Saturday 24 April 2010

Anzac Day and the god of war

Today is Anzac Day, Australia's most sacred religious holiday. All around the country, it is celebrated by the state, the military, the media, the schools – and not least of all by the Christian church.

I usually go into anaphylactic shock at the mere thought of an Anzac Day church service. (This year, I was even invited to preach at such a service: but I politely declined, on the grounds that I'm trying especially hard this year to avoid eternal damnation.) Still, at church this morning I heard a surprisingly good Anzac Day sermon: an explanation of some of the holiday's religious/theological mythology, together with a critique of the way our culture identifies military "sacrifice" with the sacrifice of Christ. (The most common Bible verse on Australian war memorials is, "Greater love hath no man than this...")

The theological mythology of Anzac Day is especially vivid if you look at some of the country's war memorials. Sydney's Anzac War Memorial is designed like an ancient Greek temple. Inside it features Rayner Hoff's stunning 1934 bronze sculpture, Sacrifice, which depicts the body of a soldier held aloft on the altar of his shield, his arms draped across a sword in a posture of crucifixion, while the whole form rises like a phoenix from the flames below. It is a majestic image, a portrayal of worship, devotion and sacrifice. It's hard to imagine a more vivid representation of the cult of war that lies at the heart of the modern nation-state.
Interestingly though, Hoff made two other bronze sculptures for the memorial – but only Sacrifice was included. One of the other sculptures, The Crucifixion of Civilisation, would have challenged this central image – and it might also have challenged the romanticisation of war that has become so prevalent in Australia today:
In this sculpture, the form of a young naked woman (symbolising Peace) is crucified atop a pile of corpses, limbs, weapons, and other wreckage of war. She is crucified on the weapons of Mars, the Roman god of war. The huge helmet of Mars gapes over her like some monstrous ravening mouth. From a distance, the whole hideous scene forms a traditional symbol of victory. Hoff himself described the sculpture like this: "Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars. The Greek helmet animalistically gapes over the head of expiring Peace, the cuirass of the body armour hard and brutal in contrast to her lithe woman's body."

It's a shame this piece is absent from the Anzac War Memorial. And it's a shame our churches have not reflected more on the religious symbolism of this holiday. In these devout celebrations, it's surely worth asking to whom these devotions are offered year after year – the Father of Jesus, or an insatiable pagan god of war?

During the insightful sermon that I heard this morning, the preacher displayed various images of Australian war memorials. My two-year-old son was with me. When he saw the Sydney memorial (pictured above), he whispered in my ear: "Is it a church?" I replied, "Yes, sort of." Still looking at the image, he said, in his broken syntax: "Little bit scary church." I can't think of a more apt critique.

You might also like to check out a new critique of Anzac Day by some of Australia's leading historians: What's Wrong With ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History (UNSW Press 2010).


Anonymous said...

This morning, during the opening prayer of the service I prayed for the end of the time when families will have to mourn the loss of their children to the brutality of war and for the reign of peace. I thought this was a fairly generous mention of the occasion; the service was, after all, an Easter service, not an Anzac day service. I received a number of angry comments after the service that I did not properly respect the 'glorious dead.' I always hate it when my congregation expects the secular calendar to set the agenda for the church. I especially dislike the glorification of war that happens on days such as this when I overhear people mentioning that 'a good war' will sort out today's youth.

Pamela said...

I am leading the prayer at our church service this evening. I'm including a reference to Gallipoli, mentioning Aust. New Zealand and Turkish soldiers and praying for the peace only God can give. I will also be praying for safety in service of our military personnel serving overseas.

Jeff Crocombe said...

Thanks for a very insightful post & for the interesting links.

Anonymous said...

I struggle with a view of ANZAC Day that makes no attempt to differentiate the personal experience of the soldiers from the impersonal and de-personalising reality of war.
I thoroughly despise and lament war. It's most often brought about by those in power who use those not in power to carry out their battles. Defying Mars is an important gospel activity, exemplified by Jesus who submitted himself to the power structures of the day in order to reveal their essential powerlessness over him, and in finality, God.
But the reality of most soldier's experience of combat is one of suffering and damage; that which they must inflict, and that which inflicts them. Yes, there are a number who glory in being warriors, but the majority of those I've ever spent time with lament war as much as most peace activists do.
Do acts of courage and self-sacrifice lose all value when they are the product of lamentable circumstances?

