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Sunday 11 December 2022

Hope, Patience and Justice

Isaiah 35.1-10; Magnificat; James 5.7-10

The letter of James, which we read just now, says:

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. 

This morning I want to speak a little about what it might mean to be patient as we wait for the coming of the Lord.  For quite clearly, the Lord has not yet come. Not in his fulness, not to transform the world and human community into the image of God’s lovingkindness. For if the Lord had already come in that way, we would not need to pray our prayers of intercession. We would not need to sing the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, as we do this morning and at evening prayer.  The despots would already have been removed from their thrones and the poor raised up. The rich would already have been sent away empty, and the hungry filled with good things. The swords would already have been beaten into ploughshares, and we would be at peace.

That this is not the case means, quite simply, that the messiah has not yet come. On that, and many other things, Jews and Christians are agreed.  So, what are we to do in the meantime?  What are we to do as we wait for the crops of justice to grow, as both Isaiah and James imagine? What are we to do whilst we wait for our hope to be realised?

Well, according to St James, there are two things we can do.  

The first, he says, is to stop grumbling against one another: to stop judging one another.  For, that is one of our finer skills as Christian people. Do we not look across the desk or the table or stare into our screens that those we disapprove of, and do we not ruminate upon the ways in which those people are unworthy, somehow, of love or affection? For all the problems in the world come from other people, do they not? Surely Jean-Paul Sartre was right when he said that ‘hell is other people’!  If only they were not around, we could fix things! If only they were not around, the world could be put to rights! We imagine, do we not, that when Christ returns it is they who will get their comeuppance, whilst we, the truly good and righteous people, will be received into the divine halls? Or perhaps it is only me who thinks that way. Perhaps it is only me who needs to hear the divine command ‘judge not, lest you be judged’.  But more of that later.

The second thing James says that we can do whilst waiting for Christ is to suffer patiently like the prophets. Which is something of an oxymoron. At least it appears to be. For the prophets, on my reading, were rarely patient. Indeed, one might more accurately describe them as paradigm examples of the impatient! They were impatient about the abuse of power, they were impatient about hypocritical religious types, they were impatient for the liberation of the poor and the raising up of the marginalised. And they expressed their impatience and frustration loudly, and in the places where they were most likely to cop a beating for their trouble. So, what’s patient about that?  A fair question, I reckon!

The kind of patience we are called to exercise as Christians is not, in fact, a ‘quietist’ kind of patience, patience understood as a meek and mild acceptance of all the wrongs in the world, as if there is nothing we can do to change things.  For, if the harvest of justice is to arrive, we are called to be farmers and horticulturalists, that is, people who not only wait for the seed to grow, but also work hard to prepare the soil, and plan meticulously to ensure that the most optimal growing conditions are in place. I have never met a husband of the land – least of all amongst mob – who sits back and does nothing when there are hungry mouths to feed.  For us, the care and nurture of the land remains a daily responsibility. For, to our way of looking at things, if we do not tend the land with loving care then we should not be surprised or angry if the land fails to be fruitful.  If the land is to be fruitful, it should be tended. Carefully, and with unhurried patience. 

So it is with the friends of God and the prophets of this current age.  If justice is to arrive, we must work at it patiently. If Christ is to arrive, then we must sow the seeds of justice with sobriety and regular, even ritual, attention.  Which is precisely what Christ did when he came around the first time. He went amongst the villages of Galilee giving sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, hearing to the deaf and belonging to the poor and excluded. All of which can be understood as a sowing of seed, a preparing of the ground. Because not all were healed, not all found themselves welcomed back into community. Not all were raised to life.  What was done was a sign and a promise of what is yet to come: justice and healing for all.  But now it is our turn. It is the special calling of the church to become these signs anew, in our community and in our politics.  It is we who are called to tend the land and sow the seed.  It is for God to make the seed grow and bring the harvest to fulfillment. But we each have our part in preparing the way.

That’s all well and good. But still I am troubled by a question, a question that hides between the two instructions James has left us, a question that hovers between the injunctions to ‘stop judging’ and ‘suffer patiently like the prophets’.  And it’s this: how can we name what has gone wrong, and work towards a more just alternative, if we are never allowed to judge other human beings? Is it not human beings who commit the crimes? Is it not human beings who make the policies that result in persecution, harm, and even death for vulnerable populations? Is it not human beings who exploit the earth and render it uninhabitable in so many places?  How, then, can we be prophets who cry out for justice if we can never judge our fellows for their crimes?

You will perhaps understand how I might struggle with this question as a trawloolway man, an Aboriginal person, a member of that people against whom much wrong has been done, and continues to be done.

Well, the way I see it (and I’m happy to be corrected) is that we are called to ‘hate sins, but to love humankind’ as St Augustine put it in one of his letters. We can work against what people do to harm the earth and each other, in other words, but this does not require us to condemn the people who do it to hellfire and damnation. The scandal of the the gospel is that no-one is beyond the love and mercy of God. All are loved, even if what they do is evil. And that goes as much for Hitler, and Pol Pot, as it does for the thousands of good churchmen who massacred our people. We must work as hard as we can to discern how evil is present, and to limit the effects of that evil in our hearts and in our world. But we simply do not have the authority to pass final judgement on any human being, least of all ourselves.  That is something for God alone. So we should leave those matters to God. We are not called to respond to hate with hate, but to love our neighbours as Christ has loved us.

So, allow me to summarise what James encourages us to do whilst we wait for Christ to arrive. Don’t judge or condemn anyone, lest you yourself are condemned. And work for justice with the patience, and love, and consistency of the prophets. If we do these things, we will have done our part. The rest is for God, and for the Christ who will come to recast the cosmos in the image and likeness of divine love.

Garry Deverell

3rd Sunday of Advent, 2022
St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne

Tuesday 29 November 2022

'Wait without Hope': Contemplation and consumer society

In 'East Coker' (1940), the second of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot wrote this:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Here Eliot names what is essential, I believe, to the apprehension of genuine contemplatives, whether they be Christian or more anciently Aboriginal in their ontology or phenomenology of expression. What Eliot names here is the interruption, the breaking, the ending or even the impossibility, of everyday life. For everyday life is indeed broken, is it not? In the wake of modernity, with its autonomic production of desires which gobble up and consume not only our sacred souls but also the very earth itself, are we not broken? Are we not spent? Are we not dazed, hazed, bewildered and confused, and are we not desperately, rapaciously lonely? And is this not the case even for those of us who seek to transcend this condition through practices and rituals designed to calm and soothe our flagging spirits? Do we not hope desperately, and prematurely? Do we not love forcibly and possessively? Do we not trust, blindly, in whatever phantasm we have conjured up from the ruins of our creativity?

The one thing moderns do not do, ever, is to pause, to stop, to empty ourselves, to cease with that endless churning through of problems and solutions, all smoke and mirrors and digital shadows. We never command ourselves to be still in the night time of modernity - so that we may give ourselves over to unthinking, to unknowing, to a genuine hollowing out of every idea or ethic, whether good, bad or indifferent.  We do not call for an end to desire, which forever threatens to consume every object, or person, or affect of light or of landscape that wanders into our orbit.  Not even in meditation, as it is most commonly practiced. For, as Slavoj Zizek rightly intuits, much of the consumer meditation industry is about patching up the tired and the stressed and the broken so that we can reengage in the very forms of neoliberal work, family and entertainment that made us tired, stressed and broken in the first place. 

