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Wednesday, 6 July 2022

A prayer for NAIDOC Week

Divine creator, who is known by many names,
this NAIDOC week we give you thanks that we are here, 
    that we have survived.
We give thanks for our ancestors, 
    those who formed country, 
    and now guide us in the myriad voices of 
    kangaroo and eagle, mountain and creek.
We remember our elders, warriors and prophets - 
    Manalargena, Truganini and Wooredy, 
    Tongerlongeter, Dolly, Fanny and many others* - 
those who resisted the invader and, when all seemed lost, 
    sought to make treaty with them.
We pray today that you would give us the strength we need 
    to resist the newest iterations 
    of colonialism and white supremacy,
that country and all her children may not only survive 
    but thrive and be glad.
Amen.
Garry Worete Deverell

* these are important figures in lutruwita/trouwerner/Tasmania. But you may substitute names from where you live.



Sunday, 29 May 2022

Losing Ourselves to Gain Ourselves for Justice

 Texts: Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-21; John 17.20-26

Five years ago, two hundred and fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered at Uluru to sign a ‘Statement from the Heart’ which called upon the Australian people to join with them in working toward a ‘makaratta’ or treaty between our peoples, built upon truth-telling and a constitutionally recognised Indigenous ‘voice’ to the national parliament. Two days ago, at a ceremony on Gadigal land in Sydney, nine national religious leaders signed a resolution calling upon the federal parliament to work towards a referendum on the ‘voice’ as soon as possible. The religious leaders represented Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. I’m grateful to God that there were also Catholics, the Uniting Church, the National Council of Churches and, yes, even Anglicans. Chris McLeod, our national Aboriginal bishop, represented our Primate, Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, on this occasion.

One of the pleasing things about this ceremony was the fact that none of the nine religious leaders gave a speech. Rather, they listened. They listened to an oration from Rachel Perkins, an Arrente and Kalkadoon woman, a prominent filmmaker, and the daughter of Charlie Perkins, the man whose 60s activism played a key part in the recognition of mob as human beings in the 1967 referendum.  Ms Perkins used her oration to call for unity – amongst mob, in the general community, and in the faith communities – unity in supporting the Statement from the Heart and the call of the religious leaders for a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament. For this is the only way, she argued, that we are ever likely to see something like justice arrive in our nation, the nation of Australia, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that you only have to call for unity if unity isn’t actually there. And it isn’t. Demonstrably. None of the communities Ms Perkins was addressing can claim to be agreed, even within themselves, on either the Statement from the Heart or the urgency of a referendum. I can tell you, with some authority, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not agreed. Many mob do not even know what the Statement from the Heart actually says. And the same is surely true with the Anglican community. Perhaps even more so. The ministry conference I attended during the week made it quite clear to me that a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – indeed, even as simple a matter as listening to the mob who are part of us, who live and work in our midst - is really the very last thing on our ecclesial mind.  The very last.  What seems to be uppermost in our Anglican minds are things like the intrusion of the state into our affairs and . . . you guessed it, sex (who can have it, and what kind).  Which, on my most buoyant days, attracts little more than a gentle eye-roll but, on others, a feeling of deep despair at just how tone-deaf and narcissistic we have become. Honestly!

That’s why I really feel for the Jesus of John’s Gospel, whose earnest prayer for unity appears in today’s lections. Let’s listen in to his prayer once more, the prayer he offered, according to John, just before he was arrested and crucified:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

(17.20-23)

Now there’s a few things in this passage which require some clarification. First, when Jesus prays for ‘those who will believe in me through their word’, the ‘their’ in this sentence is the disciples, the apostles, who will go out to preach. ‘Those who will believe in me through their word’ are therefore the Christian communities these apostles will found and, ultimately, everyone who decides to become a Christian because of the apostolic witness. So that’s us, my friends. Jesus is praying for us.  Not for someone else, some historical community on the other side of the globe. For us. For our conflict-ridden community.

A second and crucially important clarification. When Jesus says that he has given us his glory, the glory already given him by his Father, he is not talking about fame and fortune, or even about victory or success in any conventional sense. For when John talks about glory, in this his gospel, he is in fact talking about crucifixion and the sacrificial pouring out of one’s life for others. Allow me to quote from an earlier passage, that scene at which Judas leaves the supper to betray Jesus to the authorities:

So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’  So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night . . .   When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

(13.26-27, 30-31)

 And an even earlier passage, in chapter 12:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . .

 

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ . . . Jesus said, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

(12.24-25, 28, 30-33)

I share these passages at length to convey the sense in which John uses the concept of ‘glory’. For him, the pinnacle of Christ’s glorification by the Father is not, in fact, his resurrection or ascension to the Father. It is his crucifixion, that moment when he surrenders himself entirely to his Father’s will out of love for the people to whom he was sent. So let’s be clear, let’s make no mistake. When Jesus talks about glory, he is talking about sacrificial, cruciform, love. A love that bears fruit only at great personal cost. The cost, even, of death. So, this is what Jesus prays for us: that we might live into his cruciform glory; that we might suffer and perhaps, even die, for the sake of the world and our fellow Christians;  that we might be as one in such love, that the world might know and learn of God’s love by the way we pour out our own lives for others.

