Anzac Day celebrates humanity, not nationalism


Anzac Day celebrates human life, not nationalismWhen I was a boy, the school held a church service each Anzac Day. As I remember it, the cadets presented arms in the sanctuary of the chapel, and at the end a bugler played the Last Post. It was dramatic and moving. It also encapsulated the intertwining of churches and arms, of Anzac Day and religious symbolism.

These connections are natural. Like other battles in which many young people died, the military action at Gallipoli left relatives, friends and fellow Australians to find meaning in what had happened. They sought it in many places: in Stoic acceptance of the absurdity and folly of war, in the classical tradition of the patriotic warrior, and in religious traditions.

Many of those affected by the Great War struggled to make sense of what they had hitherto taken for granted about their world. The young men who passed on to the next life had lived long enough to show promise and to be loved, but not long enough to give shape to their life’s path. In their dying, they broke a web of relationships to family, to mates, to friends and lovers, to their local communities, and to their nation.

This is true of all wars. But aspects of the landing at Gallipoli made death particularly poignant and challenging. The soldiers died not in defence of their own land but in someone else’s war, far from home. The action in which they died was of doubtful wisdom, and was inadequately planned and executed. In the event, the soldiers died to hold for a short time a few hills, a few valleys, and a tiny stretch of beach.

In response to the defeat some simply wept for the folly and the waste of the enterprise. Others looked for a higher meaning. Some drew inspiration from the bravery and generosity shown by so many of the soldiers. Others identified in Gallipoli a particularly Australian contribution to the war, and saw that it gave a distinctive shape to the Australian people.

Many people sought in the Christian tradition a way of understanding the significance of Gallipoli. This tradition is based on reversal. Both the Jewish stories that Christians inherited and the story of Jesus Christ find hope and meaning in catastrophic events that seemed to destroy hope. The people of Judaea were sent as exiles to Babylon, and Jesus was executed as a criminal. Yet these events became a seedbed for hope and meaning.

The meaning found was not simply personal, but also public. Out of the Exile came a people with a stronger sense of divine purpose and calling. From Jesus' death came a community united by a common faith in his saving death and rising. The events shaped a people.

Religious traditions also represent a worthwhile human life. Jewish, Christian and Muslim stories highlight the lives of martyrs. They die as witnesses to the truth of their faith and to the large hopes it holds. The martyrs are the foundation stones of a renewed and purified community.

When we are dealing with war, these religious themes of reversal, of community founding, and of the virtuous life offer resources. They allow the suffering and death of young men in a lost battle to be seen as an event that is life-giving. Their lives and war service can be seen as examples of faithfulness and virtue. The journeys and deaths of unnamed soldiers can be seen as the foundations of a renewed nation. From there, it is a short step to make their nation’s cause God’s cause, so that they died, not only for king and country, but for king, country and God.

These are the possibilities offered by Christian symbols. How far are they drawn upon? In the personal tributes to the dead, such as epitaphs on graves, they were sparingly used. In public rhetoric, their implicit use was more expansive.

Many of the graves at Gallipoli carry simply the soldier’s name, the date of his death, and the details of his service. Many also bear an epitaph chosen by the family, and of these epitaphs, most are religious texts.

Some texts express simple grief and resignation. "The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away", for example. Other texts display hope in life after death, either through personal immortality, or through continuing memory.

Of the epitaphs, some express confidence that this death had a purpose. "Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends", for example. Again, there are secular parallels: "He died for king and country", or, "for his fellow soldiers".

These epitaphs are moving and modest. In them we see families grieving for a dead son or brother, and struggling to find meaning in it.

In the rhetorical attempt to find public meaning in Gallipoli, religious symbolism could be used to support such ideas as that the death of the soldiers was a sacrifice, or that the nation was born in the carnage of Gallipoli, or that this battle represented the heart of the nation. To have any plausibility, such high flying judgments rely on at least implicit religious grounding.

The difficulty is that the religious tradition does not support this use of religious symbolism. The tension is evident even in the phrase that is used as the epitaph on special graves: "Their glory shall not be blotted out". The epitaph is admirably inclusive. In its original context in the Book of Ecclesiasticus (44.13) the phrase praises virtuous men. The selection of famous men proposed, and the grounds for keeping their memory alive, give conspicuously little place to warriors and their virtues, and emphasise religious devotion.

