Friday, April 23, 2010

Easter 4C - Anzac Day

Right now, in the Church calendar, we are in the season of Easter.  That can be hard for people who don’t regularly go to church to get their head around - surely we did Easter three weeks ago, how behind are you?  Yet in the Church, Easter morning itself is just the beginning, the memory of that initial shock of realisation that God’s love is irrepressible and unstoppable, that shame and failure and even death don’t have the final word in God’s scheme of things.  Easter morning is the ground zero, the starting point of a new way of looking at reality which is the perspective of resurrection - the perspective that orients us not to the pain of the past but the possibilities of a future in which everything that limits and prevents human flourishing - shame and guilt, betrayal and loss and disability, competitiveness and deceit and poverty and age and even death itself no longer gets the last word.  And through the weeks that follow as we celebrate the season of Easter we reflect both on how the reality of resurrection life spread like a virus in the early Church, and on how the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ transforms and reshapes our own lives in the present to the extent that we dare to claim its power.

But what, you might wonder, has that to do with Anzac Day, a day of sombre reflection on the tragedy and heartache of war, the loss of loved ones and the honouring of wounds that are silently carried by so many in our own community, our own families?  What has the sacrifice of Jesus, his two-thousand year-old death on a Roman cross and the ambiguous rumour of his rising again got to do with the nearer and ongoing sacrifice of tens of thousands of young Australian soldiers who went off to a war they barely understood in a naive spirit of adventure, and who returned, if they returned at all, with a burden of physical suffering and the unendurable knowledge of wholesale slaughter, of death rendered casually, impersonally, at a distance, at close quarters, mechanically and ingloriously?  What has Easter got to do with Australian service personnel like my own son, Ben, pausing this morning for a dawn Anzac service in Afghanistan?   How does Easter help the countless Australian families who remember loved ones lost in the various conflicts of the most appallingly violent century on record, the wars that seemed just and necessary, the wars that seemed pointless and unjust, the battles won or lost?  How does Easter help us reflect on the death and destruction we have visited on others, the sacrifice of enemy soldiers caught up, like our own service men and women, in conflicts not of their own making and beyond their comprehension, the suffering of civilians that military reports euphemistically dismiss as collateral damage?  How does Easter help challenge the more troubling aspects of the Anzac observance, the self-congratulatory tendency, as a particularly eloquent journalist expressed it yesterday, when ‘memory morphs into mythology, (for) patriotism (to) become a proxy for chauvinism’?

I think Easter makes all the difference.

At the very end of World War 2 when the German Nazi State had surrendered and Allied forces were fanning out across the countryside, checking every farmhouse for snipers, an American platoon came across a cellar just outside Cologne where apparently Jewish men, women and children had been in hiding.  The hiding place was broken and empty, so they could only guess what had happened or how long its occupants had managed to remain hidden.  But on a wall of the cellar the soldiers found a message in pencil, a message of hope from someone running out of hope:

          I believe the sun is shining, even though I can’t see it.

          I believe in love, even though I can’t feel it.

          I believe in God, even though he is absent.

Resurrection teaches us to hope and to believe in the future even when it is contradicted by the events or the conditions of the world around us.  This is the first thing.  It’s a lesson we hear in our first reading from the Bible this morning, from the prophet Micah who incidentally is writing during a time of war, seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus.  Assyria had become a mighty nation in part of what is now Iraq, breaking out across the ancient world and sweeping everything away before them, destroying without mercy and enslaving entire populations.  The northern kingdom had already fallen, and Micah records the invasion of Judah and the capture of 46 of its fortified towns.  King Hezekiah of Judah at first manages to buy off the invaders but later, inexplicably, reneges on the deal.  Jerusalem, under siege, looks certain to fall.

 Sieges in the ancient world were actually no different to sieges in modern warfare.  Think Leningrad, under siege by the German Army during World War II for over 600 days – starvation, disease and despair used as instruments of foreign policy. Realistically, Micah believes the city will fall – and yet he quotes to us a poem of universal peace – refusing to invest in the false hope of military victory Micah instead dares to hope that things will not always be like this.  There will come a time, he insists, when God will create from this wasteland a new world, a world in which the nations would recycle the dreadful technology of war into implements of peace, a world in which human beings would invest their energy in the humble ambition of living unmolested on their own land and eating the food they have grown themselves.

So far it’s been a long wait.  The world we live in is no less grim than the world that Micah knew.  But here’s the thing – the very act of hoping in the promises of God, the courage it takes to live as though God’s promises are already true, is what transforms the world we live in, because it’s the act of hoping in the promises of God that transforms us.

And the second thing is solidarity.  We hear this in the Anzac legend, and we recognise it as a story that informs us of our own best selves, ourselves as we should be, ourselves as we sometimes are and all too often fail to be.  The true mythology of Anzac Day speaks to us of compassion and solidarity under appalling conditions - if we scratch the surface we understand that behind the mythology the reality of war is also of cowardice and betrayal, but we understand the legend of Anzac Day to be about what we might be and what we sometimes have been.  It’s what we also hear in our reading this morning from St John’s Gospel, where Jesus is speaking to his disciples the night before his own death.  The unity you have, he tells them, comes out of the love that he has shown them.  It’s a model of life that is organic and inter-connected - the community of Jesus is not a collection of individuals but a single organism - just before today’s reading Jesus describes it as a grapevine where the source of life flows through the trunk that connects it to the life-giving soil, and every branch depends for its own life on staying connected.  It means that in this community the vision of the good life is one in which all depend on each other, and all see the source of their shared life as staying connected to God who is recognised as the source of love and compassion.  It’s a vision of life that challenges a lot of our Western assumptions about competitiveness and looking after number one, a vision of life that says the true test of a healthy community is how connected it is, how much its members see themselves as belonging together and whether or not individualism comes in second place to compassion.  The Anzac story and the Easter story join forces in critiquing the way we actually live, they reveal the credibility gap between who we are and who we should be, and the Easter story tells us what makes the transformation possible is the love of God that underlies creation itself and that is revealed to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The third thing that connects Anzac Day with the story of resurrection is the ambiguous, uneasy notion of sacrifice.  We do, I think, need to be careful in connecting the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice that reveals God’s love and re-connects human life with its true context and purpose, with the tragedy of lives lost in military conflicts that reveal nothing more clearly than the utter failure of modern nation-states to resolve conflicts and find ways of living together that respect political, ethnic and religious differences.  We know, too, that for those who went to war, the love of country competed with other, more mixed motives, like a desire for adventure, peer-pressure, or the fear of being seen as cowardly.  In the final analysis, as many have pointed out, soldiers in combat usually give their lives not for ideals like country or freedom, but for each other.  For all that, the Anzac story connects us with the reality and the challenge of finding the purpose of our own lives in something greater than our own self-interest.  Because they come from a place of remembered, and still present, pain, the sacrifices of war bear a surplus of creative energy that helps us understand the complexity and contradiction of who we are, and for this reason alone it is imperative that today we pause and reflect.  But we need the story of Easter to make sense of it, the story that helps us step over the threshold of spirituality and pain into the deeper experience of solidarity with all who suffer, of kinship and the recognition of shared humanity that leads to compassion, and to experience the reality that life is stronger than death, that redemption grows from the ashes of hatred and conflict, and the hope of resurrection life that finds its beginnings in the unlikely soil of death and defeat.