Anzac Day Homily – Penelope Stevenson

Anzac Day Homily – Penelope Stevenson

Sun 24 Apr

Its Anzac Day tomorrow. The 25th of April is officially the day when the people who have died in military action are remembered, and when the people who have returned from military service are honoured.

The reason we remember and honour these people is because, on the 25th of April in 1915, ANZAC forces landed at Gallipoli and engaged in military battle, one of the first major battle for New Zealand [A1] troops in World War 1.

Although there was some observance of Anzac day in parts of New Zealand on 25 April 2016, it wasn’t until after the end of World War 1 that momentum, encouraged by the RSAs that were springing up throughout the country, resulted in national observance of the date. This coincided with the return of the remaining soldiers from Europe.

By 1922 the Government had enacted legislation which preserved 25 April as a full statutory holiday. This was very much driven by RSA support with the form of commemoration taking on the quality of a day of mourning. Businesses were closed, entertainment was considered disrespectful to the dead and their families. The Minister of Internal Affairs, William Downie Stewart, in bringing in the legislation, described “a very widespread demand for the reinstatement of the original request of the returned soldiers – namely , that the day should be treated as a holy day, as a Sunday”.

A model Anzac Day service was even promoted, known as the Boxer Service, devised by Dr Boxer, the then Dominion President of the RSA,. The service was a symbolic re-enactment of a burial at the front; the music traditionally performed included Chopin’s Funeral March, andthe Dead March from Saul.

There was a vast difference between the public ceremony, with the commemoration of the war dead and their families; and the informal observance of the day by the returned soldiers, at reunion dinners and gatherings at the RSA clubrooms. The informal observance focused on comradeship and the sharing of their memories of the reality of their war.

Well, that was in the years immediately post World War 1.

If we fast forward to 2016, the commemorations such as the Dawn services focus onof the war dead and their families. And that is as it should be. For every single person that died, there is a tragedy and a loss. For every single person who experienced the mess of Gallipoli, there was trauma.

The official Government line is that

After Gallipoli, New Zealand had a greater confidence in its distinct identity, and a greater pride in the international contribution it could make. And the mutual respect earned during the fighting formed the basis of the close ties with Australia that continue today.

Well, that is strictly speaking correct, although a very narrow view of what those who were at Gallipoli took from the experience.

Fast forwarding to World War 2 and its aftermath, the ANZAC day commemorations expanded to  include the servicemen and women who had returned from that conflict. The numbers were greater and the experience very different. In particular, the conflict took place throughout Asia and Europe, and impacted directly on millions of citizens caught up in the ideological battle playing out.

Tu, or Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu- gives his reasons for enlisting in the Maori Battalion. In Patricia Grace’s book, Tu’s name means the many Fighting Men of Tumutauenga -Tumatauenga is the patron of war. His name had been given to him by the grandmothers to honour his father and his war. His father had been a member of the Maori Pioneer Battalion of Maori soldiers of 1914 – 1918. When Tu was heading for the mountains of Italy he felt patronised by his name, and that he truly believed he had made the right decision – to go to war.

But he was so young. 17.

How could an 17 year old make the right decision?

Ormond Burton, who had attended Sunday School and Bible School here at St Lukes, served his country, during World War 1. He was at Gallipoli and the Somme as a member of the Medical Corps. He then joined the infantry and served in France, becoming a Second Lieutenant along the way.

Many of you know what happened for Ormond Burton, how his faith led him into the Methodist Church, to work in Te Aro in Wellington. During World War 2, his faith and his belief led him to speak and act against the war. He considered this part of his ministry and his loyalty to Christ. He could not agree with friends who argued that there might be occasions when participation in war was the better, more loving course of action. He thought that involvement in warfare continued the destructive cycle of violence from which we need to be released, bearing arms and participation in war was for him a serious retreat from the implications of Christian discipleship. Foot note to Allan’s paper

His speeches at Pidgeon Park in Wellington on Friday nights were considered seditious. Speaking publicly against the war resulted in him being arrested and imprisoned. After World War 2, he was not permitted to return to the workforce as a teacher. He was able to earn his livelihood through employment by the Education Board, but as a school caretaker. (I have no doubt Ormond would have worked as a caretaker with pride – the criticism falls on the people at the Education Board who thought that he would be humiliated by being denied a return to his profession).

