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Sunday 26 May 2024

Reclaiming the Trinity as Kin: a thought experiment on Sorry Day

Texts: Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the tabling in Federal Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report, an enquiry of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from our families. The report found that the practice, which began in the earliest days of British colonisation, had persisted well into the 1990s and was specifically designed by the state to destroy the indigeneity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The report noted that children removed from their families were far less likely to speak their language and practise traditional culture. At the same time, they were far more likely to suffer the spiralling effects of childhood trauma. Unsurprisingly, if you try to remove the indigeneity from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kids and superimpose a toxic form of whiteness in its stead, Indigenous kids grow up with a sense of spiritual homelessness. Cast adrift in a world which simultaneously denies our indigeneity but also loudly and publicly blames us for it, we invariably retreat into the large hole inside ourselves where our country, family and culture used to be. A very dark and lonely place, usually.

The removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids from our families was a cruel and hideous policy which, despite beautifully crafted apologies from church and state in the intervening years, continues unabated. The rates of child removal are arguably higher now, in 2024, than they have ever been. That is why ‘Sorry Day’, which is commemorated on this day each year, must continue to be commemorated. For it reminds the Australian community of both the damage done by past practices and the damage it continues to do.

Aboriginal child with family
Now, as it happens, today is also Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Western Church. The Church that came to this country as part of the colonisation project. The Church that continues to enculturate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into its spirituality. The fact of this correlation creates an occasion when an Aboriginal preacher, like myself, might engage in something of a thought experiment. And the thought experiment goes something like this: where would Christianity be if Jesus had been removed from his Jewish family and placed in the ‘care’ of a non-semitic culture and society. Would Christianity even exist? Would its God, the God named in the bible as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ even be thinkable? Now, I rarely answer my own questions with any degree of nuance, but here perhaps is a start.

You will have noted already, I hope, that the trinitarian dogma is irreducibly familial in its language. It speaks of the divine as a little kinship network, a family. The historical Jesus, who apparently lost his father, Joseph, well before he reached his maturity, called his God ‘abba’, one of the more intimate names for ‘father’ in Aramaic. For him, the divine was not simply the progenitor of all creation or, in that very general sense, the father who watched over the Jewish people. For Jesus, the divine was his father. One who cared for him and taught him how to be a responsible member of the community as all good Jewish dads did.

It follows then, or so the trinitarian dogma would have it, that since the ‘daddy’ of Jesus was divine, the creator or all heaven and earth, then Jesus himself, precisely as a son, also had to be divine. That is point of the birth narratives constructed by Matthew and Luke, is it not? Yes, the evangelists say, for all earthly intents and purposes Jesus was Joshua ben-Joseph, the son of Joseph. But at a more profound level, he was also the son of a divine ‘father’: not simply ‘created’ by divine power but ‘begotten’, conceived not by the passage of sperm into his mother Mary’s uterus, but by the action of the Holy Spirit.

This ‘Holy Spirit’ cannot, at one level, be imagined in familial terms at all. Neither male nor female in the basic grammatical constructions of New Testament Greek, the Spirit is variously described in the biblical texts as fire, as water, and as air or breath. None of these images are particularly familial. Not if you are a hurried reader, that is. Dwell a little longer, however, and you will pick up some connections with maternity and with mothering. Take the passage we read from John chapter 3, for example. Here Jesus tells Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, that entering the region of the divine involves being born of water and spirit. The image here is multilayered. Water is both the amniotic fluid that protects a child until they are born, but also the amniotic fluid of the new birth in baptism, which has been placed in round, womb-like, fonts since the earliest of Christian centuries.

In the same passage, the children of God are said to be born of the breath or wind of God, a more literal translation of the Greek pneuma or ‘spirit’. Here the mysterious breath or wind takes on a decidedly maternal function. The Spirit gives birth to God’s children and then imprints them with a divine identity and vocation. In the passage we read from Romans 8, the children of God are only able to recognise God as their familial ‘father’ because the Spirit cries out a breathy ‘abba’, daddy, within them. Here the children are being led by the actions of Spirit who has given them birth and imprinted them with its own DNA. Just as a mother does with her children.

Of course, in Christian discourse, the Spirit is never simply female, in the gendered sense. Because the Spirit also carries the imprint of the Father and the Son. The texts very often name the Spirit the ‘Spirit of God’ or the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. In this sense, as the Uniting Church version of the Creed notes, the Spirit can be said to ‘proceed’ from the Father and the Son, with all their maleness. This means, in the end, that the Spirit is that dimension or experience of the divine which resists simple binary categories, especially if those categories are gendered, whist retaining a crucial role in the parenting of every single Christian child. The Spirit takes all that is nurturing in the being of God—whether that nurturing be imagined in masculine, feminine or more gender-neutral terms—and makes it real and active for you and I in the nursery that is the church.

So, let me now return to the question I asked a few minutes ago: where would Christianity be if Jesus had been kidnapped from his Jewish family and community, and placed in the ‘care’ of a far way, non-semitic culture? Where would the Christian understanding of the divine be? Would it be anything at all? Well, possibly not.

