ANZAC Day: forgiveness and reconciliation

This is an excerpt from the sermon I gave at my church last ANZAC day.  It was very well received, and if you are someone who struggles to reconcile your faith with a day of remembering those who went to war, this may be of help.

When I was asked if I would like to take today’s ANZAC – related sermon, I had no problem saying yes, because I am something of a history buff, and ANZAC Day has great meaning for me. In fact, I love anything to do with World War One and World War Two history.  I get a lot of strange looks from people when I admit this fact about myself. I think it’s something to do with military history tending to be a rather male-dominated field. But I am a Daddy’s girl and spent many an hour as a child watching war movies and documentaries with my Dad. Because of my Dad, I know my Tommies from my Diggers. I know my Spitfires from my Lancasters. I can list for you my top five war movies without hesitation. I’ve been to the Somme and to Normandy. When I lived in London, one of my favourite places to hang out was the Imperial War Museum. You get the picture.

One of the things that seems to be implied when people are described as being a ‘war buff’ is that we somehow ‘love’ war or we look upon it with rose-tinted glasses. Speaking for myself, nothing could be further from the truth. I actually find war abhorrent. But my background is in psychology and criminology and I have always been fascinated by what makes people tick. So what draws me to this particular era in history are the massive social changes that both wars brought about, and the impact that war had upon ordinary people.

I must admit to getting a lot of strange looks about my interest in the two World Wars, and about my enthusiasm for commemorating ANZAC day, from my Christian friends. I have many young Christian friends who are passionate about social justice, non-violence, pacifism and peace who cannot understand why I, as a Christian, am so interested in this part of our world’s history, let alone in commemorating ANZAC day, which surely glorifies war?

Some of the older people in this congregation may be unaware of how some young people can view ANZAC day. Despite attendance at ANZAC services growing considerably since the late 1990s, many young Christians find ANZAC day unsettling or even downright challenging. Those of you who were alive during World War II or who are Baby Boomers may find this attitude somewhat perplexing.

While I’m sure that most young Christians would say they have the utmost respect for our Returned Service men and women, some say that they find it hard to reconcile a Jesus who teaches us that ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ , ‘Love your Enemies’ and to ‘turn the other cheek’ with this day that sees us honouring those New Zealanders who went to war. Further still, they find it hard to understand how a Christian could take up arms and actually kill another human being in the course of war. They point to the treatment of conscientious objectors by both the government and wider New Zealand society during both world wars as inhumane. They question some Churches’ outright support of the war and the tacit silence of others.

Just this week I saw these comments on Facebook (unprompted by me, I might add):

  • F I feel very conflicted about Anzac Day. None of my family (that I know of) fought in the wars (only home guards & farmers) but my husband’s Granddad did. I know they fought to keep our freedom we have today & should be honoured for that ~ BUT I just find war so senseless (maybe because at heart I am a healer & not a warrior)
  • L: I feel very conflicted as well – I am always blown away by the sacrifices that past generations made – not just in terms of their lives – but also in enduring the terrible conditions and trauma of war. It’s a very noble thing. I also see what not dealing with things like PTSD did to my great grandfather & how that impacted his descendants. I personally choose not to go to such events, but everyone is different. I just don’t believe in glorifying it or sentimentalising it which I think sometimes the Australian & NZ cultures are prone to do.
  • C: Is it ethical to celebrate the sacrifice of soldiers on ANZAC day? Especially in the light of what we did to conscientious objectors?

It can be harder for older generations to understand this way of thinking. But let me put it into context for you:

Unlike people who were alive during World War One and Two, people of my generation and younger have not grown up in the shadow of war.

For example, young people fighting for the allies in WWI may have had family members who fought in the Boer War or were involved in the Boxer Rebellion. In fact, here’s a list of all the conflicts the British alone were involved in during the 1800’s.

