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Sunday 12 November 2023

New book. Contemplating Country: more Gondwana theology

My new book, Contemplating Country: more Gondwana theology, has just been published by Wipf & Stock.

Contemplating Country
picks up where Gondwana Theology (Morning Star 2018) left off. It extends and deepens the ways in which Aboriginal spirituality and Christian theology may talk to each other. Employing the image of conversation around a campfire, Contemplating Country invites the reader to consider the ways in which Christian theology, community and practice may be transformed through a deep and profound encounter with Aboriginal ways of seeing, knowing, and doing. Such transformation is necessary, according to this author, if Christianity is ever to leave behind its euro-centric habits and truly arrive in the sovereign and unceded country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations.

It is the second book to be published in a new series focussing on 'Faith and Justice in Australia' edited by Graham Joseph Hill.  I thank Graham for being willing to consider the manuscript for his series.

The painting on the cover was kindly provided by Uncle Glenn Loughrey and is entitled 'From the Depths, Life Rises'.

Some friends and colleagues have kindly shared their endorsement of the book. Here are some of them.
This important and compelling book establishes Garry Deverell (trawloolway) as one of the most creative and important voices in Australian theology. Deverell weaves together his own experiences and stories with deep christological reflection, analysis of Australian churches, political commentary, and calls for justice. All of us who are part of settler churches and societies need to read Contemplating Country and respond to its challenges.
Associate Professor Michael Mawson
Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies
University of Auckland

This book is a thunderous Voice from the sovereign heart of country to the colonial void that surrounds it. Deverell interrogates coloniality in all its forms, from the independence of deep time wisdom held within the spiritual notion of sovereignty. Country holds all we need to live in a custodial relationship of reciprocity, responsibility, and respect. Country is wisdom without time. Country is at the centre of First people’s engagement with that which was here before we came into being. This is a book all we aspire to live out of country as it speaks what we have always known. This is a book for all who came here with the “truth” in order that they de-link themselves from the colonial memory and re-exist the wonder of what they have been wilfully blind to. A highly recommended must read.

The Revd Canon Uncle Glenn Loughrey
Wiradjuri man and Anglican priest

Garry’s book opens for the reader an Aboriginal perspective which reframes and decolonises received theological understandings of the Trinity, Christ, Scripture and—through his exegesis of country—the ecological crisis that confronts all Australians. Garry’s explanation of why we acknowledge country is exemplary, and his discussion of the parlous state of reconciliation in the churches simply prophetic. This book will be of great benefit to all Australians of good will and open heart, all who believe that redemption may have something to do with receiving and living a more ancient truth.
from the Preface by Professor Anne Pattel-Gray
Bidjara/Kari Kari woman and Head of the School of Indigenous Studies,
University of Divinity

Garry Deverell is one of the most creative, incisive, and uncompromising writers engaging the Christian tradition today. His scholarship shapes and stimulates the whole field of First Nations theology in Australia - and speaks to anyone seriously interested in in reckoning with colonialism as a structure. This is a challenging and generative book brimming with possibilities for a truly postcolonial theology arising from Country.
Dr Meredith Lake
author of The Bible in Australia: a Cultural History
and host of ABC Radio National's 'Soul Search'

The book can be purchased from the publisher, HERE.

Sunday 17 September 2023

A Voice for Country: saying 'Yes' to Indigenous ecological wisdom

When I was a teenager, I would go for long contemplative walks in the bush that still surrounds the small town in which I was raised.  This was, and remains, punnilerpanna country even though most all of the punnilerpanna were killed during the frontier conflicts of the 1820s. So, when I was a teenager, even though I knew little of that specific history, I would talk to the ancestral spirits who dwelt in the landscape. ‘Hello, cousin Wallaby’, I would say, ‘how’s the grazing today?’ Or, ‘greetings, Auntie River Gum, getting enough water?’. And they would answer. Not in English, mind, nor even in the lost language of the punnilerpanna. But, if you had the ears to hear, if you had the heart of a contemplative, you could hear them acknowledge and affirm your presence: the appropriateness of your being there in the matrix of that dreaming. For when I came to the bush as a kid, I came not to harm or destroy, as the colonists had done, but simply to commune and to learn. That is what contemplation means, in this tradition. To bathe in the ancestral voices that are forever alive and flowing about you as you walked through sacred country.  But also to learn the way of country—especially its ethic of kinship, of mutual care and reciprocity—that her ways might be imitated and passed on to others.

'Ancestors II' by Sarrita King
For the voices of the dead punnilerpanna were alive in that landscape. The echoes of their sorrow at all that had befallen them in the 1820s, certainly. But there are strains, also, of a yet more ancient choir. A choir of creator-ancestors, the powerful hybid beings—partly human, partly animal—that formed the landscape and now speak from it with wisdom and instruction for anyone who will listen.  These ancestral choirs sing a song of lament concerning the way in which country has been wounded, even crucified, under the impact of European colonisation. But that is not all you will discern in their song. For they sing, also, of the perseverance of life through death; indeed, of the necessity of death and loss to the creation of new life. They sing about the power of compost, and of electricity, that quantum-level medium for both life and communication. They sing about not giving up, even when the chips are most definitely down in the more-than-human world, and life seems spent. 

Sadly, much of the public conversation about the Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament has failed to listen to the song of country, to the cadences of this ancestral choir. Arguments about whose voices need to be heard (or not) in the national constitution and around Canberra very often seem to completely overlook the fact that a voice for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people implies a voice for country. For we are country’s custodians. We have managed and looked after this country for 5000 generations.  Country is not, and has never been, ‘wilderness’ as a European philosophy would imagine it. Country is not a human-free landscape where ‘nature’ grows wild and according to its own devices. Country is a place where human beings dwell in a symbiotic relationship with our feathered, furred, and scaled cousins. Country is our home, our dwelling place, our mother, father, sister and brother, our kin.  We therefore have a place within it and exercise a sacred vocation of responsibility for it. For country is the arena in which a radically reciprocal compassion is actualised. The dreaming lore that belongs to each particular patch of country and encoded, in songs and rituals handed down from elder to catechumen, are primarily about how to live sustainably, fruitfully, and compassionately within those places: country we are born to, country we carry in our hearts, country for whose flourishing we take responsibility, from the moment we are initiated to the day we die.  This is the way we lived in this country before colonists arrived. By practising a compassion that extended far beyond our human kin, embracing also rock and river and plant and animal in such a manner that country might flourish, not just for today, but for the 5000 generations to come.

What has happened in the last 235 years, however, has been catastrophic. The genocide visited upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been accompanied by an ecocide visited upon country. According to the Ecological Society of Australia, we lead the world when it comes to species extinction. Since the arrival of Europeans, over 100 species of animals and birds have become extinct and, as of 2019, 1790 species are listed as threatened with extinction. Major threats are invasive species (82% of species), ecosystem modification (74%), agriculture (57%), human disturbance (38%), and climate change (35%). Well-funded protected areas such state reserves and national parks certainly aid recovery, but 52% of species face threats outside protected areas. The Society estimates that Australia needs to invest $1.69 billion per year to recover threatened species through coordinated efforts across jurisdictions. The current level of investment is only $122 million per year, which means that Australia’s extinction crisis will only deepen in the decades to come.  

