Australia Day: Beyond Jingoism or Self-Loathing

So it’s Australia Day.  Who came up with that creative name, an engineer?  Better, I suppose than Guam Day or Laos Day. But nowhere near as colourful as Seychelles Day (somehow gathering sea-shells by the sea-shore seems like something one would do on the national day of the Seychelles).

Two defining, and I fear increasing, features of Australia Day these past decades, or at least the two poles of the one defining feature, are jingoism and self-loathing. Jingoism out on the political right, and self-loathing on the political left.  Sorry if you don’t like the terms, but they are the extremities of the positions, and they are increasingly on view.

Patriotic jingoism on Australia Day has taken on a slightly menacing tone recently, in which too loud and too proud Aussies assert their belief in all things “Strayan”, including their right to a good time, a few beers, and a desire for all things to stay as they were in Australia in roughly 1978.

This particular perspective has been louder, more packaged, and more self-aware in the wake of a strong swing against celebrating Australia Day, and calling it Invasion Day, which many of our indigenous people do.  Hence Facebook today in Australia oscillates between celebration and mourning; jingoism and self-loathing; calls to have a good time and calls to go into a deep sorrowful reflection about the way this nation has ended up.

As usual, and unfortunately, it seems that the aim of both groups is to strong-arm their particular narrative of Australia Day onto the pages of history.  History is written by the winners after all, so with iconic events such as Australia Day, there’s a lot at stake.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  There is much to both celebrate AND to mourn about Australia Day.  Much good has come out of the last couple of hundred years of white settlement, and much bad also.  The problem with the social media slug-fest going on today on the likes of Facebook, however, is that it pretty much descends into hand-bags at twenty paces without a lot of middle ground.

(By the way, a request for my non-Australian readers: If you can come up with a better name for our national day than its current iteration, let me know.)

But how should Christians respond to Australia Day?  The pendulum swings of jingoism or self-loathing? Disinterest?  Somewhere on the spectrum?

The key, of course is remembering the words of Paul in Philippians 3:20

20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

This tells us a number of things

Firstly, be realistic: The city or country of our hope is in the new creation.  Which means we don’t despair when Australia is not all it should be, nor be proud when it ticks all the boxes we want it to. There are many thing about Australia that need to change, and there are many things about it that we should seek to maintain.  However our true hope does not lie in us getting our vision of what or who we are as Australians over the line.  It lies in the vision we share with the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:16, “a heavenly country, a better one”.

Secondly your political ideology, political party, choice for Prime Minister, perspective on same sex marriage etc, etc, is not going to be the salvation of Australia – Jesus is.  So no matter how many Prime Ministers get knifed in the back, or whether your guy or girl gets over the line, or whether the plebiscite delivers what you want, just remember that flesh gives birth to flesh!

One day the creation will be renewed by God’s Spirit through both judgement and salvation, and the Australia that emerges out of that will be the one that God intended from time eternal.  That means there will be things you like about the broken version of  Australia that will be judged and removed, and there are things you don’t like about the broken version of Australia that will be exonerated and glorified.  So be humble about the things you like about this broken Australia, and be gentle with the things you don’t like. Just remember, you don’t have the final call on how this Australia thing will play out.

Thirdly we are called to work for change in our country – change for the better.  But whatever your theological and political slant, progressive or conservative, we are not called to usher in God’s kingdom on earth (or Australia), but announce with our words and our works that God will usher in his kingdom, and he has given us a tiny, fractured reality of that  through the church.  True, the good works of God’s people will bleed out into justice, mercy, compassion, creativity, love and hope in this age, but this age will not be brought to an end by our efforts.

 If we cannot even transform our lowly bodies to be like the glorious body of Christ, then be humble enough to admit that we can’t do that transformation to 24 million other bodies, (and much cattle) our country so desperately needs. If we cannot do even that, then we must be humble enough to admit that we cannot implement a full plan to bring our vision of glory to Australia.

God will work through his people to bring justice, holiness, truth and beauty to Australia, but at best that will only ever be a partial fulfilment, and at worst, when we remove our eyes from the heavenly citizenships, it will degenerate into our idealised/idolised view of what this country should be.

What happens when that reality falls off the radar?  We become angry or proud.  Angry when our vision is not implemented, or proud when it is.  And jingoism and self-loathing are fuelled by anger and pride.

So Christians in Australia today, it’s ok to look back today at the good and bad done in the name of our country.  It’s ok to look forward too at how we can make the place better.  But only do those things insofar as you look up first, because that’s where our true citizenship lies.

16 Comments

  1. Well said. I’m pleased to see that between the two extremes there are many trying to find another way. I love this country but I am so glad that my true citizenship is not in this wide, brown land.

