Peter FitzSimons doesn’t understand the Manly 7

The NRL is the latest promoter of inclusion to exclude people of faith. On Monday the Manly Sea Eagles unveiled their newest jersey, with the gay pride colours splashed across the front. 

I have little interest in the game of Rugby League, although I did live through the scrummage of Sydney for 4 years. When it comes to preferencing football codes, for me NRL ranks some below quidditch (sorry, I meant, quad ball!). Having said that, stories like the one coming out of Manly this week are happening across Australia in schools and workplaces, as well as in sports. This is simply the latest high-profile example of what is now going on in many pockets of societal life, work, and play. I regularly hear stories of children being urged and manipulated into wearing coloured ribbons and supporting organisations, and workplaces forcing special days and causes onto staff.

The 7 Manly players informed the club that they cannot wear the rainbow jersey on account of their religious beliefs. This isn’t a decision that they or any players should be forced to make. After all, the fact that Muslims, Christians, marrieds, singles, gays and others can already wear the normal jumper is a sign of inclusion. But we are no longer living in that world.  Professional sport now comes attached to all kinds of amendments and attachments. 

The public reaction has been mixed, and the media have jumped all over it. Manly’s coach, Des Hasler, was put in the unenviable position of facing the media yesterday. I thought he did a sterling job given the circumstances. On behalf of the club, he apologised to everyone and recognised that the club had handled the issue poorly (apparently no club official thought it worthwhile to first talk to players about the jersey idea and see if it would cause anyone offence). The club (whether they wish to or not) will go ahead with the new jumper for this weekend’s game and the 7 players will sit out the game.

Like a well-regulated bowel motion, Peter FitzSimons leapt to his usual tricks. Within minutes of the story breaking, he swung his rhetorical axe and called for the 7 players to leave Manly. 

“The short answer for all seven should be: “No probs, and good luck with your new club!”

Yesterday, he continued, writing an opinion piece for the SMH. Even before the game starts, Fitz blew his whistle to call out anyone who might disagree with him, 

“o many points, so little time. So little space, so many space cadets.’ You have been named!”

That’s good to know. Fitz views dissenters as intellectually feeble and cognitively inept. He’s smart enough to know that such insults will win praise among his followers, but it achieves little in encouraging serious dialogue.

Fitz not only detests Christianity, he doesn’t get it. 

What the hell is wrong with you blokes that you don’t get it? You are prepared to trash the entire Manly season on this issue alone? In a world where rugby league has led the sporting fraternity in making change, in making it clear that the game really is for all races, all genders, all sexualities, all religions you want to make a stand for …”

Let’s be clear, it is the football club that made the decision and assumed players would have no issue wearing the different jumper. I’m sure the 7 players love the game and their club and are desperate to play, but what Fitz fails to realise is that there is a higher code than football. For Christians, all of life is about Jesus and wanting to represent him well. If we are forced to make a decision between Jesus and football, the answer is kind of obvious. 

In our age where we are supposedly sensitive toward the consciences of others, does FitzSimons really believe these players should act against faith and conscience?

It was Jesus who said,

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

Fitz not only fails to appreciate the nature of Christian discipleship, he also misrepresents the rainbow banner.

“That is all that Manly wearing the rainbow jersey is saying. To put it in terms that might resonate, “We are all God’s little creatures, and we come in all shapes and sizes, all colours, all sexualities, so isn’t it all just wonderful!””

Wearing the jumper isn’t about solidarity, it represents conformity. Wearing the colours is very much about promoting what Stephen McAlpine famously calls, ‘our sexular age’. He says,

“the Pride story is a good news story itself. It’s an alternate gospel.”

Mcalpine is right. The pride story is a story of self salvation. Redemption is all about self realisation. Rather than the Bible’s story of us needing divine salvation from sin in ourselves, today’s culture says that I define my own value system and it’s the job of God and everyone else to affirm me. 

As pop icon Taylor Swift proclaimed during a recent speech,

“I know it can be really overwhelming figuring out who to be, and when. Who you are now and how to act in order to get where you want to go. I have some good news: it’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: it’s totally up to you.”

That’s today’s gospel: Be your authentic self. 