What we need is a different form of life, a more deeply interfused weave of being, a more visceral form of relationship with each other and with the cosmos.  What we need is to get outside of our neoliberal, differentiated selves. We need to get outside of the world we have created through the endless self-production of desire. What we need is to get out of our heads and our hearts in the direction of a radical openness to what the Indigenous nations of this continent call, quite simply, 'country'. Country is, for we natives, both radically material and radically divine. It is the embodiment of the divine in pathways, waterways, skyways and the ritual songs that make them navigable. Country is, for us, a patterned network of reciprocal kinship with all living things: plants, animals, people, weather patterns and even rocks, which actually vibrate with ancestral presence. Each of us are born to a specific country, and there we belong. Country tells us who we are, to whom we belong, and what our part will be in the profound responsibility to care for country and its strong but fragile ecologies. For if we take our part in the communal vocation of caring for country, all of country will care for us. Crucially, this is not something we choose by virtue of  ourself-actualization as autonomous selves. It is simply given. It precedes and exceeds us. It gives us a unique and irreplaceable place in a patterned whole. 

In Aborignal perspective, then, as much as in the Christian mysticism of Mr Eliot, the answer to our woes lies not within, but without: in country, or the givenness of things in themselves, rather than in what we would forge from them out of selves that look only to possess, to consume and to colonise.  To walk on country is not, therefore, simply to bathe oneself in the sensuality of occasional contact with the wonders of 'nature' - wonderfully healing though this experience can be in itself - but also to stop and to stay, to engage in a more sustained waiting, to observe how each thread of the tapestry depends on each other thread for its life and its purpose.  To wait long enough to see that life and death and life again are woven into the fabric of the bush, just as Christ and his paschal self-emptying are woven into the persistent creativity of the cosmos.

Which brings me, at the last, to the very next lines in Eliot's poem:

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Let us, like country itself, be contemplatives who are able to die to ourselves - to our hungry and self-serving desire for the phantasmic dreams of modernity - that we might be reborn to that more expansive self that is a deep and abiding kinship with all creation. 

Garry Worete Deverell

This brief talk was shared as part of a panel for the Contemplative Studies Centre (University of Melbourne) and the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, on November the 29th, 2022.

Sunday 23 October 2022

The Kenosis Model: how the churches can reckon with their colonial legacy

Let me begin by acknowledging this country, Gadigal country, its ancestors and elders. Like my cousin Naomi, I am trawloolway. Our country is in the NE of lutruwita/Tasmania. We are privileged to walk on the lands of the Gadigal. Thank you for your gracious welcome.

Today I want to remind the churches you have a colonial legacy, and in five senses:

  1. You participated in, and still benefit from, the stealing of our lands;
  2. You have blood on your hands because those who participated in the massacres, the frontier conflicts, the genocidal policies concerning our people, were overwhelmingly Christian;
  3. You took the lead in the attempted destruction of our spirituality, our way of life, especially during the missions period;
  4. You participated in, and continue to be largely silent in the face of, the ecocide which accompanied the genocide: as you acquired country, you damaged it through your ignorance about how to manage it
  5. Many of you continue to deploy an imaginative terra nulius regarding our people by effectively pretending that we don’t exist. Our voices are not there in the policy-making bodies of your councils, your agencies and your educational institutions. You are uncurious about the country you walk on and the knowledge we have of its ways and its spirit. There continues to be a lack of curiosity about our theology, which is different to your theology in fairly fundamental ways.

This account gives rise to a fundamental question: how are the churches to reckon with this colonial heritage. Well, to answer this (at least in part), I will appeal to the Pauline tradition as we have it in the New Testament: first in the Christological hymn of Philippians 2 and then in the exhortation towards an equitable distribution of resources in 2 Corinthians 8.

So let’s turn, first, to Philippians 2, which says:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

Now, I want you to notice three things about this passage.  

  1. It is addressed to a bunch of Christians who are divided, one against another, who are selfish – who look out for their own survival and wellbeing at the expense of others. Does that sound familiar, at all?
  2. The Apostle then contrasts this behaviour to that of Jesus. Who, though enjoying a certain ascendency in the cosmic order of things, empties himself (kenosis) of all such power and privilege in order to come amongst human beings as a slave who has no power at all (doulos). 
  3. The passage then creates a model, a pathway, which Christian communities are encouraged to imitate and follow in order to be truly alive and vital. It is the path of kenosis. A dying in order to rise to a rather more elevated – thoroughly more other-centred - mode of being. A dying to all that is power-over, power-acquisitive, power-for self-alone. And a rising to power-with, power-giving, power for the wellbeing of others.

Jason Mowry 'Kenosis' 2019
So, the question arises. How are you settler Christians, you immigrant Christian communities - you who have empowered and enriched yourselves at the expense of Indigenous people - going to let that power go? How are you going to redress the balance? How will you take the power you acquired by genocide and ecocide and return it to those you wronged, and continue to wrong?  (Note this: if you are Christians, then it can never be a question of whether you return such power. It can only be a question of how. For if you do not imitate Christ in this manner, can you really be called Christians at all?)

So, let’s turn to just a tiny bit of that ‘how’, beginning with some paragraphs from 2 Corinthians 8:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

‘The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.’

Now, the context here is that there are two church communities, one that is very poor and another that is quite rich. And we’re talking actual, economic, resources here. Not so-called ‘spiritual’ resources, intangible things like wisdom or humility. We’re talking money. Money and property.  The apostle appeals to the rich church to share its abundant resources with the poor church by invoking, again, that kenotic Christology. The argument, in summary, goes something like this:

  • Remember the story of Jesus. He was rich, but he became poor for your sakes. So that you might acquire some of his riches.  (So far this could be about intangibles. But wait . . .)
  • So, like Jesus, I’d like you to hand over your wealth, your money, to the poor church.  I’d like you to act with the same love, the same generosity of spirit, as that you found in Christ.
  • Not, mind you, to the point where you become destitute and in need of help yourselves. Think, rather, that the excess you enjoy can provide what is lacking in the poorer community.  This is Paul’s ‘socialism’.
  • The goal here is something like a balance, an equality, so that you both have what you need.

Now, obviously, there is no hint in this text that the rich church gained its riches by stealing its wealth from the poor church.  But, this being so, how much more ought the colonial church consider the ways in which it might return its stolen resources to the people from whom it was stolen?

Now, I’ve given talks like this before. And the question that arises, right way, is usually ‘OK, but what would that actually look like for our own local church community, our own denominational organization?’  Well, the answer to that might become the substance of treaty proposals, ways in which the deeply uneven balance of power between colonial and Indigenous communities might be rendered more equal.  So, I invite you, the members of the colonial church, to consider the following:

At the denominational level, plan to hand the properties you were given by the Crown without fee or compensation back their original Aboriginal owners, also without fee or compensation. Where properties were purchased from the Crown, or else from subsequent owners, arrange to vest the title of those properties in the name of the original Indigenous owners under a lease-back scheme. This makes both the use, or the disposal, of those properties a matter of negotiation and careful treaty between Indigenous people and settlers. Where purchased properties remain in the hands of the denomination because local mob do not want to become owners, contribute half of the commercial income on such properties to mob: 25% to local owners and 25% to Indigenous ministries run by and for our people. The same would apply when properties are sold. Split the proceeds of the sale.

At the local congregational level, contribute 10% of your annual budget to ministries run by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, in perpetuity. Whether there is an existing denominational agreement for the lease-back of properties in place or not, approach your local mob with the question: could we form a relationship with you that includes your use of this space for community gatherings and programmes, without fee or compensation?

