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Saturday 29 May 2021

Why Thinking Indigenously is Important for Australian Theology

As I get around the Australian churches and their theological institutions I notice that most Christian theology remains culturally captive to a white western perspectives and means of production.  Senior denominational leadership remains steadfastly white, as do the core teaching staff of theological schools. The reading material set for classes in history, philosophy, theology, biblical studies and even so-called ‘practical’ or ‘missional’ theology is produced by white people for white people.  There are exceptions of course. I recognise, for example, that south-, east-, and south-east-Asian staff and perspectives are slowly finding their way into theology and even into the senior leadership of some churches.  I welcome the growing strength of Eastern European and North African Orthodoxy in Australia, as these communities remind white Australians that Christianity was a middle-eastern and north-African religion long before it was European.  Having said that, it remains the case that theological leadership in this country is overwhelmingly white. This is so despite the citizenry of Australian churches, consisting of those who actually turn up to corporate prayer and mission, increasingly and rapidly becoming anything but white. The same is true for our theological colleges. Increasingly, students who wish to study theology or train for ordained or commissioned ministries, come from more recent migrant communities.  In many colleges white students are very much in the minority.

‘What does it matter’, many persist in asking, ‘if theology is taught by white people?  Isn’t theology just theology? Don’t all potential church leaders, whatever their ethnic profile, need to have a basic understanding of the theological tradition in order to guide their people through the complexities of modernity?’  Whilst I heartily agree that every potential church leader needs to have a foundational understanding of theological tradition in order to help their people navigate the complexities of modern Australian life, I am not at all convinced that teaching a white version of that tradition is going to do the trick. For ‘theology’ is always and everywhere perspectival. The tradition does not speak with one voice, especially if that voice is taken to be white or western. Theology is forever shaped by the places, people and cultures in which it is written or performed. That is as true of the foundational theological texts found in the bible as much as it is for every subsequent iteration. And it is as true for so-called ‘second-order’ theology (academic-sounding reflections upon theological art or narrative) as it is for the more primary, symbolic, forms such as poetry, oracle, parable, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, sacrament or ‘liturgy’ (a term which arguably encompasses all the others). Most white, western, theology recognises this fact as formally true. At the same time most white, western, theology appears blind to the powerfully unconscious filters at play in its own means of production, filters which seek to reduce and simplify as well as to appropriate and colonise theological formulations that come from other places and peoples.

This seems especially true when it comes to white, colonial, engagements with Indigenous people.  Here in ‘Australia’ (itself a colonial fiction) white theology has pretended for nigh on 200 years that Indigenous people do not exist. For 200 years the theology of the coloniser has worked hand-in-glove with the legal fiction of terra nulius which asserted, and still asserts in many pockets of the white church that, upon arrival, this continent was entirely without people or culture, that it was effectively a blank canvas which God had provided for the painting of an entirely white future. In this respect, white theology is, as a matter of historical record, remarkably similar to the Australian Constitution, which makes no mention at all of Indigenous peoples, either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. White theology, like the Constitution, was habitually written in the service of an entirely white, colonial, people with white, colonial, concerns. Many modern observers, particularly those who have come to Australian more latterly, may wonder at how theology could be as complicit in the Great Australian Silence about Indigenous people as the disciplines of history and politics, yea, even more so. But the reasons for this are obvious, are they not?  In addition to that more habitual form of white filtering that accompanied, and still accompanies, the expansion of colonial empires, here in Australia theology has been silent because of a secret shame that can barely, even now, speak its own name. The shame of knowing that – against every ethical principle that may be legitimately derived from the teaching of Jesus or his apostles - the churches were willing partners and agents in the attempted genocide of an entire people.  The colonial churches, and/or prominent members of those churches, both enabled and enacted the massacres, the removals, the enslavement, the incarcerations, the ‘re-education’ and the wholesale destruction of Indigenous agriculture, language, kinship systems, cosmologies and spiritualities. The churches did this, but their shame at having done so has rendered them silent, especially insofar as the church speaks through its theological performance. It is far easier to speak of the sins of others than of our own sins. It is easier, to cite a prominent example, to endlessly discuss the German theology that emerged from the Nazi holocaust in Europe, than to engage the reality of Australia’s original sin and founding act of violence. Or, indeed, its contemporary consequences across a myriad of social and spiritual indicators.

It is no coincidence, then, that white ‘settler’ theology in this country has barely begun to engage with Indigenous people. Arguably, it has only begun to do so because we, that is the Indigenous citizens of the churches, have begun to cast off the imaginative shackles made for us by our white gubbas and find our own voice.  Doing so is, of course, immensely complicated. For every Indigenous person in the country has been colonised, whether we are personally conscious of the fact or not. The tentacles of colonisation extend not only to the stealing of land and the destruction of culture, but also into the hearts and brains of colonised people. The colonial prohibition against talking and speaking and acting ‘like a native’ is, at the same time, a constant and unrelenting pressure towards adopting a white view of the world, a white social imaginary.  I personally know Aboriginal people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians and/or political conservatives who, whilst insisting they are genuinely Aboriginal, also seem to be completely comfortable with unreconstructed, entirely white, accounts of who and what they are, even to the point of baldly stating that colonisation was in fact God’s way of punishing Aborigines for our supposed wickedness.  In Aboriginal English, we call such people ‘coconuts’: black on the outside, but white on the inside. 

