Since the 1960s societies like our own have pursued a moral outlook whereby the rules of life are thrown out in favour of personal autonomy and self-expression. The sentiment has existed far longer, but the sexual revolution provided the catalyst to make possible in public what was often lived out in private. However far from creating a hedonistic dreamland, we are turning the landscape into an unforgiving wasteland.
The promises of sexual and social freedoms are now being met with education classes and workplace policies because we do not trust each other to act appropriately. Public figures who do or say something that even gives the appearance of impropriety are readily cancelled and publicly shamed. We have become expert fault finders, putting to shame the Puritans of old with our rules and public executions.
Every word and gesture from our political leaders is noted and recorded and reported to the public in an instant whirlwind of media hysteria and political cannonading.
Yesterday it was the turn of Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese. On the very first morning of the election campaign, Mr Albanese was asked two questions: what is the current unemployment rate and what is the cash rate? He was unable to answer either.
Bill Shorten, who led Labor at the last Federal election, was asked this morning to comment on his leader’s error. Mr Shorten said,
“The last person who never made a mistake – we are celebrating Easter – was 2,000 years ago”.
I’ll leave the pundits to do their work in assessing the merits of Mr Shorten’s response. My interest here isn’t to speak to the politics. I wish to observe that Mr Shorten’s words are true, and even more astonishing than perhaps he realises.
The last person who never made a mistake is Jesus Christ. Jesus lived in Judea 2,000 years ago. It was a period of tremendous political and social upheaval. Poverty abounded and social freedoms were anathema for most people. Life for populations living under Roman rule was hard and harsh. Into this world, came Jesus.
Jesus’ life, his words and deeds consistently and unerringly testify to his human nature being without any sin. Instead, the historical records reveal how Jesus is the most selfless and compassionate, gentle, truthful and holy person ever to walk this earth. He always spoke the truth, even at great personal cost. He loved the loveless and showed kindness toward the discredited and despised in the community. He exercised Divine authority and power over every manner of evil and ill. As he journeyed to Jerusalem, questions over Jesus’ identity and mission heightened, who is this man?
In so many ways Jesus was just like us: he ate and slept and worked and became tired, he expressed happiness and humour and he felt sadness and anger. And yet, his character is blameless. People tried to find fault with him, especially the religious leaders of the day, and yet none could be found.
The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, oversaw Jesus’ trial. Upon examining Jesus, he could find no wrong in him. Pilate appealed to Jesus’ accusers,
““I find no basis for a charge against him.”
The most remarkable fact about Jesus is not his sinless nature, although that is truly outstanding, it is that this innocent one chose a path of betrayal, suffering, and death. The incredible fact of that first Easter is how the man without guilt resolved to die the death of the guilty.
Why would a man of such promise, and possessing the character of God, choose to enter this world and embrace suffering, humiliation, and willingly face the most public and excruciating death that the Romans could devise? Was it a mistake?
Jesus didn’t die for our moral platitudes, platforms, and self-justifications, he died in the place of those who deserve to be cancelled by God. On the third day, he rose from the grave, promising new life to everyone who believe.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)
As important as political elections are, this week we are approaching the weekend where we remember the definitive act of a loving God to redeem people with great fault.
There is far greater wonder and glory at Easter than we probably ever imagine, even for those who annually attend Easter church services. Our society rightly commemorates and thanks those who sacrifice their lives for the good of others. We even quote Jesus who said, “”Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)”. On the cross, Jesus went even further,
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This sublime world in which we live today with such advanced knowledge and ability has once again exposed our frailty and even culpability. Our uncertain world has been shaken by a pandemic and once again we are contemplating the possibility of global armed conflict. At home in Australia, we are wrestling with political disappointments and considerable social concerns. How much do we need a saviour who doesn’t make mistakes?
A mother and daughter from my church are currently residing in Ukraine. Bombs have hit the city near where they are living. Thankfully, for now, they are safe. While internet connections have become unreliable, the mum has been able to send a message to one of our church members. For us at Mentone, as with many families across Australia, the events unfolding in Ukraine are more than just stories in the news.
I think it is fair to say that many people around the world are stunned by the audacity of President Putin’s actions, but we should not be surprised. I don’t believe these are the decisions of a madman but someone calculating with warranted confidence. For more than a decade Russia has had military successes with incursions into Crimea, Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria. More than that, as the world looks at the West, they see moral decay and social disruption and division; no wonder they might conclude that they can act with impunity. The insurmountable disaster of the withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t cause nations to tremble at the United States and her allies. Far from fear mongering or throwing around hubris, this is about understanding human nature: Belief + power + opportunity can be a very dangerous mix.
The West has become the polar bear who with each new season finds it harder to uncover firm ground to stand on, and instead relies on jumping across tiny and shrinking blocks of floating ice. As we consciously and deliberately remove the very foundations upon which our societies formed and which a civil and healthy society requires, we create a future that is less certain and less safe. While other nations are perhaps economically and militarily weaker, they have greater conviction and resolve.
“This is the sort of war the West does not know how to fight. It is not just about territory, or borders, or resources, or power. It is existential — it is about identity.”
As far as I can see, the United States gives all the appearances of being supine. The United Nations is weak. NATO cuts their own hamstring. Russia is emboldened, and so will China and Iran. This war in Ukraine is only beginning and it is unlikely to end at her borders. Indeed, ominous days ahead.
As we watch the war unfold on the news, what should we do?
First of all, humble ourselves before Almighty God and pray.
We should follow the example of many Ukrainian Christians and pray. Prayer is not the helpless pleading of people to a blank sky, but the cries of people to God who remain Sovereign and good today, even in Ukraine. Naturally, many Westerners with their sense of intellectual smugness will laugh at such a notion. I dare them to voice their condescension toward the many Ukrainians who are praying in public space at the moment or the pastors who have led their families to safety and then returned to care for the people.
Few of us have the influence to make foreign policy, introduce sanctions or to speak to global leaders, but we can pray to the God to whom all authorities will be held to account.
Second, it is right to feel anger. Most often our anger is wrong and sinful, but there are times when anger is not only justified but even required. When innocent blood is shed, when a human life is abused, and when a nation is invaded by another for the sake of greed and control, it is appropriate to sense and express indignation. President Putin is a despot with millions of Russian people living in fear and under his autocratic rule, and he has just invaded a Sovereign State and put at risk the lives of millions of people.
Third, remember, God will judge the wicked.
As Christians, we know and believe God is love. God is a merciful Father who pours out grace upon human beings who pursue the most arrogant of ways. Christians affirm alongside the Apostle Paul, “ Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst”.
We also believe that God will judge the nations by his Son. Neither the small nor the great are exempt. Ukraine’s UN representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya gave an astonishing speech yesterday, one that I suspect will enter the annals of history. Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Ambassador Kyslytsya spoke directly to the Chair, the Russian Ambassador,
“There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell.”
Purgatory does not exist, but hell certainly does. The world needs a judge who will put right the wrongs committed. As a result of human limitations and at times ignorance and even complicity, much evil escapes justice in the moment. One thing Jesus Christ promises is that the wicked will not escape his justice.
Fourth, we need a biblical anthropology.
It is our failure to understand and believe human nature, that causes our disbelief in events such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. On this point allow me to give an extended quote from ‘Symphony From the Great War’, a little book that I wrote a couple of years ago, as it sums up the point at hand:
“The paradox of the human condition bewilders: such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and to show kindness, and yet in our DNA are also traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and at the worst, we can explode into a public and violent confrontation. The First World War wasn’t human madness; it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction. This was a betrayal of Divine duty. I am not suggesting that this war was fought without any degree of moral integrity, for should we not defend the vulnerable? When an emerging global war sends signals of an aggressor’s intent to its neighbours, to what point must we remain on the sideline and permit bullying and harassment? At what juncture do allies speak up as a buttress for justice but not support words with deeds? How much politicising is mere virtue signalling?
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” (C.S. Lewis)
The temptation is to conclude that lessons have been learned and today we move forward with inevitable evolution. While the superficial has progressed enormously, that is, with scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs, and with cultures building bridges and better understanding differences. And yet, we mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided; it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors. We continue to postulate and protect all manner of ignominious attitudes and actions, but these are often sanctioned by popular demand and therefore excused.
The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis of disease because doing so would seem to be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow. And yet surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure for the disease that ails every past and future generation?
It does not take a prophet to understand that the world will once again serve as the canvas for a gigantic bloodstain. There will be wars and rumours of wars. There will be small localised conflicts and globalisation will inevitably produce further large-scale violence, perhaps outweighing the experiences of the first two world wars. We may see and even learn from the past, but we project a fools’ paradise when we envision the human capacity to finally overcome evil. Religion is often no better a repose than the honest diatribes of Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants. Religion, ‘in the name of God’, is often complicit with death making and at times it is missing from the task of peacemaking, while other efforts are much like stacking sandbags against a flash flood: that is, hardly effective
Theologian Oliver O’ Donovan refers to the “nascent warrior culture” in the days of ancient Israel, some fourteen centuries before the coming of the Christ. This culture is perhaps no longer emerging in our world, but it is now long tried and tested among the nations. Does war intrude upon peace? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that war is interrupted by periods of relative peace and at times by ugly appeasement. Soon enough another ideologue and another authority tests the socio-political temperature and attempts to scale the ethereal stairs of Babel.
The human predicament is perhaps a grotesque complement to the rising philosophical concerns of the late 19th Century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche began dismantling the imago Dei with a new and devastating honesty. Far from discovering superior freedoms, they justified authoritarian systems of government and the mass sterilisation of ‘lesser’ human beings. To strip humanity of its origins is to leave us destitute and blind, but admitting this truth demands an epistemic and moral humility that few are willing to accept. Nietzsche was right, at least as far as his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say, ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,
“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”
If optimism seems out of place and if pessimism is a crushing and untenable alternative, where does the future lie? The lush green cemeteries of the Western Front with their gleaming white headstones convey a respectful and yet somewhat misleading definition of war. This halcyon scene covers over a land that was torn open and exposed the capacity of man to destroy. Perhaps, as a concession, the dead have received a quiet bed until the end of time, but the serenity of this sight mustn’t be misconstrued in any way to deify war or to minimise the sheer horror that befell so many. In part, we want to learn and so avoid repeating history, and yet history shouts to us a message that we don’t wish to accept.
There is ancient wisdom that stands tall in the midst of time. There are words which demand closer inspection by those who are seeking to exegete the past and to consider an alternate tomorrow. Every step removed from this wisdom signals further hubris that we can ill afford, but epistemic humility and confession may well reorient the compass toward he who offers peace instead of war, life instead of death, and love instead of hate:
“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
A devastating tragedy struck the Tasmanian town of Devonport yesterday. On what should have been a fun filled celebration for Grade 6 children who were finishing their final day of primary school, became the worst of nightmares. Children were playing on a jumping castle when a sudden gust of wind swept it high into the air, before plummeting 10m to the earth. Five children have died and another four remain in critical condition.
One dares not speak a word, for what can one say? Even as a parent with 3 children, what words can I utter? One cannot understand what these families are going through unless one has already experienced such loss ourselves. How do we make sense of the senseless? The death of any child is beyond words, but five lost to such circumstances? The reporter on the news last night added the note that this accident has happened so close to Christmas.
I don’t think the proximity to Christmas makes this awfulness any more harrowing than it already is. But perhaps there is something in the Christmas story that touches and empathises with the inexplicable.
Soon after Jesus’ birth, a tragic incident occurred in Bethlehem, and it forms part of the Christmas story. It is part of the original Christmas although we don’t often read it. And fair enough, it was a terrible event that involved the deaths of many little children.
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
There are words in Scripture that speak the word of unspeakable grief in losing a child. The circumstances and time and place are different but they nonetheless echo the human heart. Indeed, those words from the prophet Jeremiah are all poignant and jarring for the loss of those little ones in Bethlehem following the birth of another child, the Christ.
This Son of God, whose name is Jesus, would one day preach a sermon which today echoes through the generations and still pierces light and life into the darkness. In the address, Jesus spoke these words,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
He is willing to comfort those who cannot be comforted.
On another occasion, in Jesus’ inaugural public address, he chose for his Bible text, verses from the book of Isaiah,
“the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
What an astonishing announcement, the darkness will not win. The shadow of death is long and thick, but its hold will not last forever. For you see, this same Jesus doesn’t only offer comfort, he has walked the path none of us wishes to undergo and yet will do so one day. He accepted the cross and descended to the dead so that he might punch through the darkness and bring the light of life that can never be dimmed.
We may struggle and grasp to find words to express our sorrow for these families in Devonport today, and that’s ok. For what can one say? Sometimes all one can do is sit and quietly grieve.
The one thing I can say to my fellow Aussies as we look on is this: the message of Christmas has a word to offer in every situation, even the darkest grief and unknown. Strip away Christmas from all the presents and food and decorations, and we uncover in the biblical story a God who hates death. He is appalled by it. He opposes it. His only Son experienced the harrowing of that darkness, for us, that one day death may be defeated forever and all who call on him will know his resurrection power.
We cannot answer the ‘why’ of much that happens in life. The unfathomable can sit like an incurable pain. The Jesus of Christmas tells us there is one who knows and we can go to him, not because we can explain everything, but because he has already taken that journey through death and he has broken through to life again.
I wrote a little booklet last year and am now making it available for everyone to read here on my blog. In light of growing tensions with China and between Russia and Ukraine, what does the past teach us about the human condition and the prevalence of warfare?
“In Symphony from the Great War an Australian takes his family to northern Europe to retrace the steps of his Great-grandfather during the First World War on the Western Front. As they visit famed places like Plugstreet, Messines, and Villers-Bretonneux, Murray Campbell offers theological insights into the nature of warfare and the human condition.
History records moments of courage, genius, and creativity. Not everyone who participated in the dramas of the past is afforded such roles. William Campbell fought on the Western Front but he was no Ajax or Achilles. This is the story of an ordinary Australian who survived the Great War without fame or note.”
It’s about a 2 hour read, but the chapters are divided into bite-size pieces. Dip in and out as you like. I hope you enjoy it
A Prelude: Into the past
Movement 1: A road where there was once a trench
Movement 2: The girl with the lilac hat
Movement 3: Pools of water
Movement 4: A lonely cemetery
Movement 5: Christmas again
Movement 6: Villers-Bretonneux
Movement 7: Confutatis maledictis
“About the same time Caesar, although the summer was nearly past, yet, since, all Gaul being reduced, the Morini and the Menapii alone remained in arms, and had never sent embassadors to him [to make a treaty] of peace, speedily led his army thither, thinking that that war might soon be terminated. “
“The following winter… those Germans …crossed the Rhine, not far from the place at which that river discharges itself into the sea.”