A more just sharing of the land you have stolen from us, including its commercial value, would obviously make a huge difference to the kinds of programmes Aboriginal Controlled Community Organisations could run to assist our people to escape from poverty and reclaim our rightful heritage as the sovereign peoples of this country.  It would also make a huge difference to our capacity to reclaim and pass on our practical wisdom and spirituality to the next generation, whether Indigenous or settler.  In the church, the sharing of these resources would provide a sure and reliable economic base for the work of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries, and for our theological research and teaching.  The fruit of these ministries would make for stronger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and higher profile for our spiritualities and theologies in the knowledge repositories of our nation. Knowledges that are desperately needed if we are to heal, and form a more mutually supportive relationship with Country. 

But land and resource justice is really just a beginning, a foundation.

At the same time, the churches would do well to allow us – for the very first time! - to set up camp in the centre of your corporate life: to allow us to migrate from the periphery - where we are out of sight, out of earshot, out of mind and heart - into the places where theology is formulated, and decisions made about ministry and mission. Because you need us.  Your churches are in decline because they are seen as either too irrelevant or too corrupt to make a meaningful contribution to solving the many problems that plague us.  Aboriginal knowledges, on the other hand, are on the up. Universities are including our wisdom about the earth, the stars, flora, and fauna, as well as the human body and mind, in their curriculums. Climatologists, botanists, and environmental scientists are consulting with us about how to better manage country. Fire authorities are seeking to learn about our fire-farming techniques. 

The churches need to get with the programme. You need us, and our perspectives, to help you deploy your theological and ministry resources in ways that help and do not harm, in ways that produce patterns of healing and care rather than wounding and indifference.  You need us. So why are we not on your councils, your boards, and your ministry teams? Why are we not amongst your bishops, your general secretaries, your moderators? Why are we not amongst your theological teachers and researchers?

For our theology is really rather different to yours. It is centred in:

  • the community of creation, rather than the reduction of community to the purely human
  • the ancestral divinity of country, rather than the restriction of divinity to a Palestinian Jew and (in some traditions) his followers
  • the ethics of caring for country, rather than a limiting of care to human beings alone
  • the governance of people by country (learning to imitate the patterns and processes of the non-human world), rather than the governance of everything by people
  • The mission of country together with human community, rather than the mission of Christians
  • Rituals which celebrate and make present the ancestral divinity of country, rather than a reduction of the divine to Christian symbols alone

Our theology is much older than yours, up to 120,000 years older. It is also deeply connected to how we live with the earth in general, but to this country in particular. If your theology is to ever leave the shores of the European enlightenment and come to live in this place, some really radical transformations need to take place. And you need us to help you make those transformation. Because to be frank, you don’t know what you don’t know.  And what you think you know is proving quite inadequate in the face of the damage you’ve done since you arrived.

So, let me be so bold as to suggest that the churches are at a 'kairos' threshold of decision: a right, critical or opportune moment. You are at a crossroads.  You can either continue on the path you have taken since you arrived here, the colonizing path: which is to make yourselves the centre of all things and therefore leading exploiters of both this land and its Indigenous people.  Or you can take a different path, a path which would mean decentring yourselves, giving up a lot of that power and status you have become accustomed to, and listening, instead, to the wisdom of country and its children; listening to those whom you have habitually harmed and ignored, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the people of this land.  

Allow me to conclude by citing the prophet Jeremiah (6.16):

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way lies; 
and walk in it.
Then you will find rest for your souls.
Perhaps the churches might now answer the divine voice differently than did the ancient Israelites? I quote again:
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
Garry Worete Deverell

Walking Together Conference
Gadigal country
October 22, 2022

Thursday 15 September 2022

On mourning, the Crown, and Anglican coloniality

Since the 8th of September, when Queen Elizabeth II of Britain died, our local Australian media have been covering the fact, and its aftermath in church and state, on a 24/7, 7 days per week basis. The coverage has been total, a veritable tsunami of reporting on the minutiae of royal goings-on, along with opinion pieces in their thousands on the Crown, its legacy, its rituals, and its future.  The ABC, our national broadcaster, has even required its presenters to don black, as a sign of sorrow.

If it was never clear before, it is clear now: we are a colony.  Our head of state is the sovereign of Great Britain. Our politicians, along with our judicial and military officers, have to swear their allegiance to that sovereign. The legislation generated by our parliaments requires royal assent. When the Queen died, our Prime Minister suspended parliament and declared a national day of mourning, to be observed on Thursday the 22nd of September. He, the Governor General, the Leader of the Opposition, and a carefully selected group of prominent Australians, will attend the Queen's funeral in London.  We are a colony.

Most people I know personally, regardless of ethnicity and origin, seem able to distinguish between a certain sympathy for the royal family and the British people in their grief and loss, and the Crown as an institution and arch-symbol of empire.  This distinction enables them to generate real feeling for those who mourn, without, at the same time, losing the capacity for critical assessment when it comes to the brutal legacy of the Crown both at home and in the colonies.

I'm aware of many others, however, who will abide no critique at all, who see every word of critical analysis as an attack on the person of Queen Elizabeth herself.  Much of this sensitivity comes, in my observation, out of a belief that her late Majesty was a person of exemplary moral integrity who (unlike some members of her extended family) could do no wrong. This moral integrity is then able to, through some syllogism of the imagination which I struggle to comprehend, cover the institution of the Crown as well. Elizabeth was good. The Crown was Elizabeth. Therefore the Crown is good. Something like that.

Several commentators* point out that the imputed 'goodness' and homely 'ordinariness' of the Queen is not something that can be easily and independently established. For the almost hagiographic image we have of the Queen is most likley that which the Crown, and the Crown alone, has sought to project.  The Queen's image, in other words, has been carefully constructed by the Crown over decades with the willing complicity of Her Majesty's Government and the world's most influential media. In fact, very few people know the Queen as a person in much depth at all. And those people are most unlikely, given the positon of the Crown at the apex of power in Britain, to succesfully offer a counternarrative.

The 'goodness' of the Queen as a person, insofar as that can be independently established, contrasts rather starkly, however, with the institution of the Crown, which is clearly and incontestably one of the most evil and exploitative institutions to have ever walked this earth. Even if one were inclined to separate the Crown from the actions of the British government during the colonial period - during which millions of Indigenous peoples had our lives, lands and cultures stolen from us at the point of a gun - there can be no doubt that the Crown has benefited enormously from such exploitations. Forbes estimates the Queen's personal wealth at something like $500 million US and the total assets of the Crown at roughly $28 billion US. Amongst the many assets personally belonging to the Queen (and now to King Charles) are artefacts - jewellrey, for example - stolen from the colonies. Significantly, the Crown pays no land, capital gains or inheritance tax. And it receives substantial salaries for the principle royals from the government of the day.

The distinction (if there is one) between the person who was Queen Elizabeth and the Crown as the principal symbol and beneficiary of an empire that raped and pillaged its way across the globe, also seems largely lost on Anglicans, even Australian Anglicans. Of course, I can understand members of the Church of England doing so.  For they are bedfellows, with the Crown, in the Establishment. Their bishops sit in the House of Lords and their monarch is the 'Supreme Governor' of the Church of England, who must assent to the appointment of any new bishop. This means, amongst other things, that the Church is required to preside at many of the key ceremonies of State. Weddings, funerals, coronations and the like. It also means that the Church is culturally attached to the Crown. Its official liturgy encourages prayers for the sovereign to be said at least weekly. And the royal anthem, 'God save the King', a victory song of empire, is regularly sung in ceremonies presided over by the Church.

