On Australia Day

A few years ago I wrote about the complexity of multiple Australian stories converging on Australia Day, and how I was finding January 26 increasingly difficult to navigate as a Christian. I’ve kept listening to people like Aunty Jean Phillips — who I mentioned in that linked post — and to others, be they First Nations voices across the political spectrum, white Aussies, or migrants whose citizenship began on the national holiday.

This year I tuned in to Common Grace’s #changetheheart service (you can read a post on the Common Grace website about why), which you can still view online, and I’d encourage you to do so. You should probably prioritise that over reading what really amounts to another white guy adding noise to a conversation that needs less white guys adding noise. I’m still working out how to ‘pass the mic’ in these conversations so that I don’t just become a whitesplaining bloke who keeps ‘centering’ himself, while also having a corner of the internet where I write and process my own thoughts (while also realising that even using ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘centering’ is so ‘woke’ that I’ve already triggered an overt negative emotional response from some readers).

The difficulty I feel personally around January 26 hasn’t eased in the intervening years, though I’m not at all convinced by arguments, typically — but not exclusively — from white folk that we should keep the national day as January 26 and morph it into a day of mourning and acknowledgment, as well as celebration.

I’m puzzled as to why this question — the date of a national public holiday — has become such a polarising ‘culture war’ battlefront not between people of different ethnicity, or history, but between people of different political affiliation. That is, why we can’t just all say together ‘yeah, it’d be really good to have a national day that wasn’t inherently offensive to people in our community.’ That so many people want to hold on to January 26 while so many people are distressed by it just seems to me to be a failure to be good neighbours. It’s like the house on the street that wants to play their music loud, without considering the family with the unsettled infants, because, ‘freedom rules’…

I’ve noticed in the hyper-polarised discussion this year (see, for eg, News Ltd going to town on the ABC allowing its employees to refer to January 26 as Australia Day or Invasion Day), that the predictor of how one responds to the national day, and the call to national pride or national mourning that comes with it is not necessarily linked to ethnicity, but rather, a predilection to a certain political pole.

There are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the right who want to celebrate the goodness of Australia as a land of opportunity, where individuals can flourish, and there are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the left who want to see deep systemic change in Australia and believe that dealing with our nation’s history, or at least acknowledging it as a source of ongoing inequality, is the first step towards closing the gap. There are also those who want to do both. Simultaneously. On the same day. One thing I’ve noticed when (typically white) people call for a ‘redemption’ of January 26 through holding the tension of lament and celebration is how few Aboriginal Christians seem publicly supportive of the idea.

I’m not convinced this is possible, or good, for a few reasons, but one of them — in particular — is built on a Biblical principle around freedom and disputable matters, and I’ll unpack this below — other reasons are just how recently January 26 became a national Public holiday, what it is that January 26 commemorates, the ongoing injustices created by that date, and that a day of unity is not a day of unity when not everybody wants to come to the table. So long as the day is treated as a front in a culture war between right and left it can never be what those on the right say they want it to be (a day celebrating the unity and goodness of our nation). To achieve that end, the ‘left’ in the culture war would have to be wiped out. Before I get to the Biblical rationale for, at least Christians, supporting a change to the date, I found this essay fascinating and helpful when it comes to understanding how issues around racial equality play out, broadly speaking, along political lines both in the U.S (the context of the article), and I think also in Australia. I found it helpful in trying to unpack how we might transcend political division and work at peacemaking, especially as Christians. The piece was originally looking at how white people and black people in America approached race differently, but I think it’s actually also about how those on the right, and those on the left, approach race differently (including why people on the left accept Critical Race Theory, and the idea of ‘whiteness’ as an oppressive construct in white-dominated western countries). Michael Emerson, a sociologist, wrote The Persistent Problem back in 2010, the introductory thesis statement says:

“While whites tend to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, people of colour tend to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

The essay drills down into how this plays out in areas like how one defines racism — and again, I think the individual/systemic divide is a right/left divide, not (only or exclusively) a white/black divide.

“Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.”

To call a right leaning person a racist, with this definition operating in our heads, shuts down the conversation because the right leaning person says ‘but I do not have hatred in my heart towards a person of colour, nor am I personally prejudiced such that I discriminate’. Emerson observed that this individual emphasis is particularly held by white Christians. Perhaps this is because of the way individualism is a construct of both western thought (and thus ‘white’ thought), and Christian thought, as I unpacked a little while ago.

“Most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.”

We see this definition at work in, say, the Black Lives Matter protests, Critical Theory, and the response to the Australian Prime Minister’s (racist by this definition) statements about the First Fleet this week — that’s a classic expression of the sort of racism this definition describes, even if ScoMo has no personal animosity towards individual Indigenous people (or Indigenous communities). Interestingly it’s probably also why when we talk about ‘closing the gap’ and we want it to be about individual health care, and opportunities for education, and fixing individual behaviours that might cause less individual flourishing around health and education, it’s possible the system (the government) that is responsible for health and education, and that has a straight line institutional responsibility for the historic dispossession of our First Nations people, is doomed to fail.

Some of the gap that needs closing is a product of our nation’s systems — whether its stolen wages, the stolen generation, or the stolen land. All of these government operated policies created intergenerational disadvantage and when a government tries to create equal opportunities, or even reconciliation, against this historic disadvantage, without acknowledging the systemic ramifications of that historic (and ongoing) sin, it is probably not going to work — and yet, it is also true that better health and education outcomes for individuals are an important path to flourishing.

