Believe it or not, Easter celebrates a man who died a criminal’s death and became the foundation for what are commonly called ‘Australian Values’.
When I was a young boy, visiting my grandmother in Edinburgh, Scotland, she used to tease me by saying, “You and your family are descended from convicts.” I deeply resented her comments because as a five year old boy, I did not yet know that Australia, in its founding, was populated by criminals.
From 1788 to 1868, Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts from its overcrowded prisons to the Australian colonies, 80 years’ worth of convicts. It was in fact William Wilberforce who petitioned the British government to settle Australia, in order to give prisoners dying in overcrowded British prison hulks, a new start in life.
Interestingly, while the vast majority of our early settlers were convicts, most of our early explorers were men of faith. James Cook, Charles Stuart, Matthew Flinders, Edward John Eyre and the indomitable Pedro Fernandez De Quiros, who in 1606 gave Australia her name, Australia del Espiritu Santo.
This legacy of faith carried on through our many devout, practicing Christians, such as Governors Lachlan Macquarie, Brisbane, Hunter and Latrobe, to name a few. Macquarie, in particular, encouraged Christian education, commencing a number of schools under the supervision of government chaplains. By 1817, the most common discussion in the pages of the Sydney Gazette was the merits of Bible reading.
Australian money tells the story of our early Christian pioneers and the ways in which they influenced our values. The early $5 note told the story of history making Christian social worker Caroline Chisholm, Australia’s first advocate for women in the early 1800s. The current $20 note tells the story of Rev John Flynn who pioneered our Flying Doctor service to outback areas. The current $50 note features David Unaipon, an aboriginal inventor and lay preacher, who invented improved methods of shearing sheep, among many other things.
The preamble to the Australian Constitution contains the words, “Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. For centuries, to speak of Western civilisation was to speak of Christian civilisation. The two were in many ways synonymous.
To paraphrase the words of the Canberra Declaration: “The values that we have cherished and sought to strengthen are in large measure founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system. The many freedoms, advantages, opportunities, values and liberties which characterise the West, including Australia, owe much to the growth of Christianity with its inherent belief in the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God and the code of behaviour that flows from this belief… These values are being attacked and undermined on many fronts, by dedicated and articulate proponents of different views.”
Niall Ferguson, in his book the “Civilization: The West and the Rest”, carries a quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in which he tries to account for the success of the West, to date.
He said: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.
“We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.
“Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.
“But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.
“The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
Perhaps it time to take a lesson from the Chinese government, who spent decades persecuting Christians, and discover again the values that made Australia great.
But from where do these values emanate?
The Sydney Morning Herald, marking 200 years of Easter celebrations since the settlement of Australia in 1788, said it most eloquently.
“The Easter faith has fashioned the basic convictions of most Australians. It reveals a God whose supreme characteristic is love, who gives dignity and worth to every person, whose face is set against exploitation and oppression and who is on the side of justice, freedom and peace…
The Easter story gathers to a climax the concept of self-giving which runs through the whole life of Jesus. He gave Himself in the service of His neighbours until at the end He gave all He had, His life. On the cross He died as He lived, pouring out His life for others.
Australia today needs a massive injection of this ideal of service. Society cannot function pleasantly or effectively if self-interest dominates human relationships and the motive of service is lost. Personal and corporate selfishness is a worrying feature of the contemporary scene, for it can easily lead on to conflict, exploitation, even corruption. Hence, society needs the inspiration of the quality of service seen in Jesus. The nation requires constantly to be confronted by the ideal that abilities, education, and privilege of any kind are entrustments to be used not for self-advancement, but for the common good.
The crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus provide a solid basis for hope. In the cross of Jesus, evil at its worst and goodness at its best met and, when the struggle was over, though Jesus died, goodness was victorious…
Finally, the Easter faith has a very personal message for every Australian. It speaks words of forgiveness, comfort and strength. It provides meaning for living and purpose for dying. In a very personal way, the Christian faith can bring to every life calmness and confidence. From the cross and resurrection of Jesus comes power for daily living. It enables every Australian to face the future without fear, for always there will be available the love and the power of the living God.
So, what is it about the Easter message that has such an attraction for a nation descended from convicts? What has this got to do with our Australian Values? Perhaps we have to look at recent information that has come to light about Ned Kelly who was one Australia’s most famous criminals and folk heroes to find out.
Ned Kelly was no pushover and directly or indirectly was responsible for the death of 9 men including three policemen. Arguably Australia’s most notorious criminal.
Author Kerry Medway in his book on the Life of Ned Kelly tells a story of Kelly’s last days. Dr John Singleton, a prison Doctor who tended Ned Kelly’s wounds, shared the story of Jesus, “the friend of sinners”, with Ned Kelly. By all accounts Kelly was deeply moved, so much so that on the night before he was due to be executed he sang “The Sweet By and By”, a popular hymn so loud, that the whole prison could hear. “There’s a land that is fairer than day, And by faith we can see it afar; For the Father waits over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there. In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore; In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Johnny Cash sings the song that Ned Kelly sang the Night before he was executed
Having said that, Ned Kelly, as a criminal, would have been in good company with Jesus, who was attacked for being “a friend of sinners.” Jesus did not die alone, but was crucified between two criminals. In Luke it says, “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It would seem, after all, that Convict Kelly had a personal encounter with the Friend of Sinners just like the thief on the cross. Christianity, based wholly and solely on the death of Christ on the cross, is what Australian values are built on.
Ned Kelly’s encounter, in a Melbourne gaol, prior to his death in 1880, gives hope to all of us this Easter.