  2. Hi Stephen, thanks for the post. I was musing this morning on the primary christian identity and how to see issues so caught up in our temporal identity in light of it. Thanks for writing about that.

    I’m not convinced, however, that recognition of salvation, identity and renewal in Christ represents a via media between jingoism and self-loathing.

    Reasons why to come. Family calls!

      1. Sorry for the delay, good sir. By the way can I just say, you’re prolific! Multiple articles in the time it’s taken for me to pen this reply.

        Ok, to the matter at hand.

        I said, “I’m not convinced, however, that recognition of salvation, identity and renewal in Christ represents a via media between jingoism and self-loathing.” The reason for that is that while those things you wrote about are necessary and helpful for Christians to maintain right perspective, they don’t actually represent a way forward on the particular issue at hand. They put it in perspective but don’t help you engage with Australia day on the 26th. Someone from either end of the spectrum could implement those suggestions and while it may moderate the outworkings it would still not change their actual position.

        So right and good, but a middle way? Not really, because both ends of the spectrum can (and should) recognise those things equally without abandoning their position.

        I think that the way forward is to recognise and mourn our sins. Now I know that you’ve described self-loathing as the extreme end of the left, but it’s also what you’ve described as seeing mostly from the left. My quibble with this is that facing past sins, while it does include admitting the darkness, doesn’t end there. It’s not a static position on a spectrum, but the beginning of a process. And without facing the past, we deny/ignore it, which is a guarantee of not moving forward.

        Of course, wallowing in the past sin is also a guarantee of this but to be honest I don’t see a lot of people championing that way forward or think it likely that it’s what will happen.

        Thoughts?

      2. Hi Peter
        Great thoughts. And yes, you’re right in the respect that there is not a way forward for the community in general in what I said. Perhaps I would like that to be the case, although my article pitched at the church does allow a way forward. I do think that mourning for past sins is crucial, but to be honest, as my next article explored, there is no category for “sin” in our culture anymore. We can’t mourn for it and be forgiven for it because as a post-Xn culture don’t see sin as a category any longer. That means there is then no opportunity for forgiveness either! It’s problematic because the language of reconciliation is biblical and available to us in the indigenous arena, but it is not a word that stands by itself. Unless the “sin” category is recognised and the need for reconciliation at a deeper level (our treatment of indigenous people was an affront to God who made humans in his own image), then the chances are that self-righteousness is all that is left, particularly from the jingoistic side (it’s already there).
        of course the church can, should, and indeed does respond differently to that. So the church can lead in that. For me there needs to be common ground (as there was in South Africa) in order for the change to really take root. Worth thinking about how this could even be broached in a post-sin context.

      3. I wonder if the category that does allow some movement forward is ‘recognition’. Yes we’ve lost (particularly the godward) meaning of sin, but we’re actually really big on recognition. We all want to have our plight recognised and our voice heard. This is the paradigm through which many indigenous advocates. And particularly, via the medium of story which, as ever, connects to hearts.

        But I think it the recognition needs to be pre-empted by flagging that this does NOT imply self-loathing or a continual bathing in misery. The point of recognition is for the allowing of both parties to move forward taking cognisance of the past, but no longer living there.

        I think these can resonate in an age of therapy, as these aren’t far from the categories that many therapists use, particularly in narrative therapy.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Sorry this is a long response but I felt this post was a missed opportunity to reflect further on Australia Day and a post which emphasises a salvation culture and not a gospel culture which I’m sure is not your intention. Regarding the dichotomy of jingoism versus self loathing, I find myself neither of these. Jingoism – definitely not (I looked up the definition i.e. bellicose chauvinism) or self –loathing (though maybe you’d put me in this category). I’d prefer to say that finally I’ve become informed about our history since 1788 and I have empathy with Aboriginal people who still suffer from its legacy. As a Christian I want to devote my time to advocating for a society characterised by justice as encouraged in Micah 6 v 8. This starts I believe by developing friendships with Aboriginal people and taking time to listen to their stories. I’m reminded of Scott McKnight who in his One. Life book defines a Christian as one who follows Jesus by devoting his or her One.Life to:-

    1. The Kingdom of God, fired by Jesus’ imagination

    2. To a life of loving God and loving others

    3. To a society shaped by justice, especially for those who have been marginalised

    4. To peace

    5. To a life devoted to acquiring wisdom in the context of the local church (and this is where your Bible teaching gives us sustenance)

    And on Australia Day which I no longer celebrate as I once did, I choose to align myself with those who will be at the Survival Concert at Ozone Reserve, Perth 3pm today. The Survival Perth offers a way for Australians to join in celebrating Aboriginal culture. Historically, Survival Day is a national celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and communities experienced through music, dance, art and food. This year there will be local artists who are all amazing including Gina Williams. Maybe you should come along too! And if you want to reflect on the words Australian Day / Survival Day or Invasion have a look at this link

    Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day: What’s in a name?