But I've been suprised at how much of this liturgical royalism also pertains to Australia, and to the Anglican Church of Australia. Apparently many Anglican cathedrals are quite happy to accede to the expectations of state, and especially of Governors and Governor-Generals, when it comes to the celebration of the Crown. St Paul's Anglican cathedral in Melbourne, for example, recently held a service of 'Solemn Choral Evensong to give thanks for the life of Her Majesty Elizabeth II' which was attended by the Premier and the Governor of Victoria, along with many civil servants. Bishops and cathedral deans from elsewhere in Victoria also participated in the service. The usual service of evening prayer was modified, in this instance, to include the following:

  • a lowering of the Aboriginal flag, at the entrance to the cathedral, to half-mast along with the flag of the Commonwealth of Australia;
  • a modification of the usual acknowlegment of country to exclude any reference to Aboriginal sovereignty or the illegitimacy of colonial annexation of Kulin land. The usual affirmation to work for a 'more just settlement for Indigenous people' was also removed.
  • the singing of two colonial victory songs at the conclusion of the service: the national anthem of Australia (which declares and celebrates the doctrine of terra nulius) and the 'royal anthem' (which celebrates the sovereignty of the crown in the territories of empire, and the victory of the sovereign over his/her enemies).
As an Aboriginal member of the cathedral congregation, these modifications shook me considerably. For the cathedral administration made it clear, in this instance, that a relationship with the state and its expectations was of more importance that a relationship with us and our aspirations towards justice.  In conversation with the dean afterward, it also became clear that he regretted that this was so, and was open to a conversation about doing things rather differently the next time around. And yet. The status quo became starkly and alarmingly clear.

Of course, I have no objection to Christian people praying for the royal family and the British people in their grief.  I'm just astonished that a church which makes no mention of the British Crown in its constitution would want to celebrate that Crown in ways that so unfeelingly rub British coloniality in the faces of those of us who have suffered most at its hand.  Particularly, I might say, in a service of evening prayer in which the revolutionary words of the Magnificat (as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer) are regularly sung:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

I'm aware, also, that the St Paul's service was by no means the worst example of such ongoing obesience. There are many others, services in congregations the land over, that went (and will go) much, much further in their royal fervour. One example is a 'Requiem Eucharist for Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II' held on Sunday morning, Sept 11, at St John's Church in Malvern, Victoria. In addition to the inclusion of the royal anthem, this service also displaced the ordinary for the day from A Prayer Book for Australia and included an intercession for 'our Sovereign Lord, the King'. There was no acknowlegment of country whatsoever.

These recent liturgical outbreaks of colonialism in fact reflect a deeper and more difficult problem in the Anglican Church: it's almost complete disregard for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our attempts to be part of the church - not as honorary whites, but as ourselves.  Despite guarded acknowledgments of the Church's willing partnership in the genocidal actions of the Crown in days gone by, the Church struggles to do anything meaningful when it comes to designing a more inclusive and just future. 

Yes, the Church now has NATSIAC, a national council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But this body is massively underfunded and has no constitutional or practical power to do anything else than meet.  Individual dioceses, and the General Synod itself, can completely ignore what it says, and regularly do.  Most of the members of NATSIAC are also appointed by diocesan bishops rather than elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  And the numbers are heavily weighted toward the north of the continent, where so many of our people still live out of a 'mission mentality' when it comes to relationships with the Church. These factors mean that NATSIAC remains a fundamentally conservative body when compared with the more progressive work of Indigenous organisations outside the church.

And, yes, we have a National Aboriginal bishop and upwards of twenty deacons and priests around the colony. But most of those priests and deacons work in mainstream white or multicultural congregations, because there are few mechanisms in the Anglican Church for supporting us to work in communities with higher proportions of Indigenous people, or even to work on special projects seeking to progress the fortunes of our people in the Church.  Those who work in remote communities, for example, are rarely paid. They depend upon aged or disability pensions to put food on the table.  The National Aboriginal bishop, himself, is funded for two days per week. Two days to offer care and encouragement to Aboriginal leaders across the entire continent. Two days!  And, despite the NATSIAC canon making provision for one, there has not been a National Torres Strait Islander bishop in many, many years. Apparently the money is simply not there, which is church-speak for 'not a priority'.

So we are a do-nothing church when is comes to improving the lives and meaningful participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  If the Church really cared for us, it would gather the resources to do at least some of the following:

  • pay our clergy a just stipend to care for our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, wherever they might be
  • mandate the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in every council or board of every Anglican organisation or diocese in the colony
  • fully fund both a National Aboriginal bishop and a National Torres Strait Islander bishop
  • fully fund NATSIAC (with staff and a secretariat) as a hub for ministry and leadership development for our people
  • mandate the teaching of Indigenous theologies in our clergy-training institutions
  • mandate the teaching of Indigenous knowledges in our schools
  • fund the development, authorization, and dissemination of liturgical resources which reflect a First Peoples perpective and experience
  • hand properties gifted to the church by the Crown back to local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander custodians.
Just for starters. In the Province of Victoria, Aboriginal clergy put such things on the table back in 2018. Neither diocesan councils, nor the Provincial council, have yet troubled to respond.

'How could such ministries be funded?', I hear you ask?  By asking congregations, church organisations and dioceses to 'pay the rent' on stolen land by contributing 3.5% of their annual budgets to recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries. And by contributing 10% of all property sales to recognised Indigenous ministries. 

We could do this, if we wanted to. If we really and truly believed in justice rather than in the continuing sovereignty of the Crown over those it raped and plundered.

Garry Worete Deverell

* For example: Edward Owens, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media, and the British Public 1932-53 (London: University of London Press, 2019); Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish, Diamond Jubilee Edition (London: Vintage Books, 2012); and Tina Brown, The Palace Papers: inside the House of Windsor - the Truth and the Turmoil (Melbourne: Penguin, 2022).

Wednesday 6 July 2022

A prayer for NAIDOC Week

Divine creator, who is known by many names,
this NAIDOC week we give you thanks that we are here, 
    that we have survived.
We give thanks for our ancestors, 
    those who formed country, 
    and now guide us in the myriad voices of 
    kangaroo and eagle, mountain and creek.
We remember our elders, warriors and prophets - 
    Manalargena, Truganini and Wooredy, 
    Tongerlongeter, Dolly, Fanny and many others* - 
those who resisted the invader and, when all seemed lost, 
    sought to make treaty with them.
We pray today that you would give us the strength we need 
    to resist the newest iterations 
    of colonialism and white supremacy,
that country and all her children may not only survive 
    but thrive and be glad.
Garry Worete Deverell

* these are important figures in lutruwita/trouwerner/Tasmania. But you may substitute names from where you live.

Sunday 29 May 2022

Losing Ourselves to Gain Ourselves for Justice

 Texts: Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-21; John 17.20-26

Five years ago, two hundred and fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered at Uluru to sign a ‘Statement from the Heart’ which called upon the Australian people to join with them in working toward a ‘makaratta’ or treaty between our peoples, built upon truth-telling and a constitutionally recognised Indigenous ‘voice’ to the national parliament. Two days ago, at a ceremony on Gadigal land in Sydney, nine national religious leaders signed a resolution calling upon the federal parliament to work towards a referendum on the ‘voice’ as soon as possible. The religious leaders represented Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. I’m grateful to God that there were also Catholics, the Uniting Church, the National Council of Churches and, yes, even Anglicans. Chris McLeod, our national Aboriginal bishop, represented our Primate, Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, on this occasion.

