ANZAC Day – New Zealand’s Religion

New Zealand is a secular nation…

Or so we are told, we have no official religion, and no religion is to be privileged above another. All are equal in the eyes of the state.

Yet… every year, on the 25th of April you will find thousands of people gathering around the country at dawn – yesterday that was 7.02am – for what, on the surface, would seem like a religious service. I am talking about ANZAC day and the remebrance of those who have fought and died to protect this country – those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for us to enjoy the freedom that we do today.

I think that, in all honesty, if you dig deeper into the ANZAC services, you will find that they are indeed religious. That they are the true religion of NZ. That they are like the Easter Service in the Church calendar. They are the day each year where the people of NZ get together and tell each other the story of our nation, that story that gives us togetherness as a people, the story that defines our way of life, and it is, interestingly enough, like most other modern nation states – a story of violence and bloodshed, of revenge, of killing, of death.

What we are doing on ANZAC day is venerating our saints. We are telling our children that this is what it means to be a hero, to be a good participant in our society, that you must take up arms if it ever comes down to it, because that is how we defend our freedom. And it is a powerful and intoxicating story. How many of us, when we were children, played at battle, fought ‘baddies’, and saved our friends and family through our violence.

As a Christian, a follower of Jesus, I find it hard to swallow this official story of the way things are, and the way they must necessarily be. I draw the parallel to Easter intentionally, because at Easter the Church intentionally takes time to focus on our story, the one that give us our identity, the one that tells us how things really are, that gives us the basis for the ways in which we exist in this world. To me, this story is in stark contrast to the one that most nations tell their people today – especially on ANZAC day.

Easter tells us that the way in which God works out our salvation does not include His use of violence. Jesus, the one who would be justified in using violence – the only person who would be as far as I’m concerned – choses instead to become a victim. It is not through military of physical might that a victory is won over evil and injustice, sin and death, it is instead through suffering, and suffering without retaliation, suffering without complaint, suffering without any thought of revenge. Suffering which embodies forgiveness, love and compassion. It is a suffering that is able to pray, in the midst of this horrendous pain, for the forgiveness of those who are perpetuating this violence against Him.

“Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:34

This is a story that I want to be a part of. A story that turns the world upside down, a story that re-defines what it means to have victory, a story that takes the power out of the hands of those who would do violence and subverts that violence by becoming victorious through suffering and ultimate death.

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:38-48

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