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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.

Sunday 17 September 2023

A Voice for Country: saying 'Yes' to Indigenous ecological wisdom

When I was a teenager, I would go for long contemplative walks in the bush that still surrounds the small town in which I was raised.  This was, and remains, punnilerpanna country even though most all of the punnilerpanna were killed during the frontier conflicts of the 1820s. So, when I was a teenager, even though I knew little of that specific history, I would talk to the ancestral spirits who dwelt in the landscape. ‘Hello, cousin Wallaby’, I would say, ‘how’s the grazing today?’ Or, ‘greetings, Auntie River Gum, getting enough water?’. And they would answer. Not in English, mind, nor even in the lost language of the punnilerpanna. But, if you had the ears to hear, if you had the heart of a contemplative, you could hear them acknowledge and affirm your presence: the appropriateness of your being there in the matrix of that dreaming. For when I came to the bush as a kid, I came not to harm or destroy, as the colonists had done, but simply to commune and to learn. That is what contemplation means, in this tradition. To bathe in the ancestral voices that are forever alive and flowing about you as you walked through sacred country.  But also to learn the way of country—especially its ethic of kinship, of mutual care and reciprocity—that her ways might be imitated and passed on to others.

'Ancestors II' by Sarrita King
For the voices of the dead punnilerpanna were alive in that landscape. The echoes of their sorrow at all that had befallen them in the 1820s, certainly. But there are strains, also, of a yet more ancient choir. A choir of creator-ancestors, the powerful hybid beings—partly human, partly animal—that formed the landscape and now speak from it with wisdom and instruction for anyone who will listen.  These ancestral choirs sing a song of lament concerning the way in which country has been wounded, even crucified, under the impact of European colonisation. But that is not all you will discern in their song. For they sing, also, of the perseverance of life through death; indeed, of the necessity of death and loss to the creation of new life. They sing about the power of compost, and of electricity, that quantum-level medium for both life and communication. They sing about not giving up, even when the chips are most definitely down in the more-than-human world, and life seems spent. 

Sadly, much of the public conversation about the Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament has failed to listen to the song of country, to the cadences of this ancestral choir. Arguments about whose voices need to be heard (or not) in the national constitution and around Canberra very often seem to completely overlook the fact that a voice for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people implies a voice for country. For we are country’s custodians. We have managed and looked after this country for 5000 generations.  Country is not, and has never been, ‘wilderness’ as a European philosophy would imagine it. Country is not a human-free landscape where ‘nature’ grows wild and according to its own devices. Country is a place where human beings dwell in a symbiotic relationship with our feathered, furred, and scaled cousins. Country is our home, our dwelling place, our mother, father, sister and brother, our kin.  We therefore have a place within it and exercise a sacred vocation of responsibility for it. For country is the arena in which a radically reciprocal compassion is actualised. The dreaming lore that belongs to each particular patch of country and encoded, in songs and rituals handed down from elder to catechumen, are primarily about how to live sustainably, fruitfully, and compassionately within those places: country we are born to, country we carry in our hearts, country for whose flourishing we take responsibility, from the moment we are initiated to the day we die.  This is the way we lived in this country before colonists arrived. By practising a compassion that extended far beyond our human kin, embracing also rock and river and plant and animal in such a manner that country might flourish, not just for today, but for the 5000 generations to come.

What has happened in the last 235 years, however, has been catastrophic. The genocide visited upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been accompanied by an ecocide visited upon country. According to the Ecological Society of Australia, we lead the world when it comes to species extinction. Since the arrival of Europeans, over 100 species of animals and birds have become extinct and, as of 2019, 1790 species are listed as threatened with extinction. Major threats are invasive species (82% of species), ecosystem modification (74%), agriculture (57%), human disturbance (38%), and climate change (35%). Well-funded protected areas such state reserves and national parks certainly aid recovery, but 52% of species face threats outside protected areas. The Society estimates that Australia needs to invest $1.69 billion per year to recover threatened species through coordinated efforts across jurisdictions. The current level of investment is only $122 million per year, which means that Australia’s extinction crisis will only deepen in the decades to come.  

On the 18th of March this year, the ABC reported the discovery of a mass fish kill in the Darling River near Menindee in NSW's far west. The kill included several million bony bream, golden perch, silver perch and Murray cod. The overall volume of the kill completely eclipsed similar kills in 2018 and 2019 and was caused by low oxygen levels in the water after recent flooding, combined with atmospheric temperatures in the 40s (Celsius). Previous fish kills were apparently caused by drought and massive algae blooms. Menindee Local Aboriginal Land Council director Michelle Kelly is quoted as saying ‘the river is our lifeblood’,  but clearly that lifeblood is in deep trouble. Joy Becker, an associate professor with the University of Sydney, is quoted as saying that fish kill events could occur due to a sudden, severe or prolonged drop in water quality. "Ultimately, fish kill events happen because the quality of the environment cannot sustain fish life," she said. "Causes of fish kills can be environmental, chemical, or possibly related to infectious disease agents including opportunistic pathogens or a combination of all these factors."  Which is another way of saying that the mismanagement of country is to blame.  Barkandji elders have been saying so for decades, but their pleas have clearly fallen on deaf ears.  Signs of the ecocide that accompanies the genocide.

