The national holiday of January 26th is again being called into question. As much as we might want to identify it as a day to celebrate the unity and pride of all Australians in this nation, many will still see it as a distressing reminder of the evils associated with British expansionism. Therefore we should surely own up to our past, just as we eventually apologised for creating the pre-1970s Stolen Generation through the forced removal of Indigenous children in the misguided interests of ‘helping’ them and their families. Any advance of Christianity today will, for some, remain a similarly unwanted ideal while it continues to be associated with the invasion of 1788.
Of course, some will believe that such a call is an overreaction, but this is a question of empathy, with very little to be sacrificed by anyone for showing it. Some fairly straightforward resolutions can resolve the present angst, not matter how many might share it.
1. Christians can empathise with past harm done if wanting their message to resonate.
While successive law changes have helped to remedy many past wrongs, they don’t undo the associated cultural devastation for which there has not always been enough recognition. This was appallingly amplified in the late-18th and early-19th centuries by the murderous atrocities of settlers and the continued dehumanisation by successive generations of immigrants, many of whom were nominal Christians who gave their faith a bad name.
This in no way denigrates the sterling efforts of a great many Christians to offer welfare and educational improvements in the years since. Likewise, many Indigenous communities have welcomed Christianity and/or live with ready appreciation for social improvements that Christians (nominal or otherwise) have sometimes brought. Nevertheless, though we may not be personally culpable for past evils, we stand as custodians of a heritage that has much to correct.
For Christians, this necessitates the recognition that a consistent message of repentance for human sinfulness needs broader ownership of its application. While the Gospel is indeed Good News for all nations, it struggles to resonate in many contexts, much the same as the notion of God as Father is difficult to comprehend for those whose own dad was absent or abusive.
2. Australia can change its national holiday without any adverse impact.
An eminently sensible suggestion has been offered by which we celebrate the third Friday in January as a day for all Australians. This allows Summer vacationers to maintain their usual leave, while offering a predictable public holiday weekend early in the year, one that can be attached to all the best ideals we currently celebrate. The choice of this new Friday for an ‘All-Australian’ Australia Day would, however, avoid the divisive choice of 26th altogether.
If little is lost by making the change, then surely the time for it has come.
Australia Day honours could continue to be awarded, but where such recognition avoids forever being tainted by associations that are offensive to Indigenous people. And, yes, perhaps only some Indigenous people, but surely enough to warrant an easy date change. Who, after all, is to be offended by moving it? Arthur Phillip’s entry to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson hardly rates a mention by Australians today, other than for its negative associations.
3. Communities can develop pathways to local action which can catalyse national healing.
Just as a national apology for the Stolen Generation was an important step forward, Christian churches will do well to progress with continued relational efforts that embrace indigenous communities in a spirit of reconciliation for past wrongs. This needs humbling and respectful advances in relationally bridging to Indigenous communities without reducing the cause to a demonstration of conditional love that then evaporates when a Gospel advance is shunned.
Of course, many churches, particularly in our cities, will be able to offer financial support to regional centres or to collaborative efforts that advance such opportunities. The funding of Reconciliation Action Plans, or similar, will need Indigenous leaders to be consulted and Church leaders to initiate steps to healing in the face of many competing priorities and time pressures. A posture of deep listening requires time we don’t have but, rather, time that we ‘make.’
While this year’s Australia Day continues to be enjoyed for the many attractive facets of life in this great nation, its celebrations are somewhat tinged with sadness for the divisions that remain. Indigenous people are also still overrepresented in unemployment and deaths in custody. And while the perspective of privilege sometimes still offers trite and unwelcome responses to such concerns, there clearly remains an overwhelming urge for positive change amongst many Australians whose empathy is clearly in greater evidence than ever before.