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Wednesday 24 December 2014

The Three 'Christmases'

In contemporary Australian experience there are actually three kinds of 'Christmas' celebration. In this short article I’d like to describe each of them, with a view to distinguishing a genuinely Christian way of doing Christmas.

1. Yuletide

The first kind is arguably the oldest, because it takes its inspiration from the pre-Christian midwinter festivals of the Germanic and Nordic peoples.  This festival, known in its Anglicised form as 'Yuletide', apparently culminated in a three-day celebration encompassing the winter solstice at which much ale was consumed, animal sacrifices were made and the blood of sacrifice sprinkled over representations of the gods as well as over their worshippers. The meat of the sacrificed animals became food for the feast. Toasts were dedicated to Odin, the king of the gods, to Njörðr and Freyr for good harvest, to dead ancestors, and to the chieftain who presided at the feast. Scholars have connected these events to the Wild Hunt led by Odin through the night sky to kill a sacred boar or stag, which signified the taking of life at midwinter which had the power to inaugurate the return of life with the oncoming spring. 

Contemporary neo-pagans are both reviving and creating Yuletide traditions which emphasise the cyclic nature of fertility in the natural world. They point out that many elements of contemporary 'Christmas' celebrations probably have their roots in paganism, including Santa Claus and his reindeer (Odin or Freyr on the Wild Hunt), Elves or other magic folk who give or seek gifts (symbols of the presence of magic or the 'other world' on midwinter's eve), Christmas trees (evergreen to signify the eternal power of life returning from death), mistletoe (the key ingredient in a druidic fertility drink), the roasting of a pig (a vestige of the tradition of fertility sacrifices), and the prolific use of the colours red (signifying sacrificial blood) and white (representing midwinter).

2. Christmastide

At least as old, perhaps, is the Christian festival of Christmastide, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary in Bethlehem as the Son of God and saviour of all the world.  Although never as important as Eastertide in the Christian imagination, there is clear evidence that a festival surrounding Christ's birth was beginning to take shape in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd century CE.  Contrary to much public opinion, there is no evidence that the early candidates for Christ's birthday (December 25 and January 6) were chosen to coincide with pagan midwinter festivals in either the south or the north of Europe.  More likely is Andrew McGowan's proposal that since ancient Christians believed that Christ was conceived on the same day as his death (roughly March 25) he must therefore have been born on December 25.  

Between the 4th and 12th centuries, celebrations of the Nativity of Christ alternated between December 25 and January 6th. The latter date was celebrated in the Eastern church as the Epiphany (or 'manifestation') of Christ as Son and Messiah of God at his baptism.  Eventually, in the Western rite, Christmastide became a season that spanned the days between the eve of January 25 (when Luke's birth narrative about Angels and shepherds is featured) and the feast of the Epiphany (which, in the Western church, became the day when Matthew's birth narrative about Herod and the Magi from the East was ritualised as the first manifestation of Christ to all non-Jewish people).  Christians have long celebrated the season with joyful liturgies of word, carol and sacrament occurring on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Sundays of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany (whenever it variously occurs). The one note of sobriety within the season is usually reserved for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 27 or 28) which commemorates the infanticide visited by Herod on the children of Bethlehem at hearing that a Messiah had been born.  Contemporary churches in the ecumenical tradition often connect this event with the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and therefore with the plight of refugees fleeing oppression and persecution in the modern world.

The period now known as 'Advent', beginning from the 4th Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity, probably began with a desire to prepare for Christmas in a way that paralleled the long-established practice of preparing for Easter baptisms with forty days of prayer, fasting, exorcism and theological reflection. In this spirit, the primary theme of Advent eventually became not the 'first' coming of Christ at Bethlehem, but Christian hopes for a 'second' coming of Christ at the end of the ages, when all that is evil and unjust in the world will finally be put to rights.  Advent therefore encourages Christians to consider their experience of hope - the 'not yet' of faithful expectation - and asks them what God would call them to do by way of prayerful self-transformation and common human service as they wait for the grace and justice of God to be revealed in all its surprising fulness. 

The origin of gift-giving at Christmastide is unclear. Some surmise that the practise was taken over from pagan mid-winter festivals when offerings of food were given to the gods or else to vengeful ancestors in order to guarantee their blessing for the year to come.  A more likely origin is strictly theological: gifts are given to the poor and marginalised in imitation of God's gift of Christ to all who are poor, broken or despised by the world. This theology is certainly at play in the story of St Nicholas of Myrna, whose feast day is celebration on December 6.  St Nicholas is said to have distributed alms to the poor and desperate of his diocese anonymously, under the cover of night.  The migration of this tradition to the English-speaking world also seem to have effected a migration of St Nicholas' gift-giving to the Eve of the Nativity, perhaps under the influence of some of the pagan traditions we note above about Odin or Freyr. Certainly, the modern Santa Claus myth created by American advertisers owes more to pagan than Christian sources.