On the 18th of March this year, the ABC reported the discovery of a mass fish kill in the Darling River near Menindee in NSW's far west. The kill included several million bony bream, golden perch, silver perch and Murray cod. The overall volume of the kill completely eclipsed similar kills in 2018 and 2019 and was caused by low oxygen levels in the water after recent flooding, combined with atmospheric temperatures in the 40s (Celsius). Previous fish kills were apparently caused by drought and massive algae blooms. Menindee Local Aboriginal Land Council director Michelle Kelly is quoted as saying ‘the river is our lifeblood’,  but clearly that lifeblood is in deep trouble. Joy Becker, an associate professor with the University of Sydney, is quoted as saying that fish kill events could occur due to a sudden, severe or prolonged drop in water quality. "Ultimately, fish kill events happen because the quality of the environment cannot sustain fish life," she said. "Causes of fish kills can be environmental, chemical, or possibly related to infectious disease agents including opportunistic pathogens or a combination of all these factors."  Which is another way of saying that the mismanagement of country is to blame.  Barkandji elders have been saying so for decades, but their pleas have clearly fallen on deaf ears.  Signs of the ecocide that accompanies the genocide.

Similarly, with the management of bushlands, our mobs successfully used fire to farm both forests and grasslands for thousands of years. Using a range of techniques, now collectively known as cool-burning, we used fire to both mitigate against destructive, catastrophic, wildfires but also to cultivate food-plants that would provide for healthy and abundant populations of animals and birds.   Unfortunately, with the coming of European colonists, these lands have been mostly ‘cleared’ of both the people who knew this country best and the techniques we used to sustain its life. Fire-farming and loose-soil agriculture has been replaced by the mass-production of beef, lamb, wool and grain crops.  The importation of millions of cattle and sheep has resulted in the compaction of soil structures, with the consequence that water can no longer penetrate the soil substructure as it once did, and so it dries out and becomes less fertile.  Crop and herd farming has also massively reduced general biodiversity, with the twin consequence that, as many species of both plant and animal are already endangered or extinct, exponentially greater levels of extinction become all the more likely.  At the same time, surviving forests have been neglected as places that needed to be managed, with the consequence that bushfires of the catastrophic kind that we witnessed in late 2019/early 2020 are likely to occur more and more as the planet warms. Those fires destroyed over 19 million hectares of mainly forests and woodlands. In several places, the fires burned so hot that even the deep substructure of the soil was effected, bringing on a condition known as hydrophobia which prevents such soil from ever supporting the growth of plant life again.  The fires also killed well over a billion native animals,  a great many of which died because they could not find a way through the fences erected by pastoralists to keep their domestic animals from roaming. More signs of the ecocide that accompanies the genocide.

Certain parts of the bible talk about ecocide in terms of a 'defilement' of the land. Let’s consider just one small section at the end of Leviticus chapter 18 (vs 24-30), a chapter that appears, at first glance, to be primarily concerned with sex. Here it is, from the NRSV:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. So keep my charge not to commit any of these abominations that were done before you, and not to defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God.

The ’defilement’ in the first line refers to sexual practices which are seen, by the editors of Leviticus, as fundamentally abusive. These include various forms of unfaithfulness to one’s marriage partner along with intra-family incest, each of which would accord, broadly, with our contemporary standards also. But the list of forbidden relations ends with a condemnation of what has been called ‘cultic sex’, that is, sexual relations which take place within a religious framework designed to guarantee the fertility of one’s land. This is a concept considerably more foreign to the modern imagination. In the ancient middle-east, you see, there existed forms of religion which posited a close symbolic connection between the human body, especially the fertile female body, and the fertile body of the land. You can find traces of it in any number of ancient sources, but also here in the bible. In this particular passage, the editors clearly assume that such a connection exists, even as they condemn the phenomenon of cultic sex. At the social level they are concerned that cultic sex is inherently abusive because the people who served as sexual partners at the shrines were invariably slaves who earned money for their owners. At the more complex symbolic level, they are concerned that abusing the bodies of cultic slaves is a metaphor for the abuse and misuse of the land.

For the land has agency in this passage. It is not just a thing that is without animus or life or intention. She is able to expel, to ‘vomit’ out from her body, any object or person that might threaten her life.  She is able to fight back against abuse.

Surely there is a parable here for those of us who stand at the edge of an environmental apocalypse. If the land is truly alive and has agency, as both the Hebrew and Indigenous imaginations would have it, then our continued abuse of country will have its consequences. There will come a time when we have so poisoned the well on which we depend that our own lives will be at risk. Country may well vomit us out, judging that our rapacious presence is ultimately a threat to her capacity for fecundity and renewal. 

There is a little-known appendix in the 2017 Report of the Referendum Council (which also gave us the Statement from the Heart and the roadmap known as ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’) entitled ‘Rom Watangu – the Law of the Land’. It was written by the late, great, Yolgnu elder, Dr Yunupingu. I’d like to read just one paragraph from that work:

There is always something wanted by someone who knows nothing of our land or its people. There is always someone who wants us to be like them, to give up our knowledge and our laws, or our land. There is always someone who wants to take something from us. I disapprove of that person, whoever he or she is. There is no other way for us. Our laws tell us how to live and lead in the proper way. Others will always seek to interrupt my thinking, but I will tell the difference between their ways and my laws, which are the only ones to live by. I am mindful of the continuing attempts to change all that is in us, and I know that it is not workable at all. It cannot work. We are covered by a law of another kind and that law is lasting and alive, the law of the land, rom watangu – my backbone.

Here the great man is speaking from the very heart of his Yolgnu culture and spirituality. His words remind us that any formal voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is always, already, a voice for country. For those of us who are Indigenous do not speak primarily for ourselves, and our own merely human interests. We speak for country—for its spectacular plethora of plants, animals, waterways, landcapes, heavenly bodies. We speak the wisdom we have seen and heard from walking in country, the wisdom whispered in our ears by the Old Ones, the ancestral creators who yet live and are one with its body. We speak of the necessity of caring for country, after the manner that country cares for us, so that we might continue to share a life of joy and abundance together.  We speak of the pain and the suffering of country under settler colonial management, and the need for a compassionate response from human beings so that country may be healed of its grievous wounds. 

In all this, First Peoples acknowledge that we are too few to accomplish this healing on own own. Especially when so many of our young people languish in schools and gaols and other institutions designed to draw the very life from one’s spirit. We recognise that healing must be the responsibility of everyone who now lives in these lands, whatever the legitimacy or illegitimacy of that presence historically or ethically.  But that is why the call to support a body which can offer a more substantial voice for our people is so centrally important. A voice for us, however conceived, is also a Voice for country. We are her voice, the voice of our mother earth. An invitation to say ‘Yes’ to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is also, therefore, an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to country and to exercise a commensurate compassion for country.  If you hear that voice at all, even faintly as a whispering in the trees or in your hearts, I beg you to take is seriously. To listen, to learn, and to act for our common future in this communion of being to which we all belong, whether we are aware of it or not.

