‘The Muddy Trench’

In the dream, Clarrie Dunn
sits naked with many thousands
in the muddy trench. He is saying
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.

– Les Murray, ‘The Muddy Trench’, in Collected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006), 554.

Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget

Anzac Epitaph

Anzac Epitaph

On war commemorations

So, Leunig on its first casualty:

Truth is the first casualty of war commemorationjpg

And some good thoughts here on the costs of war and peace from Laurencia Grant, a cyclist in Alice Springs, published in the Alice Springs News.

John Milne: some new choral work

Siegfried SassoonJohn Milne, who is no stranger to this blog, has recently produced two new choral pieces, both anti-war in theme.

The first, ‘Soldier Boy’, is based on a Siegfried Sassoon text ‘Suicide in the Trenches’, written during WWI. Sassoon penned a number of better-known anti-war poems, but this one’s quite unusual in that it deals with suicide among the ranks (a huge problem in Iraq and Afghanistan even today with about 20 US veterans committing suicide every day, about 20% of the overall suicides in the US while only 1% of Americans have served in the military) – a manifestation of the mindlessness of war and of the vain belief in the soteriological powers of violence’s stunning machinery.

Edith SitwellThe second piece is ‘Still Falls the Rain’. The text here is provided by Edith Sitwell, and cites scripture, ‘Faust’, and all sorts of arcana. Sitwell endured a night of the Blitz in London in 1940, and it is believed that she wrote the poem as the sun rose, bringing with it life’s announcement of perseverance and graced permanence (the Germans bombed exclusively at night). While nowadays we seem to accept with little protest the faceless and mechanised bombing of civilian populations as commonplace, the Blitz marked the first time it was ever done in earnest, and it must have seemed unspeakably vile. John Milne described the closing lines of the poem  as ‘as powerful an affirmation of God’s enduring love in the face of near-infinite human evil as I’ve ever encountered’. Those interested in reading further about the poem can read the exegesis provided by Robin Bates, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

‘War’, by Thomas W. Shapcott

Sidney Nolan, 'Gallipoli'

Sidney Nolan, ‘Gallipoli’

Remembrance Day. In school assemblies, talk
of manhood achieved in the trenches of World War One.
At seventeen, the boy my father ran from home
and enlisted, falsifying his age. Gallipoli had begun.
Proudly he sat for his photo in the glib slogan
of his army uniform, before he sailed.
The other side of war re-shaped that soldier,
and the later pictures stare bleakly, exiled.

Yet fifty years have silted over the scars;
impossible for me to recognize my father
in either photograph. Time’s habit of movement, event,
long before my birth, wove in him a tidy shelter
of reunion, committee, club, appeal and agenda.
The stories that I grew up with of battles, and “Winter
in ’16” were scraps and relics, toys in an old shoebox.
In the R.S.L. he became a Life Member.

But wars do not finish: it is not over. I speak
of more than personal discoveries.
Gallipoli that was a selfish blunder in high places,
a battle fought for nothing or for polluted seas
of sodden corpses, is other than a ribbon: the errors
are not the meaning, finally. My father woke
struggling, one night, an old man in warm pyjamas,
into the pillbox concussion of old darkness, and it broke

into his age and stranded him. He stumbled past us,
his grown sons, a strange dead boy choking him silent
and spitting stale blood in the safe rooms of our home,
blind for a terrible reckoning, demanding atonement.
And we, in the comfortable bedrooms
taken for granted always, innocent,
were forced among the spaces of his acts and words
to where his gains burned through like punishment.

– Thomas W. Shapcott, ‘War’, in Inwards to the Sun: Poems (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1969), 59.

Friday with Leunig: (a triple) on the ‘forces of evil’

Vasco Pyjama

The Age, 27 September 2014

Stone Age

The Age, 1 October 2014

Cult pie

3 October 2014

Some notes on Henry Reynolds’ Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture

‘No war can be called just; they all use the same machinery’. So argued Professor Henry Reynolds (University of Tasmania) at tonight’s Inaugural Archibald Baxter Memorial Peace Lecture, sponsored by the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. Reynolds opened his public lecture by making the case that pacifism need not necessarily be anti-patriotic. On the contrary, the best thing one can do for a nation, he argued – in the spirit of him whose name and witness were being honoured, the great Archibald Baxter – is to keep it from going to war. He also argued that wars beget war, and that a victory to any side only further perpetuates the violence in one form or another.