Disagreeing on racism’s definition means not only the potential for more group conflict, but also reduced potential for overcoming it. Different definitions mean groups and people are working to different ends using different means.

Emerson’s essay unpacks the idea of ‘white privilege’ in a useful and clear summary built on the three pillars of ‘white structural advantage’ where most of society’s institutions (public or private) are controlled by white people who benefit from the status quo of the system set up by and for them (an example here in Australia is, for example, that I come from at least three generations of land owners, such that the inherited wealth and stability I am born into allowed me to easily access education and be schooled in a secure environment that allowed me to thrive and pursue even more education, while also receiving good health care, in those generations my family ‘urbanised’ moving from settler status in regional New South Wales to life in inner city suburbia), ‘white normativity,’ where white people don’t have to navigate life in these systems as outsiders society is set up so ‘the way we do things’ is very close to ‘the way things are’ (so, I don’t have to navigate a difference between my ancestral language, music, and culture and the dominant or popular culture and language, plus, my ‘story’ is the ‘typical’ Aussie success story, totally built on ‘opportunity,’ wisdom, and ‘hard work’ but without state-sanctioned tragedy in the mix), and ‘white transparency’ where I don’t have to think about what is or isn’t an expression of ‘whiteness’ (and, beyond ‘whiteness’ I have very little idea about my cultural heritage, and don’t need to — for example, I was a teenager when I found out our ‘Campbellness’ comes, most directly, from Ireland, rather than Scotland).

Emerson makes a useful distinction between a ‘racist’ society — where these structures are overtly prejudiced against the other, and a racialised society where these structures work to systemically advantage those who neatly fall within them, and disadvantage other groups. And, while this is difficult for those of us who are ‘right-leaning’ — systems and especially institutions are a classic building block of small government conservatism so the sort of colour-blind individualism one might find advocated by commentator Gerard Henderson in his Australia Day piece, where ‘group identity’ is out and ‘individual success’ is to be celebrated across ethnic lines, is tricky to mesh with lived reality where one (an individual) receives their success only by successfully navigating and embedding in such institutions (like a university). It assumes a colour blind status quo that simply does not exist given the history and multiple stories interweaving in our nation. Emerson’s piece is, again, U.S centric, but it describes life in Australia in observably real terms.

A racialised society allocates what society values—income, wealth, fine neighbourhoods, quality schools, social status, respect, psychological well-being, health, life expectancy—unequally along racial lines. Society (its institutions and its people) create racial categories which change over time, as well as the form of racialisation—such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, de facto segregation and inequality. So while its form changes, what does not change is that race matters considerably for people’s identities, whom they know, where they live, whom they marry, and their life chances.

If education and better health outcomes are essential parts of closing the gap in Australia — and if the gap is a genuinely observable phenomena in a way that meets this definition of a ‘racialised’ society — then some changes will need to be systemic, not just the result of heroic individuals overturning the status quo and its disadvantages (though long may those individuals exist and be celebrated). No person is born into the world as an individual though — we are not the authors of our own story — we are born into families and social groups, and places, that we have no control over but that reflect the advantage, or otherwise of the people who have come before us. Again, it’s a fundamentally conservative thing to acknowledge this truth, the political left, and, typically, non western collectivist cultures just make this a bigger deal than our individual/liberal culture. Emerson says:

“We need to focus our attention on undoing our racialised society, on making our organisations fairer places for people of all racial backgrounds, on making our congregations places that do not reinforce racial division, but which instead bring people of all backgrounds together for the common purpose of glorifying God. We would do well to acknowledge that for all the reasons discussed earlier, whites’ tendency will be to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, whereas people of colour’s tendency will be to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

Again, for some purposes ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’ are interchangable with political ideologies (right, and left) that emphasise the individual and those that emphasise the collective. Although, it’s also true that ‘right’ and ‘left’ are built on the same western liberalism that makes ‘freedom’ the chief good; they have a common foundation, so there might be a ‘western right’ and ‘western left’ or ‘white right’ and ‘white left’ that operate differently to other political cultures from outside western liberal traditions… Part of ‘de-racialising’ might be ‘de-westernising’ or ‘de-whiting’ our society, so that we think corporately or systemically, not just individually.

One must — I think — particularly as a Christian see identity functioning corporately at least a little. For Christians this happens both for Israel (and the nations) in the Old Testament, and for the church and our union with Christ in the New Testament. Sin and blessing work inter-generationally in the Bible as well, with, for example, blessings and curses for Covenant obedience (land v exile) for Israel, and also judgment on the nations who mistreat Israel (and then, the church, in, say, Revelation).

A multi-purpose Australia Day where lament and celebration are held in tension doesn’t actually address the cause of the tension in Australia — it does not close the gap, nor does it address the ‘racialisation’ of our society, or help us develop the sort of language and common purpose that could allow us to start working towards de-racialisation and improvement in our communities. It may be that a mixed day is better than a nationalistic day of what is essentially conservative (or white) pride, but even if that means conservative (right-leaning) indigenous people, or successful individuals who have navigated the pressures of racialised society, feel their story is being celebrated — it does nothing for those people who by either ethnic experience, or political conviction, feel like something token is being offered. It’s not ‘virtue signalling’ to call for a date change to a more inclusive date if inclusivity is the starting point for a de-racialised society any more than it is ‘virtue signalling’ to call for the date to remain the same (for the white/right leaning Australian), or for a mixed occasion (for the person comfortable with tension). Every option put forward for January 26 is a contribution to a conversation about the virtues we want at the heart of our society — be it celebrating individual triumph in a nation we think has everything sorted (right-leaning nationalism), calling for mature holding of tension (typically a ‘centrist’ position from a position of privilege, that wants a more honest appraisal of history, and a maintaining of parts of the status quo worth celebrating), or a call to change the date to a mark a more inclusive and re-constructive occasion (typically a position from the political left).