The tension is much stronger in the case of explicitly Christian symbolism. Although the New Testament focuses on Jesus' sacrificial love and on the place of the martyrs, the significance of their actions lies in non-violence. The martyrs win their victory because, like Christ, they go unarmed and unresisting to their death. In the Book of Revelation the tension between Christian faith and state sponsored war is even stronger. There Rome with its military power is seen as the beast. The martyrs are both its victims and its conquerors. If we were to look for contemporary images in times of war that reflect the place in Christian faith of sacrificial love and of the martyrs, we should perhaps look to conscientious objectors rather than to soldiers.

Anzac Day celebrates human life, not nationalismIt follows from this that in the Christian tradition, at least, we should hesitate to describe Anzac Day as a sacred event. It is certainly not sacred in the sense that the cause in which the soldiers died was especially noble, or because the deaths of soldiers killed in war are more especially significant, or because this is a seminal event in Australian history.

From a theological perspective, it can be described as sacred only in a broad sense—because it is a human event, and all human events are places where God walks. It is also sacred because battles see humanity pitched between life and death, and because the death of so many young people provokes deep and difficult questions about human meaning and purpose.

Ultimately Anzac Day can be described as sacred only because all human beings are sacred. Each human being is precious in God’s sight. So, the life and the fate of each soldier who died at Gallipoli matter. The nobility and generosity shown by soldiers under such extreme pressure also matter. The grief of those who loved them and who awaited their return matters. So does the common life of communities stripped of their young men and, with them, of their possibilities. In Christian symbolism, the poignancy and preciousness of each human life are crystallised in the death of Jesus Christ for all human beings. That grounds the sacredness of everything that touches humanity, of all ordinary human events.

If Anzac Day does not possess a unique but an ordinary sacredness, the proper response is to treat it with respect and with intelligence. The larger rhetoric of Anzac Day needs to be complemented by hard-headed reflection on what happened at Gallipoli. We can ask such questions as whether it was really in Australia’s interests to fight in someone else’s war. Was the generosity of young Australians manipulated by a government committed to war? Would the world’s suffering of the last eighty years really have been significantly greater had the allies lost the war? Was the Gallipoli expedition planned and conducted with a seriousness befitting the preciousness of the lives at stake? These are not theological but historical questions. These questions help test whether large religious symbols are appropriately used in connection with a war. Before describing the soldiers' death in sacrificial terms, for example, we should have asked ourselves who was sacrificing whom.

From the Christian perspective any attempt to attribute large significance to Anzac Day and to wars is suspect. When we say that people sacrificed their lives for an abstract cause like victory or nationhood, we easily imply that their lives and deaths are given value only by the cause they serve. We lose sight of the preciousness of each human life, and equate human value with usefulness. Rhetoric about war is particularly vulnerable to this instrumentalising of human beings, because its core business implies that human lives are expendable.

Each generation will find new meaning in the celebration of Anzac Day. Many recent changes focus on human values. The practice of children carrying their ancestors' medals emphasises the human dimension of the event, and particularly the way in which anyone’s death affects a network of relationships. By allowing the soldiers of other nations, particularly those of once hostile nations, to join the march, too, we recognise that war is a shared experience. The combatants share a common humanity. By emphasising this common humanity we more easily recognise the need for reconciliation with past enemies. These new aspects celebrate the human dimensions of war, and not the war-making of humanity.

More ambiguous are the recent nationalist emphases in the celebration of Anzac Day—the proliferation of flags, the singing of national anthems, and the desire to make Anzac Day emblematic of Australian values. These things diminish the real humanity of those who have died in order to allow another generation to inflate its image of itself. But good historians puncture grandiloquence and invite us to return to the human reality of the events that generated Anzac Day. Truth and modesty, after all, would be commendable Australian values.



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew, for a beautifully expressed and well thought easily assimilated article. I particularly appreciated your thoughts on "sacredness". Shalom

Heather | 19 April 2007  

Thank you Andrew for giving to me a proper sense of what Anzac Day is for. I grew up with its celebration as an 'oral history' tradition. What adults, including uncles and brothers , had experienced and remembered and sometimes articulated. Your thoughts provide me with the means to articulate the meaning of Anzac Day for my grandchildren. John

John McQualter | 20 April 2007  

I can't disagree with the rational logic or theological insights, Andrew. But I feel you have somehow missed the "heart" issues of Anzac Day. Rightly (or as you suggest, wrongly) Australians in the generations straddling 1915 came to see the courage, mutual support and determination of the AIF as significant elements of the Australian "myth" of BEING AUSTRALIAN. I believe this is the side of Anzac celebrations which is being more emphasised, and is something well worth celebrating. In fact, I see much more significance in April 25 than I do in January 26. In legal terms, Australia Day is January 1; in "consciousness" terms, it is April 25.