Unsurprisingly, Reynolds spent most of his time in what for him is familiar territory – Australia. He rehearsed his oft-played themes about Australia’s hidden wars (see his Black Pioneers: How Aboriginal and Islander People Helped Build Australia, Why Weren’t We Told?, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, and Forgotten War – all which are well worth reading), noting how between 1788 and 1928 (or, according to some other historians, 1934) Australia was home to large-scale wars between European settlers and indigenous Australians, and that the frontier conflicts (most of the wars took place in isolated regions) in Queensland saw the deaths of tens of thousands (Reynolds argues for a figure of over fifty thousand people – significantly more Australians than were killed in WWII, and on par with those who died in the war to end them all). And yet, as Reynolds and many others have noted, and John Pilger has recently made most public in his film Utopia, these hidden wars remain uncommemorated at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, that ‘great emporium of white nationalism’ (Pilger) and pantheon of Australia’s most enduring and important cult – war. (On this, see What’s Wrong with ANZAC?: The Militarisation of Australian History edited by Reynolds and Marilyn Lake.) It is difficult to see how Australians will even begin to think honestly about its wars until this scandal is rectified.

Reynolds suggested that the calendar for military commemorations in Australia is fuller than the religious calendars ever were during the Middle Ages. He might be right, although there’s little at stake if he’s not. But drawing attention to the Edwardian conviction (surely it’s much older than that?) that nations are made in war, and that there can be no true nationhood without war, Reynolds is certainly right to call out the propaganda machines which publish ad infinitum the narrative that Australian involvement in overseas conflicts are the nation’s most important defining events, a fact which begs the question about what nationhood might have meant prior to 1914, and which does wonders for tourist operators arranging parties at ANZAC Cove.

Reynolds concluded with some discussion about the Boer War, noting that there were only four members of the Australian Parliament who voted against involvement, and that there was scarcely any discussion at all – either in Parliament or elsewhere – on either the legality or morality of the war. The new egalitarian democracies of Australia and New Zealand were keener to join Britain’s war than were the Brits, and the colonisers were desperate to secure the allegiance of her loyal subjects (including India), frightfully concerned that they might go the way of Canada or, God forbid, of the United States. The second half of the Boer War in particular saw numerous and widespread atrocities and human rights violations, violations which Australia felt no responsibility for – just as contemporary white Australia, ‘Team Australia’, feels no responsibility for its most costly wars, the one’s which took place upon her own soil – because this was, after all, Mother Britain’s war and not ours.

I left feeling grateful for the work of places like the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, emboldened in my own commitment to the ways of non-violence in the ‘broken middle’ (Gillian Rose), and thinking about the ongoing relevance of Desmond Tutu’s words (published in God Is Not a Christian): ‘There can be no future without forgiveness. There will be no future unless there is peace. There can be no peace unless there is reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation before there is forgiveness. And there can be no forgiveness unless people repent’.

A wee footnote to Herbert Read’s ‘Bombing Casualties: Spain’

Doll’s faces are rosier but these were children
their eyes not glass but gleaming gristle
dark lenses in whose quicksilvery glances
the sunlight quivered. These blanched lips
were warm once and bright with blood
but blood
held in a moist blob of flesh
not split and spatter’d in tousled hair.

In these shadowy tresses
red petals did not always
thus clot and blacken to a scar.

These are dead faces:
wasps’ nests are not more wanly waxen
wood embers not so greyly ashen.

They are laid out in ranks
like paper lanterns that have fallen
after a night of riot
extinct in the dry morning air.

– Herbert Read, ‘Bombing Casualties: Spain’, in Poems of Protest Old and New: A Selection of Poetry, ed. Arnold Kenseth (London: The Macmillan Company, 1968), 64.

