This picture is above my desk at work; it was taken in Melbourne in around 1900. The man is my great grandfather, Charles Truelove, and two of the boys are my grandmother’s older brothers Ralph and Stan (Ralph is the one with his father’s hand on his shoulder). Old Charlie’s story is a fascinating one; but I want to focus on Ralph and all the other boys in this picture.
Ralph went to Gallipoli (and later France); at home I have copies of all the letters he wrote home about the horror of war. Ralph was actually a conscientious objector and refused to carry arms; so he served instead, as a stretcher bearer. He came home and lived in Lilydale, Victoria. I always wonder about all the other boys in the picture; I wonder how many of them joined the armed forces and travelled to far lands. I also wonder how many of them did not return to their families and loved ones.
A conscientious objector is an ‘individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service’ on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and an anti-Nazi dissident. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ has become a modern classic. Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned. Later he was transferred to a Nazi concentration camp. After being allegedly associated with the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was briefly tried and then executed by hanging on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
‘Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offence, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favour of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.’
Anzac Day is perhaps the most revered and sacred event on the Australian calendar. When someone dares to raise concerns over the way Anzac Day is celebrated, it seems this is the closest we come to what we might see as ‘blasphemy’ in Australian culture; it is a subject about which we find it hard to be critical of ourselves. Often our Anzac celebrations turn the experiences of war into Hollywood-style heroism. In fact, Christian churches have become enthusiastic supporters of what Birmingham calls “the breathless idolatry that now accompanies every Anzac Day” (“A Time for War Australia as a Military Power” John Birmingham, Quarterly Essay, issue 20, 2005) . Perhaps we should be listening to those who have returned from war and are forced to live with the daily trauma of what they have seen, done and had done to them; and listening to the family members of those who did not return from war.
The Christian Gospel makes it clear Jesus died for the very people we most want to defend ourselves against, to exclude from our lives and keep on the fringes of our national life. This will be a stumbling block to Pharisees of every era, but that’s the kind of God we find in the Bible and the kind of love we see in Jesus.
A faith event is not about parades and prayers. A faith event is about confession, forgiveness and restitution; it’s about our ongoing role in the creation of over 30 million refugees in the world today because of violence, and countless numbers of soldiers and civilians, young and old, disturbed, traumatised and disabled whom we ignore. It’s about the condemnation of evil whether it’s the suicide bomb or the cluster bomb. A faith event is about a re-dedication to peace.