Resurrection

One of the great joys of my working week is that there is a group of ministers of local churches who meet together each Tuesday, to read through the Scripture texts set for the coming Sunday, and reflect together on their meaning, as part of our sermon preparation.  Our sharing often goes beyond the boundaries of the texts themselves as we wrestle with the issues faced by our congregations and our society, and support one another in our common work.

This week, as we considered the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, we touched also on the fact that the centennial ANZAC day is not far away, and already there is much propaganda from many points of view cluttering our social discourse.  In that context, one of my colleagues remembered this poem and shared it with the rest of us.  Its author, Hermann Hagedorn, had seen action in the trenches of the first world war, and sought to reflect on that experience in the light of his Christian faith.  It is, I think, an extraordinarily beautiful vision, and so I felt moved to share it here with a wider audience.  I would be fascinated to read how others find it!

Resurrection, by Hermann Hagedorn 

Not long did we lie on the torn, red field of pain.

We fell, we lay, we slumbered, we took rest,

With the wild nerves quiet at last, and the vexed brain

Cleared of the wingèd nightmares, and the breast

Freed of the heavy dreams of hearts afar.                                                     5

We rose at last under the morning star.

We rose, and greeted our brothers, and welcomed our foes.

We rose; like the wheat when the wind is over, we rose.

With shouts we rose, with gasps and incredulous cries,

With bursts of singing, and silence, and awestruck eyes,                              10

With broken laughter, half tears, we rose from the sod,

With welling tears and with glad lips, whispering, “God.”

Like babes, refreshed from sleep, like children, we rose,

Brimming with deep content, from our dreamless repose.

And, “What do you call it?” asked one. “I thought I was dead.”                     15

“You are,” cried another. “We’re all of us dead and flat.”

“I’m alive as a cricket. There’s something wrong with your head.”

They stretched their limbs and argued it out where they sat.

And over the wide field friend and foe

Spoke of small things, remembering not old woe                                          20

Of war and hunger, hatred and fierce words.

They sat and listened to the brooks and birds,

And watched the starlight perish in pale flame,

Wondering what God would look like when He came.

What we have heard

This is the text of a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 20:19-31.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That’s what Thomas said when the other disciples said they had seen the risen Lord.   It was, I think, strange of him to say; Thomas was with Jesus and the others when Lazarus was raised. He already knew, from personal experience, that raising from the dead was a possibility; so if it was a reality for Lazarus, why hesitate at accepting it for Jesus?

Perhaps he was by nature a pessimist (as someone who has also been accused of pessimism, I might prefer to call it realism). On the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus announced that he was going to Bethany, it was Thomas who encouraged the disciples to accompany Jesus; “that we may die with him.” Was he the sort of person who protected himself from disappointment by imagining the worst possible outcome in a given situation?

What I find interesting is that despite Jesus’ invitation, the text does not say that Thomas actually touched the risen Jesus. In the end, when he saw Jesus and heard him respond to his struggles, that was enough for Thomas to say, “My Lord and my God!”

I’d suggest that the sharing of this little exchange between Jesus and Thomas is designed to throw a light back on the experience of ordinary believers who would hear and read this gospel. All through the story up until now, Thomas has been following Jesus faithfully, if not fully understanding what is happening; here he sees clearly for the first time.

So what does that have to say to us? Faith is not, in this way of narrating it, something static but rather dynamic, having the potential for growth and change. There is faith based on signs and faith that needs none; faith which is shallow and faith which is deep, faith faltering and faith growing. Faith is not, in this gospel, only a decision made once for a lifetime, but a commitment made anew in every decision.

Faith is, then, a process. But to be really Christian faith it must be a process – however haphazard – towards a truer understanding of Christ, and of God’s grace. It’s not enough just to be on a journey; one must eventually arrive at the proper destination, and be able to echo Thomas in saying, “my Lord and my God.”

What Thomas is being invited to believe in – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and Jesus’ renewed relationship with his friends. Thomas’ failure is not in misunderstanding the nature of resurrection but in requiring a special, individual assurance of it: he wants a proof other than the testimony of the group of believers. But beyond the first moments of encounter, lost in history, it is through the Church that the world comes to belief, not by an ongoing series of special events.

