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Monday, 19 July 2021

The Prophetic Voice of Country

Texts: Uluru Statement from the Heart; Wisdom 7.25-8.1; Matthew 13.31-32

Voice and ‘Spiritual Sovereignty’

The Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017) says, in part, ‘We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’. While that Voice would take a particular form – most likely an elected group of national Elders who would offer advice to the Federal Govt on all matters affecting Indigenous people – let us not mistake the Voice for simply one voice amongst many voices.

The Uluru Statement claims that the Voice would speak from a place of sovereignty which, it says, is a ‘spiritual notion’:

the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished.

The voice is therefore, first of all, the voice of what our mobs call ‘country’. Country, for us, is a complex matrix of family or kin: land, waterway, sky, flora, fauna, and human beings. Country is made, in our dreaming stories, by powerful creator beings who both shape the landscape and indwell it. As human-animal hybrids, they are the common ancestors of both the human and non-human realms. They are also the connective tissue which makes all life part of one family. 

Linda Syddick Napaltjarri Desert Eucharist
Importantly, this matrix of inter-relatedness creates a sense of moral reciprocity between all the parts of the whole.  Country cares for us. Country provides everything we need to sustain life for ourselves, our human communities, both now and for countless generations to come. Equally, country needs us. We, as humans, have a responsibility to care for country, to ensure that country is managed sustainably, that we take only what is needful and work hard to live in harmony with the lore that country teaches us through its complex biospheric interactions.  Traditionally we have learned how to live sustainably as part of country by listening for its wise voice in plant, animal and season. That is why our dreamings and our ritual storytelling are full to overflowing with the adventures of our feathered, furred, beaked and scaled cousins.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society, if you want to know who you are, to whom you belong, and what you are called to become, you listen to country. And the voice of country is interpreted by Elders who have lived within this eco-social imaginary all their lives and know its voice intimately. We do well to listen to our Elders, if we truly want to hear what country is saying.  But we should not expect Elders to speak with one Voice. For the Voice of country is pluri-vocal. Only by listening to the many and discerning its larger themes will you hear the One across and through the many.

Voice and Wisdom

There is, perhaps, a legitimately drawn analogy between ‘country’ and the figure of Wisdom we encounter in the book called ‘Wisdom’ from the Hebrew scriptures. 

Wisdom is not simply a creation of the Creator made, as it were, from the pure imagination of the divine. Wisdom is an ‘emanation’, the ‘breath’ of the divine. While differentiated from the divine as a feminized figure and form in and of herself, therefore, Wisdom is clearly derived from the divine in some deeply interfused manner. ‘Emanation’ suggests that Wisdom shares in the ontology of the divine creator, the very imprint of the divine DNA. ‘Breath’ suggests that she shares in the animating life or ‘spirit’ of the divine. Here we have the prototype of the emanations or processions of God that Christian theologians (principally from Cappadocia) will later call ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ and identify with the Jesus and Holy Spirit of the New Testament writings, principally in the Johannine and Pauline discourses.  It is as though Wisdom takes on a body which includes the whole world, the whole biosphere, and animates the whole living cosmos with divine breath or Spirit.

Amongst the works of Wisdom in the hymn we have read is this:

. . . in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

These three lines tell us three interesting things about the way in which Wisdom raises her voice in the world. 

She raises her voice, first, through generations. Not, that is, just the once, in some especially holy and esteemed moment in history, but ever after silent. Some Jews and Christians would like to read the biblical material that way. No, Wisdom, we are told, speaks in every generation.  This means that we can legitimately listen for her voice in every time and place.

