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Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land: Lessons from War

Saturday, 25 April 2015  | Hugh Begbie

Bent double, like old beggars under sack,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through the sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime….

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As a under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -

My friend you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro Patria mori


Anzac Day, this year, is the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli and, for Australians at least, the beginning of the terrible war described by the poet Wilfred Owen.

This poem comes from the muddy slaughter house of the European battle fields of World War 1, the battle fields where Wilfred himself died. Each Anzac Day we remember another battle, one without gas but horrific nonetheless, a battle that has helped this country form an understanding of what it means to be Australian.

For many Australians, the Anzac Day tradition has developed a religious resonance that informs our sense of identity and defines our values through an almost mystical experience relived through ritual, stories and liturgical activity. One example of this liturgy is the gathering of thousands every year at Anzac Cove and at morning services throughout the land, an occasion that has had special significance in 2015, 100 years since that fateful day. 

I have been in the Army twice, though I have not been to war. I deeply appreciate the courage, mateship and resilience revealed in the ‘diggers’ of that era and which is still reflected in the professionalism and values of our military forces today. In many ways I identify with the spirit of Anzac and do not wish to diminish it. However, as a Christian, it is important not only to endorse those aspects of the legend that are good but also to understand its limitations. On the occasion of the centenary of the land at Gallipoli, it is appropriate to bring the Word of God to bear on this tradition. 

To help us in this endeavour, I am taking a Psalm that is rarely read in full, probably almost never preached on, and, for many, uncomfortably shocking to listen to.  Yet here it is, the Psalm 137, a psalm that God in his sovereignty has allowed to be part of our sacred text even though it contains a curse upon the Babylonians. It is important then that we address this lament and let it confront us with the full impact of its meaning.


The Psalm Reminds Us of the Real Nature of War

The first thing we notice about this psalm is that it gives us a little insight into the real horror of war. Through this poem we become a witness to the deep grief and anguish experienced by the people of God, brutally conquered by the Babylonian army. Many had been killed, including infants whose parents watched as they had their heads dashed against a rock.  

War unleashes dark and chaotic forces that overwhelm and destroy the environment, property, peoples and even nations. Once the dogs of battle are set loose, no one, no Prime Minister or President, can predict where they will go or whom they will bite.  

Modern war is filled with noise, suffering, destruction and the stench of filth and death.   

“I looked over to the left and here was the London Scottish who were on our left, running forward across the three or four hundred yards of green grass towards Commecourt Wood. Then they vanished into the smoke. And then there was nothing left but noise. And after this we saw nothing and knew nothing. And we lived in a world of noise, simply noise.” (Reported in M. Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War.)

Surprisingly, war has its attractions and it can even be addictive. Chris Hedges, a war correspondent for many years, says:

“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.”

But it is also frightening and confusing and even has times of boredom. As Hedges goes on to say, it also brings with it a culture of lies:

“War is peddled by mythmakers – historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state  - all of whom endow it with qualities it does not possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humour, which become preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaningless of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us” (War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning).

War breaks down moral boundaries and is often association with pornography, sexual promiscuity, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and, in many cases, rape. When the Russians invaded Germany at the end of World War II, the vast majority of females in Prussia were raped. At least 100,000 ‘rape babies’ were born.

The injuries and horrors of war cannot be fully understood through TV or movies. Personal testimony gives a better insight.

“Robbins pulled up some undergrowth and as we fished our way through, there was a dead Jerry, his whole hip shot away and all his guts out and flies over it. Robbins just had to step back, and then his leg that was up a tree became dislodged and fell on his head. He vomited on the spot. Good Lord, it was terrible” (Gunner Leonard Ounsworth, World War I).

Those of you who are older would understand something of the horror of war. Those who are younger can only view war remotely, witnessed through the eyes of camera and reporter as they wander the violent places of the earth. This form of testimony is weak and the impressions given false.

Cameras leave out the more gruesome scenes and they cannot smell the stench of death nor experience the slipperiness of blood nor know the fear that can lead to urination, defecation or total collapse.

War creates deep fear as C. Day Lewis described in poem in 1943

“Now Fear has come again

To live with us

In poisoned intimacy, like pus”

The fear is not only fear of injury and death, but also the fear of killing. Killing does not come naturally to most human beings. They have to be trained to kill and the training is only partially successful. In the end, most feel the pain and guilt of taking the life of another. In his book A Fortunate Life, A. B. Facey describes a kill by bayonet. “The awful look on a man’s face after he has been bayoneted will, I am sure, haunt me for the rest of my life; I will never forget that dreadful look.”

