Saturday is/was Australia Day. It means many different things to different people. Some enjoy another holiday. Others celebrate the history of this nation. Some remember the struggle of indigenous Australians over the last 215 years and the immense difficulty and struggle that they continue to experience. Some are staunch Monarchists whilst others are strongly Republican. Some have family histories that go back several generations and others are new arrivals. All of us (unless we descend from Indigenous Australians) are of immigrant origin – truly boat people. Some Australians live on the land and seek to work with the harsh environment whilst most of us revere the myths of the outback but live in cities full of high-rise buildings or the sprawling suburbia.
I always come to this celebration with mixed thoughts and feelings. On the one hand this is a good country with many things to celebrate, appreciate and enjoy. I am not a ‘seasoned traveller’ who has ventured far and wide and has felt the ‘call of home’ from distant places. I can’t easily compare our nation with others except through what I read and hear across airwaves and internet. I have ventured to the South Pacific and recognise they have considerably less, materially, than we have but show more gratitude and joy than we do. Would I, could I, live in one of these ‘idyllic’ Pacific Paradises? Probably not but they ask questions of me.
The part of me that comes to this day with something other than celebration is that which detests the incessant drive towards patriotism and uncritical acceptance of all things ‘Australian’. The awful and derisive use of ‘Un-Australian’ is a simple way to end any reflective critique of the land we love and call home. Like every household and family, there is the good and problematic. Nothing is perfect and nothing above reflection and growth. Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates said: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ Harsh but true. Open reflection, critique and analysis is important for an individual and a society if we are to grow, mature and become who and what we can be.
It is often difficult in modern Australia to raise issues of important conversation because such conversation is quickly closed down. When it confronts the political narrative, governments and oppositions quickly silence it. When it confronts corporate Australia, the business world throw vast sums at silencing debate or any change.
When we peer into the heart of Australian life and look at the reality, few want to venture there. It is true, however, that only as we venture more deeply into the reality that is our nation, our life, that we appreciate its true and deeper beauty. We will also discover what we can be; who we are becoming. It is only as we confront the real heart of Australian life in all its diversity that we hear the breadth of the conversation, the voices that are gentle or silenced and see the beauty of people who share this cultural mix-pot and seek the best for themselves and their family.
The reality, as social researcher Hugh Mackay and others describe, is that Australia is both wonderful and hard. We have the vast, but shrinking, beauty of the natural landscape. Gorgeous bushland, sunburnt, golden beaches with clear blue water, a diversity of unique and wondrous wildlife, are things we enjoy and love. We live in a modern nation that has wealth and a high standard of living. We have been mostly generous in distributing that wealth across its people, although the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ continues to widen at an increasing rate. Mackay’s research bears this out.
We are wealthy people, by the standards of the world where 80% of the world’s population shares only 20% of the world’s resources! (This same imbalance applies in Australia where 10-20% of the population own most of the wealth) Whilst many Australians are generous when others need a hand, as a nation we give relatively little in overseas aid to poorer and developing nations. Many of the older generation attest to a growing greediness amongst Australians – we are encouraged to consume and accumulate material possessions and keep everything for ourselves. Despite our growing wealth there is clearly not and equal growth in contentment. If anything, Australians are less content, more stressed and less happy than ever before. There is more pressure on significant relationships, families, communities and a breakdown in personal interaction at meaningful levels where people feel they can ‘belong.’ Social research reveals this deeper truth we may know in our being and feel in our bones but is lost in the plethora of decisions, bustling activity and unrelenting demands on time and energy. We are a people under stress. As we ‘prosper’ materially and as social, technological and communications changes impose more possibilities on our already full lives, we feel the weight of choice, decisions and keeping up. We feel this weight in our bodies, minds and spirits. We are tired and rushed and the inevitable consequences of modern stress detract from our well-being and enjoyment of life. Mackay points to this stress in his book Advance Australia Where? A summary article suggests the following: The key effect of all these changes has been to place great stress on countless individual Australians. Inevitably, Mackay explains, other things have had to “give”.
The first is family. Many young adults postpone marriage and children to their thirties or forties or eschew them entirely. The divorce rate is historically high (more than 40 per cent) and the birth rate historically low (1.7 babies a woman).
Our health and wellbeing have suffered. Obesity, depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug use, alcoholism, gambling, porn consumption – their incidence has risen appreciably.
As we have gained more, materially, our lives have become more consumed with the associated consumption and the distraction that having ‘too many toys’ brings. We don’t have time to sit and ‘be’. We don’t have time to chat or share long meals unless we can fit them in around busy schedules. We don’t take time to ponder and reflect and wonder and ask curiosity questions. We have too little time or energy to pray and that is bad for the spiritual dimension of our being. Perhaps it is time for Australians to consider those things which are of true value and those which are merely seductive and don’t bring greater contentment, meaning or joy. Relationships and acts that make a difference to other people are clearly more meaningful and satisfying than accumulated wealth. Beyond providing for necessities and important extras, more significant wealth fails to bring higher levels of satisfaction, joy, meaning or contentment. This is not the predominant message that I hear through media and society, which champions ever-greater wealth.