She raises her voice, second, by entering holy souls who become friends of God, prophets. Prophets, in this Hebrew tradition, are of course those who are chosen by God to be God’s voice, the voice of Wisdom. They do not choose this path for themselves. Indeed, they often run away from the very notion because allowing themselves to be so deployed will usually cause both they, and their communities, great trouble and suffering. For the truth Wisdom wishes to speak, is often the very opposite of what is good for either ourselves or our planet. We are an acquisitive and self-deceiving bunch, by and large. Indigenous and Hebraic peoples share a great many stories which are designed to dissuade and warn us away from giving in to our worst impulses. Which is why confession and lament form an important part of both traditions. The prophet, by contrast, is called to come close to the divine in ‘friendship’, to listen to Wisdom’s voice, to be remade in the image of divine country and therefore an agent of transformation for others as the prophet passes what they hear on to others.  By doing so the prophet becomes one who centers their sense of being in the whole cosmic unfolding of divine being, rather than in any sense of single-in-itself individuality. 

Centering oneself in personal power, rather than diffuse social and ecological power is, I would argue, the very essence of what the Christian tradition calls sin. Even the most well-meaning of liberation movements can be blind to the experience and suffering of others, whether those others be human or non-human kin. Indigenous scholars, for example, have critiqued white feminism for its serial forgetting of black, brown and Indigenous women, for its centering of liberation on whiteness and western-middle-class worlds. Such forgetting, far from being merely benign with regard to black, brown and Indigenous women, actually contributes to the suffering of these women, forming a constitutive part of the death-dealing structures of colonialism.

Finally, then, Wisdom raises her voice, by dwelling with prophets. Living with and around and in them so that the prophet is able to speak from a home bounded by God rather than a home bounded, for example, by a picket fence. Or a field. Or a mining company. Or a nation. Or a church. Or a white middle-class feminist collective.

That is not to say that Wisdom lives no where in particular, mind. Wisdom in fact lives everywhere in particular. And therefore prophets will also speak from a particular place and experience with Wisdom. Our mob say that you cannot speak to anyone beyond the tribe unless you have dwelled with the ancestors within the tribal boundaries of one’s given country. The universal, therefore, can never be address except in the particular. There must be enfleshment, there must be embodiment, there must be language, culture and place or country. Without these, there can be no voice.

To what end does Wisdom speak through the prophets?

To what end, then, does Wisdom (or, we would say, country) speak through Elders and prophets? Well, our recitation from the gospel according to St Matthew, offers one way of answering this question:

Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

Now, as with most of the parables recorded in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is here taking something very familiar and making it less familiar, he is taking common wisdom and rendering it differently so that it becomes prophetic or counter-intuitive. In this case, the trope of seed growing into a tree and the birds coming to settle into its branches is common wisdom, but the naming of the mustard seed as the smallest of seeds and its grown form as the largest of shrubs is certainly not. For the mustard seed was certainly not the smallest of seeds in the ancient near-east nor was it’s grown form the ‘greatest’ of shrubs. 

So, something else is going on here, and I propose that it has something to do with the connection between the ‘kingdom of heaven’ - the region, that is of God’s reign – and the birds of the air. Remember that earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in the homily known as the sermon on the mount, Jesus refers to the birds of the air as ‘they that neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’ In contrast to the citizens of the Roman empire, who are encouraged by social and political convention to cloth themselves with the symbols of wealth and privilege, the birds of the air are fed and clothed by God. They do not sow or spin as a sign of their striving after a greater share of colonial power and largesse. Instead, they await the gratuity of the divine, universally given in creation for the sustenance of life.

So whatever the size and greatness of the seed or the tree given by God, wherever it sits in the economies of colonial empire or the common wisdom, it is given simply to feed and to clothe those whom empire forgets. The lowly, the least, the communities who live close to the humus of the earth and depend upon her gratuity. 

Thus, the kingdom of heaven is roughly analogous to country, as our mobs would understand it. She is given to all and for all.  She gives herself for our feeding and clothing. Yet, because the gift is universally given, there is an implicit ethic to its use which resembles both the manna given to Israel in its wanderings and in the eucharist by which Christians are fed. We are to take only what is needed. We are not to hoard its fruit into barns for a rainy day or for the generating of surplus wealth. We are to take only what is needful for today. For she gives herself at great cost, the cost of life as it is poured out in death, so that all who eat of what is dead may themselves be sustained in life.