A third clarification, if you will indulge me. When Jesus talks about unity as ‘oneness’, he is not talking about ‘uniformity’. He is not talking about us all becoming carbon-copies of each other in body or mind, and thus simply unable to disagree with each other. No. The model Jesus uses for ‘oneness’ is not the cookie-cutter but the circular reciprocity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this earliest example of mature trinitarian thinking, John has Jesus pray that we might indwell each other – as the Father does the Son, and the Son the Father – not to the point where we simply become each other, without any hint of differentiation. For the Father is NOT the Son and the Son is NOT the Father. Each comes to ‘indwell’ the other, rather, in something of the manner that dancers and jazz musicians do, by their intuition about where the other is going next, and their choice to cooperate with each other out of a deep and abiding care and respect. That is why the Cappadocian fathers of the church called the trinity a circle-dance: a mutual yielding and cooperation of each with the other, even as the possibility for dissension and disagreement remains forever at hand.

This, then, is what Jesus prays for the church. And, if I may speak quite personally again, it is why I remain a Christian even though many of my fellow-Christians regularly wound and drive me crazy. It is why I am a Christian even though the church has never come to terms with its leading role in the attempted genocide of my people. It is why I remain a Christian even though the church remains racist. It is why I remain a Christian even when mob are ignored and rendered invisible by our Councils and theological colleges. It is why I am a Christian. Why? Because I believe in the sacrificial love of Christ for sinners as the only hope for us all. The only hope. The only hope. For I, too, regularly hurt my kin. I, too, am blind to the sufferings of others and too much centred in my own hurts and fears. I, too, am in desperate need of grace: the undeserved favour that is offered to us all for the making of the church, and of a society, and of an ecology that is finally reconciled, made one, whole and at peace.

That is not to say that we are equal in our sacrificial callings. We are not. It is incumbent upon the more powerful partner to do the lion’s share of the work to close the yawning gap between us, whether that gap be economic, cultural or theological. So let’s call a spade a shovel. The social and economic rules in this commonwealth, the cultural assumptions of this colony, and the theological imagination of this colonial church, are all those of white people, of colonists whose forebears are in Europe. If you are not from Europe, or your forebears were not – and especially if you are Indigenous to this country, with its 300 clans or nations – the only way to survive is to adapt to the colonial rules and imagination.  Doing so is enormously costly and regularly depletes and exhausts the personal and economic resources all of us who really prefer to live from and to country. Yet colonists do it with relative ease, and white people assume that there is no other way to live. The playing field is therefore deeply and structurally uneven. The fight is fixed, the mare has been hobbled, the dice have been loaded. And this is especially the case if you are ‘the wrong kind of black’. So, if we are really the church, if we are to take Christ’s call to sacrificial love seriously, it is incumbent upon the strongest to do most of the sacrificing. Which, let’s be honest, is deeply counter to everything we are taught from an early age.

I’ve not even attempted, today, to explore the other lections. I’ve not explored the ways in which the gospel frees slaves and interrupts the accumulation of wealth (as in the Acts reading). I’ve not explored what ‘washing one’s robes’ might mean in order to eat from the tree of life (as in the reading from Revelation). Strong hint, though. It has something to do with dying to the basic principles of this world and rising to a completely different set of values.

But let me conclude with this. If we are ever to be reconciled, if we are ever to come to terms with the hurt and the injustice we render, one to another, in this colony called ‘Australia’, we must discipline ourselves to live into the prayer of Christ to his Father. If there is ever to be something like justice, we must be prepared to put aside all our many forms of cheap and trivial grace, our many band-aid solutions and duct-tape fixes. Instead, if we are colonists, we must learn what it means to love at great cost, to embrace genuinely cruciform solutions to end our cultural and economic warfare against the last and the least. If Christ, whom we claim to worship, was willing to give himself entirely for our salvation - to pour out his life even to death, for the sake of all this world’s most little and vulnerable ones - what prevents us from so giving ourselves for this great work? What? What precisely? Is it the fear of losing ourselves? Losing our treasured control? Losing our sense of moral and intellectual superiority, our sense of being on the side of the angels? Is it a fear of losing what we believe is rightfully ours to possess?

Please, friends, don’t be afraid. Listen to the wisdom of country once more, the wisdom which Christ embraced and shared with his disciples: ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ In reality, there is nothing to lose, my friends, nothing but fool’s gold and false promises. But look at what you can gain! Justice for the vulnerable, peace for the troubled, a home for the exiles. And friends. Friends who love you and have your back. A community in which you can laugh, and cry, and dance and sing. A communion of all creatures which includes the plants and the animals, the waterways, the starry host and the earth itself. A veritable body for Christ, who fills and embraces all that is alive. So, please, don’t be afraid to lose all you have for the sake of justice. For you will receive back a hundredfold everything you ever could lose.