For the Christian experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is predicated upon the experience of a thoroughly semitic Jesus with the divine, an experience almost entirely derived from his formation as a Jewish child, raised in a Jewish home, according to the nurturing practices of his Jewish parents in their Jewish homeland and kinship networks. His experience of the divine as a nurturing family—male, female, and neither male nor female—draws deeply from the well of semitic culture and spirituality. Were Jesus removed from this environment as a young child, he may not have become the spiritual teacher who was able to imprint his followers with that experience and understanding. Were Jesus to have been kidnapped by an invading force, for example, and placed in a society where the divine was understood not as a nurturing family but as an emperor . . . well, Christianity may have ended up being an imperial religion of war and of conquest rather than a trinitarian religion of family, and of care, and of kinship.

But wait! Isn’t that precisely what happened with Constantine and with Charlemagne and with the colonising empires of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries? Did they not kidnap the kinship religion of Jesus and put it in prison? Did they not absorb it into a patriarchal and colonial religion of empire and of force that gave rise, in the end, to the practices of child removal that have so damaged the Indigenous children of Australia and many other places? Well yes, actually. Yes.

On this Sorry Day, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the faith and spirituality of Jesus, whose religion was deeply imbedded in a particularly semitic experience of family, of kinship, and of care. And perhaps we should remind ourselves, on this Trinity Sunday, that the dogma of the trinity is essentially about being part of a loving and caring family and the blessing of having one. And finally, perhaps, on this Sorry and Trinity Sunday, we should commit ourselves anew to practices of nurture which allow our Indigenous children to become who they are. Proud Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander kin.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Garry Worete Deverell

Pitt Street Uniting Church, Warrane/Sydney, 
Sorry Day/ Trinity Sunday 2024

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Apologies, Equivocations and Handwringing: Church Leaders at the Yoorrook Justice Commission

Full disclosure. I’m a trawloolway man from northern lutruwita/Tasmania who also happens to be an Anglican priest and theologian. That means that I came to today’s hearing at the Yoorrook Justice Commission in Victoria with a certain amount of baggage, namely a long experience of churchly handwringing over their brutal history with Aboriginal people, my people.

That history, it seems, is not in dispute. Not, at least, by protestants. The Anglican and Uniting Church leaders who gave evidence at the commission—Bishops Blackwell and Treloar along with Moderator Fotheringham—agreed that their churches had willingly participated in the genocidal work of the state in the ‘missions’, ‘protection’ and ‘assimilation’ eras of the colonial project.  This work included the forced dislocation of mob from our lands, cultures and spiritualities, as well as the removal of our children and their use as indentured labour. At the same time, with the enabling cooperation of both the state and the Christian squatocracy, the churches received large grants of land stolen from Aboriginal nations. The church leaders also acknowledged that the consequences of this history for contemporary Aboriginal people were catastrophic across every social indicator of health and wellbeing.

Archbishop Comensoli, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, seemed more equivocal with this ownership of this history. He was at pains to point out that Catholics ran no missions in Victoria and had very little to do with the setting of Aboriginal policy at the level of colonial administration. Here he made a convenient and - in the wake of public enquiries into the sexual abuse of children - now familiar distinction between the Church acting as an institution and Catholics acting as private citizens. A distinction which means little when one considers that Catholics, like all Christians, tend to act as their churchly imaginations allow.  And the churchly imagination most dominantly at play in this country was, and remains, profoundly racist and deeply colonial. Even when Christian settlers intended to do good, they did evil instead. For their version of 'goodness' was deeply imbedded in habits of mind and heart that took black inferiority and the virtue of white Christian civilisation for granted. And, as we shall see, this is still the case.

So much for the truth of our shared history. Now to the handwringing. 

Under several lines of questioning from commissioners and from counsel assisting, the church leaders were invited to report on what their churches were doing about their intentional involvement in this attempted genocide. Were they owning their responsibility? We they handing back stolen land? Were they making reparation? Were they empowering Aboriginal people to heal, to grow and to determine our own futures? Well, not really. Proportionally speaking, the church leaders made it clear that they were doing barely anything at all when one considers the scale of ecclesial culpability for the damage. 

The Uniting Church is clearly the best of them, on the evidence presented at the hearing by Moderator Fotheringham. Nationally, and according to the terms of a 'covenant' between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members of the Church, the Church has set up a semi-autonomous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Congress’ which receives some funding from the church to run its own ministries. Some members of that Congress sit on decision-making bodies that belong to the church as a whole. The church redirects a small portion of property sales to the Congress, which also enjoys an annual budget which is administered by State-based Synods. Let the reader be aware, however, that the Congress in Victoria in effectively either dead or dysfunctional and that it is also struggling at the national level. The reasons for this are complex, but in the opinion of this writer they come down to a lack of concrete specificity in the so-called 'covenant' concerning the responsibilities the parties have towards each other. This means that the Church can get away with generating good PR about the virtue of its covenant in lieu of actually having a covenant. Having spent a views years reflecting on the nature of covenants as part of a doctoral project, I would suggest that effective covenants need to be local, concrete, realistic, goal-orientated, time-specific and outcome-measurable. The 'covenant' of the Uniting Church and its Congress is none of these things.