This all suggests to me that faith needs ongoing input. We need one another in this process; because if we forsake one another, it is possible to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that go with him. We cannot tell in advance what light will break forth from God during a particular conversation or worship encounter. We cannot know when a friend will offer a word of wisdom; when the preacher will say something particularly helpful; when the music will be more uplifting than we expected; when the Eucharist will be celebrated in a way in which we finally find healing and forgiveness for some sin or sorrow that has been plaguing us for ages.

When Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he was not encouraging blind faith. He offers himself up to us for scrutiny; not physically as he did for Thomas, but through the Scriptures and the liturgy and through the lives of believers. This part of the gospel puts forward the idea that a persuasive presentation of the story of Jesus can change people’s lives for the better, even provide them with eternal life if they accept the truth in the story. John does not call us to an unreflective faith, but rather one that is led to worship after a good hard look at the life and works of Jesus, and after one has actually encountered this risen Lord.

This gospel bids us to put Jesus to the test, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is a call that many have heeded, and it helped them immeasurably. Jesus Christ is our total foundation, for he is our Lord and our God, whether we recognize him as such or not.

Of course, Jesus also said “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” He calls us to be a people sent out as agents just as he was, and sent to perform the same kind of ministry, offering forgiveness of sin and eternal life through Jesus the way. In the ordination service, priests are exhorted to take up this calling with joy and dedication; but I feel that it’s a very great pity that we don’t put the same words into the service of baptism, because that calling belongs to us all, as a community of the whole, not only to particular people within it.

We all – each of us – receive the Holy Spirit, just as the early disciples did when Jesus breathed on them. This is what makes it possible for us to be the body of Christ, a community of those who take up the work that is still not yet complete. The crucial task for us is conveying – in all the ways available to us, in word, in sacrament, in music and art, in quiet care for one another – the heart of the good news about the risen Jesus, about forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And so I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, this Easter season, to take up this calling with joy and dedication.

The Lord be with you.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This is the text of a sermon for Easter morning, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is John 20:1-18.

Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?

We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?

I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?

For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.

Why does it matter – you might well ask – why the Magdalene wept? It matters because she’s not the only one to weep.  Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.

We bring all of this history with us to the drama of Easter. If Friday was a time for remembering our guilts, our shames and our doubts, perhaps the door of the empty tomb is the time for remembering our frailties, our vulnerabilities, our fears of failure and of worthlessness.

But this is all a bit morbid for Easter morning, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if I stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.

And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of worthlessness, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name.   Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.

Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Easter story on board as part of our story, our identity, is – says Rowan Williams – an indispensable part of our relationship with God. He puts it thus: “Like a growing thing beneath the earth, we protest at the darkness and push blindly up in search of light, truth, home – the place, the relation where we are not lost, where we can live from deep roots in assurance. Mary goes blindly back to the tomb, and finds her self, her home, her name… Mary is not dead because Jesus is not dead… and her continuing life will have to do with the daily refusal to accept that loss and oppression can simply be lived with or shrugged off. Growth is in the passionate constancy of returning to what seems a grave… to the dim recollection of a possibility of love, in the hope of hearing one’s name spoken out of the emptiness… If we answer that call, and find our story given back to us, our name and our memory, that story turns the corner into life and promise, and, most importantly, “calling” in the fuller sense. We are given a task to do, given a gift to give. Mary is bidden not to touch or hold or cling to the recovered Lord, but to go to her brothers and tell them that she has seen the Lord.”*

The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world. Here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.

This is a calling, my brothers and sisters, at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But here we are, in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be. Let’s not miss the moment.

*The section marked as a quote is taken from a passage in Rowan Williams’ book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, (which I heartily recommend).  I have taken the liberty of changing some of the words to fit better within a spoken delivery without, I hope, doing violence to his meaning.

So that no one may boast

This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Ephesians 2:1-10.  

