I grew up knowing the names of Cook, Philip, Marsden, Bligh and Macquarie, but was not so familiar with the names of Bennelong, Barangaroo, Truganini or Wooreddy. Such was the Australian history curriculum in the 60’s and 70’s.
To my shame it is only in my adult years that I have come to appreciate the rich and long history of the people who inhabited these lands prior to the European settlement. I have been inspired by that history and horrified by the treatment of the Aboriginal peoples since 1788.
That horror and sadness has been increased since living in Tasmania and hearing the truth-telling and stories of the struggles on these islands. A sadness intensified as I have seen my own organisation’s history intertwined in the atrocities committed here.
So, I now come to “Australia Day” with a feeling of uneasiness. In the past I saw it as a great day to kick back and enjoy all that we have in this land – freedom, multi-culturalism, equality and peace. A great day for a BBQ with a few friends as the year gets underway.
But the more I have learned of the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal people, the unfinished business, and the deep wounds that remain, the more I have seen it as an anniversary of invasion and dispossession.
We enjoy the blessings of modern Australia, including our schools and houses, public buildings and farms, our parks and our churches, all on stolen land with its destruction of culture and language.
It is true that we have much to give thanks for and celebrate in our country today: great achievements, economic prosperity, a standard of living that is second to none, natural beauty and many freedoms.
But while we celebrate them, we must not lose sight of the poverty and inequality that still exists: the homelessness, unemployment, and social disadvantage, not least of which is among Aboriginal Australians. Not to mention the refugees on our doorstep!
This tells us something of the shadow-side of our culture. That something is broken deep in our hearts, that no amount of policy and programs can fix.
While we might celebrate, we also need to be honest and come together as a community to lament, to say sorry, to tell the truth, to listen deeply to one another and resolve to do better.
On January 26 1938, Aboriginal leaders, including William Cooper, met for a Day of Mourning, seeking equality and full citizenship. Citizenship would take another 30 years! We are still waiting for equality.
In 1940, William Cooper asked the Australian Church to set aside the Sunday before January 26 as Aboriginal Sunday, a day for Christians to act in solidarity with Aboriginal peoples.
Many churches are now heeding this call. At the invitation of Aboriginal Christian leaders, St David’s Cathedral will host a “Change the Heart” service on Friday January 24 at 5.30pm. It is one of dozens across Australia bringing together Christians from all denominations for prayer and action.
And as this January 26 falls on a Sunday, St David’s (along with many other churches) will keep a careful observation of it. A time to lament and tell the truth about our history, and a time to give thanks to God for blessings amidst the heartache of our reality.
While we are stuck for now with January 26 as the Day, it is OK for us to be thankful and celebrate all that modern Australia has become, but we must do that with our eyes wide open to the truth of our past and our present, ready to make for reconciliation.
It is good to celebrate and be thankful, and it is good to lament and be sad. Perhaps we will be our best selves, when we can do both together.
The Right Revd Dr Richard Condie
Bishop of Tasmania
Friday January 24, 2020 (The Mercury)