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Saturday, 30 May 2020

Sober Reflections during National Reconciliation Week

          ‘What I did not steal must I now restore?’ 
                                                                       Psalm 69.4b

In Australia, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) runs from May 27 to June 3 and is immediately preceded by Sorry Day on May 26.  The dates are significant. The 1997 report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Bringing Them Home, was tabled in the federal parliament on May 26.  Sorry Day has become an annual observance inviting Australians to reflect on the genocidal policies which sought to destroy Indigenous families and communities and to renew community resolve to avoid ever enacting such policies again.  May 27 commemorates the date of the 1967 referendum in which the Australian constitution was changed to recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples and June 3 recalls the 1993 ‘Mabo decision’ of the High Court of Australia to overturn the racist legal fiction of terra nullius. Beginning as a week of ‘prayer for reconciliation’ within some Australian churches, the week has now been taken up in some sections of the wider community as a way to encourage the building of bridges between Indigenous and other Australians. 

I have to say that, to this Aboriginal Christian leader, National Reconciliation Week appears to be struggling as a tool to extract a more just settlement for our people. It is struggling, I think, for two reasons. First, instead of encouraging the colonial establishment to address issues of justice for First Peoples persistently and all-year-round, NRW has become a way in which organisations may signal their virtue in this area for one week per year, largely for PR reasons, but effectively ignore our concerns at every other time. Second, it has become increasingly clear that it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves who are expected to do most of the work of Reconciliation Week, just as we are expected to do most of the work of reconciliation itself. Which means, simultaneously, that our prophets grow weary and sad at the lack of progress on justice for our people whilst our colonial gubbas congratulate themselves for their virtuous attention to the politically correct, all the while refusing to lift a finger to actually change anything.  Which leads us to ask, with the Psalmist, ‘what I did not steal must I now restore?’ Must we who did nothing to create Indigenous suffering now be the ones who must do all the work of healing and restoration? Why cannot those who have benefitted from the dispossession of our people take responsibility for putting things right?

Many others have written about the consequences of conservative government for the reconciliation cause, pointing to the extraordinary lack of progress on matters like a voice to parliament, incarceration rates, health outcomes, family integrity, meaningful employment, access to country, housing and the preservation of language and culture. I don’t intend to add to that commentary. Rather, I want to point out that the very churches that initiated the week of prayer for reconciliation have now, very clearly, abandoned the cause in any meaningful sense. 


The Uniting Church has long enjoyed a reputation for leading the way on matters of reconciliation. And there are plenty of signs that it continues to do so. Its national constitution has a preamble declaring that First Peoples enjoyed a relationship with God prior to the coming of Europeans. The Constitution also recognises and gives formal institutional authority to a national ‘Congress’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the church who are able to run their own affairs (up to a point).  The church also funds a small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries around the nation and has handed some of those ministries land and property for their beneficial use. The church has an interest in a registered training organisation, based in Darwin, specifically designed to offer certificate and diploma level education to aspiring First Nations pastors and church workers.  In addition, the church each year provides worship and other resources on Invasion Day, National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week for the nourishment of its members in the ongoing work of reconciliation.  All of which is terrific, at least to the naked eye.  

Of course, as someone who was involved in the Uniting Church as a Congress member for 20 years or so, I can tell you with some experience that the gains of our people over that period were hard-won.  The church authorities were very good at managing public perceptions, offering fine words of apology and commitment at the very time they were also steadfastly resisting our overtures for greater control of our affairs and a more practical investment in our ministries. I personally witnessed the official and institutionally sanctioned persecution of a Congress minister. Many First Nations leaders fell into despair and illness along the way. I, myself, eventually left the church becaue I could not find meaningful employment and because the battle to find a secure place to stand within the church was making me sick. Behind the glossy presentation of the Uniting Church’s leadership on matters of reconciliation there remains a fairly common, everyday racism.  I still come across UC leaders who have never read a book about the true history of this country, have never had a respectful conversation with an Indigenous person, who have never studied with an Indigenous academic or theologian, and never felt the need to do so. To date, the senior leadership of the church remains steadfastly white, and there are no Indigenous people on the teaching staff of any of its theological colleges. In my observation, it is still the case that Australia’s most progressive church on these matters harbours a fundamentally white-blind membership that cannot really see what the problem is.

The Roman Catholic Church appears to have both a national and state-based apparatus to address matters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concern. There is a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council reporting to the Bishop’s Conference, and a funded secretariat that functions nationally as well as on a state-by-state basis. Most states and territories appear to have at least one funded Indigenous ministry, with Tasmania being a notable exception. In addition, anecdotal evidence would suggest that Catholic schools and welfare agencies often form enthusiastic relationships with Aboriginal organisations and communities, Catholic and otherwise. These bodies collaborate happily both on curriculum and policy materials and on the building of relationships between people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds. Certainly, most of the Indigenous Catholics I know are reasonably happy Catholics. For all this good work, it appears that the church has still invested very little in the development of indigenous theologies, theologians and clergy. The Roman Church is exemplary in its multiculturalism, not least amongst the clergy. But there are still no Indigenous bishops or tenured theological teachers and precious few deacons and priests. There are still, in other words, almost no Indigenous voices where they count most: amongst the pastoral and teaching authorities of the church.