One of the nice things about being a curate is the support and focus on ongoing professional development which is built into the role. I received a particularly timely example of that this week; the diocese sent out to all of us curates a “log book” of competencies which we should be developing, to be completed in consultation with our supervising vicars. It runs to sixty-five pages and includes such detailed thoughtful questions as whether I include copyright information on orders of service, and whether I’m aware of the parish demographics. (You can quiz me later).

The reason I’m calling it timely is that it came as I was pondering our epistle reading this morning, and Paul’s statement that we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. I am fairly confident, even after a quick glance through this enormous log book, that each curate is going to feel that indeed, no one may boast!

So taking this kind of inventory is – for me, at least – a useful exercise in humility. But it left me wondering where, for this parish as a whole, we tend to sit on the spectrum from humble to boastful.

We are not, it must be said, particularly loud in trumpeting our strengths. That would be, after all, a bit crass. But it seems to me that we are, as a group, fairly confident about our own quality. We do liturgy well, the choir are a treat to listen to, we’re friendly over a superb morning tea, and we have the kind of ethos which inspires a quiet confidence that we are the “right” kind of Christians; open-minded, liberal, intelligent, well-resourced.

It left me wondering whether we actually feel we need God for very much? Or do we, perhaps, subconsciously expect that we are doing God a favour by inviting Him to join us?

Forgive me for asking hard questions. It is Lent, after all; the season for hard questions and careful answers.

It is a normal human longing to want to be appreciated, valued and recognized for our potential. And humility does not mean thinking demeaning and low thoughts about ourselves. It’s not denying the truth of our achievements or thinking less of ourselves. Humility stems from an honest understanding of who we are. Coming back to Paul’s comment about boasting, humility comes from remembering our total dependence on God; that we stand before his throne no better than any other in that great crowd, and each receiving even life itself as a gift from His hand.

Longings to be appreciated and valued can motivate us to establish our identity in secondary things – things we are proud of but can lose. But those who follow Jesus are chosen, loved, appreciated and important to the creator of the universe. We are the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. We are free to be who we are, no more and no less, in an unforced way which has nothing to prove, at home with God and in our own skin, and not looking to others against whom we can measure our quality.

So if there is amongst us any temptation away from humility, how can we respond to it? I think the absolute foundation has to be time with God. As we keep company with Jesus, more and more we will see ourselves in the light of his grace; and our identity will be shaped not by secondary, external things, but by our relationship with Him. There’s no quick fix to this, no short cut. It takes giving real time to it. But, on the other hand, there’s no wasted time either. If you can start by only finding a little time, God will be at work in you even in that little time. (Although now seems a good time to suggest that the quiet afternoon next week is an excellent opportunity to set aside some solid time, and to encourage you to consider coming along).

Another suggestion I came across is the idea of writing a resume, not of your expertise, but of your character. To take an inventory of your integrity, your willingness to help others, your generosity, your compassion, and so on, and to notice where you might have some growing to do. Because you see, so much of a Christ-like character rests on humility as a foundation; you can’t be willing to help others when you’re afraid they’ll then be better than you. You can’t be compassionate when you’re more concerned with your own standing. Taking such an inventory can show you your blind spots. I’m not saying it’s easy; just that it can be worthwhile. And it is Lent, after all; the season for things which are not easy, but worthwhile.

And all of this focus on humility does have a purpose. Paul finished this section of his argument by pointing out that we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Just as curates are assessed on their competency so that we can eventually emerge from this time ready for the good works which lie ahead of us, time for reflection on our weaknesses and working to strengthen them – which is really a form of repentance – is all part of getting ready for what comes next.

We might be a community which does many things well, but of this I am sure – new things to do well await us, prepared by God to be our new, improved, way of life. We only need to be willing to look for them and take them up; to catch enough of the vision ahead to be eager and enthusiastic about what God is making us.

Not a lolly bar

(I should note that this blog post was spurred by discussion on another blog post, here.  I was asked there about why I believe that the creation account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, but the resurrection of Christ is.  That’s not something susceptible to sound bite answers, so I am providing the beginning of a response here and inviting further discussion to develop).

