Reflections on Anzac Day

Doug Hynd*

‘Reflections on an Anzac Day service’, Honest History, 4 December 2013

The first Anzac Day of the millennium saw me make the substantial sacrifice of the several hours sleep required if I was to get up in time for the Dawn Service in Canberra. This was a first for me. My 18 year-old son wanted to go because, as he put it, ‘I don’t want to take the holiday for granted. I want to show some respect for what it is about.’ He was certainly not alone in that concern. The estimated 7000 people in attendance that morning included a very large number of under thirties.

The sense of place and occasion, in the open air outside the Australian War Memorial, was striking. The pre-dawn setting of grey scudding clouds, lighted candles, an air of quiet reverent expectancy, the lone bugle call and the occasional harsh cry of sulphur-crested cockatoos provided an appropriate atmosphere for ‘worship’, for that is what took place. The language and structure of the liturgy had sufficient Christian connotations and resonance to slide easily by. I couldn’t quite manage, however, to let the liturgy just wash over me. When I started to probe the implications of what was expressed I was haunted and troubled by the questions that came, then and subsequently.

Australian Defence Force personnel take on the role of sentries in the catafalque party during the ANZAC Day dawn service at the Australian Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar, 25 April 2003 (source: Australian War Memorial PO4159.205; photo: David Dare Parker)

The result was that over the period since that April morning I have found myself trying to probe the theology that had come to expression in the service. The following reflections on the Dawn Service are not meant to be in any way disrespectful or critical, either of those who constructed the service, or of those whose death and loss was and is appropriately mourned. The questions that came pressing on me surfaced because I found myself trying to take seriously both the claims embodied in the liturgy of the Dawn Service and the claims of the Christian gospel. How compatible in the end are the two sets of claims for someone who wishes to be a disciple of Jesus?

The liturgy of sacrifice

It quickly became apparent to me that the language of the Dawn Service gained its moral force and made its liturgical claim on the assent of those of us who were there from its appeal to the theme of sacrifice. They, the Anzacs, had sacrificed their lives, we were told, so that we might have the freedom and the sort of society that we have in Australia today. And the application of the logic and benefits of this sacrifice was extended both implicitly and explicitly to all who had died during other subsequent episodes of warfare in which Australians had been engaged.

Now this claim to the benefits of sacrifice is a powerful one. It is grounded in an emotionally appealing narrative which points to the giving of life as the basis for our assent. The appeal to us is to respond to this ultimate gift with a lived-out response of gratitude in the way we shape our lives as Australian citizens. The exact shape or substantive nature of the response that we as Australians should make to this gift was not, however, clearly spelled out.

As a moral argument calling for such a serious response on our behalf it demands thoughtful consideration from a number of angles. I found myself asking questions as I drove home after the service. Can the appeal carry the moral freight that is required? Does the reading of history provide support for the underlying claim? In other words, is the claim true in its account of history and in the light of the actual outcomes of military conflict? Should we stake our life and death on this account of the death of Australian servicemen and women in warfare?

The historical issues

In the case of the episode at Gallipolli, historically the claim for the benefits that we as Australians have received from the deaths of the servicemen is surely difficult to justify. Certainly it proved to be an important moment in the history of Australian self-definition and the development of the national identity. However, that sense of recognition came much later and it is hard to argue that the deaths in that theatre of war made any real difference to the outcome of World War I. The campaign was a bungled affair of dubious strategic significance.

More widely applied, I find it difficult to sustain the implied argument of the Dawn Service liturgy that the relatively open society that Australia is today is the result of the willingness of men to go to war in a variety of conflicts. Even during World War I the justification for Australian engagement was a matter of bitter political division within this country; the call for conscription was voted down on two occasions. The reasons we have the sort of society that we do is due to a wide variety of contributory causes, historical, social and religious, most of which have little to do with whether Australians fought in a specific battle or not. The form of the claim as advanced has the interesting effect of tending to sacralise the shape of the society we have and place it above criticism.

There are I think further difficulties with this claim of our debt in the present to those Australians who died in war. The claim tends to underplay the ongoing commitment that is required of us all to sustain a relatively open society. It is a commitment which cannot avoid an ongoing struggle to place limits on the exercise of political and economic power. The claim at the same time tends to devalue the commitments of those who have sought to deal peacefully with the ongoing evil within our societies.

Other voices from history whisper in our ears. The issue of violence involved in the dispossession of the Indigenous people during the European invasion of Australia cannot be bypassed. The settlement of this land was not peaceful. What ‘sacrifice’ did those who fought the Indigenous people of this land make and what do we owe to them for shaping the sort of society we have today. Or should we celebrate the death of the Indigenous people who resisted the invaders with the weapons at their disposal?

Let me move to the best case that can be made for the claim of the sacrifice of life by our armed forces so that we can have freedom, the case of World War II. Even this episode is not quite as cut and dried as it seems. Some of the results of that war include the expansion of the range and scope of weapons of mass destruction and a massive arms trade which has caused ongoing havoc in many nations across the globe over the past fifty years.

If we want to credit the positive outcomes to those who died in the battles of World War II, are we willing to credit these dead men and women also with the destructive consequences that we have been left with? If we want to claim the benefits then it will require a lot of qualification if we are to airbrush out the other consequences of that war.