Garry Deverell
7th Sunday after Easter, 2022

Preached at St Paul's Cathedral as part of our observance for Reconciliation Week.

Monday, 2 May 2022

When it comes to defending the flourishing of country, and of human life, I am no pacifist

The war in Ukraine is, of course, just one of the conflicts raging in the world right now. For the moment, the conflicts in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, northern Iraq and many other places, no longer enjoy sustained attention from international media organisations. The extent to which the following comments about the war in Ukraine might pertain, also, to these many other conflicts, I will leave to the reader to decide. I am no expert on the geo-politics of any of these places.

I begin by pointing out that, in this world at least, we are dealing not with the ultimate and the perfect but with the penultimate and the imperfect. So whilst a more robust form of pacifism might suffice in the face of lesser forms of violence - refusing to fight in a morally ambiguous war in another part of the world, for example - pacifism of this kind does not seem sufficient when one's own land, livelihood and the lives of one's loved ones are under threat.  In the face of such clear and present danger, I believe the Christian has not merely a right, but actually a duty and responsibility, to mount some kind of defence.

My reasoning goes something like this. All life is sacred because it is brought into existence by the action of the creator. Inherent in the gift of life is a right and responsibility to maintain the conditions by which that life - within reasonable limits - can flourish and become what it was created to be.  Insofar as that is possible without, simultaneously, seriously curtailing the flourishing of other forms of life, we might speak in this context of a 'responsibility' to live and flourish. That word 'responsibility' suggests that a life is lived before the one who gives it. That 'one', I would posit  - as both a Christian and trawloolway man -  is the creator, the one who gives us life in all its myriad forms. We are responsible to our creator. We live our lives in a way which responds appropriately to what is given.

Now, it is clear that human beings have a responsibility to take life for the sake of our sustenance and our thriving. We may take from what is given in creation - its flora and its fauna - in order to sustain our lives. But there are limits to what we may take.  We may not, for example, hunt particular animals to the point where their own capacity to thrive and flourish is severely diminished. Neither may we do so with plant life. For if we do so, we risk compromising the entire biosphere's responsibility and capacity to flourish before, and to the glory of, our creator.

The same principle applies when it comes to human life, but perhaps in an even more robust form. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions put severe limits upon the taking of human life. 'Thou shalt not kill', whilst not an absolute command which applies in any and all circumstances, nevertheless inscribes a serious duty to do everything possible to avoid the taking of human life.

What this means, I think, when it comes to the theatre of war between human nations, is simply this: that one should avoid policies and practices that are likely to lead to war. One should never be the aggressor or the provocateur. One should never be the one who creates the conditions - whether these be political, cultural, economic or environmental -  in which war becomes the most likely outcome. We should do everything we can to avoid starting wars. For wars destroy life - not only human life, but also animal and plant life - on a scale which makes the likelihood of recovery exponentially difficult.

There are circumstances, however, in which war becomes inevitable. Having done all that is rationally and morally possible to avoid conflict with an aggressor, sometimes one simply has to take up arms in order to defend one's right and responsibility to live and to flourish before the creator is a way that is commensurate with the equatible distribution of that right and responsibility across the whole biosphere.

An example, from the recent history of my own people, is the way we took up weapons to defend our country and our way of life from the British invasion, which took place in ever more disruptive and devastating waves from 1802 until the present.  In the face of that invasion - which proceeded on the assumption that Aboriginal people enjoyed no right or responsibility to life and its flourishing - we had no choice. Before our creator-ancestors, and because of their injunction to care for country and for each other, we had to fight.

Now, the fact that we lost those wars and continue to sue for a more just settlement for our people and our country, means that the nation named 'Australia' by the invader is no longer the biospheric wonderland it once was. Thousands of specifies are now extinct as a result of the destruction of habitat. The ecosystem on which all of life depends is now either dead or dying in much of the continent. And the right and responsibility of Aboriginal peoples to life and flourishing - precisely as we care for country - remains of little consequence to our religious, commercial or political leaders.

But we had to fight. To preserve the way of life to which our creator-ancestors had called us. To prevent the destruction of that way of life by a people who had little regard for the call and injunction of the creator. We lost, obviously. But we had to fight.

To the extent that the war in Ukraine mirrors what we have experienced ourselves, I would argue that the people of the Ukraine also have to fight. Before God, they must fight. For the sake of the way and form of human flourishing which God has given, they must fight. For the sake of resisting an evil and destructive ideology, they must fight. And we who believe in the sacredness of all forms of life, precisely as they are given in creation, must offer whatever forms of solidarity we can.

Garry Deverell

With thanks to Dr Jonathan Foye, who provoked me to give this some thought.