One of the criticisms often levelled at Christians – particularly those of us not at the extremely conservative end of the church – is that we “pick and choose” what to believe.  That we decide to take literally the bits of the Bible and Christian teaching that we like, and redefine or explain away those which are distasteful, challenging or incompatible with a well-informed contemporary world view.

It seems to me that this accusation rests on a couple of premises; first, that constructing a sense of the shape and content of Christian faith is an individual, rather than communal, exercise.  And second, that the understanding of much of Scripture as conveying theological (but not necessarily scientific or historical) truth is a new thing, a retreat from the progress of science and a way of attempting to preserve some credibility for a discredited faith.

Neither of those premises is, to my way of thinking, sound.  My aim in this post is to set out some explanation of how Christians go about building a way of understanding the Bible which is in keeping with a basic “rule of faith,” and some of the principles by which Christians decide how to read particular parts of Scripture literally, or to draw meaning out of the text in various other ways.  I do not have the time to set forward a full introduction to hermeneutics (theory of text interpretation); Christian hermeneutics is a rich discipline in its own right, with roots both in classical philosophy and Jewish rabbinic scholarship.  I intend to only put forward a few basic ideas and invite discussion on them.

So.  First let me address the idea that Christian faith is an exercise in picking out the bits that I, personally, like and find easy to integrate into my world view and lifestyle.  Undoubtedly, there are people who take this “lolly bar” approach, taking on board the chocolate-coated ideas about God and love and rejecting the aniseed-flavoured bits about genocide and death penalties, without a criterion much more robust than what tastes (or feels) “good.”  Some of these people end up as syncretists, some as heretics, some muddle along basically orthodox but without realising it or giving it much thought.  These, however, are not the people with whom I think my discussion is concerned, because these people are not really thinking about their faith claims (or the claims faith might make on them) in a very critical way.

For those of us, though, who do engage in critical thought about our faith, we very quickly encounter a basic reality; we do not do so alone.  We belong to a community which has had since close to its beginning agreement about the essential content of our faith.  Whatever else we have argued about (which is just about everything), the Apostles’ and (a bit later) the Nicene Creeds have been the litmus test of orthodoxy in the east and west, for Catholics and Protestants.  Churches with a liturgical tradition have kept these creeds at the heart of baptism services and as an integral part of regular public worship, because they are a guard against the picking and choosing which we might otherwise be tempted to do.  These creeds provide the “rule of faith” against which our own personal readings must be measured.  They do not seek to define every doctrine or answer every question, but they seek to set forth the essential matters against which we can measure our own ideas and readings of Scripture to see if they are in accord with what Christians have affirmed in every time and place.  This discipline – whatever other criticisms you might make of it – is the exact opposite of picking and choosing.  Here are the non-negotiables, and whoever claims to know and turn to Christ must work to accept them (you will note that the resurrection and ascension feature in both of these creeds).

So much for the essentials.  But there’s a great deal of Scripture beyond what defines the essentials, all of it (Christians believe) God-breathed and useful for teaching etc.  But clearly, not all of it can be read directly as if it is dictated by God, to be understood literally and accepted unquestioningly.  (And if you want to argue about that, have a look at Psalm 137:9 and its celebration of the violent death of infants; and get back to me about how you understand that).  So how does one decide how to understand a given text?  (Note: for this part of the discussion as well, the answer is always – partly – not alone; we are in a community of faith; we read, study, reflect, live and grow together and our understanding can never be idiosyncratic).

– Genre, genre, genre.  What type of text is it?  Is it a song, a poem, a letter, a historical record, a satire?  What are the conventions for that genre of text?  For example, the conventions for poetic expression are very different than for a military report.  “The Bible” is in fact a collection of many works (many of them composites of older texts), written at different times, in different cultural settings and languages, and these works are in a large range of genres and conform to very different conventions of expression.  Identifying the genre of a text and the conventions that pertain to that genre helps the reader to “decode” the meaning of the writer.

– Context, both of the writer and his/her concerns, and of the events recorded in the text (sometimes described as its Sitz im Leben).  For example, the Sitz im Leben reflected in much of the book of Job is that of a legal dispute; the imagery and conventions of speech used place Job as the accuser in an ancient trial, in which he calls on God to answer as defendant.  This presentation of the question of suffering as an ancient courtroom drama is an interpretive key for the reader.