And here’s why, as a Christian, I think we should throw our lot in with the Change the Date movement (while also pursuing the harder #changetheheart work) — not as an expression of ‘rightness’ or ‘leftness’ but as a path towards actual unity and deconstruction of our own racialisation, so that we operate as ministers of reconciliation — those who have been brought together in Christ — in an unreconciled nation. Nationalism is often a form of idolatry — this was true where the nation state and a religion were perfectly overlapping realities (say, in Ancient Rome, or in modern monarchies where the king or queen rule as divine regents), but it is also true in a secular world where the nation has become the ‘ultimate’ good in a world that has pushed divine or supernatural realities to the margins. One of the reasons the national holiday is so contested in the modern culture wars is that it is a ‘holy day’ — a chance to celebrate what we think should be held sacred (ANZAC Day is another expression of secular nationalistic religiosity). Marking a national holy-day is potentially idolatrous, that isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t ever join in celebrating the good things about our nation, and to be thankful for God’s providence to us, just that we already have reason to be careful — because we are ‘citizens of heaven’ and worshippers of God, serving our Lord and King, Jesus. The Old Testament is full of nationalistic idolatry — just read the book of Daniel — and we should try to navigate life in the public square much like Daniel did. He was a contributor to Babylon’s success (much like Joseph was to Egypt’s), but he did not worship its king in a display of empire-celebration (nor did Esther or Mordecai in Esther). We should approach a national day of celebration as people who live in our country, but whose citizenship is, ultimately, elsewhere — in a way that creates the potential for differentiation from calls to participate in idolatry. Some people in our midst will feel like the line between ‘idolatry’ and ‘not idolatry’ falls in different places — a bit like in the first century ‘food sacrificed to idols’ debate in the early church.

White nationalism is a particular form of idolatry that Christians, especially in the U.S, but not exclusively, are predisposed towards — perhaps because much of what we take for granted as ‘whiteness’ is a product of Christianity’s influence on the modern west and its nations — including our emphasis on the individual. When we are asked to celebrate Australia, what we might think we are being invited to celebrate is a western nation built on ‘judeo-Christian values’ — and so our conservative impulse is to use this as an opportunity to signal the good fruits of Christianity in our nation. Those outside ‘whiteness’ or ‘conservatism’ — whether those committed to a more collectivist outlook because of politics, or culture, or religious convictions might see ‘idolatry,’ or at least a participation in sin caught up much earlier in the celebration or participation in nationalism — right back to the choice of date and what is being ‘celebrated.’ When they are asked to celebrate Australia Day, with a time of lament attached to beginning, it feels a bit like saying grace before chowing down on food from the idol temple up the road. Those peoples consciences are seared to the extent that they are genuinely hurt when other members of the body — people who share their ultimate citizenship — participate without thinking in idolatry. The unity in the Body of Christ is damaged. The analogy isn’t exact, but I don’t think Paul’s ethical principles outlined in Romans and 1 Corinthians are only about food sold in the meat markets in the first century but about the absolute priority of unity in Christ; particularly, when it came to food laws, unity between two ethnic groups — Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ethic was to create a ‘de-racialised community’ built on the absolute truth of our union with Christ. I say it’s not a perfect analogy because Paul thought eating idol meat in your home was not the same as going to the idol temple and eating it in a liturgical BBQ. He definitely did not think Christians could or should participate in overt idolatry — and it’s possible to make a case that Australia Day, and certain forms of Australia Day celebrations, function overtly as holy-days for an idolatrous post-Christian ‘white nationalist’ society, especially given our nation’s history.

So for me, when some members of the body of Christ — our indigenous brothers and sisters — even if it’s not all of our indigenous brothers and sisters — say that they feel a breaking of fellowship when others participate in something — an area of genuine liberty — but one that they can only understand as participation in idolatry, I think we should listen, and respond in love. At least personally that’s where I’m at. I admit it’s hard for me to be convinced that anybody is deeply and ideologically wedded to January 26 as the traditional date, given its reasonably recent history (it’s only been a national holiday since 1994).

Changing the date won’t do everything in terms of de-racialisation, but not changing the date communicates something that keeps us from sharing the table with one another — whether in the church, or in the nation at large. All the fancy lamb ads in the world won’t overcome that divide. Not changing the date, or joining the call to have it changed, will keep some members of our community (whether church or nation) away from the table, and feeling like we’re at (culture) war with one another, rather than trying to make peace.

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul says:

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

And that sounds all well and good. We should each be convinced of our own position — whether from our ethnicity or our politics — and yet, he doesn’t end there… does he. Part of the ethical implications of our own individual union with Jesus — our not living for ourselves alone — is that we are also connected to one another… Part of the reason I’m unpacking my thinking here is that I’m not entirely sure this is just a ‘disputable matter’ or an area of total freedom. I do think there’s some idolatry caught up in Australia Day, and nationalism, that moves from ‘area of freedom’ to ‘area of sin’ — and while I’m not Paul, he tried to tread the line between taking an obvious position on a moral issue, upholding freedom and liberty, and making the absolute moral priority our union with Jesus. To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t in good conscience celebrate Australia Day as you see fit on January 26, with or without lament — but simply that because I am aware of the distress this causes some of my brothers and sisters, I can’t. Because to do so would be to no longer act in love — even with lament and tension, nor would it be to act towards de-racialisation as effectively as changing the date (whether that’s a token, or not, it’s going to help build trust in the sorts of institutions that provide education and healthcare, rather than perpetuate distrust).