Garry Worete Deverell

St Michael’s Uniting Church, Naarm/Melbourne,
October 10, 2023

Sunday 3 September 2023

Voice of Country, Voice of the Divine

Texts: Isaiah 55.10-13; Mark 9.2-8

Last night I made an airport run to pick up Lil. The plane was running late, as usual, so I parked in the official waiting area which is adjacent to a large field of grasslands. No doubt, before too long, the grasslands will be lost to parking or some other kind of built encroachment. But, for the moment, the grass survives. And so do the wallabies that depend on its being there.  Last night a mob of about six or seven of them chose to graze right in front of me, occasionally raising their heads when there was a loud noise or a flash of lights, but otherwise entirely engrossed in getting some nutrition on board. The mob remained there peacefully until a carload of humans decided that snapping some photos was the thing to do, at which point the wallabies bounded away.

There's a little parable in this, for those who have the ears to hear. The divine is like these wallabies grazing on the edge of town. They are unique and beautiful in form and movement. They move together as one, each individual tuned in to the extended senses of the mob as a whole organism. They are one in purpose. They take what they need from country, but no more. They live together in peace, looking out for each other. They have no interest in fighting other species. When danger arrives, they move on. They look for another place of safety. Most interesting of all, to my mind, is the fact that wallabies have no loud voice or call of their own. Their vocal cords are barely there, so they communicate by making soft clicking noises, or by gesture or posture, or by pounding the ground with their feet. So wallabies are truly creatures of the margins. They live on the edge of town. They communicate with still, small, voices. They move on when they sense danger.  There is surely something of the divine in this marginality. For have we not exiled the divine voice to the margins of our human concerns, to the darkness at the edge of our towns?

To my mind, the piece that is missing in the shouty debate about the Voice to Parliament is the relatively still, quiet, voice of country: of the lands and waterways which, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dreaming stories, are fecund with the wisdom of the ancestral beings who gave life to us all. We hear these ancestral voices in birdsong and the breezes though the trees, in the rush and trickle of water, and in the clicking of wallabies as they talk to each other. Their voices speak to us of Anaditj,* the 'way things are', and our right and proper place in this way. They show us, if we will trouble to learn their language, how to live sustainably in country as kin or family, rather than annexing, using and exploiting country as though it were our slave. The voices of the ancestors show us how to take from country what we need, but no more. They reveal to us the dangers of making ourselves kings over country rather than citizens of her commonwealth.  

It is intriguing to me, as a trawloolway man, that the wisdom of the Christian Scriptures so often aligns with the wisdom of country. Consider, for example, the last part of Isaiah 55, where the word of God is compared to the rain and snow that water the earth and make it fruitful. The joyful return of the exiled Judahites to their own land is compared to the restoration of a ravaged and neglected countryside to its former glory. The trees are said to 'clap their hands' and the mountains and the hills to 'burst into song' when country is restored. There is divinity in country, you see. When country is alive and well, when we as human beings are singing with its songlines rather than against them, the presence of the divine is easily discerned and celebrated. But when we ignore the voice of country, when we can barely remember its ways, country languishes and then we languish. And the still, small, voice of the divine is exiled to edge of town.

When the divine voice calls out, atop a mountain in St. Mark's Judea, saying that Jesus is the beloved of God and that we ought to listen to him, Aboriginal readers hear a call to listen to country. The usual historical-critical reading of the story is that Jesus, having preached and healed his way around Galilee, here consults the law and the prophets to figure out what he ought to do next.  The law and the prophets, here represented by Moses and Elijah, tell him to turn his face toward Jerusalem, and to do so in the confidence that his death at the hands of evil men will nevertheless reveal a persisting divinity, a fundamental perseverance for life, that even death cannot overcome. Thus, the transfiguration is understood to be St Mark's version of the resurrection. A momentary shining forth of the promise of things to come.  Which is all well and good, if you think this story is primarily about human beings.

Walls of Jerusalem national park
But this trawloolway reader thinks there is something else going on here. For the story takes place in the mountains, which are usually alive with ancestral presence. And there Jesus meets with the 'old people', ancestor-creators, who share with him their knowledge of the ways things are, of the dreaming, of things that were, and are, and are yet to be. And Peter recognises that they are divine beings, and that Jesus is a divine being, for he proposes to make a tabernacle for each of them, that symbol of divine dwelling from the history of the Exodus. And the voice that addresses the disciples, at the apotheosis of this strange encounter, comes not from a person at all, but from a cloud. It is the voice of country, of the other-than-human world, who identifies Jesus as it's voice, it's kin, it's wisdom made flesh.

So, as the referendum on a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people approaches, let us indeed listen to Jesus. For, in his parables, he speaks for and from country, he speaks of country as the place where the will and way of the divine can be discerned. Whether his metaphors are taken from the birds of the air, or the fig tree, or the making of pearls, Jesus assumes that country is our teacher. And when he speaks of himself as the seed that must die to live and be all the more fruitful, he identifies himself with country (Jn 12.24).  That is why, in the theo-poetics of native peoples, Christ and country stand in for one another, represent one another, speak for one another.

That is why I say to you now: to listen to Jesus is to listen to country. To listen to country is to listen to the oldest and the wisest of our First Nations elders. To listen to the oldest and wisest of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders is to give country a voice. And that, I would submit, is the most important thing to realise about the coming referendum. For, in the colony of Australia, we lead the world in destroying our environment and endangering the future of our furred and scaled and feathered kin. It is time we stopped. It is time we listened. It is time we wised up.

Garry Worete Deverell

* 'Anaditj' is a concept in  Adnyamathanha language, brought to my attention by Auntie Denise Champion in her book of the same name.

First preached at a gathering of SCM Melbourne,
at St Stephen's Church, Richmond,
on Sept 3, 2023

Sunday 20 August 2023

How to be Steadfast When Hope is Fading

Text: Genesis 50.15—Exodus 1.7

Today’s homily begins by recounting the bad behaviour of Joseph’s brothers. Back in chapter 37 of Genesis, Joseph had attracted the hatred of his older brothers because he was clearly their father’s favourite and because he was inclined to call out their shortcomings before their father. He also shared with them two of his dreams, which implied that one day they will all bow before him. Joseph was, in other words, your typical younger brother. He was annoying and knew how to play his doting father like a violin. The response of the older brothers, however, was completely out of proportion to this. For their sense of irritation at the young fella festers and grows until it is has become a hatred. A white, burning, hatred. So much so, that when the opportunity arises, the older brothers conspire to sell Joseph into slavery. They then concoct a lie to account for his disappearance: Joseph, they said, had being killed by a wild animal.

Fast forward, then, to today’s sacred reading when the brothers indeed prostrate themselves before Joseph, because he is the viceroy of Egypt. Much has happened to them all in the meantime, which I will not recount, but suffice it to say that much change has come over the brothers. Joseph’s trials and tribulations have made him wiser and more circumspect in dealing with those who have power over him.  His brothers, too, having experienced the sorrow that took hold of their father Jacob at Joseph’s ‘disappearance’, come to repent of their wrongdoing. When they come to Egypt in time of famine and find that they are being tested by Joseph (without at this point knowing who he really is) the eldest even offers himself as a slave in order to spare their father the further sorrow of losing Rachael’s other son, Joseph’s brother, Benjamin. 

All of which is to say that the brothers are now ready to say sorry and ask Joseph for forgiveness.  Which they do, first, by confessing the truth of what they have done, including an admission that what they did was criminal and did great harm to both Joseph and their father. They then beg his forgiveness. Indeed, they do so by adopting the most humble pose their bodies can make. Prostrate before him, with tears, the brothers beg to be forgiven. Then they offer to make amends for what they did by themselves becoming slaves for Joseph, so offering themselves up to the very fate that they had woven for Joseph all those years before.  

