Large crowds populated all the Anzac Day ceremonies I attended yesterday.
The breakfast which followed the dawn service included rum mixed with International Roast. That combination is probably the best and only way to consume those two beverages.
I heard a lot of stories about war. Good and bad. I heard the story of a ten year old in WWII whose hawkish arguments were only curtailed when his uncle described his own experience in WWI:
I fought on the Western Front. On my first day at the front line, we were ordered to take the German trenches.
Machine gunfire mowed us down, and we fell back. The dead and injured were left in no-man’s land. We couldn’t retrieve them because leaving the trenches meant instant death.
For five hours, we endured their cries for help, and tried to block it out. We had no choice.
Then a man cast his shadow over our trench. We looked up, and saw a seven foot German looking down at us. He was carrying one of our injured. ‘Help your friends,’ he told us.
He handed us the injured Australian, and then he turned around and walked back to the German line. We shot him in the back.
Isn’t that an awful story? It was enough to stop a 10 year old in his tracks, and realise that not every German was a baddie, and not every Australian was a goodie. More broadly, it reminds me of one of the many evils of war. War is barbaric. War is an occasion for good people to do horrifically bad things.
Of course, the opposite is true too. War can also be an occasion for noble sacrifice and heroic goodness. Simpson and his donkey are just one example, and more broadly, I think the Anzac Spirit is another example.
There are some Australians who were uncomfortable with this week’s Anzac celebrations. They feel the celebrations glorify war and romanticise violence. But I’m not convinced that’s what is occurring in the hearts and minds of Australians.
It’s significant, I think, that Anzac Day commemorates not a military victory, but a noble defeat. That points to something. The Anzac spirit doesn’t celebrate war. It celebrates a spirit of service; heroic generosity; and friendship.
“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus tells us. “To lay down his life for his friends.”
This Sunday’s Gospel contains similar words:
“I am the good shepherd . . . I lay down my life for my sheep.”
Now of course, the Lord wasn’t talking about death on a battlefield. It would be perverse to say that. Jesus is a master of non-violent resistance. He was talking about his death on a cross. But it’s not perverse to see an analogy in the mystery of the cross — the Lord’s cross and your cross and my cross — and the Anzac spirit.
The Lord wants us to foster a spirit of service. He calls us to heroic generosity. He gives us the means to love as he loves, even to the point of death. This doesn’t “baptise” or “canonise” war. War in itself is evil, and as that story from the Western Front reminds us, war is also an occasion for great evil.
The Lord’s words don’t give us license to die for any cause of our choosing, either. A suicide bomber dies for a cause, but he is no martyr. A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of his oppressors than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is an act of oppression, not resistance to it. That’s not martyrdom, it’s brutal murder.
In any event, God doesn’t actually ask us to be martyrs. He calls us to be heroes. A hero would die for love, but he’d much rather live for it.
That’s the Anzac spirit I think. And it’s also the lesson of the cross.