beyond survival day: reflections on australia day 2012

This post is of the kind I dread most; a subject about which I am deeply convicted, that I find hard to form into a coherent discourse, and that I know will win me few friends.

However in light of the current subject my discomfort is jovial at best, and I would do well to remember that.

January 26 is a day of celebration for most Australians, of our history, identity and future. However in remembering our history many Australians prefer to screen out those episodes that do not paint the colonisers in a venerable light.

Aboriginal Nations (Click to Enlarge)

Exactly one year ago I wrote a post entitled Happy Invasion Day, a reminder of the fact that this land was taken from its first peoples. Since then I have come to prefer the label “Survival Day”, a commemoration of the fact that despite the recent history of this land the Aboriginal people are still here. Whatever the label, I can no longer celebrate Australia Day in the same way I have in years past; I cannot celebrate only the positive aspects our history knowing the pain and suffering of innocents on which it is built. Both must be acknowledged.

I do not wish to speak on behalf of Aboriginal people, for I am aware I have no right to do so. But I am also aware that in our current situation the gap between black and white is increasing in the areas of health, housing, education, child mortality and imprisonment rates. One day I want to celebrate January 26, but not until things are being set right.

Which leads me to wonder, what is the theological imperative for White Australia, and particularly for white Christians like me? Many of us have used the excuse that the fault is not ours, but the generations preceding us – the sins are not ours.

There is of course some merit to this argument. But in another sense our prosperity is built on past sins, and wiping our hands of wrongdoing will not wipe away ongoing responsibility.

Meanwhile the biblical prophetic witness cries out for justice. We may remember that the Moses tradition expects land to be returned to the family who originally owned it every fifty years in the event of foreclosure. This is still the case even if the initial generation involved had died. Indeed, the succeeding generations who have inherited the land must nonetheless take responsibility to do justice and return it:

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

“‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.

“‘If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other… (Leviticus 25:10-14)

If this the case with land that was legally bought, and not stolen, how much more seriously then is land theft to be viewed? 1 Kings 21 may serve as an important reminder – Naboth refuses to sell his vineyard to king Ahab who is subsequently counselled by his wife, Jezebel, to take possession of it dishonestly. Naboth is eventually murdered and Ahab takes his land.

Elijah’s subsequent judgement is indicative:

‘Thus says the LORD, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’” (1 Kings 21:19)

All this is a rather truncated and unsophisticated way of arguing that the Bible presents God as considering land ownership to be a serious matter.

What then does this mean for modern Australians?

I don’t know. But I do think we have a theological impetus to work toward reconciliation and reparation. What might this look like? My Aboriginal friends constantly tell me that they do not seek the return of all the land, but simply to have the land shared fairly and justly and for Aboriginal people to be treated equal to everyone else.

It is true that most of us have drifted from our lands of racial origin; it is unrealistic (and undesirable) to seek the impossibility of racially pure nations. But reconciliation is not some untenable return to pre-White Australia; it is an acknowledgement of our whole history and a future together characterised by friendship and equity, the making of a beautiful home together.

Perhaps this is a welcome reminder to a contemporary Australia that largely ignores the first inhabitants of the land, annually celebrating the inauguration of their colonisation, while simultaneously doing what it can to “protect” itself from new peoples.

(A friend once suggested that Australia will never deal with its fear of asylum seekers until we come to terms with what did to the Aboriginal people.)

Most of all it is a challenge for Christians to champion the cause of the Aboriginal people and the existence of a just Australia. It is a challenge to repent of the sins of Ahab and to proclaim the beauty and generosity of the Jubilee.

This is no easy task, when even Aboriginal people are divided as to what the future should look like. But this disagreement is no different to any other controversial issue, and it should not stop us striving forward to the goal, together.

And maybe then I’ll be able to celebrate January 26 with pride.


I would like to dedicate the comments section of this post to prayers for the Aboriginal people and the future of Australia. If you would like to offer a prayer, please feel free to add it below.

Posted on January 26, 2012, in Advocacy, Current Events and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Matt. My wife is aboriginal. She loves celebrating Australia day.

