We know what happened on this day one hundred years ago at Anzac Cove. The facts have been much reported and photographed. But what’s less clear is the meaning of the facts; that’s why we have so many different interpretations of what happened. Was it a defeat, a victory, a stalemate? Was the outcome decided by the bungling of the British or the stout defence of the Turks and the prowess of their leader, Ataturk? Who knows? The play of interpretation will continue ad infinitum.
Among the many interpretations, one of the more curious has emerged recently in certain circles. It claims that what happened at Gallipoli was the victory of Allah over the Christian infidels from the West who launched the attack. This can be explained by the political and ideological pressures at work in Turkey and elsewhere at this time. But it also provokes reflection of a different kind.
Before and after all else, Gallipoli was a triumph of the human spirit against the odds and in the most appalling circumstances. In one sense, it was a defeat for all who took part; there were no winners. But in another sense it was a victory for all who took part – Allied and Turkish. This is because courage prevailed over cowardice, self-sacrifice over self-interest, fidelity over fear, tenacity over terror, humanity over horror.
We glimpse this in a figure like the Catholic chaplain, Fr John Fahey, who landed with the troops in the first assault at dawn and survived the entire campaign. The order had gone out that the chaplains were to come ashore on day two or three, because all the space in the first boats was needed for the fighting men. But the order never reached Fr Fahey. So ashore he went, bullets flying everywhere and men falling all around him. He stayed on the beach tending the wounded; he wanted to climb the cliffs to attend the dead but decided to stay with those still living. His is only one of thousands of stories of extraordinary heroism from ordinary men and women.
Because of such stories, Gallipoli – though a military disaster – was a human triumph which cannot be forgotten. Because Gallipoli was a triumph of the human spirit, it was a triumph of the God who, in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, redefines for ever victory and defeat. It was a triumph of the true God – not the false god who sets one people against another, one religion against another. Only politics and ideology can produce such a tin-pot god who turns demonic. The real God who triumphed at Gallipoli in the triumph of the human spirit is the God who breaks down barriers, who turns “swords into to ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4), who makes friends of enemies and brings peoples together, doesn’t drive them apart.
This can seem, in the words of the John’s Gospel we have heard, “intolerable language” (6:60). It seems absurd to speak of Gallipoli as any kind of triumph; and yet we do. It seems absurd to speak of a God who doesn’t take sides, except the side of humanity against all that turns us demonic; and yet we do. The Bible speaks of a life that’s bigger than death, and we have heard its words this morning: “The souls of the virtuous are in the hand of God; no torment shall ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1). This too can seem “intolerable language”. Yet these are “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68); they are, we say this morning, the seeds of hope.
This is a time when the world is riven in new and unimagined ways, unleashing a violence which comes straight from hell despite its appeal to religion. At such a time, we look beyond the beach of Anzac Cove and its carnage to see how grand the human spirit can be in the midst of all that is most dehumanising. We come to a vision of hope born out of what seems hopeless – hope born of the true God who draws life from death, the truly divine from the truly demonic. It’s a vision worth dying for. It’s that vision alone which will secure the future. It’s that vision alone which will preserve the peace and freedom for which the Anzacs fought bravely on a beach so far away and now so long ago. But the vision is here and the vision is now. So too is Anzac.