The thing about the pride gospel is that it’s not satisfied with individuals arriving at their own decision, everybody else has to join the chorus, and not singing along just proves you’re a hateful awful, repressive social recalcitrant. 

In the real world, I can think of same sex attracted people who’d refuse to wear the rainbow colours. There are gays and lesbians who don’t wish to promote the LGBTIQ+ movement, and who for various reasons could not in clear conscience support Manly’s decision. Of course, they won’t stick their heads over the parapet, and I don’t blame them. Why should they share their views, only to have Peter FitzSimons call them bigots?

The rainbow message doesn’t represent inclusion, it’s about capitulation. It represents doing away with traditional sexual ethics and embracing a new and unforgiving ‘truth’.  Does anyone remember the Coopers’ beer incident from 2016? Two politicians sat down over a Coopers beer to talk about same-sex marriage. Tim Wilson spoke in support of changing the law and Andrew Hastie spoke against. It was a civil conversation about an important issue, and yet within hours pubs around the country were destroying their supply of Coopers beer and the company was pressured into apologising and to wave every rainbow flag they could get their hands on. 

Today’s message isn’t to hum along to ‘let it be’, it is forced conversion. The Manly story is a perfect example of this. The players were given no choice other than to wear the pride colours, regardless of their personal convictions.

This isn’t just a problem for professional sportsmen and sportswomen, the pressure is real in workplaces, universities and schools across the country. HR Departments pressure employees to fall into line with the latest version of the coloured flag. School is a difficult environment for children who are convinced by Christian, Jewish or Muslim views of sexuality, marriage and family.

Peter FitzSimons continues his game plan by weirdly mounting what reads like a backhanded racist attack,

“You are mostly from the wonderful Islander community, one that is beloved in the football community and wider still. Nevertheless, there really are shocking bigots who have attacked that community through nothing other than their own bigotry. How do you not get that your actions disgust most, but please many of the very same bigots who judge people on their race?”

Is he seriously suggesting to these Islanders didn’t arrive at their Christian beliefs through their own careful investigations and deliberations, but somewhere they are victims of bigots (presumably white colonial Christian missionaries)? I suspect a retraction is in order. 

A number of people have already alerted Fitz to his inconsistent views. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he doubles down and insults people for recognising the hypocrisy in his position.

For example, a young muslim woman stood for her beliefs earlier this year and refused to wear the rainbow colours on her AFLW jersey. She said,

 “As the first Australian Muslim woman in the AFLW, I have a responsibility to represent my faith and my community,

In Fitz’s mind she receives a free pass because,

“she is already progressive enough to break down the barriers to be the first Islamic woman to play in the AFLW – and to have played in the Pride round last year, albeit without personally wearing the jersey.”

Both cases are pretty much identical, and yet Fitz blows the whistle at one and not the other. Why? Because it’s okay for a white Aussie bloke to blow his trumpet against male Christians. But a Muslim woman isn’t an acceptable target. In other words, because she is a Muslim woman we can forgive her, but these 7 Christian men are beyond our grace.  In contrast to Fitz’s double standards, a more consistent view is to say that both have reasonable cause not to wear the pride jumper and they should not be compelled to do so.

I remember at the time of of the marriage plebiscite, Lisa Wilkinson was among the voices promising that same sex marriage won’t change anything. 

“What happened in Ireland, and Great Britain, most of continental Europe, most of the Americas, New Zealand, Canada and all the rest?

Again.

Nothing.”

Jane Gilmour assured Aussies, 

“The people advocating for marriage equality in Australia are not attempting to impose their beliefs on to any church, they are simply objecting to churches imposing their definition of marriage onto the rest of us.”

Australia’s new Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, spoke at a Freedom for Faith Conference in 2016, saying, 

“I challenge people here to demonstrate that changing the Marriage Act will lead to negative changes in religious freedom.”

I don’t think anyone really believed Wilkinson and others at the time. After all, other social commentators gladly preached a message of social change, 

For example,

Auberry Perry, in The Age (Sept. 3, 2017),

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

Mauvre Marsden wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (Oct 4, 2017),

“Yes, marriage is not the final frontier. Yes, we want safe schools. Yes, gay conversion therapy is child abuse. Yes, we want transgender kids’ agency to be respected and supported – regardless of what their parents want. Yes.”

