Australia Day has, as has been the case in recent years, generated much discussion around what it means, how it speaks into Aboriginal Australia and whether a date change is required… I don’t really want to enter that debate but rather reflect on what this day symbolises and how it might speak into the reality of contemporary Australia.
Some years ago as part of a Masters Thesis I wrote the following:
“In 1787, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonise Australia.” “That night (26 January, 1788), after the convicts were landed, the British flag was unfurled at Sydney Cove, shots were fired, and toasts were drunk.”
So began the history of white settlement in the British colony of New South Wales, Australia. This is not the story of brave pilgrims seeking a new world. It is not the story of pioneer adventurers setting out to build a better life and tame the wild countryside. Though this story does contain something of these elements along the way, it is predominantly the story of struggle. It is the clash of people from different backgrounds struggling with, and against, each other in a strange and hostile land. This unknown and enigmatic continent became the prison to the criminal class of British society. It was an experiment in penology suggested by Sir Joseph Banks after returning from his voyage with Captain James Cook. It became the solution to a growing problem of what to do with those people sentenced to transportation from Britain; how to cleanse Britain of the criminal class and ease the strain on the overcrowded prisons.
In this cultural mixpot were the wealthy, the poor, convicts, those in authority, British (European) and Aboriginal people. There was no Philadelphia (literally “brotherly love”) in New South Wales. It was sweat and blood, anguish and pain, loneliness and isolation. People brought together by a “colonial experiment, never tried before, not repeated since,” were the roots of a new and unique culture.
Interestingly, this was the beginning of the colony of NSW and it was a penal experiment that was a failure. It came towards the end of the ‘Age of Discovery’, a period in Western imperialism that commissioned exploration that ‘conquered’ much of the world. It was a time of Western arrogance and power asserting itself upon indigenous cultures across the world, decimating their numbers and destroying traditional cultures in favour of a ’civilised and Christianised’ colonialism. The explorers and colonisers went with the blessing of Church and State with papers declaring the authority and power of the West over and against the uncivilised, sub-human peoples of colour and indigenous culture. To read the letters of authorisation provided by Political and Church leaders is most horrific and unbelievable. They approved mass slaughter and extermination of indigenous populations and used God’s name to endorse this. So much of this happened in our own history, history often hidden because it is the victors who write the story – not those who lose and are oppressed and lost.
The reality for our early colony is that it very nearly died out before it began as food became scarce and ships with supplies slow to arrive. The only way the early colonists and convicts survived was when the lower people (ie not the authorities and military leadership!) interacted with the local indigenous people and learned how to find food, what to eat and how to engage with this strange, hostile land. It was these same indigenous people who helped lead the famous explorations but whose names were never recognised nor recorded. It was these indigenous people who understood this fascinating and unique landscape and worked with the ecology over millennia, using fire and working with flood, drought and the diversity of this strange and spiritual land.
That God emerged from the boughs of the First Fleet is a most ludicrous statement of arrogant religion. God was present in this unique landscape, in the plants and trees, strange animals evolving in isolation from the rest of the world. God was in the cultures and people, the Spirit of God working in human life and culture to nurture life, hope and peace. God is still present in the land, the spirit of people, values of egalitarianism, the practical love demonstrated when we put difference aside, work together and help those who are doing it tough. God is present when people of different, race, culture, language, gender, sexuality, disability/ability, socio-economic class and any other difference sit down and talk to one another, to listen with respect and break bread together. God is present in the raw, ancient beauty, the diversity, the strangeness, the noise of cockatoos or roaring surf and the silence and stillness of night in the outback.
Any day we choose to celebrate this nation needs to be a day when we grasp the truth and reality of who we are, to recognise the injustices and bad decisions of the past and present. The cultural genocide that many Aboriginal tribes suffered and the overall oppression and struggle, loss and alienation of our indigenous brothers and sisters has had repercussions for generations afterwards. Until we own the mistakes and injustices of our forbears and understand the implications that continue today, the shame that quietly eats away within our nation’s heart will go on untreated. We all suffer as we live in the midst of angst and pain, fear and rage of people we do not know but share land with.
This is part of grappling with the complexity of being a people together in this land and seeking to ‘Advance Australia Fair’. There is certainly much for us all to celebrate without having to descend into superficiality. We so crave success and celebrity that we grasp at any straw, anyone who will win something on the world stage and has some link with Australia, whether they are ‘representing’ Australia or not. We will wrap ourselves sin flags (a most inappropriate use for the National Flag!). BBQ’s, parties, food and drink and lots of fun in parks, beaches and backyards. These are all good things but never really penetrate to the heart of Australia, who we are. Nor do they inspire us to become who we can be, to rise above the angst, fear, individualism and the pandemic of anxiety, depression and loneliness that is the inside struggle of our people.
This week’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) is a story of Jesus in a synagogue in Capernaum. He preaches and acts with authority and is contrasted to the religious leaders. A man with an evil spirit confronts Jesus and he is healed of the spirit by Jesus’ words and actions. The spirit also symbolises the heart of the people’s lives, oppressed by a spirit of fear, injustice, greed and the abuse of power by those called to lead. Jesus’ invokes the way of God to show people another deeper, richer way of living that is grounded in love, relationships, hope, peace and life. As I ponder this story and that of our nation, my hope and prayer is that we in Australia will go deeper to the place of healing and life, this way of Jesus.