Watching the Australia Day celebrations whilst on holiday was much more interesting and revealing than I had anticipated. Normally I am bored to tears by these kinds of events however I have to say that I was impressed, and I learned a great deal. It was like a cross between the BBC’s Children in Need, celebrating the good that charities and volunteers do, and BBC Scotland’s Hogmanay show – a bit kitsch and cliched, but nonetheless something that makes you glad to be Scottish – or in this case, Australian. The wonderful work done by Australians throughout the country was highlighted and the music was… not bad. The fireworks and setting in Sydney harbour (as well as the 12 Apostles and other spectacular Aussie scenery) made one thankful to be an Australian – or in the case of yours truly – a guest in this wonderful country.
But the whole show also revealed something deeply disturbing. It was a time – we were told – to reflect upon who we are, where we have come from and our values. The constantly repeated theme was ‘reflect, respect, celebrate’. And to be thankful for all that we have been given. As the Prime Minister put it ““Australia day is about being thankful for the most important thing that has been given to all of us in this country – to be Australian – and everything that involves. Everything that we have inherited, every hope that we have, the optimism that we share – the history that we contend with and that we celebrate. Happy Australia Day is all about being happy about being an Australian”.
But thankful to whom? During the whole course of the evening there was not one mention of God. (Although there was a nod to indigenous spirituality – but with no awareness that today the vast majority of indigenous people profess to be Christian). How do you manage to celebrate Australia’s history, values and identity without acknowledging God? It’s fair enough to give acknowledgement to country – but who gave us the country? How can you celebrate the gifts without thanking the giver? The extremist secularist doctrine that religion is fine as long as it’s like a knitting club – done in private and never mentioned in public – seems to have taken an iron grip of our media and politicians. And sadly, too many of our clergy.
There is a tightrope to walk between rejoicing in the good and being overcome by boastful hubris. The Australia Day show gave us a Disneyesque view of life in Australia today. It was shallow, superficial and empty. In not giving us the full picture – it gave us a false picture. The notion of Australia being a land filled with shiny happy people, who spend their time caring for one another and creation, was somewhat fanciful. Is Australia a land with no racism? no domestic violence? no drug problems? No bad neighbours? No refugees locked up for years? No culture wars? No greed? No injustice? Australia is not Hell on earth – but neither is it Heaven on earth.
The ABC continually tells us that ‘we are One’ – whilst demonising those who don’t share every aspect of their philosophy. All Australians are not united. Indeed, on Australia Day itself there were demonstrations against ‘Invasion Day’. The press was filled with the bitter culture wars around the ‘Tame’ photo and the cess pit that is Australian politics. Mr Morrison himself is the victim of some of the most vitriolic hate speech I have come across. The words of the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, were changed from “we are young and free”, to we are ‘one and free’. It’s not true. One lesson Covid should have taught us is just how divided and fractious we are.
Perhaps rather than Advance Australia Fair, the words would more realistically be, Retreat Australia Bare. As we reject our Christian heritage, rather than being clothed with a new glorious set of clothes, we are in danger of becoming clothed in the rags of our own self-righteousness.
I may be treading on thin ice, commenting as a Scot on this country. But I have three reasons. Firstly, it was a Scot, Peter Dodds McCormick who wrote the words of the national anthem. But not only was he a Scot, he was also a Presbyterian teacher and elder in Woolloomooloo. And the chief precentor of the General Assembly of New South Wales. He was described as a patriotic Scot who loved Australia. I walk in his footsteps!
Secondly, I am a member of the human race who does not like to see people taking their identity from nationalism. We were told that we were to be thankful to ourselves for being Australian- that excludes quite a lot of us! As a Scot I don’t feel thankful for being a Scot – as though that somehow means I have won the lottery of life and am in a superior position to those of other nations. The dividing line between a proud patriotism and a narrow nationalism is very thin. Being proud of one’s country is fine. Calling it the ‘lucky country’ and regarding ourselves as the best country in the world is dangerous hubris. A little more humility – especially from political leaders would help.
Thirdly I am a Christian. My identity is not in my race, country, class, gender, sex or ethnicity. I am a human being made in the image of God. That is the foundational doctrine for the basis of equality. Lose it and you lose equality – no matter how many times you say the word. And as a Christian I know that countries, political leaders and systems, and human philosophies are empty and vain without the right foundation. I love Australia and want its people to flourish and grow. But without vision the people are destroyed (Proverbs 29:18). The founders of Australia knew that ‘blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’ (Psalm 33:12). This is a nation founded upon Christianity. But if the foundations are destroyed what can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3).
When foundations are destroyed, the cracks begin to show in the walls. At that stage you have three choices – panic and get out; seek to deal with the foundational problems, or paper over the cracks. Much of what we were presented with on Australia Day was nice wallpaper. It portrayed an Australia without confidence, or perhaps with false confidence – whose values are as deep and changeable as the shiny smiles on the presenters faces. This celebration indicated a country that has lost its anchor, and is drifting to and for with every wind of progressive doctrine. The Church can choose to drift along with the progressive tide – or we can reject the ways of this world and follow the ways of Christ. We are in Australia but not of Australia. Here we have no continuing city – but we long for the city that is above and desire the renewal of the whole earth – not just our wee patch. We live not for the glory of a national fantasy, but rather for the glory of the God who created all things and gave us all things richly to enjoy.
The Christian church should call people to reflect, respect and celebrate. We need to reflect on who we are as human beings, made in the image of God, and how far we have perverted that image. We need to respect/fear the Lord. Because that is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). And we need to celebrate the goodness, graciousness and greatness of God. All people that in Australia do dwell – sing to the Lord with cheerful voice!
What can the righteous do? We need to be like the men of Issachar who ‘understood the times and knew what to do’. (1 Chronicles 12:32). We need to see the signs of the times (Luke 12:54-56). And we need to have the courage to speak the Word of God into a culture that has lost its way and is, in the words of another great Australian song, on a ‘Highway to Hell”.