We’re no longer living in Athens and we’re no longer invited to speak at the Areopagus. This is imperial Rome where sacrifice to the gods is made compulsory for every citizen. I can hear Fitz saying, ‘you can believe in your Christian God at home or in the private setting of your church, but out here you are obliged to follow our gods.’ 

In the space of a few years we have seen hundreds of organisations and corporations guilted into signing up the latest iterations of the sexular age. After all, no one wants to be called a bigot, especially as the insult is usually untrue. Public statements and policies can barely keep up with the changing rules that are determined by our moral overloads. The changes have real implications for real people. In Victoria, religious organisations have lost the freedom to employ people on the basis of the association’s beliefs. Again in Victoria, some religious conversations and prayers are now illegal. The Christian view of marriage and human sexuality is described by Victorian Education Department materials as phobic. Across Australia, businesses, clubs, and schools feel the pressure to embrace all the latest (and ever changing) sexologies. 

I’m not hankering for the supposed good old days and neither am I bemoaning today, this is about recognising the space in which we now live.

Let’s be honest, when the boss at work or school principal hands out the rainbow flags and pin, the answer for Christians is clear. However, when you’re being tackled, it’s normal to feel the pressure. It’s not easy to stand up to a group assault. After all, won’t life be easier if we slip on the jumper? We’re not being asked to make a public comment, not yet anyway. And it’s just for 1 day in the year…until next year.

If you (Christian) haven’t already sorted out your convictions, now’s the time to do so. Understand your ultimate allegiance and prepare your answer. 

I thank God for the Manly 7.  Anyone thinking that because they are well paid professional footballers, their stance is an easy one, think again. Sometimes a high profile makes the fall harder. 

And I feel for Fitz. He mocks and disdains the message that he clearly does not understand. It’s the message that means everything to these Manly players, even more than playing rugby league. Their decision may impact their future in the game (time will tell), but I suspect they understand that choosing to wear that jumper would bring an even greater cost. 

What’s even more problematic than the position forced on the Manly 7, is how the public conversation is forced into a false dichotomy: either you fully support gay players and wear the colours or you are a hateful bigot. This is a false binary. No matter how often Peter FitzSimons and your HR department preach it, it remains untrue.

The life of Jesus Christ shows how he often disagreed with peoples’ thoughts, words and actions. Does his disagreement represent fear and hatred? Or is it love that drives him to say ‘no’ to us? The central message of Christianity is that God disproves of our many of our desires and decisions, and yet his love led the Lord Jesus to the cross. Christians can’t wave the rainbow flag but we can and do love our gay and lesbian friends.  We enjoy playing sport alongside you and eating meals and going to concerts. There is something good and sensical, although sadly it’s becoming rare, when we can say, I disagree with you but I am nonetheless committed to your good.  I think you’ve made a mistake, but I remain your friend.

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Steve McAlpine helpfully explains the difference between the pride colours and wearing a jumper with club sponsors in this piece – https://stephenmcalpine.com/manly-in-babylon/?fbclid=IwAR29Az8ICNVJf_VcXSUwINDxnwTZBekk53gnkMUFHYcHGfkL1VT4as1JntM

“I’m not an idiot”

“I’m not an idiot”, so said Michael Jensen in an interview with Peter FitzSimons for Sunday’s Sydney Morning Herald

FitzSimons opening barrage on Jensen was to portray Christianity in his typically parodic manner, as though Christians are a bunch of uneducated, antiscientific, and annoying cluster of flies. Hence, Michael’s initial response. Although to be fair, apart from the opening line to Jensen,  the article is pretty decent and Fitz does a good job in questioning both Fiona Patton and Michael Jensen. His topics were the Lord’s Prayer and churches’ tax exemption status. 

For those who don’t know of Fiona Patten, she is a member of the Legislative Council in the Victorian Parliament. Her party, Reason Party, was formally called the Sex Party. Unsurprisingly, Patten is a passionate advocate for progressive sex ideology. Michael Jensen on the other hand is Senior Pastor at St Mark’s Darling Point in Sydney and holds a PhD from Oxford University.