  2. Hi Matt, thanks again for a thought-provoking post. Have you read Peter Adam’s lecture “Whose Land?”? (found here: Very interesting take on the response needed by Caucasian Christians.

  3. Gee Matt, you are becoming a sad sac. How about having a day off the soapbox, enjoying a few beers with some friends. Just think of it as a public holiday.

    • I apologise that I can’t eat, drink and be merry. 😉

    • Shane, Matt is challenging Austalia with a higher calling – a call to make things right with the First Peoples of this place – and I can think of no better day to do that. It’s bloody patriotic of him. (Sorry to anyone who feels awkward about patriotism.) the intention in talking about this issue is not to make people feel bad. If you are feeling sad I would say that it is because you have been gifted with compassion for others. If you are feeling guilty it is because you are being convicted and need to repent. But the end goal is not for everyone to feel miserable, the end goal is repentance – turning around from the way we have treated the First Peoples and seeking to repair the damage that has been done. In previous years I have been able to enjoy celebrating this day with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but we can’t really do this until we begin to repent.

      So I am praying for a time when we can all celebrate together – Wurundjeris, Shetlanders, Afghans, everyone…

  4. Hi Matt,

    When I was at Morling college I wrote a paper for my Grad Dip Min OT Ethics class on Reflections on the OT Land Ethics and an Aboriginal perspective of land. Again, since I am not Koori I can not speak on their behalf, but it was definitely a time of reflection for myself on events such as Australia Day. I can no longer view Australia Day in the same light as I once did.

  5. Thanks for the honest and humble post Matt, appreciate the fact that you continue to ‘go there’ despite the cost to your reputation / friendships, supreme blessings mate 😉

    As requested here’s a prayer for our indigenous brothers and sisters:
    Jesus thank you that in spite of the deep sins against our first nations people they survive to this day, thanks you that you have sustained them and been with them even through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus you have reconciled us and given us your ministry of reconciliation, teach us your ways, your truth, your life that we may walk into, declare with our lips and embody in our lives this ministry of reconciliation. Bring healing and justice in our lands, as the rain falls across our land today, may righteousness and mercy also saturate our hearts. That the history of liberation and freedom you tell in scripture may also be our future, together, indigenous and non indigenous Australian. Thanks you that you make all of this possible Jesus, lead us on. Amen.

  6. No doubt we have reason for repentance and need for change. But sometimes the left can be so boring. I think matt’s citation of Ecclesiastes is spot on. In fact, that book is becoming my manifesto!

    • You read your Bible Shane? 😛

      Of course I joke.

      I prefer Jesus’ reading of that phrase in Luke 12, or perhaps Paul in 1 Cor. 15. It’s probably more boring (!) but if the shoe fits, right? Or is it left? I dunno. 😛

  7. When I was a kid, I went to the bicentenary celebrations in Sydney. I have a lot of vivid memories from that time, but one of them is seeing the Aboriginal people protesting. I asked my mum what they were doing – because I had no idea. When she explained it, that would have been the first inkling I ever had that some people may not be too happy about the fact that Europeans came to Australia.

    I still enjoyed the celebrations. And I still enjoy Australia Day today. But I am very glad that I saw the protesters and realised that Australia Day is not just something to celebrate, but something to mourn as well.

    I’m glad I read your post. It has shown me that I need to pray about this with my kids. You asked for the comments to be prayers. So here are two prayers from my children.

    Dear God, please forgive us for taking over the Aboriginal land. (My son, aged 10).

    Dear God, amongst all the celebrations and everything, we always forget about the Aboriginals and how we took their land. Please forgive us. We hope that we can remember all indigenous Australians, from the past and living now, during this time. (My son, aged 12).


    • Liz,

      I am sorry for my delay in replying to this. I don’t have much to say, since I think the witness of your children speaks for itself. How beautiful and hope-inducing! If these young ones get it then the future is bright.


      A very encouraged Matt.

  8. I mourn for the aboriginal community in general, I mourn for the loss of face they feel, for the loss of respect and the general rejection. I pray that through sound political and logistical process and dialogue that many of the injustices these individuals feel may be righted and restored to their rightful position of respect and honour.

