Memorial or Celebration?
Posted on April 23, 2010
Jarrod McKenna has written a piece appropriately titled “Fight or Die: How to Lose Friends & Irritate People”, along with a short video. I think he raises a significant problem for Australian Christians who wish to recognise the courage of Australian soldiers but do not wish to celebrate war.
One of the factors in the recent resurgence of interest in ANZAC Day has been the corresponding decline in mainstream religious participation. In 2005, the New Scientist magazine carried a story about a “religion gene”:
Until about 25 years ago, scientists assumed that religious behaviour was simply the product of a person’s socialisation – or “nurture”. But more recent studies, including those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s religiousness.
Whatever this actually means in practice, it’s clear that we long to believe in a higher, larger truth than ourselves, and more significantly, to participate in rituals that point to that truth. I think that the resurgence of ANZAC memorials and pilgrimages to Gallipoli has its source in this reality. In short, when the religious life of transcendent traditions ((Those religious traditions with a belief in some kind of deity who includes, but also exists outside, human experience)) declines, civil religions take their place. And that is what the resurgence of ANZAC Day is about – civil religion.
Rituals, processions, remembering the dead, even readings from Christian scripture (addressed in Jarrod’s article) – its all there. Now, my point is not that ceremonies which are not explicitly Christian are bad – of course not, ritual is a part of human life, whether externally religious or not. My problem is that such ceremonies induct us into a positive remembrance of war, verging at times on outright celebration, as we revere Gallipoli as a “national creation story”.
None of what I’m saying here negates these facts: that Australian soldiers possess courage; that we should recognise their suffering and bravery; that it is possible that war, like all hardship, can reveal positives in the human character; and that there should be some sort of ritual to remember these things. I affirm these things, and I admire the courage of those who go to war, even as I do not admire the task they fulfil.
But here we come to the nub of the problem. Australia has begun to see our warring history, and Gallipoli in particular, as emblematic of our character as a nation: a place and time where mateship was birthed, as a model for young people to venerate and aspire to, a place wherein the purifying violence of Suvla Bay a nation was truly formed. I do not affirm these things. I do not believe these things are healthy, because they essentially argue that the violence of war is a stable foundation for human relationships, individual character & vocation, and nationhood.
For Christians who follow a Jesus who died willingly to save the world (rather than kill to save it), any memorialising of war is a challenge to our faith. So what kind of memorial could I participate it? From a Christian point of view, any war is a violation of God’s creation, and God weeps over all those who die, and over all those whose participation in war has damaged them. Therefore I would like to see a memorial that remembers, and recognises, the dead from all the wars that Australia has fought in: from the Boer War through to Afghanistan and Iraq. I would like to see a ritual in which the dead of our enemies are brought to our attention, as well as our own dead. That way, ANZAC Day would truly be a remembrance of the horror of war
I finish with this quote from Jarrod McKenna’s own article:
If we say fighting is wrong, we spit in the face of all those soldiers who have bravely served their countries. But if we say the way to fight is with violence,then like those in Matthew’s passion account, we spit in the face of Christ. Do not judge those who did not know there was a better way. But it is a judgment of our Christianity if we remain silent as our governments sacrifice trillions of dollars and the precious lives of young people on the altar of unwinnable wars.