12 Ways Christians Can Respond to Anzac Day (and Other Commemorative Events)

by | Dec 15, 2023 | Culture & Society | 0 comments

12 Ways Christians Can Respond to Anzac Day (and Other Commemorative Events)

Dec 15, 2023Culture & Society0 comments

Anzac Day always makes me think about my grandparents, and their personal courage and losses during the First and Second World Wars. Anzac Day holds a special place in the imaginations of Australians and New Zealanders. But, war is dreadful, and Jesus calls us to be local and global peacemakers. So, how should Christians respond to Anzac Day and other commemorative events? Here are 12 responses.

My grandparents both served in the Second World War. When I was a child, I used to admire the pictures on their mantelpiece of their younger selves dressed in full military uniform. They looked so handsome, courageous, and resolute.

My grandparents grew up in poor rural families. My father once told me that my grandfather didn’t own a pair of shoes before joining the Australian Army to fight in the Second World War. Wounded during the fighting in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, my grandfather returned to Australia to work labouring jobs his whole life. His best friend fought alongside him in those jungles, and even saved his life when he was shot. They remained inseparable friends for life.

My grandfather rarely spoke about the horrors he experienced in the war. But at his funeral an Australian Army officer described how most of my grandfather’s battalion had been killed in the unspeakable violence that unfolded in those jungles. My grandparents were passionate about their country, Australia, and paid a terrible price during the war to defend the country and the people they loved.

Anzac Day holds a special place in the imaginations of Australians and New Zealanders. It’s a day to remember all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.” It’s about focusing on “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.”[1]

Anzac Day was originally started to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli in 1915. But since World War II it has been used to reflect on a wide range of associated things. These include (1) the cost of war, (2) the courage and sacrifice of those who have fought and served during wars, (3) the lives of all Australians and New Zealanders lost in war, and (4) the shape of Australian and New Zealander identity.

Dawn services and marches are held in Australia and New Zealand, which include parades, marching, hymns, prayers, an address, laying of wreaths, the playing of the Last Post, a minute of silence, Reveille, and the playing of both the New Zealand and Australian national anthems. In recent years, these Anzac Day dawn services have experienced a resurgence among young people.

Some Christians struggle with Anzac Day and other commemorative events. They find it difficult to reconcile such commemorations with the peacemaking Jesus calls us to embrace as his disciples.

So, how should Christians respond to Anzac Day, and to other days that commemorate those who have served and sacrificed in war and conflict?

[bctt tweet=”12 ways Christians can respond to Anzac Day & other commemorative events.” username=”GrahamJGHill”]

Here are 12 ways Christians can respond to Anzac Day and other commemorative events.

(Please note that you are reading the extended version of this blog. A shorter version, covering the same 12 points, is located here: Shorter Version).

1. Say “thank you”

On Anzac Day, most veterans would be delighted if people just said, “Thank you for your service, and thanks to your family for their sacrifices.” Few would wish to go into a theological debate and discussion about the Christian faith, wars, politics, and nationalism. There is a time for that, and for veterans it is not on Anzac Day.

Say “thank you.” Honour their service, sacrifice, and contributions.

2. Develop a genuine relationship with a veteran

A friend of mine who is a veteran puts it this way: “One practical thing that all Christians can do is develop a genuine relationship with a veteran, and to hear his/her stories without judgment to get a better insight into their service. Maybe that will allow Christians to speak into veteran’s lives when they are ready for the Good News of Jesus and his sacrifice for them. Relational authority must be established first by seeing and understanding a veteran’s world through their eyes.”

Also, Christian veterans can help us understand the experiences of those in the armed forces, further appreciating a veteran’s world through their eyes.

3. Honour the courage and sacrifice of many who fought and suffered in war, without romanticising or glorifying conflict

Anzac Day isn’t about honouring war. War isn’t something we need or want to honour. War is horrific. But Anzac Day does give us a chance to honour the valour and remember the losses of so many who fought and suffered in war. And we can do that without romanticising or lionising conflict.

We remember those (on both sides of the conflicts, and from many different ethnicities), who suffered terribly during the first and second world wars, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, the Persian Gulf, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places.

We recognise that many horrible and unspeakable things were done in war. Yet, we honour the bravery, dreams, and sacrifices of those who fought and suffered for freedoms, ideals, hopes, and people they loved dearly.

Whether I’m a pacifist or a person that believes that I can justify conflict in certain circumstances, I can still honour those who have gone before and given and sacrificed so much.

