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Being Australian, being Christian

A sermon for Australia Day 2016 by Rod Benson

Matthew 22:15-22

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi!”

Brothers and sisters of the Australian soil, I greet you.

On Tuesday Australia celebrates its birthday, in recognition of that defining event of national history, the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 26 January 1788, and the raising of the Union Jack flag at that site by Governor Arthur Phillip.

The descendants of those human inhabitants already in possession of the land refer to it as Invasion Day, and with good cause.

Much has been said and done to reconcile Australia’s Indigenous peoples with those who came to this land more recently, and much yet needs to be done, including (in my opinion) formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples in the preamble of the Australian Constitution.

But that is not what I want to talk about today.

On Wednesday I attended a training event hosted by Mission Australia for Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), in the hope of using the skills acquired in teaching asylum seekers. At one point the facilitator asked us to define culture. One participant raised her hand and said, “Beer, barbecues and beaches.”

She was describing what she thought defined Australian culture. But there are many Australians who don’t drink beer, have never chucked a prawn (or a lamb chop) on the barbie, and who don’t like the beach.

What defines Australia for you? What makes you proud (or at leased pleased) to be Australian, or living in Australia?

To my mind, Australia is one of the best countries in the world to live, on many counts. But like all political communities, it is an imagined community. “Australia” is not set in nature but in history. I will never know, and certainly never meet, most of the people who call Australia home.

Many nations today are constructed out of earlier identities (such as Israel). Others, such as Yugoslavia and Malaysia, were created to obscure ethnic and language-bound identities. Still others, such as Pakistan, were established in part on the basis of religious identity.

Since the debacle of the Tower of Babel, nations have come and gone, and much evil and suffering is attributable to nationalism, but “the diversity of nations within history is also seen as restraining human evil or hubris.”[1]

We should also note that “the nations” are an important and enduring element in the mission of God in the world (see Isa 60; Rev 21-22).

Nationalism and patriotism are for this age, not for the age to come, but as W.F. Storrar observes, “the unity of the new humanity in Christ would not seem to efface the frail, national identities within which humanity has at times sheltered in its history.”[2]

Scripture indicates that a day will surely come when a great multitude of people will assemble, too numerous to count, “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne [of God] and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9).

Australians will be there. Members of the Dharug and Gundungurra people will be there. People of Scottish and Basque and Melanesian heritage will be there. Arabic, Israeli, Swahili, Cantonese, Hungarian and English will all be represented, as we blend our voices together in  praise to God the Father and to the Lamb. What a great day that will be!

So is nationalism good or bad? Are the associated patriotic feelings and actions right or wrong? A social scientist might define nationalism as “a state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be owed to the nation.”[3]

Here we begin to run into theological problems, for the supreme loyalty of every person who professes to follow Jesus is owed to Jesus. When patriotism or national identity takes on religious overtones, or begins to obscure my core identity in Christ and as a member of his church, it is idolatry. When my Christian identity draws on my sense of Australian Christian heritage, or on my sense of being “Australian” and not, say, Arabic or Indonesian, I’m on a slippery slope.

On the other hand, I don’t believe it is inappropriate to sing the so-called “lost” verse of Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia fair,” sung in Smithton, Tasmania, as early as the 1930s:

With Christ our Head and Cornerstone,

We’ll build our nation’s might,

Whose way and truth and light alone

Can guide our path aright.

Our lives, a sacrifice of love,

Reflect our Master’s care,

With faces turned to heav’n above,

Advance Australia fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing,

Advance Australia fair!

Jesus has something to say about all of this. As the time of his death approached, he faced increasing opposition from the Jewish religious establishment, especially the Pharisees, many of whom were convinced that Jesus was destroying the basis of their divinely established religion.

In Matthew 22:15-46, Matthew records accounts of several attempts to trap Jesus with cleverly crafted argument.

The first is the most famous, in which some representatives of the Pharisees first employ flattery, then cunningly ask, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (v. 17).

In reply, Jesus denounces them for their hypocrisy, then asks for a coin (a denarius, a silver coin equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer).

He turns the coin over in his hand, and says, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (v. 20).

“Caesar’s,” they reply.

Jesus says to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21).

With that single sentence, he destroyed their argument and taught an important essential principle, the exact meaning of which theologians and others have been arguing for 2,000 years.

Caesar’s face was imprinted on most Roman coins. People still dig them up today. It was doubly offensive to many Jews of the time. It represented the fact of Roman domination and occupation of their ancestral lands, and their powerlessness to rid themselves of the Roman yoke; and the coin bore a human likeness, which technically transgressed their rule against the making of images.

For us today, in Australia, preparing to celebrate Australia Day on Tuesday, this short story in Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that some things (duties) are due to the state, and what is justly due should be paid by all citizens. Supporting the cause of justice is service to God.

But Jesus went further, as Leon Morris explains:

[I]n addition to their obligations to the state they had obligations to God, and those, too, must be rendered. We are at one and the same time citizens of some earthly state and citizens of heaven; the obligations to neither may be neglected …

[But] there are limitations to the things that are Caesar’s. People must never allow their obligations to the civil state to encroach on their payment of the things that are God’s. For serious-minded people this is an important limitation to the rights of the state…

We should be clear, too, that Jesus is not saying that we can divide life into separate compartments so that God has nothing to do with that section which belongs to Caesar. The obligation to God covers all life; we must serve Caesar in a way that is honouring to God.[4]

The implications for our celebration of the nation, and our expressions of patriotism, are obvious. As my fellow Christian ethicist David Gushee put it:

We need to be able to say ‘yes, but’ to patriotism. Yes, we love our country, but we do not fully belong here or in any earthly land. Yes, we want our nation to flourish, but every human being and human community is equally precious in God’s sight. Yes, we value our nation’s ideals, but they are not the same thing as the message of the kingdom. Yes, God blesses America [and Australia], but he blesses other nations too.[5]


Sermon 653 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 24 January 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] W.F. Storrar, “Nationalism,” in David J. Atkinson et al (eds), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1995), p. 617.

[2] Ibid., p. 592.

[3] “Nationalism,” in John K. Roth (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Ethics (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1995), p. 592.

[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 557-558.

[5] David P. Gushee, “What’s right about patriotism?” Christianity Today, July 2006, p. 48.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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