Saturday, 19 March 2022

Acknowledgement of Country for dummies

Some of the discussions I've had this week with very smart non-Indigenous people have revealed that uttering an Acknowledgement of Country that communicates both respect and empathy is still just a little too tricky for many.

So I've decided to collect together the bits and pieces of guidance I've been handing out over the past few years into a list of dos and don'ts. I hope it is helpful.

Before you draft your acknowledgement
  1. Before you write a thing, develop some empathy for the experience of our people. Read our history. Talk with us.  Find out about our loss, our grief, our pain. Find out what we long for and what we aspire to. 
  2. When it comes to drafting an acknowledgement, talk to us about what will best communicate respect. Check if your organisaiton already has an approved form that has been created out of respectful conversation with us, and use it.  If no such form exists, seeks ways to make that conversation happen.
  3. Wherever possible, seek the guidance of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who are already part of your organisation, because they are the ones who will have to listen to your acknowledgements over and over again. If the acknowledgement doesn't work for them, it doesn't work.
  4. If there really are no Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in your organisation, seek guidance from local mob outside your organisation. These days, Aboriginal Controlled Organisations often have websites which will get you started. 
  5. If it hasn't happened already, consider starting a conversation in your organisation about the ways in which you will collectively work towards greater justice for our mobs within your sphere of activity or influence. This might be in the form of a 'Justice Action Plan' or something similar. Whatever the case, speak only about concrete commitments and the steps to very specific outcomes. Grand and globalising statements are next to useless.
Drafting the acknowledgement
  1. An acknowledgement should say something about the land on which you are meeting and the Indigenous group which belongs to that land. Note that this is rarely a group of 'traditional owners' in the legal sense, since most mobs do not enjoy complete access to their own lands. 
  2. You should acknowledge that the land is unceded (meaning it has never been given away or sold) but was rather taken by 'settlers' in a violent and often genocidal manner. 
  3. The ancestors who created the land should be acknowledged, because they are the 'old people' who still reside in country and speak to us from it. They are the creator-guardians, and as close a thing to 'divinity' as mob usually have in our cosmologies.
  4. You should acknowledge the elders who have cared for that country since creation, and who continue to care for country (insofar as they are allowed by colonial authorities). Elders, past and present, have a special responsibility to lead our mobs as we seek to stay connected to country and to our responsibilities as people of the land.
  5. Finally, you should give attention to a brief statement of your organisation's commitment to a greater justice for our mobs.

  6. Here is a simple example of an acknowledgment that would do the trick for churches and church organisations: 'We acknowledge that this church stands on the sovereign and unceded country of the trawloolway, and that this country came into the church's possession by deceitful, murderous and immoral means. We acknowledge the continuing sovereignty of the trawloolway over this country, and the right and responsibility of trawloolay elders, past and present, to care for it according to a wisdom passed down over more than four thousand generations. We give thanks for the ancestors who formed this land and gifted it to the trawloolway to care for. We commit ourselves to work and to pray towards a more just settlement for all Indigenous people.'
  7. Here is another example, which exhibits more creativity by evoking some specifics about the country in question: 'We gather today on ‘cold country’, the land of the Kulin nations. This is where the luk (eels) navigate the rivers and creeks, the waring (wombats) play amongst the ferns and the wurun (manna gums) stand tall.  This the country formed by Bunjil, the great ancestor-Spirit, and carefully managed by wise arweet (elders) of the Wurundjeri and Bunwurrung clans for more than 100 millenia. Today we give thanks for this country, for the rich and complex communion of its people, its animals, its plants. And we pause for a moment to silently pray that future generations will value what the creator has given far more than it is valued today . . .'
Pitfalls to avoid (please)
  1. If there is a recommended script in your organisaton that has come out of an extensive conversation with mob, and has been agreed to by mob, use it. Don't adapt it according to your own wisdom. Just use it.  In my experience, most peronal modifications of existing scripts (out of the arrogant belief that you know more about us that we know ourselves) end up insulting or in other ways disrespecting us. Please, please, please, resist that urge.
  2. Please, don't refer to local mobs on country in generic terms. Don't say, for example, 'we meet today on 'Aboriginal'/'Torres Strait Islander'/'Koori'/'Palawa'/'Murri' country'. Doing so shows that you haven't bothered to find out anything about where you are or whose country it is. This is deeply insulting.
  3. Please, don't refer to mob using possessive phrases such as 'Our Aboriginal people' or 'our Indigenous people'. We don't belong to colonists and never have, except as slaves and indentured servants. Saying that we belong to you tends to reinforce the fact that we continue to live in a colonial society in which the invaders have most of the power and believe they have a right to possess us. Again, it is deeply insulting.
  4. Please don't acknowledge 'emerging elders'. There is no such thing in Aboriginal or Torres Strait communities. You either are an elder, or you aren't, and the extensive use of this phrase is really, really annoying. 
  5. Please don't refer to 'traditional' owners or custodians. This word does little but reinforce the fact that most of us do not 'own' our land in any legally meaningful sense. It communicates little more than the fact that, in the eyes of the colonial law, mob can rarely be more than token owners, 'Claytons' owners, owners that cannot, in fact, enjoy effective control over anything at all. It is a word deployed by white lawyers. Please don't use it.
  6. Speaking of white lawyers, please don't talk about the connection of mob to land in terms of a period 'for', or 'since', 'time immemorial'. This phrase is another invention of white lawyers, and it infers that we do not remember who we are and how we are related to our country. The phrase was invented to represent the fiction that Indigenous peoples do not have a history that stands up to empirical inquiry: a documentary history, a history verifiable because it is written down on paper, preferably in tripilicate, and with the signature of (white) witnesses attached. We do, in fact, remember; we do have a history; we do have a long, long, memory. So, again, this phrase is deeply insulting.
  7. Another really annoying feature of many of the acknowledgments I have been subjected to, is the use of this phrase, or something similar: 'We also acknowledge/pay our respects to any Indigenous/Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander people who may be with us this evening'.  This kind of thing is insulting on two levels. First, it assumes that a normal gathering of people, or the most usual kind of gathering, does not include mob. This is to normalise the absence of mob from polite, colonial, society and therefore reinforce our marginalisation and invisibility. Second, the phrase assumes that in the unlikely event that mob might actually be present, we are only present as a category of people, not as individuals with names or personal agency. Which reinforces another strategy beloved of colonial societies: abstraction. A phrase such as this refers to mob in the abstract, because abstractions can be dismissed in a way that actual people - with their thoughts and feelings and bodies - cannot. So please, please, please don't use this phrase in your acknowledgements. If you know that particular mob will be present, and you want to acknowledge the fact publicly, by all means do so. But do it by using our personal names, please. Treat us as people, not as abstractions.
Garry Deverell