Julius Caesar once visited the shores of Britain but he never conquered her. In fact, he barely stepped further than a Roman foot onto that greenest of grass which occupies visions of England. Caesar did however overcome Gaul and defeat encroaching German tribes who dared cross that once self imposing barrier of civilisation, the river Rhine. A little over two thousand years after Rome’s bloody march through Gaul, new armies arrived and did battle. Descending on this land of the Celtae and Belgae came an army from an island considerably more distant than that of Britain, and they journeyed not to invade but to redeem her.
History intrigues and causes us to ponder the axis upon which the globe moves. Whether it is Ancient Rome or Medieval Scotland or 19th Century America, the past has a way of repeating messages and teaching us of the best and worst of humanity’s soul. Standing on a hill in Northern France, halfway between Dunkirk and Lille, is the perfect example. Today the village of Cassel features in travel magazines, known for its pretty buildings and for the tree lined roads that wind their way around this ancient hillside. For more than 2000 years Cassel has been the sight for history makers. Julius Caesar stormed its heights in 53BC, defeating the Menapii who had used Mont Cassel as a fortified position. Cassel was then destroyed by Vikings in the 10th Century, and was the scene of major battles between the French and Flemish in 1328 and again in 1677. During the French Revolution, the Duke of York dumbfounded the enemy and confused his own army as he marched them up to the top of the hill and down again and then neither halfway up nor down. The very same hilltop served as headquarters for the commander of the French army during the early months of the First World War, Marshall Ferdinand Foch. Thirty years later, blood again ran down Mont Cassel as British troops fought a rearguard action against a rapidly advancing Panzer division. At times history appears as a Ferris wheel stuck in rotation and unable to stop, while at other times there is forward motion and development, but there is never a step forward without the footstep that preceded it.
History not only informs us but forms who we are today. The past grows roots and branches from which today’s twigs and flowers burgeon. History fascinates, yet it takes on a new life and poignancy when the events closely relate to oneself. From a young age, I would read books and watch documentaries about the First World War, and of the astonishing contributions made by Australian troops. Stories of battle and bravery, heroism and hubris, and of nations manoeuvring arms against each other have the power to ignite curiosity. This inquisitiveness however takes an interesting turn when the subject matter involves you and connects your past with the events of history.
As a boy I dreamed of visiting the Western Front in France and Belgium; to see for myself places that have been immortalised into the Australian myth: Ypres, Messines, Bullecourt and Villers-Bretonneux. Conceptualising the unthinkable is not without precedent among boys, let alone some adults as well. Imagine standing in a trench where one century earlier men younger than myself huddled, slept, ate, and fought. What would it be like to imprint my feet on the ground where Australians influenced the game of history? In my childhood, I would take scenes of battle that I had come across in war photographs and transport them into a reconstructed but imaginary world of 1914-18. It is however a futile and immature chimera. How can one conceive of a landscape where a soldier peers over a water drenched sandbag and across no man’s land, knowing that ahead men lay waiting with rifle and machine gun, intent on killing any shape that appeared over the parapet? What would it be like to experience the thunder of howitzers and the deep roar of heavy artillery as it inched closer and closer toward your position? And what of the mud, that infamous mud, that sank body and soul alike into despair and misery?
In December 2018, an opportunity arrived to take my family into a cold, dark, and muddy Christmas. Living in Melbourne we are more than familiar with eating roasted turkey and potato on a 40 degree day. Hot summer Christmases are the norm, although we had once been mesmerised by a white Christmas in the deep snows of Montreal. The Christmas of 2018 would offer little chance of sun, or snow for that matter, as we were heading to northwest France. The original plan was to spend all our time in London. Susan (my wife) and I lived in Samuel Johnson’s town some 20 years earlier and we had always wanted to give our children the opportunity to walk about her streets, museums, and shops. Every suburb and every road is yet another reference to a famous moment from history or a line in a pop song! London contains enough culture and history and amazing experiences to last 10 lifetimes. I did however pack a supply of fresh coffee beans and my trusted aeropress! (and a jar of Vegemite).
London never disappoints but we cut short the intended stay, deciding instead to take the train to Lille, where we spent 8 days. Why France? The food of course. France is the nation where waking up at 6am every morning is a sheer delight, for it involves a beautiful stroll down to the local boulangerie and purchasing daily manna from heaven.
In the time in which it takes to travel from my home in Melbourne to the neighbouring city of Geelong, you can leave England and find yourself in another country. Lille is situated only 1½ hours from London by train. Lille may not have the international reputation of other French cities, but there is no shortage of insanely delicious bread, cheese, and chocolate. During December her central square is transformed into a Christmas market with dozens of tiny stalls selling all manner of unnecessary trinkets. Isn’t that Christmas after all? The birth of the Christ is relegated into the myths of time by a sack full of shiny traditions and presents wrapped in glossy paper from the $2 shop! The Grand Place is dominated by a gigantic Ferris wheel, which towers over the surrounding buildings and whose coloured lights bounce off the cobblestoned paths below. Streets spread along the Rue Royale like spokes from that oversized wheel, their shops displaying haute couture fashion and fine foods. All this is intertwined with carefully arranged Christmas themes that have been given the detailed attention of artisans who create a Hermès Carré or a Chanel perfumer perfecting a new fragrance. The French celebrate Christmas in a less ostentatious way than what I have seen in cities like New York, for example. The French Noel is less Disney and more Noir, less dazzle and more sophistication. It is enchanting, a European fable made of stone, brick, and glass.
Apart from eating our way through baguettes and buche de noels, Lille has the advantage of providing a suitable base for those wishing to visit the sights from the Great War: Fromelles, Passchendaele, Arras, and the Somme, are all within an hour’s drive. The city of Lille was captured by the German army in the earliest days of the war, following a short but terrifying ten day siege which left much of the city centre in ruins. Following that brutal introduction to modern warfare, the population of Lille experienced relative peace in the ensuing four years (that is, for those who didn’t escape the city in time), until finally the Germans retreated and Lille was liberated on October 17th 1918. Lille remained near the front lines throughout the entire war, always within earshot of the cannonade, but sufficiently removed so as to avoid the utter destruction that befell other towns in Flanders. Lille had been hurt but not obliterated. Only 20 minutes drive away is Ypres. This elegant Belgian town became the face of the First World War. The famous Lakenhalle (the Dutch sounds somewhat more impressive than the English translation, ‘cloth hall’) has been rebuilt and its resurrection body is a magnificent sight, but in 1916 its crumbled facade was a picture postcard depicting the pain endured by countless French and Belgians whose homes stood unceremoniously in the path of war. Lille is located even closer to the French communes of Armentières and Houplines. This 3.5km stretch of trench line was known in 1916 as a quiet sector. Houplines is where the British high command delivered virgin troops, to experience their first taste of life the front. It was here that we would begin our visit along the Western Front, to see for ourselves the place where my family’s First World War journey began.
My Great Grand Father’s name was William Campbell. He was born in January 1893, in West Wallsend, NSW, then a small town outside Newcastle. It remains a small town today. West Wallsend, like so much of the region around Newcastle, existed because of coal production. In 1916, at the age of 22years and 11 months, William Campbell exchanged a coal mine for a trench, his miner’s cap for a soldier’s helmet, one shovel for another and he added a rifle with fixed bayonet. To be truthful, he was not, in fact, a Newcastle miner, but a local fireman who joined the 35th Battalion of the 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. The 35th were known as “Newcastle’s own” and they were largely made up of volunteers from the coal mines surrounding Newcastle. While the battalion may have been immortalised by images of miners come soldiers, the reality is that they represented a breadth of class and career. But such is the mythical qualities of history making; the stereotype characters are canonised and the particulars and peculiarities of individuals often lost.
No one knows why William Campbell joined up. He left us no written diary and no letters home have survived. Usual reasons may have played their part: love of King and Country, the opportunity for adventure and touring the world. Perhaps he felt the pressure from watching all his mates sign up and he feared a backlash if he didn’t. Like many who soon found themselves en route to the Great War, he was probably ignorant of the geopolitical chessboard manoeuvres that took place in the months leading up to this unwanted war.
Few residents living in West Wallsend, or in Richmond, Victoria, Orange, NSW, and from Dalby, Queensland would have heard of or cared for Sarajevo. An Austrian Archduke and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo by some obscure radical with the name of Gavrilo Princip? Should Australians be concerned for the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire or their antagonist Serbia and ally Russia? Should a poorly written letter to the Austrian Emperor from Kaiser Wilhelm II have worried the coal miners of Newcastle? Britain had no desire for war, and there was no foreseeable necessity to enter a continental drama, lest Belgium become embroiled. But why would tiny Belgium want to throw her weight into a potential arms race between Austro-Hungary and Germany, and Russia and Serbia? The answer was France, for France had made a pact with Russia to counter any imbalance of political power in Europe. It wasn’t that Belgium needed to ally with France, but that they made such an agreement with Britain. Initially, Britain stood on the English Channel declining to do anything more than send envoys urging peace. After all, behind these agitating Generals and revolutionaries was one family. The King of England, the German Kaiser, and Russia’s Tsar were cousins; they knew each other and spent holidays together as children. Why should close relatives ignore familial blood and instead declare war on each other? There are times when the bonds within a family are not enough to prevent political storm clouds from descending. Germany, aware of two great armies that would press in on her, one from the West and the other from the East, designed a strategy for victory. She would look for a swift victory over France, to then speedily move east to engage the Russians. To do so, the German High Command agreed to take a short cut. What if they marched into France through the back door, namely Belgium? When Germany invaded Belgium on August 4th 1914 the British had no option other than to keep her word and send the army into Belgium. Of course, as soon as Great Britain entered the war, her Commonwealth said, ‘we will follow’. Most of the populations in the majority of the nations who put on a military uniform that August month were not spoiling for a fight. But through a series of poor diplomatic choices and a small but powerful number of Generals in Berlin manipulating events, men from Wallsend heeded the call.
No one can comprehend the realities of war until its stench lingers in the nostrils and mind, tarnishing whatever semblance of innocent conscience that once existed. Whatever the rationale that caused William Campbell to sign his name to the AIF, he soon found himself huddled on the HMAT Benalla, bound for England and to war.
First Movement: A road where there was once a trench
By the time I was 23 years of age I had long finished university and was now working a job. It was not a career move but I was grateful for the opportunity to find employment and earn an income. I married the girl whom I fell in love with while I was at high school. To me, she is the Juliet of dreams, with a brightness that would shame the stars, “as daylight doth a lamp”. We were now living comfortably in the inner Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn East and thoroughly enjoying those first months of life together. We were also making plans to move to London later that year, where I was to study and Susan to work at a local hospital.
At the age when we were bringing our new life over to England, William Campbell was leaving his behind. Our journey was a 23 hour comfortable flight with entertainment, cushioned seating, and with drinks and food available to us at the press of a button. His was to be a two month sea voyage filled with the monotonous daily routine of drills, boredom, and a bucket at hand. As his Battalion sailed around the Horn of Africa, the realities of war were now firmly realised back in Australia. The Gallipoli campaign had ended in disaster, with thousands of Australian men killed and many thousands more horrifically injured. The surviving Anzacs had already reached England and were preparing to embark for France, to places they had never heard of, let alone pronounce: Fromelles and Pozières. Their role would be to support the British who were bleeding red along a river called the Somme. More Australians would be killed in these opening two engagements in France than who died during the entire nine month campaign in the Dardenelles.
The 3rd Division was the final of five AIF Divisions to reach France, following months of relentless training on Salisbury Plain in accord with their commanding officer, General John Monash. During the Gallipoli campaign, Monash had risen in rank, noticed for his brilliant organisational and tactical abilities. He carried his learned skills to the training ground, ensuring that his men would be thoroughly equipped for the art of trench warfare in Europe. Indeed, his potency for making war would create a name of renown throughout Australia. Statues, a university, a freeway, and an entire region of Melbourne are all named in his honour.
“You are about to embark for France in order to take your place by the side of our Australian kinsman who in Gallipoli and France by their valor have made Australia famous throughout the world.
In the name of our Commonwealth I call upon every one of you to resolve that in the task that lies ahead you will endeavor to display the highest qualities of self-sacrifice, discipline, devotion to duty and self-restraint under all temptations; in order that the reputation you may earn may rank you second to none.
You have undergone training in the arts of modern fighting and in the conduct of disciplined soldiery. Remember to apply everything that you have learned at all times and in all places; for on the manner in which you do this you will be judged.
While your future renown will rest chiefly on your fighting qualities, your courage in the face of the enemy, and your perseverance under hardships, it will depend also on your soldierly behaviour, whether on or off duty, your prompt obedience, your respect for military superiors, your smartness of appearance and bearing, and, particularly your regard for the welfare and property of the woman and children of France whose men-folk are away from their homes helping us to fight our common enemy.
Keep in mind the crimes of that enemy against our Empire, our Allies, and humanity, and be determined, now that the opportunity for which you have waited so long has come at last, to work and to fight with all the strength and all the skill of which you are capable.
My Great Grandfather disembarked at the French port of La Havre, along with near 1000 men who made up the 35th Battalion. La Havre was made famous by Henry V and his eventual march to Agincourt some six hundred years earlier. The port town had not long been painted into posterity by Monet and the impressionists. It was transportation through time, from Caesar to Napoleon. Even the sounds of Debussy’s La Mer which had only been composed ten years earlier could almost be heard amidst the salty air along the coast. From La Havre, they boarded a train through Normandy and into the region of Picardy until they reached the commune of Armentières, where they were billeted, before marching the final miles through the town of Houplines. They entered the trenches for the first time on November 26th, 1916. Today, Houplines is home to 7000 residents, smaller than Armentières which is only 2kms to south and has a population of 25,000. In 1916 few residents remained in these towns because their homes no longer existed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Houplines as a former town, for it was little more than a demolition site. I recently walked past a city block in Melbourne where a once tall building had stood. Workmen had dismantled her before heavy machinery sent her walls crashing to the concrete path below, leaving behind tangled steel and broken brick and concrete and shards of glass. Think of an entire town experiencing this trauma and without the carefully timed precision of workmen who are looking out for public safety. The only people crazy enough to travel through Houplines or to shelter inside its cellars were troops moving between the front line and support trenches.
We pulled over the car at the intersection where Rocade de la Lys meets Rue Roger Salengro. On one side of the road is a school. On the opposite side is a Commonwealth War cemetery where the bodies of 466 servicemen were reinterred at the end of the war. Facing east and across the Rocade de la Lys are flat open fields. It is here that the front trenches once ran parallel to the road, and just beyond them, the German lines.