3. Consumertide

Christmas as it is celebrated in contemporary Australia certainly owes more to the re-weaving of traditional devotional practices by capitalism than it does to anything that is more genuinely pagan or Christian.  Capitalism is like a magpie that seeks to feather its own nest by stealing the treasures of others. And 'Christmas' has become the most prominent example of this. A consumer festival that begins in early November and continues through to the early weeks of January, this 'Christmas' evokes traditional religious practices and desires, but transforms and channels them for its own overriding purpose: to produce profits.

The new 'Christmas' temples are neither pagan nor Christian but vast shopping centres like that at Chadstone in Victoria.  If you visit these temples you are strongly encouraged to participate in the worship of Capital.  The sound-systems spew forth sentimental 'carols' that evoke traditional religious feeling, but redirect that feeling toward buying.  Carefully prepared 'Christmas' pantomimes are filled with elves, fairies and Father Christmases who have the power to grant one's every wish. Instead of encouraging worshippers to surrender themselves or their livelihoods to Christ or to those most beloved of Christ (the poor and marginalised) like St Nichlas of Myrna, the rituals associated with Santa Claus encourage consumers to buy gifts solely because either they or their loved-ones desire them. For Christmas is now almost exclusively about 'family' - the pilgrimage to far-flung family, spending time with family, spending money on family, feeding one’s family - and all to the most hideous levels of excess.  Obscenely, to my mind, the multi-billion-dollar industry that provides Christmas wrappings, tree ornaments and decorations, is run almost entirely off the back of cheap- child- or slave-labour in vast manufacturing compounds found in China, India, Mexico and Bangladesh.  

The consumertide which is the modern Australian 'Christmas' allows no room for those spiritual disciplines associated with Advent, disciplines like prayer, waiting, and fasting - all of which are about NOT getting or having what you most desire. Indeed, what these disciplines traditionally inspired and encouraged was the transformation of human desire into the more holy desire of God, thereby bringing light, love and hope to those in most need of such things. Consequently, Advent as Advent has been completely obliterated.  Advent has become simply another part of the consumertide that is 'Christmas', a season of feasting, buying, gift-giving, and sentimental storytelling about the importance of enriching one’s own family. It is no longer about a disciplined waiting for the grace of God made known in Jesus. And this is increasingly the case not only in the many 'evangelical' protestant churches that have most always followed the deepest impulses of secularism, but also in the ecumenical churches that are supposedly committed to the disciplines preserved in the observance of the liturgical year. Even in these churches, Christmas very often arrives in the first or second weeks of Advent, with parties and carol-singing and nativity festivals as far as the eye can see.


It seems to me that Christians are faced with a choice at Advent and Christmastide. Either to be carried along by the tide of neopagan and consumerist desire or else to choose the disciplines preserved in the genuinely Christian liturgical year. For these disciplines, if we listen and participate in them fully, teach us who the God of love is, what we are worth in God's estimation, and what the world could be if we would only give ourselves over to God's desire, rather than our own.  And that, I submit, would make all the difference in the world.

Thursday 18 December 2014

Reconciliation: personal reflections

This article first appeared in Gesher: the official journal of The Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria) 4/5 (2014): pp.16-19.
 The word ‘reconciliation’ bears witness to a contested space within Indigenous Australia. For many, if not most, reconciliation is precisely what is needed in the face of the historic injustices visited upon Aboriginal peoples by the invading colonists who came to these lands from 1788 onward. Reconciliation describes a process by which colonists acknowledge, in detail, their wrongdoing and then seek forgiveness for these misdeeds from Australia’s First Peoples. Importantly, for the proponents of reconciliation, absolution would not be automatic. It would be conditional upon Australia’s colonising peoples making concrete and measurable efforts to undo previous evils or, in the many instances where such undoing is impossible, to offer a just and proportional compensation for wrongdoing in ways that meet the approval of First Peoples.