Fat said...

I remember over 50 Anzac days and I do not recall one ever which glorified war.

It has never been a victory celebration but it has ever been a rememberance of sacrifice of self for others.

Surely this speaks to our Christian service and Christ's Easter sacrifice (as did the sermon Ben describes this morning).

In the Church service I attended this morning a cross was laid on a wreath already on the Table. To me this was deeply symbolic of the greater sacrifice of Christ.

As Ben Quoted "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Highanddry said...

While it is appropriate, in my opinion, to speak of the brutal cost of war and the significant loss of life both military and civilian, in the context of worship, it can never be appropriate to confuse a worship service of God with a military memorial service.

Such confusion includes singing the national anthem, displaying the national flag, or replacing liturgy with elements of our secular remembrance services. None of these things worship God.

If we want to honour those brave men and women who sacrificed themselves "for our sakes", we can do it in ways that keep in focus the absolute failure of war to honour God.

God is present in war no doubt and even powerfully breaks through the fear and violence on occasion, but if Jesus Christ reveals the true heart of God, then God weeps deep sobs of grief when we resort to war.

"Lest we forget" the indictment war is on our broken humanity.

J said...

the Father of Jesus, or an insatiable pagan god of war?

Is that an exclusive disjunction (OR), or inclusive?? Given the rhetoric of most flag-waving evangelicals, the latter...

Paul Tyson said...

Stanley Hauerwas’ critique of the idolatry of nationalism is, unsurprisingly, just as needed in Australia as it is in the USA. But this, I doubt very much, we in Australia can understand. It will seem a very disrespectful observation to many to note that not only was Christ not a Digger, he was nothing like a Digger. To give his life over into ‘the hands of sinful men’; to, on a donkey, explicitly reject the way of violence and glory; to refuse to lift a hand in violent defence of himself or those he loved; to defy – in powerful silence – the authority of empire; to denounce (and here vocally and almost violently) the complicity of religious cultus in exploitation, greed and power (the life blood of empire and idolatry); to die as a result of our sin, and to give himself in place of our sin … this is truly the giving of one’s life, and this is the only true model of “greater love hath no man”. This love is not the love of our soldiers who gave their lives “for our country”, though their love be deep. But the love of Nation, and the preparedness to give all for the Nation is a misguided and idolatrous love that Christians subject to the Lordship of Jesus, and Him alone should not be found tainted by.

shane said...

Why does Anzac day need to be understood as a celebration of war (by critics such as ben) when, rather, it is best understood as a remembrance of sacrifice - and a recognition that war is horrible? That seems to me precisely what the Anzac services are doing. After all, we remember Jesus as our atoning sacrifice - but this need not be a celebration of the sacrificial system - rather of its ending. And while the cult of nationalism needs criticism - the alternative is not to denigrate ceremonies of remembrance.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, I too found myself uncomfortable in church this weekend -- even though we didn't have any full-blown ANZAC stuff; it just got mentioned in prayers, etc.

Maybe I'm especially sensitive to this lately because I've been nosing around cathedrals in Europe full of war memorials that teeter on the brink of sanctioning war and justifying those who 'died gloriously in battle'.

But I also feel some sympathy with those who think it appropriate to acknowledge the tragedy of war and honour the memories of those from whose deaths we benefit.

So I was wondering if you could say a little more about what you think the effect might have been of placing both of Hoff's sculptures alongside each other?

Elizabeth said...

Chris - you can find an intersting ediorial on this very topic at the link below.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Elizabeth. I guess I was after something a little more theological -- like some sort of reflection on what might happen if both Sacrifice (with its familiar message) and The Crucifixion of Civilisation were put side by side rather than if one were simply to displace the other.

Basically, I'm keen to know how -- or maybe it's only an 'if' -- we can honour those soldiers who fought and suffered (even in misguided wars) without succumbing to the idolatry of the God of war?

Tyler Wittman said...

"I politely declined, on the grounds that I'm trying especially hard this year to avoid eternal damnation."

LOL! Thanks for this piece.

Pamela said...

