, a Jewish fundamentalist who assassinated Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Amir said he was acting “on orders from God”. Other murders have been committed on the basis of similar claims.

But a god who orders murders is a god whose values are all too close to those of the world around us, rather than the principles of a higher power. People of many faiths emphasise that faithfulness means acting with compassion. Some religious groups, such as Quakers and Rastafarians, have developed communal practices for exploring an individual’s feeling of being led to a particular course of action by God. Faith is not about certainty.

Let’s take a look at the passage we heard earlier about paying taxes to the emperor – Luke 20, 20-26. It’s a passage that’s often used to encourage Christians to be loyal to the state. Those who want us to obey authority are more likely to quote this passage than the many examples of civil disobedience that run through the Bible. However, many biblical scholars challenge the common interpretation heard in churches.

Luke tells us that the spies sought to trap Jesus by what he said, so that they could hand him over to the governor. In other words, if he had said that taxes should not be paid to Rome, they would have got him arrested.

Jesus was no doubt aware of this, and chose his words carefully. He responds by saying “Show me a denarius!” Why does Jesus have to be shown a coin? Why doesn’t he have one with him? Well, many devout Jews, even those who reluctantly used Roman coins for buying and selling, avoided carrying them, because they regarded them as idolatrous. The coin portrayed the emperor as a god. As Jesus does not have a coin himself, this suggests he was one of those who avoided it as idolatrous.

Jesus asks “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They say, “The emperor’s”. Jesus thus draws attention to the idolatry, already highlighted by the fact that he’s not carrying the coins.

He then gives an ambiguous answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ listeners were “amazed” by his answer. If he was simply telling people to pay taxes to Rome, there would be nothing to be amazed about. What he does instead is dodge the question with a statement that encourages everyone to think about what is really the emperor’s and what is really God’s. As the biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it, Jesus “is inviting them to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as opposites”.

The Greek word “apodote” translated as “give” also means “pay back” or “return” – “Give back to the emperor that which is the emperor’s”. There are many ways to read this and I don’t claim for a moment that my interpretation is the only valid one. However, I suggest that Jesus is advocating something more radical than simply withholding tax: he is saying that the imperial system of which the coinage is part should be sent back to the emperor, back to Rome. By saying it in an ambiguous way, however, he avoids the trap.

Jesus encouraged his listeners to think for themselves about how to make decisions. It seems to me that ethical decisions are about where we place our loyalty, our trust, our faith.

What’s the sin mentioned most often in the Bible? It’s idolatry. We tend to think of idols as statues, but this misses the point. An idol is something that people put in the place of God. An idol is, on some level, not real; at least, we ascribe a power to it that it does not have.

Politicians today talk about “not upsetting the markets” as if markets were supernatural entities that must be appeased. In reality, markets were created by people. People can change them, run them differently, or get rid of them. We make an idol of the market when we talk as if it controls us. Really, we control it.

In the same way, we are encouraged to be loyal to “our country”. Countries are things that we have created, yet we speak of them as if they were natural. We demand loyalty to this abstract concept. It is a short step from idolising nationality to idolising armed forces. For much of the time when British troops were in Afghanistan, there were constant debates about whether they should be there. Much of this seemed to involve the question “Should we be in Afghanistan?”. Should we be in Afghanistan? And I would think, but I’m not in Afghanistan. Why do we describe the armed forces as “we”?

Whether we speak of the power of love, or the Kingdom of God, or of practising active nonviolence, we are talking about choosing to live by faith in a different power to the powers of markets and military might.

It is often said that we no longer have conscription in the UK. It is true that our bodies are not conscripted into the army. However, our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our language is conscripted, when we speak of “defence” and mean warfare. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and to regard as natural a situation in which millions live with hunger in a world that has enough to feed us all.

We need to be conscientious objectors today just as much as Harry Stanton was – although the risks for most of us are unlikely to be so great. We can object by how we talk, how we think, how we regard ourselves and others, how we make our decisions and – first and foremost – by to what we give our loyalty and our faith.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about living with a different loyalty. It’s a lot harder to do it, or even to know how to do it. We are all part of unjust economic and political structures. We participate in them even as we seek to resist them. At times, we benefit from the injustices that we oppose. We too commit the very sins that we speak out against.

It is vital that we are aware of this and equally vital that this does not stop us speaking out and aiming to live differently.