Herbert ReadThese words were written in the 1930s, in response to a photograph accompanying a newspaper article on the Spanish Civil War. Like much of Read’s writing, they could have been written this week or, indeed, in any week since the third century BCE, when the first paper lanterns were created. This is part of their enduring power. But what most strikes me about Read’s poem is the contrast between the violence and loss described in the first three stanzas and the order and reclamation – the being ‘laid out in ranks’ – spoken of in the final one: the mocking plastering-over of violence blasphemously championed under the pretext of bringing order to chaos.

Such efforts to bring about order like this are not necessarily wasted or misguided; indeed, they are a requisite part of the responsibility laid upon us as creatures made in the image of one who is himself set against those parasites in the cosmos which threaten life. However, and to state the obvious, not all that promotes itself as doing that work is, in fact, doing that work. And so the hard and patient and ceaseless work of discernment, the drawing of a line (one not necessarily straight or entirely clear) which steers us away from those Forsyth calls ‘the facile hierophant and the sweet exalté’ and towards a world made new, transformed not by the invasion of a foreign power or by the ascension of a paladin self-made but from within the very bastille of the human condition, charged with Spirit.

Leunig on Aussies, fighting, President Obama, and being kicked up the foxhole


War, a reflection from Leunig


Daniel Bell on ‘Just War and Christian Discipleship’

By way of a wee follow up to a recent post on ‘just war’ theory, I wish to draw attention to a talk, which I have only just gotten around to listen to, by Daniel Bell on ‘Just War and Christian Discipleship’, the subject of a book and of this pamphlet also by Bell. It’s a paper presented at Wheaton’s Theology Conference earlier this year on Christian Political Witness, and is available for download in both MP3 and MP4 formats.

Leunig, Hunsinger and Hauerwas on ‘just war’ theory

As the US continues to beat its war drums in the Middle East, it’s a good time to think again about the so-called ‘just war’ theory. So, I draw attention to three pieces – from Michael Leunig, from George Hunsinger and from Stanley Hauerwas.

So, Leunig:

Just war

And in a recent piece published in Commonweal Magazine, Hunsinger argues that ‘a defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified’. In Hunsinger’s view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards.

And here, Hauerwas argues that the real realists are not the just-war advocates anyway, but the pacifists. Moreover, he contends that ‘the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with their being American’. ‘In particular’, he suggests, ‘American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I would argue that democratic society – at least, the American version – is unable to set limits on war because it is democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans war is a necessity to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart’. Such democracies, Hauerwas believes, ‘by their very nature seem to require that wars be fought in the name of ideals that make war self-justifying’. And, characteristically, Hauerwas concludes his piece with a reflection on the relationship between war, christology and ecclesiology:

Pacifists are realists. Indeed, we have no reason to deny that the “realism” associated with Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr has much to teach us about how the world works. But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war.

Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. When Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviours that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.

If a people does not exist that continually makes Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have.

That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war. When Christians lose that reality – that is, the reality of the church as an alternative to the world’s reality – we abandon the world to the unreality of war.

For what it’s worth, whenever I happen across Christians defending just-war theory to justify their participation in the state’s various machineries of cross-border violence (which, for the record, is not what I think Hunsinger is doing), I’m reminded of another George – George Bernard Shaw – and his challenge to (hypocritical) church leaders:

They have turned their churches into recruiting stations and their vestries into munitions workshops. But it has never occurred to them to take off their black coats and say quite simply, ‘I find in the hour of trial that the Sermon on the Mount is tosh, and that I am not a Christian. I apologise for all the unpatriotic nonsense I have been preaching all the years. Have the goodness to give me a revolver and a commission in a regiment which has for its chaplain a priest of the god Mars: my God.’ Not a bit of it. They have stuck to their livings and served Mars in the name of Christ, to the scandal of all religious mankind.

John Pilger and ‘The War You Don’t See’

John Pilger‘s film The War You Don’t See is, above all else, a call to responsible journalism, especially by those ‘journalists’ who have en masse lost their nerve, or who have temporarily (one hopes) mislaid the purpose of their craft. (Of course, Pilger himself has attracted no shortage of detractors over the years who would accuse him of irresponsible journalism. The onus on proof is clearly on the side of the detractors. And then there are those who find themselves in broad agreement with Pilger’s interpretation of things but struggle with a style that is perceived to be arrogant or hyped. I have some sympathy with these critics, although I’ve tried to never let his style get in the way of the content. This interview with the queen of ego herself, Kim Hill, is a case in point.)