– How does a particular text relate to the “big picture” of the essentials of Christian faith?  If we take a verse about killing infants, do we give that higher interpretive priority than the verse that says that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance?  All Scripture might be God-breathed, but each Scripture needs to find its place within a clear theological framework.

– Other relevant information.  Are there textual variants, and if so, what do they suggest about how the text might be read?  What do other literary or historical sources tell us about a text?  Do they shed light on its sources, its composition, its dating?  Do they confirm or challenge its account of various matters?   How does all of this affect how we make sense of what the text has to say about God?  (This is also where – for example – scientific considerations might come into play.  The “two books” principle – that God authored two books, that of nature, and that of Scripture, and that, since God does not lie, if interpreted correctly they cannot disagree – is a useful starting point for reflection on these matters).

– Reception of the text.  Why was this text included in the canon of sacred Scripture?  What did the earliest Jewish and Christian communities value it for?  How have scholars in various traditions understood the text?  Has it been read universally as a literal account, or has it been read typologically, anagogically, tropologically or in other non-literal ways?  What reasons have scholars given for their readings of it, and how do their readings accord with all of the above considerations?

And so on.  That’s really just a very quick run down, off the top of my head, of some considerations in a very complex area.  I hope that what it demonstrates is that a robust Christian faith is a disciplined intellectual endeavour.  It takes hard thinking, it takes education, it takes dialogue, it takes costly integrity, it takes humility and the willingness to be wrong and the openness to being corrected.  What it is not, is a sojourn at the spiritual lolly bar, picking and choosing on a whim.

Transfiguration

This is the text of a sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Mark 9:2-9.  Observant long-term readers might recognise that it has much material in common with last year’s Transfiguration sermon; normally I try not to recycle, but in this case I had received poor feedback on last year’s and had set myself the challenge of trying to use the good bits of it in a way which came across much better.  Not sure whether I was entirely successful!

My brothers and sisters, I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?

Consider that light is an important symbol in Mark’s gospel. Think of Jesus’ teaching, where he said: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” Light is an essential attribute of God and points to God’s final salvation dawning already in the darkness of the world, through the splendor of Christ.

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation. It really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them the foundations for their own understanding and proclamation of the good news later on, after the resurrection. This event then is a potent reminder that God’s last word in Christ is one of life and joy, even if what we experience in the interim is otherwise.

Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.

In order to make sense of the vision of restoration and hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “It is not the sky which has become the image of God, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor any other visible creature. You alone have become the image of the nature which surpasses all intelligence, the impression of true divinity, the receptacle of the blessed life: become, in regarding that light, what it is.”

It is the same light of love which overflowed from the inner life of God in creation, and again at the incarnation, which should draw each of us out of an enclosed individualism into the beauty and luminosity of Godly relationship; with God, with each other, and with all of creation.

So, since we have as our hope a vision of perfect peace and human flourishing, that commits us to work for these things; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

May we be faithful stewards of it.

 

Anzac as ‘civil religion’

I wrote this article for the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition, and they have graciously given me permission to publish it here as well (I have edited it slightly for this blog post).  To give some context, particularly for international readers, “ANZAC” stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” and refers to a group of soldiers in the First World War who have come to hold a defining place in Australian history and identity.  As we approach the centenary of the events in which they participated, many observers are concerned at the way their legacy is being used to promote certain attitudes in our society.  This piece is part of an effort to critique this public discourse.

Anzac has been widely described as Australia’s “civil religion,” providing a secular country with a mythology, set of rituals and memorials which together help to shape a sense of national identity. In religion, it is a well-established principle that the stories we tell ourselves, the rituals in which we participate and the monuments we erect shape our thinking in ways which flow out into our actions. This will happen whether we are conscious of it or not; but becoming conscious of it allows us to be critical, and to choose how we engage with our traditions, in ways which align with our core values and ethics. It is with that aim – of raising consciousness of the influence of Anzac, in order to equip people to be critical and empowered in their engagement with it – that I offer this analysis.

