The following is an extract of an article by Revd Dr Geoff Thompson, published by The Guardian on 25 April 2018.
Today Australians will gather at war memorials scattered across the nation’s cities and towns. They will possibly hear a particular set of words which have long been woven into Anzac Day ceremonies. If they look around, they might also see the same words engraved on the surrounding monuments: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” They sound innocuous. But are they?
The last time I heard them at an Anzac Day service, they were the impassioned rhetorical high point of a Dawn Service at the Melbourne Shrine. Spoken on such occasions they convey dignity and gravitas; they powerfully evoke the deep human fascination with sacrifice; they resonate deeply with the patriotism linked with the remembrance of war and its tragic costs.
Anyone aged under 40 may well have no idea of the source of these words. The text is from the New Testament; to be precise: the Gospel of John Chapter 15 verse 13. “Greater love hath no man ...” are, in fact, words attributed to Jesus.
For the record, however, they’ve got nothing whatsoever to do with war.
But in earlier eras when Jesus could be invoked as a symbol of authority these words entered our culture’s patriotic and military vocabulary. They offered a comforting link between the suffering of the culture’s primary religious figure and that of our lost soldiers. The link worked at all sorts of cultural, psychological and social levels.
In the very different context of the Gospel narrative, however, the only death on the horizon was Jesus’ own. Anticipating it, he was instructing his disciples about how they should understand him and what he was doing. His point? He is not to them as master to slave. Although entitled to claim the rights of a master over his followers, he chose not to. The text is about Jesus’ humility and how it should shape the community of his followers. His words were not intended as succour to any warrior.
But, centuries later, wrenched from that context, Jesus’ words were easily used to legitimate certain cultural collusions. The link between his words and the death of the nation’s soldiers was used, consciously or not, as a strategy for religious endorsement of the nation’s war effort. “Greater love hath no man …” could easily be a surrogate for “God, Queen and Country”.
That patriotic rallying cry would fall flat today, and rightly so.
Do Jesus’ teachings, then, have any relevance to today’s remembrance of our war dead? Certainly, Christian faith has much to say to those who grieve, mourn, and bear the deep scars of war-time loss: words of lament, compassion and hope. But in the face of the terrible loss of life that war produces, Christian faith also protests, not least to God, that lives are lost in this way and on this scale...
This article was originally published by The Guardian on 25 April 2018.