ANZAC Day and the Language of Redemptive Sacrifice

In this post, my second concerning ANZAC Day, I want to focus on—and challenge—the way in which the language of redemptive sacrifice has been applied to those who die in battle.

An interesting phenomenon seems to have crept into many churches whereby the language of Jesus’ death on the cross is commonly (mis)applied to the death of soldiers in the ANZAC tradition. You may have seen some of the pictures that float around social media at these times with a picture of a (possibly silhouetted) soldier, perhaps a flag, and a cross, with a bible quote attached to bring the message home. Usually, this bible quote is taken from the gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13:

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Now, on the surface of things, this seems like a perfectly reasonable connection to make. The rhetoric of war has convinced us that the death of our soldiers is for our benefit, our ‘life’, and therefore their sacrifice (‘their life for ours’) must have been worthwhile. Indeed it’s taken to be redemptive: they bought our freedom with their lives. It’s only a small jump, then, to the sorts of words we find written about Jesus.

The problem is, however, that the work (and sacrifice) of soldiers in war and the work (and sacrifice) of Jesus on the cross are antithetical to one another.

I think there are basically two main reasons for this.

1) Firstly, the work of soldiers (acting at the behest of nations) in war pits ‘us’ against ‘them’, while the work of Jesus tears down the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ that have plagued humanity.

There is simply no escaping the fact that war rises out of nationalism and imperialism, and can only function in a situation where division is not only accepted, but enforced. Whoever ‘we’ are fighting against becomes the symbol for evil in the world, and it is only through the complete domination (or annihilation) of ‘them’ that peace can be achieved. The caricatures of ‘the enemy’ may not be so blatant these days as they were in WWI or WWII, however the underlying framework is exactly the same. ‘We’ are not ‘them’, and what’s required is that the threat that ‘they’ represent be ‘neutralised’ (to use a chilling euphemism so often used in war).

But the work of Jesus goes to the heart of tearing down these very divisions. So much of Jesus’ ministry was about drawing in those who had been excluded. The nationalistic ‘identity markers’ that separated those who were included and those who were excluded were discarded and, quite shockingly, the command was to show love to one’s ‘enemy’. The Apostle Paul understood this clearly, and that’s why he spent so much time in his letters showing how the formerly warring parties (‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’) were now joined together in one new family. Is this not a profound undermining of the very foundation on which war is built?

2) Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the actions of soldiers in war perpetuates violence and conflict, while the actions of Jesus in his life, ministry, and death on the cross shows up violence and domination for what it truly is and illustrates an alternate way of understanding (true) victory.

We have been fed the lie that peace can only be achieved through war (or the threat of war). Again, there is a Latin phrase that captures the idea well: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). The idea, of course, is that there will be no inclination to enter into conflict if there is a party so powerful that battle with them could only bring certain disaster. Now, obviously, ‘we’ don’t want such unbridled power to fall into the ‘wrong’ hands, but ‘we’ are the good guys (right?) and therefore it only makes sense for us to be the ones wielding such might(!).

But this does not bring peace. It brings either reluctant capitulation, or active resistance (which therefore necessitates brutal demonstrations of power in order to restore equilibrium). But this is not peace; it is the tactic of bullies. It is a corrupt form of reasoning that invites further corruption, and it has always been the same.

Furthermore, it doesn’t actually work. The ancient Romans used the tactic to great effect, but the Pax Romana (the ‘Peace of Rome’) was in fact a sham. It was ‘peace’ at the end of a sword. Admittedly, it often brought capitulation, for a time, but it wasn’t lasting. Even in the face of such great power it was not enough to subdue all opposition. The Jews in the first century, as just one example, engaged the Romans in all out war—even in the face of overwhelming odds (and eventual catastrophic consequences). The same happens today. In what we might call the Pax Americana, we have a situation where the incredible might of the U.S. (symbolised horrifically, yet perfectly, in the bombings of Japan in WWII) becomes the de facto ‘sheriff’ in world affairs, but it is not peace. And it will not last. Furthermore, even in the face of such a dominant force, there are some who will still not capitulate. Despite significant, brutal shows of force, there are many who actively oppose even the great might of the U.S.

And the reason is quite simple: military might rests on the threat of death, and those who have no fear of death are not intimidated by it. This was the case for militant Jews rising up against the Romans in the first century, and it is the case for militant Muslims rising up against the U.S. in our own time.

The problem, of course, with these responses, is that they nevertheless perpetuate the cycle of violence. Death begets death, and on and on it goes. But this is where the work of Jesus makes most sense, and where it brings the whole edifice of war crashing to the ground. Through the resurrection, Jesus has gained victory over death—not through opposing war and violence on their own terms, but by undermining their very basis. Jesus didn’t respond to the challenge of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem or the power of the Romans by embracing war (and perpetuating the cycle of violence), but rather he highlighted the shallowness of such bullying tactics and robbed them of their power. In his life, ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus has completely destroyed the very foundation on which war stands.

It is for these reasons, therefore, that I feel the need to call this ‘heresy’ out for what it is. It is imperial ideology masquerading as Christian theology (in the name of ‘respect’), and it’s incredibly dangerous. The actions of soldiers in war and the actions of Jesus on the cross are not the same thing. In fact, they are in direct opposition to one another.