First, some background. The Anzac landing at Gallipoli, on 25th April 1915, was the first action where Australians fought as Australians, from an independent sovereign country, rather than as British colonials. The attempted attack on Turkey was poorly planned and executed, and ultimately unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the Australians drew pride from having done what was asked of them, and blamed their British commanders for the lack of success. From very early after the war, British and Australian views of this action and the behavior of the soldiers differed, and at times sharp historical disagreement has broken out. However, within Australia, a consistent view of the Anzacs and the “Anzac spirit” has become established in the public consciousness.

Mythology

The mythology of Anzac has a number of strands interwoven in a complex pattern. Former Prime Minister John Howard could describe the Anzacs as having left a national “creed” of personal courage, initiative and common purpose. The rhetoric of sacrifice is strong around occasions of formal commemoration. But if we speak of sacrifice, should we not ask to what, and for what, those sacrifices – a noble euphemism for death, injury, trauma and grief – were made?

In the first place, the language of sacrifice was a valuable psychological defence against the trauma of war and the despair of grief; the thought that all the death and destruction had been for nothing was unbearable to grieving families and responsible leaders; it was necessary that it be given transcendent meaning.

It is generally not well remembered today that at the time of the outbreak of World War One, war was often justified in terms drawn from social Darwinism (popular at the time). According to the social Darwinists, the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest meant that struggle between national groups was inevitable, and war was the ennobling mechanism by which such struggle would be furthered and humanity improved. It was to these ideals, much more than for democracy and freedom (often referenced today in speeches and writing around Anzac) that these young men were sacrificed.

More than that, Anzac has often been identified as the “creation myth for White Australia.” Australia Day, and the colonization of Australia by British settlers, have become divisive in the Australian community, particularly over the issues of the treatment of Indigenous people. In contrast, Anzac day allows the glossing over of a problematic colonial past, and the marginalization of other formative experiences for the nation, in favour of the “one day of the year” on which Australians can be united, across racial, cultural and religious barriers, in celebrating a supposedly inclusive national identity.

All of this was repackaged in the politics of nationalism in the 1980s and onward. Anzac Day took the focus off the issues popularized by the “black armband” view of Australian history, and put in the spotlight something against which there was less resistance (although critique was not entirely absent).

National identity

The first key part of the national identity supported by the focus on Anzac is that of distinctiveness from England. The stereotypical Anzac is an idealized Anglo-Celtic male; tough, with a wry sense of humour, leery of authority but loyal to his mates; practical and hard-working. He is independent, rugged, made tough by the sunburnt country which produced him, in contrast to English men who were not formed in such tough conditions. The celebration of Anzac is a celebration of a nation come of age and come into its own.

In this vein, it is worth nothing that the British monarch sends a formal message to Australia every 25th April acknowledging the occasion. In the early decades after the war, when Imperial praise still mattered, these messages were published on the front page of newspapers. Although the messages continue, their relevance is not still such that they are published at all.

There is also the question of how war relates to national identity. A nation which sees a battle as its wellspring of identity is likely to normalize militaristic values and support for past, present and future war. All wars become an extension of the one event, animated by the “Anzac spirit,” in which all Australian military personnel participate. This is reflected in the involvement in Anzac day ceremonies of veterans of later conflicts, and provides a justification for the ongoing deployment of Australian forces overseas in conflicts not directly touching Australia (“wars of choice” rather than necessity), and particularly the “war on terror.”

Despite this, Anzac as a civil religion does not make great moral or spiritual demands on its supporters; except one, that of loyalty and respect. Questioning of Anzac Day or its associated mythology is likely to provoke a strong response. It would seem that the minute’s silence – “Lest We Forget” – is ironically extended to muffle those who would seek to remember that the national identity promoted by Anzac is not one in which all are equally able to see themselves reflected (including many feminists, pacifists, proponents of multiculturalism, and those who are suspicious of aggressively asserted nationalism, all of whom find themselves attacked for their views).