There’s challenge here too, it seems to me, for those of us charged with the responsibility of rightly dividing the word of truth, especially for those who have lost our nerve to boldly address the powers or to do the demanding work it takes to simply tell the truth rather than spout the party line.

Anyway, for those who are yet to see the film, I thought I’d commend and post it for viewing here:

Pilger’s latest film (currently in production) is called Utopia and is due out at the end of the year. I look forward to seeing it.

Hauerwas on war and non-violence

some monday morning link love

On blood and guts, violence and death

I’ve been enjoying this delightful collection of short essays by the Melbourne-born poet, artist and cultural commentator Michael Leunig. Here’s a snippet from his essay ‘Blood and Guts, Violence and Death’:

“No nation can go to war without a sufficient reserve of hatred, cruelty and bloodlust politely concealed in its general population, and if our so-called Western democracies wanted their ‘war against terror’, then let them now at least see the graphic details of war’s sickening and hideous consequences.

The curse is, however, that it’s the children who are most defiled and blighted by such frightening imagery – and they had no part in it.

My years in the abattoir taught me that society denies its bloodlust and cruelty and imagines that such impulses appropriately belong to prehistoric barbarians, or ‘rough and uncouth men’. But I believe we now have the unique modern cruelty of the refined and educated Western man, the respected gentleman in the fine suit who has never much dirtied his hands or killed a living creature, never meditated upon a rotting corpse and never had his consciousness infected with the messy organic substances of violent death – yet who can sign with an elegant golden pen the document that unleashes the cowardly invasion and who can then go out to dine on claret and lamb cutlets.

The likes of these men abound in the halls of academia, the boardrooms and corridors of power, and the chicken-coop workstations of the media, where they have clamoured for war, for all sorts of ungodly and unfathomable reasons, without really knowing in their bones how it works – the business of violence and blood and guts.

They are primally inexperienced, unconnected and unwise. Their flesh has not been seared. Their  repressed death fascination and sly cruelty has not yet been transformed into reverence and understanding by initiation into things carnal and spiritual, by the actual sights and sounds of splattering blood and crunching bone, and the pitiful flailing and wailing of violent death – the very thing they would unleash upon others. Just one sordid street-fight or one helpless minute of aerial bombardment might redeem them. They lack the humbling erudition of the slaughterman, the paramedic and, no doubt, the soldier who has really been a soldier.

I dare say there’s something foul, creepy and disgraceful emerging in the character of corporate and political leadership in ‘Western civilisation’, and I sense it’s substantially the result of an insipid masculinity problem.

The insatiable need for heartless power and ruthless control is the telltale sign of an uninitiated man – the most irresponsible, incompetent and destructive force on earth.”

– Michael Leunig, The Lot: In Words (Camberwell: Penguin, 2008), 50–2.

Hauerwas on the Church and the abolition of war

In Hauerwas’ latest piece, ‘Ten Years and Counting: The Church and the Abolition of War’, we hear, near the eve of 9/11, themes long-echoed by Yoder’s most prolific publisher:

‘I want to convince Christians that war has been abolished. The grammar of that sentence is very important. The past tense is very deliberate. I do not want to convince Christians to work for the abolition of war, but rather I want us to live recognizing that in the cross of Christ war has been abolished.

So I am not asking Christians to work to create a world free of war. The world has already been saved from war. The question is how Christians can and should live in a world of war as a people who believe that war has been abolished’.

You can read the rest here.

I’ve also posted some resources on pacifism and war here.

‘How To Kill’, by Keith Douglas

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

– Keith Douglas, ‘How To Kill’ in Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems (ed. Desmond Graham; London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 119.