Friday, 18 March 2022

Upon attending a lecture entitled 'Race and Scripture in Australia'

I've just come home from a stimulating and learned public lecture offered at Pilgrim Theological College by a wonderful young historian, Meredith Lake. Meredith writes and thinks about the possibilities for reading the bible 'against the grain' of its racist deployment in 'Australian' society. She draws upon her historical research to offer precedents for doing so from both colonists and Indigenous people. I'm grateful that Meredith is doing this work, since the vast majority of white scholars and theologians within the churchly academy steadfastly refuse to engage that history, even to this day. The conversation Meredith's work provokes is an important one for the colony to have.

That being said, I want to share with you something of my experience of being present at this lecture and the conversation that followed. I do so primary to make make sense of my own feelings. But there may be something of value here for others to reflect on as well.

I came away with a very strong impression that I had somehow stumbled upon a conversation that was not really mine to participate in. It was a conversation for, and between, colonists. It was a generous conversation, to be sure. The participants included more recent arrivals to these shores. But it was not a conversation designed to include our mob, except in an abstract, 'othered', sense.

It was clear from the beginning that I wasn't really supposed to be there, at least not as a trawloolway man. The language of the 'acknowlegement of country' assumed that the attendance of an Indigenous person was normally only a remote possibility. 'We acknowledge any Indigenous people who may be with us this evening'. Now, the person who said this knew I was there and, in fact, I was directly in her line of sight. But she could not bring herself to address or name me personally. I was othered. I was abstracted. I was signed as someone without personhood or agency in that particular room.

And the lecture itself - notwithstanding its undoubted importance for the intra-colonial conversation - did not really speak to or with Indigenous people. Whilst Meredith gave a brief account of the apparently bible-inspired actions of Billibellary, William Barak and Simon Wonga at Correnderk mission (where some of my own family lived as well), and the theological work of (unamed) Aboriginal persons at Wybalenna (where some of my family were imprisoned) their living words were not cited. Nor did Meredith quote any Indigenous scholars, living or dead. So we heard about mob. But we did not hear from mob. Which is what colonists do when they are talking to other colonists.

So this was an occasion for colonists to discuss their crimes with each other and consider how to deal with their guilt and find appropriate precedents for more positive action. An important conversation, there can be no doubt. 

Still, I cannot help but dream of a day when churchly colonists might be able to transcend their self-referential illocution and speak with us, rather than about us. Not just as a one-off nod to the other and the exotic, but regularly, and continually, as if we were human beings equally capable of intelligent agency in the imagining of a shared future which will work for us all.

