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Sunday, 27 April 2008

Getting clear about the sacred: some thoughts provoked by Anzac Day

You know that secularism is not a live option for Australians at large when you are greeted by a heading on page 5 of the Canberra Times, the day after Anzac Day "Records set for Sacred Ceremonies in Canberra". 30,000 people attended the dawn ceremony at the War Memorial.
In 2000 when I attended the service their around 7,000 in attendance. That certainly suggests we have a "religious" revival on our hands.

The "sacred" that underlies this religious revivalism is I think a bit problematic for followers of Jesus. We can I think acknowledge the sacredness of life and the sacredness of creation as something that is given, that we are not in control of. Sacredness is a quality pointing to the need for respect and recognition of connection of that to which it is ascribed.

Beyond that "secularised" form that I have attempted to describe above Christians really should not be buying into the sacred especially when it is expressed in forms of public worship in close connection with the language of sacrifice arising from war. The sacred and human sacrifice have been too closely associated in history for anyone who gives the matter more than a few minutes thought to be comfortable about their close association in public rhetoric. Lighting a candle may be a beautiful gesture. When it is done in a context in which there are combustible fumes around it is not a smart option.

The liturgical language of the dawn service gains its moral force, and makes its liturgical claim on the assent of those there from its appeal to the theme of sacrifice. The Anzacs sacrificed their lives, we are told, so that we might have the freedom and the sort of society that we have in Australia today. And the application of the logic of this moral appeal to our gratitude and benefits of this sacrifice was extended both implicitly, and explicitly to all those who had died during other subsequent episodes of warfare in which Australians had been engaged.

This claim to the benefits of sacrifice is a powerful one, grounded as it is in an emotionally grounded narrative. It is an appeal to us to respond with a lived out response of gratitude in the way we shape our lives as Australian citizens. As a moral argument calling for such a serious response on our behalf, it demands thoughtful consideration from a number of angles. Can the claim carry the moral freight that is required? Does the reading of history provide support for the claim? In other words is the claim true in its account of history and in the light of the outcomes of military conflict?

The sacredness of Anzac Day as expounded in the public pulpits brings together, national identity, a particular telling of history that avoids the frontier conflicts within Australia, as an attempt to ascribe meaning and purpose to the death of men and women in the armed forces during war expressed in a quasi religious language of sacrifice and the sacred.

Christian discipleship is or ought to be profoundly ill at ease with this powerful and unstable mixture, not least on theological grounds. We have no interest in the "sacred' as such, while the narrative of Jesus' life, death and resurrection in the New Testament moves us beyond the logic of human sacrifice as being self justifying.

• In the book of Hebrews the argument of the author is quite simply that the time of sacrifice is over. The role of the priest is finished because sacrifice has been completed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and no further sacrifice is required.

• In Romans the sacrifice we are called to make as the people of God is of our lives, as a form of dedication to God in following Jesus. Paul argues in Romans 12 that we should present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God and not be conformed to the world in our behaviour, surrendering our bodies to the claims of the state to carry out violence on its behalf.
Greater love has no man than this, than a man should lay down his life for his friends.

• The text which is appealed to in the many Anzac Day services is John 15:13, Great love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. While the appeal of this text is unmistakable, again if examined it will not stand up to its use to claim Jesus in support for the death toll of war. The phrase must be read in context. It is preceded by the command: This is my commandment. Love one another as I have loved you. You are my friends if you follow my example says Jesus. The laying down of lives to which we are called, is to lay down our lives in the pattern of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies. It has nothing to do with underwriting death as a result of taking up arms and engaging in war.

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