It is because of this fear of killing that every war is fed by the lies of national propaganda and reinforced by the soldiers desire to caricature the enemy. They become ‘nips’ and ‘Huns’ and ‘gooks’. Their humanity is diminished so that the act of killing is less painful.  However, for many, this attempt to keep the enemy distant fails and their spirits and their conscience is seared for life. This is one reason why so many soldiers cannot talk about their experience. It is just too painful to remember, too difficult to explain, too morally remote from normal human life. The soldier speaks a language and conceals a moral guilt that only another soldier can understand. 

While war is a real part of the Old Testament, Psalm 137 reminds us that it is always embraced by darkness, pain, grief and death. While it may from time to time be a necessary evil, it must never be seen as a good thing in itself. 


War challenges faith

It sometimes said that there are no atheists in foxholes. While it is true that in times of danger some people return to church and some find faith for the first time, it is also true that some become atheists, some become hardened cynics, and some have their moral lives so destroyed they never recover. The much-loved quotation is, in the end, not entirely true. 

Certainly, as Christians, we need to hear and feel the religious confusion of this Psalm. Where is God in this disaster? What has happened to the confidence expressed in Psalm 48 in which Yahweh was seen to be the great Lord and Zion his holy mountain?  

‘Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in his holy mountain”.  

What has happened to the time when the kings of the earth marvelled as they saw Jerusalem? How can those who have witnessed what seems to be the collapse of God’s covenantal care over his land now sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land? Witness their agony as the Babylonians taunt them, challenging them to pick up their harps now hanging on the tree and sing the songs of Zion. 

I am sure that many who read this will have experienced traumatic times or known great failure. If you have, you will know what it means to cringe at those well-meaning but misguided Christians who offer us simplistic, pious answers. It is these same Christians, naïve to the ways of the world, who ‘tut tut’ at the angry curse in this psalm and stand in judgment on the prayer that calls on God to bring vengeance on the enemy, to let them feel the pain of seeing their little ones dashed against the rock. Whether this is a good prayer in the end or not, we must not diminish the honest cry and deep grief out of which it comes or belittle God’s permission for us to lay the rawness of our anger before his throne in prayer. 

I am grateful for psalms like this one. It reminds me that the Bible is real. It does not sweep the reality of human life under the carpet but acknowledges the full depth of my human condition. As one who knows what it is like to hold a dying spouse in my arms and the struggle and confusion of learning to live again, I am glad that I have a God who understands, who does not exclude my emotions or my doubts from the embrace of his unlimited grace. And so, on this, the centenary of the landing, let this psalm speak to us.

A Christian Response

First, the psalm tells us not to glorify war and it encourages us to accept without judgment the pain and confusion of those harmed by war and resist simplistic answers that denies their suffering or lays upon them further guilt. 

Secondly, we can honour the courage of those who fought and their willingness to support their mates but should graciously remember that war often brings with it troubling behaviour and moral guilt that stains the memory and the conscience. Support them we must, but let’s not force dishonesty upon them by turning darkness into light. They are sinners, not saints, and many carry moral scars. The Psalmist’s curse is not ideal. 

Thirdly, unless we have built our moral glasshouse on the battlefields of Anzac Cove, Europe, Afghanistan or Iraq, we must not throw stones at those whose houses lie shattered and broken. We do not know what they had to endure or the difficult choices they had to make.  Indeed, we can and should acknowledge that some who have experienced terrible things will find it hard to sing the Lord’s song. We must be gentle with them while encouraging them to remember that the Lord is still gracious. Remind them of the song they once sang and the harps they once played. In a loving and accepting way, we must sing the song for them. Help them remember that God yearns for justice and that despite this dark moment in the history of God’s people, he did not forget them. 

Fourthly, as Christians who live post-Calvary we can see what this love means. We can remind our wounded friends that in Christ, God has entered our world of suffering, violence and death. We can gently share with them that in Christ God has suffered with us; that in Christ He has suffered by us; and that in Christ He has suffered for us. In this world that is both beautiful and terrible it is a profound comfort to know that God weeps with us and that at Calvary he has experienced the full impact of human sin, including yours and mine, and through this dying and rising opened the way for you and me to find peace, forgiveness and the hope of healing.  For in God’s eye, his love sees for us the kingdom he has promised where all swords are destroyed, where tears and death are no more and where the lion lies down with the lamb. 