Turning now to the evidence of Archbishop Comensoli, the Catholic Church funds an Aboriginal Ministry which runs out of a property in Thornbury. This ministry, run by a single Aboriginal manager and a small number of loyal volunteers, acts statewide to educate the Church, along with its school and welfare arms, about Aboriginal ways. A key instrument for such education is the 'Fire Carriers' network, by which Aboriginal children are empowered to learn more about their culture and to share it with their schools and churches. The Church also funds a small number of scholarships for Aboriginal students who wish to study at Catholic schools through a fundraising project known as 'Opening Doors'.  The bishops of the church are also ‘considering’ longstanding requests from its National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council to include Indigenous people in both the design of church policy and the training of ministry leaders. Let the reader be aware, however, that the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Victoria is struggling at present. On the retirement of its last manager, the Church has not, to date, been able to recruit a replacement. And the volunteer base, which for many years was mostly composed of religious sisters, is now shrinking rapidly along with the religious congregations from which these volunteers were drawn. There are no visible plans to more substantially support the ministry by, for example, employing a team rather than just an individual. Or by supplying the team with a budget that is more adequate to their very onerous responsibilities across the entire State.  Additionally, when one looks at the national picture, the long-term aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics towards a more substantial presence in the councils, theological colleges, welfare programs and holy orders of the Church still seem a very long way off.

Turning to the Anglicans, Bishops Blackwell and Treloar testified that the dioceses of Victoria have, between them, employed three Aboriginal priests to work with Aboriginal people in part-time roles. Two of these roles are in Gippsland, and the other is a newly created Province-wide role which remains a bit unclear with regard to focus and purpose, although the bishops disclosed that the role would be partly about the development of some kind of Aboriginal body for the Province. Bishop Blackwell disclosed that the diocese of Melbourne once sold a property to help fund the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council, which was created by the General Synod of the Church in 1989. The church is also ‘considering’, according to Bishop Blackwell, a 2018 proposal from the Anglican Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria to contribute 15% of all property sales to a mixture of local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and Aboriginal ministries. Let the reader be aware, however, that with the possible exception of Gippsland and Bendigo, Aboriginal clergy have found it enormously difficult to gain any traction with diocesan leadership. Our invitation for the Church's senior leadership to consider 14 'aspirations' which would improve the lives of our people immeasurably (tabled in several forums during 2018) were met with silence, the effective sacking of a sitting Reconciliation Action Plan committee, and constant deferrals. Our attempts to keep the aspirations alive in the hearts and minds of the Church and its leaders have left us exhausted and disillusioned. It is clear that the Church has no concept of what justice for mob might look like, nor is it inclined to give it much thought.

So, to summarise the evidence given by these distinguished moral leaders at the Yoorrook Justice Commission, the Anglican, Catholic and Uniting churches feel very sad about what they have done to our people and are showing how much they care by throwing a few scraps, a few crumbs from their tables, the way of the small handful of Aboriginal people who remain members of their churches. 

The commissioners asked if the churches had ever contributed, directly, to the welfare or support of Aboriginal people beyond their churches by means of, for example, reparations paid to traditional owner groups or Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. 'No', they had not.

To my mind, none of this is surprising. But it remains deeply and profoundly sad, to me, that organisations that claim to follow the Jesus of the gospels cannot find it in their heart to repent of their sins and to love their neighbour as they love themselves. For repentance is not only about naming the truth of one's misdeeds and saying 'sorry', It is about amendment of life, it is about doing all you can realistically do to undo the harms and heal the wounds that you have inflicted upon another. And loving one's neigbour involves far more than PR exercises or the sharing of leftovers from more important ventures. It is at the heart of the Christian vocation. It is about placing the neighbour at the centre of your world and inviting them to drink deeply from the very same wells of gracious provision which you, yourself, are privileged to enjoy.  The paradox, here, is that Aboriginal people - most of whom have nothing to do with the church anymore - are very often better at following Jesus than settlers are. Our own dreaming traditions teach us to share what we have with others, to pool resources, so that everyone may live both sustainably and equitably on the gift that is country.  And God knows we have done far more than our fair share of forgiving.

The Christian churches, in my long experience with them, very rarely get beyond ‘considering’ advice from mob about anything at all. Even the advice of their own Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander members. For the language of consideration is almost always code for disinterest, denial or indefinite deferral with regard to the claims of the Aboriginal neighbour. Often all three. Given the enormity of the damage done to our people by churches, this situation remains both ethically indefensible and a cause for continuing heartbreak and trauma. The crimes of the past are ugly as hell. But the refusal of the churches to adequately address the present consequences of that past are equally heinous. 

As far as I am aware, this is the first time the churches have agreed to offer evidence about their own abusive histories with mob before a public truth or justice commission.  It is well past time that their crimes, both past and present, were brought into the cold light of public scrutiny. At least that way, the churches might finally be called to account for both their actions and their lack of it.  I thank the commissioners for their work, and look forward to its bearing fruit in treaty.

This article was written on the same day as the hearing of the Yoorrook Justice Commission with the churches. May 1, 2024. A full recording of the hearing can be found here.

Thursday 21 March 2024

An affirmation of faith for the blak church

Let us rise to affirm our faith,
the faith of the blak church.

