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Monday 22 February 2021

Lent and reconciliation

Jeremiah 2.1-13; Psalm 26; Mark 14.1-25

As a child I was very talkative. At the edge of the vast estates of barley, wheat and potatoes which dominated the landscape where we lived, were small stands of native bush: atop hills, on the steep slopes of mountains and along creeks. Whenever the opportunity arose, this is where I would wander. And as I wandered, I would talk. Not with myself (though many might see it that way) but with the trees and the ferns, the crows and the hawks, the wallabies and the potaroos, even the rocks and the waterfalls, that I passed on my way. I would greet them all cheerfully and enquire about what kind of day each was having. I would pause to watch and to listen a while, finally wishing each well and offering a prayer or an incantation seeking their good and their well-being. Sometimes I would tell them about me, my troubles, my hopes, my bewilderments. And I would hear their voices speaking back to me. Not in English, mind. Whatever the language, however, I understood. I heard wisdom. I heard care. I heard guidance. And, after a little while, I would return to my family, my school, and all the complex negotiations of civilised life, somehow calmed and refreshed.

As a teenager, another conversation-partner was added. The bible. I became fascinated with its characters and voices, as many and as varied as I knew in the bush, though considerably more violent. Here were people I recognised. People who suffered great injustice, whose hopes and dreams were shattered. People who coveted all that belonged to another. People who stole, raped, murdered, and committed genocide in order to obtain what belonged to another. People who were afraid, but who were able to overcome their fears through faith in God. People who were able to change their hearts and their behaviour because they believed in the mercy of God. People who carried great wounds and flaws, and yet were chosen to become God’s emissaries. These days I marvel that a book as violent and as tragic a testament to our inhumanity towards one another as ever was written, could simultaneously bear a message from and about a God of love.  But it does. On every page. For what the bible finally proclaims, surely, is just this: first, that we are loved by God, even as we fail, consistently and repeatedly, to love each other; and, second, that because God has not given up on us, it is possible not only to recognise and learn such love, and also to abide in its mysterious power more deeply and consistently. 

 So, two conversation partners, two sources of wisdom for the living of life as a trawloolway man who is also a Christian. The one located in a sacred book, a book brought to this country by the coloniser, and the other located in a sacred landscape, a landscape that is alive with the presence of ancestor-spirits who can be spoken to, and who can speak.  Both book and country, in their own ways, are sacred texts. Both, being full of divine spirit, may be consulted for wisdom and guidance, if you know how. If I have a lament, this night, it is not (as some of you may perhaps expect) that the coloniser has attended carefully to the sacred book, and not enough to sacred country. No, my lament is a tad more comprehensive than that. That the coloniser has paid little attention to either.

 Here I want to draw your attention to the second chapter of Jeremiah which says, in part:

Thus says the Lord:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
   your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
   in a land not sown.

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
   that they went far from me,
   and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
I brought you into a plentiful land
   to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
   and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
   the rulers transgressed against me.

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
   be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
   for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
   and dug out cisterns for themselves,
   cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

This oracle, first uttered in the presence of the last king of Judah, is uncannily prescient about where we find ourselves, right now, as a nation and as a church. It is true, is it not, that we have forgotten the ancient ways, the ways here described as a covenant, a marriage, a communion with the divine in the wild places, a country not sown or intensively cultivated by the invader. Is it not true, as the prophet says, that upon entering this country the colonists saw the land not as a cathedral in which God might be known and worshipped, but rather as a commodity to be exploited in exchange for wealth and influence? Did not the colonists clear the land of its owners and managers, its first peoples, in a manner that fundamentally fractured the terms of God’s law and covenant? Did they not covet what belonged to their neighbours, did they not steal and rape and murder in order to obtain what they desired? Does not that theft, rape and murder still continue to this day? Is not the lament of those of us who have survived that genocide also the lament of the land itself, and the ancestor-spirits who dwell therein, and of God’s own self? Are we not the voice of the crucified one who is, at one and the same time, both Christ and country?

By commodifying this country and removing those whom the divine Spirit placed here to manage and cultivate its fruitfulness, colonists have polluted the sacred stream God provided for all of us as a gift, the stream of sacred lore designed to sustain us in life over many hundreds of millennia. Instead we have dug cisterns for ourselves, cisterns so badly designed that they can barely hold water: practices and structures and policies which have brought us to point of ecological emergency, and to the certainly, certainly I say, of a fundamental implosion in the biological operating-system of our planet.  Unless. Unless we repent of our sin. Unless we turn again to the God whose wisdom and way may be discerned in both sacred text and sacred country.