Finally, there is something that this Psalm does not tell us what we need to know. The Anzac tradition speaks of sacrifice, but this sacrifice is mainly that of mate for mate, digger for digger. The value honoured is the courage to face and kill the enemy even when the odds are poor. But as Christians that view of sacrifice goes only half the way. We are called on to love the enemy and do good to those who hate us. God is not on the side of anyone’s army. In Christ, he carries his cross on both sides of any war. And as he does so he reminds us: it is OK to be afraid: I wept, he says, I sweated blood: it is OK to grieve for I felt the terrible burden of separation from my Father: It is OK for you to feel the horror of it all for my desire is for peace not war, and the taking life is not of itself a good thing: It is OK to be angry and to feel the emotions that rise up like erupting volcanoes in the smoke of battle; but in your anger, do not forget me just as in the psalm the call was not to forget Jerusalem. Keep singing my song even when the noise is great, for my Fathers hears and will not forget you.  

To paraphrase the words of Miroslav Volf:  

“The cross is the giving up of God’s self in order that he might not give up on us; the cross is the result of Gods’ desire to break the power of human enmity without violence bringing us into his divine communion.”

As Christians we must seek to love our enemy, resist the temptation to caricature and judge them. The great challenge for those of us who bear the name of Christ is to transcend the call of the Anzac Tradition. To again quote Volf:

“For the self shaped by the cross of Christ and the life of the Triune God embraces not just the other who is a friend but also the other who is the enemy. Such a self will seek to open its arms towards the other even when the other holds a sword” (Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation).

The Psalm contains a curse.  While this curse does at least leave the vengeance to God and is understandable, there is, in the end, a better way. Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said: “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:43-48).

Paul reminds us that this song of love is not our song alone. It is a song sung in harmony with the great composer, the one who wrote the love song that begins, includes and embraces all others. Loving our enemy is the song of God.

And perhaps today we should also remember our Chaplains. It is their difficult task to enter the dark places of the earth and to sing this song of grace. The risk for them is that will be overcome by the darkness of war, clothing its lies in religious jargon. I ask you to pray for them and support them. Pray, above all else, that they will be able to hold onto the song of grace, the song which sings as much to the enemy as is does to the friend; pray that in the midst of noise of battle, in a painful foreign land, when it is difficult to sing the Lord’s song, the Chaplain may be given the strength to do so.  

Finally, as we remember to pray for our enemy, let’s remember that we are an enemy too. Not just enemy to those attacking our soldiers, but fundamentally, enemies of God, for that’s what sin means. And as we seek to pray for our enemies, let’s remember how God dealt with us, those who betrayed him and nailed him to the tree.  

When we still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. One will scarcely die for a righteous man, yet perhaps for a good man someone will dare to die. But God shows his love towards in that in while were still sinners, still enemy, Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8).


Hugh Begbie grew up and was educated in Sydney. In 1971 he was called up into the army and trained as an officer. Later in his life he became an army padre. Hugh has also been a rural vicar, a university chaplain and a principal of a university college. He is currently doing locum ministry in Brisbane.


Gordon Preece
April 25, 2015, 10:04PM
Many thanks Hugh for a really helpful, beautifully written balanced and christ-centred reflection for Anzac Day. The only thing I'd want to add would be Bruce Cockburn's wonderful 'if I had a Rocket Launcher' song, written after visiting Nicaragua with David Batstone and seeing villagers strafed by helicopter gunships. We played it once at Ridley when Andrew Sloane preached on Ps 137.
Shirley Timmins
April 27, 2015, 11:49AM
Deeply moving, challenging, yet also encouraging. article. Thank you!
As a small child in London during WW2, I have stored memories of crazy British humour, and the smell of smoke from a bombed city. Of recent years, the repeated films and docos of that time often don't do justice to the underlying traumas experienced. The need to love our enemies, is mostly missed. While it is not our place to try to pour out the 'bowls of God's wrath' on systems of evil in our world, rZesponse from hate is only more destructive, when we seek to 'do Justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly..."
A timely reminder, from Hugh Begbie to those of us who are "In Christ", of how to consider war.
Newton Daddow
April 27, 2015, 5:45PM
Thank you Hugh, deeply moving, insightful perspective that causes me to pause and reflect and pray. I recall the experience of hitch hiking when I was about 26 in South Africa. I was picked up and very quickly I realised that the driver was drunk and still drinking. There was a pile of beer cans at his feet. He said to me something like : "I know I am drunk but don't worry I am driving slowly I am a soldier on weekend leave from border duty". He was from the Angola border and involved in security combat in the late 1970's. One can only imagine what feelings he was holding and seeking to drown. I often think of him. I add my prayer to those of many others - for Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

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