Australia Day or Invasion Day? Who does Australia belong to?

OPINION | Andrew Robinson

Wednesday 29th January 2014

Every Australia Day, there is some controversy about whether it is right to celebrate the day that the First Fleet landed, considering the land was already occupied. Sometimes it is suggested that to celebrate Australia Day is to celebrate ‘Invasion Day’. It’s a topic that raises issues of race, history, hurt and forgiveness. Here, Andrew Robinson suggests how the Bible helps to give us perspective on the issue.


Peter Adam: God gave Australia to indigenous people

Back in 2009, Melbourne theologian Peter Adam gave a lecture at Sydney’s Morling College.⁠1 The lecture quickly became celebrated because of its radical claim: that it was the duty of non-Indigenous Australians to offer to leave this country in repentance for the crimes committed against Aboriginal Australians over the past two hundred and twenty years since British colonisation.

A key part of the lecture was this reflection on Paul’s famous sermon in Acts 17, particularly verse 26:

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”

If God gave indigenous Australians this land and it is still technically theirs, then non-indigenous Australians who live on Australian land are nothing less than the possessors of stolen goods.

Australia is God’s land, Adam argued, and God had marked out the times and the boundaries of the lands of Australia’s indigenous people. The first British settlers to Australia ignored God’s divine boundary-marking and moved the stones with impunity, despite the obvious presence of thousands of indigenous people occupying and managing this continent (modern estimates suggest that around 318,000 people lived in Australia in 1788 – some suggest more than twice that.)2

It is a compelling argument, because the legacy of the dispossession is devastating, complex, very present and very real. If God gave indigenous Australians this land and it is still technically theirs, then non-indigenous Australians who live on Australian land are nothing less than the possessors of stolen goods.

Thomas Moore: God gave land to me

But the question of who God gave land to gets more complex.

Consider the example of Thomas Moore, whom Moore College in Sydney is named after. He arrived in New South Wales in 1796, became Master Boat Builder of the colony, and accrued a great deal of land. By the time he resigned his position at the dockyard, he already had a property which stretched from Petersham to the Cooks River.⁠3

When he died in 1840, he decided to leave his extensive estate to the Church of England. When asked why he wasn’t leaving it to his nephew, he replied, “No, God gave it all to me, and I shall give it all back to him.”

Was Thomas Moore wrong? Who did God give the land to? The Eora people or Thomas Moore? How on earth are we to discern God’s providential land-giving?

Theologies of land

The problem with many of the attempts to answer this question is that they can be either over-specific—that is, over-identifying with some aspect of the biblical story related to land—or under-specific.

Liberation theologies

Many Christians in the developing world, as well as in marginalised minority or indigenous communities, have been attracted to the Exodus and the Promised Land as models for crying out for God’s action to liberate them from their oppressors. John Harris, the Australian Anglican theologian and historian (and consultant for Bible Society Australia – Ed.) suggests that it is not Exodus images that Australian indigenous people have been drawn to, but images of the Promised Land.⁠4

I love this approach for its deep narrative and poetic power, but this kind of close identification with particular salvation-historical situations can be used for good and evil. Harris, for example, notes that nineteenth century European Christians were on the whole convinced that the Aborigines were the Canaanites and they, the Europeans, were the Israelites driving them out.⁠5 We need extra theological resources here.

Biblical theologies

Another approach is to find a theology of land by looking at how it unfolds through the Bible. But while most biblical theologies of land offer us some helpful resources to think through this question, they never take us far enough.

Here is a quick sketch of a typical one, drawing on the work of Robert Bos’ Land in the Bible.

God is the creator of all things, and as creator, he is owner.
But he also created humanity and made us as custodians of his land.
At the fall, our role as custodians is frustrated, and we are ejected from the garden.
But God promises us redemption, and this redemption is characterized in part by an inheritance of land.
These promises were fulfilled in the nation of Israel, whose relationship to the land was inextricably linked to their relationship with God: they possess it but are ejected from it.
However, after the exile and return, and then especially at the coming of Christ, this link between God, his people, and land is reconfigured. Our inheritance is now a renewed creation ruled by the divine-human Lordship of Christ. Now, according to Hebrews, now we do not long for an earthly country, but a heavenly one.
Our expectations of land are now eschatological.⁠6

This is a deeply helpful sketch, but offers us little help when it comes to specifics. Which people? On which land? Our broad-brush biblical theologies risk being under-specific.

“Our land rights are in heaven”?

An over-emphasis on hope delivered in heaven can mean that we can fail to recognise grave injustices in the real world, right now.