Joseph would have been completely in his rights, of course, to accept and require that offering. To make them slaves, as he had been enslaved, would have only been fair.  Yet, he doesn’t. Also with tears, he forgives them. He cancels their debt, declaring that he is not God and would not, therefore, assume power over them. Indeed, he goes on to theologise just a bit. ‘What you intended for evil,’ he says, ‘God intended for good, in order to preserve our people during this time of great famine’. As a consequence, the whole family is brought to Egypt and settled in the region of Goshen, where they become very numerous and strong.

Upon reading this text I wondered, as is my habit, how it might have been read by the Wurundjeri who experienced the invasion of their lands by the British? From 1835, there was indeed a famine in Kulin lands, a famine brought on by the importation of millions of sheep. The sheep compacted the soil making it impossible for Kulin food crops, which depended upon a loose soil structure, to survive. The sheep were accompanied by wave upon wave of real estate speculators who were either granted Kulin land by the crown or simply took it through force of arms. ‘Clearing the land’ became a euphemism for not only converting bush and grassland to pasture for sheep, but removing both its native animal species and its rightful human custodians through murder or forced relocation.  

We know that Simon Wonga, a Ngurungaeta or headman of the Wurundjeri nation, witnessed all this. He presided over the very last full initiation ceremony of the Wurundjeri at Ngannelong/Hanging Rock in 1851 and the very last gathering of the Kulin clans for sacred business at Warrandyte in 1852. After that, all the survivors of the frontier conflict were rounded up and incarcerated in various missions, most of them run by the Church of England. Wonga, and his cousin William Barak, proceeded to advocate for a protected homeland for surviving Kulin, eventually securing 2300 acres at modern-day Healesville for a reserve which, from 1863 would become known as Coranderrk. 

Wonga, who had learned bible stories from a Presbyterian missionary named John Green, referred to his plans for Coranderrk as a ‘Goshen’ within the empire of the British where his people might not only survive but thrive. He apparently presented himself to Barkly, the British governor in Victoria at the time, as something of a Joseph figure who, having seen the decimation of his people, wanted to create a homeland within the colony where his people might live unmolested.  And this was indeed made possible for thirty years or so, as Coranderrk grew into a thriving farming venture in which my own kinspeople, John and Louisa Briggs, also participated.

I’m not sure what Wonga would have made of the fact that it was Joseph’s own family who sold him into slavery. The only possible analogue I can think of is the Victorian Native Police, which was populated with Aboriginal men (mostly, it must be noted, from outside Victoria) and, from 1853, charged with rounding up freedom fighters. In fact, however, the Native Police often led their white superiors on a merry dance to ensure that suspects evaded capture.

And what of the forgiveness of Joseph towards those who did the enslaving? What are we to make of that? Should Wurundjeri people forgive the British? Did Wonga or his legendary father, Billibellari? Did William Barak? Apparently they did, but it was forgiveness with a strategic and pragmatic purpose. Just as Joseph forgave his brothers in order to preserve their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, within the Empire of the Pharaohs, so Wonga and Barak forgave the British in order to preserve their people in Coranderrk. Had they continued to fight the British on an eye-for-an-eye, life-for-a-life, basis, their people would most certainly have been annihilated. This they could see. And so they turned conciliators, just as my own ancestor, Mannalargenna of the trawloolway, had done thirty years before in lutruwita/Tasmania.

Where was God, then, in all of this? Where was God in the enslavement of Joseph? Where was God in the dispossession and enslavement of the Kulin peoples? According to the editors of Genesis, God took the evil that Joseph’s brothers intended and turned it into the good of an eventually powerful brother who was able to preserve their people under the rule of the Pharaohs.  Could it be that God was also at work in colonisation? Well, it depends a lot on whether your theology relies upon the arrival of justice or not. Colonisation was a great evil, and remains a great evil, of that I have no doubt. I am also sure that the good wrought by Wonga and Barak at Coranderrk cannot be seen, in any sense, as a proportionally just recompense for that evil. God was certainly their partner and companion as they sought to preserve their people, but this God—the God we meet in the Genesis stories—is certainly no guarantor that an appropriate measure of justice will ever arrive.

Consider the facts as they are presented in both the story of Coranderrk and the story of Goshen in Genesis. The refuge that was Coranderrk lasted only three decades because white farmers became jealous of its success and petitioned the colonial authorities for its closure. It was, in fact, effectively closed down in 1886 with the passing of the Aborigines Protection Act, after which most of the remaining inhabitants were taken to the considerably crueller mission at Lake Tyers.  And the haven that Joseph made at Goshen quickly became, after his death, the main source of indentured labour for the Pharaohs as they embarked on their new building programme. So, having offered to become slaves, that is what the sons and daughters of Jacob in fact became.  Slaves for the Egyptian empire.

You’ll no doubt be wondering what the good news is, here. Well, the good news is far from world-altering, I’m afraid. The texts before us can only deliver a very modest helping of good news. The good news is that the divine Spirit is most definitely on the side of those who want to do good, who are willing to put aside their own wounds and traumas to work for justice and refuge for their wounded and traumatised neighbours.  Sadly, however, there may never be justice for the victims of unscrupulous people, not a proportional justice, anyway: a justice where the injured receive appropriate recompense for all their years of suffering. The most we might reasonably hope for, those of us who have been enslaved or dispossessed, is a modicum of justice; if not justice itself, something that occasionally resembles justice. 

In the meantime, we can take some comfort in knowing that the divine Spirit is both the friend and partner of every victim. In every steadfast refusal of the temptation to give up, in every act of advocacy for our broken neighbours, in every act of care or of love, and, most radically of all, in every act of mercy or forgiveness we may feel moved to offer to the guilty, the Spirit is with us. For in each of these acts of defiance, whether great in the eyes of the world or so small as to beneath the notice of most, the divine Spirit is indeed our help, our refuge, and our support. As the choir sang from the appointed Psalm for this evening:

For though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly:
as for the proud, he beholdeth them from afar off.

                                                                 Psalm 138.6

Garry Deverell

Evening Prayer,
St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne
Proper 15

Sunday 28 May 2023

St John's Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2.1-22; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12.1-13; John 20.19-23

If, in the Christian calendar, the feast day of Pentecost celebrates the first outpouring out of the divine Spirit on the infant church, then the Scripture readings set for today record not one Pentecostal event, but two.  The more familiar of these is created by St Luke in the book of Acts, the one associated with dramatic signs like the sound of a tempest and tongues of fire. Here the outpouring out of the Spirit is closely associated with the Jewish festival of Shavoat, or ‘Weeks’, which celebrates both the annual harvest of grain and the giving of the law to Moses at Mt Sinai. It occurs 50 days after Passover: a number which, in Jewish numerology, signifies the time of Jubilee when alienated land is returned to its original owners, debts are forgiven, and slaves regain their freedom.  It is also the time when Israel finds its true identity as a nation and seeks, in earnest, to live by the law of God.  