Here’s how Paul concludes his example on idol meat in Romans 14:15-21… applying our union with Jesus to our union with one another. He says we should ‘make every effort’ to do what leads to peace, and the responsibility lies with the person who is not distressed, but who causes distress through the exercise of their freedoms around a Holy Day.

“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”

Note: I’m using this image here because for some reason when the link gets shared it’s grabbing a picture of Trump holding a Bible from a ‘related post’…

A letter to my MP about Australia Day

I’ve noticed, and been grieved by, how polarising the current conversation about Australia Day is on my social media. I spent Thursday night in a prayer service hosted by Christian leaders from the indigenous community, where Aunty Jean Phillips (who I meet with regularly during the year and hold in huge esteem), urged those in attendance to write to our local MPs… then I spent my public holiday yesterday enjoying a multicultural picnic with our church family (including our refugee and migrant brothers and sisters in Christ), enjoying a swim in the pool with another bunch of families, and playing backyard cricket on the fields at the end of our street with our neighbours (followed by beer and a barbeque). So I’m conflicted. I think that 24 hours represents something of the paradox of Aussie life and January 26.

I suspect a massive part of the polarising of the Australian community around all sorts of issues — including this one — is a failure to sacrificially and actively listen to other voices and to seek compromise. So, it’s in that spirit that I wrote this letter to my local MP, and copied in the local MP for the electorate our church meets in (also the Queensland Government’s minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, the Premier and the Opposition Leader).

Here’s my letter, in case it helps others formulate or express similar thoughts.

 

27 January, 2018

Dear Ms Corinne McMillan MP, Member for Mansfield,
The Hon Ms Anastasia Palaszckuk MP, Premier of Queensland,
The Hon Ms Deb Frecklington MP, Opposition Leader,
The Hon Ms Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier of Queensland, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

Re: Australia Day

On Thursday the 25th of January 2018, I attended a prayer service held by leaders from the aboriginal Christian community here in Queensland — Aunty Jean Phillips and Ms Brooke Prentis. The service was held in the West End Uniting Church (in Ms Trad’s electorate). I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland with a congregation also based in West End, though I live in Upper Mount Gravatt (Mansfield), so I write to Ms McMillan as a constituent.

As I listed the relevant recipients of this letter I paused for a moment to reflect on what wonderful progress it represents for our nation, in striving for equality, especially when it comes to equality of representation in our leadership that each relevant minister, member, and leader for this correspondence is a woman. This representation is both symbolic in its importance, but substantial in reality. I am thankful for you, and for the example of public service and commitment to changing the world that each of you model for my two daughters (and also for my son). The Bible urges us to pray for those in authority and to respect you, and I recognise the sacrifice and commitment to the good of our community that each of you have made in reaching these positions and am thankful for your wisdom and example. I was struck too that both leaders of this prayer service were indigenous women speaking out for another sort of symbolic and substantial change, in the name of equality, so craved by their community. Both Brooke and Aunty Jean are examples of courageous and spirited leadership and the pursuit of the improvement of our society for the good of all for my children, but for the community at large.

I write for two reasons.

Firstly, to urge the government of Queensland to continue listening to voices from the indigenous community — especially voices as reasonable and wise as these two women. I ask you to hear their lament about the conditions facing Aboriginal Australians and to recognise that the lament around Australia Day being held on the 26th of January is about a symbolic issue, but that symbols are powerful and important and have long shaped behaviours and communities. I write because I listened to Aunty Jean’s request that we take action by contacting our political leaders. I write to encourage you to meet with Aunty Jean and other leaders from the indigenous church to consider how the church might help play its part in working towards continued reconciliation and better outcomes for indigenous Australians.

Secondly, I write to express my thanks to the staff of parliament house for apparently doing just this — listening — to the elders who joined the protest on January 26 and participated in their own symbolic gesture. When I read the story about this act in The Australian, featuring quotes from the Leader of the Opposition I was struck by two things; the Opposition Leader’s obvious concern for deeper issues of justice facing our indigenous neighbours, but the irony of her taking a symbolic act (the flag lowering) seriously enough to comment, condemning the act… if symbols do not matter then surely the lowering of the flag should pass without comment?

As I listened to these two women from the indigenous community who I respect as leaders in the Christian community, I was struck by the way they understand the link between symbols and behaviour — between our nation’s desire to celebrate our shared identity or ‘national day’ on January 26, the apparent disregard for the feelings of our indigenous neighbours, and the ongoing issues facing those neighbours. I heard Aunty Jean break down in tears about health issues, especially diabetes, in the indigenous communities, and Brooke Prentis describe the social pressures that lead indigenous children to suicide. These are the litany of issues also highlighted by the Opposition leader in The Australian article: “life threatening but preventable diseases, substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment – the real issues facing our indigenous communities,” but simply that ‘Australia Day’ is a symbolic issue does not make it less real; that would depend on exactly what it is that the continued celebration of a national day on January 26th symbolises for this part of our community who are deeply and profoundly aware of these issues. Perhaps our failure to listen on a symbolic issue reflects how seriously committed we are as a nation to these deeper issues? Perhaps if we are not willing to make small sacrifices symbolically it is fair to expect that our nation will not make the substantial sacrifices required on these large issues?

