Even after twenty years in Australia, I have to admit that, for me, ANZAC Day is a difficult occasion on which to speak. I am clear that there can be no simple time limit on marking terrible loss and grief. I understand what a profound effect the loss of lives had on still recently declared new nations, facing major challenges, with small populations scattered across great distances. I also comprehend that the events of Gallipoli connect with other deep sufferings, and that heroic human virtues are present which can continue to strengthen us all. All that makes sense. Such memories are important not to forget. Much of ANZAC Day is also about myth. This is primarily however in the constructive sense of meaning-making story and symbol – in a similar way to how religion also employs particular vital stories and symbols to help us cope with destruction and enable new life. I also honour the sense of something sacred which so many find in rituals such as the dawn ceremonies, such powerful representations of Australian civic religion.
However I have also struggled with ANZAC Day. As an immigrant, it is not always easy to identify with, and can be profoundly alienating when ANZAC has been wrapped in the flag and associated with militarism. As an English person, with my own native country’s experiences of tragic loss in war and infliction of pain on others, I have been surprised how little is done to connect with the pain of others. At times it seems as if others are even disregarded. Happily ANZAC commemorations often do now recognise Turkish pain. How often though do we hear about the British soldiers who died at Gallipoli, in nearly four times the numbers of ANZACs combined. More French soldiers were also killed than Australians. 5 000 Indians lost their lives or were wounded, and many other nationalities too. Of course the numbers are not proportionate to populations and it is right that nations mark their particular hurts. Yet ANZAC commemorations can become cut off from the world’s wider pain, then and now. Rarely mentioned, for example, are the appalling Armenian Massacres which happened at the very same time. The virtues of ANZACs are rightly highlighted, but with no full consideration of their context. What on earth happened, for example, to take them to their deaths? Have we no lessons to draw from the tyrannies, rampant economic and social injustices, lack of international solidarity, imperialism and nationalism which drew nations into global conflict? If we are rightly moved by ANZAC, how will we also organise our lives and world afresh to diminish such pain and conflict today?
Sometimes even the mildest questioning of aspects of ANZAC commemorations can lead to massive media and political opprobrium descending upon the questioner. Yet, if we are to be serious about ANZAC, and about the Christian Gospel, we must seek fresh light in faith and world. How, for example, does today’s Gospel reading help us respond? After all, it is, infamously, far too easy, simply to elide the deaths of those who died in war with Jesus’ words about ‘laying down my life for the sheep.’ What do we mean by ‘sacrifice’?
three English mothers' stories
In the little northern town where I was born, a mother raised six sons – in a part of Barnard Castle known, for very good reason, as Poor House Yard. All six enlisted in the army in 1916, and, within just over a year, five were dead. Can you imagine the pain? The community rallied, and the vicar’s wife wrote to Queen Mary, who eventually helped move the remaining son away from the frontline. Happily, part of our enduring hope, Wilfrid lived and his granddaughter still lives in the town. Yet Wilfrid’s parents were thrown back into poverty. When the town’s war memorial was dedicated, his mother, shorn of her other five sons, laid the first wreath, but was described by the local newspaper as a ‘pathetic figure’. At least two other English mothers suffered the same fate. In a Lincoln vicarage, near where I grew up, Amy Beechey raised eight sons, five of whom were killed in the Great War. In April 1918, she was presented to the King and Queen, and thanked for her immense sacrifice. ‘It was no sacrifice, ma’am’, she gently but firmly replied, ‘I did not give them willingly’. The third mother, Annie Souls, also had five sons wrenched away by the same war. She refused ever after to stand for the national anthem, except once, at a school concert, so as not to embarrass a granddaughter. She had to leave her village after the war, to avoid gossip about how she would profit from the pensions given her sons. Her remaining son then died soon after, of meningitis.
We must remember such pain, with the pain of the ANZACS, and the continuing pain of our world. But how can we easily speak of ‘sacrifice’, and simply focus on the deaths of young men which were the result of many wider forces of which we hardly ever speak? Our church noticeboard puts it well this weekend. If we are to remember, let us remember all. ‘Lest we forget’ indeed, but ‘lest we forget…anyone’.
Good Shepherd as problematic Australian image
Does the biblical image of the good shepherd help, do you think? It is also a tricky thing, particularly in the context of the Frontier Wars in what we know call Australia. For, as historians have pointed out, sheep may have become an essential source of food for early colonialists, but they literally occupied the land, multiplied the population and disrupted prior ownership and ecological balance. As such, they were totems of invasion. No wonder so many were killed by Aboriginal people, not just for food but as part of political and symbolic resistance. Meanwhile, colonial shepherds were literally the frontline of European expansion. No wonder their huts and lives were central to the warfare of this land.
