I have the privilege of living in a land that is home to the world’s oldest living culture.
My country’s indigenous people have been storytellers for thousands of years, a rich tradition that inspires and instructs me as I seek to be a good teller of truth through stories.
Communities across this land have shared some of their unique songs with those of us who have come here more recently, enriching our experience of the great diversity of music.
The peoples of my nation have been custodians and caretakers of the land in a way that encourages and challenges my own care for creation.
My continent has hosted around 700 indigenous languages, weaving a rich tapestry that intrigues me and provides great insight for those who study the history of linguistics. The modern revival of some of these languages is a testimony to their people’s diligence and resilience.
I have personally been welcomed without question into the homes and campfires of strangers through mutual friendships and even embraced by being given a Warlpiri skin name.
The indigenous cultures of my home maintain a deep and abiding spirituality that confronts my tendencies to the novel and the superficial.
Many of the people groups of my homeland have embraced the gospel, enculturating it in ways that demonstrate new facets of God’s grace and glory to me.
This January 26, I am thankful for all the richness, beauty, culture, and knowledge that my indigenous brothers and sisters have and can share with me.
Today is a complicated day, for some observed as Invasion Day, for others lamented as a Day of Mourning, for others commemorated as Survival Day.
Last night I attended a beautiful service of prayer and lament, acknowledging our history as a nation, naming the injustices that have been and are being done, and recognising the ongoing consequences for indigenous people of our failure to address them. We need to walk and work together to bring change. I hope I can find ways to be part of bringing this change.
In response, for me today is not about celebrating or commemorating, but about naming some truths that are too often overlooked. I live on and in a land that belonged to others, and they have much to teach and bless me with. I am thankful for them and for how their story has enriched my life.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock in Australia for the last week or so, you’ve been hearing about Adam Goodes and the issue of racism in sport/society. So much has already been said, I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add. But a few things have really challenged me and got me thinking about racism, listening to the voices of the “other” and how this all connects to the gospel.
The first is how easy it is for white Australians to make simplistic pronouncements about what is and isn’t racist. Here’s what I think: if you are a member of a majority group that has historically been responsible for the mistreatment, oppression and belittling of another group of people, and a member of that group is telling you that your actions are hurting them by perpetuating some of those attitudes and feelings, then you don’t get to tell them that they are “playing the victim card.” You don’t get to decide whether how they feel is valid. You don’t get to define what is going on. Your job is to listen. Not to rush to make statements or excuses or minimisations or give your perspective. To really listen. To hear what they are saying. And then to ask yourself how you are going to respond.
As appalled as I have been by some of the comments I have read and heard from white Australians this week, I’m hopeful that this is a moment in our history when we might finally be starting to listen. Listening to the voices of our indigenous Australians and realising there is something we need to really hear. That we have not yet dealt with the ongoing consequences of our shared history.
And so as well as appreciating the insights and responses of people like Charlie Pickering or Mia Freedman or this incisive outsider view from an ex-pat American, this week I have actively sought out the voices of indigenous Australians who are speaking about this issue. I want to hear what they have to say. I want to listen.
If you haven’t heard these voices, here are some you might want to take some time to listen to.
* Stan Grant’s article in the Guardian: “Estranged in the land of our ancestors, living on the fringes of a rich society – parse your words, but we see only race in the attacks on AFL player Adam Goodes.”
* Dickie Bedford’s opinion piece in the Australian: “It reinforces our scepticism that while Australia — a country we all love deeply — pretends to embrace us, it fails miserably when it comes to taking real and significant steps towards truly understanding our culture, our lore and our traditions.”
* Warren Mundine on the Drum sharing his personal experience with racism in Australia: “This week has been a really dreadful week for me because it has brought up so many memories … This is what it [racism] does to people. It actually cripples you within your life and stops you from doing things and being able to function as a human being.”
* And this blog post from an indigenous man which takes the opposite view to the others and made me feel quite uncomfortable, but was an important reminder of the subtle racism I can easily fall into of assuming that all indigenous Australians share the same opinion or a single story: “For an urban blackfella like me, I hate the fact that all of a sudden my opinion is relevant … If someone is genuinely looking for a discussion, they are easy to tell, but most people just want me to be the token black who validates their own feelings on the matter.”
As a Christian, I’ve also been continuing to reflect more widely on how we can better listen to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. The family of churches I am part of recently welcomed an indigenous church into our (overwhelmingly white) association. The pastor spoke to our gathering and his key message was for us to listen. To hear and understand what a big thing it was for them to join us, given our shared history. To hear the questions and fears and concerns they have about maintaining their identity even as they participate as part of our group. To walk a journey of listening to them rather than too quickly jumping in with our “help” or “solutions”.
Then a few weeks ago I had the opportunity at a dinner with some ministry friends to ask an indigenous friend if he would share with the rest of us some of what he thought we needed to hear from indigenous Australian Christians. With some good-natured joking about his role as spokesman for “all Aboriginal people everywhere,” we had a really amazing hour just listening to him. One of the most profound things he said, that has been challenging and inspiring me ever since, was this:
As Christians, we believe that the gospel becomes “enculturated” – that is, as the gospel is lived out in every people group throughout the world and throughout history, we see different aspects of it and we realise more of who Jesus is. So what do you have to learn about the gospel, about Jesus, from your Aboriginal brothers and sisters?
For people who believe that every tribe and tongue is part of God’s incredible vision for the future in Christ, what a great question. And I know that trying to answer it is going to take a lot more listening on my part.
There is much to celebrate about living in Australia today. We have incredible natural beauty, material riches, social opportunities, political freedom, and cultural innovation. A national day is a good occasion to name and reflect upon all of these things. I’m grateful for my country.
There is also much to grieve over in living in Australia today. Issues of domestic violence, suicide, binge drinking and racism, among others, are too often hidden behind our “she’ll be right mate” attitudes. A national day is also a useful opportunity to reflect on who we want to be and what we need to change. I want to participate in seeing my country grow.
There is a huge challenge in marking this day of all days as our national day. Two hundred and twenty seven years ago today we didn’t win a battle or make a political declaration or join together with a vision for a nation. We invaded someone else’s land, and we still haven’t really come to terms with the systemic and generational problems we wrought upon those people. I grieve for my indigenous brothers and sisters.
There is also great irony in remembering the day people like me arrived in this country uninvited by boat in the current context of our national policies and attitudes towards those who make that same kind of journey today. It’s difficult to sing the second verse of a national anthem which proclaims we have “boundless plains to share” when we imprison children whose parents have tried to take us up on that offer. I am horrified by my complicity in how my country is treating refugees.
Australia Day is a complicated day.
Today, many Australians will enjoy a day off work, head to the beach, share a barbie with mates, watch fireworks, wear green and gold (or red, blue and white – even that is complicated!) Others will attend ceremonies honouring some of our citizens for acts of bravery or lifetimes of service, or become citizens themselves, pledging to play their part in making this country what it can yet become.
Today, I am inspired by some good friends to add to my Australia Day some practices that acknowledge the complicatedness of this day. I want to pause to acknowledge what happened on this day. Rather than pretend we can forget the past, I want to remember it rightly. My friend Julian wrote a thought-provoking piece that gives me some ideas on how to begin to do this. And I want to seek God’s forgiveness and favour on this land and all her people, no matter who they are or where they have come from. My friend Ellen wrote a beautiful lament last year that gives me some words to begin to do this. I hope they will inspire you as well.