Steve Turnbull (a chaplain with the Royal Australian Air Force), puts it this way: “We choose to remember every day, ordinary people, who were caught up in extraordinary circumstances… We choose to remember people who gave up so much that we take for granted… Yet, when the stories are told by those who survived, they focus on that which many may find unexpected… They speak of mateship, relationship and loss. They remember the bonds that formed in the very immediate nature of combat and they still grieve at the way those relationships were so quickly and savagely torn apart, sometimes on a daily basis. They remember the humanity in the midst of the inhumane…

“Remembrance services provide opportunities for veterans to gather again with those who share that point of reference. They meet again with those who understand and, hopefully, find comfort, solace and healing amongst those who are on the same journey. However, they offer an opportunity beyond that. They offer the opportunity for those of us who were not there, and who cannot understand, to show the veterans that we care about them and what they went through on our behalf. It mattered that they endured things beyond which we can hope to imagine. It mattered that they experienced such pain and loss. Perhaps most importantly, it matters that they still suffer—physically, emotionally and spiritually… We remember that war is (as Archbishop Welby said) a brutalising process and that overcoming its effects requires compassion.”[2]

4. Remember those who still bear the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual scars and disabilities

My grandfather rarely spoke about the horrors he experienced in war, or about the people he loved and served with that he watched suffer and die. He was one of many soldiers who left conflict with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual scars.

When soldiers come home, they often bring the war home with them. Aside from physical injuries, many suffer psychological and emotional wounds. Many suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recently data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that more Australian soldiers are lost to suicide than most wars. From 2001–2014, there were 292 defence force personnel who took their lives (and that’s only counting those who joined after 2001). In the United States, 22 veterans take their lives every day (around 8,000 each year).

Then there’s the spiritual toll war takes on soldiers. How do you maintain faith within the horrors of war, or while you struggle with PTSD, depression, or a disability?

Soldiers (and their families) need a lot of love and support when they serve and when they return home.

Anzac Day gives us a chance to remember those who still bear these sufferings, and to pray for them, and support them, and love them.

5. Remember the people who waited (sometimes in vain) for the return of a loved one

I’ve just finished reading a collection of poems by sons, daughters, spouses, sweethearts, and parents waiting (sometimes in vain) for a loved one to return from war. It’s heartbreaking. There’s the fear and anxiety while the loved one is away. The shock, depression, and anger if that person is killed. Or the struggles the family goes through if that person returns a different person (because of their experiences in war, or because of PTSD). During Anzac Day, we remember and pray for the families who waited, and who wait today.

6. Honour the sacrifices and contributions of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders, and Māori Peoples

Many Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders, and Māori sacrificed much for the sake of their countries, in the first and second world wars, and in other wars.

As a nation, Australia, has been far too slow to recognise the experiences, courage, and losses of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders, and Māori veterans. Not only did they suffer greatly in the wars, and show immense bravery, but their lives and contributions were often forgotten. Moreover, they often had little or no access to housing, healthcare, financial, and other support when they returned home (compared with their white peers). Fighting for Australia was also no guarantee that they wouldn’t have their children taken from them.

Paul Daley offer a window into the experience of Indigenous soldiers and veterans, as he charts the life of one extraordinary Indigenous soldier, Douglas Grant. You can read that story here: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/mar/25/black-anzac-the-life-and-death-of-an-aboriginal-man-who-fought-for-king-and-country

7. Esteem the sacrifices people have made to prevent war and conflict, and to foster peace

We can also honour the courage, sacrifices, and passions of those who spent (and are currently spending) their lives preventing wars and conflicts. These often work tirelessly to foster peace.

These include politicians, pastors, military personnel, religious leaders, aid and development workers, United Nations Peacekeepers, peace activists, and groups that work for peace and reconciliation. These often lead peace talks and engage groups in peace processes. Some work nationally and globally, but the majority work locally. Many serve at the grassroots, in war and conflict zones (many at the risk of losing their lives). We honour their bravery and sacrifice, as they work to prevent conflict and to bring peace and reconciliation.

8. Reflect on the relationship between Christian and national identity

If you live in Australia or New Zealander, it’s natural to feel some pride in your country. Personally, while I certainly lament Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and our Indigenous peoples, I still feel some pride in many aspects of Australian society.

But, we Christians are sometimes tempted to over-identify with our national identity, and especially during times of national celebration and commemoration. We need to be wary of this. Too often, we confuse our national identity and our Christian identity. We see ourselves as firstly Australian Christians, American Christians, or New Zealander Christians, and secondly as disciples. We confuse and conflate our national/ethnic identity and our Christian identity. Our Australian identity (or other national/ethnic identity) too often takes ascendency over our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of one “new humanity.”

