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Wars of myths ancient and new

By Jim Dowling - posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014


In his trilogy on the "Powers", theologian Walter Wink makes much of the ancient Babylonian creation myth which depicts the universe coming into existence through bloodshed – matricide no less. One of the gods slew his own mother and her dismembered body was strewn out to form the universe.

Wink contends that the Jewish/Christian creation story is the opposite of this – describing a world created by a loving God who saw "it was good". The Christian salvation story takes this further. The Son of God lays down his life for human beings, shattering any belief in the sacredness of "redemptive violence."

All this passed through my mind as I stood on the lawn opposite the old parliament house and gazed in amazement at the temple like structure of the Canberra War Memorial in one direction and the likewise religious steeple above the new parliament in the other direction. Between them lies a seemingly uninterrupted wide pathway. (I say seemingly as an unseen expanse of water is also between them). The religious significance of both, and the link between them has undoubtedly, been intended. The idea that our nation had come of age through bloodshed has been put many times by politicians and writers - the blood shed by our brave young men on the beaches of Gallipoli being the sacred event supposedly marking our maturity.

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Geographically I was standing between the Canberra war memorial and Parliament. But time wise it was in the week between Easter Sunday and Anzac Day. It has been apparent (to me at least) that the Easter story and the Anzac story have been engaged in their own war of Myths for a long time, escalating in the last decade.

As we approach the vast Anzac celebrations planned for 2015, it could be argued the battle is all but over with just a small remnant fighting a nonviolent rear-guard guerrilla war against the myth of redemptive violence presented by Anzac Day. Like the Vichy government in France in WW2, much of the church capitulated in the early stages, many Christian leaders comparing Anzac Day to Good Friday. Perhaps many at least hope to have something standing when the smoke clears on the battlefield of "post Christian" Australia.

But I was not in Canberra to just be the "anti –tourist", and bemoan the architecture. I had come to be part of the IPAN (Independent and Peaceful Australia Network) conference. (Oh, yes and to slide down "the tongue" at the national science museum, as my daughter told me I had to do.)

The keepers of the fire at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy had graciously let many of us camp nearby, welcoming us and farewelling us with smoking ceremonies. There were two days of meetings, one official and the other unofficial, listening to speakers and planning for the future. On the day before Anzac Day we confronted a number of institutions connected to "sacred" war making, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and British Areospace, the world's largest merchants of death. Between them they have invented some the most inhuman devices the mind could conjure, including Cruise missiles, nuclear weapons, and flesh shredding cluster bombs. All have large offices in Canberra to enable them to be close to their loyal customer- the war making state.

On Anzac day itself most of us joined the aboriginal contingent at the end of the march. A large banner proclaimed, "Remember the Frontier wars" while individual placards reminded us of various battles and massacres during the early years of the European invasion of Australia. I held a placard with "Remember the Kilcoy Massacre", a poisoning not far from where I live, in whichm30 – 60 people died in 1842. I was pleasantly surprised to see a face I knew from Brisbane with a similar Placard. It was Jeannie Bell whose grandfather had come from that area. She was in Canberra for other reasons and decided to join the march.

The contingent had joined the Anzac Day march for a number of years and generally got a good response form onlookers, with much clapping of support. But sadly each year the police have blocked the contingent from entering the official area for speeches etc. When this happened once again we quietly sang, "Lest we Forget", while an indigenous leader gave a powerful and moving speech about his people killed in the first wars in Australia. This poignant drama non-violently enacted outside the war memorial, served to shatter the official reasons for Anzac day like nothing else could.

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The oft repeated mantra goes something like this: "Anzac Day is not about the glorification of War. It is about remembering those who died for their country". Surely no war could have been described as more "just", than one where a people who had lived on a land for thousands of years fought for that land against foreign invaders But here they were being refused permission to join in the ceremony.

I believe Anzac day is not about honouring the dead. Like any religious or political ceremony its main focus is for the people gathered and watching, not the dead. Anzac Day serves to ensure Australians' continued patriotism and loyalty to war making. It serves to ensure each new generation will kill and die as surely as the last. But it must only include "legitimate" wars that increase the prestige of the state. It cannot include an unsanitized war that could remind us that some of our killing was not only inglorious, but wrong - brutally and tragically wrong. Such were the wars waged against the first Australians. If we repent that war perhaps we will have to repent all wars, especially those fought purely for imperial powers such as WW1, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. If such repentance were to enter the Anzac equation who knows what would happen? Perhaps we would say no to the next call to fight for our present imperial masters, the United States?

The Easter story provides a nonviolent alternative to the Anzac Myth. It is not a complimentary story. No soldier has gone to fight a war by laying down his life for his enemies, as brave and as generous as they may be. Killing the enemy is always the primary goal, while being killed is to be avoided at all costs. The nonviolence of Jesus, Ghandi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, is another way of facing our fears without wars. I am convinced it is the only way open to followers of Jesus.

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About the Author

Jim Dowling lives in Brisbane and writes on peace and justice issues.

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