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Anzac Day or Easter Day?

Thursday, 30 April 2020  | Gordon Preece

Which is Australia's most important religious celebration and how should Christians connect or disconnect them?

On Friday 24th of April we paired Paul Tyson's un-commissioned but welcome piece with Darren Mitchell's previously commissioned piece to balance each other, as we regularly do with controversial themes. Paul's post received much response for which we’re grateful, but to which I want to respond in turn, to clarify Paul's and my own position.

Paul Tyson doesn’t use Facebook, for his own good reasons, so I’ll answer for him as a friend who I think gets and appreciates his writing. His post needs to be seen in context of his slightly longer Bunnings on Maundy Thursday piece that raises a similar issue. He feels that various forms of Australian civil ‘religion’ like Bunnings and Anzac Day get a privileged place in Australian public life and the Church barely raises a peep. I think Bunnings may not be the best example though, because it’s necessary to keep thousands of tradies and do-it-yourself-ers going during lockdown. (Though the great Australian dream, good as it is for the increasingly older few who can afford it, and its extensions, can easily take on religious status). But I agree more broadly with seeing Anzac Day as a nationalistic part of what William Cavanaugh entitled his book, Migrations of the Holy. And I agree that Resurrection Sunday has been increasingly overshadowed by Anzac Day.

In my view, and as Facebook respondents pointed out, many churches have creatively adapted in isolation in various online ways, and I’ve benefitted greatly from that at St John’s West Brunswick. But more generally I believe we as churches have been so cowed by the abuse crisis (and yet another George Pell trial), and are now so compliance-focused due to our (especially Catholic) failures of self-policing, that we barely raise a peep when we’re regarded as an ‘inessential service’ compared to hairdressers, Bunnings and Anzac Day (albeit in limited form), or football normally.

Yet Anzac Day, as my other friend (yes I have two!) Darren Mitchell’s PhD and short article thankfully remind us, uses death and resurrection and darkness-light laced language in a service setting at dawn. It was developed by a Sydney Anglican WWI chaplain and Cathedral Dean (and a Brisbane one in a lesser role). Our role isn’t to bless war or even appear to, but to honour the dead. Nor is it to consent to their sacrifice being regarded as equivalent to Christ’s through misuse and misunderstanding today (perhaps less yesterday) of the text ‘greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends’.

I think Darren gives us another way forward, which was my own practice when asked to be involved in Anzac services. It is to unearth the original Christian intention and symbolism of the Anzac service. I marched, but partly out of step, alongside local member Bob Carr, in the mid 1980s. Speaking, I affirmed, partly out of step again, the laying down of life for friends, but as only a partial analogy of the once and for all, unique, ‘full, perfect and sufficient’ death of Christ for all, friend and foe, sinners one and all. I used less technical language, but hopefully you understand.

We can affirm and honour the sacrifice by the dead, without honouring World War I or the imperial powers or Australian nationalism for which those lives were often heroically sacrificed, wittingly or unwittingly. The Anzac afternoon service at Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral has in the past few years creatively balanced these tensions. It also includes a remembrance for, and lament of, the catastrophic frontier wars against our indigenous peoples – ‘lest we forget’. Hopefully the service will return post-lockdown in 2021.

Sometimes a discordant note is required to wake us up. I honour my late grandfather who lost his legs due to WWI and tragically drank himself to death. But I don’t honour what destroyed his life and multiple other lives. I also note that Anzac Day was nearly on its last legs in the 70s and 80s but given a major boost by Bob Hawke and especially John Howard, the son of a WWII soldier, but also as a form of politically unifying us around a mythical national identity or essential character of mateship. For all of mateship’s courageous side of courage and friendship amid adversity, it was not uniquely distinct from the Ottoman or other soldiers. It also excluded women and all-non-white Australians, especially indigenous people. This idolising of national identity runs parallel in Australia Day also, until recently only a NSW holiday, and has further reinforced the forgetfulness of the Frontier Wars.

Christian attitudes to Anzac Day can be best guided by the Apostle Paul’s connection to and acknowledgment of the Athenians’ search for sacredness through their poets, and the statue of an unknown god (Acts 17). But Paul was discordant also, critiquing idolatry. He was on trial like Socrates before the court of the Areopagus under the shadow of the war-God of Mars Hill for introducing a new god in Athens.

Paul connected but also corrected. He subtly subverted and critiqued their idolatry and ignorance, trumping it with the revelation of the only God known in the resurrected Christ. And despite much scoffing, he got a second hearing from some - one of the judges and some women - who believed. Such a strategy of cultural connection by walking the city, respectfully citing their poets and sighting their arts and religious monuments, is open to us.

But courageous correction, seeking a second hearing from the truly interested, should be our strategy also, respectfully reminding our society of the original meaning of the Anzac Day service, pointing back to the death and resurrection of Christ as the greatest grounds of comfort and ‘sure and certain hope’ in the midst of our prolonged personal and public pandemic of plague, fear and grief.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and Honorary Director of the University of Divinity Religion and Social Policy Network.

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