  • French Revolutionary Wars ended 1802
  • Second Anglo-Maratha War 1802–1805
  • Napoleonic Wars 1802–1813
  • War of 1812
  • Hundred Days1815 The return of Napoleon
  • Gurkha War1813–1816
  • Third Anglo-Maratha War1817–1818
  • First Ashanti War1823–1831
  • First Anglo-Burmese War1824–1826
  • First Anglo-Afghan War1839–1842
  • First Opium War1839–1842
  • First Anglo Marri War1840
  • First Anglo-Sikh War1845–1846
  • Second Anglo-Burmese War1852–1853
  • Crimean War1853–1856
  • Anglo-Persian War1856–1857
  • Second Opium War1856–1860
  • Indian Rebellion1857

That’s quite a long list, right? Most of those men would have identified with the Christian faith. Young people fighting in World War II most likely had parents and other close family members who were involved in WW1. Fighting in armed conflicts and or being involved in supporting the war effort was a (largely) normal thing for Christians to do. I don’t want to go into the reasons that people may have chosen to participate in the First and Second World Wars as they are numerous and complex – but what I say to my young friends who question ANZAC Day is to remember that the social context of the time is always an important consideration.

Comparatively speaking we live in relatively untroubled times. I was born just after the end of the Vietnam War. For myself and subsequent generations in New Zealand, we have grown up with conflicts that have not required large-scale involvement from New Zealand. I was a teenager when the Gulf War broke out. For me, that war was far off and remote, and did not involve anyone I knew. It was something that just happened on television, and people questioning the justification for the war had a very loud voice.

ANZAC Day is not and has never been a day of celebration. Nor do I think it is a day of glorification – although I am disturbed by some of the growing commercialisation of it that I am seeing in recent years.

Cartoon Wanganui Chronicle 23 April 2014

Cartoon Wanganui Chronicle 23 April 2014

The media certainly milks ANZAC Day for all its worth, but I think we must always bear in mind the original purpose of ANZAC Day.

ANZAC Day itself is not some arbitrary point in World War 1 that the Government thought might serve as a useful memorial holiday. The 25th of April, 1915 in Gallipoli was so awful that when news of the bloodshed there reached New Zealand on April 30th, a half-holiday was immediately declared and many impromptu services were held across the country. By the time the Gallipoli campaign ended three months later, thousands of men had lost their lives, including 87,000 Turks; 8,500 Australians; almost 3000 New Zealanders; and around 32,000 British and Frenchmen. Thousands more men were wounded.

ANZAC day doesn’t mark a day of magnificent victory by the Allies. That day was an unmitigated disaster. If ANZAC day was about the glorification of war it would have made more sense to mark a day where our soldiers fared much better than they did on April 25th 1915. And yet after the ‘War to End All Wars’ was over, it was this terrible day that was chosen by both New Zealand and Australia as our national day of remembrance. This day was chosen because people wanted to remember the futility and sheer awfulness of war.

ANZAC Day is a time for all of us to acknowledge the pain of war. There are many lessons we can learn as we look back at these dreadful times in our past, and certainly words like regret, sacrifice, mateship, unity and peace seem to resonate with us as a nation when we talk about ANZAC Day.  What I think it can be for us as Christians is a reminder of the constant possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Perhaps the most immediate and obvious example of reconciliation is the fact that the Turkish people allow us to gather on the Gallipoli Peninsula to hold ANZAC Day services. The Government of the country that we invaded, a country that lost more than 87,000 people in WW1, is willing to allow us to remember our dead along with theirs. I’m not sure that we ever think about how gracious that is. It gets quoted at lot, but I think Kemal Ataturk’s speech in 1934 about the lives lost at Gallipoli, illustrates the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Those heroes that shed their blood

And lost their lives.

You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore, rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies

And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side

Here in this country of ours,

You, the mothers,

Who sent their sons from far away countries

Wipe away your tears,

Your sons are now lying in our bosom

And are in peace

After having lost their lives on this land they have

Become our sons as well”.

That’s a pretty amazing speech, right?

Just recently a movie came out called The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The movie is based on the true story of Eric Lomax. Eric was a Signals Officer in the British Army during WW2 and was captured in Singapore by the Japanese in 1942. He was forced-marched to Changi, and then later sent to notorious Burma to Siam railway.

At a camp by the Kwai Bridge, Eric and six colleagues built tiny radio receivers out of odds and ends to gain news of the outside world and help maintain the morale of their starved and beaten colleagues. But someone gave them away and all seven were arrested and tortured by the Japanese military police. Over time, the other six died. But despite horrendous tortures, including water being forced down his throat through a hose-pipe, Eric survived.