There is also a risk here in overplaying eschatology, that is, the Christian hope of the future promised in heaven. During the land rights debates which escalated in the 1970s, some Aboriginal Christians asserted exactly this: that their ‘land rights are in heaven.’7 Surely, some argue, the way the New Testament tells us that the promise of land in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus himself as our heavenly inheritance renders a theology of land custodianship irrelevant.

While profoundly true, I think this can be unhelpful. An over-emphasis on hope delivered in heaven can mean that we can fail to recognise grave injustices in the real world, right now. Unwittingly or not, it can become a power play by which present land-owners justify their current situation without adequate concern for the landless in the present age. And it also ignores the Scriptures’ more specific accounts of land custodianship.

What about ‘Original gift’?

Rainbow Spirit Theology

So we return to the concept that Peter Adam introduced in his lecture, which he calls “original gift”. It is different from a notion of Australia as a “Promised Land” in that its basis is in a universal distribution of land to humanity—alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:8 and expanded in Acts 17:26, and has a great deal of resonance with indigenous Australians.

The Rainbow Spirit Elders, an interdenominational group of indigenous Christian pastors and theologians put it this way:

“We believe the land of Australia is the land once allotted to Aboriginal Australians, not to the European invaders. We Aboriginal Australians therefore believe that the land of Australia is still in our trust and that it is our responsibility to sustain the land.”⁠8

The problem with ‘original gift’

This powerful conception resonates deeply, but still has some issues.

Firstly, it is in many ways an unworkable concept. Apart from a few exceptions, we have no way of knowing who the original inhabitants of a land were. If invasions are only legitimate under very specific salvation-historical circumstances, then it is very difficult to evaluate who the true title-holders of ‘original gift’ are.

Peter Adam acknowledges this, and he is right that despite its contentiousness, if any people were to be candidates for having continuity with the ‘original gift’, it would be Indigenous Australians.

Is Australia any more my land than it is that of the refugee who is resettled here after fleeing persecution in her home land?

The real problem is that, like the liberation theologies, everyone can cite Acts 17:26 and say it applies to them. Is Thomas Moore’s presence in New South Wales any less God’s work than, say, the presence of his contemporary Bennelong, the remarkably charismatic Eora man who befriended Governor Philip?

And what about the contemporary inhabitants of Australia? Is Australia any more my land than it is that of the refugee who is resettled here after fleeing persecution in her home land? Doesn’t God use the boundaries of this land to protect her as well?

Acts 17:26 and ‘Continual gift’

The unity of mankind and the purpose of land-giving

Let us think more carefully, then, about the meaning of Acts 17:26 in its context.

Paul is communicating his gospel—a gospel so profoundly embedded in the election of Israel and the promise of its Messiah—to non-Jews.

He is emphasising both the fundamental unity and equality of humankind, and the purpose of creation. God wanted humanity to inhabit the earth, and seek their creator, and human custodianship of land was designed to that end.

But in the midst of this teaching we also discover a particular truth: that it is good and appropriate that particular nations dwell in particular lands with particular boundaries.

If it is legitimate for a nation to inhabit and possess a land, and if boundaries are relevant in the divine economy, then it is possible for grave injustice to be committed against land owners.

Continual gift, not just original gift

The fact that everyone can use Acts 17:26 is actually its strength. There is more than just ‘original gift’ here. It also speaks of continual gift: that God has given and continues to give land to people in many kinds of ways.

But human sin and God’s sovereign giving of time and place to people and nations are occurring concurrently, so we need to be ready to recognise both. God’s ‘continual gift’ usually takes place through and despite human activities.

Peter Adam and the Rainbow Spirit elders are absolutely correct to see Acts 17:26 as referring to God’s generous gift of this land, the indigenous nations of Australia. But Australia under Aboriginal rule was not the Garden of Eden and the British invasion was not original sin—in a theological sense, at least. Indigenous Australians were given this land by God so that they might reach out for him and find him.

But Acts 17:26 also refers to us in the present moment: first-fleeters or recent immigrants, because this is the time and place where God has given us life and breath and everything.

But the nature of your presence here and the responsibilities attached to it will be different, depending on your part in the story of this particular land. As an Australian-born descendant of the British invaders, I can say that my being here in this time and place—even my participation in the Australian nation—is a gift from God. But God’s providence does not exonerate invasion. This land is not ‘mine’ in the same way that it is for Indigenous Australians, because of the complexity of history and culture.

We cannot flatten out the way that God has given this land to Indigenous Australians and the way that he has given it to others: these remain distinct. But it is ‘mine’ and ‘ours’ in that we live here now, in the time and place that God has given us.