St Luke redeploys these Jewish meanings for Christian purposes. There are 120 disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, 10 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. When the spirit is poured out, they will become the seed of new Israel, a new people of God. A new law is also given, the law of Jesus, whose spirit will break the strong social and political bonds of slaves, of women, and of younglings. No longer will it just be venerable old men like Moses who receive divine law and proclaim it with authority; from now on it will be everyone, even slaves and women and younglings. All who listen to the spirit and take her breath into their lungs will now become prophets whose larynxes and lips will form divine words, words of Jubilee, words of freedom, in a thousand different tongues. They will go out from that place and bear witness to this freedom in Jerusalem, and in Samaria, and eventually the whole known world.  All very dramatic. All very apocalyptic. All very beautiful. The stuff of movies and concerts and rock operas.

But there is another ‘Pentecost’ in our readings, the Pentecost recorded by St John in his gospel. Here the outpouring of divine spirit is reserved not for a crowd of 120 confidently awaiting the sure fulfillment of divine promise on the Feast of Shavoat, but for a motley remnant of scared and bewildered disciples huddled together in a locked room for fear of being discovered by their enemies. For, in John’s timeline, Jesus had been crucified only three days before, and most of his disciples have fled the city for fear of being rounded up and executed in a similar manner. Those who remained were therefore far fewer in number and, notwithstanding the report of Mary Magdalen that she had seen and spoken to an apparently resurrected Jesus, they were terrified.  For they dared not believe Mary. Her story seemed too fantastical. ('Perhaps it is the grief speaking?') Still, it is right there, in the midst of their terror and their doubt, that Jesus turns up. Right there. Through the locked door. Through their fear-locked hearts. Through their sceptical minds. Right there. And he says two things to them straight up. Showing them the wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’. Twice. Then, as he breathes upon them, he says ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you: receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Let’s spend some time meditating on these words.

At one level, ‘Peace be with you’ is little more than a common greeting. It’s how every Jew would have greeted every other Jew at the market or in the field. That greeting is preserved in the Arabic phrase ‘A-salam alaykum’ used by Muslims and Palestinian Christians even today: ‘Peace be with you’. The traditional response was, and remains, ‘wa-alaykum salam’: ‘And also with you’. We use the formulary ourselves as we approach the eucharist in Christian worship. Which should indicate that the greeting is far more than a social nicety, a way of saying ‘hello’. It embeds and bears witness to the way of the divine spirit in the world. The spirit who, according to the Psalmist, both creates and renews all living things (Ps 104.30). The spirit who, according to St Paul, binds the community of Christ—with all of its diverse ministries and modes of service—together as one organism, one body (1 Cor 12.4, 12).  The spirit who creates and renews and binds all living creatures together in a cosmic body characterised by shalom, salam, peace with justice. The body of Jesus present in our story, a body risen and yet still bearing the marks of crucifixion, functions as an arch-symbol of this social and cosmic body in which we all participate by the spirit. On the one hand, the body is bruised and broken, marked by the grievous wounds we inflict upon each other and upon the earth. On the other hand, the body is resilient. It can heal, it can rise, it can overcome such sins through the power of the spirit who knits every sinew together in peace.

For peace, in both Jewish and Islamic teaching, cannot be reduced to something like a nice inner feeling of calm or equanimity, as in many popular forms of mindfulness. No. Peace is about the recognition that all life, whether human or animal, plant or mineral, thrives and renews itself only insofar as we recognise our need of each other, our interdependence in a divinely charged cosmos knit together by the spirit. 

In the human community, this means attending to the many injustices we visit upon one another in our quests for power, ownership and control. It means righting the wrongs, healing the wounds, and redressing the social and economic imbalances, so that we might be reconciled. In the ecological community, it means human beings attending to, and taking responsibility for, the devastation we have wrought upon our leafed, furred, scaled and beaked kin, and upon the land itself.  It means calling a halt to practices that maim our environment and committing, instead, to practises of repair, healing and renewal.  

For peace is essentially about tending the relationships we are given in creation, the matrix of care and reciprocity that the spirit has woven into our DNA. It is about justice, equality, and the integrity of creation.  It is about letting go of fear and exploitation and living, instead, as though we all mattered. All of us. Even black people. Even Muslims. Even Aboriginal people. Even gay, lesbian, trans and differently gendered people. Even koalas, even frogs, even deserts and rivers and rainforests. All of us. All our kin. Imagine that. 

So. When the risen Jesus greets his terrified disciples in this story from John’s gospel, when he places his peace upon them not once, but twice, this is the meaning that is carried and implied in that word ‘peace’. All of what I just said. Every bit.  Nothing less.

Which leads us to what Jesus does next in John’s story, which is the explicitly ‘pentecostal’ bit.  Let’s recap. Having greeted them with peace and shown them the wounds of his crucified body, the risen Jesus says: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ He then breathes upon them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Here we have three extraordinary examples of what JL Austin calls ‘performativity’. Performativity is when something you say also does something, changes something, makes something happen in the real world. Like when a marriage celebrant says, towards the end of the ceremony ‘You are now married’. By saying that phrase, the marriage is brought into being. It is made real.  So it is with these three saying of Jesus here in the locked room. 

When Jesus says, first, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ he changes the identity and purpose of the people in the room.  They are no longer the scared remnant of failed religious movement, hiding away from their enemies. They are a community with a mission: to leave that room, that place of fear, and imitate in their thinking and behaviour all that Jesus has done in their midst. Just as Jesus had imitated what he saw his Father doing in the world. Just so. 

When Jesus then breathes upon them and says, second, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ he changes their relationship with the divine power that is at the heart of every living creature. Rather than being alone and cut off from that power, hidden away in a locked room our of a fear that they will lose their lives, the disciples are changed into a people who breathe in that power, and are therefore reconnected with the life and animation they are given in creation: a liveliness, a spirit, and a divine kinship network that can never be extinguished. A few chapters earlier, afterall, Jesus had said ‘The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (16.32, 33). So here—with the breathing in of the spirit, and in the wake of the extraordinary resurgence of life in the crucified Jesus—the disciples find their power to reconnect with the divine as Jesus had done. And they are emboldened to persevere with their mission despite the inevitable persecution that will come their way.

Finally, when Jesus says ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ the disciples are changed from a marginal community with no power whatsoever into a marginal community with the power both to forgive and not to forgive. Marginal still, mind. But marginal with an important new power. Remember that, in the most dominant forms of Jewish theology at the time, it was only God who could forgive; and only through the mediation and sacrificial system of the temple priesthood.  In time, and in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, that theology would change in Judaism. But, for now, the idea that unordained people (as each of these disciples undoubtedly were) could be granted the power to forgive sins, was rather radical. It is still just a bit too radical for some. Even in a Christian context.  

But think about it for a moment.  There is a sense in which the power to forgive, or not, is the only power of the Christian community. The only legitimate power, you might say, the only power given it by the Jesus of John’s gospel. It is endlessly interesting to me that Jesus did not say ‘Here, receive the power to annex the land of evildoers’, or ‘Receive the power to deprive evil doers of their liberty’. If Jesus had given the church such powers, which he didn’t, I suspect we would have used them for evil purposes. We would have used them to empower ourselves and our mates and exclude those we don’t like, for whatever reason. Reasons of ethnicity, social caste, economic status or gender, for example.  (Of course, the history of the Christian church shows, quite starkly, that the Christian community very often takes such powers to itself, regardless of what Jesus might have said about it). 

