Anzac Day: More Than Civil Religion

The marching music blared out over the battery-operated PA system, in the direction of the ex-servicemen, descendants, and schoolchildren.  The music was drawing them up the hill, toward the remainder of the townsfolk who were gathered respectfully around the refurbished Memorial to the Fallen.   The population of the town was a little over 200 – nearly all were present.  The marchers ascended slowly, through a diesel cloud, behind the local Rural Fire Service truck, providing the Anzac Day march escort. They wheeled onto the grass and formed up around the white cairn, and the young ones broke away to sit with grandma. The music was stopped abruptly, and the annual ANZAC Service for the little Australian town had begun.

Canon DJ Garland, the architect of the original ANZAC Day Service commemoration, would have been pleased.  The local town shop had shut, the roads were closed, and a solemn service of remembrance was conducted.  There was even a contingent on horseback dressed as Light Horsemen – I didn’t recall women in the Light Horse – but there you are. The dignitaries included a local Councillor, the RSL Representative, the Anglican Minister, a recently returned local hero from Afghanistan, and the MC, a local school teacher. All complimented by a smattering of Salvation Army musicians.  The ‘liturgy’ contained words and phrases, that may have been familiar to the oldest members in the crowd, but most were simply content to have the words said over them.  For many, there was no need for them to articulate. They were present.  And thank God for the local Minister – at least he knew the old hymns.  Prayers were offered ‘in the name of Jesus’, flags lowered, bugle sounded, silent homage was made, “Australian’s let us all rejoice….”,  flowers and wreaths were laid. Amen.

Then off down the hill to the Mechanics Institute Community Hall for a slap-up lunch cooked and prepared by the local ladies – and the beer flowed.  ANZAC Day for another year.

What happened? Why did we do that, and what was going on for everyone? John A Moses and George F Davis, in their recent publication ‘Anzac Day Origins’ (Barton Books, Canberrra 2013) write ‘On 25 April it would seem that our world suddenly stirs and emerges from its de-sacralised, materialistic, sceptical cocoon to stand in awe of the mysterium tremendum. It is an illustration that reality consists of both the rational and the non-rational together that people for brief moment inexplicably acknowledge. This is clearly an example of the phenomena of ‘civil religion’.’ (p.34)

Moses and Davis cite this term ‘civil religion’, from D G Reid’s work Dictionary of Christianity in America IVP, Downers Grove,1990.  Reid speaks of ‘civil religion (as) the general faith of a state or nation that focuses on widely held beliefs about history and destiny of that state or nation…..it is the social glue which binds a given society together by means of well-established ceremonies -rituals, symbols, values- and allegiances which function in the life of the community in such a way as provided with an overarching sense of spiritual unity.’

I posit that Anzac Day may be pointing to more than an emerging civil religion.

After 20 years in the military and with nearly the same amount of time in Parish ministry, I have watched a subtle change in how people view the ANZAC ‘celebrations’.  40 years ago it seemed to be all about remembering – looking back and being thankful for the sacrifice of servicemen and women in the wars where we fought, and being thankful for Australia. But in more recent times it has shifted perceivably, from being a reflection, looking back, to become more of the quest for our identity.  Yes, we still pause and acknowledge the sacrifice, but the focus on being thankful for Australia, has moved to being proud of ourselves as Australian.  It has become more about ‘us’ – trying to articulate what we stand for and, presumably, what we would die for.  It has become all about identity.  In the 21st century the ‘civil religion’ aspects of Anzac Day, points to a deeper quest about identity, and a mostly unacknowledged need, to connect with the numinous.

We are questing at two levels concurrently – national and personal. At the national level the quest has emerged because we know who we once were, our dominant story was Anglo-Australian, so ANZAC Day was a day of solemn remembrance and thanksgiving, in a shared heritage.  But what now? Our community has changed significantly over recent decades with all forms of media – increasingly social media – making us aware that our neighbour in our suburb, is not like us(sic). The cultural diversity of this nation has never been on more open display, than it is the today.  My neighbours from Asia, the Middle East, or Africa –  their grandparents didn’t fight in the war (or any of this nation’s wars). In fact the Defence Forces of Australia may well have been in conflict in their nation of birth.  So pause and consider the other dimension of problem for the neo-Australian , who also is looking to discern their new national  identity and seeking to connect to the numinous,  yet find little common ground through history and life’s experiences.

And for the younger generations in Australia, that war should be the amniotic fluid for a nation’s identity, is being increasingly questioned.  So instead commentators and society shapers use the Anzac story, to cherry-pick at the characteristics of the men in our story.  The larrikin, the ingenious, the loyal, the fiercely determined, the courageous …and then say, this will be us. This goes part way to providing some national identity hooks. But where has that left the individual, with red poppy in the button hole, and head bowed, as someone else prays at the town ANZAC Service?

That humanity was created as the pinnacle of creation, in the image and likeness of a loving God, for a role in the created order, and a relationship with the Creator, is not apparent to all.  It used to be, that, at the words of John, greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends, most could do the sacrificed soldier, and the sacrificed Son of God connection,  but no longer.

I contend that when Australians, gather at the town war memorial, there is a permissive and open attitude towards prayer and the divine, which would not normally feature as part of their expression.  They are using the national remembrance our fallen soldiers sailors and airmen, as a vehicle for their own spiritual quest.  A very legitimate use of the time!

So, on those cold Anzac Day dawns, deep calls to deep. And whether it be the memory of sacrifice of the life of the soldier, the flickering eternal flame, the sound of the trumpet, the lowering of the flag, God seeks to use it all to bring people back to himself, to draw all into the truth of their identity and connectedness with their loving God. And most are not even aware it is happening.

God, in his unfailing love, will use even Anzac Day to draw all people to himself.

Perhaps we should leave the Anzac myth to be extrapolated by the commentators –to draw out inspiring stories of heroism, mateship, leadership, and sacrifice – but know, that as Christians who have a call to partner with God, there are people standing next to us at Anzac celebrations, who are actually struggling to find answers to the two great questions of life: ‘Who am I, and whose am I?’

In the interests of social cohesion, governments and ex-servicemen’s associations may be content with ANZAC Day commemorations becoming a civil religion … but God is still looking for opportunities to reawaken the lost, and broken-hearted to his truth and love.  Sacrifice has always gotten our attention, and I pray that the sacrifice of the ANZACs would point to the greater sacrifice, that God made for all humanity, Jesus. May many see the sign posts to God this centenary of ANZAC.