Wearing the flag
This post is part of the Australia Day Synchroblog.
Australia Day means many things to Australians. For most, it’s a public holiday that marks the end of the holiday season. Christmas and New Year are distant memories and the kids will return to school in the next week or so.
Over the years a few traditions have grown up around Australia Day. The ‘Aussie’ thing to do is to have a barbecue with your mates, watching the cricket and tennis with a cold stubbie in one hand and a burnt sausage in the other.
Australia Day has a more formal side as well. Most local councils conduct Citizenship ceremonies, National honours are given, municipal awards are bestowed, speeches are made… you get the idea. Australia Day is about thinking about the meaning of ‘being Australian’ and we celebrate it by doing very Australian things.
Over the last couple of years this seems to have taken a slightly new form. We seem to have become more nationalistic. People have taken to wearing flags (a quick trip into any department store will confirm this) and trying to be very ‘Australian’. This isn’t a problem, but it all seems a little, well, unAustralian.
Australians have never been overly nationalistic. That doesn’t mean we’re not proud of our country. We routinely hit far above our weight in sport (for a nation of 20 million people we seem to bring home a lot of Olympic medals!) and we have an awful lot going for us. Why wouldn’t we be proud?
Yet the idea of having to wear the flag seems very new. I wonder why that is. Perhaps we’ve lost our sense of identity as a nation. Or maybe we simply want to celebrate our sense of Australianity the way we see people in the US celebrate their USAness. I don’t know.
I do know, however, that celebration needs to be more than just vacuous symbolism.
Funnily enough, I belong to a denomination that suffers from many of the same problems. The Salvation Army is very proud of its heritage. We have a flag that symbolises much of what we believe. There is a section in the Salvation Army Song Book (our ‘official’ hymnal) dedicated to songs about the flag, not to mention many shorter songs in an appendix in the back.
Flag songs are very much out of vogue at the moment, but there is a push to revisit a lot of our older traditions. In part this push is a reaction to the fear that we have forgotten what we are about as a movement. A lot of those traditions were born when we were first forming an identity as an organisation. If we’ve lost that identity and drive, the theory goes, we might be able to ‘reset’ ourselves as a movement. In other words, we need to get back to basics.
I have no problem with this as far as it goes. I think the Army has a lot to learn from our forebears. However, we live in a different time. Whilst the old traditions may be instructive, they are not what we are about. The genius and identity of the early Army lay in understanding the times and adapting themselves to suit. Being the Salvation Army in the 21st Century will involve adapting ourselves to the 21st Century. And we do that by doing it, not panicking about ‘losing our distinctives’ and lengthening our list of ‘non-negotiables.’
We will not find our identity by making sure every Corps and social centre has a flag. We’re not going to do it by making sure that every soldier wears a uniform.
Our identity is wrapped up in what (and who) those symbols point to. The symbols themselves have no value. We will only rediscover what it means to be the Salvation Army by being a Salvation Army, not just looking like one.
John Gowans, a previous General (world leader) of the Salvation Army, summed up the mission of the Salvation Army in three phrases. We are, according to General Gowans, to
- Save sinners
- Sanctify saints
- Serve suffering humanity
There’s nothing in there about wearing uniforms, marching in bands or calling our leaders ‘Captain.’ If we want to be a Salvation Army we should be doing these things. If banging a tambourine helps doing these, fine. If it becomes no more than a clanging cymbal or sounding brass we are just participating in an exercise of ecclesiastical masturbation.
Australians have to do much the same sort of thing. We all understand what being Australian is about. This is the nation of the fair-go, of looking out for your mate and living-and-letting-live. We don’t do that by wrapping ourselves up in a flag and shouting ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!’ We do that by giving everyone a fair go, looking out for our mates and living-while-letting-live.
Oh, and throwing a piece of lamb on the barbie. Snag, anyone?