    With that in mind I wont diminish my actual celebrations on Australia Day, I will though take time to educate my sons and greater family to the plight of the aboriginal people. I will also attempt to find a way and process to do something practical in that regard that lifts aboriginal people out of poverty or increase their health and wealth.

    With all that said, i’m ashamed as an Australian when anybody, note anybody regardless of race colour or creed of race threatens or frightens a woman, especially the Prime Minister of this nation, especially on Australia Day.—dragged-away-after-being-trapped-by–protesters-20120126-1qj1c.html

  9. Matt. My wife and her mum have been and still are active in regards to correcting the wrongs of the past. My mil is part of the stolen generation and suffers much hurt from that. Despite the wrongs of the past, they also see much right about this country.

    Your post makes out that there is nothing to rejoice about being an Australian and therefore we have nothing to celebrate an Australia Day for.

    I could just as easily claim that there is nothing to rejoice about on Australia Day because Australia doesn’t recognise the plight of abused men by women. Or that disabled people suffer. Or that we have a poverty line in Australia that many are living under. Despite those struggles, I still choose to celebrate the goodness in the nation and work towards rectifying the wrongs.

  10. Btw Matt. You’re welcome to come and join me any time in some face to face ministry with Aboriginals and others who are marginalised in the Mt. Druitt area.

  11. Further to my previous post Matt, and in agreement with Craigs post of 12:18 you could of chosen to spend Australia Day at the Yabun Festival which celebrates the culture of the First Australians. It’s Australia’s premiere one-day Festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures at Victoria Park, Broadway held on 26th of January every year since 2003 I believe, with crowds of between 10000 and 15000 people attending.

    My point being if 10 – 15000 people including i’d suspect more than a few aboriginals can celebrate their culture and heritage, why can’t you as they celebrate Australia Day?

    These people at the Yabun festival are more than acutely aware of the current situation, the gap between black and white, the increasing disparity in the areas of health, housing, education, child mortality and imprisonment rates, yet they find time to celebrate what is right with Australia as well.

    I’ll be showing my support and respect for aboriginal heritage and culture and my desire to see cultural change for their health and welfare by trying to make time to get to this event next year. What will you be doing?

  12. In response to the last two comments (easier in one hit):

    Craig – Shouldn’t ministry be done as a regular thing in relationship? I appreciate the challenge, but I’d rather work with the community in my suburb (to which i have moved a few weeks ago).

    Brewster – I would have gone yesterday, had I not been on a plane going to Perth for work (hello from Perth). The last few years I have joined Aboriginal friends in Kurnell to pray and plan events. Unfortunately it got cancelled this year. Hoping it will be on again next year.

    Judging from comments on this post my inability to celebrate “only the positive aspects of our history” (my actual statement in the post) has been taken in an extreme way to portray me as a “sad sac” on Australia Day. Just so everyone knows I didn’t sit around all yesterday mourning… 😉

  13. Australia Day isn’t just about celebrating just the positive aspects Matt, however it is about reflecting on ALL of Australia and celebrating the positives, reflecting on the negatives and committing yourself to improving what and where you can.

    As I said earlier, i’m comitted to trying to improve aboriginal health and welfare, but it’s a two way street, there has to be comittment from both sides. On reflection I think there are big big issues regarding this.

    1) I remain unconvinced that a large proportion of the population are ready to throw (in their minds and opinions) more money and resources at a group that seem in some respects ungrateful for any attempt at restoration.

    2) I think the aboriginal population remain fairly fractured as to what they want. In the last 36 hours, i’ve heard from several factions within aboriginal politics through mainstream media. Aboriginals so far want Sovereignty, Land Rights, an end to inequality, better health care, more money and the list goes on.

    In outlining my thoughts here, I want to acknowledge that these things are important, but what gets fixed first? what gets priority? and I think it’s worth pointing out it’s not a shopping list. There are marginalized all over this country, I spent some time with two particular examples today, one was a mental health patient who is in his situation due to extreme marijuana and alcohol abuse has not even a jot of desire to improve his lot in life.

    The healing he requires is dependant on him a) accepting help, but b) wanting to change his circumstances. It bears noting that the aboriginal problem as vast and as complex as it is, also requires for some individuals and groups a similar reality.