One of the pleasing things about this ceremony was the fact that none of the nine religious leaders gave a speech. Rather, they listened. They listened to an oration from Rachel Perkins, an Arrente and Kalkadoon woman, a prominent filmmaker, and the daughter of Charlie Perkins, the man whose 60s activism played a key part in the recognition of mob as human beings in the 1967 referendum.  Ms Perkins used her oration to call for unity – amongst mob, in the general community, and in the faith communities – unity in supporting the Statement from the Heart and the call of the religious leaders for a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament. For this is the only way, she argued, that we are ever likely to see something like justice arrive in our nation, the nation of Australia, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that you only have to call for unity if unity isn’t actually there. And it isn’t. Demonstrably. None of the communities Ms Perkins was addressing can claim to be agreed, even within themselves, on either the Statement from the Heart or the urgency of a referendum. I can tell you, with some authority, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not agreed. Many mob do not even know what the Statement from the Heart actually says. And the same is surely true with the Anglican community. Perhaps even more so. The ministry conference I attended during the week made it quite clear to me that a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – indeed, even as simple a matter as listening to the mob who are part of us, who live and work in our midst - is really the very last thing on our ecclesial mind.  The very last.  What seems to be uppermost in our Anglican minds are things like the intrusion of the state into our affairs and . . . you guessed it, sex (who can have it, and what kind).  Which, on my most buoyant days, attracts little more than a gentle eye-roll but, on others, a feeling of deep despair at just how tone-deaf and narcissistic we have become. Honestly!

That’s why I really feel for the Jesus of John’s Gospel, whose earnest prayer for unity appears in today’s lections. Let’s listen in to his prayer once more, the prayer he offered, according to John, just before he was arrested and crucified:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.


Now there’s a few things in this passage which require some clarification. First, when Jesus prays for ‘those who will believe in me through their word’, the ‘their’ in this sentence is the disciples, the apostles, who will go out to preach. ‘Those who will believe in me through their word’ are therefore the Christian communities these apostles will found and, ultimately, everyone who decides to become a Christian because of the apostolic witness. So that’s us, my friends. Jesus is praying for us.  Not for someone else, some historical community on the other side of the globe. For us. For our conflict-ridden community.

A second and crucially important clarification. When Jesus says that he has given us his glory, the glory already given him by his Father, he is not talking about fame and fortune, or even about victory or success in any conventional sense. For when John talks about glory, in this his gospel, he is in fact talking about crucifixion and the sacrificial pouring out of one’s life for others. Allow me to quote from an earlier passage, that scene at which Judas leaves the supper to betray Jesus to the authorities:

So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’  So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night . . .   When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

(13.26-27, 30-31)

 And an even earlier passage, in chapter 12:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . .


‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ . . . Jesus said, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

(12.24-25, 28, 30-33)

I share these passages at length to convey the sense in which John uses the concept of ‘glory’. For him, the pinnacle of Christ’s glorification by the Father is not, in fact, his resurrection or ascension to the Father. It is his crucifixion, that moment when he surrenders himself entirely to his Father’s will out of love for the people to whom he was sent. So let’s be clear, let’s make no mistake. When Jesus talks about glory, he is talking about sacrificial, cruciform, love. A love that bears fruit only at great personal cost. The cost, even, of death. So, this is what Jesus prays for us: that we might live into his cruciform glory; that we might suffer and perhaps, even die, for the sake of the world and our fellow Christians;  that we might be as one in such love, that the world might know and learn of God’s love by the way we pour out our own lives for others.

A third clarification, if you will indulge me. When Jesus talks about unity as ‘oneness’, he is not talking about ‘uniformity’. He is not talking about us all becoming carbon-copies of each other in body or mind, and thus simply unable to disagree with each other. No. The model Jesus uses for ‘oneness’ is not the cookie-cutter but the circular reciprocity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this earliest example of mature trinitarian thinking, John has Jesus pray that we might indwell each other – as the Father does the Son, and the Son the Father – not to the point where we simply become each other, without any hint of differentiation. For the Father is NOT the Son and the Son is NOT the Father. Each comes to ‘indwell’ the other, rather, in something of the manner that dancers and jazz musicians do, by their intuition about where the other is going next, and their choice to cooperate with each other out of a deep and abiding care and respect. That is why the Cappadocian fathers of the church called the trinity a circle-dance: a mutual yielding and cooperation of each with the other, even as the possibility for dissension and disagreement remains forever at hand.

This, then, is what Jesus prays for the church. And, if I may speak quite personally again, it is why I remain a Christian even though many of my fellow-Christians regularly wound and drive me crazy. It is why I am a Christian even though the church has never come to terms with its leading role in the attempted genocide of my people. It is why I remain a Christian even though the church remains racist. It is why I remain a Christian even when mob are ignored and rendered invisible by our Councils and theological colleges. It is why I am a Christian. Why? Because I believe in the sacrificial love of Christ for sinners as the only hope for us all. The only hope. The only hope. For I, too, regularly hurt my kin. I, too, am blind to the sufferings of others and too much centred in my own hurts and fears. I, too, am in desperate need of grace: the undeserved favour that is offered to us all for the making of the church, and of a society, and of an ecology that is finally reconciled, made one, whole and at peace.

That is not to say that we are equal in our sacrificial callings. We are not. It is incumbent upon the more powerful partner to do the lion’s share of the work to close the yawning gap between us, whether that gap be economic, cultural or theological. So let’s call a spade a shovel. The social and economic rules in this commonwealth, the cultural assumptions of this colony, and the theological imagination of this colonial church, are all those of white people, of colonists whose forebears are in Europe. If you are not from Europe, or your forebears were not – and especially if you are Indigenous to this country, with its 300 clans or nations – the only way to survive is to adapt to the colonial rules and imagination.  Doing so is enormously costly and regularly depletes and exhausts the personal and economic resources all of us who really prefer to live from and to country. Yet colonists do it with relative ease, and white people assume that there is no other way to live. The playing field is therefore deeply and structurally uneven. The fight is fixed, the mare has been hobbled, the dice have been loaded. And this is especially the case if you are ‘the wrong kind of black’. So, if we are really the church, if we are to take Christ’s call to sacrificial love seriously, it is incumbent upon the strongest to do most of the sacrificing. Which, let’s be honest, is deeply counter to everything we are taught from an early age.

I’ve not even attempted, today, to explore the other lections. I’ve not explored the ways in which the gospel frees slaves and interrupts the accumulation of wealth (as in the Acts reading). I’ve not explored what ‘washing one’s robes’ might mean in order to eat from the tree of life (as in the reading from Revelation). Strong hint, though. It has something to do with dying to the basic principles of this world and rising to a completely different set of values.

But let me conclude with this. If we are ever to be reconciled, if we are ever to come to terms with the hurt and the injustice we render, one to another, in this colony called ‘Australia’, we must discipline ourselves to live into the prayer of Christ to his Father. If there is ever to be something like justice, we must be prepared to put aside all our many forms of cheap and trivial grace, our many band-aid solutions and duct-tape fixes. Instead, if we are colonists, we must learn what it means to love at great cost, to embrace genuinely cruciform solutions to end our cultural and economic warfare against the last and the least. If Christ, whom we claim to worship, was willing to give himself entirely for our salvation - to pour out his life even to death, for the sake of all this world’s most little and vulnerable ones - what prevents us from so giving ourselves for this great work? What? What precisely? Is it the fear of losing ourselves? Losing our treasured control? Losing our sense of moral and intellectual superiority, our sense of being on the side of the angels? Is it a fear of losing what we believe is rightfully ours to possess?

Please, friends, don’t be afraid. Listen to the wisdom of country once more, the wisdom which Christ embraced and shared with his disciples: ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ In reality, there is nothing to lose, my friends, nothing but fool’s gold and false promises. But look at what you can gain! Justice for the vulnerable, peace for the troubled, a home for the exiles. And friends. Friends who love you and have your back. A community in which you can laugh, and cry, and dance and sing. A communion of all creatures which includes the plants and the animals, the waterways, the starry host and the earth itself. A veritable body for Christ, who fills and embraces all that is alive. So, please, don’t be afraid to lose all you have for the sake of justice. For you will receive back a hundredfold everything you ever could lose.