Now, I have no doubt that some will take what I’m saying here as being disrespectful to the memory of our fallen soldiers. To that, I would simply ask if it is not disrespectful to the memory of Jesus of Nazareth to turn his legacy precisely on its head?! Even a cursory glance at the gospels gives one the impression that the ‘Kingdom of God’ operates in exactly the opposite way to the great empires of human history.

The great ‘victory’ of God in Jesus was not in crushing ‘the enemy’ through might and domination; it was in the scandal of love—a love for the whole of humanity so passionate that Jesus laid down his life without the counter-attack (which perpetuates the hostility) in order to overcome hostility at its very core, bringing the possibility of (true) peace to formerly warring parties.

So many of us Australians have relatives who fought, and died, in wars throughout our nation’s short history. I do not mean to be disrespectful to them, or to you who are reading this.

But I can’t stand by and watch this co-opting of the language of redemptive sacrifice being (wrongfully) applied to those who died in war any longer.

The scandal here is not that I’m saying these things. The real scandal is that we’ve allowed history to be rewritten in order to justify war. We’ve allowed the tragic deaths of so many in generations gone by to be used in cynical support of the war machine. We’ve allowed death to be called life.

Soldiers dying in war is not redemptive; it’s a shocking waste of life. The ‘fruit’ of it all is death, not life. It bequeaths only brokenness, division, hate, and hostility.

There is, however, another way.

To confuse the two simply robs the beauty of this alternative of its power, and the cycle of violence continues. It makes sense, then, that this is exactly what is now happening.


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

10 thoughts on “ANZAC Day and the Language of Redemptive Sacrifice”

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking for a while now. The whole language of ‘dying so that we might live’ is a totally false parallel. This is clear from the fact that the nature of Jesus’ victory depends on his death. Whereas the nature of military victory depends on killing; it depends on the death of others. The death of those ‘on our side’ is an unfortunate byproduct of what military victory is all about, and in fact if everyone died in this way it would be counted as a loss and a failure, not a victory. I agree it’s hard not to sound disrespectful, but they really are two antithetical systems.

  2. Well said. Your line, ‘It is imperial ideology masquerading as Christian theology’, says it all. We are so ready to co-opt ‘imperial ideology’ to our side yet failing to see that we are actually capitulating to that same imperialist ideology. Rome absorbed all the goodness of culture and faith from those they dominated, either militarily or economically to the point where everything became ‘Roman’ and, in the process, lost its goodness. Much the same is happening today as the western materialist, capitalist, consumption machine absorbs all that stands before it, commodifying everything. And like Rome offering little bread and circuses. We are the generation that has been given everything yet we have so little. As Smithy used to say, ‘we have everything this to live with but nothing to live for’. God, raise up prophets of faith and life that have not been tainted by imperialist ideology.


  3. I recall a similar, but much simpler, thought when I was younger. It was along the lines of “who’s side is God on?” “If 2 enemies pray for victory over the other, to which does God grant the request?”

    If a 5 year old has these thought surely what you posted resonates in hearts at some level.
    I like reading this.

  4. there might be instances that are illustrative. Think, for example, of Simpson and his donkey, heading out into the battle without a weapon to tender to the sick and wounded, facing the risk of death (which eventuated). The point of such illustration might not be a celebration of war, but the exact opposite.

    it might also be possible to tell the analogy carefully. Indeed, given the dominance of the penal metaphor of the Atonement, the use of the self-sacrifice analogy drawing on Anzac provides an alternate way of thinking about the story to a modern culture that no longer understands the language of propitiation. Indeed, the challenge of talking about the cross is always to find a point of connection in the culture that makes some conception of the cross possible.

    I think it is not unreasonable to say that was tragic, that it never accomplished as what it sets out to, that reciprocal violence is evil. At the same time, in the midst of this we can recognise the preparedness of soldiers to face death on behalf of the freedom of a nation/people. The story of Jesus has resonance with this mythology, but it also challenges it. The cross is not God pouring his anger onto Jesus, but the self-sacrifice of the incarnate son for the sake of Jews and Gentiles. What makes the story of Jesus unique – resonating with Anzac but transcending it – is Jesus’ challenge to the reciprocal cycle of violence evidenced by war; his refusal to take up the sword.

    I’m sure I could tell is better with more thought – but the point is analogies unable you to make connections, to recognise the soldiers sacrifice, but also to highlight key and important distinctions so that a 21st century person can appreciate something of the meaning of the sacrifice of the cross.

    1. Great points, Shane!

      I’m right with you, both in regards to the need to identify connections from within our culture to understanding the cross, and for those connections to be something other than the (unfortunately dominant) penal metaphor (which is practically useless, at least in Australian society).

      I just don’t think that the death of soldiers in war is a helpful starting point for those connections.

      Leaving aside the fact that much of the ‘Simpson and his donkey’ myth has been proven to have very little historical basis, I guess there is something in the general stretcher-bearer stories that could be helpful (unarmed, not seeking to kill but rather save life, etc.).

      I just don’t think there are too many people with good enough communication ability to be able to make the necessary *dis*connections where it counts. What we are left with, then, is what we have now: Christians and churches all over the place (mis)using the ‘war sacrifice’ imagery in a way that only blurs the lines and leads to what I have described above.

      Is there not a better starting place for the connecting metaphor than this?

    2. By the way, I was really hoping that you’d reply to this post. I very much appreciate our discussions about these things, and respect the challenges you bring to my position on war in general.

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