Rev. John Morrison
Readings Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)
26th January. Today. Australia Day, at least officially. Others call it Invasion Day, Survival Day, Day of Mourning. A day that is meant to unite us as a nation but which is increasingly divisive.
On 26 January 1788, a fleet of 11 English ships carrying a cargo of convicts arrived on these shores. Under the command of Captain Arthur Philip, they landed at Sydney Cove and raised the Union Jack. The colony of New South Wales had begun.
The anniversary of this event is seen by many as an opportunity to celebrate. For many Though, especially for the indigenous people of this land, the day is one of grieving and commiserations. For many of us, there are complex, mixed emotions on this day.
I’d like to suggest on this Australia Day morning, that all of us who call this land home begin by acknowledging some of the ways God has blessed this country.
- This is a land of outstanding natural beauty – from its sweeping plains to its ragged mountain ranges; from its magnificent coasts and beaches to its stunning outback and desert expanses.
- The range of awesome flora from the majestic river red gums and towering eucalypts to the delicate, ephemeral wildflowers.
- The fauna likewise never ceases to amaze and delight.
- Our relatively temperate climate is also something for us to be thankful for.
- While it frustrates us at times, our political system and its democratic principles are a blessing, as is our relatively stable economy.
Even as I say that, I’m mindful of some of the negative things that have been happening over recent years, and months, to our landscapes, flora, fauna, ecosystems, weather patterns and climate, political system and economy. These should make us even more aware of what God has given us and even more determined not to take them for granted and to be good stewards.
The term “lucky country” is one that resonates with many Australians, and with many from other countries. It was a phrase coined by the historian Donald Horne in the 1960’s and the title of one of his better-known books. He initially used the expression in a derogatory context and later in life became quite critical of it being used as a term of endearment for Australia. Nonetheless, it’s a sentiment that has persisted.
I’m suggesting though that we think about how we are a “blessed country” and give thanks to God, whose Spirit has long been active in this land and who has graciously blessed.
Silent Prayer to give thanks to God for his blessings. (Perhaps some of the ones I mentioned, or others.)
While I’m suggesting Australia Day can be a day of thanksgiving to God and hence celebration, it’s also a day of commiseration as we recall aspects of our colonial past and continuing repercussions.
Last Sunday, Jeanette Mathews in her sermon told us a bit about the Yorta Yorta man William Cooper. On 26 January 1938, indigenous leaders gathered in Sydney at his suggestion and observed a Day of Mourning. Then a month or so later he wrote to Prime Minister Lyons. Here’s a part of what he said.
“White men… claimed they had ‘found’ a ‘new’ country – Australia. This country was not new, it was already in possession of and inhabited by millions of blacks, who, while unarmed, excepting spears and boomerangs, nevertheless owned the country as their God-given heritage.
I marvel at the fact that while the textbook of present civilisation , The Bible, states that God gave the earth to man, the ;Christian’ interferes with God’s arrangement and stops not even at murder to take that which does not belong to them but belongs to others by right of prior possession and by right of gift from God.
Every shape and form of murder, yes, mass murder, was used against us and laws were passed and still exist, which no human creature can endure. Our food stuffs have been destroyed, poison and guns have done their work, and now white men’s homes have been built on our hunting grounds and camping grounds. Our lives have been wrecked and our happiness ended. Oh! Ye whites!…
Are you prepared to admit that, since the Creator said in his Word that all men are of ‘one blood’ we are humans with feelings like yourselves in the eyes of Almighty Gog, that we can have joys and sorrows, our likes and dislikes, that we can feel pain, degradation, and humiliation just as you do? If you admit that, will you like true men do your bit to see a great injustice at least mollified by agitating for us to get a fair deal before it is too late.”
My source for that was “The Bible in Australia – a Cultural History” by Meredith Lake1. I hasten to declare that I’m the proud father-in-law of the writer. I strongly recommend it and can tell you where to get a copy if you see me later.
To put that letter in context, and help you appreciate a little more what was behind those sentiments, I’d like to show you this map2. It’s been produced from research conducted by Newcastle University. It’s a map of the verifiable “Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1780-1930”. Remember that Cooper wrote to the Prime Minister in early 1938. The dots are the sites of massacres of indigenous people. I thought of reading 1 or 2 accounts of the massacres to you but decided against it seeing the kids are with us this morning. Too graphic for them, and probably for most of us. But accounts are not hard to find on-line. Look up “Myall Creek” as a start. June 1838.
Rev. John Saunders, the minister of the first Baptist Church in NSW (Bathurst Street Baptist Church in Sydney) preached a controversial sermon a few months after that, on 14 October 1838.3,4 The sermon has the honour of being included in the book “Well May They Say – The Speeches that Made Australia” by Sally Warhaft. Dr Ken Manley, a Baptist historian, described the sermon as “one of the most important sermons ever preached by a Baptist in Australia”. This is part of our heritage as Australia Baptists. Unfortunately, it is not well-known, it’s under-appreciated and it’s too little followed.