The impact of our materialism is felt most deeply on the state of our planet that struggles under the intensity of the pressure due to human demand. Soaring populations and the plundering of land and resources is causing extreme stress upon the earth. The resulting changes in climate and the struggle for survival of many animal and plant species is reaching catastrophic levels. Feeding the human population, especially through resource-consuming meat products, is becoming more difficult and adds excessively to the problems we face. Climate change and the environmental impacts of human populations is probably the most serious challenge and crisis we face.
Australia has been a wonderful place for many immigrants and difficult for others. People from across the world have made Australia home and have mostly been welcomed, although there has been a period of ‘getting used to’ new cultures. Many have come seeking refuge and asylum from various wars or forms of persecution. They have sought this land because of the freedom and openness they have heard that typifies our people. Australians pride themselves on being egalitarian and fighting for the underdog, and the battler. We like to believe in a fair go for everyone. We have, arguably, one of the most successful racial mixes of any nation. Our multiculturalism has always been part of modern Australia. Accompanying multiculturalism has always been forms of racism – they are still present. Those of you who have come from foreign lands more recently will attest to the racism that is present in our nation. Often it comes from fear or uncertainty of unknown people. It breaks down if, and when, we meet each other and get to know each other – it’s really difficult to hate those we actually like and have come to understand! Racism tends to be directed towards specific ethnic groups. Previously it was Italians and Germans and other Southern Europeans, then Asians. Today it is more towards those of Islamic nations and those of the Middle East. Racism appears in many forms and guises. It is personal and institutional – some of our significant foreign policies are distinctly racist but hide behind ‘National Security’ or terrorism.
Something changed in our national rhetoric, a decade or so back. We began to revile those seeking asylum and turned them back. It was a sudden decision of political will supported on both sides of parliament and carried by strong rhetoric and the conversation changed. Suddenly people who were previously given an hospitable welcome and support were now looked upon with suspicion and sent packing onto Pacific Islands ill-equipped to deal with the issues of psychology, health and the traumas deep in their human spirit. We are afraid – afraid of who they might be or what they might want. We are afraid but we don’t know why; it’s just how it is. We are constantly reminded to be afraid and alert and suspicious and we carry this angst in our being.
As the material well-being of most Australians continues to rise, for others there is growing gap of hopelessness as they are not invited to share in the prosperity. These are people of various backgrounds and conditions. Some have poor education, for many reasons, and can’t get work. There is always someone a bit better and no matter how they try no-one will employ them. Some live with mental illness, chronic illness or serious disability and find work difficult, if not impossible. There are pensions and benefits but not enough to enable them to engage in what most of us take for granted. I remember a story of a single mum who struggled to hold her life together with 3 small children. She managed her money well and there was always food on the table and clothes for the children. She paid the rent and they went to school but there was nothing left over at the end of the week for the little extras. A hot summer’s day found them unable to afford the $15 to get a bus and go to the local swimming pool – it simple wasn’t in the budget. Welfare agencies know the realities that governments seek to play down. Life is very difficult for many people in Australia.
Parents of children with serious physical and/or intellectual disabilities find the going incredibly tough and there are few who are willing to take time to understand. Time out to enjoy some moments of peace and to do things that you and I take for granted are few and very far between. These are largely invisible people because getting out and about is not easy to manage. In fact, many people are invisible in our society, hidden from view in neighbourhoods that keep them isolated, shut off from other people and groups. We all mostly live within our own homes and then drive where we are going. We shop in large anonymous malls designed to get us in and out efficiently, after spending money on the extras we didn’t intend to buy.
The alienation we experience in our lives drives fear, loneliness and existential angst as we seek a deeper purpose and meaning amidst the affluence and prosperity that brings stress but changes our happiness or joy very little. This week’s Gospel reading is quite significant for us in this time of national life. It comes from Luke 4:14-21. It is the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Luke’s story – his mission statement if you like. Jesus read some verses from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
The Jewish conception of poverty, it isn’t only economic. New Testament commentator, Joel Green defines “poor” in the first-century Mediterranean world: In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and “poor” would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honour in the Mediterranean world.
Poverty is material/ economic but also spiritual, psychological and physical. The poverty for which Jesus promises ‘good news’ is not just economic but also the poverty of oppression where people are held captive. This could be political, religious, economic, health, psychological, addiction – anything that oppresses people and holds them captive. For many in the wealthy West it could be affluence and materialism. Jesus’ message and mission is about an alternative that delivers freedom and life rather than ongoing bondage. There are captives and prisoners that Jesus refers to and he speaks of release from the social, spiritual and economic factors that bind people and hold them captive. Jesus’ prophetic mission statement also includes the provision of sight for the blind, a message for the ‘blindness’ that pervades our world. May we see with eyes of compassion. This is a message for our world and one that we would do well to contemplate on Australia Day.
The promised hope of Jesus challenges our culture and the assumptions of much of our society. It challenges us with another way of seeing the world and the people around us and draws us into a deeper sense of community that is generous, hospitable and grounded in love not fear. This way of God is life-giving for all people, providing a radical realignment of life towards the Reign of God in our world.