Category: Nationalism/Patriotism

The Mixed Feelings of ANZAC Day

As the nation stops today to commemorate the service and sacrifice of many Australian and New Zealander men and women across a century of international conflicts, I find myself with mixed feelings.


I am sympathetic to and even supportive of a special time for remembering and honouring both the fallen and returned service-people who gave or risked their lives in the wars our nation has fought in. No one should belittle or disparage these men and women and what they have done for the protection of the lives and dignity of others.

I am saddened when I hear of men whose remains have lay in unmarked graves for a hundred years, without any of the official recognition they were promised by the governments of the day. Saddened by the stories of those who never found their footing again in society upon returning from the battlefields and who received little help with the trauma they were left to struggle with. Saddened by the offensive scorn and open disrespect that veterans of the Vietnam war were greeted with upon their return by so-called anti-war protesters who self-righteously attacked soldiers who were simply doing what they’d been ordered (and perhaps even conscripted) to do. Saddened by the number of returned soldiers from more recent conflicts who take their own lives in Australia each year.

Everyone who lives in this country and enjoys its freedoms owes at least some basic gratitude to those who have defended it against the threat of invasion and the aggressive advances of tyrannous ideologies. One does not need to agree with the reasons that every conflict was fought or with every action taken by Australian governments or commanders during conflicts to appreciate this simple fact: we needed (and continue to need) the service of men and women in the armed forces to preserve our nation in the face of those who would do it harm or annex it for their own use.


Watching both the new television adaptation of John Marsden’s classic Tomorrow When the War Began and the 2004 German film Downfall on Saturday night, served as a timely reminder of sorts for me this Anzac weekend. That young men and women really did fight with all they had, when Australia faced a real prospect of invasion and subjugation just over 70 years ago. That Australian men and women contributed to the war effort in Europe that prevented the United Kingdom from falling to the tyranny of National Socialism, which had already conquered much of continental Europe. That the ANZACs didn’t stop fighting until the architects of the Holocaust were crippled and forced into surrender.

John L SmithLt. John L. Smith (1884-1916), Brisbane 1915

I attended the parade in Sydney last year, marking the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. I went mainly out of a sense of history, but was very moved by the occasion. This year is also significant for me on a personal level, in that in July, it’s the 100th anniversary of the death of Lt. John L. Smith, my grandfather’s uncle (pictured above).
He was cut down by machine-gun fire on the fields of Pozieres, France, as he directed his troops through a hellish maze of barbed-wire and was posthumously awarded a Military Cross. Helen and I visited the memorial in his home town of Ayr in North Queensland last year. Lest we forget.

On the other hand, I am cynical and even rejecting of the Anzac legend as a national myth or a form of civic religion. I don’t accept that the nation was born at Gallipoli. I dislike the way that war memorials and remembrance services utilise the forms of Christianity and other religions, but replace the substance with a different focus and message. I don’t accord this day the same place of importance that Christmas and Easter have for me as a Christian.

In short, I think the memory of the fallen soldiers would be better served by honouring them for who they were and what they did, while steering clear of the temptation to make them the objects of mystical veneration. And the church would be better served by thinking carefully about how to honour and care for returned servicemen and women, rather than uncritically allowing our culture to govern how we think about military service; or ignoring the people and the issues completely.

anzac spirit800 horsemen

The church is not served well by attempting to Christianise the Anzac myth, as some have attempted to do. Certain popular books that attempt to lionise Australian and New Zealander soldiers by portraying them as holy liberators of Jerusalem in WWI are based on a poor grasp of biblical prophecy and its fulfilment in Jesus and an unhelpful approach to the relationship between the Church and Australian nationalism.
The Diggers of WWI deserve recognition for fighting on behalf of all Australians, but it is misguided to canonise them as military saints simply because they fought in a conflict in Palestine. The part they played in God’s providential plan to allow Britain and her allies to triumph over Germany and hers was no more special than any other soldier on any other battlefront, from any other home nation.