So I leave you with this. There are analogies between Indigenous notions of country and the Jewish-Christian divine. I don’t believe we can ever legitimately claim that one IS the other in any literal one-to-one equivalence. What we can say, however, is that the realms of Wisdom and the kingdom of heaven are a lot like country. If we can therefore center ourselves in the home they create for us, rather than the little empires we would construct for ourselves against fear and chaos, we may well find that what is given us in country is enough; that the Voice we find in country and her prophets is enough. And perhaps we may finally, therefore, find the kind of justice that is able to make our broken humanity whole once more.

Garry Deverell

Preached at Sophia’s Spring, Brunswick East, in July 2021


Friday, 16 July 2021

Why I most often speak from my trawloolway, rather than my european, heritage

A friend recently asked, via social media: 'I am interested in why you have chosen to align yourself so closely with your trawloolway identity. How do other elements of your ancestry inform your identity, and why do you not speak so much about them?'

This is actually one of the most frequent questions our mobs are asked by non-Indigenous Australians. The answer, for me, involves an invocation of both historical-cultural and theological perspectives.

Every single Indigenous person on this continent is of mixed heritage. Before colonists came here, that heritage was mixed through entirely voluntary forms of intermarriage, diplomacy, and cultural exchange between nations. From the time of first contact with european colonists, that strictly local heritage was forcibly repressed by the removal of people from country and from each other. All of us, without exception, especially in the south and east of the continent, found ourselves in all-to-majority-white communities in which we were forced to put aside our Indigeneous heritage and become honorary whites. It was also expected that if we must marry, it would be to white people. Of course, many of us were simply sterilised so that reproduction became impossible. The policy of colonial governments was, for 150 years, to 'breed out the blackness'. Blackness, of course, is not only about skin colour. It is about culture and identity. It was, and remains, a deeply archetypal cipher of everything that the european mind considers foreign and not entirely human.

This means that the perseverance of Indigenous identity in Australia is something of a miracle. Most of us have significantly more non-Indigenous DNA than Indigenous. Most of us have been immersed in british language and culture to a much more significant degree than our own Indigenous language and culture. Why? Because colonisation was, and remains, very effective in its genocidal logic. And yet.


Many of us who have inherited an Indigenous heritage - however fragile, however unwelcome - feel very strongly about identifying with that heritage in the strongest possible terms. Why? Because we feel a responsibility to give voice and form to that dimension of who we are which has suffered the most, which is least welcome in this community, which struggles the most and has less resources to hand to encourage such speech. By contrast, the heritage which we share with other members of the wider community - especially the white community - has no need to so assert its voice, because it already has one. It is reflected in every advertisement, every TV programme, every educational programme, every place of worship, every symbol of belonging, every social imaginary. It is not so with Indigenous heritage. Personally, I feel a long and deep responsibility to speak from my Indigenous heritage not only because I AM Indigenous - ontologically connected to the place where I live - but because it is my Indigenous self that is most fragile and at risk in colonial Australia. It is the dimension of my identity which needs the most support and encouragement.

If I might add a theological dimension to that, St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:26f, 

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

There is a call in my own, and every, Christian vocation to amplify those dimensions of identity and status that remain most despised by the powers that rule the world: those whom the world regards as 'nothing', of no or marginal value. Indigenous people, Indigenous culture, Indigenous identity, still occupy that place in colonial economy and society. But that is what joins us with Christ, who was sent to join with the weak and powerless to shame the strong. I work from that place in the matrix of my identity because I am a Christian, and have been joined to Christ in baptism.

All of which is to say that giving attention and prominence to my trawloolway heritage does not feel like a choice so much as an irresistible calling, a call that comes from country and from Christ. Both.

Garry Deverell

July 2021