The Anglican Church of Australia, likewise, has established a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander council, which reports to the General Synod. This Council, of which I am a member, consists mainly of representatives appointed by the 23 diocesan bishops. Several bishops do not appoint anyone at all. Some apparently appoint non-Indigenous people.  The General Synod funds a less-than-1.0 EFT national secretariat and an annual meeting for this Council, but it does not fund any on-the-ground Indigenous ministry of any kind. That is left to individual dioceses, which vary wildly in their engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Diocese of Melbourne, for example, employs no-one to engage with Aboriginal people.  And whilst there are, so far as I can tell, five Aboriginal priests in the diocese, four are employed in non-Aboriginal ministries and a fifth is not employed by the church at all. Across the church, nationally, it would be fair to say that almost all Indigenous church workers, ordained or not, engage in ministry with, or on behalf of, our people on our own time and at our own expense. The number of funded Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ministries can be counted on one hand. The Anglican Board of Mission is allowed by its charter to fund individual projects that engage with Indigenous peoples, but that same charter prohibits the funding of wages or stipends, which effectively means that ABM cannot support Indigenous ministers, lay or ordained, to do long-term embedded ministries in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.  It is sobering to note that, whilst the General Synod can in principle appoint national bishops for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there is currently no funding allocated to do so. The national Torres Strait Islander episcopate is therefore vacant, and the national Aboriginal episcopate is currently being funded on a part-time basis by Anglicare in South Australia.  

One might additionally note that pleas for a more meaningful engagement from the Anglican Church usually fall on deaf ears. Since its establishment in 1998, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council has sought on multiple occasions both a meaningful covenant or treaty with the rest of the church, and a more substantial funding base to underwrite its aspirations. Neither have been forthcoming. At the local level here in Melbourne, the overtures of Aboriginal clergy towards a more practical approach to reconciliation are routinely ignored by church authorities. And, as with the Roman Catholic Church, it is still the case that there are no tenured Indigenous theological teachers in the mainstream theological colleges of the church, and less than a handful of Indigenous voices on diocesan councils in the whole of Australia. One can only conclude that reconciliation in the sense of restoring some measure of voice, dignity and justice to First Peoples is effectively terminal in the Anglican Church.

Notwithstanding these realities, churches routinely call on us in National Reconciliation Week or in NAIDOC Week to participate in symbolic acts of reconciliation, usually within the context of worship services run by white people who appear to be engaged in virtue-signalling. I, for one, find that this invitation, when it comes, is very often the ONLY invitation I receive from a church in an entire year, and it arrives just a few days before the proposed event because that is how long that particular church has allocated to planning. There is no relationship with this church. There has been no foregoing process of story-sharing or relationship-building, in the midst of which the particular event or worship service might actually take on some genuine meaning for the community that gathers. Furthermore, precisely because of the lack of conversation with the church in question, one cannot help but feel that there will be little to no positive outcome from the event for our people. There will be no commitments made, for example, to hand back some land, or pay the rent, or fund an Indigenous ministry, or engage in ongoing conversation with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation. To make those kinds of outcomes even remotely possible requires a long conversation, much education, and the fundamental conversion of racist hearts and minds.  All a one-off event can usually achieve is a self-congratulatory feeling of virtue in the hosting organisation for broaching such ‘complex’ issues and giving ‘difficult’ people like me a platform.  

All of which leaves us Indigenous Christian leaders in a place of considerable dilemma. Most of us are already exhausted by this point, because we have already endured many weeks, months and years of scorn, ignorance and indifference: in casual conversation and on media, both social and traditional. We are deeply sceptical about the value of doing what is asked of us. But we feel we have a responsibility to our people, especially our kids, to keep speaking out, to keep fighting the fight as our elders did before us at great personal cost, even though it is so very, very difficult to do so. So, we pull ourselves together, put on a smiling face, turn up, do our little bit and hope for the best. We pray that God will give us patience to answer all the hurtful and disrespectful questions without losing our cool. And we go home even more exhausted, and usually just a little bit depressed. Depressed because the questions have not changed in years, depressed because the church seems stuck in a time-warp when it comes to addressing the question of justice, depressed because like everyone else, we long for signs of light, but we rarely see it appear.  And really it is just oh so hard to keep the whole thing going.

In spite of all this, or most probably because of it, I am a person of prayer. I pray not because I am serene, I pray because I am desperate. Without the water from the well, which is the word of the suffering Christ, I would surely succumb to the floods of despair with which I am overcome at every reconciliation event. ‘Help me ancestors, help me Jesus, to stay alive, that the promise of your justice and peace may stay alive in me’.  That is my prayer, and most days – especially during Reconciliation Week - that is about the best I can do.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Bushfires and Colonial Mismanagement

The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 8.5 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. If that number is hard to get your head around, my dear North American readers, think of an area the size of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined, then add a little bit more.  In some places, the fires burned so hot that stone structures melted and even the biomatter below the surface of the ground was utterly obliterated. Ecologists are now saying that in such places, nothing will ever be able to grow again. Even where this is not the case, in parts of the forest where regeneration is possible, whole ecosystems – millennia in the making - have been utterly laid waste. It is also estimated that over 1 billion native animals perished in the fires, many of them belonging to species already close to extinction such as koalas and mountain pygmy possums. A large portion of those animals apparently died either because the fires were travelling too fast or because they could not make their way through fences erected by property owners.