Garry Deverell

7th Sunday after Easter, 2022
St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne

Monday 2 May 2022

When it comes to defending the flourishing of country, and of human life, I am no pacifist

The war in Ukraine is, of course, just one of the conflicts raging in the world right now. For the moment, the conflicts in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, northern Iraq and many other places, no longer enjoy sustained attention from international media organisations. The extent to which the following comments about the war in Ukraine might pertain, also, to these many other conflicts, I will leave to the reader to decide. I am no expert on the geo-politics of any of these places.

I begin by pointing out that, in this world at least, we are dealing not with the ultimate and the perfect but with the penultimate and the imperfect. So whilst a more robust form of pacifism might suffice in the face of lesser forms of violence - refusing to fight in a morally ambiguous war in another part of the world, for example - pacifism of this kind does not seem sufficient when one's own land, livelihood and the lives of one's loved ones are under threat.  In the face of such clear and present danger, I believe the Christian has not merely a right, but actually a duty and responsibility, to mount some kind of defence.

My reasoning goes something like this. All life is sacred because it is brought into existence by the action of the creator. Inherent in the gift of life is a right and responsibility to maintain the conditions by which that life - within reasonable limits - can flourish and become what it was created to be.  Insofar as that is possible without, simultaneously, seriously curtailing the flourishing of other forms of life, we might speak in this context of a 'responsibility' to live and flourish. That word 'responsibility' suggests that a life is lived before the one who gives it. That 'one', I would posit  - as both a Christian and trawloolway man -  is the creator, the one who gives us life in all its myriad forms. We are responsible to our creator. We live our lives in a way which responds appropriately to what is given.

Now, it is clear that human beings have a responsibility to take life for the sake of our sustenance and our thriving. We may take from what is given in creation - its flora and its fauna - in order to sustain our lives. But there are limits to what we may take.  We may not, for example, hunt particular animals to the point where their own capacity to thrive and flourish is severely diminished. Neither may we do so with plant life. For if we do so, we risk compromising the entire biosphere's responsibility and capacity to flourish before, and to the glory of, our creator.

The same principle applies when it comes to human life, but perhaps in an even more robust form. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions put severe limits upon the taking of human life. 'Thou shalt not kill', whilst not an absolute command which applies in any and all circumstances, nevertheless inscribes a serious duty to do everything possible to avoid the taking of human life.

What this means, I think, when it comes to the theatre of war between human nations, is simply this: that one should avoid policies and practices that are likely to lead to war. One should never be the aggressor or the provocateur. One should never be the one who creates the conditions - whether these be political, cultural, economic or environmental -  in which war becomes the most likely outcome. We should do everything we can to avoid starting wars. For wars destroy life - not only human life, but also animal and plant life - on a scale which makes the likelihood of recovery exponentially difficult.

There are circumstances, however, in which war becomes inevitable. Having done all that is rationally and morally possible to avoid conflict with an aggressor, sometimes one simply has to take up arms in order to defend one's right and responsibility to live and to flourish before the creator is a way that is commensurate with the equatible distribution of that right and responsibility across the whole biosphere.

An example, from the recent history of my own people, is the way we took up weapons to defend our country and our way of life from the British invasion, which took place in ever more disruptive and devastating waves from 1802 until the present.  In the face of that invasion - which proceeded on the assumption that Aboriginal people enjoyed no right or responsibility to life and its flourishing - we had no choice. Before our creator-ancestors, and because of their injunction to care for country and for each other, we had to fight.

Now, the fact that we lost those wars and continue to sue for a more just settlement for our people and our country, means that the nation named 'Australia' by the invader is no longer the biospheric wonderland it once was. Thousands of specifies are now extinct as a result of the destruction of habitat. The ecosystem on which all of life depends is now either dead or dying in much of the continent. And the right and responsibility of Aboriginal peoples to life and flourishing - precisely as we care for country - remains of little consequence to our religious, commercial or political leaders.

But we had to fight. To preserve the way of life to which our creator-ancestors had called us. To prevent the destruction of that way of life by a people who had little regard for the call and injunction of the creator. We lost, obviously. But we had to fight.

To the extent that the war in Ukraine mirrors what we have experienced ourselves, I would argue that the people of the Ukraine also have to fight. Before God, they must fight. For the sake of the way and form of human flourishing which God has given, they must fight. For the sake of resisting an evil and destructive ideology, they must fight. And we who believe in the sacredness of all forms of life, precisely as they are given in creation, must offer whatever forms of solidarity we can.

Garry Deverell

With thanks to Dr Jonathan Foye, who provoked me to give this some thought.

Saturday 19 March 2022

Acknowledgement of Country for dummies

Some of the discussions I've had this week with very smart non-Indigenous people have revealed that uttering an Acknowledgement of Country that communicates both respect and empathy is still just a little too tricky for many.

So I've decided to collect together the bits and pieces of guidance I've been handing out over the past few years into a list of dos and don'ts. I hope it is helpful.

Before you draft your acknowledgement
  1. Before you write a thing, develop some empathy for the experience of our people. Read our history. Talk with us.  Find out about our loss, our grief, our pain. Find out what we long for and what we aspire to. 
  2. When it comes to drafting an acknowledgement, talk to us about what will best communicate respect. Check if your organisaiton already has an approved form that has been created out of respectful conversation with us, and use it.  If no such form exists, seeks ways to make that conversation happen.
  3. Wherever possible, seek the guidance of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who are already part of your organisation, because they are the ones who will have to listen to your acknowledgements over and over again. If the acknowledgement doesn't work for them, it doesn't work.
  4. If there really are no Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in your organisation, seek guidance from local mob outside your organisation. These days, Aboriginal Controlled Organisations often have websites which will get you started. 
  5. If it hasn't happened already, consider starting a conversation in your organisation about the ways in which you will collectively work towards greater justice for our mobs within your sphere of activity or influence. This might be in the form of a 'Justice Action Plan' or something similar. Whatever the case, speak only about concrete commitments and the steps to very specific outcomes. Grand and globalising statements are next to useless.
Drafting the acknowledgement
  1. An acknowledgement should say something about the land on which you are meeting and the Indigenous group which belongs to that land. Note that this is rarely a group of 'traditional owners' in the legal sense, since most mobs do not enjoy complete access to their own lands. 
  2. You should acknowledge that the land is unceded (meaning it has never been given away or sold) but was rather taken by 'settlers' in a violent and often genocidal manner. 
  3. The ancestors who created the land should be acknowledged, because they are the 'old people' who still reside in country and speak to us from it. They are the creator-guardians, and as close a thing to 'divinity' as mob usually have in our cosmologies.
  4. You should acknowledge the elders who have cared for that country since creation, and who continue to care for country (insofar as they are allowed by colonial authorities). Elders, past and present, have a special responsibility to lead our mobs as we seek to stay connected to country and to our responsibilities as people of the land.
  5. Finally, you should give attention to a brief statement of your organisation's commitment to a greater justice for our mobs.