Jim Paton | 24 April 2007  

Even after these years, my wife cries for the boy who was conscripted and taken away from her, and never came home, long before I met her.

David Arthur | 24 April 2007  

Thank you for this timely and well balanced article; in recent years there have been regrettable displays of chauvinism by some of our national leaders. These have done nothing to further the cause of peace and reconciliation

David Dyer | 24 April 2007  

Anzac Day is in a process of renewal as many young Australians seek meaning in their identity.

It has become the holiest expression of our civil religion in a way that Australia Day can never be. Because of the sense of numinous that accompanies it, Anzac Day becomes a quiet solemn expression, far removed from the jingoism currently being created around Australia Day.

As such, it avoids the pitfalls of over nationalism. We have never been like the Americans, and God willing, never becomes like the. Should Anzac Day ever become purely nationalist, Australia will have lost its soul.

It is a religious day that does not depend on any particular faith to find expression.

Yet despite this, in all the essays I have written on our civil religion, I have yet to satisfactorily explain why Anzac Day has come to be synonomous with a spiritual expression of being Australian. It just is. To plagiarise Manning Clark, Anzac Day is not about Nationalism, it's about something deeper.

Trevor Melksham | 24 April 2007  

Thanks Andrew, and as a minister being asked to speak at our local Anzac Day service, you have given me food for thought about how to make sure that I use Christian symbols in an appropriate way. One of my significant memories is seeing a documentary about WW2, where an Australian soldier admitted on camera, that after his brother was killed by the Germans, he took no more prisoners.
War I'm sure is necessary at times. But it's bloody awful at the same time.
So thanks for you reflections.

Geoff Piggott | 25 April 2007  

I like your article. I read it thinking of why I go to the local ceremony at 8am tomorrow (and cant get anyone else in the family to). I go certainly to celebrate war in any way and i share the views you make about war above.

I got because of the futility of war and as a way of saying way is a terrible waste and we want no more of it, no more of politicans dragging us into any war.

But I wonder how much of what I go for - peace - comes thru on the day of the ceremony or whether I should be 'demonstrating' my desire publically in another way (I did attend all the marches against our involvment in Iraq a few year ago.

I do feel for those who went for what they may have thought was a good cause (probably mixed with adventure for those guys at that age also)and for their senseless and meaningless destruction in the bigger picture (as per what you painted above). Peace to you'

Jim | 25 April 2007  

I feel very sad about what happened then.This a vey sad thing to happen to the soldiers of Australia and New Zealand

peter | 25 April 2007  

Your emphasis on humanity rather than nationalism, and especially the question 'who sacrifices who to whom?" are spot on.

Two brief responses:

a) I'm not at all sure about having descendants of veterans who have died march is a helpful notion. When a military flag wears out, it is not restored but is preserved 'as is', without attempts to preserve it from natural decay. Perhaps there is a parallel here.

Marching to represent a living person who is too inform to do so is one thing (my own case) but allowing descendants of those who have died to do runs the risk of 'freezing' the march into a war-focussed event, rather than allowing it to adapt as years pass by and (hopefully) we reach a time where it has lost this altogether, and indeed celebrate '60 years of Australian peace-keeping'.

b) I find attractive the idea that Anzac Day is more a national day than Jan 1 and especially 26 - but want to strongly resists defining what it means to be Australian in Anzac-only terms. White, European-originated Australians (such as myself) may have had our sense of national identity shaped deeply by the participation of our forefathers in WWI, and in a different way by WW2, which included the possibility of invasion, but this is not the most helpful way to define our current identity.

Richard White's Inventing Australia long ago convinced me that we need to be very wary of all attempts to define this nation rather than to continue to describe it and so continue to learn who we are in national terms - which in Christian terms is a sub-ultimate in view of our more fundamental humanity, and in penultimate reality terms secondary to what the living, creative and redemptive God is bringing us to become .

Charles Sherlock | 26 April 2007  

i thought that was a tear jerker when i heard that, i loved it Andrew

hannah | 30 April 2008  

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