Redeeming Australia Day: How Aboriginal Christians are Challenging Australian Spiritually

The annual Australia Day festivities are upon us once again. And, once again, it is corporate Australia that dominates the public conversation.

This year it began with a particularly controversial advertisement from Meat and Livestock Australia, presented by SBS's Lee Lin Chin - proving that lamb is still the easiest way of getting Australians to talk about national identity.

And then there was Woolworth's unfortunate omission of Tasmania from an Australian map; and AussieBum's insensitive range of Australia Day themed underwear.

Each year seems to produce some new faux pas, some new way for corporate Australia to get things wrong. But the frequently overlooked question is why should corporate Australia set the tone in the first place?

Recently, television station NITV did something striking by providing a guide to the differing perspectives regarding Australia Day. It outlines three competing ways of commemorating the date, representing the divisions in our national narrative:

The first is Australia Day, marking the 1788 date on which the flag of Great Britain was raised on our continent's shores.

The second is Invasion Day, which is a time of mourning by Aboriginal peoples for all that was lost subsequent to that event, and a campaign towards a more sensitive Australian national commemoration.

The third is Survival Day, which recognizes the vitality of Australia's diverse Indigenous cultures despite colonization.

NITV goes on to explain its decision to celebrate Survival Day: "invasion doesn't frame us as a people. We are still here, our languages are still spoken and our cultures are strong." This decision shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait elders gradually redefining "Australia" in the public space, and pushing to anchor the state and its laws to its land and cultural traditions that preceded the arrival of the English ships.

And this is having widespread effect . The increasing popularity of the City of Sydney's Aboriginal Survival Day gatherings, including Yabun Festival, held by Gadigal elders in Victoria Park, shows a grassroots local resistance to the Australian narratives often promoted by white politicians and corporate Australia. Fifteen thousand Sydney-siders will celebrate their own Aboriginal heritage, or gather to appreciate these ancient and modern cultural/spiritual traditions.

That these developments are taking place in an age of "religious nones" seems to signal a turn for millennials towards a deeper meaning-making that supersedes drunken barbeque rituals and gaudy displays of the Australian flag. Spirituality is now celebrated in previously secular spaces.

For example, this year marked the first Welcome to Country performed during Sydney's New Year's Eve fireworks. And in Sydney this Australia Day, seven Welcome to Country ceremonies will take place at points around the Harbour, with Jessica Mauboy singing the national anthem in Aboriginal languages at the Barangaroo site.

But although Acknowledgement of Country (which can be spoken by a non-Indigenous person) has become a normal part of all school and council events, this ceremony is integrated into few evangelical or pentecostal Christian church services in Australia. This shows a conspicuous disconnection between the spirituality and practices of the nation, and that of much of the Australian church.

Recently, Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls noted a surprising "Southwards shift" of global Christianity. While in 1900 around 80% of Christians were located in Europe, now it seems that 65% of the church is located in Africa and Latin America.

Similarly, it seems a disconnection exists between the actual and believed demographics of the Australian church. Since the closure of the missions, the Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 75% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in the city, and as many as 73% self-report as Christian. This can be contrasted with 61% of the Australian population overall.

These are, of course, only nominal rates. But there's no reason not to expect that similar proportions of each population are sitting in Australian churches. Which means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders should perhaps be taking a greater role in our evangelical and pentecostal conferences, and educating the wider church on their mission successes.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a bittersweet relationship with the church, and for good reason. Their living memories include loss of language and culture, and even direct experience as the Stolen Generation - as well as, often, a sacred space of refuge and connection with God.

The church has received public criticism for its paternalistic attitudes, past policies and practices - most notably the removal of children. The effects of these policies can still be felt today: Aboriginal children are seven times more likely to be in state foster care, and these numbers are not declining.

This raises questions over the often made assertion that Christianity was solely responsible for the destruction of Aboriginal families. And it also suggests that the Australian church needs to learn from its admitted failures, and take a lead in the public space on real issues of justice. Pauline Scott-Terare, a Christian Bunjalung woman and Director of the Biddigal Performing Arts Centre in Cairns, notes that these issues include police brutality, deaths in custody and lack of representation for Aboriginal people within the legal system of Australia. Yet, she says:

"I believe God put my ancestors in this country, I believe that God has a special purpose for Indigenous Australians, I believe in the principles of spiritual gate-keepers of the land (Psalm 24:7). When Australia seats Indigenous Australia at the forefront of discussions, when Indigenous Australia stands in her position as a generation who seeks Him, then the King of Glory will come in."

Although many denominations do involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait leaders, there remains a reluctance to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as key leaders of the Australian church, and a resistance to embracing and integrating their practices in ways that allow us to contribute to the spirituality of our land and nation.

This is not simple omission for many evangelicals - in fact, it was very deliberate following events such as the convening of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Canberra in 1991. Aside from issues with some international guests, two liturgists from this global event recently described to me being inundated by complaints from Australians specifically regarding the addition of a smoking ceremony. They emphatically believed, however, that the smoke rising from gum branches was reminiscent of the Christian thurible, a metal censer used in Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox churches globally still today. They saw it as a common method of prayer, with incense mentioned in various places in both biblical testaments.