Christians profoundly believe in the power of symbols because symbols represent substance and help shape behaviour. Aunty Jean often repeats her conviction that the most important symbol for reconciliation in our country is not what happens with Australia Day, but is the cross of Jesus — arguably the most recognisable symbol in the world. The cross symbolises God’s acting in reconciliation and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus to bring both justice and peace. It is a powerful symbol of sacrifice that has served and shaped the western world for many generations, it is obviously not the government’s responsibility to take up this symbol in order to pursue reconciliation, forgiveness and justice, that is the role of the church. This is simply evidence that symbols have long mattered and have powerfully shaped our nation (the church has obviously not been blameless in indigenous issues in Australian history). The symbolism associated with celebrating our national day on a day of grief and mourning for our indigenous neighbours is significant; a sign, so to speak for how we view that grief and its legitimacy. Changing the date, or how we mark it, would also be significant, not just symbolic.

I’m thankful for the gesture of lowering the flags at Parliament House because symbols matter when they create a sense of belonging and inclusion and a platform for genuine listening and relationships. I hope that whatever happens with the marking of January 26th as a significant moment in our nation’s history that we might find shared symbols that express a desire for genuine reconciliation, and a commitment to working together on those profoundly important substantial issues, and would be happy to be part of such processes whether in my electorate of Mansfield, or within the community of West End, where our church is located.

I trust that you, as elected representatives and leaders of Queensland will act with wisdom seeking good outcomes for the people you lead and represent, and thank you for your continued service.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Australian Stories: On resting in and wrestling with the paradox of modern Australia on Australia Day as a Christian

Twice a year I get invited to speak to a bunch of American (and sometimes Canadian) university students on an exchange program about ‘what it means to be Australian’… I confess it’s not a question I’d thought much about until my friend who runs the program asked me onto this panel.

On Australian Stories

I’ve been more deliberate in thinking about this question since the first time around; it makes me look and sound smarter; so I’ve become more deliberate in how I approach Australia Day, and in how I understand the ‘Australian Story’ (or, rather, stories). I’ve decided that the answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ is often profoundly shaped by how you understand the ‘Australian Story’ (and how many stories you recognise). There are, I believe, four fundamental stories always intersecting in the Australian identity (and in many Australian family stories, and so in many individuals).

  1. The Indigenous story: a story of invasion, dispossession and perpetual systemic injustice perpetrated by those in power, and reflected in the surrounding culture.
  2. The ‘Establishment’ story: a story of the expansion of the British empire (including membership in the Commonwealth, a system of government, an established religion and ‘establishment’ high culture).
  3. The ‘Convict’ story: a story of getting one over the establishment from back home; who sent our people to paradise as a ‘punishment’ for very small misdemeanours, who were brutal when we arrived, but who eventually released us into a land of opportunity. There’s an amalgam of these two stories in the ‘settler story’ which is a story of deliberate migration for new opportunity.
  4. The ‘Migrant’ story: this story is a more recent version of the settler story; it’s of people who’ve arrived post-establishment, seeking opportunity and prosperity. This included the gold rushes, the waves of immigration from Europe (especially Italy and Ireland), and more recently immigration from Asia. There’s a subset of this story that includes both refugees and asylum seekers.

Before being confronted with this question for the purposes of this class, I’d almost assumed that to be Australian was pretty much to be like me… to really love the idea of multiculturalism (especially the food); to have almost no sense of my ‘European’ heritage, and to believe that most of my view of Australia had been developed in my formative years growing up in a country town on the east coast. I was definitely aware that there were ‘other’ Australian stories out there that were part of the tapestry of Aussie life; the community I grew up in had a relatively large indigenous population, living in a city meant I’d spent more time with first and second generation migrant families from various places (especially from within Asia), and living in North Queensland and promoting Ingham and Charters Towers as holiday destinations built on their Italian and gold rush histories meant I was aware of different historic influxes of migrants who’d arrived in Australia seeking opportunity.

Despite being someone who’s possibly a bit of a European mixed bag of ‘establishment English’ (on my mother’s side), and Irish settler (though probably not convict side), I think the story I most closely resonated with was that of the convict; sent off to ‘purgatory’ by the stuffy British establishment only to end up in paradise. There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in Aussie culture borne out of this story, and reinforced by the possibly inept expressions of rule from the ‘mother country’ particularly in the trenches when we’ve gone off to fight for the Commonwealth. I’d say this is the story my public school education reinforced for me. I’ve become increasingly aware, the more I pay attention online to what Sydney Anglicans (as a generalised tribe) seem to believe about the ‘establishment church’ and Australian history (including the narrative that Australia was a ‘Christian country’ at European settlement) that there are other ‘stories’ out there that people tell about what it means to be Australian (my bias is to the convict/settler narrative I tend not to take this claim seriously because pretty much as soon as convicts were freed from having to go to church, they stopped)… I suspect, though I don’t have first hand experience, that this ‘establishment’ narrative operates in ‘establishment’ schools (especially church and private schools that come from the ‘establishment’ set). This is a different story to the anti-establishment story I’d had in my head about what being Australian is, and it leads to all sorts of different places when it comes to life now.