On the topic of the Lord’s prayer, Michael Jensen is typically Christian as he sees both pros and cons with Parliament reciting the Lord’s Prayer. On the issue of tax exemption rules, Jensen explains,

“the first thing to say is that Jesus told us to pay taxes and churches should too, on [straight-out businesses they run]. But churches as places of worship come under the charity law as a community group and for the purposes of taxation don’t have special privileges that other community groups don’t have. So sports, for example, don’t pay tax because they are a community group, as are trade unions, things like Men’s Shed, the CWA and indeed political parties. So this is not a special provision just for churches. And when it comes to churches, the view is that money put in the plate has already been taxed – it is people’s after-tax dollars – and so doesn’t need to be further taxed, just as when people donate to community groups.”

“Tax law needs supervision, needs compliance and needs data to be administered properly. Most of the long-established churches like ours have an accumulated wealth, particularly through property, because of our longevity in Australia – and most of our buildings are held in a trust to support the purposes for which the organisation exists, which is not for making profit. So we’re not remotely a business in that sense.”

Jensen is correct. I acknowledge that I’m biased, but it does not require a PhD from Oxford to realise that Jensen’s explanation is reasoned and grounded in what actually happens in churches across Australia and how their financial paradigm fits comfortably within the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission). Of course, where churches engage in business enterprises they rightly follow the law and pay their taxes. If and when there are examples of churches failing to comply, it is appropriate for authorities to investigate. 

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Fiona Patten holds a very different view from Michael Jensen. In this interview, she offers a clear explanation as to why she believes churches should be taxed: she doesn’t like them. 

“If you are talking about religious charities, providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry – what we in society consider real charity – I absolutely think those genuine charities should be tax-exempt, and I totally support that. But the problem is the tax exemption the law provides for “the advancement of religion”. That used to be regarded as being for the public benefit but fewer people than ever think that. And why should you get a tax break for promoting a superstition?”

First of all, what Patten describes as ‘real charity’ is in error. The ACNC includes all kinds of organisations, including, community sporting clubs, unions, political parties, Rotary and Lions, and more. Is Fiona Patten suggesting that all these should have their tax exemption rescinded because they are not involved in giving food to the hungry?

If you look at Patten’s words, her position is hardly an argument, but it is a reason of sorts. She doesn’t like religion, therefore churches should lose their tax exemption status. Now, there are many charitable organisations that I don’t particularly like or attach much value to.  I don’t enjoy swimming or basketball, but should these sporting clubs lose their not-for-profit status because I personally don’t receive benefit? Can I not admit what is true, and that is, that other people find value in these community organisations even if I don’t? But of course, this is the issue: Christianity is not only viewed as irrelevant, but it is also immoral and dangerous. Or at least, that’s the narrative being preached around the country from university campuses to school classrooms and newspaper opinion pieces. 

In this interview, Michael Jensen is simply stating facts, as the Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, confirmed. And yet, social media yesterday turned on industrial-sized heaters, blowing angry and distasteful commentary.

John Dickson said, 

“The Fitz article is good. The responses demonstrate a key point in our debate about taxing churches as businesses. Those who oppose church tax exemptions do so (almost invariable) because they despise – ‘bigoted’ ‘stupid’ ‘paedophilic’ ‘nonsense’ ‘fairytale’ – religion!”

A few hours later John tweeted further,

“The level of anti-religion argument in this country is very poor. It is emotion and distaste all the way down. Bring back the old atheists, I say!”

Over at the land of twits I offered a simple affirmation of Michael Jensen’s answers, and it didn’t take long for Fitz’s followers to unload. It’s not as though people offered rebuttal as such, it was more akin to pointing a flamethrower at anyone standing with Jensen.

For example, 

“I just read this, all nonsense. You talk about dependence on God, which one, Thor, Odin? Get this nonsense out of our govt.”

“What rubbish”

“What benefits did christianity bring again? Ignorant belief in imaginary gods used as an excuse for control of others, forced unwilling pregnancies on women, looked away from paedophilia & domestic violence, great examples of man’s evil though.”