What then are we to do today with the biblical shepherd and sheep images, including the words about sacrifice? As Meredith Lake pointed out (in her book The Bible in Australia) early missionaries struggled. Threlkeld and his Awabakal colleague Biraban thus opted to find alternative, indigenous, images – replacing, for example, the Lord is my Shepherd in Psalm 23 with the Awabakal word ‘wirrilli’. This related to the Aboriginal practice of winding up fishing lines, and opossum for cords, so as to care and protect them. Thus the point of the biblical meaning of the divine shepherd might be heard.
Perhaps we have to do something similar if we are to renew our myths and memories and thereby make for greater peace? At the very least, we have to reflect more deeply when we come to times of remembrance, and to today’s Gospel text. How do they speak to everyone, and how might they speak afresh? The shepherd image isn’t easy for many of us urban folk today, is it? Yet it still holds renewing power if we approach it properly. Three helpful features certainly strike me – admittedly resonating with my own particular experiences of living and working with sheep farmers on the northern hills of my birth…
Revisioning the Good Shepherd
Firstly, and above all, Jesus’ point was not about shepherds per se, but the good shepherd. In this, I think, we are to place the good shepherd alongside the good Samaritan. Jesus is not offering us a simple image of a fluffy, cuddly, protector figure. No, Jesus is speaking out of situations of profound conflict, even violence. There is theft, prejudice, economic and colonial injustice, and all sorts mixed up here. The good shepherd is therefore an unexpected figure, much though some Hebrew scriptures point towards them. The good shepherd overturns our ideas of what care and protection in leadership might be, and where we might find them.
For, secondly, the good shepherd is inextricably identified with their people and land. They are juxtaposed by Jesus here, with the thieves – who include the invaders and colonialists, the run-of-the-mill politicians and rapacious business people, who were exploiting God’s people and land. In contrast, the good shepherd lays down their life for others, not out of fear or the orders of others, but out of their own will, through the love and grace of God.
Thirdly, the love of the good shepherd is therefore profoundly resilient, resistant, and, ultimately, triumphal love. For all the passions and rages of the thieves, with all their power and violence, will be held and transformed by the power of divine, costly, love.
For such reasons, I do still see the good shepherd in our world, including in some of the literal shepherds I have known. They can be easily despised and overlooked, but they identify with the needs of others and their land, and, thanks to the grace of God, they develop and display resilience about the things which truly matter. They keep on working for peace and reconciliation, come what may. We too are called by God into deeper company and that great vision of peaceful transformation which the Bible calls shalom.
Battle of One Tree Hill cross as a symbol of restoring shalom
So how is such shalom to be embodied? Well, we come back to what memories we recall don’t we, and which myths we share, and how? The Battle of One Tree Hill memorial cross certainly offers us one step in moving forward in peacemaking in this land, and beyond. It was the work of the remarkable Aboriginal artist Uncle Colin Isaacs, best known for the imaging and art used along the memorial walkway of the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial Site. Such images, says Uncle Colin, are not created solely for art’s sake, but are a form of communication. They convey relationships to the land, to the Dreaming, to history and life experiences.
The Battle of One Tree Hill cross is an invitation to us to widen and deepen our memories and to work on more life-giving myths, in closer relationship with others. Might ANZAC Day be part of this too? How might we picture peace and reconciliation among us today, do you think? On Uncle Colin’s cross, the two arms represent, respectively, the deep culture of this land and its various diverse peoples. On the vertical arm, the warrior stands for Multuggerah, but also for all Aboriginal warriors and people of strength, wisdom and courage, who love their land and people and its Spirit. The snake represents the Spirit moving in creation, underpinning everything. The horizontal arms represents European settler culture, much less deep in Australia yet still real and important, with genuine and growing relationship to the land. At the heart of the cross is Meewah/Table Top Mountain, which, together with the birds of peace, is a source of unity in our shared land. We might also see the Aboriginal figure as a Christ figure - even a Good Shepherd? – offering us strength and healing. The tree at the heart of the cross can also remind us of the tree of life and the tree of reconciliation on Calvary. The flags, like the two arms, represent all our different peoples, yet brought together in one. That is the aim. That is the hope. That is the reality into which we walk together today. May God and all that is good in all that we have been, are, and can be, therefore continue to bless us in all our life-giving myths, memories and making peace. Amen.
 See further: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-25497900.amp
 See, for example, Dr Christopher Mayes of Deakin Univerisity, as reported in https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/how-the-lamb-chop-ruined-australia/
by Josephine Inkpin, for Easter 4, Year B - ANZAC Day - Sunday 25 April 2021