Towards a theology of land custodianship

So, can we find a better way to talk about a theology of land ownership? I think we can.

Firstly, we must recognise the purpose of God’s ‘continual gift’ of time and place.

If we, as the people who live in this land in God’s time, are to live out our purpose, to seek the God who is near to us in Christ, one of the most obvious implications for that is that we seek to be people willing to acknowledge our own wrong, and compelled to pursue and seek justice with every fibre of our beings.

God has appointed us here to this time and place, and part of the response to God that he intends for us means working for justice here, which means working to right the wrongs inflicted by the invasion.

The churches where we worship each Sunday are built on stolen land.

Secondly, we must recognise that dispossession of others’ land is sin, and we must name it as such. As people living in this land, we need to conclude that in no uncertain terms, an unmitigated evil was inflicted on Indigenous Australians by the colonial government and rapacious European settlers in the dispossession of their land, their murder on a large scale and the intentional destruction of their culture, right up to the 1970s. We should have no objection to using the word ‘invasion’ to describe European settlement, because this is what it was, even by the standards of the day.

Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that the Christian churches were deeply complicit in this evil.

The churches where we worship each Sunday are built on stolen land. Engagement by British and European Christians with Indigenous Australians has a long and nuanced history, and there are some heroes, and many who meant to show Christ’s love but did it inexpertly. But they were exceptions. The church was deeply caught up in this evil, and continues to be mired in apathy and ignorance about indigenous people.

Fourthly, the Christian response to sin is repentance, and repentance requires restitution.

This is a complicated one, which I don’t have time to address in detail. The problems of working out the nature of repentance and restitution for a complex, multi-generational sin against many different Aboriginal nations are beyond my scope here. But I agree with Peter Adam that repentance and restitution are necessary, from non-Indigenous Australians as a people as beneficiaries of the invasion, and from Christians and churches as deeply implicated in the theological justification of the invasion.

Fifthly, recapturing our vision of both creation and eschatology can empower us to seek justice and generosity now. If ‘custodianship’ is a better way to think about our ‘possession’ of the earth than ownership, perhaps non-Indigenous Christians will be wise to listen to indigenous brothers and sisters who suggest that an indigenous approach to relating to the land could be more biblical than the European tradition.

Earlier I was critical of suggestions that Indigenous Australians should focus on their ‘heavenly land rights’—the better country that awaits all who live by faith, admitting that we are aliens and strangers on this earth. However, a focus on our eschatological land can be of great help to non-Indigenous Australians, freeing us to seek justice, reconciliation and practise radical generosity to Indigenous Australians.

Finally, we must perceive God’s works in the world through the lens of the cross. Making sense of how God works in, and, despite human sin is one of the deep paradoxes of the Christian faith, and Christians have been caught up in this atrocious evil because we have misused the idea of God’s providence.

We need to approach God’s sovereignty, like any other theological topic, via a theology of the cross, not letting ethnocentric assumptions about racial and cultural superiority cause us to think that the shame of our culture was actually the work of God.

God’s self-revelation in Christ’s death and resurrection shows us a God who both hates evil yet loves his creation and humanity enough to give himself up for us. God is acting in the world to reconcile all things to himself under his son, who will judge the world with justice. And Acts 17 asks us if we, those caught up in a tragic and evil history will repent and seek justice, or if we will be judged wanting by the man Jesus whom God has appointed?

Andrew Robinson is the Assistant Minister at Church of the Good Shepherd, Curtin, ACT.


1. Peter Adam, ‘Australia – Whose Land? A Christian Call for Recompense’, Ridley Melbourne, Theological College., Cited 24 Oct. 2012, Online:
2. 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2002 Australian Bureau of Statistics 25 January 2002, Thomas Keneally, Australians: Origins to Eureka (Allen & Unwin, 2010), 71.
3. Peter Bolt, Thomas Moore of Liverpool : One of Our Oldest Colonists. Essays & Addresses to Celebrate 150 Years of Moore College (Studies in Australian colonial history; Camperdown, NSW: Bolt Publishing Services, 2007), 14.
4. John W. Harris, ‘Justice, Aboriginal Land Rights and the Use and Abuse of Scripture’, Nungalinya occasional bulletin 38 (1987): 8.
5. Harris, 8.
6. Robert Bos, Land in the Bible (Melbourne: Joint Board of Christian Education, 1985), passim.
7. John Harris, One Blood : 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity: a Story of Hope (2nd ed.; Sydney: Albatross Books, 1994), 859.
8. Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology : Towards an Australian Aboriginal Theology (2nd ed.; Hindmarsh, S.A.: Atf Press, 2007), 37.

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