Even as I write that I hear the voice of Chelsea Watego in my ear saying something like 'Stop kidding yourself Garry. It'll never happen. Consider this another day in the colony and be done with such unrealistic and naive hopes.' Oh that I could, Chelsea, oh that I could! Unfortunately I'm afflicted with some of the same biblical dreams and nightmares as many of my fellow Christians. And I can't get them out of my head. I don't think I could repent and turn back, even if I tried. So, for the moment at least, I continue in longing. And I hope, against hope, that my yearning is conditioned and put into play not only by the oracles of holy writ, but also by country and by the ancestors who whisper to us from her gnarled and fragile forms.
Garry Deverell 
Postscript

Since writing this little response, I've received conciliatory notes from Dr Lake, and from Associate Professor Melanchthon, who did the acknowledgement of country. Our correspondence included apologies as well as an acknowlegement that colonial attitudes and assumptions insert themselves into almost everything we do, even when be believe we are being vigilant against them. I am grateful to them both for their willingness to reflect and apologise, but also for their forebearance in the face of my determination to say out loud what most mob merely suffer in silence.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Enemies, real and imagined

 Genesis 15.1-12, 17-21; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35

Enemies. We all have them. And, if we don’t have any real enemies, we make them up. Or else we paint them in more dramatic terms than is strictly necessary. Observe, for example, what is happening in Ukraine at present. One of the key reasons Putin has publicly offered for invading Ukraine is that Ukraine’s national leadership has been taken over by fascists, even ‘Nazis’, who are oppressing the people. Now, from the point of view of the Ukrainians themselves, this seems entirely false. But from the point of view of Putin, who has in mind the restoration of a past, mythical, Orthodox, Russian empire, the Ukrainian leadership are indeed the evil bastards who are keeping their people from participating in this glorious restoration.

We need to be careful whom we call an enemy. Perhaps we should not call anyone an enemy, even if they explicitly choose that path, and that designation, for themselves. ‘Love your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous sermon, ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.’ (Luke 6.27, 28).  This is really tough teaching. If your neighbour is your enemy, what then? If you are the Ukrainian whose house is being raided by the Russian army, what should you do?  If you are an Aboriginal woman who has been raped by a British soldier, and your children killed before your eyes, how should you respond?

Let’s mine our lectionary readings for some wisdom.

The Genesis story talks about the deal or treaty YWH makes with Abram to preserve his legacy against every threat, real or imagined. If Abram is prepared to trust his future, and the future of his descendants to YWH, then YWH will make them prosper ‘as the stars in the heaven’ and the land on which he stands, stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates, will belong to them. Now, if you read this passage in its context, there are probably both good and bad reasons for Abram to feel anxious about himself and his clan’s future. Since arriving in that place, he’d become rich and inclined to feel that others wanted to take what he had. The story of his wife Sarai being given to Pharoah as a concubine is a horrific tale about the lengths that patriarchal culture will go to fight its own paranoia about losing wealth and influence. On the other hand, Abram also got caught up in a regional conflict between various Canaanite city-states in which his nephew Lot was genuinely taken into captivity.

With this background in mind, perhaps we must conclude that the treaty between Abraham and YWH comes about partly at God’s initiative and partly because of Abram’s male, patriarchal paranoia about the preservation of his legacy – legacy here understood as wealth and prestige for one’s descendents – against the indigenous tribes of Caanan. An earlier version of the covenant (in chapter 12 of Genesis) promises something rather different: that Abram’s descendants will become a blessing to all nations. Not their conquerors, but a source of their blessing. Perhaps that is what the covenant is supposed to be about, really. But this later, Genesis 15, version seems more concerned with the ways in which the indigenous nations, the people already there in the land to be taken by Abram’s seed, should be seen as enemies, and therefore a threat to Abram’s patriarchal ambitions. This is an ambiguity that has been played out in that region from the time of Abram right through to the current conflicts between Arab and Jew in Israel/Palestine. And, of course, there are tragic echoes of all that in what has happened here in the colony of ‘Australia’ as well.

The psalmist describes his fear of an enemy that has surrounded him on every side, and his appeal to the Lord for refuge and help. Most every suburban Christian I know usually reads this psalm as if they, themselves, are the psalmist and someone else – whatever or whomever we are afraid of, probably – is the enemy.  But what if that isn’t the case? Have you ever tried to read a psalm, or any other biblical passage, as if you weren’t the hero in the story but the enemy? Have you every considered the ways in which you might be the enemy? An enemy of the earth and of its flora and fauna, for example, or an enemy of the indentured classes of labour who make our clothes? Or an enemy of Indigenous people, because you stole our lands and benefit from our dispossession and hardship? How would that make a difference to your reading of sacred scripture?

The writer to the Philippians is incredibly circumspect in the way that he talks about enemies. He says that the enemy is not so much opposed to particular people, or even to Christ, but rather to the ‘cross of Christ’. Here the enemy is constructed not as someone who wants to steal your possessions or kill you. The enemy is someone who is allergic to suffering in the cause of righteousness or justice. Indeed, this enemy’s ‘god is their stomach’, an ancient way of speaking about the sin of gluttony or personal acquisitiveness. The sin of accumulating all things to yourself at the expense of many others, the sin of narcissism, we might even say. There is a sense, here, in which the writer wants, actually, to critique the acquisitive nature of the covenant we read about in Genesis 15. Here, it is Abram who could be understood as the enemy, for he seems concerned only about his legacy, the land he steals from others, and the prosperity of his own family and clan.  The writer to the Philippians prefers a citizenship that is not so attached to such things, but participates in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of a commonwealth that is ‘in heaven’, that is, in a place and a time that has yet to arrive. In that ‘heaven’ which – I hope you will agree, is a figure for some more hopeful and just future – Christ will transform the humiliated bodies of all who have suffered injustice and degradation and marginalisation, into the form of his own glorious body. In other words, all that is wrong and unfair will be put right. All that is broken will be restored. This is good news for all who suffer, or who are broken and marginalised. But you have to take a leap of faith.