Writing off Yoder

The latest edition of One the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand, includes a helpful piece by Michael Buttrey titled ‘12 ways to prematurely write off Yoder: Some common misconceptions about Yoder’s ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ vision’. Buttrey identifies the twelve ‘misconceptions’ as:

1. Yoder believes Constantine corrupted the church.

2. Yoder thinks that there was no salt or light in the medieval church.

3. Yoder hates Luther, Calvin and the other magisterial Reformers.

4. Yoder has a low view of God’s sovereignty over history. Or:

5. He idolizes the early church.

6. Yoder inappropriately sees Jesus’ earthly life as normative.

7. Yoder fails to deal with the Old Testament, especially the wars of Joshua.

8. Yoder’s pacifism inhibits any effective witness to the state, especially regarding war.

9. Even for Christians, Yoder’s pacifism is impossible, or at least irresponsible.

10. Yoder advocates separation from the world that ‘God so loved.’ And:

11. Isn’t Yoder a ‘fideistic sectarian tribalist’ like Stanley Hauerwas?

Here, Buttrey writes:

These common accusations seriously misunderstand Yoder.

First, Yoder’s context was one where he was urging traditionally quietist Anabaptists to realize they had a social ethic and witness to society, while simultaneously calling activist Christians to realize they need not abandon the gospel and take up the methods of the world in their impatience to get things done. Ironically, Yoder has often been taken more seriously by theologians and political philosophers outside his tradition – such as Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles – than those on the ‘inside.’

Second, Yoder has no desire to divide the church further. Indeed, in “The Kingdom As Social Ethic” he deeply objects to the labelling of radically obedient groups as sectarian, for they had no intentions of separating themselves:

[Such groups] have called upon all Christians to return to the ethic to which they themselves were called. They did not agree that their position was only for heroes, or only possible for those who would withdraw from wider society. They did not agree to separate themselves as more righteous from the church at large. (85)

Third, Yoder is fundamentally not interested in withdrawal or separation from society. In “The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People,” Yoder agrees with Karl Barth that ‘what believers are called to is no different from what all humanity is called to. … To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord makes it inconceivable that there should be any realm where his writ would not run.’ (25) Of course, those who seriously see Christ’s commands as normative for all tend to be called fideists or theocrats. Yoder is neither.

Yoder is not a fideist because, unlike most realists, he sees the gospel as having a truly universal appeal. Christian realists typically assume that the gospel is inaccessible and incomprehensible to all other groups, and so it is necessary to use a neutral, ‘public’ language to oblige non-Christians ‘to assent to our views on other grounds than that they are our views.’ (16–7) Indeed, it is not Yoder but his critics who tend to think that their faith is fundamentally irrational and its public demands must be set aside for that reason. This reverse fideism is not surprising, however, given how modern liberal democracies understand religious groups and language.

Further, Yoder is not a theocrat, because he does not call for the violent imposition of the gospel, which would be an oxymoron. Rather, the challenge for the church is to purify its witness so ‘the world can perceive it to be good news without having to learn a foreign language.’ (24) Christ’s universal lordship obliges the church to make great demands of the world, but by definition, the gospel witness is a process of public dialogue, not coercion.

In short, the best word for Yoder’s understanding of the church’s witness to society is that of model. Consider some of these potential imperatives for civil society Yoder derives theologically in that same essay:

  • egalitarianism, not because it is self-evident (history suggests that it is clearly not!) but because baptism into one body breaks down ethnic and cultural barriers;
  • forgiveness as commanded by Christ (he agrees with Hannah Arendt that a religious origin and articulation for forgiveness is no reason to discount it in secular contexts);
  • radical sharing and hospitality, even voluntary socialism, as implied in the Eucharist; and
  • open public meetings and dialogue, as Paul instructed the Corinthians.

This sketch is almost a political “platform,” and hardly separatist. But for Christians with typical approaches to politics, Yoder’s call for the church to be where God’s vision for society is first implemented and practiced is an enormous stumbling block. It is yet another irony that realists are so often closet quietists: they see the only choice as being between transforming society and letting it go its own way. Yoder, however, asks us to obey Christ even if no one else is interested – although he trusts that the Kingdom will advance if the word of God is faithfully witnessed and embodied amid the powers and principalities of the world.

12. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are the same.

You can read the full piece here.