The Anzac Myth?

26 Apr 2020 by Sue and John McK in: Worship Services: 2020

Sue: Welcome, regulars from Engadine and others from far and wide. We had planned a much longer and more interactive service for life-before-lockdown but today we offer you some music, a story, and reflective questions.


The video of this service with John and Sue reading can be found here.


John: As is our custom, we acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Dharawal people. Today, in particular, we remember that they were forced off this land in an act of war. Part of our national amnesia is to ignore the frontier wars on Anzac Day. We remember white people fighting overseas but forget that the indigenous Australians fought against British invaders right across this country. The site of the Appin massacre, ordered against the Dharawal people in 1816 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, is not far from here. Today, as part of our ANZAC commemorations, we remember the indigenous Australians, the wars of invasion, occupation and colonisation they suffered, and their continuing fight for justice.



John: It is customary at Anzac services to recount the story of a soldier, to remind ourselves of just who we are remembering and why. Today I want to tell you about Bob.

Bob was a 21 year old carpenter from Lismore who signed up in September 1915 with his brothers Peter and David. He sailed to Egypt and then in late 1916 headed to the Western Front. We don’t know much about his time in France because Bob never talked about it.  We know from his brother David that Bob once saved both his and Peter’s lives. We also know that Bob was wounded in 1917. Peter was also wounded and died on Armistice Day. We do know that this time had a profound impact on Bob, not only because of the shrapnel that remained in his head for the rest of his life.

Post war, Bob became an avowed pacifist. He entered theological college in 1921 and became a Methodist minister. He served as a missionary in Fiji as well as numerous parishes across NSW where, being a carpenter, he literally built churches. There are still several churches and halls across the state that bear his name.

At a time when many Methodist ministers were preaching about the evils of alcohol and “modern” society, Bob drew on his war experience and asked, “How do we stop that happening again? How do we build a better society, a just and peaceful one?”. The gospels and in particular the Sermon on the Mount became his key texts as he exhorted followers of Jesus to live out Jesus’ words in practice, to bring the Kingdom of God into reality in this broken world. I am lucky to have some fragments of some of Bob’s sermons. Here are a few paragraphs from one he preached in 1950 in the Methodist circuit of Wyong:


“You have inscribed, in several churches in this circuit, the words “I am the Way”. No better text could, I think be brought to our minds in this time than that. Jesus is the Way, not in that vague, ambiguous sense in which we often quote the text. His teaching, the values that He exalted, the attitudes to God, to others, even enemies, to property, to work and leisure, cover, I feel sure, the whole of life. 


Does He not touch upon all those fundamental attitudes and values in this Sermon on the Mount? It is not merely worship that He mentions but the getting of food and clothing. He does not divide life into compartments. He is the way for Mondays and Tuesday as well as for Sunday. He alone has the secret of happiness, of peace and order and justice.  That secret is given in this Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount challenges the very foundations, the very conceptions on which modern society is built. This teaching, really what we would call His way, the way of real life both for the individual and the world as a whole, has been neglected altogether or toned down, tamed and made safe. We have by-passed its fundamental conceptions and attitudes.


People have always found it easier to accept and repeat creeds and theology than to follow a revolutionary idea of life. If the emphasis had always been on really following Jesus in His teaching, many who have called themselves Christian would have been excluded.  But what is more important, we would have had a very different history and today a very different world.”


Bob preached about justice for indigenous Australians back when they were considered flora and fauna. He preached about the environment before the world had ever seen a Greens party. He preached about the unity of all creation well before Lovelock’s GAIA theory. He preached about politics in the 1930s and as a result ASIO spied on his services.  He had seen the horrors of war and became a prophet of a new way of living – Jesus’ way of nonviolence and love.

Bob died in 1959. I never met him but I know some of his family. Some of them are with us today. The Reverend Robert McKinnon was my grandfather.


Sue: All his life, through his preaching, Bob asked when are we going to start doing things differently? The song “Where have all the flowers gone” asks us when will we do something differently, when will we ever learn? We will play a version of that song by Joan Baez, at a tribute concert for Pete Seegar, and I encourage you to ponder the question while you watch.


John: Now Bob never attended an Anzac Day march or service as far as I know but many Australians, while they don’t go to church, flock to Anzac Day services and marches. Why is that? Is it a yearning for meaning that has made it into a secular sacred day?


