Where Poppies Burn

15/11/2011 13:45 GMT | Updated 13/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Poppy-burning may become for Britain what flag-burning is for the US: a hot-button issue that divides the country along what might seem artificial lines. What it currently is, is a rather un-nuanced and generalising demonstration of dissatisfaction with a few aspects of a society by desecrating a largely cherished symbol of something much broader. But, in the ripple-effect desecration has, in the questions display or destruction of symbols raises, it is a question of pivotal importance, not just for those who value democracy, but for Christians as well.

One could easily think of this as a non-issue. After all, the poppy and the American flag mean different things to different people, just as the cross or crescent and star might. Most recognisable symbols are open to broad interpretation. But that is why, when a symbol that has, for whatever reason, been adopted by a large portion of society is desecrated, the danger is not in the desecration but the reaction. To use the American example: to some, the Stars 'n Stripes stand for freedom, democracy and opportunity. To others, they stand for the narrow self-interest of a powerful and warlike nation with scant regard for others' sovereignty. There are at least two different flags. It would be at least legitimate for some people to feel that burning one of them was acceptable. The fact is that just as some (who have another flag, representing the memory of fallen heroes) will find the burning of this symbol abhorrent, others will find its display and glorification abhorrent, too.

Last week, as Theresa May banned a group called Muslims Against Crusades for planning to desecrate poppies in the name of fallen Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, many expressed exasperation that the group (along with many pacifists) fail to understand what the poppy really means. It is not a glorification of war, they said, but a sign of respect for fallen soldiers. Others took it further, explaining that the poppy is to remember all the victims, military and civilian, of conflict. Charities explained that buying a poppy was a sign of solidarity with soldiers who have suffered injuries. Still others held that it was a sign of gratitude to those who fought Hitler. To all that, add the overwhelmingly military character of Remembrance Sunday and what the poppy means becomes quite broad.

In fact, while some worry about what wearing the poppy says about their attitude to militarism, I'd argue that the real danger is that is says nothing at all. When a symbol becomes the focus of popular pressure to display it, what does it mean? Evangelical Christians understand this all too well when they engage in mission in culturally Christian countries where external Christian symbols may bear little relation to the wearer's heart or life. Similarly, of the millions who tut at those who refuse to wear poppies in November or who applaud our Home Secretary when she uses the frankly undemocratic and illiberal anti-terror legislation of Britain to ban an unpopular (and admittedly unpleasant) group, how many of them give, pray or perform acts of kindness for the people they call heroes throughout the rest of the year?

The meaning inherent in most symbols becomes harder to define as time passes and people use them. The meaning that adheres to them is infinitely subjective, complex and impossible to police. This does not make the symbols less important, but more so. In a society where the display of a cross could be a source of misunderstanding and offence, one solution might be to ban the symbol altogether. But that reaction is stupid in the vast majority of cases. New symbols will arise, just as a successor group for Muslims Against Crusades will. You cannot ban them all. You will not be able to keep up. After a while, you will start having to police the ideas and thoughts behind them.

Symbols, in their display or destruction, are expressions of conscience. When you deny that freedom to some, you are freedom's enemy.

This piece first appeared in what is currently The Baptist Times.