Stories matter. They really really matter. Our identity doesn’t just come from our tribe, or our ‘preferences,’ or what we choose for ourselves as though our humanity is some sort of blank slate that we, as individuals, are the only people get to write on. Your slate is written on before you are born, and as you are raised… and the thing that most shapes what is written is the story you are born into, and brought up believing.

On ‘Australia Day’ as contested ground in these Australian stories

The story we tell ourself about what it means to be Australian matters (which is why the ‘history wars’ were a thing when it came to the curriculum for teaching Aussie history in schools).

It shapes our understanding of what both progressive and conservative political agendas look like, because it orients us in particular ways to government, the world, our ‘history’, and the ‘ideal’ Australian story (typically subjectively viewed from our own story). Both the ‘establishment’ and ‘convict’ stories start at roughly the same point — some time around the 26th of January in 1788, which has become ‘Australia Day’ — which is a shame given that Australian history starts much, much earlier. There’s another story. One I’ve become increasingly convicted that I should be listening to in order to understand being an Aussie.

One of the results of being confronted with my default ignorance about what it means to be Australian by having to explain it to some outsiders (American students) is a desire to pay attention to other Australian stories. This has shaped the way I’ve understood and approached Australia Day this year. My neighbours are, mostly (to give them plausible deniability), like me. Their stories are like mine. Australia Day on our street has been one of the best parties of the year and it represents all that is good about my story. Over the last few years we celebrated this story in our Australia Day street party. Last year, our church family held a BBQ on Australia Day to celebrate the migrant story; and particularly that our church community embraces those who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers (in this we were deliberately modelling an alternative Australian story; a kind of subtle protest movement against an Australia Day that has, in parts, become an ugly sort of ‘patriotic’ celebration of a particularly exclusive Australian story. This year, we did both these things again, but because I decided to consciously seek out another story, the first Australian story, I also attended a service of lament and prayer organised by a local Indigenous Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips.

There were amazing things about this service that I’ll get to below; but it was a profound telling of that first Australian story, and the modern day implications of that story being over-written by other ‘Australian’ stories. The more I am confronted with this first story the more I recognise what drives the marches, the tent embassies, and the other efforts indigenous people make to have their story told, and the injustices it contains heard, recognised, and dealt with. I learned, as I listened in this service, that I shouldn’t speak as though there’s just ‘one first Australian story’… there were, I’m told (because this is how we learn stories) 300 indigenous nations living on this grand island. There are lots of stories about what it means to be Australian that come from our first people; and there’s little doubt that when European settlers declared Australia terra nullius and then set about establishing a colony of the commonwealth, part of what happened was a reflection of a desire to bring many of these stories to an end. And yet they, like the people who own these stories, survive. They survive as a testimony that terra nullius was a lie; as a testimony of resilience, and as a reminder that part of the settlement story was very, very, ugly.

There are things I love about my own ‘Australian story’… things I want to celebrate on ‘Australia Day’ that come from British settlement (but things that don’t necessarily need to be celebrated on the 26th of January).

I love our lifestyle, the laconic approach to almost everything, our in-built egalitarianism that means people are quite happy to think of our leaders as ‘mates’ (which also underpins the good bits of our democracy), there’s a dark side to this, of course, which manifests itself in tall poppy syndrome.

I love the sort of innovation that drives Aussies, born out of a need to survive in the harsher parts of our terrain. I love that some of our innovation is geared towards making laziness (or relaxing) more possible. One of my favourite things about visiting my pa, on the Campbell side, who was a sort of rural entrepreneur in country New South Wales, was finding little ‘fixes’ he’d installed around his house and shed (like belts cut in half and nailed to walls to keep the gates open or shut), this was a man who had owned stakes in produce stores, a piggery, and would buy farm machinery to on sell at a profit. When I think of what it means to be Australian, he’s the first picture I get in my head. I love everything about ‘Australia’ the image of my pa conjures in my head; I’ve got this romanticised notion of who he was, no doubt, and my own sense of what it means to be Australian includes the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales, and cane farmers, cane fires, and fishermen who run trawlers.

Now I’m citified, I love that being Australian means the easy availability of cuisines from many different cultures, and that my kids will go to school alongside people from many nations who now call Australia home.

I think it’s totally legit to look for an opportunity to celebrate these things. I love that I can do that with my neighbours and friends who share many of these loves (or similar loves when it comes to their own histories) and hold them as common goods that Australians enjoy as a result of our shared stories.

As a Christian, I also love that the Gospel of Jesus made it to these shores with European settlers (but hate how this Gospel is associated, forever, with what some of these settlers did), including, for example, the devoutly Christian governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who it is said believed “that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation” (there’s a Christian leadership institute named after Macquarie and a secular university). He was almost certainly a Christian (I mean, I can’t say that anyone certainly is), but also, certainly, part of the ugly side of Australian settlement. Here’s an excerpt from his diary.

“I therefore, tho (sic), very unwillingly felt myself compelled, from a paramount sense of public duty, to come to the painful resolution of chastising these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments upon…

I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains.

“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance — or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do — the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.” — Orders from New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1816.

Australia’s history is messy. Ugly. This is true, as far as I know, of every human nation. We’re not unique in this; nor are we really unique in wanting to live in blissful ignorance, or comfortable denial, or to not be held responsible for the ugliness of our nation’s past. That this is true of all nations.

