On a train today, the driver prefaced his announcement of our imminent arrival at Central Station with a reminder that, ‘as we all know,’ we were travelling on the ‘sacred’ day of Anzac Day.
For the benefit of my readers beyond Australian and New Zealand borders and imaginaries: Anzac Day commemorates those servicepeople who have fallen in the line of duty, harking back to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps who served in Gallipolli, Turkey, in WWI. I cannot overestimate the importance of Gallipolli and the Anzac legend in Australian national history and myth, certainly. My Year Three class made neat illustrations of blood-soaked beaches. The ANZAC diggers are held to be the embodiment of the Australian essence. It’s intense.
It’s also a legend with which various people are uncomfortable for various reasons, not least for what has generally been a lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous servicepeople who fought in Gallipolli, and elsewhere, and returned home to nothing like the kind of adulation shared by their white comrades. The Anzac legend has a complicated legacy, and you can pick up any decent Australian history book to learn about why. It’s also been manipulated a fair bit in what’s known as the History Wars, which took place in the 1990s and were perceived to broadly split right wing and left wing historians along the lines of “white blindfold”/”three cheers” and “black armband” views of history.
That’s a conversation I’m hugely invested in as a historian, but today I want to talk about what my train driver said, about the sacred.
Australia has no official religion. The majority of the population identifies as Christian, and usually this is a fairly casual kind of Christianity. Christianity is also ubiquitous in the cultural and political landscape, everywhere from Christmas decorations in shops to public holidays for Christian holidays to Christian ideology underlying a lot of legal processes*. So there’s an interesting dynamic with Christian religiosity, but also religiosity in general, in the public discourse. It’s integral and also unimportant, which means that the rhetoric and assumptions of the religious, the divine, the sacred, pop up in all kinds of places.
Now, the Anzac legend is no feature of Christianity, although it enters that realm, of course, for Christian servicepeople, and Christians who love and pray for them, and in the Christian services integrated into Anzac services. What I want to know is, is invoking Anzac Day as sacred a reflection of the influence of (Christian) religion on the ways people can think of momentous moments of non-religious communities and histories? Is Australian nationalism, on the other hand, sometimes a religious experience, or in elements a kind of religiosity?
I think that tie between religiosity, which is in the Australian landscape so personal, and nationalism, which is based in community, is why we have so much trouble as a country talking about the Anzac legends in critical ways. It’s why Christopher Pyne, education spokesman for the federal Liberal Party (the major conservative party), got to be on the front of the Sydney Morning Herald the other morning, claiming that having days focussed on Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Australians and racial harmony, like Reconciliation Day, taught in schools alongside the Anzac legend was diminishing to the legend. As though one cannot teach about a history of racial inequality alongside national pride is disrespectful. That’s quite manipulative, and it’s a manipulation that is based less in respect for what the Anzacs meant and why people are so proud of them than it is based in nationalistic fervour for its own sake.
If Pyne can pull this kind of thing, and people are posting shots to social media of pre-Anzac Day cocktails and cheering about a day off, we have a problem, and it’s not the nasty lefties and non-white people. It’s about what happens when history shifts meaning, and becomes more about people’s thoughtless pleasure, or their intense and loving faith in the nation, until there’s no room for the history itself.
Love your country, if you want and do. Love your pleasure. Love the sacred in your history and life and actual religion, by any and all means. Love and faith and history are so much more meaningful when we engage with them critically and trace all the ways in which they are important.
*And when I say Christian ideology I mean Christian ideology rather than Abrahamic ideology or Judeo-Christian ideology. I need to insert a small rant here, because it rather seems to me that a lot of the time when people invoke those terms they actually mean Christian ideology and actually don’t realise that Jewish and Muslim thinking on particular matters is vastly different! Yes, I spent a fair portion of my time as an undergraduate writing essays about Islamic history, why do you ask?