Sue: It does seem that the Anzac myth or legend has become a national faith, some sort of secular religion or even cult that can’t be questioned, and that looks a little like idolatry to me. My response has been to pull away and avoid Anzac Day but I don’t feel this is right either. I’m incredibly angry with politicians and other public figures claiming that our diggers went to war to preserve and protect their 21st century soap box or hobby horse, so how do I participate in Anzac Day without endorsing this horrible behaviour?


John: We see their values in the way our successive governments spend our money. Australia outspent every other country on the centenary of the First World War by an astonishing amount - $9,000 for every soldier killed compared with, for example, $109 by the UK, plus there’s another half a billion dollars on expanding the war memorial in Canberra. 

And here’s a fun fact: our war memorial is also sponsored by weapons manufacturers, and their advertising dwarfs the names on the honour roll of our war dead. Lest we forget our sponsors, perhaps?  At the same time, the national war memorial stubbornly ignores the frontier wars in this country that claimed, by some estimations, more Indigenous lives on this very continent than the 62,000 Australian soldiers killed in World War 1.


Sue: Speaking of indigenous soldiers, it is more than ironic that thousands of them served in both world wars, experiencing equal pay and conditions for the first time in their lives. So much for the Aussie myth of ‘mateship’ though - those that survived returned home to an apartheid state - they didn’t have the vote let alone equality, didn’t qualify for soldier settler blocks even on their country, and when they died most were not given a military service grave, their families were generally not given assistance from Legacy or allowed into the RSL. 


John: So you have highlighted some issues with Anzac Day and how we observe it and our remembrance of war in general. But it is sacred isn’t it? Isn’t Anzac Day really about our national origin story - about the modern nation of Australia that was birthed in the trenches of Gallipoli?


Sue: Paul Keating along with many others have argued that the two decades before the war are the most amazing foundational story a nation can have: the building of a social democracy with no civil war, votes for women, the formation of the world’s first Labour Party, the eight-hour-day, the legal case for a living wage for all - how much better could it get? The dark underbelly or core of that story is of course one of murder and land theft. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore that when we believe our nation was forged half a world away.


John: Ok, but we still have Anzac Day and it’s not going anyway anytime soon. Is it possible to change it? If we can, how should we observe it? How should we remember those who suffered in war?


Sue: Go to the war memorial in Hyde Park and you will see the inscription: “Let silent contemplation be your offering”. That can be pretty hard in the midst of shops and shockjocks leaping aboard the Anzac bandwagon. Social isolation delivered the opportunity yesterday morning to reconsider our relationship with this day. But you are only able to contemplate that which you known and what is reinforced by most of the popular media. Indigenous warriors and soldiers have been excluded from our national story, so were women for many decades, and we ignore any debt to the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ when our successive federal governments sanction Indonesian military violence against them and take their off-shore gas reserves. 


When you read the bible, remember that Jesus lived in occupied territory. We see that he challenges tyranny creatively without resorting to violence. Two distinct branches of the Christianity have peacemaking so much at their core that they are known as the ‘peace churches’ - Anabaptists and Quakers. Advocating pacifism, members have often acted as a prophetic voice, calling out the tyranny of the state and being the human face of creative non-violent resistance to war. Australia might claim to be the land of the fair go, but we imprisoned Quaker children for several years during the First World War because they refused to take part in military drills in the school yard which was to prepare them as soldiers. We would do well to explore the practises of these peace churches and contemplate their focus on Jesus’ teaching and actions. 


John: In talking about contemplation, perhaps the Biblical discipline of lament is useful. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because he foresaw the suffering the war with Rome would bring. So on ANZAC Day, we can lament with Jesus over the needless suffering that has occurred through wars. Not just to soldiers like Bob, but his indigenous colleagues, and the millions of women who suffered rape and violence, grief and loss. We can lament the refugees, the children, and of course our natural environment.


Sue: We also read that the person Jesus commended most for their faith in the gospels was a Roman soldier. So Jesus was not against soldiers. Nor was Jesus nationalistic – the soldier was an enemy of the Jewish nation. Yet Jesus healed the centurion’s servant and commended his faith as being greater than anyone’s in Israel. By embracing old enemies and acknowledging the good in all, by further striving for justice and peace we might find a way forward.


John: We’re going to conclude with some more music. The traditional lament at Australian Anzac services is a Scottish tune called Flowers of the Forest. I won’t play it on bagpipes today but I do have a video with that lament and a series of images, starting with Gallipoli and then covering different aspects of Anzac Day. I encourage you to look at the images, read those that have text, and use this lament tune as a real time of lament. 



Questions for discussion: What resonated with me this morning? What challenged me? 

Close with prayers for family and friends.