“Seriously, can’t you do better than that?

“Let’s reverse it – You just love religion. That’s the only real reason you have for defending tax breaks for religion. 

See how facile that is?”

And then this doozy for a happily married man of 22+ years…

“You virgin Murray!”

I can receive a lot worse than these contributions, but the examples I’ve cited are nonetheless telling. These comments and countless more like them simply rehash Patten’s view: ‘I don’t like religion, therefore we should remove their tax exemption.’

It’s a sad state of affairs but this is the calibre of what’s becoming normalised public scrutiny and debate today. Rather than weighing on facts and reason and listening carefully to the other, debate is shut down by the loudest mob. They don’t need to rely on evidence or rationality,  pushing people into silence is effective. And it’s proving effective because Christianity is no longer seen as stupid, it is an evil that requires intervention. Of course, Christianity and evil are diametrically opposed,  but this is not how Aussies are taught to view Christianity any longer. 

Yes, Christians are at times obnoxious and give off an unpleasant smell. More often, Australians assume to be true what they hear repeated often enough and they believe what they are taught, and what we are taught is that Christianity is bad for you. Hillsong was used as an example by both Patten and people on social media. Hillsong is a popular target, and for some reason, but 99.9% of churches are not Hillsong, and judging the whole on the basis of that single example is superficial at best, and fallacious at worst. 

It’s important for Christians to come to terms with how the fabric of education and belief has shifted in Western countries like Australia. The Christian message, and therefore Churches, is a social toxin that requires social, political, and even legal action to minimise its spread. It is therefore only natural for people to believe churches don’t deserve their tax exemption status. After all, if Christianity is bad for you, why should the Government provide tax exemptions?

There are people who are hurt by religion. There are people who hate religion, by which they usually mean Christianity. There are many people who simply do not understand Christianity. Michael Jensen has served us well.

Yesterday’s pushback on Jensen reminds me how Churches have more work to do to correct these misnomers about churches and money, and most importantly about the nature and purpose of the local church. Of course, churches can preach and live as faithfully to Jesus as possible and still face wild outrage and bitterness, but let’s not be too quick to throw out all opposition into the basket named, ‘hatred’.  One of the trends we are seeing is growing ignorance of what Christianity is about and for that, we can hardly blame the average Aussie. To be sure,  our cultural elites must take some responsibility as they distort Christianity in the ploy to remove her influence from society. Churches shoulder greater responsibility for the confusion that exists in our broader society. Why? Gospel clarity and conviction and teaching and life are often missing from our churches. The beauty and power of the Christian message is often defused by poorly trained pastors or through religious Benedict Arnolds.

I happen to agree with Fiona Patten in that some religions are little more than superstition, but others are not. Christianity is necessarily and integrally grounded in history and reality. The claims of Jesus Christ are consequential because they are rooted in real events and real people and for a real world. Far from superstition, Christianity provides the very ideas that have converged to build the very best of Australian society and the building blocks necessary for democratic liberalism and social pluralism: the equality and dignity of all human beings, the art of persuasion not coercion, belief in the rule of law, and so on. 

Christians have a better story. It’s not a story that Christians are somehow better than others (for we are not), but a living example that shows how crucified and now living Christ is better. The Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, is an atheist and yet recognises the ways in which belief in God and joining a religious community changes peoples lives for the better, creating greater generosity and servanthood and helping out for the good of others (cf Leigh’s interview with John Dickson).  

While fewer Australians are formally identifying with religion, the fact is that the advancement of religion remains hugely important to millions of Australians. More so, at a time when Australia is experiencing less social cohesion and staggering levels of loneliness and people living without hope, there is an argument for churches having an even greater role and responsibility in bringing people together. Removing the tax status of churches is not only irrational, but Australian society will also be worse off. Churches are communities where people come and share life together and find the answers to life’s greatest questions. These are communities where people enormous amount of time and energy to loving others and sacrificially giving. These are voluntary associations where people gather to learn and discover the greatest message the world has ever known. Yes, it requires money for the upkeep of buildings and utilities and ministries. The social capital for broader Australian society is huge, and dare I say it, the implications are of eternal nature.