When nuclear attacks on Japan brought an end to the war Eric helped identify and track down the torturers of the River Kwai. Some were executed, others received long jail sentences, many committed suicide. But the man who interrogated Eric over his many days of torture could not be found.

For the next fifty years Eric suffered the acute mental and physical after affects of the torture he had endured. He was unable to talk about his experience with his wife, and tried to bury his suffering deep inside. It cost him his marriage, and he became estranged from his two daughters. But he single-handedly continued his pursuit of the interrogator through war records held in London and elsewhere. When he remarried, his second wife quickly realised that her husband was a broken man suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who was bent on exacting revenge.

Then came a breakthrough.

A booklet written by a Japanese man and published in English, came into his possession. In the book, the torture on the banks of the Kwai is described in detail by someone who was clearly present. The author was Nagase Takashi. It soon became clear that Nagase was the interrogator that Eric had been looking for. In the book Nagase talked about his revulsion at the atrocities that he had committed during the War, and at having a spiritual experience where he had felt forgiven for what he had done.

Eric was incandescent with rage that Nagase could possibly feel that he was forgiven for what he had done to Eric and his fellow prisoners.

Consumed by hate and wanting to exact revenge, Eric was warned by experts at the London based Medical Foundation for the care of Torture Victims, where he’d finally been receiving counselling, not to suddenly confront Nagase. Instead, his wife Patti and others persuaded him to start a correspondence with Nagase with a view to a possible face to face reunion, which took place at the Kwai Bridge in 1993. Even at this reunion Eric intended to kill Nagase. Instead, Nagase apologised to Eric and acknowledged the suffering that he had gone through. Eric was so stunned he just said ‘Thank you, thank you’ and they shook hands. Eric said that it was at this point he saw Nagase as another human being, not the enemy. Eric forgave Nagase, while not forgetting, and they became friends for the last 18 years of their lives.


Forgiveness and reconciliation.  

Jesus talks about these two things a lot. In fact in Matthew 6:14-16, Jesus makes it pretty clear that forgiveness is essential in our walk with God. Jesus says:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Speaking from my own experience forgiveness is one of the hardest things that God asks us to do. But God knows that.

I really love the interaction of Peter and Jesus in Matthew 18:21-22.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

I reckon Peter thought that seven was a pretty generous number, and he was trying to win some brownie points from Jesus. But Jesus blows that out of the water when he says:

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Jesus goes on to tell the Parable of the unforgiving servant, where a servant owes money to his master. The master demands payment and tells the servant that unless he pays up he, his wife and his children will have to be sold. The servant begs for mercy, and being filled with compassion the Master lets him go and releases him from his debt. Immediately after the servant leaves, he runs into a fellow servant who owes him money and grabs him by the throat, demanding the money he is owed. His fellow servant begs him for mercy, but the servant is unmoved and has him put in prison. When his Master finds out what has happened, he sends for the servant immediately asking why he hadn’t had mercy on his fellow servant, as the Master had for him?

Forgiveness is something God expects us to extend to each other, because he has forgiven us. As CS Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Why are forgiveness and reconciliation so important to God? There are several reasons why, not just because of God’s enormous degree of forgiveness towards us as the model for how we should treat others. I also reckon it’s this:

God knows that we humans have such a deep need for it, not just from God, but also from each other.

Because without forgiveness we cannot move on. We get stuck, like Eric Lomax. We cannot heal. Nelson Mandela – another powerful example of forgiveness and reconciliation – once said that ‘Resentment is like drinking a cup of poison, and then hoping it will kill your enemies’.

On ANZAC Day we gather to remember all those affected by war; to honour all those who were injured or killed; to mourn with all those who lost people they loved; and to recognise those who conscientiously refused to fight. We also gather to pledge ourselves to do everything possible to prevent war, so that future generations will not have to experience its horrors. It’s a day for remembering to choose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever we can. We can do this as Christians because Christ is our peace; because in his body he broke down the dividing wall, the hostility, between all human beings.   Let us use ANZAC Day to commit ourselves to being agents of reconciliation.