I grew up in Northern Ireland. As a Protestant. As a majority citizen in a contested country. A divided country.
And the day that was most divided, and indeed dividing, was July 12th. Or “the twalf” as many a Norn Iron “Pradesdan” called it.
July 12th celebrates the defeat of Catholic King James II by Protestant King William of Orange at the Battle of The Boyne in what is now the Republic of Ireland in 1690. The victory led to the Dutch William taking the throne of England. The Loyal Orange Order now commemorates that battle every July 12th, with a marching season replete with pipe bands, drums and a lot of “in-your-face-ness” about the victory.
And that in-your-face-ness had continued to this day, with Orange orders, or Orange Men, marching in many a town and city across Northern Ireland. Some are peaceful marches, some end in violence. The most confronting march each year involves Orange Men in Belfast defending their right to march down a particular set of streets in strongly Nationalist, or Catholic, areas of the city. You can imagine how incendiary that is figuratively, and actually. The intensity of the event, coupled with the tightly packed cluster of streets that are pushing against the march, often sparks violence.
As a younger man I could not see why the Orange Order should not march where they wished to. I wasn’t completely compelled by it, living as I had most of my life in Australia, but it was a Protestant thing to stand up for, so I stood up for it without much thought.
The problem is, it’s more Protestant than it is gospel. And that is always a problem. Always.
Sure the governing people have the right to march down the streets of their cities, don’t they? But over time, the grim resolve to do so was met with a grim resolve to stop it. Loyalists versus Nationalists. Protestants versus Catholics. Sounds like there’s going to be no happy ending.
In a country in which the gospel message seems almost impervious to the Nationalist community – given how culturally aligned with Loyalism most evangelicalism and evangelistic efforts are – it would seem prudent for gospel-believing and practicing Christians (as opposed to cultural Protestants) to seek a more conciliatory approach to commemorating history.
So as I have aged I am now starting to see the complexities of the situation, especially living further away and looking in. Now perhaps that disqualifies me from saying anything (insert outrage here), but perhaps it also gives me an opportunity to see what it looks like for a people who feel that they have been dispossessed getting their noses rubbed in other peoples’ celebrations.
Which brings me to Australia Day. January 26th, not July 12.
There is no doubt that the issue of when Australia Day should be, and the question of what Australia Day actually is, is going to increase. It’s not going away, no matter how much we cover our ears. It’s got the possibility of becoming just as confrontational as the Loyalist/Nationalist confrontations on July 12th. There will, of course, be a push back from those who believe that we are being hijacked as a nation. That somehow the culture of being victim is going to have the final say.
Well, maybe so. But as a fairly conservative person, I am going against the grain by saying that perhaps a change will give Australian evangelical Christians the chance to do what no Northern Irish evangelical Christians seem able to do – to reach a community with the gospel that seems impervious to their approaches.
Take it from me. I live in the shire of Western Australia that is home to the second biggest indigenous population in the state, outside of the vast North West. Yet we have seen precious few indigenous people reached by our churches. We have had a handful come through our doors – once. There are any number of cultural issues behind that, but it behoves God’s people to think of ways to reach the seemingly unreachable.
And perhaps being a little more vocally in support of indigenous people in their reminder that January 26th is a painful day for them could be a start. Because, for what it’s worth, there’s little else about Australia Day in and of itself that is celebratory for the Christian.
Like ANZAC Day, Australia Day risks become hostage to a strongly secular Australian jingoism that is all about rowdy feel-good celebration, and less about quiet observation. Not that that’s everybody, but it’s certainly the trend I have noticed in the past thirty years. It’s not a face-to-face conflict across a couple of streets, but it may have the same result one day – a growing division and violence.
Maybe, just maybe, we should choose another date. A date in winter when we’re all working and bunkering down for a cold, dark night. And instead of yelling out “Maaate!” we could reflect quietly on what it means to live in a land that neither belongs, ultimately, to us, or even to its original custodians, but to the God of reconciliation who came down our street one day, proclaiming peace.