Anzac Day

Courage and honour... but glory?
A sermon for the day...

Today we remember the landings in Gallipoli. The day has become a day of remembrance for all Australian service people.

Remembering makes it a sobering day: At Ballarat, for example, there is an avenue of remembrance.. About every ten yards, on both sides of the road, for more than 10 kilometres there is a tree planted for a dead soldier in the first war. That is the loss of life only for that one area of Australia..... And for each person there was a family left bereaved. Many thousands of others came back pursued by the war with illness and nightmare horror for the rest of their lives. And all this is for just one war. Anzac Day is a sober day.

Anzac Day is a difficult day for the church. The subject of peace and war is full of contradiction and pain. It contains complexities which seem insoluble, and fears which almost overwhelm us. In a recent discussion I saw an old woman with a life time in the peace movement heatedly arguing with an WW II digger, who I think felt betrayed and unappreciated, if not unfairly condemned by her work for peace. Their argument was the Uniting Church in microcosm:

In the church we have serving military personnel who are Christians. We have chaplains to the military. Our membership ranges from these people, through people who would support and if need be fight in war as a last resort, to people who are whole heartedly pacifist and run a register of conscientious objectors in the Uniting Church. We have returned personnel for whom overseas service was the experience of a lifetime, others who will say nothing even after 50 years, and still others who have not, and never will be, fully recovered in body or mind. We have church members who were raped and interned, and who survived concentration camps on a par or worse than Changi or the Burma Railway. Some of our members work in the armaments industry while others in own their family are committed pacifists. And very many have lost a son or daughter or spouse, in war.

How do we, as Christians, respond to the Anzac Tradition. How do we relate to issues of Peace and war when there are such deep memories of pain and loss among us, and such diversity of experience and belief? How do we live in a world where children grow up in fear of the bomb, and even five and ten year olds openly, and often bitterly, speak of a future, if we can call it that!, which could, and they feel, probably will, include a nuclear war?

I believe that we must begin by refusing ever to make light of war, or to glorify it. We must reject utterly any definition of heroism which would support more war. We have people in our community who have suffered at the hands of the soldiers and brutes in a hundred different wars, and men and women haunted by the things they saw and did. We cannot pretend to know their pain. Let us not ever add to it by glorifying war.

Secondly we must get beyond notions of crusades and so-called godly wars, once propagated by churchmen who were more interested in justifying, or forced to justify the desires of politicians and Kings and Queens. We must hear again the tradition of the Faith. The true and earliest tradition of the church is one of peace. The great vision for the world is that of Micah... that people shall wage war no more, and that each shall sit beneath their own vine and fig tree. That means that there will be a justice abroad which means all have enough.

In fact, if we talk of the Christian attitude on war we are already beginning to miss the point. There is no entry under War in the Dictionary of Christian Ethics, the listing is Peace and War. War is always ultimately a failure to live rightly before God. The tradition of the church is summed up in a statement of the Amsterdam Assembly of the World Council of Churches:

War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The word is incompatible; in the earliest church you could not be a Christian and a soldier. The two were seen as incompatible. How could you have both Jesus and the emperor as Lord. War was seen as a contradiction of the message of love and peace. Jesus had said, "Love your enemies." From the beginning for Christian theologians, was has been essentially un-holy, and participation in war... problematical.

The reality, of course, was that wars came, and Christians were involved. The church developed a theology of The Just War. This was never intended to affirm that war was alright, or to glorify war in any way. It was meant to be a guide to those situations where the evil of war could be tolerated, or might have to be accepted, in preference to some greater evil or injustice happening. In other words, some oppression or inhumanity might be so great and horrific that war was preferable.

And so, in 1939 a Christian may have seen the advance of Hitler across Europe and felt that in the eyes of God, the greater evil was to allow it to continue, and that war was a lesser evil- but still an evil. And I have the greatest of admiration for the courage of those who went to war on such a basis, and respect their ideals and aim.

It is from this point that we must approach Anzac Day. People made decisions which cost them their lives, very often. They understood they were fighting for the freedom of their country, and indeed, the world's freedom. They sometimes suffered utter horrors, and our freedom today is partly their legacy. So let us never in the name of peace decry their ideals and sacrifice.

But, let us never hide or lessen the horror of war. War, and the glorification of war remains always in contradiction of the gospel. Claiming to be fighting a just war is never an excuse for Mei Lai and the other massacres of Vietnam, or the Allied firebombing of Dresden, or for rape, or looting.

And today, as Christians, we must face other new issues. War has changed since the church expounded the idea of a just war. Modern warfare has become "demonically dangerous" to quote one theologian. The first atomic explosion "cut history in two like a knife" according to another writer. (HN Wiemen) And the Just War may be on the other side of the resulting abyss.

