World War 1 is notorious for mud, trenches, and soldiers used as cannon fodder – ‘jumping the bags’ as the Australians called, leaping out of trenches to advance into machine gun fire.
On the home front, such bravery, death, and tragedy was called ‘sacrifice.’
This evocative terminology was employed by the Protestant churches in Australia (excluding the Quakers) to encourage enlistment and support two referenda campaigns in favour of conscription.
During my recent study leave, I discovered many sermons preached during this period extolling sacrifice.
They are colourful, employing high rhetoric. The best of them are almost persuasive.
They move at an emotional level, urging, inspiring, compelling.
I felt my heart being ‘strangely moved’ when I read one of them, even as my mind swerved in a different direction, strenuously objecting. Most preachers discerned the scriptural texts as pro-empire and pro-war.
‘Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friend,’ the well-known verse from John’s gospel was employed repeatedly. (At the North Sydney War Memorial, it was adapted, ‘Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his country.’)
Jesus did not take up arms for an empire or lay his life down for his country. On the contrary, he was tried and executed by an empire, the Roman Empire, for treason.
Nonetheless, in sermons from WW1, it was self-evident that Christian young men should take up arms to support an Empire, the British empire.
The church had lost sight of the Jesus who preached and lived by a counter-cultural vision. The church had few if any critical tools that would enable it at least to ask questions.
In noting this, I do not set aside the virtue of sacrifice. I have read many stories of remarkable bravery:
An Australian soldier, who served on the Western Front and then transferred to a training school in Britain, was giving a lecture on bombing when he noticed that one of the bombs was faulty. Immediately, he threw himself on it and was, to quote the article, ‘blown to atoms.’
He saved all the men in that room.
I remain perplexed and intrigued by sacrifice.
In WW1, it was frequently employed to support imperial war aims. It was used to shame those who dared ask questions. (It’s not a concept that promotes enquiry.)
The churches aided and abetted this cause, adding their spiritual authority by reframing (should I say ‘misconstruing’) the sacrifice of Jesus.
And yet, at the level of individual actions, there is a nobility about it.
Making sense of it requires disentangling the many levels at which it operates: cognitive, instinctive, emotional, spiritual, as well as political and cultural.
I am very conscious of how it has been employed in Australia in recent years to underpin and bolster a particular story about Australian identity, and stifle any questions and dissent.
But questions do remain.
The parents of Private W. L. Rae placed a provocative inscription on the headstone of their son’s grave:
‘Another life lost;
Hearts broken for what?’