Australia day is and has become a mainstream event, significant for its honours, naturalisation ceremonies and party atmosphere. It has its roots in 1788 and the coming of the English to this country and celebrates the nostalgia for another time.
Now, I understand people are entitled to celebrate our country and I accept that Australia, at its best, has much to offer. I also accept we got much from the English – cricket, soccer and Governor-Generals – but these, for those who here first, probably don’t compensate for the fact the country was taken from us without even a by your leave.
Here is where it gets difficult. It’s not about the date. It’s about the story we tell on this day. In an article published today on the ABC, Stan Grant asks the question what is the song, the story for a divided Australia, what is the song we are to sing in this place?
Today in Moree the Gamilroi will be gathering to remember another event that occurred on this day. On January 26 1838 police and settlers hunted and pursued Aboriginal families before gunning them down in a creek bed known as Waterloo Creek. Officially some 40 men, women and children died but some historians suggested the figures were much more.
Today they will get a plaque.
The recent Australia Day ad clearly says there are many here in this country and you are invited to join us on this day to tell our story, the original story, the story of the white settlement of this country. We are not telling the Aboriginal story, the refugee story or the multi-cultural story – the day celebrates the bringing of Western (read English) culture and religion to this country and that’s the story we are telling. We are happy for you to join us to do to tell tis story, if you want to.
The writers of the Revised Lectionary used by mainstream churches, the little green book, which tells us what the readings and are the colours for the day, tell the same story.
Deuteronomy, for example, reminds us God has brought us into the promise land, the land of milk and honey. God gave us this land and it is and will provide all we need. There is no mention of sharing, but only of taking. This is an understanding of a God who is our God only and a God who will allow us to plunder this land for our own benefit. It follows the story of Israel on the way to the Promised Land, which was taken from the original inhabitants, and all who lived there were wiped out, including women and children.
It reinforces the sense that this land was discovered and settled and that no one was here at the time. We know that’s not true but its what we believe and say over and over in our scriptures, liturgy and national rhetoric.
The Hebrews reading uses the story of Abraham on a journey to his inheritance, which could be as a metaphor for the coming of the English to Australia. Once again this raises the image of entitlement and the imprimatur of God on the taking of this country. These are not benign readings of which we can say they are just Bible readings and they don’t mean much. They reflect an understanding of this day reinforcing the official story we tell about ourselves.
These are not used to reflect a past understanding of what happened here. These are readings chosen by white people, in the 21st century. If this was a lectionary from the early 20th century I would simply smile and tut a bit – how silly they thought like that. But it’s not. It reflects the thinking of the church and society in the 21st century. Rev Garry Deverell has pointed this out in a press release from Anglican Board of Mission and I have offered this service for others to use on this day, yet we are two lone voices and many will continue to celebrate this day without any sense of the blindness needed to do so.
Even the Gospel reading, when read in the context of the other two readings, is about ensuring those who are spiritual, those for whom this country is the metaphorical fulfilment of the Abraham and Exodus stories, are supported in the difficult task of living here. Matthew spiritualises the beatitudes, takes them out of the practical environment and makes them things of the heart. Things of the heart often excuse the actions and words people do and take. If these words were taken seriously ad enacted, they would be so impactive we would celebrate modern Australia and we would do so with the original custodians in an equitable relationship with the later-comers.
Post-colonialism is the state after colonisation where those who colonised and those who were colonised come together and reimagine the space, in this case Australia, and rewrite a narrative inclusive of all. That is yet to happen here. We are living in a neo-colonial state where little has changed. The story is still white and still told through the European imagination. Aboriginal people are the exotic other, the ‘Ooga Booga’ people useful for didge playing, footy and welcomes to country, but little more. They have no voice about what happens to them or about what they intrinsically know, except when the dominant society thinks it might be of assistance to fix up the mess they have made – cultural or firestick burning is an example.
In this little Green Book it tells us the colour for today is white. This is a significant indicator of the mindset of the editors of this book. We wear white for major festivals such as Christmas, Holy Thursday, the season of Easter, marriage, baptism and major saints. In legislating we wear white for Australia Day, they have elevated what is basically a regional and national day to the equal of the birth of Jesus. It gives what is being celebrated, the settlement at Sydney in 1788 almost 50 years before Melbourne, the imprimatur of an ordained act of God.
It’s not. It should not be.
Now it’s fine to celebrate what is good about this country and the culture that came with and has grown up from the settlement. But it’s not all we should celebrate or contemplate. Today has the capacity to begin the conversation towards a post-colonial Australia but it will require a change of the official rhetoric around the day so that it moves from 1788, as ordained by God, to a recognition of the impact of that day on the people who were here and who are still here.
It requires such as the church to reimagine the day not as Christian triumphalism but with humility, requiring us to expand our understanding to include those who were here and whose complex society should have and should be valued and included beyond the ceremonial.
It requires those of us who are part of the first people’s to continue to speak of what occurred and to offer the hand of hope. We are to avoid the language of anger and anarchy but to speak the truth quietly and with dignity, intent on bringing balance and wholeness to our lands again. That is our vocation.
It requires us all to move from the need to defend our positions and gather together, imbued with lament and hope, tell the story, hear the truth, seek reconciliation and begin to build a new future. As Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said this weekend, there is much to celebrate and much to enjoy in this modern Australia and we are to focus on building a new future for all here. It begins with a coming together of all to listen and here story, holding each other with respect and anticipation of reconciliation and hope.
I will finish with a quote from Max Dulumunmun Harrison:
“So I take this word reconciliation and I use it to reconcile people back to Mother Earth, so they can walk this land together and heal one another because she’s the one that gives birth to everything we see around us, everything we need to survive.”