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I see Truganini in chains: the idolatry of flags

Monday, 23 January 2017  | Mick Pope

They say that you get the strongest reaction from someone when you attack their favourite idols. Theologian and 16th century reformer John Calvin described the heart as an idol factory. This might be something of an overstatement, but we all hold onto some things more than we should; more like we should be holding onto God.

So if I sing along with Midnight Oil song Truganini’s ‘I see the Union Jack in flames, let it burn’, I suspect some of you might become a little upset with me. Now I’m no real fan of flag burning, but there’s no idol quite like nationalism. And, this Australia Day, we need to face up to this fact and not be suckered in by it. And I promise, no flag burning. But let’s get rid of the Union Jack, and can we change the date please?

Nationalism might be subtle or not so subtle, overt or covert. So we might look down on those who wear the flag like a cape and attack people from the Middle East on Australia Day, or we might rankle at the thought that we should change the date. I’ve certainly done the latter myself in years gone by. We might, as Donald Trump did not so long ago, call for harsh penalties for burning the flag. And yet that has also been seen as an attack on free speech. Now some people question what should go under the rubric of free speech, but if a flag is a political symbol, then burning it is not a simple act of vandalism or act of treason, but a political statement, isn’t it?

So what is a flag? And why should we have to change it? A standard argument against change that some people have used to me in the past is ‘people have died for that flag’. Well, in war people do march under national banners, but who actually dies for a piece of fabric? Don’t they fight for ideals that may be expressed by the flag? It’s worth noting as an aside that, as followers of The Prince of Peace, we should be very careful about using arguments based on war.

Tom Wright has identified four elements of a worldview. A worldview is like the pair of glasses you come to forget you are wearing, the lens through which you evaluate the world. You don’t question it; you’re not aware of it. Worldviews have stories or narratives we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. Then there are questions we ask and answer through that narrative. There are symbols, like flags, that represent what it is we believe. Then there are practices, like celebrating Australia Day on January 26, or playing two-up on ANZAC day. These are ways of acting out the narrative.

In Australian history, we’ve told ourselves a lot of stories. There’s the ANZAC myth. Not that the military catastrophe on ANZAC Cove didn’t happen, or that individual acts of bravery weren’t carried out by young Australian men. The myth is the stories we tell ourselves about the event, like somehow our nation was born through this military disaster. There are plenty of ways of remembering ANZAC Day without glorifying war, or making the event into something it was not. Some sense of mourning would be good. The other is the great Aussie battler. Based on our ‘living off the sheep’s back’, this story pits us against the relentless elements. It’s the story of stoic self-reliance, and it pays homage to the hard work of those who have farmed this land and fed us. Then of course there is the story of discovery, of Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet.

The problem with these stories is not that they are entirely untrue, or that they don’t contain ideas and people to admire, but that they are not enough. The ANZAC myth is masculine and militaristic, exclusive of women and of Aboriginals ANZACs not recognised properly. The Aussie battler story pits humans against the environment, an environment we’ve mismanaged while indigenous land management worked in harmony with country for 50,000 years (see for example The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage). And finally, discovery goes along with Terra Nulius. These lands were not discovered for the first time by Europeans and then settled, but invaded and taken by force. It’s a somewhat unsettling thing to realise that, as a first generation Australian of English parentage, without this invasion I wouldn’t be here.

So I think, when we get all defensive about our flag, it’s important to realise that the Union Jack is more than simply a recognition of our English heritage as a white nation. It’s a symbol of a whole lot more for the first people. It won’t do to say ‘oh debating changing the flag will be divisive’. The fact that you and I are here is part of a history of division - dividing Aboriginal people from their land, from their children, from their freedom (Aboriginal people represent 3% of the population yet more than 28% of the prison population). Then there is the gap in health, education, life expectancy etc.

You might then say ‘but changing the flag would only be symbolic’. But symbols matter, or some of you reading this wouldn’t be upset, right? And yes, we need a treaty with first Australians, the gap needs to be closed, a whole bunch of issues need to be addressed. And, every step of the way, indigenous dignity needs to be respected by allowing them to steer the conversation. Aboriginal sovereignty needn’t mean two states in one, but even if it did, remember: who invaded whom?

And as for the date of Australia Day, recall that this celebrates the arrival of Arthur Philip in New South Wales. There was no Australia until 1901. It wasn’t the official date until 1935 and not a national public holiday until 1994. Compare that to 50,000 years of occupation and justify arguing over the date.

So, briefly, a few thoughts on a biblical approach to the issue.

Firstly, the incarnation suggests to me the need to identify with where we are. Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to seek the welfare of the city in which we are in exile. Now we are not Jews in Babylon (let’s not denigrate this great land of ours that way), but we are not in our final Sabbath rest. Combine this with the same reminder that Paul gave the Philippians. Recall that Philippi was a Roman colony and its citizens had all the rights of Roman citizens. Yet Paul reminded the Christians there that they were citizens of heaven. This was not a form of dualism, but a reminder that we live in one place with the values of another. Relatedly, where we are is where we share the gospel, where people come to know God (Acts 17:25-28). This to me means that, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with a date to celebrate the best of a country and to pray for it. But a day of invasion is not it.

Secondly, about 73% of Aboriginals self-report as Christians. I really can’t think of anything more central to the faith than the idea of reconciliation. This is what Christ achieved for us on the cross. So do you not think that, after over 200 years of dispossession, ignorance, racism, violence, incarceration and arguably genocide, we at least need to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters? You might not know any indigenous Christians. You don’t actually need to in order to acknowledge the wrongs done or the need for reconciliation. And yet getting to know some indigenous Australians and hearing firsthand the history and legacy of white settlement has only strengthened my resolve on this matter.

Thirdly, there is the matter of justice. There is no justice that is not social, and to speak of social justice is not to abandon the gospel but to get to the heart of God. What does the Lord require of us if not kindness, humility and justice? And if part of that is a new start, a treaty, a new anthem, flag and national day then so be it. South Africa could manage a reconciling national anthem. Other nations have adopted new flags for new identities.

So I say, metaphorically speaking, with all due respect to what is for some but by no means all the ‘mother country’, let it burn. It’s time for a change. And if as a Christian you believe in working for the best for your country, in reconciliation and in justice, you’ll support this idea too.

Mick Pope is an aspiring ecotheologian and the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank and is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014).


Andrew Kulikovsky
January 31, 2017, 1:27AM
How will changing the flag or anthem or date create unity and reconciliation in Australia? Most Australians have no problem with the flag, the anthem or the date, so if we change them, we will just be creating ANOTHER division and MORE resentment...
Peter Dixon
February 6, 2017, 5:52PM
Well thought and said. Thank you Mick Pope.
Paul Tyson
February 6, 2017, 7:03PM
Thanks Mick.

It amazes me that raising a British flag in 1788 'made' this ancient land the property of the English crown and the ancient occupants of this land British subjects (not citizens) in British law, and all the wealth of the land that is a function of land ownership today has its origins in that astonish act of grand theft. The original stain of dispossession, murder, disease and rape of the 'settlement' of this continent is the foundation of our wealth today. Australia Day should be a day of fasting and mourning for Christians, and should propel us towards repentance, truth and reconciliation. I think Australia Day should have the same sort of connotations for us as Auschwitz does for modern Germany.

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