However, some Indigenous Australians are not at all happy with the language of reconciliation. They rightly point out that reconciliation is a Jewish and Christian idea, an idea that arrived with the colonists and cannot, therefore, be regarded as neutral or benign. For some Aboriginal commentators, the language of reconciliation is part of the colonising apparatus that keeps First Peoples ‘down’, and it does so by forcing Aboriginal people to think about their future within an alien framework that is not really their own, a framework that puts not their own, but colonists’, interests at the centre. And what is the colonist’s prevailing interest, according to this account? It is the need to find absolution, a salving of conscience, a healing of the gaping wound that has been rent in the colonial sense of self through its multitudinous breakings of the Jewish and Christian law: ‘do not kill’, do not steal’, ‘do not covet’, ‘do not bear false witness’. To this way of thinking, the colonial motivation for justice with regard to First Peoples terminates not when Aborigines are satisfied that justice has been done, but when the ‘whitefella’ sense of guilt is expiated. And that, quite simply, is not good enough.

In the brief paragraphs that follow, I should like to outline the way in which I, personally, have reconciled myself to the language of reconciliation. In doing so, I want my readers to know that I am a Trawoolway man from northern Truwunna (Tasmania) and that I was inducted by my parents and their community into the Baptist tradition of Christianity from a very young age. Since my childhood I have been keenly aware of a struggle, both within and without, between the British heritage of my Baptist beginnings and the Trawoolway instinct for cultural survival against almost overwhelming odds. The nature of that struggle has often changed over the years. There have been times when I felt that my Christian heritage was indeed the enemy of all in me that is genuinely Trawoolway, most often when the churchly institutions of Christianity steadfastly refused to recognise:

a) that I or my people are genuinely indigenous to this land: that we belong to this country, and the country belongs to us;

b) that I or my people are being, or have been, grievously mistreated or harmed through the ongoing violence of colonisation;

c) that churchly institutions participate, and have participated, in that mistreatment and harm;

d) that those same institutions therefore have a responsibility to make some kind of amends for the evils that have been visited upon my people.
Unfortunately, in my view, churchly institutions have made little progress on any of these fronts across my lifetime. Yes, fine words have been uttered in a very general way, especially by the Uniting Church to which I now belong. But I still experience the church as fundamentally racist at the level of day-to-day, concrete relationships. It is in the wake of that experience of racism that I most often consider resigning both my ordination and my membership in any form of denominational church.

At the same time, I have very often experienced the nascent Christianity into which I was inducted – represented, here, by its most fundamental language and imagination in Scripture and apostolic tradition – as the greatest ally I have in seeking to survive as Trawoolway in colonial Australia. (I reject the narratives of ‘post-colonialism’ outright, because the process of colonisation clearly continues apace, even as it becomes more circumspect and reflexive). Consider, for example, the Pauline notion that God chooses the ‘nothings’ of this world – literally those who do not exist as far as the dominant powers are concerned – to be God’s people and to ‘shame’ those who consider themselves wise and strong (1 Cor 1.26-31). As a person who has been repeatedly told throughout my life that I don’t exist (‘you are not Aboriginal, there are no Aboriginal Tasmanians left’) or that I don’t matter (‘you are Aboriginal, but that means that you are a drunk, a welfare cheat, a waste of space and resources who has nothing meaningful to contribute’) I find this notion deeply encouraging. Consider, also, Paul’s revolutionary teaching about the identity of God. God, we are told in Scripture, was ‘in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19). Yes, ‘in Christ’, a man despised, rejected, condemned to torture and crucifixion by the imperial powers of his world. In Christ, so the story goes, the creator of the universe exchanges his great power and position for that of a slave (Phil 2.6, 7), that God might come close enough to offer help and salvation to all who are slaves, that God might lift them from their servitude to the colonising laws of sin and alienation and make them, instead, free children of God (Rom 8.15-17). Again, as one who has experienced the enslaving power of colonists, I am encouraged by this message about a God who is not identified with such power but comes, instead, alongside the colonised offering help, support and ultimately the gift of liberation. In my darkest moments, when I find myself agreeing with my oppressors that I am nothing, no one, of no value to anyone or anything, this message can be the only thing between me and oblivion. In this sense, the message of God’s love that is at the heart of the Christian evangel is often the only thing that is able to rescue my Trawoolway self from the overwhelming racist power of church and society alike.

So how have I reconciled myself to the language of reconciliation, a language that the colonists brought with them from over the seas? By first recognising, frankly, that there can be no return to an existence or mode of indigeneity that is somehow free of colonial influence, that dreams of any such return are (somewhat paradoxically) generated by colonialism itself. And, then, by recognising the genuine power of the Christian gospel of reconciliation to make a positive difference to Indigenous people and not simply to our oppressors. And, finally, by recognising that the language of reconciliation in no way absolves colonists from shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to creating a just settlement for the First Peoples they have wronged. Indeed, as I will argue below, the language of reconciliation actually creates that responsibility. Allow me to expand on each of these claims in turn.