That I, personally, wasn’t responsible for the way Europeans arrived in Australia, doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from European settlement (in a way that others have not), or from the stories we’re told, and that we tell, about what it means to be Australian. This benefit is part of what people talk about when they talk about privilege; that, and that the ‘establishment’ looks and talks like me and largely identifies with the same story. The white bloke who signed that order quoted above, Lachlan Macquarie, looked like me; spoke like me; could well be my ancestor; and it’s a sort of chronological snobbery to assume that I would’ve been able to avoid the evil he was part of perpetrating through these orders had I been in his shoes. It’s absolutely true that I wasn’t responsible for how the first Australians were treated by British migrants, but I am, in part, responsible for how they are treated today. It’s possible that in denying responsibility for our history, we also avoid taking on responsibility for our future. It’s absolutely true that many Aussies aren’t racists and hate the situation our first Australians find themselves in when it comes to health, imprisonment, education and life expectancy; but it’s individuals who build and renew systems.

This all brings me back to the 26th of January; which, since 1994, has been a federally recognised and public holiday, celebrated nationally: Australia Day.

But whose Australia is celebrated on this day?

In which stories is this a day for celebration?

In the establishment story it represents the expansion of empire and the arrival of a certain sort of civilisation, technology, and worldview (including the religion of the establishment, Christianity).

In the convict story it represents the start of us getting one over the bigwigs who sent us to a country of sun and surf from their rainy misery; a chance for us to embrace our anti-establishment, egalitarian, tendencies and our valuing of mateship (and beer). 

In the migrant story, perhaps it is this settlement that made Australia a desirable destination to seek opportunity, prosperity or a fresh start.

In my own ‘story’; there’s little to no chance I’d exist, let alone exist in somewhere as amazing as Australia, if it wasn’t for European settlement, on this basis it’s hard for me to think that that first Australia Day was entirely a bad thing. It’s also quite probable that some sort of ‘conquest’ or settlement of Australia was going to happen without the British; and it’s possible that settlement would have been as bad, or worse, than British settlement… possible… but what we know for sure is that British settlement included such poetic instructions as ‘hang their bodies on the most public tree possible to terrorise their friends and family’… and that’s a real part of our history that we must confront, and be confronted by. It’s a part of our history that in some real way began around the 26th of January with the planting of the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney.

What are we celebrating on the 26th of January?

There are definitely good things that exist in Australia now because of how history has unfolded; there are things that are particularly good when viewed in the context of particular ‘Australian’ stories. But in the first Australians’ stories; well, I can, when I read things like Macquarie’s orders, and listen to the stories of indigenous friends and leaders of different indigenous communities, recognise that the 26th of January, this day, is not a day for celebration, but lament and anger. And it’s in moments like this that I need to consider the limits of my own story (especially its subjectivity), and ‘check my privilege’…

There are, also, things I don’t love about modern Australia; an ugliness that comes from, what I think in part is unchecked or unrealised privilege, and that is related, ironically, to our ‘settlement stories’. It certainly also comes from us wanting to honour the Australia shaped by people like my pa; the way of life and common goods they’ve carved out in living out the ‘settlement’ stories (either convict or establishment).

For many people there’s a good and natural desire to conserve things our ancestors have lived for and that have been produced through the ‘Australian story’ that is a sum total of all the Australian stories… but I suspect our treatment of asylum seekers is the product of a particular sub-story about what it means to be Australian… and I’m not sure this story is the one that should be our dominant story. But our treatment of asylum seekers (increasingly if the One Nation narrative picks up steam) comes from the idea that Australia is our country, and that our borders and lifestyle should be maintained against foreigners who come by boat and threaten our way of life. I hate what this leads us to do to those seeking asylum among us; those who’ve fled war, or persecution, who we lock up and systematically dehumanise for our own safety and security. I hate that we don’t recognise the inconsistency at the heart of this treatment of boat arrivals (and love the way I’ve heard the indigenous community speak of a desire to welcome and resettle refugees; which compounds the irony). I hate that we don’t recognise that this same desire to conserve a way of life is not something those who launched our ‘stories’ offered to the first nations people.

I hear indigenous Australians call for a change of date and I recognise the pain behind that call… and ultimately I think it’s the call of the indigenous community — the wronged — that we should hear.

It is clear that the 26th of January is not a day for unmitigated celebration of modern Australian life; and that the championing of a single Australian story is unhelpful anyway. If there was public will to change the date then that might be a very good thing indeed.

But my own (perhaps privileged) inclination is to leave ‘Australia Day’ on a contested date in order to make us sit with the paradox that is life in Australia. There is so much to love. So much to embrace. So much to celebrate. But there is also so much to hate. So much to overcome. So much to lament. And it is possible that attempting to do both — to experience the ‘contest’ of many Australian stories internally and to have that shape our own ‘story’ might lead to a better and more compassionate Australia; to a better future.

I’ve seen a few other people (all white so far, and mostly from the ‘establishment’ story) make this suggestion, and I’m offering it very tentatively; and I’m offering it largely because as a Christian I believe that grappling with paradoxes, rather than seeking neat resolution, is where real wisdom and progress towards what is good comes from. As G.K Chesterton put it:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

I’d like Australia to get over the difficulty of combining our contested stories by recognising that there is meaning, and warning, and opportunity in the midst of the conflict, not in victory/simplicity (the One Nation approach), or in elegant conflict-avoiding resolution (a date change). But, I recognise that I say this as someone who has the privilege of a story free from being a victim of the ‘fury’ of one of these stories, and that the elegant solution of changing the date is far better than most of the alternatives… I suspect keeping it would mean not just us white Aussies lamenting at the evil in our own story; but hearing the voices raised in protest of our first Australians; and it would only be of any value if we were really committed to listening to these voices and having them change our shared story in ways that bring meaningful, tangible, change to our future.