The dreaming was, is, and will always be.
The dreaming is the great pattern that
    forms our world,
    gives the lore,
    and gifts us to each other in kinship and love.
The dreaming is before us, and around us, and within us.

In the womb of the dreaming is our ancestor Christ,
bone of its bone, flesh of its flesh,
bright radiance of the dreaming’s glory.
In country Christ walks among us,
    sharing the lore,
    healing the broken,
    teaching us to care.
As seed, Christ falls to the ground and dies.
In the harvest, Christ rises to feed and sustain all living things.
He comes in glory to greet the living and the dead.

With the dreaming and with Christ is the Spirit of country,
who animates and enlivens all creation,
who knits us all together in love and in kinship,
who births our church and fills it with daring.

This is our faith,
the faith of the blak church.

© 2024 Garry Worete Deverell 
May be used freely with attribution
Window in Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alice Springs

This stained glass window was designed by Kathleen Kemarre Wallace for Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Mparntwe/Alice Springs

Wednesday 20 March 2024

‘Hold not thy peace at my tears’

Texts: Psalm 39; Isaiah 2.2-4; Acts 10.34-43

If you’re anything at all like me, you may wonder at God’s apparent inaction in the face of genocidal mania. When one group of people decides, whether out of trauma from their own histories or because of sheer racism, that entire populations of other people deserve little else but starvation and death, what, exactly, is God up to? Why, as the Psalmist intimates in verse 13 of tonight’s lection, does God hold God’s 'peace' whilst suffering is rampant?

The Psalmist’s phrase, ‘hold not thy peace at my tears’, brings our study of peace to a rather more uncomfortable place than we have been before, in this series. For here we are encouraged to consider the ways in which the word ‘peace’ may come to signify, in certain settings, a fundamental indifference to the suffering of others. 

broken building and people, Palestine
Take, for example, the experience of the Palestinian peoples at this moment. They suffer, they cry out in pain at the wholesale destruction of their society and the death of their children. They cry out even in the streets of Melbourne. But the reaction of the global north is largely one of indifference. In the face of starvation, our governments cut off aid. In the face of infanticide, our governments cancel visas. In the face of genocide, our political leaders keep their ‘peace’. 

Not that indifference is out of character for the nations of the global north. For the wealth and power of these nations is largely founded on the subjugation and subsequent exploitation of the global south.  You cannot unleash suffering on that kind of scale unless you have a particular talent for indifference.

The theological question remains, though. For those of us who would like to believe in a better power, a divine power, a power more loving and caring than most of our governors, what are we to make of God’s apparent inactivity in the face of all this pain? Does the indifference of our governments actually mimic an indifference from God?

The Christian answer is ‘no’, absolutely not. God is not at all indifferent to our suffering. God does not, in fact, hold God’s ‘peace’ whilst the whole world is burning.  Here I would like to draw your attention to the preaching of St Peter in the Acts of the Apostles:

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him . . . they put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day. (Acts 10.38-40)

The God you meet here is not one who is ‘at peace’ with suffering, but one who acts to do something about suffering. God chooses a human being, one Jesus of Nazareth, to be the sign or icon in the world of what God is doing. Jesus goes about doing God’s work, making God’s compassion real and practical. He does good. He heals the sick, he welcomes the outcasts and the victims of powerful but indifferent men, he strengthens the weak and all who live in fear. He casts out the various traumas that bind and hold them in chains. 

By doing so, Jesus of course attracts the ire and then, finally, the murderous intent of those who own his society, those who benefit the most from the status quo.  He is captured, tortured, and put to death for treason.  But that is not the end. At just the point at which Jesus’ divine mission appears to have been put down for good, God vindicates his cause and raises both it and him from the dead. His disciples then carry his mission forward. His spirit so animates what they are doing that the divine mission can ever after be located not only with Jesus, but also with all who seek to follow him, to imitate his ways.

The point here, if you didn’t catch it, is that God acts, that God unfolds a compassionate influence in the world on behalf of the poor, the broken and the marginalised. Not by magic, the waving of a divine wand. And not, indeed, through the application of a naked and irresistible power, such as that attached to empire. If the divine acted like that, then God would be little more than a bully, another instance of the global north's exercise of power, which so regularly kills and maims and destroys. To be different to that, God must exercise God’s power not by edict, but by persuasion. Not by force, but by love. Not by legislation, but by parable. To be God, as the theologian Karl Barth famously argued, God must act like Jesus.

So what does that look like in our world, the world that we much live in? How does God turn ‘swords into ploughshares’ and ‘spears into pruning hooks’, as the oracle from Isaiah puts it (2.4)? Like this. God invites human being like you and I to place the story of Jesus at the centre of both our social and ecological imaginations, thus giving us the opportunity to act as Jesus would act and to speak as Jesus would speak. For the gospel of Jesus is as a stranger and a sojourner in the world. Without our bodies, it can never gain traction or weight in the world. It can never become real. Without our assent, it can never leave its mark. God therefore needs us to be vessels of the gospel. Such is God’s lowliness. Such is God’s love. 