It is an unimpressive battlefield. Other than the cemetery, there are no signs of World War, no markers or remains. I have trekked across other battlefields which befit the place of military struggle as if such a thing were possible. Their topographical features or an uncommon and almost haunting atmosphere at least give these places the appearance of importance, a site worthy for combat. Culloden Moor, Bannockburn, Waterloo, Gettysburg, and even the nearby Mont Cassel, suggest a natural reason for the struggles that have been witnessed onsite. But here at Houplines there are no standout features, no heights to capture, no major city to defend, no major road to protect. It is a small village looking across depressed farmland.
The area also holds a modern touch of the absurd. A little more than 1km to the northeast of this former death trap is a small shop with the ironic name, “Happy Corner”. This store is adjacent to a family campsite which sits in the middle of what was formerly the German front line. This was no area for camping and playing, but a desolate wasteland where no man dared to move. Don’t misunderstand, this was not the scene of a major engagement during 1914-18, but as was the case in many sectors of the Western Front, there was still constant fear with the daily reminder of death on account of a ‘soft’ barrage or sniper’s rifle.
This stretch of trenches was referred to as a nursery sector in December 1916. Houplines was about as safe a place as anyone could find along the Western Front. Men died. Men were wounded. Men grew weary, sick and caught disease, and yet only at a fraction of the cost that was endured in the war’s hot spots. This was where soldiers would learn to dig, repair scaffolds and replace broken barbed wire, and be schooled at observing enemy positions without getting shot. This was a place where toddler soldiers first heard the ignominious sound of shell fire, the smell of decaying flesh, and taught to bear with that possessive friend, fear.
The days spent by William Campbell along this front were cold and uncertain. The blackened filth of the Newcastle coal mines now seemed like a heavenly paradise compared with trench life. The worse part of it wasn’t the sight of endless lines of barbed wire or the makeshift latrines, but the unavoidable thick grey mud that sapped every man’s energy as they pulled their mates, their equipment, and themselves along the line, one yard at a time.
It wasn’t raining on the day we visited the area. The ground was however soft and wet, and any foot of earth that had been even slightly churned had turned into that dreadful thick clag.
Mud. The mud. The landscape may be unimpressive, even underwhelming, but one feature sticks with you, the mud. The endless porridge muck that sucked your boots into the earth. Statue like figures would stand, readied to be shot at by a sniper, not by choice, but forced into the posture by the thick claggy mire at their feet. The fate was worse still for those unfortunate wretches who fell into shell holes, too exhausted to lift their wretched bodies out of the mud. This wasn’t the kind of mud found on a wet July Saturday morning when we played football as kids; that was fun and we were as excited to cover our bodies in the mud as we were to win the game. This mud was different, both in volume and curse. It would seep its way into equipment, clogging rifles, rotting uniforms, and draining the fittest of their energy. And one couldn’t leave the mud behind after a few short hours, to enjoy a hot shower and put on clean clothes while the soiled were washed clean by Mum. The mud experienced in this sector during the winter of 1916 was as notorious as the more famed mud in the later slaughterhouse of Passchendaele.
What were those trenches except open graves, occupied by humans hanging on to their humanity? Mud and barbed wire. Mud mingled with blood. Mud churned with the flesh of dead men. I once caught a squid while fishing. As I grabbed hold of this sea creature to take out the hook, its tentacles wrapped around my right hand, declining to let go in fear of life. The mud reminded me of that squid, obstinate and refusing to relinquish anything that touched it.
The days in the nursery didn’t last forever, because boy soldiers grow into men. Those weeks spent in the trenches hardened men to the realities of mud and cold, to the noise of mortars and the sight of human flesh being torn apart. This was a season of learning and maturing, for in June 1917 they were about to engage in one of the war’s great battles.
Second Movement: The girl with the lilac hat
Walking along a path deep inside Plugstreet Wood was a young girl wearing a lilac hat. The pink woollen beanie with pom pom bobbed about as she danced happily down the stony footpath.
The colours of the woodland had drained away with the coming of winter. The trees had long shed their leaves and been absorbed into the soggy earth beneath. Elms, oaks, and maples stood tall with naked branches stretching across the grey clouded sky. Everything was a shade of grey: the ground, the trees, and the light splintering through the overcast heavens above. Even the grass that lay across the forest floor appeared grey-like, such was the underlay of neutral tones covering the canvas in front. The single note of contrast was the gleeful lilac beanie worn by my daughter who ran and skipped as though Plugstreet was a place of fun and laughter.
Other than the soft thud of her sneakers landing on the final vestiges of the leaves that had fallen to the earth, the only sound that could be discerned was the distant singing of a bird. There were no cars driving past with engines interrupting the quiet and no tourists rushing about with cameras and loud voices. Despite the cold on that December afternoon, the woodland walk was pleasant enough. It was nature at rest, featuring a young and innocent girl enjoying her freedom on its stage.
Ploegsteert Wood is only a short drive north of Houplines, known famously among the British and Commonwealth forces as Plugstreet. Plugstreet was the site of vicious fighting throughout the war. It was occupied by the German army for a short time in 1914, while the Schlieffen plan was in full force, and again in 1918 for a few days during the Spring Offensive. Otherwise, Plugstreet was just that, woodland with a road that plugged an otherwise gap in the Allied lines. Winston Churchill was stationed there during his 100 day post-Dardenelles detention in the trenches. Adolf Hitler was positioned only ten miles to the South East, where he would face the Australian troops of the 5th Division at the butchery called Fromelles. While such historical details are of interest, especially to those standing on the precipice of 1940 and looking to the past, contemplating the what if’s of history, we were visiting Plugstreet because of events that took place before the dawn of the great battle of Messines on July 7th, 1917.
Today, remnants of battle can be uncovered in Plugstreet, hidden among trees and lying beneath the soil. The bombardment leading up to the morning of July 7th is believed to have reached 2.5 million shells. Besides, millions more bombs and high explosives were served to ace throughout the war by both armies. The astonishing thing is that the land today is not nearly as disfigured as one might expect. There are unnatural discoveries to be seen, covered with moss and vines are slabs of concrete and mounds of dirt behind which lay curved geographical pimples where once a trench snaked its way through to the front lines. The passing of time has however enabled life to return.
One hundred and two years before a girl in her blue coat and wearing her winter’s hat entered the wood, thousands of men sat waiting; waiting all night, trying to sleep…impossible to sleep. Perhaps they leaned against the trunk of an Elm at an anxious rest. Some clenching their weapons and others distracting themselves by giving further attention to their already clean and ready Enfield rifle. One can imagine tiny huddles of men playing cards, a few offering nervous laughter while others waited silently, wondering. That night was warmer than the day we visited for it was the middle of summer. The sun went to sleep late that night and its warmth endured on the grass beneath. As midnight passed and troops began marshalling into their units, readying for the two mile march into no man’s land, there was a mass interruption. The same trees which surrounded my daughter and me on that winter’s day witnessed on that July night the screams of men writhing in agony. Hundreds of gas shells had been fired from behind the German lines.
It is not known whether the Germans were aware of the imminent battle that night. Had spotters from the air taken note of the heavy buildup of troops between Ypres and St Yvon? Did a growing volume of noise from trucks and clamouring men raise alarm three miles away? Was this surprise a calculated military strategy to dampen the forthcoming assault or a spontaneous eruption of horror designed to remind the enemy of their power to produce death? Whatever the chain of events that led to the bombardment, within minutes 500 men and officers of the 3rd Division were being stretchered, carried and led from Plugstreet Wood: the dead, the dying, and hundreds suffering the most grotesque of internal injuries.
I have read that the effect on the sensors is different to ‘normal’ exploding shells for there is no boom and crash but the almost comical sounding ‘plop’ as these canisters landed on the grass and released their toxins into the air. It wasn’t burning shrapnel that would kill you but the inhaled gas which would melt your body from the inside out. What a horrible way to die. The Division did not, however, waver from the task at hand. Wearing their facial apparatuses impaired vision and sense of direction, causing battalions to lose order and direction for a short while, but soon enough they were back on track, heading toward the assigned starting off points.
One young lieutenant in Monash’s Division spoke of the gas attack,
“Have to wear box respirators. The remainder of the march…was one long drawn-out hell.
The night was fairly dark, one’s gas mask glasses were continually becoming forged with perspiration, one tripped over obstacles – barded wire and groaning men”.
The Australian war reporter, Charles Bean was in the vicinity that night. He was approaching the wood when he was met with the smell of gas, “Pretty strong…we put our helmet nozzles in mouths…gas shells began to fall fast – pot, pot, pot all around…trenches were pretty well steeped in gas”.
William Campbell escaped the gas. Presumably, he was quick to grab his gas mask and protect his face and lungs. Despite appearing like a prop from a sci-fi movie, the gas mask saved lives. Fixed on survival and contemplating the battle that he was about to enter, this once young Australian soldier could not have imagined that one day his Great Great Granddaughter would venture into the very same wood, without fear of violence or death, but with an innocent and joyful demeanour, enjoying the sights around her. Would he have smiled, if he knew? Would he have been glad to know that one day his own Great Great Granddaughter would follow the same path he took, yet under very different circumstances? Could the jarring juxtaposition even be contemplated? Or would fear and the gutting sense of dread not allow room for such exquisite imagination for the future?
Third Movement: Puddles of water
A satellite image of the region between Ypres and Houplines reveals dozens of pools of water, splatted randomly across the landscape. Some stand out as large and round, while others are small in circumference. Perhaps they are not so arbitrary, but exist through design, like the sporadic appearance of blue paint dripped onto the canvas by the skilled hand of Jackson Pollock. While it is impossible to know with certainty from a map, the shaping of at least some of these watermarks suggests unnatural origins.
As one drives or walks about the area, on the ground these watering holes look innocent enough: a pond for fishing perhaps or for catching eel, a watering hole for livestock, or an enviable puddle where children can’t but help attempt to leap over or to stamp their feet inside. Who doesn’t enjoy splashing water high into the air and trying to wet friends passing by? The idea of a hidden pond surrounded by tall grass and oak trees, knowing that unlike Australia there are no snakes or crocodiles or other guests waiting to bite or eat us, is an opportunity too tranquil to miss; either to dive into the waters or simply to lay down by the water’s edge and lap up the beautiful scenery.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.”
These water holes may well be idyllic places today, but they are not meadows and woodlands for holidaymakers or a romantic afternoon out of town. These puddles were made by man shelling hell into fellow man. The ponds are not habitats for fish but buried beneath are the skeletal remains of thousands of human beings, whose bodies were smashed and often disintegrated by mines laid deep under German trenches. These are not quiet waters, but the “valley of the shadow of death.”
During our visit to the area, we pulled over the car and climbed a small embankment to view the Ultimo Crater, one of 19 mines that were detonated at 3:10am on July 7th, 1917. These explosions signalled a massive attack on the German lines and with the deadly intent of killing any life living above or below ground. The mines were so successful (if success is a suitable word to describe the ensuing carnage) that concrete bunkers were hurled into the sky and upended, and the few surviving Germans paralysed by shock. Imagine a company of men resting, sleeping, inside their bunkers and with sentries alert outside, when without warning and within a millisecond the earth erupts with such force that thousands of tonnes of soil lurches tens of metres into the air and flesh and bone is pulverised. One instant there is mass life, and the next, nothing remains. Eyewitnesses described the sight as “pillars of fire”. Not one, but nineteen gigantic fireballs illuminating the ground in front. The force of these explosions was so immense that buildings in London shook and scientists in Lille believed that France had been struck by an earthquake. It was the largest human made noise ever created, until Hiroshima in 1945.
The British Major General, Charles Harrington, had spoken with reporters on the day before the attack and alerted them to this monument of human striving,” Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow,” he said. “But we shall certainly alter the geography.”
Indeed, a century later the ground remains disfigured by these acts of human violence. Some of the mines have been covered and returned to farmland, while others are permanent fixtures in the landscape. Alongside the nineteen craters are many more holes in the ground, smaller in diameter, and splattered about like a golf course made for Thracian Gigantes. No one knows how many soldiers were injured, lamed, and killed in the now quiet sector of the Western Front. Historical records reveal that the majority of casualties came from artillery fire, rather than by machine gun, rifle or bayonet. It is a tragedy of warfare that we can step in ignorance of where once lay the body of a fellow human, fighting to preserve a way of life that today we enjoy. Children may splash and jump, and animals lap at the water’s edge; beauty for horror, agony exchanged with fun.
There are also holes that lay under the ground. A subterranean war was waged as miners were recruited to dig miles of tunnels, deep beneath no man’s land and under key enemy positions. Men died as scaffolding collapsed and under falling earth or through flash flooding from the high water table across the land, and there was the occasional brief and brutal encounter when opposing tunnels ran into each other and men fought it out with spades and knives. Of the mines that were prepared for that July morning, six were never detonated, as the front lines had altered in the months leading up to the battle. One of these exploded in 1995 during a storm when lightning struck an electricity pylon that had been built over the site of one of the birdcage mines, unbeknown to workers. It is a reminder that the terrible war has not yet finished is work.
It is the paradox of the worldly situation. There is intense quiet today where ears once bled from the megaphonic reverberation of high explosives. Today there is an understated calm where one century ago there was fear, anxiety, and dread. Does time cover these experiences? Can a farmer’s hoe or decades of new woodland growth cast aside the bloody mess of war? Is time passing suffice to forget and to move on? Or should the scars remain until the end of time, as long forgotten and hidden memories to be retraced only by a few?
Fourth Movement: A lonely cemetery
The cello is an instrument for loners. One might immediately retort, what about the orchestra or a chamber group? While this is true, such arrangements are corollary to the cello’s design. It is the scene for a single chair, room for one, and with a sound of solitude, voice for the forlorn. A dark timbre emerges as the bow leans across the strings and fingers move over the bridge, with gentle yet earnest intent. The resonance that rings from the wooden frame is beautiful as it is haunting. It is as deep and clarion as a chamber inside a cavern. There is a ghost like quality, an individual lost in a wood, yearning to find solace, and striving through the melodic line to find peace and resolution.
Surrounded by the trees, almost hidden by its isolated corner in Plugstreet Wood is one of the smallest cemeteries of the entire Western Front. It is without grandeur and fame. There are no broad driveways leading up to the cemetery nor any gigantic monuments that can be seen at a distance. The cemetery is typically meticulously kept, grass cut with precision around each marble marker. Few people however ever visit the Toronto Avenue Cemetery for it is tucked away and out of sight. The cemetery has only one entrance, and that is at the end of a single dirt track that winds its way around the wood. It is too narrow for a vehicle; only walkers stumble across this garden of death, either by accident or because they are in search of relatives who are among the dead named by the graves.
