The dove has become the “preeminent” symbol for peace in many religions and places around the world. In 1979, Pope John Paul II presented the United Nations with a mosaic called, “the Dove of Peace.” It’s of a white dove with an olive branch in its beak and its wings outstretched for flight. It’s a replica, inspired by a fragment from the 12th century found in the Old Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. The Vatican Mosaic Studio used enamels that were made from a special chemical ingredient typical to ancient mosaic making to reproduce it. The replica is glued into a bronze frame dating back to the same era.
In the Christian faith, the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism; the dove, as Sarah and Kai reminded us during the children’s talk a few weeks ago, the salvation sign brought to Noah’s ark letting them know there was land nearby. While the dove is an important Christian symbol for peace, on this Remembrance Sunday, I wonder if you’ll join me in a bit of a thought experiment. What if we considered the dove, and our notions of peace associated with it, as a replica of something else? What if the dove were a reproduction of what is, perhaps, the more likely bird spoken about in the scriptures, in the ancient stories of peace handed down to us?
The bird I’m speaking of is the pigeon. The pigeon and the dove are part of the same species known as the columbidae. The birds are found in virtually every corner of the world including Africa, Australasia, Euroasia, the Indian Ocean, Middle, North, and South America, South Asia, and Polynesia.
The pigeons we know best in Vancouver are rock pigeons. They’re not especially pretty. They gather in huge flocks in city parks hoping to be tossed some bread crumbs. They’re a real nuisance if they discover the bird-feeder on your balcony! Their presence (and what they leave behind) can quickly become distressing! Experts reckon the rock pigeon has been around for 5000 years. Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that at one time they were even kept as pets. What if we were to imagine the dove of peace as a rock pigeon? How would that change our understanding of doves in the Bible? How might that transform our modern-day notions of peace?
If it’s a rock pigeon that descends on Jesus at his baptism, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, perhaps this tells us that Jesus and all those who follow in his footsteps, are to seek peace with the tenacity of a giant flock of pigeons causing a spectacle in a local park?
I think of the tens of thousands of Canadians rushing to join the military in the first months of World War I, unaware that the conflict would last more than four years, killing as many as ten million soldiers in battle. I think of the 3,000 First Nations members who had enlisted in the Canadian military by the end of the Second World War as well as the unknown number of Metis, Inuit, and other Indigenous volunteers. Their service in the First and Second World Wars says to me how deeply acquainted they were in their own country with a desire for peace amidst unthinkable violence. Indigenous service members brought unique skills to the Wars, like “code talker Charles “Checker” Tomkins of Alberta, who translated sensitive radio messages into Cree so they could not be understood if they were intercepted by the enemy. Another Cree-speaking “code talker” would then translate the received messages back into English so they could be understood by the intended recipients.”
In 1994, the Government of Canada instituted November 8 as a special day to remember Indigenous veterans and “the many challenges [they would overcome] to serve in uniform, from learning a new language and adapting to cultural differences, to having to travel great distances from their remote communities just to enlist.”
When I imagine peace-keeping efforts, perhaps not as a singular idyllic white dove, but as a flock of pigeons, I think of the thousands of humanitarian aid workers sacrificing their lives at this very moment, including those who cared for the hundreds of patients killed and injured in the explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza run by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. I think of the thousands of people who return to Canada from humanitarian and military service every year, who are disproportionately affected by post-traumatic stress injuries leading to long-term mental illness and in the most devastating cases, suicide.
There’s another mention of pigeons in the Bible that we haven’t yet talked about. It’s the turtledoves that Mary and Joseph bring as a gift when they present their young child, Jesus in the Temple. Turtledoves were accepted at the Temple from the poorer classes in lieu of them being able to afford a more expensive offering such as a fattened cow or a lamb. Even as we remember on this day those who willingly serve in places of war and conflict, we must remember first and foremost that cries for peace come from the civilian poor—those who have no choice in the matter. We know that war disproportionately affects people who are already impoverished by disease, climate disaster, government instability and corruption, and world greed.
Peace-keeping efforts and the consequences of war, though we remember them especially on days like today as something of the past, we must remember that they are very much a present reality. Every day, and as persistently as a flock of pigeons causing a nuisance in our own backyard, people are involved in war. I believe that God’s desire is for peace in every corner of the world, whether in Vimy Ridge or Normandy; in Gaza or the West Bank; in Turkey, Iran, or Ukraine; in parliament and board rooms, and in the living rooms and around the kitchen tables of our own homes.
My prayer is that peace would become as common as war, especially in places that have too long been embroiled in conflict. If it’s a rock pigeon that brings news of dry land to those aboard Noah’s ark, perhaps we’re not to think of peace as some relic in a far-away museum, but something that ordinary people might enjoy every day and in every place. Amen.
“Replica of Dove of Peace,” United Nations, description accessed online on 12 November 2023 at https://www.un.org/ungifts/replica-dove-peace
“Indigenous Veterans: The First Nations, Inuit and Métis of Canada have a long and proud tradition of military service to our country,” Government of Canada, accessed online on 12 November 2023 at https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/people-and-stories/indigenous-veterans