Anzac Day provides the church with an opportunity to affirm the positive element in Australian culture of gratitude towards those who have served their country, at great personal cost. But at the same time we must be very careful what narratives we accept and promote about each specific war and about war in general. History testifies that we are on a learning curve in this area. In my university days, I did a special project on the attitude of Australian churches towards Australia’s involvement in military conflicts from WWI to Iraq. Christians in this nation (or at least their official church representatives) have undergone a significant shift in this period. In WWI, most evangelical churches supported war against Germany and co. as a righteous endeavour. Since the Vietnam war, most churches (including most evangelical churches) have been very cautious about endorsing Australia’s role in military conflicts. Many have outright rejected the legitimacy of our involvement in the wars since Vietnam and the political narratives that have been used to justify our involvement.

We must also, I believe, challenge any use of the Anzac myth as fuel for unbridled patriotism and nationalism. I say this because such understandings of our identity, loyalties and place in the world very easily mutate into stances that are incompatible with biblical Christianity. I also say it because it is easy to see how disastrous it is for churches to uncritically adopt nationalistic assumptions when we look at what happened when churches in the countries we went to war with did just that. ‘German Christians’ became little more than relay stations for broadcasting National Socialism to the German public. They syncretised Christianity with the Aryan myth of the Nazis. In Japan, the United Church of Christ (a forced merger of all Protestant churches in Japan) compromised Christianity with State Shintoism (Japan’s native religion) and supported the Japanese government’s actions in the Pacific War.

German Christians[2]
                    Flag of the German Christians

While the Anzac myth is far more benign than the nationalism present in these extreme cases, Christians the world over must be careful never to swallow the pill of inordinate patriotism – lest we risk committing spiritual suicide. We ought to be humbly grateful that God permitted the successful defence of Australia and New Zealand from our enemies and that those nations we fought against are now by and large friendly countries to us in the 21st century. And we must reject any idea that we are superior to the other nations of the world, so that we may never become the kind of monstrous aggressor our brave countrymen fought to defeat.

[1] Tourism Victoria “Anzac Day 2015, Melbourne” (CC BY 2.0) flickr
[2] RsVe “Deutsche Christen Flagge” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons


National Pride – Someone always loses

It could be because I’m only “half Australian”* (or for other reasons described below), but I found myself half-heartedly observing our national day yesterday, rather than enthusiastically celebrating. I only took part of the day off and the extent of my observance amounted to listening to a few songs from my “Australia Day” playlist on Spotify and enjoying a late afternoon walk in the bush with my wife.


It’s not that there’s a lack of things to be thankful for when it comes to being born in this country and enjoying the quality of life that God has graciously granted our society. As Chris Berg pointed out on ABC’s the Drum, Australia has an awful lot going for it. We can at times be a nation of whingers, who find thanksgiving and gratitude difficult – but the reality is we have an abundance of things we ought to be extremely grateful for.

But a national day like 26th January reminds me that when it comes to national pride there are always people who lose out. And contests around issues of national identity must almost necessarily have winners and losers.

While there is much to be celebrated when it comes to the progress this country has made since the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson in 1788, there is also much to be mourned when it comes to how much suffering white settlement has caused to Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. To change the date of Australia Day, as has been proposed and echoed frequently over the years, would infuriate many “Aussie patriots” and risk denying the significance of what could be regarded as the genesis of Australia’s modern history.
Yet to continue celebrating the 26th January the way we currently do will mean an annual rubbing of salt into the wounds of a large portion of the Aboriginal community.
Seems as though someone must lose for others to win.


This extends to how we construct our national identity more broadly too. While Australia Day offers opportunities to celebrate diversity and welcome new citizens into our society, it also runs the risk of promoting superficial stereotypes of “Aussie culture” that can easily marginalise those who don’t easily fit the ethnic and cultural mold. For some it may be an opportunity to flex the muscles of Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance and dress up a bit of white supremacy in the Australian or Eureka flags.


On the flipside, to embrace a multi-cultural vision of Australia that celebrates the ancestral cultures of every kind of migrant as special, except for those who have white skin and are of English descent, is just as deficient. As a school student I couldn’t help but feel that my lack of a secret, non-Anglo branch in my ancestry gave me less to celebrate in an environment where great efforts were made to emphasise multicultural beauty. Because of what is, in my opinion, Australia’s cultural immaturity in how it relates to its origins as a British colony, white Australians are taught to think of themselves simply as “Australians.”