Desire for greater interaction between traditional culture and biblical perspectives was included within a statement released by evangelical members of the WCC at that time. But, with the notable exception of the late-missiologist Ross Langmead's contribution and a few similar individuals, many white Australian Christians have made little effort towards interfaith dialogue.

But Aboriginal leaders, however, have continued this quest. And decades later, leaders such as Pastor Will and Sandra Dumas, Senior Pastors of Ganggalah Church in Tweed Heads and leaders of the Indigenous Initiative of the Australian Christian Churches (Assemblies of God Australia) are leading the change they want to see. Ganggalah Church chooses not to commemorate Australia Day as a congregation. Last year, their New Year period of prayer and fasting coincided with this date, and black Christians washed the feet of the Australian politician Fred Nile.

Still today, engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture can be a divisive topic for the Australian church. As Talal Asad notes, anthropologists often categorized ritual as merely "symbolic activity," but ritual has always held greater significance within the Christian tradition.

Most Aboriginal pastors are forthright in saying that Welcome to Country is done to simply honour the history and peoples of our land - a beautiful ritual gesture in a world that often lacks respect. This can serve as a moment to recognize the ancient roots upon which we form our nation: land that was created by God, and land within which the Spirit of Jesus dwells and which he sustains. It can be seen as an act of gratitude to God that Aboriginal peoples took care of this land for thousands of years.

On the other hand, the belief continues that Welcome to Country offers invitation to foreign spirits, and should not be practiced inside the church setting. It seems many evangelical and pentecostal Australian pastors do not want their worship "tainted." Perhaps this is an area in which Christians will have to trust God more truly, and listen to Aboriginal leaders, believing that in Jesus's death and resurrection the former things are recreated new (Acts 10:15; Acts 17:22-31).

In most congregations around the nation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Christians provide a resource for engaging and serving local communities. Many present as middle-income families. Of course, rural communities continue to practice culture, to speak Australian languages and demonstrate connection to land. But these Indigenous families living in Australia's cities are no less Aboriginal.

There is also a younger generation of Aboriginal Christian leaders, such as Brooke Prentis from the Waka Waka nation, who (like leaders before her) is tirelessly engaging with issues of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly through the Grasstree Gathering. She says:

"A minister last year asked me, 'Brooke, what keeps you going?' My response was, 'Knowing that God is up to something and it's something I want to be a part of'. Why the churches are so slow to react or participate in these spaces blows my mind. This land and our peoples, both black and white, need truth, need love and need justice. When truth, love and justice combine then our land can start to heal and we will be building God's kingdom here on earth in this land we now call Australia.

"I truly believe that 2016 is a year where we will see change. The words 'Always Was, Always Will be, Aboriginal Land on the Bridge on New Year's Eve suggests that.

"It's not just about changing the date; it's about each and every Australian Christian stepping outside the four walls of the church to journey with us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If Australian Christians read the same gospel as I do as an Aboriginal person, they read of a gospel of truth, love and justice. That gospel requires action outside the four walls of the church on a Sunday.

"I would love to see 2016 be the year that individual Christians take a step to get to know their Aboriginal neighbour, their Aboriginal brother and sister, who is part of God's gift to this country, and to this world as the world's oldest living culture ... I would love to see "Australians" pausing to commemorate 26 January as we do as Aboriginal people - a commemoration of mourning (lost people to the Frontier Wars, lost children to the Stolen Generations, which continues today - lost language, lost culture), a commemoration of the true history of this land.

"This isn't just about doing a Welcome to Country at church on Australia Day. That's a good place to start. But a Welcome to Country means nothing if there is not true relationship, true friendship. I have said for a long time that if we thought about and worked at friendship instead of hiding behind the word 'Reconciliation' then we would be a lot closer to building the kingdom, a lot closer to Closing the Gap and maybe even a lot closer to this seemingly elusive Reconciliation.

"A Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country on Australia Day mean nothing unless the church can pause to grieve with us as Aboriginal people on this day and to pause to reflect on the conflict this day and date create for us. Let this day be a day we can pray together for a better land for all that call this land home."

Nations need more than just lamb chops to make them strong. They need dialogue and a commitment to shared meaning-making. They also need spirituality.

Worship matters. Our public actions in church shape the everyday lives of Christians. And it is possible for us as Christians to both celebrate the things we love about our nation, as well as pause to give recognition to our land's deeper and even traumatic history. It is time for Christians to allow space in our hearts (and in our Australia Day services) to acknowledge Aboriginal voices and perspectives. Not because they are marginalized, but because this community is leading our nation toward forging a distinctive and life-giving Australian spirituality.

And perhaps if our hearts become open to a life-changing togetherness, then the "ministry of reconciliation" entrusted to us by Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19) would have real significance outside the walls of the church, and therefore to the wider nation.

Tanya Riches is a PhD candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary, Los Angeles, completing her dissertation on the worship and social engagement practices of Aboriginal Pentecostal Christians. Her MPhil research at the Australian Catholic University covered ten years of development in Hillsong Church's musical, theological and business practice.