Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Supreme Sacrifice?

New Zealand Chaplains and Churches and the Construction of Death in the First World War

Rev Dr Allan Davidson   
Dorothy Brown Memorial Lecture - Auckland Museum 6 Nov. 2015

For the churches and their ministers in New Zealand, providing consolation and comfort to the thousands who had a relative killed or injured in war provided an unprecedented challenge. Normal funereal rituals were not possible. There was no body or grave around which a family could gather and grieve. From the start of the conflict, churches with their rhetoric about war as a good cause, even God’s cause, were now faced with making sense for themselves and for society of the results of carnage.

The churches contributed significantly to the construction of meaning around death in the First World War. When soldiers and their chaplains returned to New Zealand they found that society’s remembrance of the war dead was already in place. The overwhelming silence of returned soldiers about the war, can in part be explained by the dissonance between their experience of its horrors and reality, and the war mythology already created in New Zealand and reinforced by the use of sanitised and sacralised concepts, such as ‘supreme sacrifice’.

For soldiers to share their experience of the war, in all its diversity, including: – drunkenness, prostitution, boredom, heroism, cowardice, terrible injuries and slaughter – was to question, and potentially unravel the meaning society had already invested into making sense of war and death.

I want now to examine three aspects of the part churches played in helping both individuals and the community deal with private and public grief: the use of the concept of supreme sacrifice; the promise of salvation to those killed in war, and prayers for the dead.

The Church and Supreme Sacrifice

A.W. Averill, Anglican Bishop of Auckland, in December 1915, spoke of how a mother’s sacrifice ‘for the highest welfare of her children is the most beautiful and God-like thing in the world’. ‘Joy’ and ‘honour’ were the mother’s reward for helping ‘her boy to live a noble life, and—if need be—to die a noble death!...“like English gentlemen”. ‘Supreme sacrifice’ was used frequently in the obituaries for soldiers killed in the war.

The promise of salvation to those killed in war

For Anglicans and Catholics, the promise of salvation to those killed in war, irrespective of their beliefs or how they lived, was widely accepted. Death in war was seen by some as a form of martyrdom and heaven as a reward for suffering. Churches were in conflict over their understanding of sacrifice and the reward of life after death for soldiers killed in war.

Prayers for the dead
In England in 1914 public prayer for the dead was uncommon in the Church of England; by the end of the war it had become widespread. Prayers for the dead identified the sacrifice of soldiers with the sacrifice of Jesus and offered hope of forgiveness, and eternal salvation, irrespective of the soldiers’ beliefs or way of life. Evangelicals, however, were challenged by the war in ways which contributed after the conflict to the increasing polarisation between fundamentalism on the one hand, and a more liberal to approach Christianity on the other.
The First World War brought huge challenges to New Zealand churches and society as they attempted to make sense of death, injury and pain on such a vast scale. A nagging issue which war rhetoric and the use of sacrificial language in particular raises, is how far does rhetoric and remembrance not only honour the dead, but also sanitise and justify war, enabling war to be prosecuted without being questioned.

The processes of remembrance and the reconstruction of death and war are never-ending as the centennial commemorations indicate. Going back to chaplains and churches and critically examining their use of the concept of sacrifice one hundred years ago, is part of a process of demythologising death, and seeing how the foundational memory was constructed so that it can be deconstructed. I have argued that the chaplains and the churches allowed both their identification with the war, as blessed by God, and their pastoral concerns for grieving families, to shape their rhetoric and theology.

What was largely missing in the churches during the First World War was the prophetic voice. The prophetic voice tells the emperor he has no clothes, challenges governments to follow alternative pathways of peace and justice, confronts the vast armaments industry which sustains and encourages war, challenges ideologies such as militarism for supporting regimes based on weapons and fear. It is perhaps a supreme irony that during the First World War, men like Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs, who had no strong church connection and who were absolutists in opposing war, were given field punishment number one, referred to as ‘crucifixion’ in an attempt to make them fight.

Ormond Burton, soldier in the First World War and then New Zealand’s leading pacifist during the Second World War, wrote in 1935: “The condemnation of war lies not in the sacrifice of life, but in the fact that the sacrifice is wasted as far as the attaining of any good is concerned.... to be availing sacrifice must be directed into profitable channels.... The primary aim of a combatant is not to offer himself as a sacrifice but to destroy his opponent with the minimum of loss to himself.” Sacrificial language was exploited by the church and the public to make sense of slaughter and carnage. Ambiguous and euphemistic usage of language clouded the reality of death – “the glorious dead” – “their name liveth forever more”.

Connections and Contrasts: One Hundred Years After

One hundred years on from the First World War, what impact does the church’s role in helping construct meaning around death still have?

1. Sacrifice is still a powerful concept, and ‘supreme sacrifice’ is still used to describe the deaths of those killed in combat. I would suggest though that the concept has lost a great deal of the direct Christian meaning which shaped its origin, development and the way that it was originally used. The church during and after the war contributed to the secularisation of its own language and theology around sacrifice.

2. The use of euphemisms around death and war in part generated during the First World War and blessed by the church, have taken on a life of their own. The reality of war continues to be sanitised by euphemisms, what one critic has described as ‘novocaine for the conscience’. For a recent example, think of the use of “collateral damage” to justify the bombing of the hospital run by Doctors without Borders in Kunduz. Deconstructing euphemisms used about war is an essential way of seeing the emperor with no clothes.

3. The claiming of God’s blessing for the sacrifices of the First World War raises the powerful question of theodicy – how did a good God allow such horrible suffering? If God was on the allied side and brought victory, why the hell did he take so long and demand so many sacrifices?

4. The memorialisation and the mythologies around the First World War remain powerful. They still bear residual Christian symbols and rhetoric which have lost a great deal of contact with their origin. For example, the hymns sung at Anzac Day services are vestigial echoes of a past which no longer have the same resonances which impacted on previous generations. But the continuing re-creation of memories around war, and death in war, for political, nationalistic and personal reasons, sometimes as an expression of individuals desire to encounter their forebears, points to the powerful impact that death in the First World War continues to have on New Zealand society.

5. For the churches, the First World War highlights the continuing tensions between, on the one hand, being captured by the needs of providing pastoral care to people and acting as chaplain to the nation, and on the other the difficulty in exercising a genuinely prophetic ministry that challenges the accepted conventions and aims at bringing about redemption in society.

At a German war cemetery near the airfield at Maleme on Crete, where New Zealand soldiers fought in the Second World War, there is a plaque with the words of the Nobel peace laureate, Albert Schweitzer; ‘The soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace’; and the words: ‘The dead of this cemetery admonish to peace’. There has been so much death and suffering, slaughter and sacrifice produced by war; the continuing, never ending challenge is how do we learn the ways of peace?

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