January 26th: Australia’s July 12th

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.

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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.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Steve. I’d hate to think Australia Day would cause the same divide as in Ireland! Did you know that William Cooper (c1860 – 1941) was an Australian Aboriginal political activist, Pastor and community leader who suggested a day of mourning and protest on Australia Day in 1938. http://www.naidoc.org.au/about/naidoc-history/ After the Day of Mourning, there was a growing feeling that it should be a regular event. In 1939 William Cooper wrote to the National Missionary Council of Australia to seek their assistance in supporting and promoting an annual event. After years of mostly being unnoticed it was decided to move the day to the first Sunday in July which has now become a Day of celebration. NAIDOC Sunday was initially strongly supported by the Christian churches. It’s interesting to me that NAIDOC week is now part of secular Australia but mostly forgotten in the local church.

  2. Thanks Stephen. Heard a great sermon once about many occasions in the OT where God holds nations collectively responsible for their history, not just as individuals. In the early days of settlement, Christians stood up for Aboriginal people, recognising them as image bearers of our common
    Creator.

  3. Good words. Until we get to reconciliation, I think the date should remain Jan 26 to keep a connection with the dispossession in our history. The Common Grace-promoted reflection and prayer services held around the country were a good chance for Christians to hear Aboriginal Christian voices.
    At the one in Brisbane the UCA moderator invited us to be so successful in listening and healing division that others ask for the model.
    Aunty Jean, challenged us to copy the culture’s sponsorship of indigenous sporting development with a similar sponsorship of Indigenous Christian leadership. One initiative is “Grasstree” a conference gathering young adults. In Brisbane, many murri Elders carrying the pastoral care/visitation burden are in their final years with us.

  4. A very interesting post. I can’t speak about Australia as I’m not Australian, but the Northern Ireland ‘Christian’/’Protestant’/’evangelical’ scene, in regard to politics is indeed truly lamentable. From the Northern Irish Christians I have met, most of them – all of them – shared similar despair over partisan politics, and were as a result, very apolitical.

    Indeed, soon after Ian Paisley’s death I chatted to a Northern Irish Christian man who was about to serve as a missionary in Africa, and I asked him about what he thought of Paisley and his legacy. He said that in his opinion Paisley became a Christian very late on – he thought just before the power sharing deal with Sinn Fein – the so called ‘chuckle brothers’. He said to me that no true Christian would be so violent in rhetoric (and in my mind was the man who lit the touchpaper for the escalation of the Troubles to begin), and inciting so many (including the loyalist paramilitaries) – the fruits of the spirit were not detectable. Paisley was a ‘Protestant’ (in the peculiar Northern Irish sense and setting) but was not a real Christian (for most of his life).

    It’s all very sad, but we must all rejoice that peace and reconciliation has taken a greater and firmer hold there.

  5. Thanks Steve. I think your final comments are quite apt. As one who chose to fly an Australian flag on the 26th I did so with a deep sense of gratitude and humble patriotism (I’d like to think!) which isn’t uncritical of our national past, but thankful to be here among beauty rich and rare nonetheless. I’m glad the Union Jack was planted in this soil. I grieve over the largely failed Christian witness which could have shone the glorious light of the gospel to the ancient peoples of this land and blessed them with our civilisational largesse.

    The trouble I see with changing the date is that it won’t be enough. A day of reconciliation won’t be enough. Billions of dollars poured into indigenous communities won’t/isn’t enough. Rewriting history won’t be enough: I don’t even know if the ancestors of those first colonialists leaving this land would do it. You and I both know only what Christ paid is enough. Continual rehashing of the acknowledged and repented past forever reopens old wounds. Our post-Christian society has gone beyond biblical forgiveness, for without the cross there is no satisfaction, no propitiation – which is what the injured soul desires. So we must continually flagellate ourselves because it’s never enough. Imagine if it was said, “It is finished. Let’s put the past behind us and strain towards what is ahead.”
    Which is easier said then done when the indigenous community is in such a malaise, of which our forebears played no small part…ah, the complexity can be disheartening.

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