The gospel leaves it mark at precisely the point at which we need it. And our needs can be vastly different. If we are beneficiaries of all that the global north has accumulated from the poor of the world, placing Jesus at the centre calls us to live simply and to share what has come to us with those who have nothing. To crucify ourselves for the sake of the downtrodden. If, on the other hand, we are poor or ill or broken inside by all that has befallen us in life, then making Jesus central calls us to embrace the power of the resurrection to be all that we can be, to stand up and take pride in who we are and claim both the respect and the justice that God desires for all creatures.

So, whomever you are, and no matter how you think about the ways of the divine, hear this, please: God is not indifferent. In Jesus we learn that God is irrevocably for us and for the world. So don’t you be indifferent either. Do something. Act. Out of love for both yourself and others, do something good. And keep doing it. For the way to a real and genuine peace goes not by the way of indifference, but by an active participation in both the cross and resurrection of Jesus. This is the way. The way of Christ.

Garry Deverell

Evensong, St Paul’s Cathedral
Lent 5, 2024

Sunday 10 March 2024

The snake and the Christ: defamiliarising the biblical text

 Texts: Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21

I begin by acknowledging that we worship this morning on the unceded country of the Eora federation. I give thanks for the ancestors who formed this country and the elders who have nurtured it for 5000 generations. I look forward to the day when there may be a more just settlement for all Indigenous peoples.

Today we encounter the Hebrew story of the serpents in the wilderness. So, trigger warning right at the top: this homily discusses snakes! Which few of us are entirely fond of because in these parts, on this continent, most of our snakes are venomous. Their bite can kill you. And so, we are justly and understandably afraid of them.

That the people of Israel, who were winding their way from Egypt to Canaan, were also afraid of them, is made pretty clear from the story we read. When Yahweh their God sends ‘fiery’ snakes amongst the people as punishment for their complaining, they are terrified and beg Moses, their leader, to intercede for them. Moses does, as he has done on many other occasions, and Yahweh relents. Sort of. The snakes continue to afflict the people. But Moses fashions a bronze serpent and places it on a pole. All who look at it, all who fix it in their gaze, are promised life and healing.

This is a puzzling story, to say the least. From the perspective of moderns—most, if not all, of us in this church today—there are many, many questions. What kind of god would meet a complaint about hunger and thirst with a punishment like this? Only a nasty and vengeful god, surely? And why are the snakes ‘fiery’? What on earth does that mean? Also, if their god wanted to provide a way of salvation for the people, why did he not just remove the snakes? What’s all this about fashioning some kind of talisman, some kind of idol, and placing it on a pole for the people to gaze at? Seems kinda weird for a monotheistic religion, hey? In this connection, it is interesting to note that the snake of bronze was apparently kept in Israel for many hundreds of years after this incident. And that it was eventually destroyed by King Hezekiah because the people regarded it as a heathen god and burned incense to it (2 Kings 18.4).

So many questions. How does one even begin to process them?

Perhaps like this. In the Mesopotamian world from which these old, old stories apparently emerge, snakes were seen as magical, even semi-divine, figures because they possessed both the power of life and the power of death. Their power for death is obvious from both our story and from our own experience. But think about the power of the snake for life. This comes from the fact that almost all species of snakes shed their skin as they grow. To the ancient human observer, this looked like a magical transformation, a rebirth from death. What other creature is able to die and be reborn? Many ancient far-Western cultures, including the Canaanite societies from which the story we are reading today partly emerged, therefore saw the snake as a creature that was able to kill, certainly, but also to grant life and healing to the sick. 

But why are the snakes ‘fiery’? The Hebrew root of the word translated like this is ‘seraph’, which is also the root of ‘seraphim’, mysterious winged creatures who occasionally appear in the First Testament as messengers of Yahweh, or symbols of Yahweh’s divine glory (cf. Isaiah 6). What is common to both is the notion of light or fire. Many snakes, like the seraphim, have scales that catch the light and create colourful displays. They shimmer with light, with glory. In ancient cultures, this property of light was seen as divine, reflecting the capacity of divinity to push back the darkness, which invariably contained evil and chaos.  There is a sense in which our story therefore preserves that ancient Mesopotamian understanding. The snakes somehow participate in the capacity of divinity to push back the chaos, the darkness of life and fill it with life and with healing.

Rainbow Serpent by Donna Hensen
It is interesting to me that these ancient, far-Western, stories about the divinity of snakes are quite similar, in many ways, to the even more ancient snake dreamings of Aboriginal nations here in Gondwana. In the dreaming of the Yolgnu people from north-eastern Arnhem land, for example, the snake is Yurlungurr, the most important of the creator-ancestors who formed the landscape and gave the law. Yurlungurr is associated with the rainbow because his scales are lavishly shimmering and coloured; but also with water, because you can always find the snake near a water-hole in the bush; waterholes which, in the evaporating mists of early morning, also form rainbows. Yurlungurr is the one who is said to have emerged from deep beneath the earth and formed the grooves in the landscape which became rivers.

Think, for a moment, about the symbols in play here. The snake who shimmers like divine light as he pushes back the darkness and creates a space for life to emerge. The snake who, like water, has the power to both sustain life and to take it away. The snake who is divine, a creator ancestor, whose venom can both kill and—if combined with the properties of certain berries—can also provide the basis for an anti-venom which will save your life.