But if we emphasise multicultural diversity this potentially creates a mindset where an Italian-Australian or an African-Australian are conceptualised as full participants in all that it means to be Australian, with a rich Italian or African cultural heritage they should be encouraged to celebrate and share with others. That leaves ordinary, boring Anglo-Australians (who I acknowledge were the privileged class for many years, and still are in some cases) with a common national and cultural identity they’re to share with everyone else in the classroom, workplace and community, but with no special cultural heritage they’re encouraged to celebrate and share with others (except maybe with overseas visitors!).

While I recognise that Australians of different ethnic backgrounds will often have negative stories of racism and how they wished it was easier to fit in without being discriminated against, I struggled with the boringness of not having something different to celebrate.

This is probably one reason I lack enthusiasm for Australia Day and Aussie nationalism.
When pressured to choose between intensifying my identification as a “true Australian” and delegitimising the Australianness of others (as I see many in today’s society attempting to do) and embracing the version of multiculturalism that elevates bi-cultural Aussies to a position above the mono-cultural, been-here-too-long-to-still-think-we’re-British types, I’d prefer to steer clear of both and get on with life.

Of course mending the relationship between Indigenous and white Australians is crucial to our future as a nation, yet focusing too much on this particular element may have the side-effect of seeing our society as an ongoing dialogue between black and white citizens – in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Australians of British heritage are the main stakeholders in our nation. In this scenario, “new Australians” of the post-war era that have little to do with this old rift would be left on the margins of the national discussion.

I seriously doubt we can celebrate Aussie pride and engineer a national identity in a way that makes everyone a winner. This suspicion is further confirmed by the other old battles that some attempted to reignite around the holiday. The tired old push for a republic, which for some time now has been wheezing in its struggle for the oxygen of relevance, has apparently been given a bill of good health. Now it can once again divide the nation between those who are loyal to the Crown (or at least happy with our present constitutional arrangements) and those who want a “mate for head of state” (despite still lacking a concrete model for a republic 17 years after that very weakness robbed them of any chance of winning the 1999 referendum).


The ABC was also running stories on possible replacements for the Australian flag, which do away with the Union Jack and supposedly provide us with a more mature, distinctive national standard. Again, someone must lose out – whether it’s those who love the current flag and see it as the banner our ANZACs died under, or those who see the present standard as a colonial relic that needs to better reflect our national identity in the 21st century.

I’m thankful to God for His kindness to the people of this land; for the freedom to worship and spread the gospel in relative peace; for sparing us from invasion, civil war, major terror attacks, epidemics and crippling national disasters; and for stable, relatively corruption-free government, under a good constitution and an admirable Queen. But I’ll hold my identity as an Australian lightly and loosely. Partly because I’ve been pushed by my civic education to look elsewhere for something that makes me special (that all important Gen Y quality!) and partly because the gospel of Jesus Christ has given me a richer identity to celebrate.

Today, and all year round I’ll be celebrating my citizenship in heaven, my belonging in the Kingdom of God and my allegiance to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Anyone of any background can opt in and no one need lose out – unless they choose to. We can all glorify God with our cultural diversity, and yet the common identity we have by grace in Christ is the primary thing we celebrate. While the Church, like Australia, may falter in her attempts to bring men, women and children from all nationalities and cultures together into one integrated people – she is destined to succeed where multicultural societies will ultimately fail. I look forward to the day I can rejoice before the throne of God with people from every nation, tribe and tongue – not as a culturally dominant person, nor as a marginalised person – but as an equal, fellow-citizen with an international body of saints in the greatest society there could ever be.

[1] Andrew Muller, “Australia Day, Sandy Point 2007” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Bentley-Smith “200507 Tent Embassy” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[3] Selina “IMG_0175” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr
[4] Public Stock “Australian Flag” (CC BY 2.0) flickr

*Shhh, my father is a New Zealander! Maybe that’s been my problem all along

The Anthem Kerfuffle

I penned the first draft of this piece prior to the Paris Terror attacks. I haven’t felt the need to make any significant edits to it in light of those events, though I’m conscious they may make it harder to think about some of the issues raised here. 


About a month ago there was controversy over a Melbourne primary school’s decision to give some students the option of leaving their school assembly to avoid singing the Australian national anthem. The grandmother of one of the students at Cranborne Carlisle Primary School phoned in to a talkback radio show to express her outrage after witnessing the scene.

