Sunday, 26 April 2009

Anzac Day

Speaking of Australian folk religion, yesterday was Anzac Day. For those readers from outside Australia, this day commemorates that landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs) at Gallipolli in Turkey in 1915.

In military terms this landing was a complete disaster. Originally planned as a surprise attack, the Turks found out about it and placed machine guns at the top of the hill. The ANZACs had nowhere to go and spent months trapped in the cove, gunned down whenever they tried to advance beyond their trenches, until months and thousands of deaths later they retreated.

Yet in Australian folklore the obvious command failures were overwhelmed by the bravery of the ordinary soldiers. Anzac Day became Australia’s main military commemoration. I remember as a child buying and selling Anzac ribbons at school to raise money for veterans, and then on the day marching with my scout group down the street past my house to the service in the Sunnybank Municipal Hall. There, beneath the honour rolls of local soldiers killed in the two world wars (after whom the streets of our suburb were named) we would sing “lest we forget” hear the Last Post played on the bugle and pray for the souls of the dead, or something.

By my University days Anzac Day was decline. The ANZACs themselves were getting old, and in the aftermath of Vietnam war was a lot less popular. The play The One Day of the Year, which we studied at high school, highlighted not only the folly of celebrating a military disaster, but the sharp divide between the patriotic WW2 generation and their sceptical children. Interestingly, the one actual ANZAC veteran in the play, when finally pressed to speak his mind, expresses a strangely neutral view of the event.

Then in the late 1990s something curious started to happen. Anzac Day experienced a resurgence.

A number of things caused this. The military was redeemed by its involvement in the first Iraq war and more particularly the Australian-led UN mission into East Timor, which were seen as protecting defenceless people against imperialistic regimes. Meanwhile at home we became aware that the ANZACs themselves were dying out. The few remaining WW1 veterans in Australia started to be treated as celebrities, invited to address groups of children, given front-row seats at the Sydney Olympics.

Anzac Day was transformed. City marches and dawn services steadily grew in attendance, with young people, including those who had no military connection, attending in droves. Australians started to go to Gallipoli in great numbers, with a dawn service on the site of the battle a huge Aussie affair with the odd token Turk participating.

This year I saw on the news a group of young people arriving at Gallipoli. Overcome with emotion, one young woman talked of the sacrifice these soldiers made for us, while the newsreader talked of the hundreds of young people making the “pilgrimage”.

This religious language has grown steadily over the last few years. Of course the day has always had a religious flavour, but is now by far the most religious of Australia’s public festivals. Australia Day, celebrating the landing of the First Fleet, is a purely secular flag-waving event. The traditional Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter have been taken over by Santa and the Easter Bunny and become excuses to buy stuff.

By contrast, Anzac Day has resisted commercialisation and become, if anything, more religious. They day centres around religious events – the dawn service, the wreath-laying ceremonies – at which prayer and remembrance hold centre stage. Moreover, the ideas of altruism, sacrifice and eternity are high on the agenda. We remember what has been done for us not in a personal way – because the battle of Gallipoli was almost 100 years ago now – but in a archetypal way, with young men we never knew giving their lives to preserve our long-term peace and freedom.

This is not very different from the personalised religion I talked about before, with the death of Shawn Mackay inspiring his team-mates to greater efforts on the field, and his presumed presence in heaven comforting them for their loss here on earth and their awareness of their own mortality.

In Anzac Day this belief system is given a more universal significance. For the Brumbies the death of one particular ordinary young men helps provide meaning for his friends. In Anzac Day the deaths of many unknown young men provide definition to our identity as a nation. We no longer believe in Jesus’ death for us, but we are moved to tears by these young men sacrificing themselves. And their sacrifice has a purpose – preserving our freedom and happiness. In celebrating them we feel a connection to something larger than ourselves. It’s not “God” if we mean the God of Christmas and Easter, but perhaps it is the “God above God” of Tillich.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Shawn Mackay meets Paul Tillich

One of the stories that has featured in the news this week is the death and funeral of Shawn Mackay, a young ACT Brumbies rugby union player who died after being hit by a car during a tour of South Africa. A low-profile player, unknown to even many rugby fans, has become a celebrity in death.