  6. Here is a simple example of an acknowledgment that would do the trick for churches and church organisations: 'We acknowledge that this church stands on the sovereign and unceded country of the trawloolway, and that this country came into the church's possession by deceitful, murderous and immoral means. We acknowledge the continuing sovereignty of the trawloolway over this country, and the right and responsibility of trawloolay elders, past and present, to care for it according to a wisdom passed down over more than four thousand generations. We give thanks for the ancestors who formed this land and gifted it to the trawloolway to care for. We commit ourselves to work and to pray towards a more just settlement for all Indigenous people.'
  7. Here is another example, which exhibits more creativity by evoking some specifics about the country in question: 'We gather today on ‘cold country’, the land of the Kulin nations. This is where the luk (eels) navigate the rivers and creeks, the waring (wombats) play amongst the ferns and the wurun (manna gums) stand tall.  This the country formed by Bunjil, the great ancestor-Spirit, and carefully managed by wise arweet (elders) of the Wurundjeri and Bunwurrung clans for more than 100 millenia. Today we give thanks for this country, for the rich and complex communion of its people, its animals, its plants. And we pause for a moment to silently pray that future generations will value what the creator has given far more than it is valued today . . .'
Pitfalls to avoid (please)
  1. If there is a recommended script in your organisaton that has come out of an extensive conversation with mob, and has been agreed to by mob, use it. Don't adapt it according to your own wisdom. Just use it.  In my experience, most peronal modifications of existing scripts (out of the arrogant belief that you know more about us that we know ourselves) end up insulting or in other ways disrespecting us. Please, please, please, resist that urge.
  2. Please, don't refer to local mobs on country in generic terms. Don't say, for example, 'we meet today on 'Aboriginal'/'Torres Strait Islander'/'Koori'/'Palawa'/'Murri' country'. Doing so shows that you haven't bothered to find out anything about where you are or whose country it is. This is deeply insulting.
  3. Please, don't refer to mob using possessive phrases such as 'Our Aboriginal people' or 'our Indigenous people'. We don't belong to colonists and never have, except as slaves and indentured servants. Saying that we belong to you tends to reinforce the fact that we continue to live in a colonial society in which the invaders have most of the power and believe they have a right to possess us. Again, it is deeply insulting.
  4. Please don't acknowledge 'emerging elders'. There is no such thing in Aboriginal or Torres Strait communities. You either are an elder, or you aren't, and the extensive use of this phrase is really, really annoying. 
  5. Please don't refer to 'traditional' owners or custodians. This word does little but reinforce the fact that most of us do not 'own' our land in any legally meaningful sense. It communicates little more than the fact that, in the eyes of the colonial law, mob can rarely be more than token owners, 'Claytons' owners, owners that cannot, in fact, enjoy effective control over anything at all. It is a word deployed by white lawyers. Please don't use it.
  6. Speaking of white lawyers, please don't talk about the connection of mob to land in terms of a period 'for', or 'since', 'time immemorial'. This phrase is another invention of white lawyers, and it infers that we do not remember who we are and how we are related to our country. The phrase was invented to represent the fiction that Indigenous peoples do not have a history that stands up to empirical inquiry: a documentary history, a history verifiable because it is written down on paper, preferably in tripilicate, and with the signature of (white) witnesses attached. We do, in fact, remember; we do have a history; we do have a long, long, memory. So, again, this phrase is deeply insulting.
  7. Another really annoying feature of many of the acknowledgments I have been subjected to, is the use of this phrase, or something similar: 'We also acknowledge/pay our respects to any Indigenous/Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander people who may be with us this evening'.  This kind of thing is insulting on two levels. First, it assumes that a normal gathering of people, or the most usual kind of gathering, does not include mob. This is to normalise the absence of mob from polite, colonial, society and therefore reinforce our marginalisation and invisibility. Second, the phrase assumes that in the unlikely event that mob might actually be present, we are only present as a category of people, not as individuals with names or personal agency. Which reinforces another strategy beloved of colonial societies: abstraction. A phrase such as this refers to mob in the abstract, because abstractions can be dismissed in a way that actual people - with their thoughts and feelings and bodies - cannot. So please, please, please don't use this phrase in your acknowledgements. If you know that particular mob will be present, and you want to acknowledge the fact publicly, by all means do so. But do it by using our personal names, please. Treat us as people, not as abstractions.
Garry Deverell

Friday 18 March 2022

Upon attending a lecture entitled 'Race and Scripture in Australia'

I've just come home from a stimulating and learned public lecture offered at Pilgrim Theological College by a wonderful young historian, Meredith Lake. Meredith writes and thinks about the possibilities for reading the bible 'against the grain' of its racist deployment in 'Australian' society. She draws upon her historical research to offer precedents for doing so from both colonists and Indigenous people. I'm grateful that Meredith is doing this work, since the vast majority of white scholars and theologians within the churchly academy steadfastly refuse to engage that history, even to this day. The conversation Meredith's work provokes is an important one for the colony to have.

That being said, I want to share with you something of my experience of being present at this lecture and the conversation that followed. I do so primary to make make sense of my own feelings. But there may be something of value here for others to reflect on as well.

I came away with a very strong impression that I had somehow stumbled upon a conversation that was not really mine to participate in. It was a conversation for, and between, colonists. It was a generous conversation, to be sure. The participants included more recent arrivals to these shores. But it was not a conversation designed to include our mob, except in an abstract, 'othered', sense.

It was clear from the beginning that I wasn't really supposed to be there, at least not as a trawloolway man. The language of the 'acknowlegement of country' assumed that the attendance of an Indigenous person was normally only a remote possibility. 'We acknowledge any Indigenous people who may be with us this evening'. Now, the person who said this knew I was there and, in fact, I was directly in her line of sight. But she could not bring herself to address or name me personally. I was othered. I was abstracted. I was signed as someone without personhood or agency in that particular room.

And the lecture itself - notwithstanding its undoubted importance for the intra-colonial conversation - did not really speak to or with Indigenous people. Whilst Meredith gave a brief account of the apparently bible-inspired actions of Billibellary, William Barak and Simon Wonga at Correnderk mission (where some of my own family lived as well), and the theological work of (unamed) Aboriginal persons at Wybalenna (where some of my family were imprisoned) their living words were not cited. Nor did Meredith quote any Indigenous scholars, living or dead. So we heard about mob. But we did not hear from mob. Which is what colonists do when they are talking to other colonists.

So this was an occasion for colonists to discuss their crimes with each other and consider how to deal with their guilt and find appropriate precedents for more positive action. An important conversation, there can be no doubt. 

Still, I cannot help but dream of a day when churchly colonists might be able to transcend their self-referential illocution and speak with us, rather than about us. Not just as a one-off nod to the other and the exotic, but regularly, and continually, as if we were human beings equally capable of intelligent agency in the imagining of a shared future which will work for us all.

Even as I write that I hear the voice of Chelsea Watego in my ear saying something like 'Stop kidding yourself Garry. It'll never happen. Consider this another day in the colony and be done with such unrealistic and naive hopes.' Oh that I could, Chelsea, oh that I could! Unfortunately I'm afflicted with some of the same biblical dreams and nightmares as many of my fellow Christians. And I can't get them out of my head. I don't think I could repent and turn back, even if I tried. So, for the moment at least, I continue in longing. And I hope, against hope, that my yearning is conditioned and put into play not only by the oracles of holy writ, but also by country and by the ancestors who whisper to us from her gnarled and fragile forms.
Garry Deverell 

Since writing this little response, I've received conciliatory notes from Dr Lake, and from Associate Professor Melanchthon, who did the acknowledgement of country. Our correspondence included apologies as well as an acknowlegement that colonial attitudes and assumptions insert themselves into almost everything we do, even when be believe we are being vigilant against them. I am grateful to them both for their willingness to reflect and apologise, but also for their forebearance in the face of my determination to say out loud what most mob merely suffer in silence.

