ANZAC day is a strange choice for New Zealand’s main commemoration of war. The battles on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula are not examples of a few ingenuous brave kiwis defying and triumphing over the odds. They are not examples of ‘Lord of the Rings’ style victories where the hardy cohort defeats the vast sub-human armies of the evil one. Gallipoli was not about triumph, nor even really about bravery. Instead it was about constant death and dogged survival. It was and remains an example seared into our country’s memory of the total futility of war.
Last year I visited Gallipoli. Like many New Zealanders our family has its names on the white monuments that adorn the hilltops. We heard how the dead lay piled in No Man’s Land - 10,000 dead - an incomprehensible number. Imagine the flies... and the disease... and the despair. One white tombstone said, “For God, King, and Country”. The Turk tour guide, a knowledgeable revisionist, added, “For nothing.” Nearly 500,000 young men died on those ridges, gullies, beaches, or in the hospitals beyond.
For the British and their allies it was predominantly a failure of leadership. For the Turks it was the success of leadership and the commitment to one’s home. As an inscription said the Turks weren’t fighting for the Ottoman Empire on some foreign shore, but for their own country. For the ANZACs they were fighting for an empire on foreign soil – an empire that sacrificed them.
Was it racism that led those British Officers and politicians, including the venerated Sir Winston, to underestimate the Turks? Probably. Yet quickly it became evident the Turks were no fools. Was it the ideology of sacrifice, entrenched as it was and is in Christian European culture, which imagined that a few lives were worth it to shorten the war? Yet how many lives – a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand?? The end, military victory, was believed to justify the means. ‘Preserve, endure, and the victory will be ours’ was the myth. It is reminiscent of St Paul running the race with his eyes on the goal, suffering en route. It is all myth, powerful, persuasive, and as deadly as any fusillade.
This thinking continues today. The brave in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t considered to be those who run away, who question orders, who tell their officers what fools they are to continue, who refuse to glorify war, who weep alone in the night for their brothers, lovers, and their own selves frightened by the ghosts. When will we value disobedience, criticism, and love of neighbour? War is such folly.
Interestingly there seems to be little judgementalism reported in the Gallipoli stories. To be traumatized, to break down, or to be stretchered away as a mental wreck… was seemingly not judged harshly. It was as if the insanity of what was happening required some to personally internalize it, and a number did. To run away would also have been sane. Only there was no where to run: the guns were in front and the tide was behind.
The language of sacrifice is misplaced. It is a retrospective word said by those trying, understandably, in their grief to make sense of the carnage. Like most soldiers the boys at Gallipoli were there because initially they believed in goodies versus baddies, in the glory-of-battle propaganda, and in duty. And like most soldiers as time went on they were there because they were ordered to be, they killed because that’s what was required, and they hoped and prayed that it would end before their end. There was nothing glorious about Gallipoli.
Christianity, and particularly certain understandings of Christ’s death, feed the myth of sacrifice. So let me speak plainly. Firstly, the Hebrew Scriptures as they evolved and were refined clearly disdain the idea of human sacrifice. The Jewish God did not want humans to kill themselves or others in order to appease the divine temperament. Abraham’s threatening of Isaac is not an exemplary story of obedience to a bloodthirsty deity, but as the next chapters show an abuse of Isaac and the tragic death of a father-son relationship. Abraham got it wrong. He should have had the courage to disobey. That’s what the Scripture tells us!
Secondly, Jesus did not sacrifice himself for our sins. That is a retrospective interpretation, one way how the early church tried to understand his death and their loss. Historically however I think it is more accurate to say Jesus was killed for his politics and piety. He would not, could not, deny those politics and piety – for they were grounded in who he was and who he knew God as. This is what the text ‘He set his face towards Jerusalem’ means. It was not a death wish. It was not, contra the 4th Gospel, a laying down of his life for others. It was rather a total commitment to the God of his being. An integral part of which, mark well, was a commitment to non-violence.
Thirdly, Jesus did not ask his disciples to sacrifice themselves for others. The verse in the Fourth Gospel, compiled some 80 years after Jesus’ death, ‘no greater love has a person than this: that they lay down there life for their friends’ [Jn 15:13] sounds a noble sentiment. It is an interpretation of Jesus’ death being re-interpreted as a general principle. And as a general principle it is wrong. There is a greater love: it’s called carrying on living in the spirit of Jesus. It’s called being committed to fathering your children and loving your wife/husband/partner throughout most of their lives. It’s called being a friend to others through good times and bad. It’s called contributing to the betterment of society by changing unjust laws, defending the despised, and working for the dignity and wellbeing of all. Dying on a battlefield is not ‘the greatest love’. We should not allow Scripture to be misused for the purpose of military propaganda.
“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you,” said Jesus.
When will Christianity unequivocally renounce war as a means, a strategy, and a last resort? The trial has been held. The witnesses have presented. The jury has deliberated. The judge has ruled… all so long ago... But we refuse to put away our deadly toys of death.
When will we protest and rebel against the distortion of our faith the war mentality promotes? When will we say that loving our enemies is incompatible with killing them?
Do you think that Jesus lived in a nice bourgeois neighbourhood and the only violence he knew was on a TV screen? No, the enemies he asked his followers to love were the same ones who assaulted, killed and raped his relatives – Romans, their stooges, Herod’s thugs, bandits. Jesus asked his followers to transcend their enemies’ inhumanity by inviting his followers to offer their humanity.
War though is seductive. Memory of the dead quickly moves on to postulating on soldiers’ courage and then extolling it. The language of sacrifice creeps in – ‘they did it for us’ is the myth. Before long the dead are idealized and war is glorified. With the politicians, priests, and the general populace we make noises about the horror of war and the necessity of peace but at the same, in some secret corner of our hearts, we believe that killing may be necessary to defend what we hold dear. We call this realism. We call it a ‘just war’. We give theoretical examples that have little resemblance to war’s reality.
To remember soldiers who have died and suffered in war is futile if it does not serve to strengthen our resolve to resist the glorification and seduction of war.
Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general and commander of all the US armed forces in WWII, in his latter years said “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” Eisenhower also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” It’s nice to think that occasionally a US President speaks the unadulterated truth.
May we honour the dead by telling the truth. In the truth-telling may we refuse to participate in the myths of sacrifice and glory. In refusing to participate may we have the strength to withstand those who think we are disrespectful and traitorous. Above all may we have the courage of faith and the strength of its conviction to simply love our enemies and not kill them.