God, History and Australia Day

kanishka raffel
God, History and Australia Day image

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. Ephesians 2:15b-16

I arrived in Australia at the age of seven, in October 1972.  I am tremendously thankful for Australia. I share the experience of thousands of migrants from dozens of countries that Australia has offered freedom to pursue countless opportunities, with few barriers put in my way on account of where I came from.  Most of all, here, God made himself known to me through his gospel, and my local church nurtured my faith.  

I am struck therefore with the painful contrast between my experience and that of so many indigenous people of Australia.  A few years ago, the church I belonged to in Western Australia heard from three indigenous people over the course of an evening.  The first was a man in his sixties, a respected leader of the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship.  The second was a woman in her forties, a teacher and mother of three.  The third, a young man in his twenties, recently qualified as a solicitor.  For each of them, their achievements came only through personal triumph over the life-long experience of discrimination. They are exceptional. Despite growing up in WA across three generations, they all had the same story of being expected to fail and having their success met with suspicion and denial.  The young man was accused of cheating in front of his class when it was announced that he had achieved the highest score in an exam. This happened in the 1990s. The woman told of an incident that had taken place just a fortnight earlier when, sitting in her car at traffic lights, a young policeman approached her and inquired whose car she was driving.  Her eleven-year-old son was sitting next to her in the passenger seat.  And she recounted how her whole life was full of such public humiliations.  

I understood that evening, for the first time, that indigenous people do not experience the equality of opportunity that was afforded to me.  How many times does an eleven-year-old boy have to see and hear his mother accused of stealing by a policeman, while sitting in her own car, before he is filled with rage or bitterness or despair?  And what if everyone in your family has experienced such things, for their whole lives?

There are legitimate reasons why many people feel they cannot support the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove.  They have to do not only with the devastation experienced by indigenous people following European colonisation - dispossession of lands, mass slaughter, epidemics of illness and the spread of alcohol - but the continuing disparity in education and health outcomes, for example,  between indigenous and non-indigenous people, and the widespread ignorance of indigenous history and  experience.  To so many Australians, indigenous people are virtually invisible and few of us have any real understanding of their experience in contemporary Australia.

There is so much of Australia to give thanks for, to celebrate and to enjoy.  But there is no 'day' over which the long shadow of sin and selfishness and greed and violence is not cast.  Any celebration of Australia - or any nation or culture - must reckon with historical and present-day expressions of rejection of God and neglect of people.

Nationalism is not a Christian virtue.   God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth….From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  Acts 17:24a, 26.

God is the maker of all things, nations and lands and peoples.  He has appointed the times and places in which we live.  There is no 'Christian nation' - but God is forming a people for his own from every tribe and nation and language (Revelation 7:9).  

Nationalism fails to be Christian because it turns a blind eye to our own evil - as though it could be confined to the past, or was not our doing, or was a product of a different time, or was 'well intended', or was not the whole story.  But the word of God confronts us:

There is no one righteous, not even one…All have turned away…every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 
Romans 3:10,12,19,23.

Better then, to humbly acknowledge deliberate evil, unintended harm and cruel indifference; to seek forgiveness and lament all that has been lost, injustice allowed to fester, tears that did not move us; and to seek with God's help the justice and deep reconciliation that only Jesus brings. 

The suggestion that Australia Day celebrations should begin with a time of mourning in acknowledgement of the suffering caused to indigenous people through European settlement reflects the Christian pattern of frank admission or confession of sin, humbly and thankfully recognising that the gospel of Jesus offers a way of forgiveness, reconciliation and transforming hope.  It is right to celebrate Australia and to give thanks to God for our country and to pray that we may be a blessing to others; but such a celebration is hollow and self-serving if it fails to acknowledge the sins of our nation and history.

We will love Australia best when we live with another 'day', the date of which has been fixed by God, foremost in our minds:

God commands all people everywhere to repent, for he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. Acts 17:30b-31
 

Kanishka Raffel is the Dean of Sydney. This article appeared as 'From the Dean' at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney.