Oscar Romero, the great El Salvadorean archbishop and martyr, observed that the task of the Church in every generation is to make of that country’s history a history of salvation. This has always struck me strongly and I’ve been pondering it in relation to ANZAC Day and St George’s Day (the English national day) this week. As a saint, Oscar Romero’s feast day also falls appropriately between those two dates and challenges us to relate our national histories to that of Israel as described in the Bible. What can we learn?...
Perhaps the most powerful of the writers of a biblically-based salvation was St Luke, both in his Gospel as well as in the Acts of the Apostles which form a double volume. Luke's conceptions are certainly outlined in addresses by the apostles. In Acts 13.13-26 for example, St.Paul traces the history of Israel’s salvation. After all, he is speaking to a Jewish audience in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia: a diaspora congregation who would have been particularly keen to maintain and affirm their own cultural, as well as religious, identity. Elsewhere, Paul concentrates on other elements in sharing the Gospel: notably in Athens, where he makes use of the Athenians’ own prestigious and highly valued religious and philosophical traditions, drawing on their cultural expressions. Paul, the Great Communicator, thus points us to our own tasks in the different contexts and cultural milieux in which we move today.
What would we highlight for a Jewish audience I wonder? The writer of the Acts of the Apostles gives emphasis to a number of features of Isarel’s salvation history in the speeches he records. This one of Paul’s is comparatively brief but centres on the following: first of all, the choice of Israel’s ancestors by God; secondly, the story of the Exile; thirdly, the destruction of the Canaanite nations and the giving of the land of Israel; fourthly, the time of the judges; fifthly, the giving of kingship; and, sixthly, following on from King David’s line, and presaged by John the Baptiser, the coming of Jesus.
Are these the key elements we might share with such an audience? They are powerful themes and certainly enough for anyone to ponder deeply. Yet it is hardly a complete series even of highlights of the Hebrew Scriptures. There is not much there about the prophetic and wisdom traditions for example, and whatever happened to the Exile? Perhaps the answer is that the Exile might be problematic as a greater reminder of suffering and humiliation than even the Exodus from Egypt and the lengthy wanderings in the wilderness? Similarly prophetic literature remains to this day deeply challenging to the comfortable, not least the religious. Maybe we have the beginning here of the relegation of the prophets to a kind of warm-up, and support, act for Jesus? I also wonder today whether we would be keen, without comment, to include as vital salvific acts the destruction of other nations and the taking of land. This is a common feature of Christian Zionist and other proclamations of the Gospel but our experience and knowledge might give us significant pause: especially when we recollect the history of Palestine-Israel and of other colonial and post-colonial stories. In this, as well as other respects, the salvation histories of Israel and Christianity always require considered attention, not least when we reflect upon their shadows, ambiguities and exclusions.
Such considered attention is certainly a challenge for us here in Australia. Which of the features of Isarel’s salvation history do we wish to highlight for instance? My sense is that the destruction of existing peoples and taking of the land is most certainly one to drop, or at least interrogate at length to determine other liberating biblical themes. I am still recovering for instance from the shock of hearing a speech by a leading Anglican theologian at a conference I attended last year. Without a single reference, or seemingly a thought, to the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal land and people, he blithely and vigorously affirmed Joshua and his bully-boys as a model for Christian mission in our Australian context today. Instead, some aspects of Exilic literature seem to me to be a richer and more healing source for all kinds of people in Australia, including Aboriginal, who seek a new home and a new start which encompasses diversity.
This week similarly presents us with other great challenges of re-working what we mean by salvation on the communal and national level. Notably this is the case with ANZAC Day and the mythology around it. What place do they have in a history of salvation which should offer healing, liberation and a new horizon of shalom for all? As someone who was born and who has lived most of my life overseas, I am always a little hesitant to speak about ANZAC Day. In some ways it seems so foreign. There is no real equivalent in the UK, even though Remembrance Day picks up some of the due recognition of the pain and waste of war and the respect which needs to be offered to the military and its families. There is no Dunkirk Day in the UK for instance, and other events such as Trafalgar Day or Battle of Britain Day have never caught on. ANZAC Day has much value but we have also seen it used for other less attractive political and ideological ends in recent times. That I feel wary of speaking about it is in itself a pointer to its need for reshaping. Others, such as Yassmin Abeld-Magied have also suffered from suggesting this.
What would an Australian history of salvation look like? I would suggest it would keep ANZAC Day, but in a more traditional sombre way, added to by grief for the destruction of war and nationalism and the folly of fighting in other people’s wars.. It remains a sadness to me too that the much greater number of British soldiers who died and were injured at Gallipoli are never mentioned on 25 April in Australia, nor the Indians or others who died. Surely ANZAC Day should give us opportunity to rtenew our international solidarity as wqella s recognsie and care for our own?
What else would we include? I suggest we might move beyond 1788 for Australia Day and highlight those great moments of healing and renewal in our nation’s life: like the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum. This would be to carry forward the work which Romero commended, and which he and St Paul did so well and which they embodied in their own lives. For, as Romero also emphasised, every national and cultural tradition is to be transformed by the transcendence of Christ. God is not to be made captive to any culture. It is God’s transcendent love which breaks into all our histories. So, for that reason, alone, this is a vital and continuing conversation.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.