Sacrifice in biblical perspective

So much for the ambiguity of history. Theological issues remain to claim the attention of Christians. On first glance there is a strong case in Christian theology and the Scriptures for an appeal to the theme of sacrifice as a source of moral claim on the way we should live. The main point that I think needs to be acknowledged is that the understanding of sacrifice in the New Testament has little to do with giving up your life in the course of participating in war.

Now the language of sacrifice certainly lends itself to depict the action of service people in war because it does capture the moral commitment to self-giving that may be displayed in acts of genuine sacrifice in the course of war. But the liturgy of Anzac Day and the accompanying myth projects from this limited range of actions to ask us to believe that our nation’s entire history of military undertakings has been motivated by a commitment to self-giving love.

It is worth stopping to consider the nature of sacrifice in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In ancient Israel literal sacrifices were made for a wide variety of related purposes. What was important about sacrifice was not so much the offering itself as the dedication and commitment it represented on the part of the person offering it. The New Testament writers use the language of sacrifice to capture the attitude of moral commitment believers should display. Romans 12 – ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service’ – is an example of this where the sacrifice we are called to make as the people of God is that of our lives, as a form of dedication to God which requires us to not be conformed to the world in our behaviour.

The classic text which is appealed to in the Anzac Day service, though, is ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends‘ (John 15:13). The appeal of this text is unmistakable but, if it is examined closely in the context of the surrounding argument, it does not provide support in any blanket way for the sacrifice of life in war. The words quoted must be read in context. The invocation is preceded by the command, ‘This is my commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.’ You are my friends if you follow my example, says Jesus. The laying down of lives to which we are called is in the pattern of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies. It has nothing to do with taking up arms to destroy the enemy.

National Collection
Miranda, Sydney, New South Wales, 25 April 1945; section of the crowd that attended the Anzac Day Dawn Service at Miranda (source: Australian War Memorial 089021)

The difficulty with being a chaplain

So much for the liturgy and moral claims of the language of the service. Considered more broadly, the Anzac Day service left me ill at ease with the ambiguous role played by Christian chaplains in the service. It struck me as a good example of the transitional place that Christians and the churches find themselves in with respect to their relationship to Australian society at large and signalled both the possibilities and difficulties of engagement and evangelism.

The secularisation thesis in its strong form – that we are moving to a non-religious society – is downright wrong. Australians are ready to worship and seek a spiritual home. The characteristics of what they will respond to in worship are I think ambiguous and the possibilities for misunderstanding substantial.

This ambiguity I found particularly poignantly expressed in the role of the chaplain who delivered the address at the Anzac Day service. It was a moment in which for her to have spoken a distinctly Christian message would have been to cause offence. No doubt about it. To raise a question as to whether the language of sacrifice in war was at odds with the Christian gospel would have been shocking in the extreme. To ask the question ‘to which gods were the lives of those who died in war offered up as a sacrifice?’ would have seemed un-Australian. Yet to me it is a blasphemy to associate the name of the God revealed in Jesus Christ to justify or bless in any way the deadly violence of the twentieth century.

What can you say under such circumstances? What could she say? The message the chaplain offered at the service was one of ‘inspiration’, something which had no intrinsic connection with the story of Jesus. The religious appeal and authority of the chaplain, grounded on her identity as a religious professional, formed the basis for an appeal which used a least common denominator religious, spiritual language stripped largely of its specificity and its challenge. The story she told that morning was also stripped of the elements of the judgement and hope and reconciliation that are all inescapably part of the Christian story

This stripping away of both the challenge and the hope of the gospel seemed then, and still seems to me, to be problematic. To use the authority to speak in such contexts – an authority that you have because of your commissioning by the Christian church to its service – and then to avoid saying anything which makes that identity explicit, yet using that identity to provide an aura of connection with the Christian faith, is to run the risk of misleading people as to what being a Christian and a servant of the church is all about. The chaplain in such a moment faces the danger that the claim of their role as a servant of the state, in the form of the military, will trump their primary identity as a member of the people of God.

Remembering truthfully

How do we as Christians speak truthfully on such an occasion? I came away from the occasion both moved and deeply troubled. Perhaps the way forward is for conversation and discernment within the Church itself over these issues. We need to take this as a first step. We as the Christian community have a tangled history of complicity with the powers of the age and supporting the justifications offered by the State for the use of violence. We need to seek forgiveness for that complicity as part of our journey to recover our identity as a people committed to being witnesses to a reconciling God.

The power of the worship that morning in Canberra came out of the activity of remembering times of great pain and loss and acknowledging the grief of that remembering as a way of trying to find guidance for living in the present. This is something which Christians can understand. Each Sunday we gather to remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in a way which acknowledges its demand for a response in the way we live from day to day.

This weekly moment of remembering is foundational for our identity as the people of God. Shaped by that memory then, how can we find a way to remember truthfully these other powerful moments of grief and loss of the city in which we are resident aliens? Can we remember them in a way which makes for life among us and does not provide further leverage for the powers of death in the world to shape our identity and claim our lives and those of our neighbours as a further sacrifice to its power?

Doug Hynd was a public servant. He has lectured in Christian ethics at Charles Sturt University and is currently undertaking a Ph. D at the Australian Catholic University. This article first appeared in slightly different form in Zadok Perspectives, 72, Spring 2001.

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