So how did the fires start and why did they burn so hot?  The short answer is that the continent of Australia is on the front line of the battle over climate change. Increasingly mild ‘cold’ seasons and increasingly hot ‘warm’ seasons over the past thirty years have left the driest continent on earth (after Antarctica) even drier. Periods of drought, always an issue in this sun-burnt continent, have become progressively more severe over time to the point where even the wettest places on the continent - temperate and tropical rainforests - are becoming tinderboxes. When dry lightning comes along, therefore, there is little to stop entire forests, along with any farms and towns on their perimeter, going up in flames. And once the fires start, even the world’s most prepared and well-resourced firefighting services cannot stand in their way.  There is little to be done except to evacuate residential areas and pray for rain.

But how did we get to this point? How did an apparently ‘developed’ nation such as Australia, allow the situation to get so out of hand, possibly to the point of no-return?  Obviously climate-change is a global issue. Even if Australia had a progressive government which takes climate-change seriously (which it does not) the only possible mechanism that will make a difference to global policy is international treaty. And the world’s largest polluters have not yet signed any of the protocols generated by UN conferences such as Kyoto or Paris. Notwithstanding this fact, I believe it is incumbent upon nations such as Australia to recognise that we find ourselves in these catastrophic circumstances primarily because we have failed to recognise the wisdom of our indigenous peoples.

I am an Indigenous survivor of what some of us are calling, in Australia, ‘the apocalypse’.  Before the British arrived on our shores in 1788 CE, over 500 nations were already living here, and we had done so for more than 100 000 years. 100 000 years is a very long time by anyone’s estimation. When you’ve been in a place for that long, you get to know it very, very, very well. You get to know the moods and cycles of land and seascape. You get to know the seasons, the animals, the plant-life. You get to know the ecological systems which bind that land together and cause it to flourish with life. You get to know how to find food and shelter, and how to sustainably access those resources over many hundreds of generations. The other thing that you do when you’ve lived that long in one place is find a way to preserve the knowledge of previous generations and pass it on to your children. Doing so is crucial to survival. My people preserved their wisdom in a large body of knowledge we now call, collectively, our ‘dreaming’, which consists of songs, dances, paintings, stories and rituals which, together, show us how to live successfully and well in the lands and seascapes we call home. When the British arrived, they apparently did not see the value of our lore – indeed, after only a little while, they devised policies and practices specifically designed to destroy it - and this was the beginning of our apocalypse. During the 230 years of British occupation much of our lore has been destroyed and possibly lost for ever. Certainly we have been systematically murdered or separated from the specific places in which our various ‘dreamings’ belong. And that has meant, worst of all, that most of us are no longer able to fulfil the vocation given us by our creator-ancestors to look after and manage our homes in such a way that future generations may continue to enjoy and live from their bounty.

Of the many skills our ancestors learned and passed on was the management of landscapes and resources through fire-farming. When the British arrived, they thought that the land was ‘virgin’, empty of human presence, cultivation and influence. But nothing could be further from the truth. For thousands upon thousands of years, my people had been modifying the landscape on an epic scale. We had been using fire to create agricultural fields in which we could plant crops, fields where the soil was permeable by both air and water. We had been using fire to create grasslands which would attract game which could then, in turn, be harvested. Crucially, for the current discussion, we also set small fires in order to prevent wildfires. These would be set within large stands of trees, as well as in open fields, on a seasonal basis. The fires would be managed by burning small areas of grassland or forest undergrowth in a circle-pattern, with a large group of people lighting fires at the perimeter and then following the fire into a centre of convergence. The seasonal nature of the burning kept fuel loads under control, but also caused many of Australia’s native plant species to regenerate and therefore provide nourishment for a local ecosystem to survive.

By contrast, the British clearly did not know how to manage our lands sustainably. Within the first 50 years of annexation, they cleared the grasslands of its people, agricultural systems and animals, and replaced them with millions upon millions of cattle and sheep which compacted the soil and made it relatively impermeable to air and water. The soil, which could no longer breathe, became progressively less nutritious over time and, when it rained, less able to hold moisture. More grasslands for sheep and cattle were created by cutting down forests, but those stands that remained were poorly managed so that ‘bushfires’ became a feature of the ‘Australian’ experience. Today’s Australia not only has to content with wildfires, but also with deeply unwell river systems, dying coral reefs and fisheries, alarming levels of drought and desertification, as well as one of the world’s most mismanaged native animal populations.

Some policy-makers are becoming interested in the land-and sea management practices of our First Peoples. But they are few and far between. And so we pray to our creator for mercy, and for a change of heart and mind that is able to reverse at least some of the damage. And we do so, some of us, in the name of the one who loved even the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.