Similarly, with the management of bushlands, our mobs successfully used fire to farm both forests and grasslands for thousands of years. Using a range of techniques, now collectively known as cool-burning, we used fire to both mitigate against destructive, catastrophic, wildfires but also to cultivate food-plants that would provide for healthy and abundant populations of animals and birds.   Unfortunately, with the coming of European colonists, these lands have been mostly ‘cleared’ of both the people who knew this country best and the techniques we used to sustain its life. Fire-farming and loose-soil agriculture has been replaced by the mass-production of beef, lamb, wool and grain crops.  The importation of millions of cattle and sheep has resulted in the compaction of soil structures, with the consequence that water can no longer penetrate the soil substructure as it once did, and so it dries out and becomes less fertile.  Crop and herd farming has also massively reduced general biodiversity, with the twin consequence that, as many species of both plant and animal are already endangered or extinct, exponentially greater levels of extinction become all the more likely.  At the same time, surviving forests have been neglected as places that needed to be managed, with the consequence that bushfires of the catastrophic kind that we witnessed in late 2019/early 2020 are likely to occur more and more as the planet warms. Those fires destroyed over 19 million hectares of mainly forests and woodlands. In several places, the fires burned so hot that even the deep substructure of the soil was effected, bringing on a condition known as hydrophobia which prevents such soil from ever supporting the growth of plant life again.  The fires also killed well over a billion native animals,  a great many of which died because they could not find a way through the fences erected by pastoralists to keep their domestic animals from roaming. More signs of the ecocide that accompanies the genocide.

Certain parts of the bible talk about ecocide in terms of a 'defilement' of the land. Let’s consider just one small section at the end of Leviticus chapter 18 (vs 24-30), a chapter that appears, at first glance, to be primarily concerned with sex. Here it is, from the NRSV:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. So keep my charge not to commit any of these abominations that were done before you, and not to defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God.

The ’defilement’ in the first line refers to sexual practices which are seen, by the editors of Leviticus, as fundamentally abusive. These include various forms of unfaithfulness to one’s marriage partner along with intra-family incest, each of which would accord, broadly, with our contemporary standards also. But the list of forbidden relations ends with a condemnation of what has been called ‘cultic sex’, that is, sexual relations which take place within a religious framework designed to guarantee the fertility of one’s land. This is a concept considerably more foreign to the modern imagination. In the ancient middle-east, you see, there existed forms of religion which posited a close symbolic connection between the human body, especially the fertile female body, and the fertile body of the land. You can find traces of it in any number of ancient sources, but also here in the bible. In this particular passage, the editors clearly assume that such a connection exists, even as they condemn the phenomenon of cultic sex. At the social level they are concerned that cultic sex is inherently abusive because the people who served as sexual partners at the shrines were invariably slaves who earned money for their owners. At the more complex symbolic level, they are concerned that abusing the bodies of cultic slaves is a metaphor for the abuse and misuse of the land.

For the land has agency in this passage. It is not just a thing that is without animus or life or intention. She is able to expel, to ‘vomit’ out from her body, any object or person that might threaten her life.  She is able to fight back against abuse.

Surely there is a parable here for those of us who stand at the edge of an environmental apocalypse. If the land is truly alive and has agency, as both the Hebrew and Indigenous imaginations would have it, then our continued abuse of country will have its consequences. There will come a time when we have so poisoned the well on which we depend that our own lives will be at risk. Country may well vomit us out, judging that our rapacious presence is ultimately a threat to her capacity for fecundity and renewal. 

There is a little-known appendix in the 2017 Report of the Referendum Council (which also gave us the Statement from the Heart and the roadmap known as ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’) entitled ‘Rom Watangu – the Law of the Land’. It was written by the late, great, Yolgnu elder, Dr Yunupingu. I’d like to read just one paragraph from that work:

There is always something wanted by someone who knows nothing of our land or its people. There is always someone who wants us to be like them, to give up our knowledge and our laws, or our land. There is always someone who wants to take something from us. I disapprove of that person, whoever he or she is. There is no other way for us. Our laws tell us how to live and lead in the proper way. Others will always seek to interrupt my thinking, but I will tell the difference between their ways and my laws, which are the only ones to live by. I am mindful of the continuing attempts to change all that is in us, and I know that it is not workable at all. It cannot work. We are covered by a law of another kind and that law is lasting and alive, the law of the land, rom watangu – my backbone.

Here the great man is speaking from the very heart of his Yolgnu culture and spirituality. His words remind us that any formal voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is always, already, a voice for country. For those of us who are Indigenous do not speak primarily for ourselves, and our own merely human interests. We speak for country—for its spectacular plethora of plants, animals, waterways, landcapes, heavenly bodies. We speak the wisdom we have seen and heard from walking in country, the wisdom whispered in our ears by the Old Ones, the ancestral creators who yet live and are one with its body. We speak of the necessity of caring for country, after the manner that country cares for us, so that we might continue to share a life of joy and abundance together.  We speak of the pain and the suffering of country under settler colonial management, and the need for a compassionate response from human beings so that country may be healed of its grievous wounds. 

In all this, First Peoples acknowledge that we are too few to accomplish this healing on own own. Especially when so many of our young people languish in schools and gaols and other institutions designed to draw the very life from one’s spirit. We recognise that healing must be the responsibility of everyone who now lives in these lands, whatever the legitimacy or illegitimacy of that presence historically or ethically.  But that is why the call to support a body which can offer a more substantial voice for our people is so centrally important. A voice for us, however conceived, is also a Voice for country. We are her voice, the voice of our mother earth. An invitation to say ‘Yes’ to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is also, therefore, an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to country and to exercise a commensurate compassion for country.  If you hear that voice at all, even faintly as a whispering in the trees or in your hearts, I beg you to take is seriously. To listen, to learn, and to act for our common future in this communion of being to which we all belong, whether we are aware of it or not.

Garry Worete Deverell

St Michael’s Uniting Church, Naarm/Melbourne,
October 10, 2023