Finally, in Luke’s gospel, it is instructive to learn something about how to regard the enemy from Christ, whose enemy is Herod, the puppet-king of the Roman occupation, who is obviously so afraid of Christ’s teaching that he has put out a ‘hit’ on him. Christ’s response to this news is quite extraordinary. Rather than go into hiding, rather than gathering a militia to protect himself, what Christ does is offer a lament over Jerusalem, a city divided against itself, a city that will at once listen to a prophet’s preaching and honour a prophet’s office, but also, in time, kill that prophet for speaking inconvenient or uncomfortable words.  Jesus himself, as indicated in the final verses of this passage, will himself be welcomed by the Jerusalemites as a prophet and even a messiah, but a week later be killed by those same Jerusalemites. Here the enemy is within. Not the other, someone from another group or tribe, ethnicity or religion. The enemy is your friend, your comrade, your congregation, your synagogue, your church, your ethnic group. Those closest to you and about whom you care the most. In the face of enemies such as these, Christ teaches us simply to lament, which is an ancient way of naming the evil and injustice of which we are capable, and then simply living, with tears, in the truth of it.  Here there is no hint of revenge or strategizing towards getting the upper-hand. There is a simple acceptance of the awful truth of the situation and a deep-down trust that if anyone can make this better, it is certainly not ourselves. It is God alone.

That’s kind’ve how I see the situation here in the colony known as ‘Australia’ as well. I long ago abandoned all hope that we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, could ever dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in. We are too busy imitating the coloniser by fighting with each other to present a united front. Although the Uluru Statement from the Heart piques my interest. A deeply compromised and conservative document, it yet represents the closest we have yet come to speaking to our colonisers with one voice.

Certainly, there is little political will towards justice from the coloniser, at least insofar as the political class can be said to represent the will of the people. Colonisers, and particularly the mining, forestry and agricultural companies that continue to enjoy extraordinary levels of subsidised support from the taxpayer, benefit enormously from our dispossession and marginalisation. And they continue to destroy, wound, and maim country in order to make their squillions. In my estimation, we have little to look forward to from these sectors but an endless charitable paternalism, breadcrumbs from the imperial table.

 What can the person of faith do, then, except to be as honest and as truthful as one can be, to name what is actually the case in the presence of the colonising powers, to lament that it is so, and place oneself and one’s people in God’s merciful hands? In this there is a hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that our bodies of humiliation will one day be transformed into bodies of glory. How that might come to be remains, for me at least, a profound mystery. But without the leap of faith which Christian called ‘resurrection faith’ there is nothing to look forward to at all. The last enemy, after all, is death.  And its sting is fierce. Unless . . .  unless God is for us, and not against us.

Notes roughly approximating a homily delivered at Koonung Heights Uniting Church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2022.  The live homily can be found here.

Garry Deverell

Sunday, 27 February 2022

Trees and Logs: Discipleship in Time of War

Texts: Isaiah 55.10-13; Psalm 92.1-4, 12-15; 1 Corinthians 15.51-58; Luke 6.39-49

Today’s texts can be read as something of a manifesto for the following of Christ, written not in the doctrinal formulas that will characterise later centuries, but in resonant images and metaphors taken from the non-human world.

Isaiah, for example, writes to the Hebrew survivors of the exile in Babylon, promising them that the word of the Lord will be for them like rain or snow that waters the earth and makes it fruitful. Just as there is joy when seed is plentiful and the baker is able to make bread in abundance, so the word of the Lord will bring joy and peace to the exiles. On the other side of all the devastation they have endured, the returning exiles will be like strong trees, Cyprus and myrtle, a sign that God’s favour is with them.

The psalmist also speaks about joy, about the making of glad music as a response to the good and faithful work of God in his or her community. The psalmist rejoices in the strength she or he has received from the Lord, again invoking the image of a large and fruitful tree, this time a palm or a cedar, which reminds the poet of the steadfast support of God and the joy it inspires.

Even the resurrection discourse from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians can be read as a riff or midrash on the world of trees and their fruitfulness. The language of sleeping and then rising was common parlance in the ancient near east for the moment when a seed that has lain dormant in the earth crack open and put out a shoot, rising miraculously out of the earth to reach towards the heavens and life. What was dead, is now alive. 