We glimpse the Kingdom of God not through a set of rules but in a way of living. For most of us, this way of living is not consistent and we often fail to follow it. Nonetheless it is there and can be seen. From small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. In people imprisoned for peace protests, in people choosing to buy Fairtrade tea, in those determined to see that of God in their neighbour and both the good and the bad in themselves, in hesitating steps towards prioritising love over legalism, in the courage to speak up for what is truly in our hearts and not what the world tells us should be there – in all these ways people proclaim the way of love, a challenge to the powers of this world. Sometimes, the way forward seems clear. At other times, we’re struggling in the dark.

My own commitment to love, to justice, to active nonviolence is much, much weaker than I would like. But I would rather stumble on the road to liberation than walk firmly down the road to oppression. If we know where our loyalty lies, if we know that we are aiming to live by a different power than the powers of this world, a stronger and subtler power, then we may have confidence that we are at least facing in the right direction. I pray that we will have – in the words of a song by the band Jars of Clay – “days that are filled with small rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from our souls”.

The hypocrisy of Emily Thornberry’s critics

Welcome to the baffling world of political priorities in 2014.

Last month, the multi-millionaire welfare minister David Freud suggested that some disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage. He is still in his job. Last week, Bob Geldof implied that not only poverty but also disease can be solved by the performances of super-rich celebrities. Most of the coverage did not even mention that there were those who disagreed with his approach.

On Thursday, however, Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigned from the front bench after sending an ambiguous tweet with a photo of a house decked out in large English flags, with a white van in the drive. Her tweet has made the front page of several national newspapers.

On Friday, the Sun devoted Page 1 to covering Thornberry’s “sneers”, Pages 4-5 to an interview with the owner of the house in question and Page 8 to a scathing editorial attacking Labour’s “ugly, snobbish prejudices”. If you turn over to Page 11, you can read the latest full-page piece by Katie Hopkins, a Sun columnist who has made her name by attacking working class people. Earlier this year, she said that unemployed people should be obliged to wear uniforms in the street.

The Daily Mail blamed the tweet on a “condescending, arrogant” elite. This is a paper that demonises benefit recipients on an almost daily basis. David Cameron accused Thornberry of “sneering at people who work hard”. On Cameron’s watch, wages are so low that millions of people who work hard are relying on tax credits to top up their wages, while those unable to work due to disability find their livelihoods snatched away.

Attacking working class people in general, and the poorest in particular, has become a routine activity for many mainstream politicians and columnists in the UK. It seems to be acceptable to attack working class voters, destroy their services and remove their benefits. What appears to be unacceptable is to criticise working class people who may be nationalistic.

I wrote more about this situation for an article in Politics.co.uk, published yesterday. You can read it by clicking here. In addition, I recommend two articles by people who have articulated the issues far better than I have: the first by my Ekklesia colleague Savi Hensman and the second by Sarah Ditum at the New Statesman.

Exeter students reject arguments in favour of World War One

I had the privilege last week of speaking at Exeter University Debating Society, opposing the motion that “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I am pleased to say that those present voted against the motion by seventy votes to forty.

The motion was proposed by Andrew Murrison, a minister for Northern Ireland and the government’s Special Representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. He was supported by Daniel Steinbach, a historian from King’s College London. I was pleased to be joined in opposing the motion by Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition. The debate was chaired by Exeter student Lewis Saffin.

Prior to the debate, I had pointed out on my blog that Andrew Murrison’s support for the motion undermined his stated desire not to glorify the first world war. When it came to the debate, Andrew said he did “not like” the wording of the motion but would instead argue that World War One was a just war. This is hardly the same thing, so I’m not clear why Andrew agreed to propose the motion. However, in voting against the motion, the students seemed to be ejecting his claim about just war as well as the wording of the motion itself.

The text below equates roughly to the words I used in the five minutes I was given at the beginning of the debate. Having drafted it beforehand, it inevitably varied slightly in practice, but the substance remained the same.

———————
What is a victory? How can anything that leads to the deaths of tens of millions of people be described as a victory? How can something that leaves a world in ruins, that leaves millions of people starving to death and susceptible to disease be a victory? The notion of victory in war, any war, is an absurdity. As Jeanette Rankin, who in 1917 became the first female member of the US Congress, put it, “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake”.

