Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Poppy as Signifer

Written by: on November 8, 2018

Remembrance Day is just a few days off. The melancholy that permeates this day is usually undergirded by the dark and growing bareness of Canadian mid-November weather in a predictable, almost divinely scripted, pathetic fallacy. As a youngster, I often stood in the cold and rain, in my girl guide uniform, thinking about my grandparents and wondering where they fit into the picture. It was much later that I learned my grandfather was part of the resistance in the Netherlands. And it wasn’t until my visit to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem this summer that I finally understood what his efforts might have looked like and where it fit in the global picture. As I wear my poppy this year, reading Saussure [1] has invited me to mull over how this symbol has slowly shifted over time. John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, will forever paint in my imagination the great cost of global conflict. Initially, the sign of the poppy pointed to the cost of freedom and extended an invitation to be grateful for those who gave their lives in the pursuit and protection of that freedom[2]. Over the years, I feel, that this same symbol has become an invitation to work for peace and that war is the consequence of looking away when evil is being cultivated. The poppy has become a reminder not to look away.

In the midst of Holocaust education week, appropriately leading us to Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Trudeau took the opportunity to officially apologize to Jewish asylum seekers, specifically those on the St. Louis, who were turned away by the Canadian government during the spread of the Nazis regime across Europe. Speaking in alternating English and French, the public confession is significant, as the Prime Minister, Trudeau is a signifier of a nation, who is positioning us as repentant. It is important that we remember where we have failed, but if we are to work harder for peace, it is necessary to understand what led us to fail.

Horkheimer and Adorno were early theorists looking to understand what had happened in society that the global atrocities of World War 2 were allowed to thrive. They point to the “increasingly comprehensive sweep of instrumental reason throughout modern societies [which revealed] signs and symptoms of fascist domination in liberal democracies too.”[3] Horkheimer and Adorno point to the use of reason, through science and technology, to subdue nature as a shift from fear of the natural world to dominance and domestication of this world. They suggest that “enlightenment and dominion are intricately interwoven”[4] . Thus it became a naturalized response to fear to seek dominion over a perceived threat. When this threat was no longer out of the natural world, but instead was projected onto an entire people group, responding with acts of domination were more readily accepted. “That is to say, the aggression, rage and violence which were initially necessary to protect the social order from the ravages of nature do not magically disappear once culture and political life are constituted. On the contrary, violence is written into the very fabric of social order; aggression strikes at the heart of every attempt by social actors to change the world, no matter how noble or high-minded their intentions might be.”[5] The modern age’s efforts to release humanity from dependency on ‘myth’ for security, ushered in pathologies that would see them destroy perceived internal threats out of a desire for the security of homogeneity. The rejection of faith stories as myth, also led to an unmooring from a moral compass that would hold up the value of all human life. While Nazism was an example of domination through extermination, Canada exemplified a more palatable, though equally culpable self-preservation act by refusing entry to the vilified asylum seekers. Bauman suggests that “Modernity, in large part, was such an exercise in depersonalizing the ethical urge…[it] offer[ed] direct escape from a lot of anxious groping in the dark over ethics, precisely because its coded rule-book of dos and don’ts gave practical help in achieving a sense of moral certitude.”[6] Laws and regulations would have thus been the primary guide for the 1939 government of Canada for their decision, rather than conscious or empathy.

It is with a postmodern sensibility, and with a humility shaped by failure, that we now see that “there are problems…with no good solutions, twisted trajectories that cannot be straightened up”[7] and that our laws and regulations are fallible in their ordering of civil society. Globalization now links our hearts to people who are different and at a distance, increasing the urgency that we set right historical wrongs in order to move forward together. The post-modern ethic has led to a repersonalization of the offended other [8], and without the bounds of modern ethical systems, there is an increased freedom to reach out.

Public confession was historically a way for the state to exercise discipline over its citizens[9] and ‘public’ was restricted to the citizens who were locally gathered to hear. “What is new about the modern global system is the chronic intensification of patterns of interconnectedness mediated by such phenomena as the modern communications industry and new information technology”[1o] and as such, ‘public’ can now include anyone online. Given this networked era, Trudeau’s confession is no longer a way to discipline citizens, but given his symbolic representation of an entire nation it is now a invitational model of restoration for the world. This was echoed with his acknowledgement that it is “our responsibility to heal the world”[11] . Evidence that his words are being heard is immediately evident with live comments from a Jewish Canadian accepting the apology, voices from the international community approving the message, a francophone requesting more use of the French and even a dissenting voice questioning the action. The discussion on how we might begin healing the world can begin instantly. With my Prime Minister’s words echoing in my head, the sign of the poppy shifts what it is signifying again, and as a pastor who will lead on Remembrance Day, I think again of the one life that was laid down to empower me to participate in this important work; “for God so loved the world…”.[12]

1. Anthony Elliott. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009) GooglePlay.

2.Rema Rahman, “Who, What, Why: Which Countries Wear Poppies?” BBC News, November 09, 2011, , accessed November 09, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-15637074.
3. Anthony Elliott. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009) GooglePlay.

4. Ibid. 45.
5. Ibid. 47.
6. Ibid. 335.
7. Zygmunt Bauman. Postmodern Ethics. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993). 245.
8. Anthony Elliott. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009) GooglePlay. 336.
9. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, (New York: Random House, 1975).
10. David Held. “Democracy, the Nation-state and the Global system” D.Held (Ed.) Political Theory Today (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.)206.
11. Justin Trudeau. ‘Apology to Jewish Refugees’. Filmed November 7, 2018. Ottawa, Ontario. 19:54 https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=779790345690630&id=21751825648

12. John 3:16 NIV

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

5 responses to “The Poppy as Signifer”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thoughtful and articulate as always! Wow, a national leader publicly apologizing for the subtle sins of the past. I am thinking of the USA’s past sins as being neither subtle nor having ever been confessed nationally and publicly. May we model from within the circles of influence that God has given us, confession and repentance of sins. Thanks dear friend for this insightful and unique perspective, H

    • Sean Dean says:

      The nature of American political speech is so blustery that any admission of guilt or failure is seen as a weakness. I think that President Obama tried to speak to our failures in the past, but because of the nature of our politics he was unable to fully articulate it. Nonetheless, we do need to have a national repentance for our sins as a society otherwise we are doomed to continue repeating those failures.

  2. Jenn, the action of the prime minister to repent on behalf of the Canadian society to the Jews is very profound and will continue to have many ramifications in Canada and in the world. I love it when noble men and woman recognize the pivotal role of leadership and leverage their leadership for the good of the bigger public, that to me is the essence of leadership, leveraging our positions for the greater good.
    A lot of atrocities have been committed the world over by irresponsible leaders in our society and its very instrumental of Justin Trudeau to discern and seize such a great opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, he has set a good example that we can only pray will be emulated by other leaders, including Christian leaders like ourselves in the Cohort.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I am encouraged by the example of his leadership. I am hoping that by owning our past mistakes and ensuring they are part of our taught history, that it will help us move forward more faithfully and compassionately.

  3. Sean Dean says:

    In the US Nov. 11 is Veterans day, where we are supposed to honor those who have served in the military. In my family there is a lot of military, so November always had a bit of significance for me as well. I love the idea of seeing these holidays as more of just a symbol of what has happened before but more as a means for encouraging us to be ambassadors for peace in our world. Thank you for reframing these remembrances in such a helpful way.

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