There are few poets who have explore this connection between trees and resurrection more wonderfully well than Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes:

I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all
my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life;
as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small
and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.

The wondrous game that power plays with Things
is to move in such submission through the world:
groping in roots and growing thick in trunks
and in treetops like a rising from the dead.

Wonderful stuff, hey, and far more joyful in its expression than the Nicene Creed! So, if we take Rilke and St Paul and the Psalmist and Isaiah all together, what are they saying? What is their advice, their message for believers, their manifesto? Just this, I think: God is steadfast and faithful; God has your back. So, rejoice and be glad! Put your roots deep in God and reach for the heavens with the life that God so richly shares.  Good advice for the baptised, I would say. Good advice for anyone!

Rilke’s paradoxical inference that the power of God moves with a certain ‘submission’ through the world gives us occasion, though, to turn to our gospel reading, which has a decidedly different mood.

Luke is concerned with those in his community whose joyful discipleship has turned sour and become just that little bit self-serving and even hypocritical. So, if, like me, you’ve ever been guilty of proclaiming certain ideals, but not living up to them in real life, wake up! This bit is for you!

Luke first expresses concern that some of the younger, less experienced, disciples in his congregation are getting a bit uppity with regard to their older, more experienced, teachers. Note that he is not talking about differences in age here, necessarily, but rather about experience or inexperience with living the faith. The problem here is that an inexperienced believer, who is full of enthusiasm and what my Baptist forebears called ‘the joy of the Lord’, can quickly come to the conclusion that they see all things and know all things and that their more cautious and discerning pastors are just that bit too lax when it comes to courage, faith or holiness. That was me, in my teens and twenties. A puffed-up, blustery, self-serving version of a Christian who couldn’t even see that it was so because I had a log in my eye, a log created through that fatal combination of genuine smarts and very low self-esteem that seems to afflict a great many of our young people.

Immature Christians are, very often, like Luke’s builder, who heard something of Christ’s words but screened out the bits that didn’t suit her, the bits that seemed obscure or difficult. This builder raises a splendid house near a river but is in too much of a hurry to adequately prepare the foundations. When the river rises, unsurprisingly, the house is swept away.  The immature Christian can spout the words but has neglected that crucial foundation of humility and loving action that makes it real.  As a young Christian, I could have learned a lot from those around me, those who had lived the faith ‘through many dangers, toils and snares,’ as the hymn puts it. But I was in too much of a hurry. Especially to judge my elders by standards that I wasn’t able to live up to myself.

Now I want to shift focus, somewhat, and propose that it is not only inexperienced disciples that can be quick to judge. It is also countries and nations. 

We have all been shocked, his week, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Putin apparently believes that Ukraine is part of an ancient Russian empire and part of the God-given domain of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has also spoken publicly about his desire to purge the Ukrainian government of what he calls its ‘evil’, 'Nazi' tendencies. Such language, and such action, shocks us. And we imagine that we are better than he is, better than the Russians, more civilized. Even more Christian.

But let me remind you of some inconvenient truths. Many of the British who invaded this country in the first half of the 19th century cited the wickedness of Aboriginal leaders and the 'God-given' or 'promised' character of this land as sufficient reason for what they did. The first Anglican bishop appointed to the colony, WG Broughton, was prominent amongst those who justified the mass killings of our people, the removal of survivors to internment camps, and the annexation of our lands, in precisely these terms. 

How, then, can the beneficiaries of that invasion and that annexation condemn the Russians for what they are doing? The nation subsequently named ‘Australia’, was founded on exactly the same imperialist theology, and exactly the same imperialist actions. So, we can condemn Russia, certainly, but not without hypocrisy. 

What does it mean to be spiritually mature about these things, whether that maturity is sought as an individual or as a nation?  I put it to you that the mature person, the mature nation, is not one which believes that they are righteous, good or just, and can therefore judge their neighbours from an unassailably great height. The mature person, the mature nation, is one who knows themselves to be a sinner – mired in unrighteousness, evil, injustice – and therefore of equal standing with everyone else before the God who knows and judges us all. The mature person or nation, the mature Christian, is one who knows that not one of us has a snowball’s chance in hell apart from the mercy show us in Christ, and that all we are called to do in this world is to live in the truth, and to treat our fellow sinners with mercy.

For the other message we hear in the metaphors about trees which grow toward the heavens, with joy and peace in their woody hearts, is that it is God who causes them to grow and gives them the resources they need to do so. They do not grow on their own, from their own ingenuity or wealth or moral rectitude, as it were. Human beings are like trees. We grow because of God’s favour. We thrive because we are loved and forgiven and loved again.  So let us not condemn the Russians any more than God does. Let the power we are given move through the world by the way not of an imperial-styled mission, but of a cross-shaped ‘submission’. Let us speak the truth in love: not least about our own shortcomings! And, in prayer and action, both, let us cast ourselves and our world, entirely, upon the love and mercy of God.

Garry Deverell

8th Sunday after Epiphany