Thanks Paul Tyson for your illuminating words. I agree that Christ was "not only not a Digger, he was nothing like a Digger". He was the true model of "greater love hath no man" in rejecting violence. May every land (including those 60 or so countries currently embroiled in conflict) come to know of the peace only God can give.

RAYMONDO said...

Reply to Tyson...To those who do all this hand-wringing about how Jesus was against war, we are all naturally outwardly against war as we know its results, BUT all those negatives must be balanced by the fact that we live in a violent world and if Christian witness and freedom is to continue to exist, we still need soldiers to stand up on our behalf and fight for our freedom or we will be overwhelmed by evil regimes like that of North Korea and Iran.
Nothing good will result from pacifism. Jesus, if he was a pacifist as seems to be suggested should have given a different reply then to the centurion who asked his help!

Unknown said...

Did I miss someone else's comparison of Jesus to a Digger? Where did that come from? What are you referring to here, Paul?

Paul Tyson said...

Sorry Nate, and anyone else who is not from Australia or New Zealand. “Digger” is an Australian word for ‘our’ WW1 soldiers. The On Line Aussie Slang Dictionary defines ‘Digger’ (without reference to New Zealand – sorry fellow Tasmanites) like this:

“A soldier from the Australian Army who served in Turkey during the First World War. So named for their tenacity in “digging in”, both literally and emotionally. Australian Diggers are well respected, particularly on ANZAC day.”

In Australia we have a mythos of the Australian soldier as calmly able to endure all sorts of deprivations (and imperial stupidity… look at Gallipoli as possibly the best example of careless bloodied imperial strategic idiocy from the Great War) because of their practical resourcefulness and their deep bonds of male friendship. And has Ben pointed out, this mythos has often been given a Christlike sacrificial meaning ever since the 1920s by a young nation trying to make sense out of the tragic loss of the cream of a whole generation of young men. It is often claimed that these Diggers “died for us”, thus buying us our freedom and somehow giving birth to the Australian character in so doing.

Raymondo, Judas was a realist about power – as is evident by his obvious familiarity with the means of buying influence in the “real world” – but when Peter sought to prevent Jesus from going to the cross (ie when Peter was being politically and strategically realistic) Jesus rebuked him in the strongest terms of any rebuke we find on the lips of our Lord. There is not a dot of evidence in the New Testament that Jesus had anything other than total disdain for political and military realism. “Pacifism” (this is a very difficult term for it is typically considered as only concerned with NOT fighting, rather – a la Yoder – than as having a costly and positive engagement with conflict itself FOR peace, and for a deep and positive peace which is not simply the absence of war) from Jesus to the present in its Christian forms has never avoided soldiers or conflict zones. Many Quakers, for example, have been non-combatant military medics. I am afraid I do not believe you really understand the Christian “Pacifist” stance. I suggest reading John Howard Yoder’s “The politics of Jesus”, Walter Wink’s “Jesus and non-violence” and Jacques Ellul’s “On violence” before you too confidently debunk ‘pacifistic’ “hand wringing”. It seems to me that you are burning a straw man here.

Unknown said...


Thanks for the clarification. My only association with the terms "Diggers" is in relation to the radical Christian agrarian movement in England begun by Gerard Winstanley. Whether Jesus was that kind of "Digger" would make for an altogether different and interesting conversation in itself.

kim fabricius said...

It looks like Wilde (or Shaw) got his arithmetic wrong: it's (at least) three nations divided by a common language.

Matt Stone said...

Excellent post Ben

Anonymous said...

"There is not a dot of evidence in the New Testament that Jesus had anything other than total disdain for political and military realism."

Well . . . this is slightly more than a dot for realism:

Lu 22:35 Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?" "Nothing," they answered. 36 He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one."

Paul Tyson said...

Dear Anonymous and Raymondo, OK, I over stated my position. Let me say rather that the clear weight of New Testament evidence is that Jesus disdained political and economic realism. We, on the other hand, typically seek to latch onto whatever ‘realistic’ threads we can find in the New Testament so as not to have to be too radical about following Jesus. Rarely do we find a St Francis, a Ghandi, a Tolstoy, a Martin Luther King etc who are wild radicals simply because they really try and take the plunge in following Jesus in little things like giving all they possess to the poor and turning the other cheek when struck. But clearly, this is what Jesus models and what he desires from any who would be his disciple. On that level, I am with Kierkegaard, and would greatly fear to call myself a Christian. Perhaps I am moving towards becoming a Christian, but typically, I just don’t have the trust in God to renounce realism.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

The Fourth of July falls on a Sunday this year. Fuck. Me.

