Many countries around the world celebrate the anniversaries of their independence or the birth of their nationhood. Australia Day is quite unique in that it is a day of national celebration that pre-dates the birth of our nation, going back to January 26, 1788 - the day that Captain Arthur Phillip took formal possession of the colony of New South Wales and became its first Governor.
At that time Australia (discovered by England in 1770) was home to between 150,000 and 300,000 Aboriginals and was claimed to be the territory of England. But it was an unutilised outpost of the Empire. It wasn't until 1785 that Sir Joseph Banks reintroduced the idea to the British House of Commons that Botany Bay would be a suitable location for the settlement of prisoners. By 1787, the conditions of the overcrowded gaols in England were rapidly deteriorating and the government was forced to take action. The Admiralty were instructed to provide the proper vessels to transport 750 convicts together with provisions, tools, farm implements, seeds and supplies necessary to start a new life in New South Wales.
And so it came to be that Australia became a penal colony - a prison continent for the dumping of the criminal outcasts of England. At that time Australia was the largely unknown and untamed "ends of the earth". To be sentenced to "transportation" meant saying goodbye to old England forever - and enduring a dangerous 8-month voyage without much hope or chance of return.
So who were the convicts? According to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, they were "men who by the faults of their country almost as much as by their own crimes had been allowed to fall into a state more pitiful than that of the heathen". The majority were professional criminals; the rest were casual criminals - thieves who stole because of want for food and other necessities of life, white collar workers who had been convicted of crimes such as forgery or embezzlement, and a group from the army and navy who had committed offences breaching their codes. But there were women too - one third of whom were prostitutes. Hardly a suitable group to form the basis of a new, proud and free society!
But despite the questionable demographics of our first settlers, Australia continued to steadily grow towards nationhood as our shores attracted fortune-seekers and refugees from all around the world. It is fair enough to say that Australia today consists largely of people descended from those who originally did not want to be here! The Gold Rush of 1851 brought hundreds of thousands to our shores seeking an opportunity to get rich quick - with the hope of taking their fortunes home again. But failed expectations and broken dreams left many such fortune seekers bankrupt and unable to return from whence they came, and many of those who did make their fortune concluded that it wasn't such a bad place to live afterall. WW1 and WW2 saw another flow of refugees from Europe. Regional conflicts in Asia brought more again to our safer shores.
Thanks to the providence of God, Australia does "abound in natures gifts of beauties rich and rare", and life in the colony (no longer a colony) has somewhat improved since the time of those early settlers: According to "quality of life" study by the UN in 2001, Australia was rated the second-best country in the world to which live in, coming second only to Norway! Truly something to celebrate and give thanks to God for! Australia also has the unusual place in history of being an independent nation which was formed not by a war - but by a vote! And not many people know that many of those influential in the Federation of Australia in 1901 were actually Christians.
Alfred Deakin - one of our first Christian patriots:
"God my Father whose mercy has succoured and shielded me so that my weakness has not been shamed nor my frailty rent asunder I look back upon a past in which I have sinned deeply against Thy law and Thy love and know the root of my iniquities still living in my breast. I beseech Thee that it may be withered in me by the force of Thy consuming fires rather than remain with me to the end. Youth is past and manhood unfolded to its full but I find myself still feeble, still doubting, still uncertain of my life and part, still a scholar learning little and all unfit to rise or rule. The place I occupy belongs to me nor by right nor by qualification and I covet it not or seek not to covet it. My home happiness, my joy in my children, my loving parents and sister, my worldly ease are blessings to which I can feel no claim. Not just to me but gracious and generous has Thy dealing been and I am too poor in soul even to appreciate it. That I may be nerved for the tasks, strengthened for Thy duties, buoyed in the self control and self command and guided in my aims and actions in my coming life is my earnest prayer O God. I would wish to retain the hope, the enthusiasm, the trust of youth with such ripeness as my nature permits of at its maturity. I would wish to serve those I love and make them happy while most ministering to bring them nearer to Thee and Thine. This above all things O God. I would also crave to do something for my country and my kind if ever so fractional and pray to be shattered and crucified rather than aid anything contrary to Thy Will and their elevation. Let me serve somewhere and somehow Thy purposes and for myself I seek no more. Yet will I rejoice to receive glimpses of insight into Thy Being and Thy Nature, yet will I glory in the visible manifestations of Thy Power and Thy Love; yet will I drink deep of all those delights which my home, wife and children and all loved ones bring me and kneeling thank Thee for them day by day. Make me O God sincere in all things but above all things in my devotion to Thee. I ask neither prize, nor remission of penalty, but only to serve Thee and if possible to know that I am serving."
Essentially, patriotism is about good citizenship. It's about respecting authority and law, working together for the common good of your country, paying your taxes and living a good and upright life in peace with your fellow citizens. A literal definition is "One who is zealous for his country's prosperity, freedom or rights". Patriotism is mostly a good thing. As Christians we just need to understand that we have a dual citizenship - and that our first allegiance is to Jesus and our "citizenship in heaven".
Nationalism, on the other hand, can have a much darker side. Whilst a certain degree of national pride can be harmless when watching the Cricket or Football, national-ism sets countries and people against each other on the basis of who is superior. In its darkest form, nationalism is essentially the belief that one nation of people is intrinsically better than another nation on the basis of their race, religion, culture or national achievements. It was German nationalism and the philosophical belief in their own superiority in the lead up to WW2 that fuelled their hatred of the Jews, their persecution of minorities, their military conquest of neighbouring countries, and their technological advancements in developing new weapons of war. Only the crushing defeat of the German war machine by the allied forces caused a spiritually deceived nation to review their most basic beliefs about themselves. They were humbled and humiliated. Let us hope that we continue to humble ourselves before God so that we never need such an abrupt awakening!
In fact, it is impossible for humility and nationalism to co-exist. On this Australia day, and on every other day, let us always remember our humble beginnings. Whilst we may be happy about our achievements and celebrate our freedom and prosperity, let us always remember that we began as a nation of outcasts in an inhospitable land. We owe all that we are, and all that we have achieved, to the providence of God and "a series of miracles..."
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