    If you really want to be confronted have a listen to the 8 minute speech from Stan Grant which has gone viral Stan Grant Racism Debate

    Well, I could write so much more but I have a concert to go to J

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    1. Hi Pauline – good thoughts! Hope the concert goes well. I will reflect on this, perhaps too as someone who has stood apart emotionally from Australia Day most of the time, I don’t have a vested opinion on it, other than I would want God’s people to exhibit justice, love, mercy and hope in the midst of it. I haven’t watched Stan G, but have read about it and intend to. I think he is all of the good things about Australia Day actually. But yes, a lot in a name isn’t there?

    2. Well said, Pauline. I love Australia and would love to celebrate our national day, but unfortunately, I can’t join in the celebration on the 26th of January. Politics aside, my conscience won’t allow me to celebrate on a date that marks the commencement of genocide in this country.

      The timing of our celebration is incredibly insensitive and would be such a simple thing to fix. Changing the date would be a gesture of love and reconciliation and a big step toward a more inclusive Australia Day.

      1. SO when you use the term “genocide” James are you saying that what happened in Australia was for the same types of reasons, with the same force and intent as something such as the Armenian genocide which in one year alone (1915) killed around one and a half million people? I thing terrible things were done to Aboriginal people, much of to do with outdated notions of race and bigotry, and much of it sheer unwillingness to counter any other perspective than those of the European settlers. But I think genocide is a strong word, indeed I think it is a wrong word and one that won’t be much use in persuading anyone who may disagree with that term to change the date. So as it stands, your response still seems like handbags at twenty paces.

  4. Hi again and at risk of rambling I cannot but respond to your last comment Steve about the use of the word genocide…….

    Clements in his PhD Thesis stated “Compared to the great wars of Europe, the Black War (of Tasmania) was tiny – probably less than two thousand casualties. Yet, as a proportion of their respective populations, both the Aboriginal and European death rates in Van Diemen’s Land surpassed those of most modern conflicts.

    I think if you belonged to the Palaweh people of Tasmania you may have thought the word genocide applicable. I understand genocide to be the intent to systematically eliminate a racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural or national group. I don’t think this necessarily has to occur within a fixed time period.

    The Black War in Tasmania was the period of violent conflict between the colonists and the Aboriginal people from the mid-1820s to 1832. The conflict was fought largely as a guerrilla war on both sides claiming the lives of more than 200 European colonists and between 600 and 900 Aboriginal people. This all but annihilated the island’s Indigenous population. (Clements, Nicholas (2014), The Black War, University of Queensland Press) The near-destruction of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and the frequent incidence of mass killings, has sparked debate among historians over whether the Black War should be defined as an act of genocide.

    Anyway if the word genocide is unacceptable, the word massacre has been regularly used e.g. Pinjarra massacre, Waterloo Creek massacre, Myall Creek massacre and many more. (I found Henry Reynolds book “Forgotten War” very informative). Henry Reynolds suggests that there can be no reconciliation without acknowledging the wars fought on our own soil. There has been much social media and radio talk back today about changing the timing of Australia Day out of respect for Aboriginal people and an acknowledgement of history. Perhaps something needs to change about the way we celebrate Australia Day.

    It was the Reverend William Cooper an Aboriginal man who first suggested a Day of Mourning on Australia Day as supported by the Missionary Alliance and Christians of local churches but it went unnoticed! After much contemplation William Cooper suggested a day of celebration on the first Sunday of July now known as NAIDOC Sunday and the beginning of NAIDOC week which continues today.

    I understand why some Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people consider the word genocide acceptable and why the celebration of Australian Day is an anomaly.

    1. Hi Pauline – I definitely think massacre is the very least we would call it. I guess the genocide one for me in true definition has a fully-across the board sanctioned event. However in the quibble over words the unfortunate reality is that the same result occurred in Tasmania at the very least.
      I guess what the word “genocide” does is that it leaves absolutely no room for any conversation. The bigger problem I have (and I write about it in my latest post), is that there is no language of forgiveness and grace in Australia any more because there is, ironically, no language for sin. Could we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the manner of South Africa? I doubt it because South Africa’s strong Christian framework has allowed that, and we no longer possess it.
      As for the changing of Australia Day I do like that idea. It would take the sting out of the increased jingoism, which seems to be on the increase for some reason, but we’ve become a polarised and polarising society at the very time we could do with some centralised dialogue. We could switch it to ANZAC Day, but I fear it is getting the same slightly fervent nationalistic tone to it.

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