The students were reportedly of Islamic (Shiite) background and were observing Muharram – a solemn month to commemorate the death of one of their revered religious leaders. According to reports, there was some confusion as to whether singing the national anthem would be a breach of the solemnity that accompanies Muharram, which sees Shiites avoid any celebratory or joyous activities.

The Sydney Morning Herald published at least two opinion pieces on the issue: one by Kevin Donnelly of the Australian Catholic University, published under the title “Singing the National anthem at school should be compulsory” and one by spokesman for the highly controversial Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Uthman Badar, arguing “Muslim children should not be forced to sing national anthem.”

I have two things I want to say about this controversy.

1) This is a classic example of a knee-jerk-reaction. As Skipper from the Penguins of Madagascar might say if he was a Sydney evangelical:

“This is no Matthias Media study…there was no ‘think it through’!”    [2]
I refer to the original complainant, Melbourne grandmother Lorraine McCurdy, who told 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell she didn’t understand how the national anthem would be considered participating in joyous music or celebration. Perhaps the opening line “Australians all let us rejoice” gives some indication as to why it might be interpreted in this way! I don’t want to be nasty, but I wish Ms McCurdy had attempted to understand why the Shiite students might have seen things the way they did, when the answer seems to be glaringly obvious.

It’s not the first time there’s been confusion over the opening lyrics…  [3]
2) I disagree with forcing people, including children, to sing the national anthem when it’s against their conscience to do so. I don’t agree with Hizb ut-Tahrir on very much, them being a fairly hardcore Islamic advocacy group and all, but on this point at least I sympathise.

For many people in Australia, their religious convictions are more important to their identity and daily life than their citizenship/nationality or the cultural expectations of the society they live in. As a pluralistic society with freedom of religion, speech and expression, Australia needs to respect different convictions people may hold when it comes to things such as singing the national anthem.

Forcing people to sing or participate in such an activity against their will is more likely to result in resentment than warm feelings towards the anthem and what it represents. Likewise, imposing nationalism upon people as something considered more important than their religious beliefs is more likely to provoke radical reactions from the targeted minority than succeeding in “pulling them back into line” when it comes to all things Australian.

As a Christian, I dislike it when Muslims are targeted by the media with the question of whether their loyalty is primarily towards Australia or their religion. This is a different question to whether their allegiance lies primarily with Australia or a foreign power, or hostile group that may present a threat to our national security. Because yes there is an issue if someone is ill-disposed towards the Australian Crown, government, constitution, rule of law and civic freedoms or harbours resentment towards Australians as a people. That is dangerous to our society and we have to think intelligently about how to deal with the threats that such people might pose.

But as a Christian, my allegiance is to Jesus Christ over and above Queen, country and culture. And in extreme instances where there might be a conflict between the teachings of Christ and Australian law, I would be more concerned about living consistently with the precepts of my Lord than I would with the dictates of the government.

Christians may have legitimate cause for concern about radicalised Islamic groups setting up their identity in such a way that turns people against the rest of society and sets them at odds with citizens of different religions, ethnicities or values systems. But in this case, freedom of religion and the ability to live consistently with what one believes to be the most honouring to God (so long as it does not cause damage to the safety of others) is a more important thing to emphasise as a society than insisting on inflexible arrangements involving expressions of national loyalty, like singing the national anthem.

The Shiite students involved were not attempting to force radical religious views on anybody, nor were they acting in a subversive way towards Australia that undermines the security or social fabric of our nation. Instead what we seem to be witnessing is others, forcing their nationalistic expectations on a religious minority that wishes to exercise their freedom not to “rejoice” with all Australians for one month out of twelve, for religious reasons.

It is my hope that Christians will reject the view put forward by Kevin Donnelly that students and citizens of certain religious convictions should be compelled to perform such activities, as though the State or the nation is above one’s most deeply held beliefs about God and life. For it’s easily foreseeable that this kind of imposition will increasingly be wielded against all who take their faith seriously and refuse to follow every detail of what someone else deems to be essentially Australian.
Photo credits:
[1] denisbin “Warrnambool” CC BY-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Moshe Reuveni “Skipper and Rico” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Benh LIEU SONG “Masai Ostrich” CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr.