When the Answer is Love…

This week was ANZAC Day, a day of conflicting emotions and stories. Growing up through the 60’s and 70’s, ANZAC Day wasn’t as prominent as it seems today. Nor was the mythos associated with ANZAC traditions. Perhaps it was the historical proximity to Vietnam in those days and the societal questions and issues around that particular war that affected the mood and discussion. 

In recent years ANZAC Day and the myths associated with ANZAC Cove have grown and morphed into stories that seek to say something new and different about our nation and who we are. Descriptions of ANZAC ceremonies at ANZAC Cove paint a picture of a haunting and quiet, gentle place. People gather as mists roll over the ocean. There is the music of the waves, the sand and steep hills. There are also the memorials, the grass and the moving ceremonies that threaten to become a commercialised ‘Big Day Out,’ with pop music and entertainment as at the 90th anniversary. I confess that I cringe at some of the scenes broadcast on the news – Australians with footballs in the car park area, and a giggling festive mood.

In an age where things of faith are dwindling, it has also become a spiritual pilgrimage for many – the most meaningful thing that they can find in place of the religion they have either cast aside or never grasped. I sometimes wonder what the many people who make this pilgrimage think, feel or experience – or believe in relation to the ANZAC story. Certainly ANZAC Day is bigger than Gallipoli but somehow everything is subsumed into this story that has morphed from defeat into victory in the eyes of many who ‘celebrate’ it.

I feel conflicting emotions around ANZAC Day. There is the recognition of the sacrifice, struggle and courage that so many have men and women exhibited in serving our nation in the various theatres of war – both willingly and through conscription. I feel incredulous and a deep anger over the stories of war that many veterans have recounted both to me personally and the public stories of deep suffering, of hell on earth. Why did they have to endure this? Every time I hear the story of ANZAC Cove I feel very angry. 8000 young men sacrificed for what? The incompetency of British leaders turned this plan into a complete fiasco and men were sent into the paths of enemy fire – sacrificed for nothing. It was an horrific failure where good men died. Military historian, Dr Jonathan King wrote: ‘With the Gallipoli centenary approaching, the nation should remember the words of our last Anzac Alec Campbell, who pleaded on his death bed: ”For god’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten”.’

There are many stories that have been built up around this event to raise it to a national myth that gives us meaning. John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his legendary donkey, for example. The myth has surpassed the reality. Jan  Wositzky, a storyteller, musician, writer and producer said in a Herald article this week: “[In]A government release on March 1 this year, the Australian Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal separated the myth-making from the facts. They rejected a posthumous Victoria Cross for Simpson because the evidence shows he was no more or less courageous than the other stretcher bearers, and that many of the men who gave witness accounts of his reputed feats of bravery were not at Gallipoli at the same time as Simpson.”

He goes on to comment upon the fact that Simpson with his donkey is a moving and attractive story – the myth is close to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, with his donkey and his care.

What disturbs me most about much of the ANZAC mythology is that it desensitises the reality of warfare and tries to promote some positive elements whilst minimising others. In every conversation I have had with veterans, there is a deep silence behind any stories they are willing to share. There is a haunted look and the painful reminders of a hell on earth. They cannot fully communicate what it means to exist in trenches exposed to elements, rationed food, broken sleep, whilst enemies are trying to kill you with guns, bombs…  The stories of mates killed and mass graves… are heart wrenching and difficult to hear – let alone experience first-hand. An old neighbour a few years ago spoke sparingly of his experiences as a WWII paratrooper. He wouldn’t say much except that it was awful! He never went to the ANZAC march; he couldn’t bear it. He and a few old mates gathered at the local RSL and drank the day away – best forgotten than celebrated seemed to be his approach. He had a few words for political leaders who send people to war but they aren’t printable! I have been constantly surprised that veterans continually say that we MUST learn the lessons of the past – war is never an answer. It may be good for the bigwigs in their fortresses away from the danger but not for those exposed to the harsh, hellish realities of war.

As a society we need to remember and give thanks for the 1000’s of men and women who have given themselves for the sake of peace and hope. We need to remember and understand the stories they are able to tell but we also need to look elsewhere for our myths of salvation and hope. Instead of glorifying the suffering of these people and sanitising the pain, we must recognise the reality and work for peace – in memory of what they did and would want of us. That is our hope.

This week we will read words of Jesus – ‘A new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you. This way everyone will know you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.’ I think of the men and women who went into wars, who gave themselves in many ways for those they loved at home. I remember those who give of themselves in the service and well-being of others and of the wider community – here and abroad. I also think of the stories, in Gallipoli and the Western Front where there were brief truces and men from opposing sides spoke and interacted, buried dead together and recognised their common humanity.

There are, of course, the stories of heroes and heroines in every war, people who have risked all for their friends and others – to bring peace, life and hope. This is what Jesus was on about – peace, hope and life for all. He spoke of sacrificial love that liberates over violence and hatred. I hear the echoes of Jesus in the stories of veterans who want nothing more than peace, hope and life – not war!

Breathing Life in Death…

This week, in reading about our Bible passage (Acts 9:36-43), I found this story of the poor of Latin America:

Southwest of Guatemala City, a road leads to the barrio of La Esperanza. The poorly grated dirt road challenges even four-wheel-drive vehicles. At the edges, the street just falls off — eroded away in gullies cut by rain and sewage. Tiny houses built wall-to-wall are made of scrap lumber, sheet metal, cardboard, cinderblocks. Women, children and an occasional man linger in doorways to catch the elusive breeze. Bone-thin dogs roam, sometimes dragging emaciated puppies clamped onto their withered nipples.

When the Guatemalan government unleashed its wave of terror against the indigenous, largely illiterate farm worker population, 25,000 men, women and children were killed in five years’ time. Thousands of men were abducted from their homes and disappeared. In the early 1980s, the widows of the “disappeared” left the farms and went to the city for refuge and work. Some formed the community of La Esperanza, which means “hope.”

The widows came together in their desire to survive and to see their children grow up. They worshiped and worked together. They refused charity, but accepted funds from a Presbyterian program that helped them construct one durable building in the centre of the community. The building houses a day-care centre, a preschool, a health clinic and a weaving cooperative. The women care for each other’s children. Some have been trained as dental hygienists and nurse practitioners. Some sew clothing for others or sell weaving in the market. Compared to begging and gleaning, it is a dignified life.

I was reminded of the stories of Archbishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador:

Oscar Romero’s reputation was as a conservative, and on more than one occasion he showed himself sceptical of both Vatican II reforms and the Medellín pronouncements. For this reason his appointment as archbishop in 1977 was not popular with the socially committed clergy, to whom it appeared to signal the Vatican’s desire to restrain them. To their surprise, Romero emerged almost immediately as an outspoken opponent of injustice and defender of the poor.

By Romero’s own account, he owed his change of attitude to his brief tenure as bishop of Santiago de María, where he witnessed first-hand the suffering of El Salvador’s landless poor. Increasing government violence against socially committed priests and laypersons undermined his trust in the good will of the authorities and led him to fear that the Church and religion themselves were under attack. The assassination on March 12, 1977, of his long-time friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande brought a stinging denunciation from Romero, who suspended masses in the capital’s churches the following Sunday and demanded the punishment of the responsible parties.

As Romero spoke out more and more frequently over the following months, he gathered an ever-increasing popular following who crowded into the cathedral to hear him preach or listened to his sermons over YSAX, the archdiocesan radio station. In his youth Romero had been a pioneer of broadcast evangelism in El Salvador, and he now turned the medium to great effect as he denounced both the violence of El Salvador’s incipient civil war and the deeply-rooted patterns of abuse and injustice which bred it. In a country whose rulers regarded dissent as subversion, Romero used the moral authority of his position as archbishop to speak out on behalf of those who could not do so for themselves. He soon came to be known as the “Voice of the Voiceless.”

I love that phrase ‘Voice of the Voiceless’. He pronounced hope amidst the hopeless and painful realities of Salvadoran life. Into a context on desperation against oppressive and violent powers, he proclaimed life! It became a communal movement as people worked together empowered by words of Easter (resurrection) hope and life.

In the earlier story women, who are always amongst the most desperate and maligned people, stood together. They refused hand-outs and patronising charity in favour of supporting one another in a community of hope and life. They stood against the powers that overwhelmed their lives and threatened their security. Together in the power of God’s resurrection life, they stood tall and hopeful. They supported each other and became an independent force for life.

These stories are the stories of faith and life in the face of power and deathliness. I glanced through the week’s news stories. They are filled with death, destruction and pain. Endless stories of conflict and violence, of power over and the disenfranchisement of the poor and vulnerable. In every society the strong and powerful laud it over the weak and vulnerable. Yet in the midst of such violence and rejection there are stories of life and hope, of courage and faith and of people who have resources sacrificing themselves and what they have to give a hand up to others around them. They develop communities of grace, faith, hope and love that confront the powers and authorities of the world that would deny them hope and life.

This is the story, the continuing story, of Easter – it proclaims life into the midst of death and hopelessness! This week’s story is of a woman who supports the poor widows and orphans of her community – outcasts and marginalised people who have little hope. Tabitha is a woman of faith and love and she lifts other women out of their hopeless poverty in a community of life and grace.

Then she dies and hope fades for these women. Into this hopeless story Peter, the follower of Jesus, comes and delivers words of resurrection life – ‘Tabitha, rise up!’ New life is proclaimed! Death is overcome and the poor have their voice and their hope restored. Beyond our 21st century objections or uncertainties around stories of resuscitation of dead bodies is the profound message that life is possible in the most hopeless places. God breathes a word of life through the ministrations and love of people who embrace another, alternative way of life and stand against death and violence. Such life is captured within a community of justice, love, peace and hope – God’s community of grace!