Australia Day 2020
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
26 January 2020
For almost five months, fires have raged across large tracts of our ancient and dry continent.
Who could have imagined it?
And February is not yet here.
Yet, after an apocalyptic summer we are on the verge of normality.
Well, some of us are: those returning to secure jobs in the last week or so, and those resuming (or commencing) school this coming week.
But there is no return to normality for the vast tracts of bushland that have been destroyed, nor for the one billion animals believed to have been killed by these fires.
There is no return to normality for the owners and workers of almost 6,000 buildings lost to the fires so far.
There is no return to normality for the people who once lived in almost 2,700 homes which have been destroyed by the fires.
There is no return to normality for the 33 people killed in the fires so far, nor their families and communities.
It is not just the scale of the fires that has been so daunting, but the intensity of the flames, the speed with which they ran ahead of the fire front, the early start to the fire season, and the proximity of the fires to farms, homes and even urban areas.
Airports have been closed, seaside villages evacuated, and in so many different places people were choking on the thick air under a frightening red sky.
The world has noticed.
Any of us with overseas friends will have had many enquiries asking about our safety.
Australia has been teetering on the edge of the abyss as a serious climate emergency has seemingly caught us unaware. Not really unawares, of course. Just unprepared as our leaders have chosen to ignore the warning of scientists and fire chiefs, preferring to head overseas on their family holidays while Australia burned.
In this climate emergency we have seen the worst and the best of humanity.
The arsonists and the looters, few though they be, remind us our capacity for evil.
Thankfully their lack of human decency has been more than matched by the outflow of the very best of humanity which we have witnessed in these past months: compassion, volunteers, assistance, and donations (huge amounts).
Of course, the culture wars have continued as well, and some of the divisions have hardened as people stick to their preconceived ideas no matter how bad the fires become.
But overall this has been a time when we have rediscovered who we are as Australians.
Perhaps it has also been a time when we have sensed just how fragile life can be.
We are all so vulnerable.
Despite our best efforts to provide shelter and food, and to provide for future contingencies, we are vulnerable, and our comfortable lives can quickly vanish in a fire, or a flood, or a hurricane, or a negative medical diagnosis or a new global virus alert.
Too often we are like the proverbial rich farmer whose plans for an easy retirement collapsed in a single night. [Luke 12:16– 21]
The fires may have been a wakeup call for a society which expects everything to work out well. We imagine that the universe owes us a living, and a good one at that.
On this Australia Day as we scan the shared contours of our national life there are some features which speak to our hearts.
It seems to me that this climate emergency and the fires which it has turbo charged has also revealed a genuine compassion for those who are doing it tough. When so much often seems to divide us, it is a good thing to discover all over again how much care about one another.
Compassion goes deeper than mateship, as it extends even to strangers and people with whom we may disagree.
Compassion is about deep solidarity when we discover how much of the good stuff and the bad stuff we all share. Your feelings and your concerns are mine, and mine are yours.
Compassion surpasses tolerance and even harmony. It is more than finding room for someone else and their opinions, but actively wanting what is best for them even at the cost of what we may wish for ourselves.
Compassion is love with its sleeves rolled up.
Alongside compassion for all those impacted by the fires, we have this amazing sense of gratitude for the firefighters and all the emergency services personnel.
Words fail when we seek to express our debt to them, even if our own homes were not in the path of the flames.
We salute their unstinting response: day after day, week after week.
We acknowledge the costs they have also borne as they sought to save other people’s homes and farms.
We are thankful for all they have done, and continue to do.
We are in awe of them.
The fires have done something else, as well. And this is something that is it essential for us to name on Australia Day.
The fires that swept across our ancient and dry land reminded us that our story did not start in 1788 when the eleven ships that comprised to so-called ‘First Fleet’ sailed into Port Jackson after an aborted attempt to establish a settlement at Botany Bay.
In more general terms there have been calls to learn from the First Nations of this land how to live more in harmony with a country that is prone to extreme weather events punctuated by extended droughts.
Perhaps most poignantly, the fires in southwest Victoria exposed previously unknown sections of the ancient aquaculture systems at Budj Bim. These systems date back to a time before the pyramids were built in Egypt, and their chance exposure due to the fires has been another reminder that the story of nation long predates the arrival of Europeans.
On a day which commemorates the arrival of one group of immigrants, it is important to recognise both the people who have been here since time immemorial as well as welcoming those who have arrived more recently.
As we learn more about the truth of our deep past we shall be better prepared to live into the future that we must—and shall—share together.
This Australia day, from the devastation of the fires, let’s claim these three precious items as we live into that future: compassion, gratitude and cultural humility.