Disagree with Christianity by all means. Let us listen and argue well and disagree well, but removing churches’ tax exemptions will achieve little more than shooting ourselves in the head and expecting a good outcome to follow.

What are church pastors up to right now?

I’m going on leave today and beginning the first family holiday in 3 1/2 years. Before I sit beside the swimming pool and eat lots of satay, I thought I would update a list that I scribbled down late last year which mentions some of the tasks and responsibilities pastors have had to carry during the pandemic. 

You’ll notice a couple of items have now been successfully crossed off the list, however, there are others that have been added. 

Pastoring a church is a tremendous privilege and joy, and it’s not always an easy task. Indeed there are reasons why many pastors burn out after the first few years and many don’t make it beyond 10 years in the ministry. The COVID pandemic has bowled a googley at all of us, no matter our religious views, job, and life situation. Pastors are not immune from the daily stresses, troubles, and temptations that we all face. If there is a difference, there is an expectation that pastors will continue to work with a smile on the face, that they will accept all comments made to their face and behind their back, and push through whatever the cost. 

Many pastors have shared with me how they are going; some were treading water late last year, and some now feel as though they’re sinking. This isn’t because our task is necessarily harder than others , but for this one simple reason, we are just like everyone else. It’s because of one such conversation that I first wrote down and share this list, hoping to an open window and let people see inside and gain a snapshot of the kinds of issues and responsibilities confronting pastors in Melbourne churches at the moment (in no particular order). Additions to last year’s list are written in bold and those items that are now resolved are crossed out:

  • We are trying to pastor people who have undergone all manner of trials and hardships over the past 2 years.
  • Trying to love and pastor people who are wrestling with all manner of non pandemic related difficulties.
  • Recognising that everyone is tired, run down, and desperate for a holiday, pastors don’t want to burden their congregations with what are often routine tasks, so they agree to shoulder a little more. Rather than 2022 seeing things returning to normal, we are finding that people are even less able to serve in regular ways, as COVID continues and many people struggle with flu and colds.
  • Every week somewhere between 30%-50% of the congregation is away with COVID, flu or colds. The capacity to run services, Sunday school and more is challenging and it’s often impossible to find last minute volunteers to fill in gaps for those who are sick or away.
  • Reminder our people of the mission field and gearing everyone for evangelism.
  • Organising financial aid, meals, and other helps for members who are struggling.
  • Encouraging and equipping team leaders and filling in for them when they need a break.
  • Overseeing COVID Safe plans.
  • Planning the regathering of our churches after months without any in person gatherings, and doing so under tight and changing Government directives.
  • While many people are about to wind down for the year and planning to go away and take off time, the pastor’s workload is increasing.
  • We are counselling those who are nervous about returning to church, including those who are immuno-compromised and those who are fearful of becoming a COVID close contact and being forced into isolation (again).
  • We are counselling those who remain unvaccinated and who are feeling hard done by as a result of Government rules.
  • Navigating 50 different expectations and demands on what returning to church ought to look like.
  • Navigating 50 different expectations and demands on what church should look like in 2022
  • Advocating the Government for the unvaccinated to be free to return to church while also encouraging people to be vaccinated and knowing the responsibility to protect the vulnerable.
  • Working to uphold the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace when society has become fragmented and angry and these influences capture hearts inside the church.  
  • Urging people to remain gospel centred rather than allow political issues and allegiances to dominate and divide.
  • Writing and preaching sermons every week.
  • Organising church services.
  • Leading Bible study groups.
  • Training leaders.
  • Meeting with leadership teams.
  • Keeping an eye on ever unstable finances.
  • Having late nights away from the family because of another meeting or crisis.
  • Processing Victoria’s new Conversion and Suppression Practices laws that target Christians, Writing articles and letters to raise awareness, appealing to the Government to overturn these unjust laws, and preparing our churches for laws that are a genuine threat to Christian freedom, belief, and practice. 
  • Reading, understanding and responding to legislation amending the Equal Opportunity Act which will further limit religious freedom in Victoria.
  • Spending time in prayer for the people under our care, and for our community and the world around us.
  • Fast tracking the reading of books and articles that’s required to understand the theological doozys that regularly arise in our preaching and in our pastoral care.
  • Christmas. Did someone say we’re having Christmas Carol services and Christmas Day services? 
  • Planning for 2022. Who knows what that will mean!
  • Planning the second half of 2022, and realising how uncertain our plans can be
  • Welcoming visitors (and praise God for people who are checking out Church).
  • Rejoicing with those who are rejoicing and mourning with those who mourn, correcting the wayward, and grieving those who depart. 
  • Burying the dead, visiting the sick, marrying couples, sitting with those with marriages falling apart. 
  • Loving our families and giving them the love, time and attention they need and deserve.