What I would like to suggest to you this morning is that these stories—both local and far-Western—preserve a certain wisdom about the divine nature of country itself. Wherever we look in country, whether it be in the life-cycle of snakes or in the power of water or even in the cycles of light and dark that make up a day, you will see the divine power to give life and to take it, the power even to create life from death. Think of the capacity of fire to crack open dead seeds or the power of plants to draw on composting bio-mass for new growth.

If you read the biblical story of the fiery snakes in the wilderness through this lens, the personal vengefulness of the Hebrew god might just fade into the background somewhat. And you will see, instead, this more ancient understanding of the divine: that power which is able to create new life from death, and heal through illness, and push back the chaos of darkness with divine light.

For that is what my trawloolway sensibility picks up, also, in the homily from Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 3. Note that in John’s gospel, the cross of Jesus always communicates a dual power that is consistent with the power of the fiery serpent. It is both death and the very first moment of resurrection. Even as the Son of Humanity is killed by the Romans on the cross, he is also ‘lifted up’ or glorified as a divine figure who has the power to be reborn. Just as the image of a fiery snake was lifted up on a pole on Canaanite country, so the divine Son of Humanity is lifted up on a cross, that everyone who looks to him, who trusts in his magical and transformative ways, may have the kind of life that is able to persevere even beyond death. For, in this same passage, Christ is seen as the one who can drive back the darkness in people’s lives, the one who can bring truth instead of lies, the one who, by his sacrifice on the cross, communicates the love of the divine not just for people, but the whole world, the whole cosmos, that realm that we Aboriginal people call ‘country’. 

So how to we deal with these ‘texts of terror’, these images of personal divine vengeance that we find in the Hebrew bible?  By stepping back a little to see the bigger picture, the more profound and ancient wisdom, that lies at the root of the story. A wisdom that speaks of the divine capacity of country to persevere through death to life. A divine power to which we can be party as well, if we will simply trust in country’s ways and give ourselves over to the truth that we find there. For there is more than one sacred text, you know. The sacred texts of the bible, both First and Second Testaments, are relatively new to the scene. The more ancient text is country itself, of which William Wordsworth wrote in his poem, 'The Tables Turned':

One impulse from a vernal wood
may teach us more of man,
of moral evil and of good,
than all the sages can. 

Those English romantics were on to something, actually. In the wake of the industrial revolution in Europe they saw that people were losing their relationship with the wisdom of the earth and of country. A wisdom which teaches us of life and death, even of good and of evil, a wisdom that is destroyed just that little bit more as each tree is cut down and each species of animal made extinct for the sake of the ever-expanding empire of human beings.

When the European colonists came to this country, the unceded country of Gadi and Kami peoples, they brought that same instinct to kill and destroy as the Hebrew people brought to Canaanite land. For the lectionary text from Numbers neglects to mention what immediately preceeds this story of the fiery snakes. In Numbers 21.1-3 we read of a prayer of the Israelites to Yahweh which promises that they will utterly destroy the habitation of the Canaanites if Yahweh will agree to give them their land. And that is what happened, mostly. The land took a beating, and most of the Canaanites were killed or enslaved. Yet they persevered through it all because both country and its people possess the power of life through death, and healing through suffering.  As the Canaanites survived, so do we, the Aboriginal peoples of this land. For we also share in the divine power of country to live, even though we die many thousands of times over.

The good news of the gospel is that life perseveres. That life perseveres even beyond our stupidity and our appetite from self-destruction. For God has made it so. And God’s story is written everywhere: in country itself, but also in stories from the Hebrew and Christian traditions. Stories we have read today. Let us hear and rejoice. For though it might often feel as though our world is utterly lost in violence, self-destruction and darkness, this is not at all the last word on the matter. For all is not lost. Not at all. Life perseveres. God perseveres. And so, therefore, can we.

Garry Deverell

First preached for Lent 4, 2024, at Hope Uniting Church, Maroubra

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Christ: a sign to be opposed

 Texts: Malachi 3.1-7; Luke 2.22-38

When Jesus is taken to the temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated to the purposes of God, Luke has an old man named Simeon say the following prophecy over the child:

Now my eyes have seen your salvation you have placed in the midst of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel . . . This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will be a sign to be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed . . .

Here the venerable Simeon appears to recall the prophecy of Malachi, who imagines the Lord 

. .  returning to his temple. But who can endure the day of his coming, who can stand when he appears? For the Lord is like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ soap . . . I will be quick to bear witness against the magicians, the adulterers, the liars, the oppressors of workers, of widows, orphans and aliens, again those who do not fear me, says the Lord.

By this Luke foreshadows three themes that will become very important in his gospel as the story unfolds.  The first is about the identity of Jesus as God’s messiah. The messiah, he says, is like a very bright light in the world, a light with such glory that everyone’s secret agendas (whether for good or for evil) will be penetrated and revealed for what they are.  The second theme takes the form of a paradox.  Though the light of the messiah is very bright, not everyone will see or understand what his light signifies: forgiveness, salvation and peace for all.  For many, his light will be a threat.  They will name it ‘evil’.  They will do everything in their power to oppose and extinguish its power.  A third and final theme, and the one that concerns us most this morning, is a question that Luke’s text will always ask of its readers:  what shall you do with this Christ?  When the light reveals your own secret thoughts and agendas, will you allow God to forgive you, to free you for salvation and peace?  Or will you oppose and deny and obfuscate until the end?

