Celebrating 26 January as Christians

National celebrations are great fun. I remember being in Ottawa on Canada Day a few years ago, with my little Aussie flag on my backpack swamped by a sea of red and white, and more maple leaves than anyone could count.

There was a party atmosphere and much joy as all things Canadian were celebrated in the streets.

The rationale for a day of national celebration is not hard to comprehend. Revelling in national identity, and giving thanks for unity, prosperity and blessing is a good thing.

Christians of all people ought to give thanks regularly for the blessings that God has bestowed on us, so that we remember him and his goodness. A national day is a good opportunity to do just that.

However, celebrating Australia’s national day on 26 January is a curious choice.

Of all the dates in the calendar, this one is no doubt profound. It was profoundly triumphant for an imperialist British government, as on that day in 1788 yet another part of the world was now under their control.

But that day in 1788 was of course profound for another reason. It was profoundly sad for the people already living in the land because it was a day of catastrophe, marking the beginning of occupation and dispossession by an imperial power.

It is only since 1935 that all Australian states have acknowledged that date as “Australia Day”, and since at least 1938 Aboriginal Australians have been meeting on that date for a day of mourning.

Paul’s words expose the untruth that the great Southland was terra nullius.

We know that God orders the nations of the world and allocates lands for people to exercise their dominion. This idea is found in Paul’s speech in Athens recorded in Acts 17: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27)

The Aboriginal peoples, with their languages and cultures, were those for whom God marked out times and boundaries, and entrusted the care of these lands and waters for over 60,000 years.

Of course, the arrival of Europeans to this land brought the light of the gospel to the original inhabitants and subsequent migrants so that they could seek him and find him. The “Coming of the Light” celebrations in the Torres Strait and the many Aboriginal Christians in Australia today are testimony to that good news.

Paul’s words expose the untruth that the great Southland was terra nullius (land belonging to nobody). It was actually terra populus, by the Lord’s hand. His words expose the untruth of “empire”, that the British (and other world powers of the day) had any rights to conquer the lands of the world for their own economic gain and as a cure to their social problems.

To question the date is not to question the celebration itself.

It remains a fact that some in our community find this date painful and hurtful as the celebration of the nation. To question the date is not to question the celebration itself, nor it is “un-Australian”. I think it is just kind. Kind to our fellow Australians who find it upsetting.

Neither do I think it is woke for Christians to have this conversation. We are called to love our neighbour, to put their needs before our own and to take the path of costly service to others. We preach a gospel of reconciliation and the breaking down of dividing walls. How can we justify clinging to this particular date when it hurts our neighbour?

So how should Christians celebrate 26 January?

Since the 1930s, Australian churches have been asked by Aboriginal Christians to observe Aboriginal Sunday on the Sunday before 26 January to join in lament for the past and pray for justice and the spread of the gospel among the people. It would be great if more and more churches observed this day.

Others may choose not to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January. For the past couple of years, all employees of the Anglican Church in Tasmania have been allowed to work on 26 January and observe Australia Day on another date. Keeping a normal work day has been my quiet identification with my Aboriginal neighbours – and also referring to it as “26 January” and not “Australia Day”.

Let’s not forget to love our neighbours, with an honest reflection on our history

A few years ago, I was moved by an article by John Dickson as he called us to, at the very least, spend some time in lament on 26 January before we headed off to our lamb BBQ. There is plenty to lament in Aboriginal history and in the discrimination, injustice and suffering they continue to bear.

We have so many resources in the Scriptures to do just that. A few years ago, at a 26 January rally in Hobart, I read Lamentations 5 to the 3000 or so who had gathered on Parliament lawns. They have an uncanny ring for our Indigenous peoples:

Remember, Lord, what has happened to us;

look, and see our disgrace.

Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,

our homes to foreigners.

We have become fatherless,

our mothers are widows.

We must buy the water we drink;

our wood can be had only at a price.

Those who pursue us are at our heels;

we are weary and find no rest.

– Lamentations 5:1-5

At the very least, let’s put up an Aboriginal flag alongside the Aussie one (they are often available from your local member) to acknowledge that we remember our history.

‘Reconciliation flag’ 1995 proposal.

Let’s give thanks for Australia, for our modern nation and especially for the gospel coming to these lands. Let’s even celebrate that with an Australia Day BBQ with lamb and pavlova. But let’s not forget to love our neighbours, with an honest reflection on our history. Let’s use the Scriptures to lead our people in lament. Let’s offer prayers for our Aboriginal neighbours and friends. Let’s live out the love to which we are called.

The Rt Revd Dr Richard Condie is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania.

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