When a state has no gods, it deifies its own. For it has no sense of something greater, no limit to its imaginings, and so it must conceive them. This tendency is nowhere more prevalent than in late western democracies, since they eschew all religious partisanship, and construct an identity based on nationhood and citizenship. This is seen, not least, in attempts to reassure Americans in the wake of 9/11 that American Muslims were Americans first, Muslim second, a state of affairs that should at least raise the eyebrow.
In Australia today, it is the celebration of Anzac Day. While many nations have some similar remembrance of soldiers' sacrifices, Australia is perhaps unique in its celebration of an essentially disastrous and futile military action, directed by officers of another nation, that ended in no great gain yet great loss of life, as the marker of its 'birth of national identity' and the commemoration of war.
Anzac day, in recent years, has become the only truly sacred day in the civic calendar, and its tag line, "Lest we forget", encapsulates its purpose: to immortalise the memory of those who have died for the nation.
It is at this point, and I am sure some of you reading will take offence, we must turn aside. If Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who came into this world to redeem men and women from every tribe, language, people and nation, and unite them in himself as one body, and come again to judge the living and the dead, if He offered up his life as the true sacrifice, what truck are his disciples to have with war and its cultus?
For it is the vanity of nations that they are worth dying for, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that weighs its own citizens' lives as worth more than the enemies, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that makes of men professional killers then lauds them as heroes. It is the vanity of nations that thinks its brief glory will endure forever, when history is littered with the ruins of entire peoples, languages, civilisations, all of whom bled many more lives than we. So long as it is 'we', and not 'them', there will always be a justification, always a price for someone else to pay.
As a church, we should always call into question to absolutising tendencies of the state. For the church is, by the calling of Christ, an transnational body of people. It stretches across different nations, and declares that they are temporal not eternal, relative not absolute, man-made things not gods.
As a church, we ought not to immortalise those who killed and died for the nation. In fact, to do so is to be horribly 'muddled' in our thinking, schismaticising our own identity between Christ and the Nation. We remember, instead, the martyrs - men and women who died for something far greater, the good confession of our Lord Jesus Christ, who purchased them by his blood. What Christian today will remember not the sacrifices of soldiers, but those of the martyrs? I fear the answer is few.
Lest we forget - come, let us commemorate the dead, those lives lost fighting for a cause that cannot endure, those lives lost 'for king and country', those lives lost that can never be regained. Let us remember the great absurdity and tragedy of war, and refuse to give it its wanted place. Let us lament those who died too young to hear the good news, and those they slew bringing guns not gospel. It is the greatness of their sacrifice, heartfelt and 'heroic', that magnifies the folly of the cause, and leads us to memorialise not their victory, but only one more defeat.
And at the going down of the sun, perhaps we will recall these words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.