As Anzac Day approaches, I am made uncomfortable by a sense of profound ambivalence. I feel drawn to Anzac and I am disconcerted by it.
I don’t yet know why I am drawn to it. My father served in the RAAF during WW2 but did not leave Australia. I know of no forebear who served during WW1.
My grandmother was engaged to a young man killed on active service during WW1.
I am disconcerted by Anzac Day because it coopts religious symbols and meanings in a way that I find entirely problematic.
Some see an equivalence between the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifices made by soldiers. I note what Rev Bernard Linden Webb, the Methodist minister at Hay during WW1, wrote, ‘the sacrifice of men fighting for their country has been compared to the sacrifice of Christ. That is a terrible blasphemy!’ I agree.
The parallels drawn between the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifices made by soldiers are tenuous, at best.
The Anzacs fought to maintain a powerful Empire, the British Empire; Jesus was crucified by a powerful Empire, Rome.
The sacrifices soldiers make in war, which undoubtedly speak of a profound giving of self, occur because soldiers are engaged in violence; Jesus was opposed to violence. His strategy is best described as non-violent resistance.
In a notable exchange with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, ‘If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting for me.’
(When Jesus spoke of his kingdom ‘not being of this world’, he did not mean its location was heaven. He indicated that it took shape and came to birth at the very edge of human culture and human notions.)
The ministry and teachings of Jesus do not align with war, and they still raise profound questions about it, but I worry that we rarely hear them.
While the Early Church was pacifist, it was soon drawn into the practices of Empire, including war, after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted in the early 4th century.
In the late 4th century, St Augustine developed the Doctrine of a Just War. It acknowledged war was never good, but it could be the lesser of two evils under certain circumstances. Augustine sought to limit the impact of war.
Nonetheless, the acceptance of violence in a good cause within the realm of Christian ethics paved the way for the abhorrent notion of killing in the name of one’s faith.
At a more profound, existential level, I recognise that when people fight for and are killed in such a cause, it is not easy to find appropriate thoughts or even words that adequately express the multilayered nature of that loss.
When mundane notions prove inadequate, religious language and concepts are often deployed, and the church was more than happy to oblige during WW1.
Such language, however, often covers up or marginalises truths that need to be given voice, even while it expresses and reveals what may be needed in times of significant loss.
I believe we need to be more careful and more critical in using religious language about war.
I remain drawn to Anzac and disconcerted by it. I also think further investigation and reflection is needed, combined with a measure of courage to reveal what we uncover.