In the world of politics and public policy, this means removing the puppets of capitalism from government and replacing them with people who are willing to listen to the still, small, voice of the divine Spirit. In our church it means jettisoning all that remains of that possessive, status-hungry, exclusionary impulse in every state-sanctioned church and replacing it with the disciplines of listening, hospitality, and prophecy. For unless the voices we generally exclude, ignore and belittle are welcomed to the table, then we shall be as guilty of killing the prophets and dancing on their graves as the kings of Israel and the priests of its temple. And we shall pay for it in the end by finding ourselves at the wrong end of the Magnificat: scattered to the bottom of the food-chain, rendered empty, nothing.

All of which is to offer an invitation for you all in this season of Lent. See, I place before you the way that leads to death and the way that leads to life. If you die to your self-importance, and the self-importance of the colonial imagination, you will be empty enough for God to fill you with life.  But if you hang on to such things, you will find that you are already dead. And your deadness will continue to infect the systems and networks of which you are part, both publicly and privately. As the spiral of Lent into Easter is properly a return to the waters of baptism, to receive there, through repentance and the death of self, the risen life of Christ; so may it also be, for you, a turning to the rivers and creeks of country, through which that same God’s speaks a word of grace that will renew not only your own life, but the life of the whole planetary eco-system.

Garry Deverell
1st Sunday of Lent 2021, Christ Church South Yarra

Friday 5 February 2021

‘Boundless plains to share’: Why the National Anthem supports and encourages Australia’s original sin

Australians all let us rejoice,

For we are young and free;

We've golden soil and wealth for toil;

Our home is girt by sea;

Our land abounds in nature's gifts

Of beauty rich and rare;

In history's page, let every stage

Advance Australia Fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing,

Advance Australia Fair.


Beneath our radiant Southern Cross

We'll toil with hearts and hands;

To make this Commonwealth of ours

Renowned of all the lands;

For those who've come across the seas

We've boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing,

Advance Australia Fair.

These are the lyrics for the national anthem of Australia as officially adopted by the Parliament of Australia in April 1984. It is a song that I have never personally sung. On those occasions when, as part of a school or civic assembly, I was invited to sing the anthem, I declined. I still decline. Why? Because, as a trawloolway man whose family has lived in northern lutruwita/Tasmania for at least 35 thousand years, I will not sing the victory songs of the invader.

For make no mistake, this is a victory song. It is an anthem that entrenches and encourages the myth of terra nulius, that most destructive of colonial fictions. This fantasia about an empty land that has been legitimately occupied by free and hard-working pioneers who deserve the spoils of their adventuring on the other side of the globe does nothing but hide and obfuscate the truth of this nation’s history. The truth is this: that the continent was stolen from the most ancient civilisations on earth by largely absentee landlords from Britain; that the stealing was done through the agency of paid servants from the working and criminal classes who waged bloody war against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations who were already here; that the survivors of these wars were removed from our lands and placed in camps where the speaking of our languages and the practice of our religions and cultures were outlawed; that we were forced into indentured servitude and slavery both in these camps, and on the newly stolen lands of white settlers; that, despite some gains, most of us still do not have access to our own lands, sacred stories or elders; that we remain amongst the most impoverished, unwell and incarcerated people on the planet.

For all that, we are still here, and we continue our fight to regain some of what has been lost or stolen. We cannot rejoice in the ethically questionable achievements of the colonising project called ‘Australia’ and we cannot rejoice in the immoral annexation of our lands and waterways.  For, in Australia, it seems, it is ONLY ‘those who’ve come across the seas’ that may share in the bounty that this continent has to offer without contest or question.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, a small change in the wording of one line in this anthem will make not an iota of difference to the overall character and message of the song: that this is a white country, and everyone else (especially the original inhabitants) must be content with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.  We aren’t ‘one’ people and we shall never be so until the dense web of colonial injustice is unwoven.

In August 1996, the singing trio Tiddas made a poignant critique of the anthem in song that remains true:

This land may be beautiful

But it cannot be called fair

So don't sing me your anthem

'Til we've learned how to share


‘We are 'the lucky country'

Where anyone can win’ -

If you were born to the right family

And have the white-coloured skin


So don't sing me an anthem

'Cause the words can't be felt

What's pride in a country

Without pride in yourself?

I long for the day when ‘closing the gap’ will mean, alongside the usual indicators of improvements in health and wellbeing, a recognition of our ongoing sovereignty in this country. Until then, this anthem (along with Australia Day, the flag, Governors, and all the other apparatus of the colonial state) will remain, for Indigenous people, yet another symbol of white supremacy.

Garry Deverell