How can a nuclear war which blots out everything be said to be righting wrongs and avoiding a greater evil? How can we distinguish between civilian and military targets in modern warfare? Are there even answers to such questions? The marriage of modern technology to human hatreds means that the word 'war' does not mean the same thing as it meant for the Anzacs of 1915 or even of 1939. The costs and dangers have increased astronomically. The Gulf War could have escalated to wipe out the world in a few days.

So how do we live as Christians in this new world, on this Anzac Day? Firstly we must say to the former soldiers, "Our cry for peace is never criticism of your sacrifice! And we are am grateful for what you did for us." But we must see that perhaps the very survival of the world, and our children involves different issues to decades past. It's not a question of what should or should not have happened in 1939 or at some other time. It's a question of now. With the greatest respect, I do not think that having offered one's life in a war fifty years ago necessarily qualifies a person to have some greater authority on the issues of peace and war today. Listening to some members of the RSL, this sometimes seems to be their attitude. Fighting for the freedom of the following generations means fighting for a freedom that allows that generations to make its own way!

And now, and this is the second point, we must cry out for justice and peace, AND work for it! I believe that to work for justice and peace is the calling of the church. We are the body of Christ in the world- called to be Christ to the world until his return. We are to be peace makers.

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How on earth can we work for peace when so much depends on the Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, and the military industrial complex, and so on? What can we do against the demonic powers of militarism? We are but a few unimportant people?

We can do a number of important things.

1. WE CAN PRAY. And we need to. Because it is not just individual people involved in Bosnia or Palestine-- it is centuries old hatred which has grown into demonic power with a life of its own. How often do we seriously pray for real peace: not peace imposed by the threats of great powers, but peace based on justice for all, where all have opportunity and may thrive.

2. WE CAN ASK QUESTIONS AND WRITE LETTERS. Questions like "how come when it took a few short weeks to get into Kuwait, the Muslim people of Bosnia and Serbia suffered rape and murder by the thousand for many months? How come the world will not risk intervention when "ethnic cleansing" which is not qualitatively different from Hitler's attempted genocide of the Jews is there for us all to see on our TV screens?" The answer of course is oil. The Presidents and the Prime Ministers go to the Kuwaits and not to the Bosnias because of oil, and because we let them. Maybe because we too, are more concerned about oil than human rights! Or because maybe we don't care enough, or have given up.

We know well that a small vocal minority can achieve amazing results- especially if there is some innate justice in their calls. Any of us could write a letter calling for increased diplomatic pressure over Serbia and Bosnia. It would cost less than ten dollars to put it through the parish photocopier, and send it to our ten SA senators and our local member. How many of us have done it?

If that's too far away, how many of us have written complaining of our military aid and training which is allegedly used in the Philippines in a reign of terror against civilians which is often worse than when Marcos was President? Have we even bothered to read the articles in New Times from our Uniting Church pilgrims to the Philippines?

Politicians listen to letters. What would happen for peace and justice if just two people in each parish in Australia wrote a letter? I suspect that many of our politicians would wish to act differently, but cannot because we never write to back them up and demand any different approach. We present them with no evidence that there are Australians who are prepared to pay for a country which lives more justly.

We're not stupid. We can see the inconsistencies in foreign policy and various wars. Make the government explain-- let us protest. Our soldiers died for this kind of freedom- will we not use it?

3. WE CAN LIVE JUSTLY.
The aggression used in war is the same basic aggression
and the greed which fuels war is the same greed
and the hatred which sustains war is the same hatred
and greed and aggression and as we feel ourselves here and now in our peaceful country. Where our greed causes injustice to others, whether they be next door or in a neighbouring country, and where we hate our neighbour and are spiteful and petty instead of seeking reconciliation, and where we are aggressive and violent and oppressive in our families...

just so we exonerate, support and perpetuate the greed and hatred and oppression and aggression of war. If war is to stop, the ways of war must stop in the lives of ordinary people. If we are to reject wars we must reject warring ways.

Peace is a hard thing to attain. And indeed, war may need to be faced. But if we will not follow the Ten Commandments and cease to covet;

if we will not love our neighbours, much less our enemies;

if we will not seek to have justice roll down like waters, and speak out for the orphan and widow...

if we will not bear the cost of all that here and now, how can we expect our leaders whom we elect, and our negotiators, and the Corporations to act for justice and peace? And how can we expect other countries to act for peace?

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The best vision of the Anzacs, and all the people we remember this day, was for peace. They fought at their best, so that others might not suffer, and to spare others from such war. Perhaps our best Christian response is to go beyond the military parades of the day, by working for justice and peace, so that their lives and their sacrifices will not have been wasted. Amen

Andrew Prior (circa 1995)

 


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