These are some of the things pastors are working on right now. As I hope you can see, these things are rarely quick, easy or unimportant. Most of these activities demand an intellectual, emotional, and psychological gravitas that overwhelms pastors at the best of times, let alone in the time and place we currently find ourselves.  This isn’t a cry for help or asking for a slap on the back. This is just a little message to share what pastors are up to at the moment. To our churches, we love you and we’re there for you in the good times and the bad. But understand, we are also tired and the emotional fuel tank is running pretty low.

We get tired and grumpy and worn out. The words, actions, and attitudes of others impact us too. We love the people whom God has committed under our care, but there is only Saviour and we’re not him!

I am incredibly thankful for the saints at Mentone who despite their own tiredness and troubles, are persevering and together we are running the race. 

And that’s how it’s meant to work. This isn’t about pumping up pastors with pride but as each member lovingly serves the other, pastors are better able to give and serve as we ought. And indeed, as pastors do their work well, the congregation is released to ministry and to grow together. This is why when one of my own congregation asks how they can be praying for me, I often ask them to pray for the church: let us keep loving one another and serving each other with patience and grace. Everyone wins and God is glorified and the Gospel is seen for what it is: stunning and beautiful and good.

The Apostle Paul put it like this, 

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:” (Philippians 2:1-5)

And pastors, let’s remember we are not superman, batman or whoever the current superhero is meant to be. And we are certainly not the world’s Saviour.

  • Be content in not doing everything. 
  • Keep things as simple and straightforward as you can. 
  • Be willing to say no to people
  • Be understanding that many people’s capacity for serving is reduced at the moment
  • Take regular breaks.
  • Make sure you take proper annual leave over the summer; otherwise you may not survive 2022. 
  • Do something fun. 
  • Refresh yourself daily in God’s word and in prayer
  • Share and be accountable to a small group of peers (including inside the church)

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 10:1-3)

How this Christian is responding to the Federal Election

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Australia has a new Prime Minister and a new Federal Government.

Millions of Australians are happy and excited by what may come about as the result of Saturday’s Federal election. Millions of other Australians are disappointed and even angry and concerned by the political shift. A large number of more Australians, probably in the millions also, are despondent with politics in general. Christians will also be found across this political spectrum. Christians may or may not be less favourably disposed toward the new Government. It is certainly the case that no Government will fully align with or be supportive of every issue that is concerns Christians. Indeed, we should not expect this to be the case, for it is the church that is God’s centrepiece, not a human Government, and hope is found in Christ, not in any political system or party. Theonomy is a dangerous and anti-Christian notion, as much as hardline secularism opposes healthy pluralism and democracy. 

I am not intending to dig into my own political preferences, nor to offer here any sociological insights into what the election may or may not mean for Australia’s future. Such analysis is outside the scope of my interest here. The point I wish to make is a simple one. The observation ought to be an uncontroversial one, but knowing how polarised and tribal our communities are becoming, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of a basic Biblical imperative.

Regardless of how one may feel about the election result and who your local MP is or isn’t, there is a Scripture that remains compulsory for all Christians. And it is this,

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

I was reminded of this timeless word by Justin Moffatt, the Senior Minister at Church Hill in Sydney. He said,

“One of the things I like about the prayers in the Anglican Prayer Book is that we always pray for the government of the day, and we pray the same thing no matter who governs.

It moves effortlessly from one to the next, as though the problem of the world isn’t government, and the hope of the world were found elsewhere.”