Rituals (in particular, Anzac Day)

Anzac Day ceremonies have changed over time. Originally, they were largely an occasion for personal mourning, for the expression of grief, regret and remorse. However, as those who participated in World War One have died, this has allowed others to shape the ceremonies to meet a changing set of needs. Today, Anzac Day is just as much a festival of national pride and national identity in the form of the “Anzac spirit.”

These ceremonies do not take this form accidentally. Significant government funding, publicity and official rhetoric goes into shaping these events. Commemoration programmes have been seen as creating significant job opportunities. School resources have been developed by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (This department also funds and administers “commemorative missions” to overseas theatres of war, which are part of on ongoing programme of public rituals). The inclusion of children and grandchildren of veterans in the marches extends Anzac beyond its historical context and promotes the sense that the “spirit of Anzac” is perpetuated and extended through the general Australian community.

“Pilgrimage” either to Gallipoli, or to the Kokoda Trail (a World War Two site), has also become a popular ritual associated with Anzac observances. This sort of pilgrimage is seen as a character-building exercise, a forging of a personal identity in line with the Australian identity. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke described this practice as a “regeneration of the spirit of Anzac,” and the Australian government has worked hard to ensure continued Australian access to these sites for this purpose.

The Anzac mythology and the national identity which it promotes are – at this level – official government policy. “On this day,” according to Former Prime Minister John Howard, “we enrich ourselves” by drawing on the resources of this part of our past.

Memorials

World War One memorials began to be erected before the war had ended, in part in order to inspire or encourage (or indeed shame) other young people to be prepared to serve. This was particularly an issue in Australia, where two referenda on conscription were defeated and all soldiers were volunteers. In New Zealand, where conscription had been introduced, there were fewer memorials, they were erected later, and they tend to carry only the names of those who died. In Australia, memorials often also carry the names of those who served and survived; shaming those who did not serve by their omission.

In addition to this, there were restrictions on the type of monument which could be erected. Those deemed “inappropriate” – that is, those which might undermine support for the war on the home front – were refused permission. Such restrictions were maintained after the war, for example, in the NSW Local Government Act, which required all memorials to be approved by the War Memorials Advisory Board. One of the sculptors commissioned to make several memorials is recorded as finding the restrictions difficult, “an incentive to effort but not art.”

Records of the unveiling of memorials describe speeches which expressed hope that the memorial would inspire the young to emulate the men whom it honoured. And yet, even then, some local newspapers reported such unveilings in headlines like “War Glorifier Unveiled”; local communities did not always gather around such memorials without disagreement as to their meaning. War memorials were often opposed by veterans who felt that they glorified war, rather than being honest about the reality of it.

There is one very unusual aspect of war memorials in Australia, and that is their ubiquity in churches. Church “honour boards” listing those of their congregation who served brought this aspect of Anzac into explicitly sacred space and claimed for it a level of sanctity not otherwise seen, creating a nexus between civil religion and the church on this matter.

Conclusion

This brief survey has attempted to tease out some of the psychological, historical, and political ways in which the Anzac story and related observances have been developed and used to shape the attitudes and behaviours of contemporary Australians.

The question, for readers, is whether the values of nationalism, militarism, and the marginalization of all but a very narrow view of Australian heritage, identity and values, are those which they wish to adopt as their own? Or do we each individually, and together as a community, need to do more work in order to shape a national identity which will articulate different values and reward different behaviours? That is a conversation in which I hope I can encounter – and be enriched by – a great diversity of viewpoints and values.

For further reading:

Lake, M. et al. “What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History.” University of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 2010.

Melleuish, Gregory. “Religion and Politics in Australia,” Political Theology, Vol. 11 Issue 6, 2010, pp909-927.

Rainbird, Paul. “Representing nation, dividing community: the Broken Hill War Memorial, New South Wales, Australia” World Archaeology, Vol. 35 Issue 1, 2003, pp22-35.

Rickard, J. and Spearritt, P, (eds). “Packaging the Past?: Public Histories.” Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1991.

Thomson, Alistair. “History and ‘betrayal’: The Anzac controversy,” History Today, Vol. 43 Issue 1, 1993, pp8-12.