Actually, the situation is far more complicated than that in contemporary ‘Australia’.  For many of our most capable, and most radical, spokespeople ‘look’ white on the outside, but have decidedly black hearts and brains. The paradox here, which routinely seems to bamboozle even the most intelligent coloniser, is that the strongest contemporary critique of whiteness is today coming from Indigenous people who have studied history or cultural studies at the margins of white educational institutions, those ever-fragile margins where black, or other scholars of colour, have enjoyed a measure of freedom to interrogate who they are in their own terms. Here is a particular instance of modernity’s inherent capacity for self-contradiction.  By making even the smallest room for the other, even if that room is nothing more than a crack in the concrete that composes an urban footpath, in time that gap can enable a seed to grow, a seed that, in time, will transform itself into a large tree which, ultimately, may displace or even destroy the concrete slab. 

The Indigenous academics who tend such seeds are doing two kinds of work, simultaneously. We are seeking, first, to recover and reinterpret what can be known about our traditional, precolonial, way of life. In my own field of theology, this means that I soak up as much as I can about the cosmologies and spiritualities embedded in ‘dreaming’ stories, especially those that may be recovered from my own country. This work is frustratingly difficult, especially in the case of lutrawita/Tasmania, because the sheer ferocity of the war waged on our people in the early 1800s came very close to completely obliterating our knowledge systems. What remains, in the accounts of white colonists such as George Augustus Robinson and in a small number of articles apparently coming from the hands of my ancestors at the Wybalenna concentration camp, has to be read with a healthy dose of scepticism. Finding the authentic Indigenous voices woven between the layers of prejudicial memory and commentary is painstaking work.  But the usefulness for my people of what can be uncovered is beyond priceless. It helps us to understand how our ancestors lived out their sacred relationship with earth, waterway and sky. It also helps us to understand the ways in which our ancestors sought to share this knowledge with the invader, to translate that knowledge so that someone from another culture might begin to understand. There are clear analogies here with the work of historical-critical biblical scholars, who seek to recover and reconstruct more ancient voices and debates within the highly redacted texts we actually have.

The second way in which Indigenous scholars seek to water the seeds of a more just future is by offering a critique of the dominant paradigms, the white colonial ontologies and epistemologies by which truth is recognised and evaluated. This, too, is immensely complicated work. The first place from which such a critique might be oriented is, of course, our traditional knowledge, the weave of ritual storytelling that is now called ‘the dreaming’. But, as we noted above, recovering the tradition from its colonial overlays is quite difficult. Very often the Indigenous researcher simply has to rely on their innate capacity to discern a continuing voice, the voice of the ancestors, in order to find where the truth lies.  And you do not develop that innate sense unless you spend considerable time on country watching and waiting and listening to its wisdom, especially as that country is interpreted by its custodial elders. In my theological work, country certainly comes first when it comes to constructing a model of truth and truth-telling. And that means that my critique of other forms of theology, white colonial forms most prominent amongst them, also begins with country. For it is in country, first of all, that I discern the voice and activity of the divine. Country is, if you like, an Indigenous Christ.  It teaches us who we are, to whom be belong, and what our responsibility or vocation in the world might be.  By listening to this voice, I can offer a critique of the white-male-human centred theology that continues to dominate both the church and the society it helped to form. I can analyse their complicity in the destruction of the biosphere as well as its gender prejudice and racism. I can re-read the biblical texts so that they work with our people and what we know, rather than against us. I can uncover, under all the violence in Scripture, the voice of a God who loves the world and its people, and longs for their flourishing, their freedom, and their peace. I can identify there a God who is like our wisest ancestor-creators. I can even speculate that, perhaps, the God of Scripture and our ancestor-creators are one and the same. Though whether this is true or not, I could never say for sure.

Let me conclude, then, with some brief comments about why the study of Indigenous ways of doing Christian theology might be of first importance not only for my people, but also for the white colonial majority that still runs our churches. For Indigenous people, who remain invisible to much of the white church, the possibility of pursuing a sense of Christian vocation via an Indigenous-led pathway says, quite simply ‘we see you, we love you, we accept and acknowledge your world and your ways.’ Indigenous-led theological study will help us to raise our people from the pits of despair to which we are routinely relegated by white colonial programmes which say, in effect, ‘you and your ways are not welcome here unless you change and become like us.’ When Indigenous students can study with theologians who have trodden the same or similar paths themselves, they find that they are no longer alone and that there is, indeed, a place for them in academy and church. Which is very good news, I assure the reader, breathtakingly good news!  But that is not all. Studying Indigenous approaches to theology can also be good news for white colonists, the kind of good news that Jesus shared with Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel (19.1-10). For it is clear now, is it not, that white ways and white knowledge have brought the whole of the world to the brink of ecological disaster and social and political implosion? The churches, with their dominantly white-male-human centred theologies, have contributed a great deal to the making of that world, a world in which even wealthy white men will find themselves the unwitting victims of their own blindness. The only way out of this bind, it seems to me, is to turn. To stop listening to the voice of empire and start listening to the people that empire enslaves. For our ways are not the ways of empire. Our ways are about honouring the earth and making sure that every creature under heaven knows their part is preserving its life. In that all people, even white people, will find their liberation and their joy.

Garry Deverell

This article was first published in Eureka Street (vol 31:9) on May 18, 2021.