Whatever our reaction to the election, Justin is right. This Christian imperative doesn’t necessarily legitimise or remove how we are feeling about the election outcome, but it ought to remind us of the bigger picture and it rightly reorients us to what is eternal and ultimately important. There ought to be a certain constancy, evenness, and repetition that is evident in our churches as we note the changing political landscape. 

Because we have the habit of assuming that we live in the worst of times (or the best) it’s good to remember the plasticity of that view. The Apostle Paul wrote his words at a time when the Roman Empire was expanding and where there was no political freedom and where opposition to Christianity was emboldened. This was not an easy time to confess Jesus is Lord and to belong to a local church. One of the Emperors during Paul’s ministry was Nero! Nonetheless, the Apostle commands the church in Ephesus to pray for those in authority. 

The duty of Christians around Australia has not changed. And yes, the language of duty is appropriate. There is a new Prime Minister in the new Government and with that will come all kinds of policies and decisions impacting the economic and social landscape of the country. Anthony Albanese and his team are taking the helm following a very difficult season in our nation’s country and I suspect the more difficult place ahead, especially in regard to the question of China. 

Prayer like 1 Timothy 2:1-4 can circumvent Christians from overly aligning with any single political movement, and over eschatologising hope in political agendas, rather than in the Gospel of Christ and God’s mission into the world. 

It is very easy to be swept up in the political narratives that are preached around the country. As Christians, we need to resist these (or at the very least, temper them) by instead reminding each other of the lordship of Christ and the purposes of God that are found in the gospel. I am not suggesting that followers of Jesus ignore the political process and not participate; not at all. We, as with all citizens, have the opportunity and responsibility to serve the common good of our nation, and this includes political discourse. ‘Love your neighbour’ remains a word for us today. However, the prayer in 1 Timothy 2 frees us from both the jubilation and the despair that accompanies political change. 

Of course, with any change of government, there will always be questions about the good and bad in changing policy and direction. Neither am I suggesting that Christians shouldn’t engage with these issues and offer advice and opinion. When choosing to do so, we must however be clear about God’s mission and his character and not be dragged into compromising the gospel for the sake of political expediency. A new government may bring about significant change and re-ordering of social policy and moral direction; it’s naive to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, as the Apostle Paul reminds Timothy in Ephesus, we know and pray to God who is sovereign over all things including governments and the nations. Our responsibility and opportunity as Christians remain the same: commit to God in prayer those in authority.

The duty of Christians in Australia has not changed. Pray for the new government and our political representatives. Live quiet and peaceful lives with all holiness. Keep the Gospel front and centre in both our hearts and lives and words, because God longs for people to be reconciled to him and come to a knowledge of the truth. Let us not allow our emotions and words to inhibit, disguise, or confuse this good news of God in Jesus Christ.

Bill Shorten said it right.

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? 

Thinking Through Ukraine

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.

Stan Grant writes,

“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,

“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.

Ask me,

    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.

(Psalm 2)

Devonport: a word offered when no words can be found

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. 

Symphony from the Great War

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

Prelude

“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.

Major General: Sir John MONASH Commanding the 3rd Australian Division. Salisbury Plain.

22nd November 1916.”

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.

(Tybalt)

Well, peace be with you, sir. Here comes my man.


(Mercutio)

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.’

(Tybalt)

Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford

No better term than this: thou art a villain.                    


(Romeo)

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.

(Tybalt)

Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries

That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw.

(Romeo)

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.

(Mercutio)

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.

Ask me,

    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.

(Psalm 2)

Bibliography

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.

National Archives of Australia, https://www.naa.gov.au/

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Reginals John Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Passingham, Ian. Pillars of Fire: The Battle of Messines Ridge June 1917, Spellmount, 2012.

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, Dover Publications,  2017.

Another Australian Cricket Captain is out: Our problem with sex

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. 

With great confidence, Marr drew his caricature,

“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.

Who’s the Fundamentalist?

“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. 

This was the approach taken by Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick in yesterday’s opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘NSW must do better than Dominic Perrottet as premier’.

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. 

Dowrick writes,

“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.