Honouring the Fallen
A sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 & John 10:22-30 by Nathan Nettleton, 29 April 2007
Jesus is the model for rightly honouring the victims by exposing and resisting the systems that sacrificed them.
This week, Australia has observed Anzac Day - a day which is increasing described as the most sacred day in our national calendar and the most significant day in understanding the nature of our national character. For those who don’t participate in the worship life of the Church, Anzac Day is certainly the day with the most reverent public rituals or liturgies. At shrines, memorials and monuments in every town and municipality across the country, people gather to remember and honour the fallen, and to salute and express gratitude to those who survived and can still march.
But the Anzac Day commemorations do not sit comfortably with many Christians. While we are followers of one who was slain, we are not followers of one who took up arms to fight the enemy. Jesus, the one to whom we gave our primary allegiance, called us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. When his enemies came against him with military force, he did not resort to reciprocal violence to defend himself or his cause. Offering himself as the Prince of Peace, rather than as the Holy Warrior, he allowed the machinery of might and power to add him to its seemingly endless blood-stained list of sacrificial victims. Jesus gave us no endorsement and no precedent for taking up arms in military conflict, and his teachings point overwhelmingly towards an active renunciation of waging war.
So where does that leave us on the day when our nation commemorates those who have fought and fallen in war? Can we participate in honouring the fallen without betraying the gospel of the Prince of Peace? I think we can, but taking our lead from Jesus, we may have to consciously reinterpret our participation so as to resist the way that the commemoration has been manipulated to support the system that produced all the killing in the first place.
In the reading we heard from the gospel according to John, we are told that it was the time of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, and Jesus was at the temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah is a festival that uses symbols of lights shining in the darkness, and much of what Jesus has to say around this time - although not so much in the passage we heard tonight - is about light and darkness and being blind or able to see clearly. “I am the light of the world.” “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And throughout his telling of the gospel, the same sort of thing happens a number of times. John mentions several of the major Jewish festivals, and around them Jesus speaks to the crowds using images that are drawn from those festivals, but which he reinterprets in ways which challenge the status quo and call the people to a new faithfulness in the service of a God of love and reconciliation and peace. He does not set himself up in opposition to the festivals. People already observe them and they are going to keep on doing so. But he openly challenges some of the ways the festivals have been used to support the social and political agendas of the established powers. Perhaps we might be able to do something similar with our nation’s commemorations of those who were sent to war.
Our reading from the book of the Revelation to John told of a vision of an enormous crowd, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and languages, gathered before the Lamb who was slain, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches as they worship God with loud voices. And John is told that this enormous crowd are “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This is interesting in light of our question, because here we have a great crowd of the fallen, of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the great ordeal.
Now it is a coincidence that this passage has come up in our cycle of readings on the Sunday just after Anzac day, but it is a coincidence that invites us to think about how such a biblical vision might connect with the Anzac commemorations. It is apparent that we could go in at least two very different directions with it. The biblical vision could be used quite uncritically to support he standard Anzac agenda. “Here are the great crowd of the glorious fallen gathered before the throne of the God in whose service they laid down their lives in the great ordeal.” We could easily connect that with the Anzac Day services and blithely go along with using the honouring of the fallen to reinforce the implied message that the idea of “fighting to defend God, King and country” is indeed a sacred purpose for which one should be prepared to make such a sacrifice.
But honouring the fallen does not require us to swallow such propaganda. We can honour the fallen and acknowledge their sacrifice without having to support the system that sacrificed them. We can even hope and pray that those who were killed in war might find their place among the great multitude of white-robed martyrs who worship God before the Lamb who was slain without suggesting that there is some sort of moral equivalence between fighting as a soldier and being murdered for following Jesus.
You see, those who die as soldiers on active duty, and those who are killed for following Jesus have this in common: they are both the sacrificial victims of a system that regularly decides that some must be sacrificed in order to preserve the security of established interests. They might have aligned themselves differently in relation to those established powers and interests, but in the end it matters little. The system survives by selecting victims and sacrificing them, and whether it sacrifices its willing supporters or its dissidents, the outcome is the same: a long line of bloodstained victims stretching back to the foundation of the world, and the powers-that-be still calling for more victims and more sacrifices and doing so in the name of a “peace” which is actually just the protection of the space in which those powers pursue their interests.
In their manipulation of the memory of the fallen, the powers-that-be would have our honouring of the fallen morph into a worshipping of the victims where the victims become inseparably linked to symbols such as the flag and democracy and national borders and “our freedom”, and our worship of them thus morphs into an endorsement of the need to defend such things with violent military force if and when required. But those who have fought in war will mostly tell you that war is futile and that in the midst of its hellish conflict, the fighting is really just about the survival of me and my mates, and not much about “noble” concepts like democracy and freedom. Even those soldiers who remain champions of the nationalistic agenda will often say that war is a tragic way to go about achieving them. I heard General Peter Cosgrove, probably Australia’s most popular military commander, say on TV the other night that by any analysis, war was an extremely stupid way of doing things. He hasn’t converted to pacifism, but his words do point to the fact that we can honour the memory of those who have been sacrificed in war without having to endorse either the ideologies that they were sacrificed to defend, or the actions by which they defended them. Rather than join in the worship of them as icons of the very system that sacrificed them, we can stand with them in the white-robed multitude and join them in worshipping the God who is made known in the Lamb who was slain, the ultimate sacrificial victim who exposes the senseless and callous violence of our world and its entrenched powers.
For even as Jesus accepts the worship of the white-robed multitude, he honours them as fellow victims with him and wipes away every tear from their eyes. Far from neglecting their memory, it is in remembering and honouring this multitude of victims that Jesus turns the spotlight of truth on the violent system that keeps on demanding more blood. We too can bring these things together. Just as Jesus drew on the symbols of the national commemorations and turned them to the cause of exposing the systemic oppression of the people and sounding the call to the new culture of the kingdom of peace, so too we can honour the fallen while allowing their memory to raise urgent questions about the powers that sacrificed them.
Without ever resorting to violence, Jesus confronted, challenged and resisted the victim-makers to such an extent that they had to risk everything and sacrifice him to protect their patch. But when God raised him from the dead and he returned, as the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world, still speaking words of reconciliation and love and forgiveness, the truth was out in the open. The powers and principalities of this world had done their worst, but they were exposed as simply the callous and bloodthirsty warlords who will going on spilling the blood of more victims as long as we will keep swallowing their propaganda. At one level the sacrifice of Jesus is just one more in an endless line. But if we will see it for what it is, it is the sacrifice that offers to end all sacrifices. We have often be sold a lie about the war to end all wars, but any war cannot help but sow the seeds of the next war. But in the sacrifice of the perfectly innocent victim, and in his refusal to respond to the violence with more violence and vengeance, this sacrificial victim offers us the one and only way out of the cycle of violence and vengeance and victim making.
At the rising of the sun, and at the going down of the same, we will remember the Victim, and all the victims of the madness of our world. And as we gather around this table we will stand with them, and with all the white-robed martyrs who have been sacrificed down through the ages, and bear witness with them that the powers of death are defeated by the power of love and life, and that the sacrificing can end and that all the world can be one.