Saunders was appalled not only by the Myall Creek Massacre, but by the Supreme Court’s initial failure to reach a guilty verdict for the perpetrators. In his sermon he said things like:
- “We have robbed him without any sanction… we descended as invaders upon his territory and took possession of the soil.”
- “We have brutalised them.”
- “We have shed their blood… We have not been fighting with a natural enemy, but have been eradicating the possessors of the soil, and why, forsooth? Because they were troublesome, because some few had resented the injuries they had received, and then how were they destroyed? By wholesale, in cold blood; let the Hawkesbury and Emu Plains tell their history, let Bathurst give in her account, and the Hunter render her tale, not to mention the South.”
His main text was Isaiah 26:21 (KJV) — “Behold the Lord cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her stain.”
Last Sunday we were challenged by Jeanette’s sermon to be people of justice and empathy. Part of that challenge came from Isaiah 58 where Isaiah tells the people that God was not impressed by their fasting and sackcloth and ashes. What God wanted was justice and compassion for the oppressed, hungry, homeless, naked.
Today’s reading from Micah presents the same challenge. That’s not surprising because they were contemporaries in the 8th Century BC, both were from down South in Judah, and both witnessed similar social and religious problems.
Today’s passage is styled as a courtroom drama. “Rise, plead your case” we have in v1.
The judge is God, Micah is God’s counsel, speaking on God’s behalf. The defendant, or accused, is Israel. The mountains and hills are called as witnesses (v2). God charges the people (in vv4,5) with rejecting God’s way and going their own. Then Israel, the defendant, answers in vv6,7. It doesn’t dispute the crime, or its guilt. It basically asks what it can do to set things right. Which sounds good, but its suggestions indicate they just don’t get it. Israel’s suggestions are just more of the same old external religious rituals. But note the increasing severity.
vv6a,7: “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of soul?”
They just didn’t get it! The court concludes with the words of God’s counsel summing up what God requires. Nothing to do with sacrifices and offerings. Three things are required (v8) – do justice; loving-kindness; to walk humbly with God.
These three things are just as appropriate and as important for us today.
As we reflect on the injustices perpetrated on the First Nations people of this land, we need to acknowledge not just historical injustices of long ago, but more recent injustices and even ongoing ones as well, in the present. One of the slides last week was similar to this. It’s from a project by The Guardian newspaper5. They are maintaining a database of Indigenous Australian Deaths in Custody since the Royal Commission into such deaths in 1991. There have been more than 400 since then. Let me tell you just two more of the stories.
JBM. Male, 44, Northern Territory.
JBM lost consciousness and died a short time after police decided to take him into protective custody at Vestys Beach in Darwin in September 2016. He had been bashed by two people the night before. That morning he had asked a council ranger to call an ambulance because his back hurt, and that request was passed on to the police call centre, but not recorded or acted on. Police arrived two hours after the request for an ambulance. They called an ambulance and performed CPR but he died at the scene.
Rebecca Maher. Female, 36, NSW.
She was taken into protective custody for allegedly walking in an intoxicated manner along a road in Cessnock. Police did not attempt to contact a responsible person, as required under the relevant legislation, did not call an ambulance, and did not search her for drugs because they mistakenly believed she was HIV positive. They did not enter her cell between 1.27am, when she was checked in, and 5.51am, when it was discovered she was dead. An inquest found that her level of intoxication and apparent breathing difficulties, which were noted by police although some police at the inquest denied discussing the issue, meant that she should have been taken to hospital. Had an ambulance been called, the coroner found, she would have survived. The coroner made seven recommendations including expanding the CNS to include people taken into protective custody.
Let me just say that in many of the 400 cases, coronial inquests found that correct procedures were not followed, but absolved authorities of any criminal conduct. Families have frequently rejected findings along those lines however. In many cases, there was a history of criminal activity and/or mental illness which contributed to the deaths. That doesn’t excuse the statistics, Rather, it highlights the lingering negative impact of injustices associated with our colonial past such as dispossession, exploitation and violence. Intergenerational trauma, generational poverty, health disparities, disconnection from culture, disappearance of language, family separation, and social discrimination have all contributed and continue to contribute to the sorry situation we see today. Australia Day is a day for commiseration.
Silent Prayer as we remember the injustices on the First Nations people.
As Micah prophesied, as John Saunders preached, as William Cooper pleaded, as thousands of this land’s indigenous people have implored, we must grieve past and present injustices to the First Peoples and do justice in line with God’s Kingdom.
That’s where I see our Gospel reading fitting in. These beatitudes are principles for the Kingdom God is establishing. They are surprising, even counter-intuitive in some ways. But they offer blessing, and hope.
- V4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
- V6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
- V9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
- V10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
May it be so. Amen.
- Meredith Lake, “The Bible in Australia – A Cultural History” (New South Publishing, 2018), pp 278-279.
- Rod Benson, inaugural Tinsley Institute lecture, 1 May 2008 http://www.baptisthistory.org.au/articles/00005.pdf
- Full text of Saunder’s sermon at http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/20835.htm