Sunday 13 March 2022

Enemies, real and imagined

 Genesis 15.1-12, 17-21; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35

Enemies. We all have them. And, if we don’t have any real enemies, we make them up. Or else we paint them in more dramatic terms than is strictly necessary. Observe, for example, what is happening in Ukraine at present. One of the key reasons Putin has publicly offered for invading Ukraine is that Ukraine’s national leadership has been taken over by fascists, even ‘Nazis’, who are oppressing the people. Now, from the point of view of the Ukrainians themselves, this seems entirely false. But from the point of view of Putin, who has in mind the restoration of a past, mythical, Orthodox, Russian empire, the Ukrainian leadership are indeed the evil bastards who are keeping their people from participating in this glorious restoration.

We need to be careful whom we call an enemy. Perhaps we should not call anyone an enemy, even if they explicitly choose that path, and that designation, for themselves. ‘Love your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous sermon, ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.’ (Luke 6.27, 28).  This is really tough teaching. If your neighbour is your enemy, what then? If you are the Ukrainian whose house is being raided by the Russian army, what should you do?  If you are an Aboriginal woman who has been raped by a British soldier, and your children killed before your eyes, how should you respond?

Let’s mine our lectionary readings for some wisdom.

The Genesis story talks about the deal or treaty YWH makes with Abram to preserve his legacy against every threat, real or imagined. If Abram is prepared to trust his future, and the future of his descendants to YWH, then YWH will make them prosper ‘as the stars in the heaven’ and the land on which he stands, stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates, will belong to them. Now, if you read this passage in its context, there are probably both good and bad reasons for Abram to feel anxious about himself and his clan’s future. Since arriving in that place, he’d become rich and inclined to feel that others wanted to take what he had. The story of his wife Sarai being given to Pharoah as a concubine is a horrific tale about the lengths that patriarchal culture will go to fight its own paranoia about losing wealth and influence. On the other hand, Abram also got caught up in a regional conflict between various Canaanite city-states in which his nephew Lot was genuinely taken into captivity.

With this background in mind, perhaps we must conclude that the treaty between Abraham and YWH comes about partly at God’s initiative and partly because of Abram’s male, patriarchal paranoia about the preservation of his legacy – legacy here understood as wealth and prestige for one’s descendents – against the indigenous tribes of Caanan. An earlier version of the covenant (in chapter 12 of Genesis) promises something rather different: that Abram’s descendants will become a blessing to all nations. Not their conquerors, but a source of their blessing. Perhaps that is what the covenant is supposed to be about, really. But this later, Genesis 15, version seems more concerned with the ways in which the indigenous nations, the people already there in the land to be taken by Abram’s seed, should be seen as enemies, and therefore a threat to Abram’s patriarchal ambitions. This is an ambiguity that has been played out in that region from the time of Abram right through to the current conflicts between Arab and Jew in Israel/Palestine. And, of course, there are tragic echoes of all that in what has happened here in the colony of ‘Australia’ as well.

The psalmist describes his fear of an enemy that has surrounded him on every side, and his appeal to the Lord for refuge and help. Most every suburban Christian I know usually reads this psalm as if they, themselves, are the psalmist and someone else – whatever or whomever we are afraid of, probably – is the enemy.  But what if that isn’t the case? Have you ever tried to read a psalm, or any other biblical passage, as if you weren’t the hero in the story but the enemy? Have you every considered the ways in which you might be the enemy? An enemy of the earth and of its flora and fauna, for example, or an enemy of the indentured classes of labour who make our clothes? Or an enemy of Indigenous people, because you stole our lands and benefit from our dispossession and hardship? How would that make a difference to your reading of sacred scripture?

The writer to the Philippians is incredibly circumspect in the way that he talks about enemies. He says that the enemy is not so much opposed to particular people, or even to Christ, but rather to the ‘cross of Christ’. Here the enemy is constructed not as someone who wants to steal your possessions or kill you. The enemy is someone who is allergic to suffering in the cause of righteousness or justice. Indeed, this enemy’s ‘god is their stomach’, an ancient way of speaking about the sin of gluttony or personal acquisitiveness. The sin of accumulating all things to yourself at the expense of many others, the sin of narcissism, we might even say. There is a sense, here, in which the writer wants, actually, to critique the acquisitive nature of the covenant we read about in Genesis 15. Here, it is Abram who could be understood as the enemy, for he seems concerned only about his legacy, the land he steals from others, and the prosperity of his own family and clan.  The writer to the Philippians prefers a citizenship that is not so attached to such things, but participates in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of a commonwealth that is ‘in heaven’, that is, in a place and a time that has yet to arrive. In that ‘heaven’ which – I hope you will agree, is a figure for some more hopeful and just future – Christ will transform the humiliated bodies of all who have suffered injustice and degradation and marginalisation, into the form of his own glorious body. In other words, all that is wrong and unfair will be put right. All that is broken will be restored. This is good news for all who suffer, or who are broken and marginalised. But you have to take a leap of faith.

Finally, in Luke’s gospel, it is instructive to learn something about how to regard the enemy from Christ, whose enemy is Herod, the puppet-king of the Roman occupation, who is obviously so afraid of Christ’s teaching that he has put out a ‘hit’ on him. Christ’s response to this news is quite extraordinary. Rather than go into hiding, rather than gathering a militia to protect himself, what Christ does is offer a lament over Jerusalem, a city divided against itself, a city that will at once listen to a prophet’s preaching and honour a prophet’s office, but also, in time, kill that prophet for speaking inconvenient or uncomfortable words.  Jesus himself, as indicated in the final verses of this passage, will himself be welcomed by the Jerusalemites as a prophet and even a messiah, but a week later be killed by those same Jerusalemites. Here the enemy is within. Not the other, someone from another group or tribe, ethnicity or religion. The enemy is your friend, your comrade, your congregation, your synagogue, your church, your ethnic group. Those closest to you and about whom you care the most. In the face of enemies such as these, Christ teaches us simply to lament, which is an ancient way of naming the evil and injustice of which we are capable, and then simply living, with tears, in the truth of it.  Here there is no hint of revenge or strategizing towards getting the upper-hand. There is a simple acceptance of the awful truth of the situation and a deep-down trust that if anyone can make this better, it is certainly not ourselves. It is God alone.

That’s kind’ve how I see the situation here in the colony known as ‘Australia’ as well. I long ago abandoned all hope that we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, could ever dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in. We are too busy imitating the coloniser by fighting with each other to present a united front. Although the Uluru Statement from the Heart piques my interest. A deeply compromised and conservative document, it yet represents the closest we have yet come to speaking to our colonisers with one voice.

Certainly, there is little political will towards justice from the coloniser, at least insofar as the political class can be said to represent the will of the people. Colonisers, and particularly the mining, forestry and agricultural companies that continue to enjoy extraordinary levels of subsidised support from the taxpayer, benefit enormously from our dispossession and marginalisation. And they continue to destroy, wound, and maim country in order to make their squillions. In my estimation, we have little to look forward to from these sectors but an endless charitable paternalism, breadcrumbs from the imperial table.

 What can the person of faith do, then, except to be as honest and as truthful as one can be, to name what is actually the case in the presence of the colonising powers, to lament that it is so, and place oneself and one’s people in God’s merciful hands? In this there is a hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that our bodies of humiliation will one day be transformed into bodies of glory. How that might come to be remains, for me at least, a profound mystery. But without the leap of faith which Christian called ‘resurrection faith’ there is nothing to look forward to at all. The last enemy, after all, is death.  And its sting is fierce. Unless . . .  unless God is for us, and not against us.

Notes roughly approximating a homily delivered at Koonung Heights Uniting Church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2022.  The live homily can be found here.

Garry Deverell