Why is the media, and the public, so interested in the ordinary death of an unknown young man? Why did we follow the daily details of his injury, initial recovery, death and funeral? Partly I suppose it is the genuine fame of a number of his team-mates, and partly the fact that it’s just a tragic story that tugs at our heart-strings. But there's more.

We like to hear about the intimate lives of famous people, and sports stars play a particular part in this fascination. Whereas the lives of Hollywood celebrities just seem bizarre, and politicians carry an aura of power, sports people seem very ordinary. Sure, they can run, swim, hit or kick a ball better than anyone else, but they are not particularly powerful, or particularly well-educated, they come from ordinary and often poor families, and after their brief youthful fame they will mostly retire to ordinary (albeit comfortable) lives. What could be more ordinary, then, than an elite sportsman who is hardly even famous? We want to hear about them because we feel we are hearing about ourselves.

Of course this ordinariness is both paradoxical and illusory. Our very interest in its ordinariness makes it extraordinary. If they were really ordinary, we would never hear about them. Their fame itself makes their lives different. Hundreds of young people die in car accidents every year, and they all have funerals at which their family and friends praise them, and cry. For your funeral to feature on prime time news you have to be different.

Yet this wasn’t what struck me the most. What really got my attention was their talk about Shawn Mackay being in heaven. If rugby is the game they play in heaven, they said, we know who would be captain.

You hear this a lot, from ordinary people, from sports people, in Australia and elsewhere. People often have the feeling that their dead parent, grandparent or sibling is looking down on them from heaven and approving (always approving) of what they do. When my father died, my young nephew (whose mother is a devout catholic) added him to his pantheon for bedtime prayers – Jesus, Mary and Grand-dad. My father would have found it hilarious, and in catholic terms it’s probably blasphemous although hardly serious coming from a four year old.

What’s interesting about this is that Australians on the whole are not very religious, and its not necessarily religious people who talk about their late relatives in this way, although many Christians certainly do. From week to week we will hardly think about God, heaven or religion. Yet when we are faced with death, we have a deep need to believe in immortality and future happiness for the dead person, and for ourselves. Barring serial killers and paedophiles you never hear anyone talking about the departed being in hell, or being just gone.

I’ve just finished reading The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. He mentions this very phenomenon. Belief in the immortality of the soul, he says, is not really a Christian belief in the sense of being biblical – the bible talks in terms of resurrection, not an immortal soul. If anything it’s Platonic, but even Plato doesn’t envisage the individual continuing as they were in this life, only the soul returning to the realm of pure forms in which it is stripped of the dross of accidental individual characteristics. Our belief in the dead going to heaven is not Christian or Platonic, it’s folk religion.

The main thrust of Tillich’s book is about how we affirm our being (the “courage to be”) in the face of the key existential anxieties that face all people. He identifies three interlocking sources of anxiety
  • the anxiety of fate and death – our fate is out of our control and ultimately we’ll die
  • the anxiety of guilt and condemnation – we have done wrong and will ultimately be condemned for it
  • the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness – we doubt the sources of meaning and ultimately our existence may be meaningless.
He then discusses the ways in history and philosophy that people have faced these anxieties and developed and maintained the courage to assert their own being in spite of them. It’s a complex discussion and I’m not sure I understand it all, so I certainly won’t try to explain the intricacies of it. Suffice it to say that he identifies that for his time (the 1950s) the predominant form is the anxiety of meaninglessness, expressed in existentialism. His answer (in my simplified form) is encounter with the “God above God”. This is not the God of the philosophers who can be analysed, categorised and dissected by philosophers and theologians, and who has been killed off by the existentialists. This is the God we encounter after the death of that God when in the despair of our meaninglessness we encounter the power of being, the ground of all being, the eternal.

Tillich was speaking from the point of view of an academic theologian, immersed in the philosophy of his age. He was also a German exiled by the Nazi regime, watching as his country descended into barbarism and genocide.

This where an archetypal “ordinary person” comes in handy. It’s unlikely that either Shawn Mackay or his mates took time out from their busy schedule of training, playing, drinking with team-mates and visiting sick kids to catch up on 20th century existentialism. Nor, despite being Australian, have they been personally touched by genocide, as opposed to seeing its results on their city streets without understanding them. On the other hand the obligatory hospital visits would have put them in plenty of contact with suffering and death.