In Ephesians 2:15, Paul talks about God forming a “new humanity in Jesus Christ.” What does Paul the Apostle mean when he speaks of the new humanity in Christ?

Paul means that Jesus Christ has done away with the old divisions and enmities. He has united Jews and Gentiles as one new and undivided humanity in him, through his death and resurrection. This is a new creation in Christ. God has made for himself one new people out of the two. Christ has abolished the old divisions and identities based on culture, politics, race, religion, law, gender, social standing, and so on. “Christ is all in all,” and has brought us together, from every nation, language, and people, as “one new people.” This doesn’t rid us of our Jewish or Gentile (or American, Korean, Australian, Chinese, Rwandan, Brazilian, Native American, etc.) cultures and identities. But, now, our primary identity is in Christ, and in the fact that he has made us “one new people” in him.[3]

Jesus calls us to shape new identities, as the new humanity in Christ. This new identity forges new allegiances and new social imaginations. It nurtures a deep commitment to grace, forgiveness, and love. In a world full of division and conflict, the church needs to embrace the ministry of reconciliation and peacemaking. God calls us to be a peaceable people who display unity in diversity under Christ. God commands us to show the world what it means to be a new humanity and new creation in Christ.

We must bear witness to a new identity. We are not primarily Australian or New Zealander, Tutsi or Hutu, German or French, British or Sudanese, Palestinian or Israeli, Chinese or Brazilian, Syrian or American. We are not primarily Liberal or Labor, conservative or progressive, Republican or Democrat, urban or rural, rich or poor, white or a person of colour. We are primarily one people, united as one body in Jesus Christ.

We are a new creation and a new humanity. We are “a people on pilgrimage together, a mixed group, bearing witness to a new identity made possible by the Gospel.”[4] God calls us to show the world what reconciled, redeemed, and restored humanity looks like.

We are a new humanity with a new identity in Jesus Christ.

We must not root Christian identity in nationalism, ethnicity, partisan politics, gender, sexuality, and so on. Instead, we must root Christian identity shaped through discipleship to Jesus Christ. It is identity formed through a vision of what it means to be a distinct people with an alternative ethic, politic, and life together. We must base our identity in a commitment to being a new humanity. We are a people on pilgrimage together, made up of every tribe and people and ethnicity and language.

God is forming for himself a people in the world. That people—Jew and Gentile, women and men, rich and poor, black and white—show the world an alternative to ethnocentrism, animosity, nationalism, sexism, racism, violence, war, and conflict.

In an age of war and conflict, Jesus brings us together as a new humanity and a new creation, witnessing to Christ’s final rule and reign. We express this in grace, love, forgiveness, lament, fellowship, hospitality, welcome, and a commitment to human flourishing.

Our identity as Australians, New Zealanders, or any other nationality, is subsumed into this new identity in Jesus Christ.

9. Choose the values and ethics of Jesus, and not those promoted by society

There is a lot of talk these days about “Australian values.” This discussion about Australian values builds a lot of momentum around key dates in our national calendar: Australia Day, Anzac Day, and so on. Personally, I find the term vague, elusive, and hazy. Which part of Australia are we talking about? Which group embodies those “Australian values”? Do we simply choose to ignore the voices of those who don’t find Australia especially egalitarian, tolerant, or fair?

Many of the things people mention when asked to define Australian values aren’t especially unique to Australia (tolerance, freedom of religion, fair play, and so on). And they’re not the experience of all Australians.

The good news for Christians is that we have a more solid reference point for our values. We choose the values of Jesus and his kingdom and gospel, and not those determined (occasionally and arbitrarily) by any nation or society.

The life and message of Jesus especially shape our values and ethics. What values and ethics did Jesus embrace, demonstrate, and speak about? Love your enemies. Love your God. Love your neighbour. Go and be reconciled. Honour human life. Renounce violence and hatred. Love unconditionally. Forgive extravagantly. Show compassion for the last, the least, the outcast, the poor, the despised, and the most vulnerable. Be passionate about truth and justice. Be meek. Pursue peacemaking. Seek the righteousness that only God offers. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Be humble, sincere, and honest. Repent, and turn away from wrongdoing. Follow Jesus and “take up your cross.” Have faith in God.

10. Learn afresh, every day, how “blessed are the peacemakers”

Anzac Day reminds us to commit to pursuing peace in a divided, violent, and conflicted world. Nonviolence and peacemaking are the “hallmarks of the Christian moral life.” Nonviolence “is integral to the shape of Christian convictions.”[5]

Christians root our witness in the peaceable ethic of Jesus. “Nonviolence is a sign of hope that there is an alternative to war. And that alternative is called church.”