  14. It also bears noting that a removal of some of the divisive terminology that is used in dialogue must for the good of progressing dialogue and debate be removed.

    To my mind i’d like to see terms like “Aboriginal” and “white man” permanently removed from the debate, and have the terms Australian and Indigenous Australian used in their place.

    It’s too easy to label with less accurate descriptors in such a way as to infer and cause scorn, and ultimately portray oneself as a victim. Wether the indigenous Australians and Australians like it or not, if the debate is to progress, we all have to accept that we are equally yoked as Australians.

  15. Hey Bruce,

    I think the designation of Aboriginals as partly ungrateful is a common one, but untrue. The “ungratefulness” is often the result of help that is imposed and that does not come from actually listening to Aboriginals in the first place.

    I agree with you that there are fractures in the wider Aboriginal community, but no more so than in Australian society in general, yet Australian society still tries to move forward. Why should we not expect the same can happen with the Aboriginal community if they are given fair resources? The problem of priority (“what gets fixed first?”) exists in the whole of Australia, not merely the Aboriginal community. We seem to be able to manage to cover numerous fronts at once, yet we assume Aboriginal issues can only be dealt with one at a time; is that credible?

    Also, why is it that a few bad eggs amongst Aboriginals lead us to make sweeping statements about the Aboriginal people, yet more bad eggs amongst caucasians does not lead us to do the same? Why this ethnocentrism? Where does it come from? I think we need to be very careful making such judgements since we represent the dominant culture – we do not understand what it is like to be an oppressed minority. One Aboriginal man, whose personal history has gone untold, should not reflect on the whole population, unless we are prepared to do the same with the countless white men in the same situation.

    In regards to terminology, you really need to let the Aboriginal people decide for themselves how they want to be referred to. I have read and heard of Aboriginals who despise the term Indigenous, though I have never asked why (in retrospect I should have). Perhaps it is too “governmental” a term? I don’t know. My point is I don’t think we should decide, especially since the term non-Indigenous is just as divisive.

    As always, enjoying the dialogue Bruce.


    • Matt,

      “I think the designation of Aboriginals as partly ungrateful is a common one, but untrue. The “ungratefulness” is often the result of help that is imposed and that does not come from actually listening to Aboriginals in the first place”

      I don’t believe it to be completely untrue, I think it is an aspect whilst I also believe that ungratefulness is also an aspect of help being imposed.

      I don’t want to assume anything at all, what I think is preferable is a starting point that the individual aboriginal tribes ALL agree on so that a starting point can be found. i.e. either Sovereignty, Land Rights, Inequality and so the list goes on. I will appreciate the correction here, but to my mind the problem with resolving many aboriginal issues as I understand it is that there is no universal agreement as to what is the most important issue, and therefore governments are reluctant to commit themselves effectively.

      Everyone makes sweeping statements from time to time. I believed Simon made some in the other blog and when I took him to task I believe it was eloquently pointed out that I should not get bogged down in the detail? That being said I don’t perceive that I did make ethnocentric statements. I agree that there are bad eggs in every culture, race, creed on the face of the earth. I agree that the indigenous bad eggs shouldn’t be castigated or highlighted more than anyone else.

      And before we go any further, I am an oppressed minority, I am a anglo saxon male in state government employment. Everybody and I mean everybody is further ahead in the queue than me, and I am not trying to being funny here.

      My point re the terminology is the fact that the term Indigenous Australian actually to the best of my knowledge accurately describes the aboriginal people. The terminology that I particularly deplore is being referred to by Indigenous Australaians as “white man” rather than Australian or Indigenous Australian. Maybe that says more about the fact that we aren’t as Australians (which we all are) aren’t actually listening to each other.

  16. hey fool ,, my nephews are aboriginal and i have some blood in me too,, and the and all the tribe they come from in NT LOVE AUSTRALIA DAY and frown on wankers wanting to change it ,,, grow up past is past fool get over it ,, this is not the only place the same thing happened ,,, shut your pie hole and go back to your cave

  1. Pingback: i’m boycotting australia day: not for the reasons you think « Life in a Strange Land

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