Whatever happens with the date, there’s a way that is better by far in terms of bringing real change. The way of Jesus.

How the Gospel story ‘contests’ this contest, and provides a better resolution (and how Aunty Jean models this)

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. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” — Acts 17:26-28

Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles…” — 1 Peter 2:10-11

There’s a tension at the heart of being a Christian when it comes to our national identity; we believe that God is sovereign and places us (as in gives us a place to live) as ‘storied creatures’ (who exist in time and space and do things, and inherit ‘stories’ from those who come before us), but we also believe that as Christians our story is profoundly changed from what it was before; in such a way that our first ‘belonging’; our first ‘story’ is not our family story, or national story, but the story of the mercy we receive through Jesus which makes us into a new family; a new kingdom (a kingdom of priests cf 1 Peter 2:8-10). We become ‘foreigners’ even in lands we call home; lands we’re born into, perhaps with thousands of years of family history.

This isn’t to say our place, and our stories, and our families, don’t matter; they still profoundly do. We’ve just got another story in the mix that trumps the default, self-interested, reactions that happen when human stories are contested like they are for us on January 26.

And this is why I loved Aunty Jean’s service of prayer and lament (which was not just Aunty Jean’s, but thoughtfully constructed by Brooke Prentis from Common Grace). Aunty Jean is passionate about her people; but passionately believes the best thing for them is not tied to the Australian story but to the Gospel story. She’s said this thing to me a few times, and said it in this service; the great hope for indigenous Australians is found in the cross of Jesus. And she means this. And she lives it. Lots of Aussies — indigenous and white — were protesting today, and I can understand this; Aunty Jean wants Christians to be praying; and what she models in this is a deep understanding of life as an ‘exile’; life as a foreigner in a country where her people have roots that are significantly deeper than mine; she lives as one who believes that forgiveness and embrace is the key to contested stories; not conflict and exclusion or exclusivity.

There’s a letter from the early church, the Epistle of Diognetus, which talks about what life as ‘exiles’ looks like. The writer (probably someone called Mathetes, says of Christians, that they don’t look profoundly different to the people of the surrounding culture; they don’t live in their own cities and speak their own language, they dress the same, eat the same, and mostly live the same in the ‘ordinary’ stuff… but somehow “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” He says:

“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

This epistle is a powerful sort of concept, and let me tell you, it’s powerful to witness. Because I see it in Aunty Jean. Aunty Jean who as a member of a people horribly oppressed responds in incredible love and compassion for her people, but extends that love to others, even to those who number with the oppressors. Aunty Jean who is a dynamo, who’ll embrace anyone who is prepared to journey with her towards a vision of reconciliation built on the mercy of God displayed in Jesus.

I’ve had the utter privilege of spending some time listening to Aunty Jean in the last few months, of hearing her vision for Australia, and for her people, of hearing her desire to raise up new indigenous leaders who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, of wanting to see her people better embraced by the Australian church, and of wanting to see the church speak up with her in pursuit of justice where injustice exists. And I’ve caught a bit of this from her.

Our story is the story of a God who doesn’t just take ugly stories and make them new (which he does in us); he takes the ugliness of extreme human evil, and uses it for his good purposes. That’s what the story of the Cross is; the ugliness of the human heart on display, but the beauty of God’s reconciling love overpowering that evil (which is why I think there’s maybe some hope for Australia bringing our messed up stories together to make something beautiful). Our story is a story that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus; the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, and calls for the forgiveness of those jeering him as he’s crucified… which when you understand the whole point of the Cross — is actually a picture of what Jesus is offering all of us… and there’s no part of the lives, stories, and identities of those who follow Jesus where that call, and that example, does not reach. And wow. It’s powerful when you see that lived in the context of these conflicting Aussie stories surrounding Australia Day.

Our job is to take up the picture of the kingdom of Jesus we’re offered in his story, the Gospel, and in its ending, which is found in the last pages of the Bible, and to live lives oriented towards that. It’s a powerful picture and that’s part of what compels us to live as exiles. A picture of life where our old stories of pain, and suffering, and evil, are done away with and all things are made new. A story built on reconciliation with God, that leads to reconciliation across historic and present enmity, with others.

Aunty Jean is committed to a sort of peacemaking that comes from having the story of the Cross of Jesus as her first story. She, and Common Grace’s Brooke Prentis, definitely want us to hear the story of our first Australians, and to respond with love and compassion; but they don’t tell that story in a way that leads to guilt or in a way that amplifies the contest; they tell it in a way that helps us to see an alternative future. And they don’t just tell the story, they live it.

It’s the “privilege” of the victim in the utterly subversive way that the Gospel story is lived, to be the one who can magnify the truth of the Gospel by offering forgiveness (this isn’t a thing you get to force either… it’s just beautiful when you see it. And it’s the privilege of the “privileged” in the Gospel story, to be prepared to give up privilege for the sake of the other). When it comes to Australia’s history the ‘privilege’ line is pretty clearly not the Indigenous Australians whose ongoing survival seems miraculous,

This ‘Australia Day’, it was Aunty Jean (and those she leads by this example) who modelled a way forward towards a better Australia to me, and if it looked like her vision for Australia, it’d be a beautiful place worth celebrating on any and every day.