Still, the Jesus of St John’s gospel grants us only the power to forgive or not to forgive. Which I take to include a responsibility to discern when someone has truly repented of wrongdoing or not. So, let’s be done, I beg all of you, with every doctrine of forgiveness that pretends to be ‘unconditional’. Love can be unconditional, but forgiveness cannot. You must truly repent and amend your behaviour if you want to be forgiven and reconciled to the one you have wronged, whether that be God, the earth, or other people.  If you seek to be forgiven without repenting and changing your behaviour, the one you have wronged has a right, but also a responsibility according to these words of Jesus, to ‘retain’ your sins rather than to erase them from the ledger. For, if forgiveness is granted in a pre-emptive manner, abuse and bad behaviour is both rewarded and encouraged.  Which is incredibly discouraging news for those of us who are the victims of such abuse. And it does not make for peace as we defined it just a moment ago.  Peace is what you get when victims are heard, recognised, and properly supported on a journey of healing. Peace is what you get when serious attention is given to repair, restitution and the restoration of justice.  Peace is certainly not a ‘Pax Romana’, a ‘peace’ imposed by abusers and designed only to silence the voices of victims.

So then. This is St John’s ‘Pentecost’. A spirit poured out not 50 days after Easter, in fulfillment of a great many dreams and grand story-arcs, but on the evening of Easter itself: in the middle of dreams shattered and rumours of hope which, as yet, make no sense at all.  It is a Pentecost not for the strong, but for the weak. It is a Pentecost not for the centres of worldly power but for the exploited, wounded, periphery. St John’s Pentecost is for everyone who knows that they are broken and alone and in need of reconnection and healing. It is a Pentecost for everyone who feels that their community has become dysfunctional and there seems little chance that things will ever turn around. It is a Pentecost for the victims of injustice and abuse who are right here in our midst and all around. It is a Pentecost for the ravaged and crucified earth, which mob call ‘country’, our Christ. 

If I might be permitted to make the implicit in what I’ve said quite explicit—recasting all I have said just now in an entirely Aboriginal frame—imagine for a moment that country has a voice, and that voice is amongst us, here in this cathedral, here on this sacred meeting place of the Kulin nations. The voice says something like this to us:

Peace be with you.
See the wounds of colonisation?
Still, peace be with you.
As the dreaming has sent me, so I send you.
Receive the spirit of country.
Receive power to forgive the repentant.
Receive power to resist the abusers.

These are the gifts of St John's pentecost. All that remains is that we receive and enact them. 

I wish you all a blessed and truly transformative Pentecost.

Garry Worete Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne,
Pentecost 2023

Wednesday 24 May 2023

'These lands now called Australia'. A most problematic phrase

'Australia' is a name given this continent by colonisers who came from another hemisphere (the 'north'). Thus, 'Australis': 'of the south'. The perspective built into the name is not our perspective. It is the perspective of people who come from elsewhere: the 'north'. The naming of this continent as 'Australia' is therefore part of the colonial project of subjugation and erasure.

From an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspective, the difficulty with naming the whole continent is that we never saw continental scale as important, and therefore we don’t have a traditional, received, name for the whole continent. For us, this continent is primarily many lands and many dreamings: Naarm (Melbourne), tebrukuna (Cape Portland), Meanjin (Brisbane) and so on.  The AIATSIS map of the continent, showing the territories of individual nations and clans, is therefore a tool that can usefully help settlers reimagine where they are.

Some people, in recent times, have decided to refer to the continent as 'these lands now called Australia'. I’m not a fan of this phrase because, whilst it reminds people that ‘Australia’ is a recent name, it also proclaims the supercessionist victory of the colonial imagination. I, personally, wish to problematise that victory at its most fundamental level.

I am sometimes asked why compass points encode a colonial imagination. Aren't they just neutral, applicable everywhere? Well, no, they came to these lands as part of the colonial imaginary. And I am not just talking about words and language here. I'm talking about a whole cosmology. There are not, in fact, 'equivalent' terms or ideas in traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cosmologies. Our cosmologies relate, almost entirely, to smaller biospheres associated with particular regions of this continent. Our spatiality is actually far more complex than European notions of space and difference precisely because they deal primarily with the local rather than the global or continental. We indicate directionality or distinction in space via a completely different imaginary apparatus. Landmarks such as creeks and rivers, represented in relation to each other via songlines, for example, better represent Indigenous spatiality than European compass points - which were, and remain, non-sensical to many of our people.

I am also asked if there may be alternative phrases to 'Australia' or 'These lands now called Australia'. I usually encourage people to use the local mob names for places as much as possible. This encourages the Indigenous discipline of thinking locally and regionally. When referring to the whole continent, however - as it seems we must in the age of the colonial nation state - I encourage the use of terms which highlight the contested nature of that reality. Some examples: 'the colony', 'the continent', 'the Gondwanan sub-continent' and so forth.  Using 'Australia' in inverted commas also draws attention to that contestation, especially if it is prefaced by a phrase such as 'the settler colony of . . .'

Garry Worete Deverell

Tuesday 4 April 2023

The slave of the Lord

 Texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew’s passion

In the calendar of the western church today is ‘Palm’ or, alternatively, ‘Passion’ Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  During the season of Lent we've been journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem.  Today we arrive in Jerusalem, and there we witness Christ's passion, which is the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world.  A few moments ago we read from Matthew's passion narrative.  There we see a Jesus who is unjustly arrested, beaten and tortured by both religious and secular authorities, before he is crucified as an enemy of the state.  There we see a Jesus whose silence before the Emperor's representative makes the moral failures of those all around him all the more loud.  It is a moving story indeed.  But what does this death mean to human beings and to God? Why did Jesus die?  Why did he suffer so? 

In the letter to the Philippians we read an ancient Christian hymn which tries to make sense of these questions.  There we hear of a man who shared in God's own divinity, who knew what it meant to be at one with the Maker.  But, out of profound sense of compassion for human beings in their affliction, he willingly emptied himself of all divine privilege and became, instead, little more than a slave.  Most English bibles translate the greek word doulos as 'servant', which is really a bit weak.  The word really means 'slave'.  

In the society of the Romans, slaves were the lowest of the low. People usually found themselves in slavery either because of poverty or because of conquest. Either way, becoming a slave meant that you were no longer the owner of our own body: you belonged to another. And the tasks of slavery could be severe: long hours of physical or intellectual labour, up to 18 hours a day; you could be called upon for sexual favours; or you could be put to work in the arena or in warfare for your master. A slave, then, was someone who existed entirely for their social betters; a person who had no rights or privileges whatsoever, and certainly no freedom. This, then, was the kind of person Christ became, according to this ancient hymn. Such was the solidarity of Jesus with the poor and wretched of the earth, that he emptied himself of all the privileges of divinity, and suffered that loss that is at the heart of every form of slavery: the stealing of one’s life and livelihood by the rich and the powerful.

But what were the crimes of Jesus?  According to Matthew, Jesus was one who walked amongst the poorest classes of Galilean society, healing and offering words of hope. He got into trouble, it seems, because his message contradicted that of the temple-based aristocracy, who regarded anyone who was poor as 'unclean' or sinful and therefore cut-off from the covenant of Israel with Yahweh.  Jesus challenged their theology and therefore their politics.  He preached that the kingdom of God belonged to the poor, that God loved the poor and heard their cries.  He taught the wretched to call God 'Father', and the privileged to share their bounty with the needy.  He healed those whom polite society did not regard as worthy of being healed. He brought back into mainstream society those who had been cast to its dark and vulnerable edges. All this was far too threatening for the aristocracy, apparently. They worried that it might draw the attention of the Empire in a way that reflected badly upon their capacity to manage dissent. So they arrested Jesus on some trumped-up charges, staged a show trial, and then had him crucified, a death reserved for those found guilty of sedition against the State.