I recently attended a conference in Melbourne that billed itself as a discussion of the notion of sovereignty from ‘postcolonial’ and ‘theological’ perspectives. The only Australian Indigenous speakers at the conference were a Warlpiri elder and his son, both of whom are also committed Baptists. Following their presentation, which drew liberally from the language of reconciliation, they were berated with questions about why, as Indigenous people, they felt the need to draw upon the ‘language of the colonisers’ at all. Did they not see that the language of reconciliation was little more than an opiate given to Aboriginal people by the missionaries as something of a consolation prize for the stealing of their lands and cultures? Why did they not draw, instead, on purely Indigenous stories and traditions in order to maintain their noble identities as Warlpiri people over and against the oppressive language of the coloniser? I found it extremely difficult to listen to these questions and take them seriously because, from my perspective, such questions serve only to inscribe the mentality and methods of colonialism all over again. 

First, it is simply not possible to talk about a purely ‘indigenous’ language and tradition in contemporary Australia. The fact of contact between Indigenes and colonists over more than two hundred years has created new, more or less hybrid, narrative frameworks for the interpretation of Indigenous traditions. That is what contact does: it creates new traditions out of older traditions. And the traditions live on precisely because they are adaptable; they are able to respond creatively to new data, new voices, new narratives and meaning structures. Every living Indigenous culture in this country has adapted in this way. And every interpretation of older traditions – preserved, for example, in colonist’s journals and academic papers – are themselves examples and performances of these hybrid narratives of contact between Indigenes and colonists. All insistence about working from ‘purely’ Indigenous traditions – unpolluted by Western or Christian influences - is therefore not only naive but also deeply disrespectful of Indigenous people. It fails to recognise that it is precisely our ability to adapt and respond to colonial perspectives, to absorb them creatively into our own, that has made the difference between our surviving and not surviving.

Talk of cultural or racial ‘purity’ is also, rather nakedly in my view, a reinscription of that ‘noble savage’/Garden of Eden fantasy so beloved of Romantics and Nazis alike. The perseverance of the fantasy into so-called ‘post-colonial’ times demonstrates just how powerfully the colonist needs to maintain the fiction that a ‘pure’ form of indigeneity is still possible. This fantasy has two basic functions. It first soothes colonial guilt by assuring the troubled conscience that the damage is not irreparable, the ‘pure’ has not, in fact, been irredeemably lost. At the same time, the fantasy also works to legitimate that familiar colonial strategy of dismissing or ‘disappearing’ – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively (the effect is equally devastating in either case!) – all forms of the so-called ‘half-caste’ or ‘half-breed’. Half-castes (so-called) – whether constructed in cultural or biological terms – are deeply threatening to colonists because they imply a ‘muddying of the waters’ with regard to purist notions of identity, culture and vocation. Their presence, if acknowledged at all, signals the emergence of an alarming hybridity that deeply disturbs the ‘us and them’ dualism of the colonial psyche. It is a curious fact of colonial history around the world that colonists – usually from Europe – hate only one kind of people more than the ‘blacks’. And that is the ‘coloureds’. It is my observation that Second Peoples in Australia remain confused - routinely and predictably confused – by Aborigines like myself who do not fit their purist notions about what an Aborigine is. Second Peoples – whether their ancestry be European or Asian or whatever – are routinely confronted and offended by the fact that the vast majority of Indigenous people have fair skin and are clearly adept at living urban and suburban lives along with everyone else. In my personal experience, colonial masters are particularly offended by red-headed Aborigines who clearly know more about their traditions than they do themselves and are able to offer an alternative reading of the significance of those traditions from another place or viewpoint.

That brings me to my next point of reconciliation with the language of reconciliation: the genuine power of this narrative to make a positive difference, not only to oppressors, but also to Indigenous people. Against the critics of reconciliation who claim that the project is primarily about expiating ‘white guilt’ I want to say that reconciliation is actually about the truth, most of all - the telling of truth and the common ownership of that truth - by both First and Second peoples alike. The truth is this: that there can be no reconciliation, no coming together of First and Second Peoples to build a more just future, without a common ownership of the undeniable truth of what has happened in this country.

For many years – from the 1850s right up until the 1990s – the public imagination of this country was dominated by a great silence about the stealing of Aboriginal land, the long war between invaders and native warriors, the systematic attempts to destroy whole cultures and nations and the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their families. School children were taught that the land was largely ‘empty’ when white ‘settlers’ arrived and that the few natives who already lived here soon died out because of their stupidity and their failure to cultivate the land. Students were also taught that Australia was unique amongst European colonies because it had never known a war that was fought on its own soil. 

