A Modest Gospel Proposal for Australia Day

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Here in the great southern land it’s Australia Day, the anniversary of 26 January 1788 when the First Fleet landed at what was then known as Port Jackson (which incorporates what is now knowns as Sydney Harbour. Wikipedia pithily sums up the event:

This date is still celebrated as Australia Day, marking the beginnings of the first British settlement. The British flag was planted and formal possession taken.

Shortly afterwards “first contact” was made with the aboriginal population and the rest, as they say, is history. Except it’s not a perfect history. The British brought government, “progress”, “civilisation”, the Judeo-Christian worldview and a whole host of other advancements. They also brought guns and, at times, extreme cruelty. The colonial antithesis arrived on the shore of aboriginal thesis and the Australia of 2017 is the Hegelian synthesis of the two. It’s not hard to see which way of thinking prevailed.

As a result this year there’s been a lot of debate about whether Australia Day needs moving to another less controversial, less painful day. The arguments are not hard to rehearse – 26 January for many is Invasion Day. For others it’s the moment when an entire continent was rescued from barbarity. Wherever they stand, Christians ought not lose sight that 26 January 1788 was also the day that the Gospel arrived in Australia, surely the greatest of all benefits that were brought.

So today’s papers and talk radio all give space and time to this debate. Driving around this morning I’ve listened to both sides. And I now have my own proposal.

It’s a proposal of principle, not detail. I’m sure you can tear holes in what the specifics would look like and feel free to. I’m more interested in what the concept would look like and, in particular, what light the truth of the Gospel can shine upon this vexed issue. As I read the papers and hear the wireless I’ve not come across this particular option being suggested.

Christianity has always been about redemption. Mankind is redeemed out of her slavery to sin into the freedom and glory of the children of God and brings the entire Creation with her (Rom. 8:21). The point I’m making here is that the gospel’s answer to brokenness is not simply to make everything brand new but to redeem and renew. When in the New Creation God says boldly “See, I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5) it is a re-making of the old Creation. Just as the Risen Lord Jesus Christ who walked out of the tomb at dawn on the first Easter Sunday is the same Jesus, but resurrected, so the New Creation which depends upon Him is also the same Creation, but resurrected.

At the same time Christianity has been about bringing warring parties together. In the New Testament there is the obvious paradigm of the Jew and Gentile who had previously been estranged.

Eph. 2:14    For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…

This works out on an individual basis as well at the corporate level. However, it doesn’t come about by accident. Where wrong has been done forgiveness must be sought and for there to be forgiveness there must be an honest admission of guilt and sincere asking for that forgiveness. As a nation we have made massive strides towards that reconciliation through a national apology for some of the abhorrent ways aboriginal people have been treated in the past. No sensible assessment of the situation concludes that this means everything is now sorted out but it’s a start and a very good one.

The next move will be to see recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people in the Constitution.

Australia’s Constitution was written more than a century ago. By then, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had lived here for more than 40,000 years, maintaining the oldest living culture on the planet.

Yet the Constitution, Australia’s rule-book, doesn’t recognise this and still allows for racial discrimination.

It begins as if Australia’s national story only started with the arrival of the British. As Harold Ludwick, a Bulgun Warra man from Cape York, puts it: “If the Constitution was the birth certificate of Australia, we’re missing half the family”.

I know that many people I have a lot of respect for don’t think that this is a useful solution, but my sense is that it would go a long, long way to acknowledging the entire history of Australian in a way that is appreciated by those who, at the moment, don’t feel properly recognised. I’ll let others discuss the details, I’m interested in the principle of redemption and reconciliation.

So what does this have to do with the question of the timing of Australia Day? I would suggest the answer is everything. Like it or not we can’t erase 26 January 1788 from history. It happened. We can’t undo it. But we can change the way that it’s viewed by dealing with the negative consequences. So here’s my suggestion, moulded by the gospel of reconciliation and redemption. Reconciliation is achieved by a proper acknowledgment of past wrongs and the offer and acceptance of forgiveness. Let’s have Recognition in the Constitution in a way that acknowledges and deals with past wrongs. Again, I don’t know what the details will look like – just embrace the concept.

And then redemption. Let’s redeem Australia Day. Look, I know for some reading this Australia Day needs no redemption but I suggest they haven’t really grasped the full scope of what happened afterwards.

Let’s redeem Australia Day by having the necessary changes to the Constitution of Australia that incorporate Recognition come into effect on Australia Day. How good would it be if in a few years time the sun would rise on 26 January here in Australia and bring with it the news that a genuinely new day had dawned on the whole country; a renewing resurrection of our nation. How good would it be if a redeemed 26 January became a day that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, alongside every immigrant since 1788, joyfully embraced together because it stood for reconciliation and renewal; acknowledgement of past rights and wrongs and everything made new? Maybe if we get this right then we’d be one step closer to each one of us who lives here being able to say “I am Australian”. Together.

Of course the only genuine total renewal comes at the return of Jesus, but perhaps those of us who long for that day as our ultimate hope are best placed to work towards something like it while we wait? I think it’s worth doing if only for the excuse to explain why.

That’s my (perhaps not so) modest Gospel proposal for Australia Day. What say you?


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  1. Andrew

    I don’t think there would be much objection to removing racially discriminatory phrasing from the constitution. A concern in recognising any one group in the constitution could be that it would be a ready lever for lawyers to start arguing “these people are recognised as the first people here. They had land taken from them without compensation. Compensation is owing.”

    I like the idea of redeeming Australia day. I don’t think it will be a cure-all as there are people determined to stoke division no matter what.

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