Toronto Avenue Cemetery is the site for seventy-six known graves of soldiers from the Great War. All seventy-six were members of the AIF who fought and died in June 1917 during the Battle of Messines. Among the fallen are several members of the 35th Battalion. The sight of these graves drag history out of the distant past and into an eerie present. These tombstones name men who fought alongside William Campbell, and perhaps even knew him. He had advanced across no man’s land with them on June 7th 1917 towards enemy positions, to the tune of screaming shells and the rhythm of German machine guns. They had run together, walked together, ducked and covered, weaved and dodged and then cut down the enemy with rifle and bayonet. They pushed Germans regiments into retreat while hundreds more laid down their arms and surrendered. Yet despite the full exertion of human effort, mates and comrades fell aside, to lay dead or dying in the churned up ground in front of the Messines ridgeline.
Their dying cries harmonised with the cacophony of war: screams, groans, a final sigh. But in the rush of the assault could anyone single out this sound? Could a mate pause his advance to bend over and acknowledge the dying utterances of his friend? How many simply fell, shot through the head or blown apart, offered no chance to farewell this world? Death is a lonely course. Whether a friend’s hand is there, present and ready, or no one notices the moment of your passing, the entry into Hades is solo.
Today, laying under Flanders soil and beneath those famous trees of Plugstreet, are the remains of human beings killed by the music of war. On their tombstone is inscribed their serial number, rank, name, battalion and date of death. We read their names, unaware of their final acts, words, or thoughts.
We might say of these diggers that they are today saluted by grateful Australians and French alike. Certainly, their names are forever written in stone but do we know them? Do we recognise their faces? To most Australians, they are long forgotten, except for this secluded inscription, plus any that can be found on one of the thousands of war memorials located in Australia’s suburbs and towns. How many of those who fought can we recall today by name? The word Messines is remembered because of the magnitude of the 19 mines which exploded that July day and for General Monash who orchestrated this first Allied Victory of the First World War, but otherwise we recognise very few of all the thousands who combined to create this feat of human gore and achievement.
To the naturalist, immortalising the dead is a paradox of terms. The dead remain dead, all that they were is carried with them into Sheol. As our bodily remains are consumed by the earth, digested by worms and feasted upon by bacteria and all manner of microorganisms, do we cease to exist? Does all but a disconnected name survive? Do the dead survive in any meaningful way other than as a tombstone? Or perhaps remain only in a photograph or signed letter that is now encased in glass in a war museum or all but forgotten in a desk drawer with other paraphernalia of previous familial generations?
Posterity sucks, except for those for whom through personal intelligence, strength, or luck, are counted among history’s famed or infamous. Not that men joined the AIF for the prospect of historical acclaim, well, this was an unlikely reason for the majority who enlisted. Accomplishment for most of us has little to do with gaining national recognition and much to do with familial embrace and personal realisation. We fight for personal satisfaction, to prove ourselves worthy of bravery. We fight to protect, out of moral duty and sometimes out of love for our brother.
Whether in obscurity or in Homeric glory, the singularity of death is a common ailment. That is not to say that the purpose of death or the life once lived are irrelevant details; such things matter, for without them we lose grasp of meaning. Yet, in death all are equal. No matter their army, rank, or age, the ground does not differentiate. Whether their deeds were noted in dispatch or went unnoticed, whether receiving the unenviable award of the posthumous recitation or later dying in bed at an elderly age, there is no hierarchy in the grave.
Did the dying peer momentarily into the future and say, people, will remember my actions on this day? Did it cross their minds that their name would be etched into the annals of war, as though achieving a participation award? Or did they consider the possibility of life beyond the grave? Hopeful. Prayerful. Did their families back home upon hearing the impossible news, join the chorus in hoping, praying?
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18)
Fifth Movement: Christmas again
We spent Christmas in Lille, warm and well fed. We roasted a duck…make that two ducks, with an accompaniment of roasted vegetables and gravy, and finished off with a traditional French Christmas log, filled with chocolate, raspberries, and cream (make that two logs!). With the element of surprise that cold and wet bring to a winter’s day, the weather in northern France wasn’t enticing anyone outdoors on Christmas morn. We did venture for a short walk around local parkland, but otherwise, we enjoyed the interior of a comfortable French home, situated one street behind the home where Charles de Gaulle was born. Only twenty km to the west, although 102 years earlier, my Great Grandfather experienced a very different Christmas.
His Christmas in 1916 was without the warmth of indoors and the sumptuous meal that we ate. At best, his company received the welcome, “you are relieved from the front line” and could spend the day under shelter in the rubble that was then Houplines, eating tinned food and perhaps a bottle of some kind of alcohol to warm their bodies and spirits. The months passed, and soon it was summer 1917. It was during one June morning that William Campbell revisited one of the most famous Christmases of all. Two years earlier in 1914, the war had begun with the aggression of Titans in a boxing ring. The first round was swiftly won by the Germans as they launched their long awaited strategic plan, known as the Schlieffen plan. It however soon lost power due to toughening resistance and a string of mistakes in the machine that was the German military hierarchy. The opposing sides started to dig into the earth, and wait. The trench system quickly took shape, an engineering feat that weaved 1500kms from the North Sea to the French Alps. Armies too exhausted to fight another major engagement, took to small raids, sniping, hurling bombs, and more than anything, just trying to survive.
On that first Christmas Eve of the war, in 1914, something extraordinary occurred. There were thousands of witnesses but no one knows who went first and who was second. During the evening, along a line of trenches in the southern portion of the Ypres salient, the sound of “Stille Nacht”, floated across no man’s land.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Something stirred in the hearts of the British soldiers; a commonality was uncovered, the Christmas story. Instead of gunfire, the troops exchanged Carols and each side applauded the other’s rendition. The British launched with The First Nowell, and the Germans replied with O Tannenbaum. Come morning with a heavy dew descending, no one planned a temporary truce, no orders came down the chain of command to celebrate the birth of the world’s Saviour. Someone or someones crept out of the trenches and greeted the enemy in the middle. Others soon joined on that bogged ground and soldiers began exchanging small gifts of cigarettes, chocolate and a little rum or cognac. A soccer ball was kicked onto the field, and one of the most memorable football matches ever played took place on Christmas Day between Germany and England. Of course, the final result remains hotly disputed, but for a few hours the war paused and foes became sportsmen, not killing but weaving a ball around opponents toward two goal posts that were stuck into the mud.
The field today doesn’t look much like a place for sport. Then again, neither did it in 1914. While the ground is soggy and uneven, in 1914 it was filled with shell holes, barbed wire, unexploded bombs, and human body parts. War is an ironic and awfully sardonic affair. “Silent night” hovered over a battlefield. The message of “peace on earth” found a temporary home on that violent soil of Flanders.
The unofficial Christmas armistice lasted for one day, although along some other sectors of the Front, troops were reluctant to fire their weapons for several days. It required officers to threaten their men with disciplinary action, should they not repent of fraternising with the enemy. A snippet of grace amid continual bloodletting. A single day of peace during four years of unspeakable suffering. But like the sudden clock alarm that arrests a serene night’s sleep, peace evaporated with the inevitable although probably reluctant, first shot fired.
This famous soccer pitch can be visited today, as we did two days before Christmas in 2018. Two markers note what took place on the field. One is located on the very edge of the ground, placed by the khaki chums, and across the road, UEFA unveiled a humble yet befitting memorial on the centenary of that game with a modest sculpture, and laying in front is a box filled with soccer balls of all colours, although now fading with the seasons. Standing behind is a fir tree decorated for Christmas.
What makes this field pertinent for Campbell history is that this is where the 35th Battalion ascended on the morning of the battle of Messines. That morning when the whistles blew, it wasn’t to start a football match, but to announce the launch of an attack; what General Monash referred to as his Magnus Opus.
The three brigades (of which the 35th Battalion belonged to the 9th Brigade) of the 3rd Division streamed out of Plugstreet wood from the Northern Eastern corner along a three mile front, headed toward Messines ridge. There were no soccer balls being kicked along the field that day, only the deadly game of war. In the moments leading up to the shrilled whistle, the clamouring of bodies up ladders, rifles hitting the woodwork and bayonets knocking tin helmets, and the roar of 800 voices crying war chants and inaudible yells of enthusiasm and also fear, it is often said that there was a resigned silence as men said a final prayer, finished a hurried letter back home or clasped their head in their hands to contemplate the unknown. There was little time for quiet in the moments before battle, for they had hurried to the launching places on the wood’s edge. Then the blasts of the mines had been so immense that even the Allies looked on with terror at the sight.
William Campbell was one of thousands who trod the same ground where the Christmas truce had been made. How different were the circumstances of that day. I guess war is like a team sport in some ways. A captain is leading his team, there are strategists sitting safely away from the pitch, and medics waiting to be called upon. William Campbell was a member of the team. It is a good thing that today we resign ourselves to being bloodied on sporting fields, for the real thing is far too terrible. Imagine fielding 11 players and only 5 returning at the end of the day. Imagine a footy team sending out their best 18 and leaving 10 on the ground, their bodies contorted, limbs blown apart.
The battle would live up to the name given by Monash, for it was the first major victory for the British in the First World War. After two years of war, and with millions of casualties already suffered, they achieved a strategic success, and with the Aussies at the vanguard. Germany had won the first two sets of the match, and now the British had won their first set. There was however a very long way to go before anyone would be declared the victor.
Messines was a famous victory, and my Great Grandfather was part of it. We know the path he trod but we have no record of his precise involvement. We cannot be sure how he reacted to the day’s closure. Was it triumph and joy? Was it desperate tiredness and relief? Standing on this soil a century later I asked myself a hundred questions, trying to catch a moment of what he may have felt while knowing that the task is an impossible one. There is peculiar familiarity in the foreign place, knowing that you are a descendant of a soldier who once fought and bled on that soil. One thing was certain, I felt pride. This is perhaps anathema for many today, but I am not ashamed to know that he may have levelled his rifle at another human being and perhaps pulled the trigger. It is not naive hubris or a pro-war posture but satisfaction knowing that he participated in this moment of history, despite the extreme terror and danger, doing his duty.
This Flanders field speaks of the peace that we too readily assume today. It came at great cost. Is there ever peace without blood? War may be unjust, but so also is the enslavement of people to totalitarian ideologue and dehumanising ethnic minorities and robbing the poor and rich alike. It was choosing between Scylla and Charybdis, an Odyssean conundrum that was far from mythical.
Peace, even with the strongest of intent, eludes many generations. And when war is avoided between States there is often conflict within a bordered land. In addition, there is the proliferation of all manner of domestic disputes, harms, and abuses, inflicted by neighbour upon neighbour and family member on family. Ego is an obstinate creature, and when accompanied by economic prosperity, manpower, industrial strength, and opportunity, it has Nebuchadnezzar like power. The motivation for war is not always power, whether it is the power to protect or increase economic, political, or cultural influence. Most often war is about power, but sometimes the provocation is pure hate: the Armenian genocide, the mass slaughter of Jews, Gypsies and other racial minorities in 1937-45, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia, Northern Iraq, and countless places around the world both yesterday and today. Humanity is capable of extreme evil on a mass scale. What is the human response to such villainy? It is often the case that standing by and doing nothing will not end the obscene and damnable.
The history of the world is a violent one. Australia has participated in more wars over the past 120 years than almost any other nation on earth. Not only that, as a faithful ally, Australia has been faster to declare war than most other independent States, whether it be the two world wars, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. Australians found themselves at war for 26 years in the 20th Century, that is 1 year in every 4. In the 21st Century, the percentage is even higher, with our troops being involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making up almost the entirety of the 19 years that have so far completed their course.
We noticed screwpickets in some fields that we passed. The screwpicket was a German invention from later in the war, that made laying barb wire a more time efficient task. Local farmers have since taken these and used them to build their own fencing. I am reminded of the Biblical prophets who foretold a day when,
“He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.”
Such a day looks to be a distant horizon, a desperately appealing vision that is currently beyond the grasp of the human condition. Let us not forget the inevitable shortcoming of that Christmas truce. The largest human made destructive noise that had ever been heard was only 18 months away, and its seed was about to be planted as miners were soon digging under the earth. Only the blind optimist believes that global conflict is a thing of the past. Did not the events of 1914-17 serve as a catalyst to the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism? Did not the Great War create the political strife in much of Europe and especially Germany which seeded fascism and the rise of Nazism which birthed another world war even more bloody than the first? Did 1945 institute an era of global peace or what became known as the Cold war? This fridge like condition was ‘chilled’ alright, except for the tens of millions caught behind the Iron Curtain, and the millions who lived and died in China, Korea, and Vietnam. Today are we not reaping the judgements of previous mistakes and evils, and are we not making them anew and passing them onto our children? It is the very arrogance of human sufficiency and moral compassing that will, again and again, create monstrous bloodshed.
My Great Grandfather was one of a thousand who that day trod over the famed Christmas soccer ground. At the time, knowledge of that famous truce seemed irrelevant, even irreverent to the bloody task set before them. And yet, was this not the end goal, the match point to which the armies were leading? The final victory, not only of defeating a foe but instituting a new, longer and deeper peace. A century later, as my family and I overlooked this field of sport and battle, the question remains, when will this world be healed of its suffering and death and violent recourse? Who can heal the human heart, to wrench us free from such unworthy hate and replace this stone with flesh and spirit? A day without monuments and when memorials are no longer required to remind us for every thought of violence has permanently dissipated into the earth, never again to be taken up.
Movement 6 – Villers-Bretonneux
The first months of 1918 saw protests in Germany and even riots. The population had grown weary of the war and the hunger and destitution inflicted on the home front as a result of this never-ending conflict. The Austrians were also starving and bankruptcy was only a matter of weeks away. In the Middle East, the Turkish armies were in continual retreat, with British, Australian and New Zealand, and Arab armies winning victory after victory. Bulgaria was capitulating and would be the first of the Axis power to exit the war. Things were getting desperate, but the view among the Allied powers was not necessarily flying high with certainty. This war was a bout between a crocodile and a great white shark, with the constant thrashing of these muscular beasts churning the water, making visibility at times impossible.
In March 1918, Amiens became the target of Germany’s last ditch effort to win the war. The Kaiserschlacht (‘Kaisar’s battle’) was the plan of General Ludendorff, and it centred on smashing through the allied lines along the Somme river, capturing Amiens and beating the British into surrender. The tiniest of windows had opened following Russia’s withdrawal from the war to battle its own Revolution. This released 100,000s of troops from the Eastern Front, for use in France. There was though a suicidal urgency underpinning the offensive because the Germans were overall running out of manpower and equipment, and the Americans who had entered the war in 1917, were now beginning to pour into France in their 10,000s. If the Germans could win a decisive battle against the British, then just perhaps the French would also sue for peace and finally give the German people their long eluded victory.
Four operations together formed this last motion to push the Allies into capitulation. Each was given a code name: Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck. Of these four attacks that were launched across France, the Michael offensive was the main thrust and it was aimed at Amiens. 65 German divisions accompanied by thousands of guns pushed forward with only 26 British Divisions standing in the way, including the Australian 3rd Division.
The offensive began on March 21st. On March 29th, German Divisions reached the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux. Standing between Amiens and the German divisions was this small French commune. Villers-Bretonneux was the “most important town in the war at the time”. The 35th Battalion took up a place on the line, 2800 yards in length, replacing an entire British Division that had previously controlled the sector. Depending on the strength of a battalion and that of a Division, a Battalion would consist of somewhere between 10-20% of the men making a Division. Already, they were outnumbered by the approaching Germans, whose vanguard consisted of stormtroopers (Germany’s elite shock troops, as opposed to the dudes wearing white helmets and armour in Stars Wars!).
The 35th was to defend an area to the east of Villers-Bretonneux, adjacent to the rail line that runs through the town from Reims to Amiens. Like Houplines, the terrain in the immediate vicinity is unimpressive. There are no distinguishing features in the landscape to admire. The ground does however turn in the north. Only two kilometres in that direction are hills which then lean into fertile and marshy valleys along the Somme River. One of these vantage points saw significant fighting during the second battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Today there is an Australian war memorial on the heights, commemorating those dark days of April 1918. The Monash war museum is there and now open to the public and there is a Commonwealth cemetery on the grounds, which includes the graves of those from the 35th who died during those assaults. Back in the town, we drove through the centre which only takes a couple of minutes, for Villers-Bretonneux is a small French commune. We went over a small bridge on the town’s outskirts that cuts across the train tracks. Today there are buildings on one side, a manufacturer of Asphalt, but otherwise, we looked across to where the battle was fought and saw farming fields that were lying dormant for the winter. There really is nothing to see. Shortly afterwards we turned back, pulling up at a service station to refuel the car, and then stopping at an Auchan supermarket (a French version of our Woolworths and Coles) to buy some groceries. Our activity was quite surreal in its ordinariness. Sighting seeing, filling a petrol tank and buying food within metres of where my Great Grandfather was fighting for his life and the lives of the men around him. Unlike Houplines, this was a critical junction, upon which lay the outcome of the war.
Villers-Bretonneux could easily have become France’s Thermopylae, a few Spartans from Newcastle blocking the path of King Xerxes. Accordingly, the railway line served as the narrow gorge pass in northern Greece and the greens fields that teamed with thousands of charging grey figures were the coastal plains from which the mighty Persian army approached. The clamour of battle was not with spears, swords, and shields, and against Hoplite armour but with the roar of howitzers and guns. A single Lewis machine gun could fire 500-600 rounds per minute. Imagine five of these light and easily manoeuvrable guns sweeping a field in front of a position. How could a regiment dodge 3000 bullets per minute that were aimed at their legs and chests? Too often in that war oncoming troops did not survive this leaden hail. By this stage of the war, these light weapons only came into use when the barrage of the heavy guns hadn’t completed the task of killing and maiming. Following the cannon and then the machine gun, the very last gasp of defence was the rifle butt and the bayonet, which was to be used by the Aussies in their famed counter attack on Villers-Bretonneux later that month. This was a bloodied business.
As the wounded were carried from Villers-Bretonneux and toward the hospitals in and around Amiens, William Campbell moved forward. He was returning from a period in hospital himself, because of sickness. He had only been back in France for a few days before finding himself hurled into one of the most perilous moments of the war. There was little time to settle in and be reacquainted with his company or with the new surroundings that was Picardy. All available men were being rushed into the line in response to the growing emergency.
For the sake of historical accuracy and to somewhat blunt the vanity of some great storytelling traditions with their embellishments of the truth, I must note that William Campbell was not present for those pivotal days where the battle hung in the balance. He missed the initial and most ferocious of the attacks. Upon his return, he did find action, or rather it found him. I have no information to describe the ordeal of those days, but I do know that William Campbell only survived five days before being wounded in combat. In what is the finest statement on his war record, we read that he remained on duty despite his wounds.
During the course of the war, the 3rd Division suffered 6674 deaths, and over 24,000 wounded. As one attempts to assess the size of such human loss, these numbers do not account for all the other Australian Divisions. My Great Grandfather was but one among many.
Once again the imagination takes hold where history is silent. It is impossible to appreciate the sight of thousands of men teaming toward your position, intent on killing you and all the men around you. Consider the ferocity of armed men yelling war cries and profanities as they charged, with bombs hurtling overhead and a million pointed lead missiles searching for your body.
The day William Campbell entered the foray, Charles Bean also arrived. He said of the town,
“It was a shocking sight – every house seemed to have been hit”.
Was it courage or commitment to his brothers that caused my Great Grandfather to stand his ground despite his wounds? Was the fight so urgent that withdrawal could not be contemplated? Were his wounds not so serious that he could resist the temptation to fall back? By the end of the battle, the 3rd Division suffered 65% casualties, an enormous count, but Amiens was saved, and quite possibly the war. A few weeks later the Germans would drive forward for the final time and take the town, but only for a short few days because the Australians drove them back like a wild herd of buffalo in the outback, and thus blunted the Michael offensive for good.
Today, Villers-Bretonneux appears more dinky di than many parts of Australia. There are streets named after Melbourne and Victoria, restaurants with Aussie names and a gymnasium called the ‘Koala Club’. There is a school, L’Ecole Victoria, which has a sign displayed on the outside of its building, “Do not forget Australia”. The people of Villers have not forgotten the sacrifice made by so many young Australians in 1918. Their blood has mingled with the conscience and thanks of a town to this day. They have not derided the cost born to our nation in order to keep them free. Distance can sometimes veil our appreciation of such circumstances. We are often too removed from place and time to understand the significance of history’s moments. We throw stones at what we do not see nor comprehend. We toss around predictions based on assumptions and moral inclinations, not permitting the possibility that we are not omnipotent.
Despite all the wretched business of making battle, this was an astonishing time to be alive. Villers-Bretonneux was one of the great struggles of the war, upon which hung the future of Europe. This wrestling match of humankind took place in a part of the world dotted with medieval towns and picturesque villages, and the meandering Somme river with Poplars lining its bank is a beautiful sight. Manfred von Richthofen and his flying circus flew in the skies above, and the ‘Yanks were coming’. There is no glory in war and yet glory is uncovered. There is no good in war and yet good was done. Men showed the greatest love for fellow man. Men acquired skills and passed on knowledge that was gained. Millions of separate interactions and decisions were enacted out of consideration for others and entire movements were constructed to not only defeat a foe but to institute a better freedom and security for the nations of the world (at least for those on the victor’s side). Empires fell and totalitarian regimes crumbled. New nations rose out of shell holes, and greater universal principles articulated. But of course, like all things, humanity is skilled at ruining the good.
The Germans never reached Amiens, having been twice defeated by the Australians and British. By the end of April, the German machine was broken. The war would last another seven months, and 100,000s more would die, but at last with the spring of 1918 hope budded. Although, William Campbell’s future was looking anything but sanguine.
Movement 7 – Confutatis maledictis
“what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4)
Amiens is a beautiful medieval city that follows a length of the Somme river, about 120kms south of Lille. Its impressive 13th Century Gothic cathedral dominates the skyline and can be seen 20kms away along with the eastern approach from Villers-Bretonneux. Even at a distance, this structure (which looks a little like a beached whale with a spire on top) is quite something to behold. We drove into the city at dusk, despite fading light the monumental cathedral stood proud, with the shadow descending upon her. Tradition has it that inside the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, the head of John the Baptist was placed, a trophy from the Crusades. In our visit, we didn’t uncover any bodiless heads or headless bodies. We did, however, sit outside on the floor of the Place Notre Dame, in the dark and cold, to watch a most spectacular light display. The crowds were distracted by the pantomime of another Christmas market; we were there to see a religion of lasers and lights. The kaleidoscopic choreography integrated the cathedral’s stone facade with astonishing colours and shapes that cascaded and floated, dissolved and emerged, creating an undefined journey. Just before the program finishes, the Cathedral appears like it’s been draped with Joseph’s technicolour dream coat, before turning an eerily blood red, with thousands of what to me looked like blood corpuscles running through a vein. Then again, perhaps I had the Great War on my mind.
Amiens was a strategic point in the war, not for its churches or canals, but for its railway. Capture Amiens and a major artery was cut off from the Allies, excising the British from the French, and blocking supply lines. It was also the route wounded soldiers took as they were sent to hospitals before finally being shipped to England, should they survive long enough. Monash commented on Amiens in the Spring of 1918, that it was “filled with refugees and war-torn, mud-splattered, excited and starved-looking troops of all kinds.” Like so many places we visited on the Western Front, there was a jarring disparity between what we saw and how these places appeared during the war.
William Campbell almost certainly passed through Amiens after he was wounded. He may not have known at the time, but his passage was not for return. This was his final journey through France. He wasn’t to die of his wounds, but perhaps something precarious was waiting. It is difficult to say, for what is worse, death or shame, to end in the grave or to be marked for life? It would be too awful to suggest the former, and yet shame is like an unwanted tattoo; no matter what you do to try and scrub away its memory, it is the regular reminder of yesterday, for all to see.
It is probably time to share some hard truths about William Campbell. All that I have written about his war experiences is true. He did spend time in the front line, he did fight at Messines and he did experience many of war’s horrors. He survived a gas attack and he was wounded in battle, but William Campbell’s war was not the making of movies or memoirs. Nor was his information (if it was known publicly) welcome at Anzac Day marches and drinks afterwards at the pub. The reality is, he spent less time at the front than many of the 35th who survived the war. Part of the reason was sickness. He was hospitalised with illness on several occasions, which resulted in him being separated from his company for weeks at a time. The problem wasn’t sickness but that he often (not always) followed his hospital stays with going AWOL. And it’s not as though his was a quick night away, his army record suggests more than that. I suspect, from the little I have discerned the historical records, that his disappearing acts were more than a wave of the celebrated Aussie larrikinism that made the diggers a face of humorous anti-authoritarianism during the war. One reason for this unamiable conclusion is the frequency of times in which William Campbell was absent without leave and the seriousness of the charges that were addressed on at least two of the occasions.
What caused him to act so carelessly? It is one thing to disappear for a night away out of desperation for quiet or distraction, but to make a decision that resulted in leaving your mates to fight without you? To be fair, he didn’t abandon his post when on the frontline, but he did, however, take advantage of the time when he was away from the front. And yet, how can one settle on a course that could mean abandoning your own? It is this knowledge that disappoints and etches a small scar on the name Campbell. Loyalty is a little spoken about virtue in today’s Western societies and yet building community is an impossible task without it. It is difficult to work, to play, and to fight without trust built into the web of relationships and without the belief that you are supported by and are supporting those around you. It is his lack of loyalty (as seems to be the case), that makes this realisation uncomfortable. Of course, I don’t know the reasons behind this habit. We are not privy to his state of mind. Was he a sickly figure who found army life more than he could cope with? Were his hiatuses a sign of youthful immaturity or thoughtless pursuits? Did fear overcome him? Did his own experiences of the front hit him for a psychological six? None of the evidence, as limited as it is, quite fits any of these scenarios. The unfortunate fact is that we simply do not know. Second-guessing other peoples motives is at the best of times like a blind man leading another blind man through the outback on a blind and legless camel. Therefore, one wants to offer a sympathetic note, at least recognising the possibility of an explanation.
Whatever the rationale that attempts to explain his actions, William Campbell was no Ajax or Achilles. He was awarded no bravery medals and never mentioned in despatches. It is a strange reminder that the determinator of immortality are those who record names, places and deeds. Our history books remember feats of bravery. Our war memorials recognise the dead although we don’t know with certainty how they all died. There is a certain reading in between the lines that is required. We have adopted Thucydides’ posture, “For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.”
His words are a truism, a noble yet simplistic memorial. Yet, without casting aspersions? on the memory of our war dead, did all fall valiantly or were some killed as they fled the field or as they cowered in a hole, hoping to escape harm? They are honoured and the very human circumstances of their deaths often looked over and forgotten. They died in the Great War, and for that, we give thanks and details that don’t follow the script are left alone. We can erase the uncomfortable facts of history, but it is rarely to our benefit. We are not required to applaud the past and neither is it necessary to refuse its pain and embarrassment. My Great Grandfather’s war record could be read through a sympathetic lens, but why should he be excused? The fact is that his absences had ramifications for the men in his company. He was not always with them when duty and mateship called. Where men lived together, served one another, and fought side by side as brothers, it is difficult to defend his conduct. War doesn’t offer the benefit of the doubt.
Not everyone is a hero. Not every failing is villainy. Some men, many men, most men are not as herculaic as self-belief would convince. Did William Campbell possess any degree of pluck or fortitude? With Messines and Villers-Bretonneux to his name, there must have been some resolve common to the average digger. Was he persuaded forward by the momentum of mates around him or by sheer determination to not let fear take him captive? Did he find in those moments the will to fight and move forward with reckless gallantry? Once again, we may ask but answers elude us..
“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it” (Thucydides).
Perhaps Thucydides is right, in fact, I’m sure he is., and Yet I doubt if he explains the totality of all acts of bravery. Yes, the First World War gave a million examples of such courage. It must also be said that sometimes it was innocent confidence that led men over the top, rather than guts or grit. When officers assured their men that a heavy bombardment had destroyed all enemy emplacements, soldiers naively believed the promise, until they were mowed down by machine gunfire. Bravery also makes use of different motivations: anger, love, frustration, the in-the-moment action spurred by desperation or by friendship, or the choice of following the perilous yet better of two unspeakable options. Of course, it is easy to theorise the array of possibilities from a warm and safe car driving toward Ypres in 2018.
My Great Grandfather missed Passchendaele in 1917 where his Battalion suffered 80% casualties. Only 90 men survived unscathed from the 509 who entered that battle. He also avoided the war’s final death struggles of Amiens, Albert, and Mont St. Quentin. His offences quite possibly saved his life, but not his reputation. Many years later he and his wife, and even a local return servicemen’s club would request to have his service medallions sent to him. Each time he was refused. “Automatically forfeited”was the official reply.
William Campbell returned to Australia in 1920, and like his war, details of his life are sketchy. I do know that he had a son born just before the war who saw active service in the Second World War. The son, James Campbell and his wife Mona had five children, the second eldest being my Dad.
Until a few years ago I never knew that my Great Grandfather fought in the First World War. I have since discovered that I had other ancestors who were involved, although their stories are yet to be uncovered. We do not choose our history, nor our ancestry or even our parents. We should accept the past, recognising that our understanding is partial though, acknowledging the good, the foolish, and the iniquitous.
The Biblical reference that I returned to again and again during this short visit to the Western Front, is from Psalm 8,
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?”