The ending of the war was not great for the British people. The war led to a massive national debt, next to which the current British debt – about which we hear so much – pales into insignificance. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, promised that after the war Britain would be “a land fit for heroes”. Instead, there was mass poverty and unemployment. My own great-grandfather, who fought at the Somme, was awarded five medals during the war. After the war, unemployed and struggling to feed his children, he was forced to sell all five medals in an attempt to survive. What “great victory” did he have – or the thousands and thousands like him, thrown into poverty by a government for whom they had fought?

The poverty in Germany by the end of the war was much more severe. The British government, backed by the pro-war media, had justified the war on the grounds that Belgium must be defended from German aggression. It is true that Germany invaded Belgium and that atrocities were committed against Belgian civilians by German troops. I don’t deny it for a moment. I condemn those atrocities. Yet as the war went on, the British navy blockaded Germany with a clear intention of starving Germans into surrender. Thousands of German and Austrian civilians were starved to death as a result, killed by the British government as surely as if British troops had been sent to stab their bayonets into them directly. There is nothing great about mass murder.

Justifying war with reference to Belgium was a piece of staggering hypocrisy. In 1914, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times, which only days before had been condemning proposals for home rule for Ireland, transformed themselves overnight into champions of “the rights of small nations”. British troops had been committing atrocities in colonial wars for decades. Horatio Kitchener, who was made Secretary for War in 1914, had himself commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in 1898.

This year, with the centenary of the outbreak of war, we’ve been focussing a lot on how the war started. I wonder if we’ll be any more honest in four years’ time, when we consider how the war ended. From 1916 until 1918, there was increasing discontent among working class Germans, both civilians and troops. There were strikes in German arms factories and occasional mutinies, encouraged by the spread of socialist ideas and the realisation of the injustice of the war. By October 1918, with Germany starving and losing the war, there were mass mutinies in the German navy and working class protests around Germany. The Kaiser abdicated. It was not the Kaiser but his successors who signed the armistice. Yes, allied troops were winning the war by October 1918, but it was the German working class who ensured that the war ended at this point. If only British troops had also mutinied in large numbers at the same time, things might have turned out a let better for people in both Britain and Germany.

Even now, there are those who tell us that World War One was necessary to defeat German militarism and stop Germany dominating Europe. I don’t know how that sounded to people in India or Malawi or Ireland, whose countries were controlled by a British Empire whose rulers spoke about resisting German imperialism. The reality is that most people in Britain and Germany had more in common with each other than they did with their rulers. That’s why, on the eve of war, over 100,000 people demonstrated against war in Berlin. Thousands more demonstrated throughout Britain – including 15,000 in London and 5,000 in Glasgow, according to media reports at the time.

Contrary to the impression given by the majority of books and documentaries on World War One, there was an active pacifist movement in Britain throughout the war. In July 1915, a territorial army officer in Lancashire, a Captain Townroe, wrote to Kitchener reporting that “over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading peace group at the time, produced a semi-illegal newspaper that had 100,000 readers in 1916. These figures hardly fit with the oft-repeated claim that almost everyone supported the war. Over 6,000 people in Britain went to prison for opposing the war. The majority were conscientious objectors who were denied exemption from the army, while others were locked up for illegal activism, such as handing out pacifist leaflets in the street.

The end of the first world war was not a victory, for millions of people were killed or impoverished. It was not a success for the British people, who had far more in common with their German counterparts than with their rulers. And it certainly was not great. It is not being British that makes us great, but being human. We can only be truly great, and we can only end war, when we give our loyalty not to a nation-state, but to humanity as a whole.

Tory minister to argue that World War One was “a great British victory”

Andrew Murrison MP is the government’s special representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. At Exeter University tomorrow (14 November), he will propose the motion “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I have been asked to oppose the motion.

The government has denied accusations that it wants to use the centenary to glorify the first world war, or to glorify war in general. This is hardly consistent with sending the minister responsible to propose a motion that implies the war was successful and something to be celebrated.

I’m very pleased to have been asked to speak against the motion that Andrew Murrison is proposing. I am looking forward to the debate. Andrew Murrison’s fellow proposer will be Daniel Steinbach of King’s College London. Opposing the motion alongside me will be Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition.

In addition to his responsibilities around World War One, Andrew Murrison is a junior minister for Northern Ireland and MP for South-West Wiltshire.

