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Jonty Langley Headshot

Poppy for the Guy?

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Some Evangelical Christians freak out every year over the possibility that their children might get involved in potentially evil Halloween antics, but have no problem with Bonfire Night. "Light Parties" may not be the same kind of torture Mr Fawkes faced, but their lameness is at least a more enlightened approach than trying to ban Halloween outright. In the Church, we think of these as victories. In wider society we're apparently still learning the free-speech lesson too.

Carving faces into vegetables and dressing up as fictional characters sends the wrong message to children and may lead to playing with ouija boards, satan worship and, worst of all, an interest in the Twilight novels. Burning effigies of an actual person, in a more than slightly anti-Catholic celebration of how the state tortured a dissident to death, though?

Well that's just part of growing up and being British, as John Cleese might have said. I mean, who of us hasn't at one time or another, made a papier-mâché version of some executed terrorist / political enemy / Catholic and set fire to it at a public gathering? What could be more healthy? No, it's the bobbing for apples and putting a sheet over your head in a non-Ku Klux Klan sort of way you have to watch out for. After all, one popular festival makes a centrepiece of death to remind people to obey the government, while the other does so for fun. The devil really is in the details.

I like bonfire night. Any celebration in which the English release their fierce grip on the health and safety culture they claim to loathe can't be all bad. I can enjoy the night despite the fact that it commemorates the torture, hanging and dismembering of a human being. As a Christian, I can enjoy it despite the fact that bonfires at this time of year have deep pagan roots. This is because I am not a moron. And because I am a Protestant. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.

And while I am puzzled as to why some Christians eschew Halloween but embrace the November flames, I am glad they can enjoy at least one. We need these festivals of catharsis, moments of permission to experience the exciting rawness and connection with our darker pasts, if only to remind us we are lucky to live in an era of religious freedom, New Testament Christian confidence and electric light.

But while most of last week's flame-oriented entertainment may have passed without controversy, not all of it did. A number of people were arrested last week in Northern Ireland in connection with the burning of a commemorative poppy.

It is a measure of the true intellectual and political freedom in a society whether one has to say this or not, but for the record, I do not agree with the sentiments I think the poppy-burners are expressing. But really? In the same week as Guy Fawkes, a.k.a. up until recently the biggest sectarian festival in the British calendar? In a country where Bibles can be desecrated without fear?

I wonder if the Christians who denounce the 'overreaction' of some Muslims when their Prophet is blasphemed or their holy book ritualistically destroyed will support the poppy-burners' right to flambé whatever flora they like, for whatever reason, however objectionable. More to the point, I wonder if we will engage at all with the reasons these people feel angry enough to do it. Do we consider whether those involved in desecrating the memory of our soldiers by burning bits of paper and plastic have had relatives in Iraq or Afghanistan burned by those soldiers' weapons? Right or wrong, I imagine if I was in that position I would have a tough time getting 100% behind 'our boys'.

Add to that the fact that the poppy burners have been arrested for their Facebook posts while the Facebook group 'Burn the koran' features, alongside posters for the English Defence League, pictures of burning Q'rans, videos like 'Dressing up as a pig and chasing muslims' and posts like "f*** the n****, f*** the jews and f*** the muslims", pretty-much arrest-free.

This is a country where Protestants worthy of the name no longer celebrate Catholic deaths, where, for the most part, the Christian Church is smart enough not to be embarrassing. I like it. Let's reject criminalising those we strongly disagree with. Let's work to keep it that way.