Such inexplicable worth and wonder!. Consider Vermeer’s ‘girl with a pearl earring.’ It is a portrait of stunning beauty, and almost impossible to evaluate with the dollar. And yet, surely the woman herself is of greater value than the painting? Or consider that famous photograph of the young girl on the road in Vietnam, fleeing the napalm and her screaming from the burns on her body. It is one of the iconic images of the 20th Century and brought fame to Nick Ut who snapped this graphic photograph. Surely, that innocent girl is worthy of greater attention than this image? The point is that the care and price we attach to such famed pictures are at best an aid to telling the story of real human beings who are each of inestimable worth.
“You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.”
Such responsibility went asunder. In all creation, of all the billions and billions of creatures that fill the earth and swim in the oceans and caress the skies, we humans are rulers and carers, and we are also abusers. We are much like Tybalt and Romeo, two young men whose egos with a rush of rhetorical obstinacy led to an escalation of events.
Well, peace be with you, sir. Here comes my man.
But I’ll be hanged, sir, if he wear your livery
Marry, go before to field, he’ll be your follower;
Your worship, in that sense, may call him ‘man.’
Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.
Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting. Villain am I none.
Therefore farewell; I see thou knowest me not.
Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw.
I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love.
And so, good Capulet — which name I tender
As dearly as my own — be satisfied.
O calm, dishonorable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.”
The paradox of the human condition bewilders such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and show kindness, and yet in our DNA are traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and in others, they explode into a public and violent confrontation. The First World War wasn’t human madness, it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction. This was a betrayal of Divine duty. I am not suggesting that this war was fought without any degree of moral integrity, for should we not defend the vulnerable? When an emerging global war sends signals of intent to its neighbours, to what point must we remain on the sideline and permit bullying and harassment? At what juncture do allies speak up as a buttress for justice but do not support words with deeds? How much politicising is mere virtual signalling?
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” (C.S. Lewis)
As I consider the events surrounding William Campbell’s war, the temptation is to conclude that lessons have been learned and today we move forward with inevitable evolution. While the superficial has progressed enormously, that is with scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs, and with cultures building bridges and better understanding differences. And yet, we mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided, it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors. We continue to postulate and protect all manner of ignominious attitudes and actions, but these are often sanctioned by popular demand and therefore excused.
The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis because doing so would be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow. Surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure that ails every past and future generation?
It does not take a prophet to understand that the world will once again serve as the canvas for a gigantic bloodstain. There will be wars and rumours of war. There will be small localised conflicts and globalisation will inevitably produce further large scale violence, perhaps outweighing the experiences of the first two world wars. We may see and even learn from the past, but we project a fools’ paradise when we envision the human capacity to finally overcome evil. Religion is often no better a repose than the honest diatribes of Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants. Religion, “in the name of God”, is often complicit with death making and at times it missing from the task of peacemaking, while other efforts are much like stacking sandbags against a flash flood.
Theologian Oliver O’ Donovan refers to the “nascent warrior culture” in the days of Israel, some fourteen Centuries before the coming of the Christ. This culture is no longer emerging but is now long tried and tested among the nations. Does war intrude upon peace? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that war is interrupted by periods of relative peace and at times by ugly appeasement. Soon enough another ideologue and another authority tests the socio-political temperature and attempts to scale the ethereal stairs of Babel.
The human predicament is perhaps a grotesque complement to the rising philosophical concerns of the late 19th Century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche began dismantling the imago dei with new and devastating honesty. Far from discovering superior freedoms, they justified authoritarian systems of Government and the mass sterilisation of ‘lesser’ human beings. To strip humanity of its origins is to leave us destitute and blind, but admitting this truth demands an epistemic and moral humility that few are willing to accept. Nietzsche was right, at least as far as his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,
“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”
If optimism seems out of place and if pessimism is a crushing and untenable alternative, where does the future lie? The lush green cemeteries of the Western Front with their gleaming white headstones convey a respectful and yet somewhat misleading definition of war. This halcyon scene covers over a land that was torn open and exposed the capacity of man to destroy. Perhaps, as a concession, the dead have received a quiet bed until the end of time, but the serenity of this sight mustn’t be misconstrued in any way to deify war or to minimise the sheer horror that befell so many. In part, we want to learn and so avoid repeating history, and yet history shouts to us a message that we don’t wish to accept.
There is an ancient wisdom that stands tall in the midst of time. There are words that demand closer inspection by those who are seeking to exegete the past and to consider an alternate tomorrow. Every step removed signals further hubris that we can ill afford, but epistemic humility and confession may well reorient toward the compass that offers peace instead of war, life instead of death, and love instead of hate.
“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Carlyon, Les. The Great War, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2006.
France, Anatole. The Works of Anatole France in English: The crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, London: The Bodley Head, 1923.
Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time”, in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, New York: Collier Books, 1980.
Another Australian cricket captain has been sent to the pavilion. Sandgate has been replaced with a sexting scandal. News reported this week that in 2017 Tim Paine sent lewd text messages to a female colleague. The following year Tim Paine took over Australia’s second most important job, following Steve Smith’s disgrace.
The reactions have been revealing. Almost everyone agrees that Tim Paine’s messages were wrong (in some sense), and certainly foolish. No doubt, this near-universal pronouncement is being made while many quietly put on an innocent face. The various criticisms of Paine and even the decision to stand down tell us something about sex and our culture: we no longer know what to think about sex.
One of the big questions concerns whether these text messages were mutually consensual or not. Some people are suggesting they were not, and it appears that the woman did make a complaint to Cricket Australia regarding what she says was an “unwelcome and unsolicited” photo of Paine’s genitalia.
Cricket Australia investigated the incidents back in 2018 and they exonerated Paine of any wrongdoing. Cricket Tasmania yesterday released a statement in which they state.
“The Cricket Tasmania Board reaffirmed its view that Paine should not have been put in a position where he felt the need to resign over an incident that was determined by an independent inquiry at the time to not be a breach of the code of conduct and was a consensual and private exchange that occurred between two mature adults and was not repeated.”
Obviously, I’m not privy to what really went on, and so I want to tread very carefully here and not allege what hasn’t been proven. Even if the messaging was consensual (as Cricket Tasmania have stated), we live at a time where women have found a voice and told us blokes that they are sick and tired of being used as sexual pawns rather than as human beings. Fair enough! Interestingly, what this tells us is that sex is more than consent. Mutual agreement isn’t adequate grounds for engaging in a sexual act, even where there is no physical contact. Tim Paine has stood down from the Captain’s role, not because he sent a woman (non) consensual pics of his privates, but for not treating a woman with the respect she deserves.
It’ll be no surprise that I think Tim Paine has done the wrong thing. Not only is there a question of consent, but why on earth did a married man think it was okay to send sexually explicit messages to a woman who is not his wife and who is also married? Paine’s wife is now having to relive the hurt caused by her husband. I suspect we all feel for her and instinctively know that she has been wronged by her husband.
But here lies the problem, these feelings of moral disgust and disappointment cut against the grain of our culture’s view of sex. Tim Paine isn’t guilty of breaking the rules of sex, he is guilty of following them.
It’s difficult enough to know all the rules for cricket, we certainly no longer understand the rules for sex. Indeed, the sexual revolution aimed at erasing all the rules, and so it shouldn’t us surprise that we find ourselves in this sea of ambiguity. We know there are boundaries. Even our instincts tell us that there is a moral line when it comes to sex but the problem is, for the last 60 years, that line has been repeatedly erased and redrawn, and even today the lines are only drawn in pencil.
Since the 1960s the culture has consciously derided traditional sexual ethics and has intentionally revised what we might describe as normative patterns for sexual behaviour. By law and belief, we decided that marriage is no longer intended for life. By inclination, medicine, and law, we determined that sex without babies is a moral right.
By way of an analogy, think of sex as a 4 legged chair. What we have done is effectively cut off 3 of the legs: covenant (marriage), telos/purpose (making babies), and fidelity. The only leg left standing is consent but that isn’t enough. As essential and nonnegotiable as consent is, it is not enough to sustain a healthy view of sex. To be sure, ethicists, activists and lawmakers are trying to fix the problem but the new sexual virtues are like match sticks; they can’t bear the weight that sex demands.
In his important book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman traces the rise of the expressive individual.
“The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children. One might regard this change as obnoxious, but it reflects the logic of expressive individualism in the sexualized world that is the progeny of the consummation of the Marx-Freud nuptials. . .”
“While sex may be presented today as little more than a recreational activity, sexuality is presented as that which lies at the very heart of what it means to be an authentic person.”
Along with consent, the new pillars for sexuality today are expressive individualism, celebration, and affirmation. Not only is someone free to determine their own sexual preferences and practices, we are to celebrate their choices and we are to affirm their choices. Disproval and disagreement with another person’s sexuality and practice is paramount to the greatest sin we can commit. Celebration and affirmation are now so incumbent on sexual ethics that school children are required to wear purply ribbons and rainbow ribbons, and to write essays agreeing with all manner of queer theory. Workers are forced to become ‘allies’, that is, if they wish to keep their job. And even Churches can no longer hold conversations with people about sex and gender, for it is illegal (as of February 2022) and offences may result in a hefty fine and even imprisonment.
In today’s Australia, infidelity is praised. If a man decides to divorce his wife because he now feels that he is a woman, he (or she) will be lauded for courage. Consideration for the wife and children is lost in the praise for this self-discovery. Casual sex remains a moral good, affirmed by every second Netflix show and let’s not get started with all those hotted-up dating shows on television. Running parallel are ‘serious’ articles explaining the benefits of ‘open relationships’, as did the ABC recently. Then take a look at what our kids are learning with sex-ed curriculums in our schools, where experimentation and living out your inner desires are validated signs of authenticity. It was only two months ago that I attend a meeting where three officials from the Victorian Government explained without equivocation that no person’s sexuality was broken, and suggesting so is morally unacceptable. I wonder, what they would call sending graphic messages to someone who isn’t your spouse?
We’ve been told a lie about sex. All the promises of sexual liberation and the breaking of norms isn’t producing safer and better sex. It’s breeding confusion, hurt, and shame. Even if Cricket Australia absolved Tim Paine of wrongdoing, even Tim Paine knew that his actions were wrong, as his own messages to the woman indicated. What is it about sex that demands more than consent and notions of being true to oneself? Ironically, in the pursuit for self realisation, rather than finding freedom, we are slowly turning society into some neo-puritan culture, where signed consent forms must be filled out and where we must undergo strict training to learn how to use a pronoun, and where Governments see an increasing need for new laws to protect us around sex.
The story around Tim Paine not only concerns his moral failing, but also the sentence he has received. He has been forced to resign from the most prestigious job in Australia. But you see, how does this public shaming and judgment square with what is continually lauded on tv and taught in our HR programs?
In what was an inane attack on the Federal Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, David Marr (who without reading the Bill) wrote a piece where he suggested society is improving and freer because of the diminishing influence of Christianity.
“Shame is the business of these churches. Shame and forgiveness. But first there has to be shame….The problem for the business model of the churches isn’t freedom of belief but the dwindling of shame. Not so long ago, shame was everywhere and so were the churches.”
But of course, the testimony of recent years suggests that the opposite is true. Tim Paine is but one example of an extended list of people who face execution in the secular space because of their sexual actions. In our sexular age, guilt, shame, and humiliation for wrongful deeds or perceived wrongful deeds, often leads to the loss of reputation and work and the church has nothing to do with it. I can’t remember a time where our society has been so enraged and unforgiving.
The new sexual zeitgeist can’t deliver on what it promises. On the one hand, our culture is demanding the celebration of all manner of sexual ‘idiosyncrasies’ let’s call them (or ‘sin’ as the Bible describes them), and yet there is an expectation that our leaders and respectables will adhere to norms that longer exist according to our cultural preachers. The situation is as farcical as the French revolutionaries crying ‘equality’ while bloodying the guillotine on all who oppose them.
Not only does a Christian view of sex hold more common sense than we are probably prepared to acknowledge, but churches are fast becoming the few places left in society where forgiveness can be found. I understand that churches have lost their voice partly because of our own wrongdoing. We all know the horrendous stories of priests and parishioners who’ve perpetrated or hidden incalculable evil. They are guilty, not of living out Christian teaching on sex, but of breaking it in the most horrific ways. They are not most churches.
The very core of Christianity is not a message of moral virtue, but one of Divine mercy for sinners. At the heart of Christianity is God’s message of undeserved forgiveness and reconciliation. The Gospel of Mark records an incident where the nation’s leaders were appalled by Jesus’ interactions with people who had been cancelled,
“ When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus’ words angered the cultural adjudicators of his day, and no doubt they will spiral people into fits of rage today. But the thing is, expressive individualism isn’t a road to freedom and happiness. Just like free-falling from a plane, it’s an amazing feeling for a while but at some point, you’re going to hit the ground.
After a 3 year DRS Review, Tim Paine has been given out. Even Tim Paine knew at the time he was doing the wrong, maybe not for breaking some code of conduct, but he failed to love his wife and he failed to respect the woman he was messaging. In a moment of honest evaluation, I suspect most of us know that we too should be given out. Whether that day comes sooner or later, our cancelling culture has little appetite for forgiveness and it’s hungry for shaming. Please remember, when that day comes for you, there is still one person where we turn, and his name is Jesus.
“fundamentalist is most often an epithet for those whose whose views on politics, theology, or church life seem more rigid than yours.” Thomas Kidd
In today’s Australia reasoned argument is optional. Presenting a point of view with gentleness and grace is seen as a liability. If you want to win over the public gallery, the key is to include as many trigger words as possible. Create a swell of anger or fear among your audience; that’s the choice pathway for getting your opinion heard today.
To be build a case that the current Treasurer of NSW, Dominic Perrottet, is unfit to serve as Premier, Dowrick throws out one of today’s shibboleths that’s used to identity the baddies in society: fundamentalist.
Not content to call out one fundie in Australian politics, Dowrick names Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, as another example of religious fundamentalism.
What is Perrottet’s sin? According to Rev Dr. Dowrick, he is “a highly conservative Catholic with views that represent the most extreme end of a rigidly male-dominated institutional church.”
Notice the plethora of descriptive words employed in just this one sentence: ‘highly’, ‘conservative’, ‘most extreme’, ‘rigid’. This approach becomes the hallmark of Dowrick argument; use as much emotionally charged language as possible to win over readers.
At one point Dowrick offers an explanation of what she means by fundamentalism,
“Fundamentalisms vary greatly. What they have in common, though, is a narrowness of conviction that cannot be challenged by logic, evidence or appeals to reason.”
“in its righteousness and self-righteousness around central questions of identity, sexuality, gender politics, minority rights and an unwavering conviction that this is the “one, true faith”, it is also far from mainstream 21st-century Christianity. And far from the progressive, vibrant Catholicism that flourishes in many parishes and among numerous laypeople active in social and environmental justice.”
If that’s the case, I assume Dowrick also believes Jesus is a fundamentalist. After all, Jesus defines all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman as immoral.