So why did Jesus die?  Because he loved the poor, the vulnerable, and the broken and believed that God loved them too. And that, my friends, is why I personally am a Christian.  Jesus is a sign in the world of God’s love for slaves.  And I love him for it.

The writer to the Philippians calls us to imitate this Christ. 'Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others' he says.  But who are these 'others'?  Well, they are the poor, the wretched and the vulnerable of our nation and our world.  Many of them are our neighbours. Many of them are our fellow Christians, those who sit next to us in church. In a great many cases, they are our very own selves because it is we, ourselves, who are poor, or wretched or vulnerable in some way. Whoever these poor are, God calls us to shoulder their cross, which is the cross of Christ first of all; to turn aside from the pursuit of status, money and privilege, and nurture, instead, an active compassion for God's poor.  Compassion, of course, means ‘suffering-with’, sharing in the affliction and the darkness of all who suffer.  This is what Christ did for us.  This is what God calls us to do with others. I wish you all a holy passiontide.

Garry Deverell

St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne, Palm Sunday 2023

Friday 3 March 2023

'Saved by the Cross of Christ'. But How?

 Text:  Romans 3.22b-31

According to the Apostle Paul, you and I are made right in God’s eyes not by our keeping of God’s law or commandments, but by our faith in God’s gracious gift of righteousness which, we are told, comes to us by way of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In this event, we are told, God reconciles us to himself, for the death of Jesus is not just any death. It is a sacrifice of atonement that puts aside the sin that estranges us from God so that we might be reconciled to God once more. Therefore, says Paul, there can be no room for boasting in the Christian community. Who we are and what we have is a gift, pure and simple. No one can brag about how much they’ve achieved, because the power to be right in God’s eyes is a power that comes not from the human person, but from the free sacrifice of God’s own son for our sake.

Surely we moderns would have a few questions to ask about all this, however. If God is willing to forgive our sins, no matter how good or bad we’ve been, why doesn’t God just get on and do that without any fuss? Why is it necessary to have all this complicated business about sacrificing Jesus on the cross? Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to say ‘I’m o.k., you’re o.k.’ and leave it at that? And wouldn’t Jesus himself have been significantly better off?

Well, a number of theories have been put forward to explain why Jesus had to die, some of them better than others. The one that has been most influential in our own Reformed tradition was championed by Jean Calvin and is often known as the theory of ‘penal substitution’. Here God is likened to a Lawmaker and Judge who, having made the laws that define sin and goodness, is now compelled to enforce that law for the sake of consistency, even if the consequences are catastrophic. For if the penalty of sin is death, then all are destined to suffer the punishment of death, for all have sinned. Now, that can be put in a more nuanced way, of course. One could argue that death is not a penalty that God imposes so much as the interior meaning of sin itself—i.e. that sin is the beginning of death in the midst of life, because it is a straying from God as the source of life—which I think is right. Yet the logical result, in the end, is still the same. That everyone who sins dies, and that God, having made a universe in which it works like that, is still ultimately responsible for the fact. What Calvin argued for, as a way of salvation for us all, was the death of the righteous man Jesus, in the place of the rest of humanity, who are sinners. Jesus is punished instead of us. Jesus dies in our place, so that we don’t have to be punished at all.

There are a number of rather obvious problems with this account. First, how is it possible that the sacrifice of only one righteous man manages to pay the debt of sin for all people? Isn’t there are serious mismatch there? Why would God, under his own rule of an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ wipe out the debt of millions? Second, and more seriously in my view, isn’t there something a little immoral in letting people off the hook so easily? If people who are troubled by their own sins, or the sins of their world, turn up to church and all we have to tell them is that ‘God is no longer angry about your sin—all God’s anger was spent on Jesus’, I’m not sure that they’re going to be that impressed. Because the next day they’re going to be caught up in sin all over again, and they’re not going to feel that sin has been finally dealt with.

There is something deep in the human psyche that knows jolly well that sin cannot be entirely done away with apart from an act of the will, a deeply moral choice to turn away from one’s past and live differently. We all know that moral truth, deep down. From that perspective, then, a God who lets us off the hook apart from that moral striving would be an immoral God. Note that Paul himself, at the end of the passage we read just now, does not exempt Christians from keeping the law of God. Finally, then, the biggest problem with the penal substitution theory of atonement is that it is all so objective, and impersonal. It’s like ‘O, so Jesus suffered the punishment for my sin? Right. And all this happened two-thousand years ago? Right. Well. That’s great, I guess, but why don’t I feel forgiven?’ To summarise: we all know, deep down, that an objective transaction between Jesus and his Father a long time ago is of no real help for us right now, in this world, at this time, in the midst of the broken lives we are dealing with.

So, if Jesus didn’t die to take God’s punishment for my sins, what possible purpose can there be in his death? And, more importantly, what relevance (if any) has that death for us today, here in the midst of our struggles with sins both personal and corporate? Well, strangely enough, some of the answers can be found in the passage we just read. For what Paul says about the death of Jesus is this: that it is his sacrificial death that effects an atonement or a reconciliation between God and ourselves. Sacrificial. That word is the key. Let me dwell on that for a moment.

Now, any botanist or zoologist will tell you that in order for some kinds of lives to continue, other lives have to come to an end - in order for human beings to stay alive, for example, plants and animals have to lose their lives. This pattern is repeated a hundred times over in the biosphere of which we are merely a part. Now, this simple biological fact has been dramatised since ancient times by means of various rituals of sacrifice. For the Jewish people, a system of ritual animal and vegetable sacrifices served to remind them that their lives were made possible because of death. What the Jews added to this basic anthropological understanding, though, was a theology—a story about what this might mean for God. God, they believed, had made a personal sacrifice even in creating the world. For the existence of the world spoke of a God who had chosen to limit or sacrifice God’s influence and power so that another reality or power, a cosmos, could come into being—a cosmos inhabited by beings who were genuinely free to exercise an independent will and power over and against the will and power of God. Theologically, one could then say that life itself, especially human life, can only be because God chose, and continues to choose, to sacrifice something of God’s sovereignty out of a desire to form a relationship or covenant with a cosmos and humanity that are in no way simply puppets, playthings of divine power. What this Jewish theology means, of course, is that God can no longer be thought as a monarch or tyrant who always gets his way. On the contrary, this God is one who freely chooses to be vulnerable, vulnerable to all that we human beings would do. God sacrifices God’s power and will that we human beings might be capable centres of will and power as well. We do not, of course, use our freedom and power particularly well. By and large, we have used our will and power to turn away from God, making the world according to our own independent vision.

In this perspective, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should be seen, first of all, as a divine self-sacrifice. Not the killing of an innocent man to turn aside the wrath of an angry tyrant, but a potent and effective symbol of the way God was, and is, and always will be with the world. A God of costly love. A God who sacrifices God’s own will to create the possibility of relationship with his others, with you and me. For Jesus is not simply you and me. He is God, the divine Son who goes out from the Father to invite all to turn away from the terrible wastefulness of sin and be reconciled to God. Jesus is God’s invitation to turn, to repent, and to accept God’s ever-new invitation to be reconciled with God in making a world that is finally healed and whole, a world of peace or shalom. Jesus is God’s invitation to forgiveness which is, of course, nothing other than the making-new of a broken relationship.