So my guess would be that despite devoting their lives getting a piece of inflated synthetic fibre past 15 huge opponents and over a white line, it may not have occurred to them that their existence is meaningless. They do, however, know that they will die – especially since Shawn has just done so.

In the absence of any real religious faith, in the absence of a serious philosophy of existence, how do they cope with the reality of unpredictable, looming death? They are forced back onto our society’s folk religion which tells them that death is not the end of everything, that there is a good existence beyond death in which the dead can continue their lives. They tell themselves that they are immortal.

Then they go back to carrying that ball over that white line with even greater fury and devotion than before, drawing extra meaning from the idea that their departed mate is watching from that place of immortality. They believe a win will somehow make him feel fulfilled, and desperately wish it would also fill up the emptiness of their grief.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Back from the dead

In order to stop this from becoming a dead blog, I feel a deep-seated need to post something, so here it is.

I've been occupied with a few things including the illness and death of a close family member. That sort of stuff makes you lose heart, and you tend to look at the world in a more distant, cynical way. It can do two things to your relationships. At its best it can make you value them all the more. However, I find that there's a danger (because I'm an introvert anyway) of it working the other way. Like "you're going to die sooner or later, so maybe its better not to invest too much in this relationship".

Not that I really think that way consciously. I just find myself being more distant, and I think that's why. Or maybe my emotions are just a bit over tired.

Speaking of returns from the dead, Queensland just re-elected its Labor government for a fourth term, and for the first time with a woman leader in Anna Bligh who is almost my local member (as in , her electorate begins just a few streets away - her kids went to the same high school as mine). For most of the campaign it looked like they'd be tipped out, but in the end they came back from the dead.

While this is good (not great, since we're all going to die anyway, but good) I found a little something irritating my pedantic soul. In her victory speeches and in everyone's commentary they talked about her being the first Australian woman Premier elected in her own right - by which they mean that she went into the election as leader of her party, which then won, as opposed to other woman premiers who were appointed by their parites between general elections which their parties subsequently lost.

So, for you other pedantic souls out there, here's a little lesson in the Westminster system.

In republican systems of government the head of government (president, governor or whatever) is elected - a person stands for election, the people vote and a person is then elected to the office. They may or may not be a member of a party - usually they are - but the person, not the party, is elected.

In the Westminster system, on the other hand, the head of state is hereditary (currently Queen Elizabeth) and her representatives are appointed by her. However, the development of democracy means that the Queen and her representatives have a largely ceremonial role and the real power rests with the parliament, which even "recommends" to the Queen who she should appoint as governors and governors-general, her reps here in Australia. Parliament is made up of members elected by local constituencies. It not only makes laws, but it elects the Ministers of State including the real head of the government (Prime Minister or in the case of our State Governments, Premier) which the Queen or her representatives then automatically ratify. In Australia, because we really only have two main political parties, the party that wins the majority controls the parliament and therefore gets to appoint the ministers and the Premier.

So in Australia you don't get elected to be premier "in your own right". You get elected to your local constituency, and then your fellow parliamentarians (at least the ones in your party) elect you to the office. On this basis, Anna Bligh has been legitimately premier for the past two years, ever since her predecessor retired and her colleagues elected her to replace him. Leading her party in a winning election gives her no more legitimacy, it just provides better PR.

Am I just being pedantic? Does it really matter? Well, what it says is that our political system is not about individuals. A leader is expendable, what is important, the basis of the system, is local democracy and the collective actions of the local representatives. They make leaders, and they can (and often do) depose them. If George Bush had been an Australian Prime Minister, he woudn't have lasted the full eight years - at the six year mark when it became obvious even to the Americans that he was a waste of space, his party would have knocked him off the perch, and he would have served out the term on the back benches while a new leader tried to revive the fortunes of the government and fix up his mistakes. The world wouldn't have had to wait the extra two years for Barack Obama to come and save us.

In my view, this is a much more death-friendly political system. After all we're all going to die. It's important that when we do, life can go on, and that even though our friends and loved ones miss us, the greater work of love, justice and peace can continue in our absence, driven on by the collective efforts of many people.