If you study or work at Exeter University, you can attend the debate at 7.00pm on Friday 14 November. There are more details here.

The Royal British Legion insults the victims of war

The Royal British Legion, who run the Poppy Appeal, have in recent years shown a tendency to misuse the message of remembrance to encourage a pro-war, jingoistic agenda. They have now taken things a step further by using an anti-war song in a fundraising film – after taking the anti-war lyrics out.

No Man’s Land (also known as Green Fields of France) is one of my favourite songs. Written by Eric Bogle in 1976, it concentrates on Willie McBride, a soldier whose grave Bogle finds as he walks through a first world war cemetery. The song is addressed to McBride himself:

“I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916.”

There are four verses in the song. The Royal British Legion have produced a fundraising video that includes the first two verses and misses out the last two. Thankfully, some references to the horror of war have been left in:

“Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?”

However, by cutting out the last two verses, the Legion have clearly removed the song’s main point, which is about the futility of war:

“But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land.
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.”

Not long after World War One, the message on Remembrance Day was “Never Again”. This has now been forgotten, at least when mainstream politicians, the Royal British Legion and the right-wing media have anything to do with it. Now we are encouraged to “support our troops” rather to work for a day in which there are no troops, and no war.

Of course, the Royal British Legion (or anyone else) have every right to disagree with the song’s anti-war message. This is very different to using the song  to promote a message contrary to its original meaning.

Some will argue that the Legion does good work supporting wounded soldiers and bereaved relatives. This is true to an extent, and I don’t blame anyone in need of help for turning to it.

However, we might ask why anyone who’s disabled or bereaved needs to rely on charity in the free and democratic country for which British troops have been told they are fighting. The initial cost of war – the weapons, the uniforms, the training – are paid for by taxpayers out of public funds. You never see anyone rattling a tin to fund a Eurofighter. But the longer-term costs of war – support for those who are physically and mentally harmed – is far less of a priority for the public purse, and groups such as the Legion and “Help for Heroes”, rather than objecting to this, go out into the streets with their collecting tins.

I know I am not the only taxpayer who would much rather pay taxes to support disabled people to live equal lives (whether or not their impairments have been caused by war) than to fund the UK’s war budget, which is the sixth highest military budget in the world.

However helpful the Legion’s charitable work may be to those who benefit from it, it is undermined by the Legion’s nationalistic and militaristic messages. The organisation is not neutral on the question of war. The clue’s in the name “Legion”, a term for a military unit (the words “Royal” and “British” also give it away, of course).

I’m sure that many people who wear the Legion’s red poppies wish to remember both civilian and military victims of war. Many might also wish to remember those who were not British. However, the Legion itself is quite clear that the purpose of the poppies is to remember British military dead. That is what the red poppy, according to those who design and sell it, is for. It is not to remember children killed in the bombing of Coventry, let alone in the bombing of Dresden.

The Royal British Legion state clearly on their website that the red poppy “is worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today and their loved ones”.

To suggest that a civilian is less worthy of remembrance than a soldier seems to me to be morally repugnant. To remember only the British dead and not the French, German, American, Austrian, Brazilian, Iraqi or Afghan dead is not only offensive. It is directly contrary to the internationalist attitudes that are necessary if we are to build peace instead of war.

I respect the intentions of many of those who wear red poppies, but I cannot wear one when those who produce it practise such an excluding, nationalistic form of remembrance. Nor can I “support those serving today”. I have nothing against people in the armed forces and I pray for their safety. But I do not support the British armed forces, or any other armed forces. I choose to wear a white poppy, to remember all victims of all wars and to honour the dead by calling for an end to war.

The best way to remember those killed in war is to tackle the causes of war and to refuse to participate in war. War is not inevitable. People created war and people can end it. Only by doing so can we ever hope to achieve the early Remembrance Day aim of “Never Again”. The alternative is an endless repetition of the situation described in the last verse of No Man’s Land, a verse you won’t hear on the Royal British Legion’s fundraising film:

“Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well, the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying: it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again.
And again, and again, and again, and again.”

———-

You can sign a petition about the Royal British Legion misuse of the song at https://www.change.org/p/royal-british-legion-please-apologise-for-cutting-the-words-of-the-poppy-appeal-song-the-original-song-condemns-the-folly-of-war.

You can buy white poppies at http://www.ppu.org.uk/whitepoppy/index.html.