In summary, Dowrick’s fundamentalists are anyone who disagrees with her version of religion.
Dowrick admits that neither Perrottet or Morrison would describe themselves as ‘fundamentalists’, but that’s not going to stop her using the label. She even insists that fundamentalists have a “total lack of self-awareness”. It’s a classic example of a fallacious circular argument: You are what I say you are, regardless of whether you agree with me or not. Indeed, some might suggest that this is a version of fundamentalism!
When it comes down to it, Dowrick is simply using fundamentalist in a pejorative sense to describe Christians with whom she disagrees. It’s an insult. It’s a disparaging comment designed to undermine another person. As the theologian Thomas Kidd points out, “fundamentalist is most often an epithet for those whose whose views on politics, theology, or church life seem more rigid than yours.”
The word fundamentalist once referred to someone who upheld the fundamentals of a belief system. To be a fundamentalist was neither good or bad, it was a description of faithful adherence to one’s said belief system. For example, a fundamentalist was someone who consistently upholds believing the doctrines of the Christian faith, as opposed to a progressive who no longer believes but still wants to keep the name Christian for various cultural reasons.
In a recent article, Andrew Prideaux notes how in the 1950s English bishops referred to Billy Graham as a fundamentalist. They called out Graham’s version of Christianity as elevating “‘the penal doctrine of the atonement,’ ‘the call for conversion after evangelistic sermons,’ and ‘an individualistic doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s work which makes churchmanship and sacraments practically superfluous.”
This bishopric description of Graham’s beliefs is not extreme, it simply biblical Christianity, the same Christianity that has existed for 2,000 years and continues to be true today. It is this now popular reinvention of the word fundamental that Dowrick is implying.
It’s at this point that Dowrick tells a fib. She claims that progressive churches are the ones ‘flourishing’ in Australia today. That is simply untrue. Progressive churches, which is code for, we no longer believe the historic faith, are emptying. They may be popular among a segment of unbelieving Aussies and they may have clout at some institutional levels, but their churches were empty pre-Covid and will continue to be so afterward. The Christianity that is growing today are churches who hold to traditional beliefs (or what should be called biblical beliefs and practices) and are living them out with clarity, conviction, and love.
Thankfully others are calling out the article for what it is, a political hit piece. A number of journalists are also slamming it.
Chief reporter for The Age newspaper, Chip le Grand, said,
“The drips will lap it up but it is dispiriting to read this snide sectarianism. Imagine if we ridiculed Jewish or Muslim MPs like this?”
Another journalist tweeted,
“Let’s try this headline with a couple of other politicians.
“Meet Julia Gillard – the avowed atheist and childless woman about to take Australia’s top job.”
“Meet Josh Frydenberg – the Jew about to be Australia’s treasurer.”
Can’t see those headlines getting a run.”
From beginning to end there is no fire in Dowrick’s argument, just a very big smoke machine hired from Bunnings. The smoke is spread thick and is designed to cause readers to believe there is also a fire. Instead, lurking behind is little more than the classic authoritarian secularist argument wanting a religious test for public office.
According to Dowrick, both Dominic Perrottet and Scott Morrison are unfit for public office because their religious beliefs differ to hers. Since when is a person’s religious affiliation a qualification for public office?
There is no religious test for assuming public life Australia, and neither should there be. One of the virtues of a pluralistic and democratic society is that citizens from different backgrounds and holding various beliefs can be nominated for office, and should they be elected, they can stand in Parliament and even lead a Government. It’s called democracy.
Let’s not play the erroneous game that secular means ‘without religion’. Australian political and public life is not designed by law or ethos to limit religious ideas inside of church buildings. Australian secularism encourages a plurality of thought and conviction. True secularism simply means that the State is not controlled by any single religious group. Parliament is not a neutral space where only non religious views can be expressed.
As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology,
“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.
I don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to NSW politics. I don’t know Dominic Perrottet from a bar of soap. Neither am I here to defend Roman Catholicism or Pentecostalism. I disagree with both of these theological positions on a number of significant points. But we are not talking about a church appointment here or calling a lecturer to a theological college, where such distinctions are important. Does Australia really want to exclude from political life Aussies who hold to traditional forms of Christianity?
No doubt many would say yes. Today’s letters to the Editor are praising Dowrick. But let us understand, this is not a sign of a maturing and tolerant society, but one that is losing its moorings.
“Fundamentalist thinking is also highly divisive. The world consists of “us” – and the rest of you. High levels of conformity are demanded; to doubt, self-question, is unwelcome or forbidden.”
It sounds as though Dorwick may be guilty of the very thing she is accusing others of representing.
Given how Dowrick is attacking Christianity, I am again reminded of how Jesus was committed to his beliefs. His understanding of the world contradicted the prevailing mood of society at that time. With love and truth he served a people who didn’t tolerate him. It was Jesus’ convictions that led him to the cross. If there is a characteristic that defines fundamentalism (as commonly understood today) it is this, a lack of love.
I cannot comment on Perrottet’s and Morrison’s Christianity, for I don’t know these men. But throwing verbal insults at someone isn’t much of a way to progress serious conversation. And advocating for a religious means test for public office is a road Australia would do well to avoid.
Over the past week a letter has been promoted and circulated around many churches and religious organisations. The Ezekiel Declaration (“the Declaration”) is addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and outlines concerns over a potential “vaccine passport” that would be required for church attendance. The letter has now received 2000+ signatures of religious leaders from across Australia, and for that reason alone it is gaining much attention receiving quite a splash. For every signatory there are certainly many more Christian leaders who have not signed their names. Still, 2000+ names and the organisations that they represent is a significant number.
In some respects there are a number of clear core statements in the Declaration that we (David Ould and Murray Campbell) would want to support. We strongly agree that there is a serious question to be asked about “vaccine passports”, particularly when they impact upon church attendance. We are also in robust agreement with the authors of the Declaration that “conscience should never be coerced”.
Nevertheless, we have declined from adding our names and support to this manifesto. While we share some of the concerns raised in the Ezekiel Declaration, we are unable in good conscience to align ourselves with other aspects and the overall tone and content.
Our purpose here is to explain the reasons why we have not signed the Ezekiel Declaration and to also caution others from doing so. While we respect how some religious leaders have and will wish to affirm this document and continue to respect those leaders as individuals, we encourage people to think through the issues that we raise here before adding their endorsement to what we consider to be a confused and ultimately unhelpful document.
First, the tone of the letter is combative rather than cooperative.
Both the title and subtitle suggests a posture of hubris and even spiritual smugness: “The Ezekiel Declaration” and “Watchmen, it’s time to speak”.
Really? Are the authors claiming a prophetic word or preaching Divine judgment upon those who are drafting COVID policies? This level of rhetoric continues throughout the letter. For example, the authors refer to “medical apartheid” and “the dangerous precipice of a therapeutic totalitarianism”. This seems to be inflammatory language that does not accurately represent the current situation.
Straight away the letter therefore signals an ‘us versus them’ position; we the churches against a bullish and autocratic Government. At this point in time in Australia the situation is more akin to Daniel ch.1 than Daniel ch.6. We are appealing for a fair hearing before the Government, not open defiance with our lives being threatened for any dissent. We are seeking to persuade, not calling for civil disobedience.
We understand the issues at stake and we share concerns about any proposed vaccine passport, but from the outset the tone of the letter communicates an angry sermon rather than bridge building.
We will further address the theological implications of this title below but, for now, simply note that the Declaration takes on a combative approach.
We are also concerned that the Declaration is unnecessarily political. We are entirely convinced that there is a place for responsible engagement with political parties (at times working with them and at times challenging them) but a genuine danger in being seen to be overly partisan. The Declaration has already been leveraged by one political party for political purposes and this does nothing to allay fears that the Declaration is first and foremost a political document, and one that comes from a particular political position.
Second, the letter nowhere encourages people to be vaccinated and it fails to affirm the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines.
There is a single word that is accepting but not positive ofin favour of vaccinations, and even then it is partnered with a word of dissent,
While some individuals will receive the vaccination with thanks, others may have good and informed reasons for declining.
The Declaration does not define what these ‘good and informed reasons’ are. It then proceeds to misuse the words of the Federal Health Minister in February 2021 in support of refraining from being vaccinated.
One such reason [for declining vaccination] is highlighted in the statement of the health minister Greg Hunt:
“The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.”
One of the things that is absolutely fundamental to confidence is the belief in safety. And the essence of safety is a full and thorough assessment…that’s ultimately about making sure we have the maximum take-up in Australia, and above all else, safety, safety, safety. That’s our duty. But it also leads to confidence and take-up.
Hunt’s argument is not that the vaccine is unsafe. On the contrary, he is stating that the approval process for the vaccine is there to provide confidence in it; confidence in the face of the uncertainty that some feel – the same uncertainty that the Declaration promotes.
We see a similar failure to handle sources responsibly in the reference to a CDC study when discussing the efficacy of vaccines. The Declaration states, having referenced the study, “it is evident that vaccines do not prevent infection”. This is, at best, misguided language. Nobody claims that the vaccines prevent infection, simply that they greatly reduce the rate of infection and the negative outcomes from those infections. Further, the report that is linked in the Declaration to support this claim closes with these words,
While numerous studies have shown that the vaccines don’t work as well against the delta variant as they did against other strains, health officials say they are still highly effective, especially in protecting against severe illness and death. Roughly 97% of new hospitalizations and 99.5% of deaths in the U.S. are among unvaccinated individuals, U.S. health officials repeated this week.
The CDC also said the data has limitations. The agency noted that as population-level vaccination coverage increases, vaccinated persons are likely to represent a larger proportion of Covid cases. Additionally, asymptomatic breakthrough infections might be underrepresented because of detection bias, the agency said.
The CDC also said the report is “insufficient” to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the authorized vaccines against Covid, including the delta variant, during this outbreak.
Christian leaders have an obligation to quote people in context and to represent their position with fairness. Christian leaders also have a duty of care to listen to experts, convey accurate information, and to refer people to their local GP, rather than publicly undermine health advice. We have documented how at two critical points in its argument the Declaration does not do this.
We appreciate how some Australians are hesitant to take the vaccine at this point in time and are sympathetic towards them. Our intention isn’t to ‘force’ the conscience. We also understand and affirm that there are valid medical reasons why a limited number of Australians cannot use these vaccines. We also understand that as time progresses our understanding of COVID-19 and the best ways to fight against it will improve and at times perhaps change tack. Our concern here is how the Ezekiel Declaration offers no encouragement and no positive information about COVID-19 vaccines. At best this is disappointing, at worst this is knowingly misleading and may undercut people’s confidence in being vaccinated when it is actually the best decision for most of our population when the relative risks are properly assessed.
Finally, we note that it is now well-established that widespread vaccination is the single greatest accelerator for achieving an opening up of our communities and a more “normal” life, the very thing that the Declaration strives for.
Third, the arguments are a kaleidoscope of confusion, conflation, and misrepresentations.
We have already noted above some serious errors in the way the Declaration handles other material. More generally it seems to us that there is an unhelpful and unclear mixture of different arguments being made. Had the Declaration not contained much of this it would be more useful. Instead the authors have chosen to roll in additional arguments that do little to support their case, especially when (as we have shown) their arguments are based on poor use of external material.
One more example is helpful.
The authors spend much time addressing the issue of mental health. While this is pertinent to discussions surrounding the pandemic, including ongoing lockdowns, it isn’t directly relevant to the question of mandatory vaccine passports for churches. Our hearts ache for those who are overwhelmed and exhausted mentally and emotionally. As pastors we tend to congregation members who are suffering and struggling because of the pandemic. The growing strain is palpable and we too are concerned at the emotional, social, economic, and spiritual toll this is taking on millions of lives. We are pleased to see that politicians, doctors and the media are beginning to address these issues with increasing urgency. These factors, however, are separate from the question of vaccine passports and whether the government should introduce them and even mandate them for public worship services. To conflate them as the Declaration does is to confuse the argument.
The Declaration presents itself as a call against mandated vaccination for attendance at worship service. In reality it also attempts to argue against lockdowns and repeats discredited anti-vaccination arguments and does so with questionable use of source. By rolling in these two extra divisive issues in the manner that it does it presents a far less cohesive argument, let alone fails to garner comprehensive support amongst a wider Christian cohort.
Fourth, the list of signatories raises some concerns in a number of ways. We are uncomfortable signing our names to an alliance of ‘Christian leaders’ where the list includes members of a non-Christian sect and numerous ‘churches’ and other organisations that are considered fringe if not heterodox any other day of the week.
In addition we have been personally contacted by those who tell us their names have appeared as signatories on the Declaration without their action or consent. We have also had correspondence with those whose professional background includes the investigation of data integrity and they have raised concerns with some elements of the data as it is presented. None of this is to suggest in any way that the writers and promoters of the Declaration have deliberately falsified the signatories, yet there remain concerns about how some of the signatories have been recorded.
Fifth, instead of offering clear Gospel hope to our country, this letter creates suspicion and suggests that Christians are more interested in their own freedom rather than the common good.
At a time when Australia desperately needs to hear and see the beauty of God’s good news, this letter fails to deliver. Despite the closing language affirming the gospel, the message given is not one filled with grace and hope, but rather one of frustration, unbelief, and defiance which obscures and even contradicts the final gospel call.
Gospel and Biblical fidelity will always be a concern with any declaration made by Christian leaders but particularly one styling itself after the “watchman” of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33 we learn what the watchman’s role is:
Ezek. 33:1-6 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, 3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, 4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. 5 Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’
In the context of the writing of Ezekiel (the impending judgment of Judah under God’s hand by the means of Babylon) the watchman’s role is clear; he calls the people to repentance for their sin in the face of judgment (a judgement signalled as imminent by the blowing of a trumpet). In other words, it is the role of any gospel minister to warn of the coming judgement and urge people to find their refuge in Christ. This document does not do that. By using the title of “Ezekiel Declaration” it confuses that great eternal moment of decision with a lesser, albeit significant, matter before the churches. It frames the question of vaccine mandates in the churches (and more general questions around vaccination and lockdowns) as on a scale with the Babylonian invasion and destruction of God’s people. The immediate remedy it suggests is not the gospel of Jesus. The Declaration communicates a defiance of God-ordained authority rather than trusting submission of the Lord as we engage with a difficult moment in our common life. By using the language of the “watchman” it also labels those who do not agree as failed watchmen who have neglected their solemn duties as stewards of the gospel. We are firmly convinced there is a much higher threshold for this charge of abandoning the gospel than disagreement over the matters raised in the Declaration. It is deeply divisive.
Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration
There is a genuine issue relating to vaccine passports, both in general and specifically when tied to church attendance. We will be extremely concerned if Governments decide that religious organisations must mandate vaccination for attendees and participants in public worship services and other religious meetings. There may yet be a need to respectfully make our case and even courageously refuse to place a limit on who may gather together with the people of God. But we are not at the moment yet, nor has any such potential restriction even been announced. Our concern is that the Ezekiel Declaration neither provides a productive pattern by which opposition should happen if required nor increases the opportunity for productive engagement with Governments before then.
Finally a personal word. The two authors have come to publish this position with some hesitancy. We are both known, perhaps even notorious, for standing for gospel purity within our own denominations. That has sometimes come at personal cost. Nor have we been shy when it comes to public engagement with the authorities, be they media, governmental or other. Where necessary we have taken the opportunity to speak of Jesus in the public sphere especially when his word is not well-received. We respectfully do not believe that the charge of “selling out” or cowardice can be levelled against us. We are also acutely aware that many of those that we are effectively criticising here are our natural allies in many of these struggles, not to mention those that we are at times more comfortable with when it comes to political expression. One of us has spoken on your platforms and been featured in your websites. We have spoken plainly about “culture wars” and the like and will continue to do so. We are fellow evangelicals.
Despite this we felt the need to write. We ask that the above be received as it was intended, “wounds from a friend that can be trusted” (Prov. 27:6). We long for gospel unity with all our brethren and offer this letter in that spirit.
To the rest of our readers we ask you to consider whether adding your endorsement to the “Ezekiel Declaration” is the wisest choice at this moment in time or even if you ought to now ask for it to be removed. We believe that the Ezekiel Declaration is an unhelpful move, unnecessarily political, confused in its argumentation and ultimately divisive at a time when the church should be known for its united loyalty to Jesus and his gospel, expressed in an appropriate engagement with the world.
Ps. Murray Campbell, Lead Pastor Mentone Baptist Church, Melbourne.
Rev. David Ould, Senior Associate Minister St John’s Anglican Cathedral Parramatta.
Today, August 19th 2021, marks 200 days of lockdown in Melbourne since the pandemic began last year. Beginning March 30th 2020 there have been 200 days where 5 million residents have been forced to stay at home. Over these 18 months we have experienced weeks without lockdown, but those days have all been lived with tight restrictions.
The streets of Melbourne are deserted. Schoolyards are empty, apart from the occasional gust of wind that moves the leaves from one end to the other. Office buildings have become catacombs. Football grounds are empty of competition and of children chasing the footy.
What lessons will we learn through this once in a 100-year pandemic? What truths will resurface now that so many of our habits have stalled and excesses moved into lockdown?
As the months move sketchily forward, Australians are eager for a day of celebration; a national day of festivities to announce the end of the pandemic. Many Aussies are also skeptical and wonder if this day will be pushed further and further back as Government directed expectations change. I’m certainly keen for the day to arrive when we are assured of no more lockdowns and when we reach 80% of the population fully vaccinated. However, if we fast forward to rejoicing we are bypassing important lessons that can be uncovered now.
I am not one to dismiss momentary distractions that serve to alleviate the pandemic symptoms that we’re all facing. Thank God for some of these helpful diversions. We are not however acting wisely if we use these to cover over the widening crevices that are appearing in our society and in our own souls. We have a moment, dare I suggest, a God-given moment, to reevaluate the big questions of life.
Last year I proposed a series of life topics where the pandemic may impact. Among the suggestions was a question mark over the sexual revolution. Would COVID-19 cause the sexual revolution to slow down? At the time I wasn’t sure. What we have seen over the last 18 months is that moral progressivism hasn’t taken a back seat to the pandemic. Its course is deliberate and continues to drive through our culture in first gear. Far from applying brakes, the sexolution has navigated the roundabouts and traffic lights of this pandemic with great skill, ensuring that legislations continue unabated.
Victoria is the State that adopted legislation that may imprison Christians for speaking to or praying with a person about sexuality or gender.
On the one hand, our society speaks against the mistreatment of women, while on the other hand, Victoria is decriminalising sex work, as though this is a great emancipation moment.
In life there is time for play and pleasure. There is a time for rejoicing and celebration. There is also a time for mourning.
Last week a national campaign was given a megaphone in our newspapers. The aim was to increase unbelief in God just as Aussies participated in Census 2021. Dropping God became a national talking point, when instead we should be bowing our knees before our Maker and asking for his mercy.
Despite the mantra of “of all being in this together”, what we are witnessing is an awful lot of boasting, selfishness, political chest-beating and growing civil restlessness. The phrase “this is not a time for politics” has lost all meaning, that is, if it ever had any substance to start with. Far from being an empty phrase, it is sharpened into a political weapon for striking opponents and causing further division.
This hubris is shared by the left and right and everywhere in the middle. Imagine how much more unified and together we will be if this pandemic continues into 2022?!
Part of the problem is how our Aussie psyche demands happiness without repentance. We want success without humility. We want prosperity without generosity. What if the Australian dream is faulty? What if we are cheating ourselves of a better life because of a wrong posture we’ve assumed?
We are not very good at learning from history. For example, in the 6th Century BC the city of Jerusalem was laid waste. The population had progressed, or so they believed. They had moved on from many of their traditions and old ways of thinking. They didn’t remove belief in God as such, but they did manufacture new gods to support the sexual and economic policies they wanted normalised. And they deconstructed all those Scriptures that didn’t offer unwavering support to their new life pursuits.
As Jerusalem lay in ruins, the book of Lamentations was written. Lamentations is one of the most forgotten books of the Bible. Given the subject mater, one understands why. But perhaps our extraordinary situation requires us to open this difficult book. It is a distressing book to read given the account it retells of what went wrong and of the severe suffering that was left behind. The author of Lamentations speaks of people mocking those in distress and hardening their resolve against God. This expansive lament is honest in its recognition of human sin, the rightness of God, the despair accompanying the suffering, and the single source of hope:
Do we concur with these sentiment?
“The Lord is righteous,
yet I rebelled against his command. (1:18)
Can we speak words like these?
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:19-21, 29)
Can we conclude,
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” (3:22-24)
Understand, the Lamenter didn’t arrive at the place of hope without first lamenting his condition. Again, this is one of our regularly failings as Aussies. Instead of blaming God or excluding God, the writes takes responsibility. It is this requisite for humility that we have become accustomed to avoiding. Instead of learning, it appears that we Aussies prefer to hold onto this hubris, and that does not bode well for the future.
Learn from author of Lamentations. And listen to the book of James,
“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 5:9-10)
It must be said lest anyone reads into my words a meaning that’s not there: we cannot equate particular suffering with particular sin. God has not spoken a word about COVID 19. That means we should treat with extreme caution anyone who makes such assertions. We can however say that suffering in general is a sign of a world that’s cursed and fallen, and that these pains can serve as a loud call to understand our mortality and our need for a Saviour of Divine nature.
Neither does finding purpose in trials diminish s the very real suffering attached to plagues and other trials. The Apostle Peter could simultaneously speak of finding joy and suffering grief in the same event,
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).
Above all, remember Jesus who endured all manner of hardship, which not only characterises him as the understanding God, but this served for Him to our substitute . He is the Son of God who need never suffer and yet in love chose that path for us.
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:3-4)
Instead of discrediting this length period of pandemic, we could slow down a little and ponder the very questions we spend so much of life trying to avoid. You see, trials scratch away the surface and expose our deepest longings and fears and dreams. They also serve to teach us how we should not take for granted the many things we enjoy in life. Too often, our habit is to mistranslate our copious freedoms and pleasures and turn them into rights and demands as as though God owes us anything.
Charles Spurgeon was a man who was more than familiar with suffering. He offers this astute observation “Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.”
What are we learning about ourselves during COVID-19?
John Donne is one of the great poets of the English language. Donne lived through one of the many plagues that struck Europe over the centuries. Like so many living in the 17th Century, John Donne was familiar tragedy. 5 of his children died before the age of 10 and his wife died at a young age. As the city of London was again ravaged by disease, John Donne fell ill. He survived, but during each of the 23 days of sickness he wrote a meditation. Meditation 17 is the most famous. for these 2 lines,
“no man is an island”
“ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee.”
Each day the church bells of London rung out to announce the most recent deaths of Londoners. As Donne lay in his sick bed, not knowing whether it would become his death bed, he could hear the bells toll. He was not oblivious to this daily public cry, but rather in the sound he heard a gracious reminder.
“No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction…Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”
As we all look forward to the day when mass restrictions are behind us and when some semblance of normalcy returns, let’s not push aside the treasure found in this moment, the treasure grasped by John Donne and millions beside.
My wife & I just watched the interview Eddie Betts gave on Fox Sports about the latest examples of racism in the AFL.
I remember my daughter doing a school assignment on her favourite football player when she was 10. She chose Eddie Betts.
Being ardent Carlton supporters we were sad when Eddie moved to Adelaide and excited when he returned home to the mighty blues.
However we are not excited by persistent stories of racism in the AFL that reach the news. No doubt there are many more examples that don’t reach the ears of the media.
As we listened to Eddie Betts speak we were impressed by his graciousness and we heard the pain in his voice. He shared how he and his mother and father have been dealing with racism all their lives.
“It’s tiring. It hurts. It’s draining. It really hurts to be honest…”
“It’s been hard and I reckon I just need everyone to really go on a journey to start educating, to start those conversations.
It is difficult to listen to the interview without being moved by Eddie’s story.
The reason for typing these few words is because hear Eddie and I have a small voice in which I can say something publicly.
Firstly, I want to communicate to Eddie Betts and to other Indigenous footballers, you are right in not accepting racism. We want to stand with you in saying no to racism.
While I have never experienced racism, I know my wife’s family have; they were subjected to the White Australia Policy amongst other things. In my church are people who come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds; beautiful people, some who have experienced racism because of the colour of their skin or cultural background.
Second, as a Christian leader in Melbourne (who also follows the footy), I believe we ground the dignity of human beings in something substantial, something sublime, and yes, even of Divine intention. You see, racist slurs and behaviour is an egregious attack on God and his purposes. Let me explain.
The God whom I know and worship is the God who made the heavens and earth, and who made all humanity in his image.
It was out of this theological conviction that Martin Luther King cried,
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The Bible begins with this extraordinary notion that every human being bears the image of God and therefore has inherent dignity and worth. No race is greater or lesser than another; all have His print on us.
The Bible has more to say. The creator God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world because humanity was bent on throwing away the dignity of the imago dei. Humanity’s actions have resulted in the belittling of human life in a thousand different ways, including the abhorrent belief of racial inferiority.
This Jesus who was crucified and raised, and he now holds a message of redemption and reconciliation for the nations.
The Bible’s story ends with a vision of a new creation where God is at the centre and his world is filled with people from nation and language,
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)
I realise churches sometimes fail, but more often they do offer a little glimpse into this heavenly future. I thank God, that despite our own worts, Mentone Baptist is a community with people who come from all over world. This multi ethnic community is amazingly dynamic in unity and love.
Going back to Eddie Betts testimony on television, how can we despise or belittle an image bearer of God? How can we insult people for whom Christ died? How can we fight against the Divine plan to reconcile peoples from across the world in Christ?
Jesus once said this,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
The Bible also encourages us to ‘mourn with those who mourn’. So, while most of us may not understand what it’s like to be in Eddie Bett’s shoes, we can still stand beside him, and ask how we can help shoulder this burden. We can check our own hearts and we can speak up whenever we hear someone disparage another on account of their ethnicity.
Tuesday August 10th is Australia’s favourite night of the year. Every person will be in their house, flat, unit or caravan. Studiously we will open laptops or take out a pen and the journey will begin: Census 2021. Although, like myself you may be one of the millions who’ve jumped the gun and completed the form in advance.
Our local atheistic allies have been campaigning hard as though the Census is an election of some kind. The conversion plan is overtly evangelistic and with promises of life ending in nothingness to all who join them. In advance of victory, I can almost hear their voices warming up to sing another rendition of ‘Imagine’.
Monica Dux, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, tries to sway lapsed Catholics by reminding them of all the things they mustn’t like about Catholicism. She claims,
“In the upcoming census, religious affiliation is a category that will be closely watched, in part because participation in organised religion has declined so sharply, to the point that, in the 2016 census, the fastest growing belief was non-belief.”
Not so fast! ‘No religion’ is not a synonym for ‘non-belief’. ‘No religion’ is simply a junk draw for unbelievers, undecideds, spiritualists, and independents alike.
My advice is simple, just be honest.
Perhaps for Census 2026 we can add another box, “uptight atheist”.
There is however a major flaw with the question on religion. No, I’m not referring to the top of the page preference that’s given to ‘no religion’. The error is this, Christianity doesn’t appear as an option.
Instead, Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian, appear alongside Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism as though they are all different religions. As a friend noted, Pentecostalism doesn’t appear at all, even though there are more Pentecostal Christians in Australia than most of the denominations specified.
I’m all for learning about the breakdown of how many Aussies identify with all the different Christian denominations; that’s useful information for a pastor such as myself. But Baptists are not a different religion to Anglican or Presbyterian or the Uniting Church (well, there is case that this last one should be separated).
Let me illustrate,
It’s like the census asking this question, what sport do you play? Then the options given are the following;
It’s stupid! Carlton isn’t a sport, it’s a club that plays the same sport as Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda. It may be a legitimate question to find out who supports which AFL club, but that’s not the same question as ‘what sport do you play?’.
Will our Census counters combine the numbers from across the Christian denominations? If so, will they include or exclude in those numbers cult like groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons?
Before sociologists explain to us why Australia is no longer a Christian nation (by the way, the answer is, we never were and we are not meant to be), it’s kinda important to know how the solicited answers shape the question being asked. It’s also worth pointing out that in the last census only 60% of Australians answered the question on religion. So, just like a plebiscite, the answers have some value, but what the other 40% think and what Australian genuinely believe about religion remain a Census mystery.
The Census provides useful and interesting information about the people who make up our nation. The data provides Governments, Councils, and community organisations a window into the people around us. We learn interesting facts about how old we are and how much income we earn and what languages we speak at home.
The Australia Bureau of Statistics explains why there is a question on religion,
“A person’s religion is asked as part of a suite of questions on cultural diversity and has been collected since the first national Census in 1911. This is the only optional question on the Census. Information gathered is used by religious organisations and government agencies to plan service delivery and encompass religious practices within community services, such as education, hospitals and aged care facilities.”
This information also becomes political hay and ammunition agitating for future Government funding and policy making. One thing the Census is not, and that is a measure of the spiritual health and intelligence of our country.
There is merit in knowing how people formally identify with different faith groups. Indeed, the fact that this question remains is quite telling. However, I’m more interested in knowing how many Aussies are in fact attending and actively belonging to a Christian Church and what are their beliefs and struggles and joys. I’m interested in learning why other Aussies have dropped out of church and /or why they no longer believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m interested in learning about what is it about other religions that appeals to people. These questions are for more interesting and beneficial.