By the way, when I was talking recently to a dear old friend who had been at University in Wellington during the war years, he clearly remembered ‘Ormie Burton’ who was well known to the students. He recalled very clearly the sense of anger felt by Ormie’s friends and supporters because of the treatment he received at the hands of the authorities.

Ormond Burton was a very brave man. He had been brave as a soldier, he was courageous in his Christian faith, and he was courageous in his pacifism.

But Patricia Grace’s character Tu was also brave, even as a blithe young man. He was courageous in wanting to fight, knowing that this was something his family did not approve of. He was courageous in wanting to pay his father respect, and to take seriously the experiences his father had undergone during World War 1. For those who have read Patricia Grace’s wonderful book, Tu’s father had returned from World War 1 with significant long term injuries and ongoing mental health issues. Tu had lived with the daily evidence of the consequences of war for both his parents.

Christian thinkers in the years leading up to World War 2 debated the justification for taking up arms. The debate took place against the background of the World War 1 experience, and the conflict building up within the German borders as a result of the political instability and emergence of Hitler and his Nazi movement

When war broke out om 1939  many Christian men in New Zealand did not hesitate in enlisting voluntarily or in heeding the call when receiving their conscription notices. They did not need to think twice about the justification for military battle in the face of the threats of the Nazi regime. This was an active embodiment of the views of Christian thinkers such as Reinhold Neibuhr, who argued that War is always sinful, but there are times when its better, perhaps even more Christian, to participate in sinful action, rather than to watch while evil forces damage the fabric of humane society.

Perhaps Tu knew that intuitively as an 18 year old, because of the things he had heard about his father, and the things that other people told him about the Maori Battalion.

It takes a lot of courage to hold a point of view which goes against the prevailing tide. Take for example, Archibald Baxter. He, and those who shared his views during World War 1, were incredibly brave. Terrible things were done to the conscientious objectors, acts of shocking brutality to us. Objectors experienced terrible privations – imprisonment, incarceration in leg irons, being fed on bread and water or starved, going mad with hunger,  repeated beatings…In “We will not cease”, Archibald describes the no 1 field punishment. It was an extreme and cruel punishment.

Archibald Baxter and Ormond Burton were men of great courage taking minority, unpopular stands for what they believed.

“What is the Christian view that expresses the Christian principle of peace? What would we have done in World War I and World War II?”

Nothing in the Christian view (equating that with what we find in the Gospels) covers Germany’s invasion of Belgium in August 1914, and Poland in September 1939. Christ taught the kingdom of God, which is an inward and spiritual kingdom. He refused to teach politics, social policy, and other pragmatic affairs. He modelled the Christian way in his actions and relationships with people.

Likewise, neither Jesus nor the early Church taught us the effects of invading Belgium or Poland; the effects of fighting the Viet Cong, and so on. They DID teach us that we should have been loving towards the Poles, the Nazis, the other Germans and so on. What Jesus did teach was about loving your enemy.

I have no intention of making any comfortable political and social comments. The difficulty of loving your enemy, while engaging in war against them remains a huge challenge. Can they be reconciled?

What I can say is that the words of Peter in Acts chapter 11, verses 1-18 are very apposite for us on the eve of the day that we remember those who died in war, the people who returned, and their families who lived with loss and suffering.

Peter was criticised for eating with the uncircumcised men – the unclean. In the Judaism of the day, that was a taboo act. But his response was that the Lord had baptized the unclean with the Holy Spirit. In that way the unclean had been given the same gift as God had given to those who believed in Jesus.

Peter showed great courage in refusing to obey the taboo of eating with the unclean. He also showed great courage in being compassionate towards those who were other, in this case, Gentiles.

While we honour those who have died or suffered as a result of war – we seek courage in our day to embody the way of Jesus, the way the gospel. Those who faced the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and the threat to civilised society represented by Hitler and the Nazi regime in the years leading up to 1939 (armed with the knowledge of the time – not what we know today) had to decide what they must do to oppose that threat.

How in our day do we honour those who have served, died and suffered in war?

We must decide what the Jesus way means for each of us, individually, as Christians. We can always decide, as Peter did, to break a taboo. We can decide to be compassionate.

Post script

After the service on 24 April I had a conversation with a community member. He told me he had been a Conscientious Objector. But also that he was a Padre with the RSA, and the RSA supported him in that appointment even though he was a Conscientious Objector.

The institution, not the individual.

 [A1]NZ soldiers were involved in helping repel Turkish soldiers from the Suez Canal area in February 1915.