Fr. Robert said...

As a former Royal Marine Commando, and officer..and by the grace of God a Christian and priest/presbyter, I don't agree with your presupposition! Thank God for the human, and only God's knows, the Christian sacfifice of ANZAC Day!

Fr. Robert said...


St Barnabas Broadway (Barneys) said...

Ben, I'd love for you to develop further your thoughts on the distinction between the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the soldier. Is the key point of distinction the violence itself, or can we abstract it from the question of pacifism and still find theological traction in issues of idolatry? As a preacher and pastor, I'd be grateful for a little more reflection.

Gary said...

I'm glad someone brought up the Lukan sword passage. Interesting that s/he only quotes half the passage. The second half is where the drunken disciples take Jesus literally, and he angrily dismisses them "that's enough!"

Jesus was telling them to be "on their guard," figuratively speaking. Yes, Jesus can speak figuratively. And yes, Jesus can get angry when people take him literally. The disciples had the excuse of drunkenness. Anonymous does not have that excuse, I presume.

It's also interesting that Jesus, a pacifist, would be kind to a Roman centurion slaveowner. If that passage proves that Jesus is pro-war, then you have to say he's pro-slavery too. People don't think through their use of prooftexts. Seriously.

Paul Tyson said...

Yes Gary, any close analysis of potentially pro-violence endorsing gospel proof texts shows how tenuous the connections between a ‘realist’ stance on violence the gospels in fact is. Certainly the church before Constantine was very clear that Christians should not shed blood. Interestingly, in the 4th century St Martin could be a Roman soldier for possibly 20 years without shedding blood, as much of a Roman soldier’s duties were law and order, and public administration related. It is only when Martin is forced to fight that he explains to his commanding officer that he is a Christian and it is not lawful for him to kill, and at this point he is prepared to die for his allegiance to Christ over Caesar. But since Constantine (and certainly after the Priscillian affair – that horrendous fiasco of imperial violence married to church discipline which Martin vainly tired to correct) Christendom has such an entrenched heritage of the marriage between the sword, the cross and imperial/national ideology, that this means many a committed Christian, such as Father Robert, have grown up with the deep conviction that a Christian soldier is modelled after Christ. Thus many a fine Christian has served their countries/empires bravely and with great moral integrity as soldiers. And in no manner do I mean to belittle the genuine integrity of Christian soldiers, or the moral and theological power of the various types of just war thinking that has sought to uphold this doctrinal development after Constantine as a valid extension of the Christian tradition. These are not simple matters. But what is clear is that the gospels themselves maintain a very clear stance that is in deep synergy with all those totally unrealistic teachings of Jesus about power, wealth and right worship which you can find clearly put forward in the sermon on the mount.

David McKay said...

We have been discussing Anzac Day church services at

There is an interesting range of opinions.

Mine is that you can celebrate Anzac Day in a folk religion, RSL sort of way, or in a godly and appropriate Christian way.

Anonymous said...

Two years ago, I spent ANZAC Day with my fellow ADF members deployed on active service in Afghanistan. That dawn service at Tarin Kowt was a very moving and solemn affair. The fact that once again, young Australians were in a strange country in the midst of war was not lost on any of us. Two days later, one of the men at that dawn service was killed in action. ANZAC Day for me is a harsh reminder of my mortality, the evil of war and of all of the effects of the fall upon creation. Come Lord Jesus, come.

Mark Nieweg said...

I think the difference readers are trying to discern between the sacrifice of a soldier and that of Jesus can be best expressed by Paul: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." (Rom. 5:6-11) The disjunction represented by "But God..." in verse 8, and "For if while we were yet enemies..." in verse 10 demonstrates a significant difference between God's way and the world's.
I have wondered how the saying of Jesus, "No greater love is there than this, that one lays down his life for his friends" could be applied as it has, since most all those he spoke this to died ignominious deaths for the sake of the gospel - the only message of hope that loves and forgives enemies (us!). If we represent God in any other way, this message is lost.

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