So, let us examine each of these themes in a little more detail.

First to the idea of Christ as a sign or portal of God’s light in the world.  There is a long tradition in Israel of thinking about God as a very bright light.  It begins, apparently, with the story of the Exodus.  There God is consistently seen as a pillar of light that guides the Israelites from the darkness of their slavery in Egypt to the brightness of their freedom in the 'promised land'.  There is also a long tradition that associates the flame of God’s glory with certain human beings, those who take a lead role in the people’s salvation.  Moses’ face, we are told, glowed with God’s glory every time he returned from conversation with Yahweh.  Out of these traditions grew a view that the Hebrew messiah, when he came, would be like a sign or portal of divine light in the world, a conduit by which the light of God’s glory would be let loose to free everyone who walks in valleys of darkness or despair.  We read some of those prophecies a month ago when we celebrated the birth of Jesus.  So it is by this route that we come to Simeon’s prophecy over the infant Jesus, that he shall be the glory of the Hebrew people and a light for all peoples everywhere.  Jesus, Luke tells us, will be the messiah in this specific sense:  that he will save the people from their sins, that is, from everything that keeps them in a state of slavery.

But this takes us immediately to the central paradox in Luke’s gospel.  If the Christ is born a divine light to the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel, how is it that this light is apparently unrecognised by so many?  Why is it that so many oppose him from the beginning, and eventually have him killed?  Why do they not see who he is, why do they not fall down and worship him?  Luke’s answer is both literary and theological.  ‘Don’t take the metaphor of the light too literally’, he says, ‘for the light of Christ is a very different kind of light than you are used to thinking about.’  It is not the light that we human beings make for ourselves: it is not the glory of our kings and rulers, or the translucent beauty of the human body so celebrated in the sculpture of the Greeks.  Neither is it the light that accompanies everyone who fulfils the law of their community or culture, so that everyone looks to them as paragons of virtue or success.  No, the light of Christ is rather different.  It is an uncomfortable kind of light, a light that penetrates into dark places that are usually kept secret.  It is an ultra-violet kind of light, that glows with a subdued intensity to show up both the dark stains in the heart of those the world would look to as glorious, but also the hidden purity of those the world would dismiss and scorn, those who look to the grace of God, alone, for any sense of light or virtue.  

The light of Christ is, first of all, a light of uncovering or revelation.  It exposes and makes manifest the truth of our humanity and our inhumanity.  That is why it is the the poor and the desperate who first recognise the light of Christ.  These are people who know full well that our lives are broken.  They know full well that no matter how hard we try, very few are able to generate lives of apparent success and bathe, thereby, in the light of social and cultural approval.  In Christ we hear the word of God’s love and welcome.  In Christ we learn a way to live with generosity and joy, free from the norms of success or failure generated by our societies.  In Christ we learn how to live as though all that mattered was the mercy and kindness of the divine.  And so we learn to practise mercy, to give ourselves away as though nothing could possibly be lost in doing so.  

But the many others, those who refuse to recognise Christ’s light, are nevertheless exposed by that light.  In our clinging to the dominant norms of self-generated power and success, in our opposition to Jesus’ preaching about God’s preferential love for the poor and the powerless, we are shown up for who we are: people who were slaves of society and of fashion and of conventional morality, people who are unable to see that, in fact, it is the rich and powerful who are truly poor, standing in the most desperate need of divine mercy.

Jonah in a fish by Alma Sheppard-Matsuo
The light of Christ is revealed most surely, Luke tells us in chapter 11 of his gospel, under the paradoxical sign of Jonah.  In his temple blessing, Simeon said that Christ would be a ‘sign to be opposed’.  In chapter 11 we learn what this most offensive of signs is:  that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish, the Christ would lie dead in the earth for three days but would then rise as a sign that God had vindicated his cause.  The message of the parable is a scandal, a stumbling block for any who believe that the way of the messiah is that of power-over others, rather than power-for-and-with others, for anyone who looks to God for confirmation of their greedy and indifferent lifestyles.  For at its heart the sign of Jonah speaks of the willingness of God’s offspring, out of love for the world, to journey into the belly of empire where there is every prospect of being consumed.  Yet, finally summoning his courage, this Jonah-Christ figure speaks the truth and survives. Just. Marginally. For speaking the truth in the belly of empire can very easily end in death or, at the very least, expulsion. The sign of Jonah is therefore double-edged.  It tells us that the way of God in the world is that of love and grace and the sacrificial telling of the truth.  But it is also a sign of judgement on all who choose to ignore that truth and reject the mercy on offer.

And so, finally, we come to the question Luke asks of his readers:  what shall you do with this Christ?  When his light reveals your secret thoughts and agendas, will you allow God to forgive you, to free you for salvation and peace?  Or will you oppose and deny and obfuscate until the end?  ‘Obfuscate’ is a big word.  It means ‘to cover up’.  There are some who are privileged to hear the word of Christ and experience the enlightenment he brings who then choose to take up their cross and follow him, beginning always with recognition that they will never be truly free apart from divine mercy and help.  But there are many who hear Christ’s word and experience his light who then choose to obfuscate or cover up the truth that light exposes because, deep down, they are in denial of the truth and their whole lives are lived according to the logic of a lie.  What this lie amounts to, in the end, is an attempt to remake the world in the image of the unredeemed human heart, mistaking darkness for light, evil for good, and slavery for freedom.  

