I was watching the news last night on television as they spoke about the many plans across the nation for ANZAC day and the news reader described this day as our ‘most sacred.’ I heard nothing more after that because I found myself wrestling with that assumption. Is ANZAC Day sacred, if by ‘sacred’ we are talking about our God? I know that most of the early ANZAC Day commemorations and services after World War 1 were all run by the Christian Church and parts of the Church are still very much involved in this annual event. But does that make it sacred? Many Christians today would react very strongly against such an idea and are in fact actively not involved in this day and refuse to ‘glorify’ war and nationalism by engaging in this annual event. So let’s reflect on this shall we?
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.
Just an aside here, my paternal great grandfather was one of Australia’s first conscientious objectors in 1914 when he refused to take up arms in World War 1. As a committed Baptist lay preacher and President of the Baptist Union of NSW in 1909, George Whitehouse Griffith was a pacifist and could not bring himself to ‘fight for his country.’ In 2021 he may have had a lot of support for such a stance – but in 1914 he faced a lengthy time in jail and the condemnation of most of our nation’s citizens. So he decided to join the Red Cross instead to help those at war. He was sent to the front line and ended up contracting pneumonia and died before the war ended. So I am sure if old Goerge were here today he would struggle to describe ANZAC Day as ‘sacred.’
I really think 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 to the extent that all human beings are sacred – made in the image of God. Each human being is precious in God’s sight. So, the life and the fate of each soldier who died at Gallipoli and in all conflicts since actually matters. The nobility and generosity shown by soldiers under such extreme pressure also matters. 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.
From the Christian perspective any attempt to attribute large sacred significance to Anzac Day and to wars is problematic. 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 and not precious.
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. There is a huge difference and it is this distinction which may allow more Christians to engage with this special way that honours God and the death of so many of our human brothers and sisters.
So is ANZAC DAY sacred? I don’t this so – at least not in and of itself. Ask a different question, ‘Can we honour God in the way we engage with this annual event?’ and I would certainly affirm that we can. I pray that will be the case this day.