The church witnesses to Christ’s peaceable kingdom.[6] In “Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church,” Stanley Hauerwas unpacks the pastoral implications of nonviolence for the church. We choose to learn afresh, every day, how “blessed are the peacemakers.” Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. In fact, healthy conflict is necessary for peace, and to avoid war. Peacemaking is a virtue, cultivated in community. Peacemaking is crucial to moral excellence and Christian witness. Christians can’t practice peacemaking in isolation. We need communities of forgiveness, peace, hospitality, and reconciliation. Christians shouldn’t despair of peace in the world. Instead, we foster a peaceable practice and imagination. We pursue the peaceable kingdom. We embrace hope in the Prince of Peace. “Peacemaking among Christians, therefore, is not simply one activity among others but rather is the very form of the church insofar as the church is the form of the one who ‘is our peace.’”[7] Peacemaking isn’t passive. It’s the active, courageous, and public exercise of forgiveness and love and reconciliation.[8]

11. See the search for meaning and identity present in commemorations, and show how Jesus and his gospel meet this longing

For many people, Anzac Day (and other such events) are part of a broader search for meaning and identity. Some suggest this is the reason so many Millennials are involved in Anzac Day, and why it now rivals religious holidays. People are asking a lot of significant questions. Who am I? Who am I in this culture? How do I relate to my society and its past? What is my place in life? How do I understand myself and my purpose in life, especially considering historical events? What have people given up for me, and how do I respond? What does it mean to relate to a story and tradition that’s greater than myself? What unites me to others in my society, when we may not share the same faith, outlook, or worldview?

All these are natural questions. It makes sense that people ask such questions on occasions like Anzac Day.

But, let’s remember that Anzac Day comes directly after Easter on the Australian and New Zealand calendars. For Christians, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most profound answer to all these questions. Jesus Christ defines meaning and identity for Christians. And we believe that Jesus and his gospel meet the longing of the human heart for meaning and identity.

12. Commit the commemorations, the participants, the armed forces, the peacemakers, and the nation to prayer

Finally, we commit all these things to prayer. We pray for soldiers, peacemakers, politicians, and commemorations. We pray for the thousands of participants in the services, and for the nation. We pray for God’s power, presence, provision, protection, and grace. We pray for healing, forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation. We pray for those who still bear the physical and mental scars and disabilities of their service. We pray for the widows, orphans, and parents who waited in vain for the return of loved ones. We pray for veterans, as many suffer from depression, PTSD, loneliness, and more. We pray for the courage to follow the Prince of Peace, and be nonviolent peacemakers in every area of our lives. We pray for a vision of the age to come, where there will be no more sickness, war, conflict, and death. We pray for compassion and love. We pray for the Asia-Pacific, and for the witness of the churches throughout our region, as they seek to model and promote peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. And we pray all this, in Jesus’ name.

Graham Hill

Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.

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[1] See https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/anzac-day/ and https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/anzac-day-resources

[2] Steve Turnbull, “Lest We Forget: The Importance of Remembering Well,” 20 July 2015, https://steveturnbull1.wordpress.com/2015/07/20/lest-we-forget-the-importance-of-remembering-well/

[3] See Ephesians 2 to 4, Colossians 3, and Galatians 3 and 6.

[4] Emmanuel Katongole, Mirror to the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 1.

[5] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (London: SCM, 1984), xvi.

[6] Hauerwas and Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 55. Also see Hauerwas’ treatment of war and peace in Hauerwas, Approaching the End (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 120–36.

[7] Hauerwas, “Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church,” in Berkman and Cartwright, The Hauerwas Reader (London: Duke University, 2001), 324.

[8] Ibid., 318–26. See: McKnight, One Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), Chapter 6.

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Graham Joseph Hill

Rev. Dr. Graham Joseph Hill OAM serves as Mission Catalyst for Church Planting and Missional Renewal with the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT, Australia. Previously, he was the Principal of Stirling Theological College (Melbourne), the Vice-Principal of Morling Theological College (Sydney), and an Associate Professor at the University of Divinity, Australia. Graham is an ordained and accredited minister with the Baptist Churches of Australia. Graham received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2024 for “service to theological education and to the Baptist Churches of Australia.” He has planted and pastored churches and been in ministry since 1988. Graham is the author or editor of 15 books. Graham writes at grahamjosephhill.com

Graham's qualifications include: OAM, Honours Diploma of Ministry (SCD), Bachelor of Theology (SCD), Master of Theology (Notre Dame), and Doctor of Philosophy (Flinders).

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