These narratives were taught to Indigines and colonists alike. But throughout this period First Peoples held on to their own histories, their own memories, their own versions of what had happened. Eventually our memories and tellings came to the attention of revisionist historians such as Manning Clarke, and later Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds. In their hands, the truth began to get out. It began to contest the false versions of history so beloved of those whose wealth and power had been founded on lies. As this truth is slowly owned by Second Peoples, as the injustices visited upon Indigenous peoples and the fact of our survival slowly become part of a common national narrative, a more genuine launching-place for a reconciled future comes into focus. For reconciliation begins, as the Johannine gospel says, with a confession of the truth (1 John 1.8). Without the recognition of that truth, there can be no freedom (John 8.32). For freedom, in this understanding, is ultimately about liberation from falsehood and lies – lies about oneself, about others, and about the identity of the divine. Whoever lives in falsehood is a slave to falsehood. But whomever is set free from falsehood by the arrival of the truth will be free to choose a new destiny (John 8.34-38).

Perhaps it is now clear why I feel compelled to argue that the language of reconciliation in no way absolves colonists from shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to creating a just settlement for the First People’s they have wronged. Indeed, as I have already intimated, the language of reconciliation actually creates that responsibility. For wrongdoing, in the language of reconciliation, creates a responsibility in the guilty party to provide satisfaction or recompense to the party that has been wronged. 

How did Jacob reconcile himself to Esau, the brother whom he had wronged by swindling him out of his inheritance? First he confessed to God that he was, in truth, unworthy of the good fortune that had come his way (Gen 32.10). Then he sent a very valuable ‘gift’ on ahead of him – a great flock of goats, sheep, camels, cattle and donkeys – along with a message that these were for Esau (Gen 32.13-21). When the two brothers finally meet Esau greets Jacob with words of forgiveness and grace, to be sure, but the story is structured in such a way as to highlight Jacob’s responsibility to offer – at least to offer! – some kind of compensation for what has clearly been stolen. A saying of Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount reinforces the point. If one attends the temple to be reconciled to God, one should not pretend that such reconciliation is going to be in any way real or effective if there is a matter outstanding between oneself and another. If you have wronged someone, Jesus counsels, you must first do whatever it takes to be reconciled with that person before you can pretend to seek the forgiveness of God (Matt 5.23, 24). 

So, while the language of reconciliation clearly invokes the possibility of forgiveness as a way through to a lasting peace, the granting of forgiveness is very often conditional: conditional upon a recognition in the guilty parties that they have indeed done wrong, and that those parties therefore have a responsibility to make recompense for what has been stolen or destroyed.[1]
  Let me conclude with a challenge for the Jewish and Christian leaders who will read this article. Can any of you say, out of the truth that whispers deep in your hearts, that you have truly taken responsibility for the wrongs your synagogues, churches and congregations have visited upon the First Peoples of this land? Have you acknowledged your part in stealing land, removing children, and destroying culture? Have you acknowledged, and do you take responsibility for, the ongoing effects of these injustices in the form of disproportionately high levels of Indigenous poverty, incarceration and mental illness? Furthermore, have you made apology to the people so affected – not in that general rhetorical way so beloved of politicians and CEOs – but face-to-face, neighbour-to-neighbour? Finally, have you demonstrated to the people you have wronged that you are serious about seeking recompense and justice for them, so that they may have a chance to create a better future? Have you asked them what form that recompense should take, genuinely asked them? For the history of do-gooders in this country unfortunately suggests that such asking – and the careful listening for a guiding response that is part of any genuine partnership – rarely happens on the ground. Instead, it is the colonists who decide what form the compensation should take, and when, and how. Your response to these questions will make all the difference to whether reconciliation really has a chance in Australia, or whether it does not. My prayer, as always, is that the veil of ignorance might be torn from all our eyes (2 Cor 4.4). Only then will reconciliation have a chance.

[1] Elsewhere I have explored in detail the relationship between what has been called the ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ dimensions of covenant-making in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I am aware that unconditional forgiveness very often creates the possibility for a just response in the wrongdoer. My intent in this essay is not to exclude that possibility outright, but simply to argue that whatever the motivation toward just compensation, recompense is always part of the settlement phenomenologically. See Garry J. Deverell, The Bond of Freedom: vows, sacraments and the formation of the Christian self (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press, 2008) pp. 124-127.