Is Australia Day an Appropriate Theme for Sunday Worship

Of late, there has been much talk in the media and in political discourse about whether or not January 26th is an appropriate date for celebrating a national day, given that, for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, it marks the day that the invasion of their land was begun by the British.  As a third of Australians do not even know why we celebrate Australia Day on this date, and most don’t really care one way or the other, it would seem there is ‘room to move’ on this issue.

The question I face is this: Should we bring Australia Day into Sunday worship?  On one hand, there are worthy principles associated with this day that are worth celebrating; for example, in the words of the editor of The Age (20 Jan. 2108), “It symbolises how we see ourselves as a nation. It speaks to our pride in what we have achieved, and what we hope to become. Ideally, it should speak to our unity as a nation as well.” I would have no trouble merging Australian ideals with the teachings of Jesus as a theme for a Sunday service.  I can imagine that many of the people in the church would welcome such a theme.

On the other hand, Australia Day is a secular holiday.  Any theological association I could imagine would be forced and artificial.  I have regularly avoided Mothers’ Day themes at church for the same reason.  Whilst most people welcome a sermon on Mothers’ Day, it is simply not the reason we gather to worship.

Another reason for not making Australia Day the subject of a worship service is that it would be hypocritical.  Uniting Church services are begun with an acknowledgment of the original caretakers of the land as a mark of respect to the aboriginal people.  How could we, then, celebrate an occasion that, for them, is a reminder that their land was stolen, beginning  on the very date we are celebrating?

Yet, I am going to bring Australia Day into worship on Australia Day weekend, even if briefly. What the nation has achieved, and what could be achieved as its ideals are pursued, is worthy, not only to be mentioned, but to be celebrated. I think Jesus would join in the celebration gladly.  More importantly, it is useful to highlight on Australia Day the work that yet needs to be done in pursuit of Australian ideals and Christian principles.  We still have refugees wasting away in concentration camps (yes, let’s ‘call a spade a spade’). The spectre of racism continues to cast a shadow over our relationship with those of us who are not of Anglo-Saxon heritage or of Christian upbringing. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The health of the planet continues to suffer, with Australians the worst per capita contributors to climate change.

It is also good time to remind ourselves, even as we celebrate, that January 26th is not the appropriate day on which to mark our nationhood. It is not the birthday of our nation, as some people are wont to argue, for it celebrates the beginning of the colonisation of Australia. Who wants to celebrate colonisation?  The majority of countries have a national day that marks their independence from a colonial power, e.g. July 4th in the USA, i.e., it usually marks the end of subjugation, not the beginning of it.  All but a handful of countries have a national day that commemorates either their independence or the unification of smaller states to form the nation, as with Italy.

No other country celebrates the beginning of its rule by another country, so why should we?  Quite apart from offending the original occupants who were invaded and conquered, it is just perverse. If it is desirable to celebrate Australia, then Federation Day is the obvious and consistent choice, but given that January 1st is already taken by the New Year festivities, how about Banjo Pattersons’s birthday (Feb. 17th)  Or Eureka Stockade Day (Dec, 3rd)?  Then there is March 3rd, the day in 1986 that Australia finally become completely free of British rule.

Come on, folks, use some imagination, and let’s find a day in which all Australians can revel, and in which we Christians can take pride. And we, the people, are the ones who must force a change, because governments simply aren’t very good with issues of morality. Then Jesus will really celebrate with us.

Bob Thomas