That is how we get to the absurd situation we are in at present with ‘Australia Day’, for example. It is as though the whole nation is living in la-la-land, determined to celebrate itself as a place of peace and freedom when, historically, January 26 signifies nothing other than end of peace and freedom for those of us who were already here when the British arrived. And the beginning of what can only be described as a totalitarian annexation of Indigenous land and life under the twin signs of genocide and ecocide.  Australia Day is therefore a parable about the very essence of sin.  It is about the denial of the truth of who we are before our creator.  I submit to you that until we can tell the truth about our ourselves as a nation, and seek to make meaningful amends, we shall forever exist in a state of arrested development, of national adolescence. Wanting to be grown-up and responsible, yet unable to do so because of our continuing penchant for fantasy and self-deception.

So what will you do with this Christ, this bringer of truth?  When his light shines on your world and in your heart—on the way you do your business, on the behaviour that you model for your children and grandchildren, on the things that you treasure more than anything else in the world—what will you do?  Will you cover up the truth and oppose it?  Or will you fall at Christ’s feet and beg for his mercy, his peace, and his joy?  I promise you, that if you choose the latter, if you are willing to lose everything for the sake of the gospel, Christ will take you in his arms and give you a future hitherto unimagined, a future that shares in the sovereign inheritance of all God’s children.  But if you refuse his light, whether as an individual, a community, or a nation, you will reap only what you have sown: a whirlwind of Darwinian darkness in which the strong cannibalise the weak until all are weak, all are victims, and life is gone entirely.

Like the prophets of old, like Simeon and Anna and Malachi, I put before you the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death. Please, choose life.

Garry Deverell
Presentation of Christ/Candlemas

Sunday 12 November 2023

New book. Contemplating Country: more Gondwana theology

My new book, Contemplating Country: more Gondwana theology, has just been published by Wipf & Stock.

Contemplating Country
picks up where Gondwana Theology (Morning Star 2018) left off. It extends and deepens the ways in which Aboriginal spirituality and Christian theology may talk to each other. Employing the image of conversation around a campfire, Contemplating Country invites the reader to consider the ways in which Christian theology, community and practice may be transformed through a deep and profound encounter with Aboriginal ways of seeing, knowing, and doing. Such transformation is necessary, according to this author, if Christianity is ever to leave behind its euro-centric habits and truly arrive in the sovereign and unceded country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations.

It is the second book to be published in a new series focussing on 'Faith and Justice in Australia' edited by Graham Joseph Hill.  I thank Graham for being willing to consider the manuscript for his series.

The painting on the cover was kindly provided by Uncle Glenn Loughrey and is entitled 'From the Depths, Life Rises'.

Some friends and colleagues have kindly shared their endorsement of the book. Here are some of them.
This important and compelling book establishes Garry Deverell (trawloolway) as one of the most creative and important voices in Australian theology. Deverell weaves together his own experiences and stories with deep christological reflection, analysis of Australian churches, political commentary, and calls for justice. All of us who are part of settler churches and societies need to read Contemplating Country and respond to its challenges.
Associate Professor Michael Mawson
Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies
University of Auckland

This book is a thunderous Voice from the sovereign heart of country to the colonial void that surrounds it. Deverell interrogates coloniality in all its forms, from the independence of deep time wisdom held within the spiritual notion of sovereignty. Country holds all we need to live in a custodial relationship of reciprocity, responsibility, and respect. Country is wisdom without time. Country is at the centre of First people’s engagement with that which was here before we came into being. This is a book all we aspire to live out of country as it speaks what we have always known. This is a book for all who came here with the “truth” in order that they de-link themselves from the colonial memory and re-exist the wonder of what they have been wilfully blind to. A highly recommended must read.

The Revd Canon Uncle Glenn Loughrey
Wiradjuri man and Anglican priest

Garry’s book opens for the reader an Aboriginal perspective which reframes and decolonises received theological understandings of the Trinity, Christ, Scripture and—through his exegesis of country—the ecological crisis that confronts all Australians. Garry’s explanation of why we acknowledge country is exemplary, and his discussion of the parlous state of reconciliation in the churches simply prophetic. This book will be of great benefit to all Australians of good will and open heart, all who believe that redemption may have something to do with receiving and living a more ancient truth.
from the Preface by Professor Anne Pattel-Gray
Bidjara/Kari Kari woman and Head of the School of Indigenous Studies,
University of Divinity

Garry Deverell is one of the most creative, incisive, and uncompromising writers engaging the Christian tradition today. His scholarship shapes and stimulates the whole field of First Nations theology in Australia - and speaks to anyone seriously interested in in reckoning with colonialism as a structure. This is a challenging and generative book brimming with possibilities for a truly postcolonial theology arising from Country.
Dr Meredith Lake
author of The Bible in Australia: a Cultural History
and host of ABC Radio National's 'Soul Search'

The book can be purchased from the publisher, HERE.