But there is another aspect to the sacrifice of Jesus, and this is the bit of the story that Calvin and his followers have never, ever come to terms with. The sacrifice of Jesus, you see, is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Let me repeat that. The cross of Jesus is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Jesus, you see, is not only God. He is a human being who shares our nature in every way. He is one who has none of the privileges of his father: he does not see all, he does not understand all, he cannot do anything that he wishes to. Christ confronted his own future with nothing other than the resources that are given to everyone. In that, he was utterly and entirely human. Yet, and this is crucial, Christ is unique in the pantheon of human histories because he used his freedom, his will, and his personal resources, not to please himself alone, nor even to serve the collective will of his society and culture, but to do the will of his Father God. What Christ desired, more than anything else it seems, was to love and serve the one who loved and served him. In this perspective, the sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice that any human being could make if they really and truly desired relationship with God: the putting away of all that keeps us from knowing and loving God, all those unhealthy addictions and allegiances, so that there is room in our lives for what God might will and desire. In that sense, Christ is what each of us might be if we truly loved and trusted God.

This, then, is how the death of Jesus saves us, right here and now, in the midst of the real world we must negotiate every day. It reminds us that God is no tyrant, but one who continually sacrifices God’s own life that we might be alive and free. It reminds us that God is continually inviting us to have done with evil and violence and turn, instead, towards a reconciled relationship with God, a reconciliation that makes for peace, justice and love in the world. But the death of Jesus reminds us, also, that there are no short-cuts to reconciliation with God. We, too, are called to make our sacrifice. For that is how it is with relationship. Each partner receives his or her life from the other, from the other’s willingness to be hospitable, to make space in their hearts for other’s desires and dreams. So let’s face the fact, squarely: in a world such as ours, making room for God’s dreams means, in the end, a very costly putting aside or sacrificing of many of our own dreams, those dreams bequeathed to us by family and society—the dream of a prosperity that doesn’t include people other than own family or tribe, for example. Without dying to idols such as these, says the gospel, without joining with Jesus in his deliberately counter-cultural lifestyle, there can be no salvation.

The grace offered us in Christ, you see, is not cheap grace but “costly” grace. I quote Bonhoeffer once more, of course. Yes, God has invited us to God’s banqueting-table. Yes, God has sacrificed God’s own self in order to make it possible for us to be reconciled with joy. Yes, God has shown us to the way in Christ. But no, we will never get there unless we struggle daily to make Christ’s way our own, to accept God’s grace in the shape of a daily discipleship that calls upon the power of Christ’s Spirit to resist the spirit of the world in which we live. That is how Christ saves us: by calling us to sacrifice ourselves, via a thoroughgoing participation in Jesus’ own sacrifice, so that in dying to this world and its sin, we might have done with such things, and share in the glorious future of the children of God.

Garry Deverell

St Paul's Catheral
Evensong, 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday 5 February 2023

The Law, the Prophets and Justice for First Peoples

Texts: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

In the gospel reading we heard from just now, Matthew has Jesus say: 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So what is this ‘law’ that Jesus does not intend to abolish, and who are these ‘prophets’ whose oracles Jesus intends to fulfill? 

The law is the law of Moses, the law given to Israel after they have fled slavery in Egypt. You know, the ten words or commandments. You can read about them in Exodus chapter 20.  Amongst the laws are these:

You shall have no gods before Yahweh.

You shall not worship idols.

Keep the sabbath.

You shall not murder.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbour.

‘Do not think, for one moment,’ says the Matthean Jesus, ‘that I have come to do away with this law.  I have not.  This law will stand until the age has reached its conclusion. Keep this law, and you will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Break this law, and you will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven’.

The law stands, then. It has not be swept away by some cheap and unnuanced understanding of ‘grace’ or ‘forgiveness’, as some seem to believe. It stands. And you and I, who believe in the teaching of Jesus, are called to keep it.

The prophets, whose oracles Jesus came to fulfill, bear witness to the importance of the law. It was on the basis of this law that Isaiah, for example, passed judgment on the nobles and landowners of Israel in the 8th century BCE. 

Isaiah criticises the wealthy for abandoning the law of God in three respects. First, they steal from their own workers, those who labour in their farms and vineyards. They cheat their workers of their just wages. Second, they tell lies about one another and plan violent assaults upon one another in the hope of securing the wealth that belongs to their neighbours. Third, they are content to allow the hungry in their communities to remain hungry. They will not share their plenty with those who are poor through no fault of their own. They will not take such folk into their homes and tend their wounds. They remain aloof and uncaring. Thus, in these three respects, the wealthy are chided by the prophet for their lack of neighbourly care. For a neighbour who cares will not steal. A neighbour who cares will not lie and plan violence against othersr. A neighbour who cares, will not hoard what they have and fail to share it with those who have nothing.

Now, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is like a new Moses, a new Isaiah. He is Moses comes from Egypt to give the law again. He is Isaiah come to warn the wealthy Jewish collaborators with Empire – the Roman empire – that their greed and indifference will result only in their ruin.

‘Why’, he says, ‘can you not be like salt, which gives a meal its tang, and makes it attractive?’ ‘Why,’ he says, ‘can you not be like a light on a hill, paragons of justice that inspire others to be good, and to love, and to take mind of one’s neighbours?’

These are exactly the questions that face us as a church and a nation.

Australia is a nation that has become powerful by coveting, stealing,  murdering and slaving. Coveting Aboriginal lands, murdering those who sought to defend it, stealing that land and carrying its children off into slavery and domestic servitude.

Our church worked hand in glove with the colonial authorities. We participated in the stealing, the murdering and the slaving. Indeed, we actually ran the institutions that did a lot of the damage.

That, my friends, is why Aboriginal Australia is in such distress, even now. It is why we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. It is why our kids take their own lives at rates unrivalled by any other people group. It is why we regularly die in the custody of justice officials but no one has ever – ever! – been held accountable for such deaths. It is why we still have so little ownership or control of our own lives or the land that was given us by God. It is why we most of us remain sick and poor.

All because church and state broke every single one of those commandments that Jesus came to teach and to fulfill. All because the church failed in the duty to be a neighbour.

Now, for thirty years, I have seen the church pray for Aboriginal people. I have seen the church say sorry to Aboriginal people. I’ve even seen the church set up Aboriginal councils, ‘Voices’, if you will, to advise Synods and bishop’s councils on what to do about the Aboriginal ‘problem’. What I have not seen in those 30 years, however, is a church that will do anything much at all about justice, about the fulfilling of the law and the prophets after the way of Jesus. I have not seen a church hand back the land it stole. I have not seen a church compensate the families of those whose children it took away and sold into slavery or domestic servitude. I have never seen a church do positive things to reverse the trends: set Aboriginal employment benchmarks, or give to Aboriginal leaders real power in the church to do things differently, in ways that make sense to us, in ways that will foster pride and the healing.  I have not seen the church do any of these neighbourly things.  I have not seen a church that can even begin to understand what costly love might require.

I have only seen a church of thoughts and prayers, of words and glossy brochures.

In this way the tragedy of the church in this place, in this country, is related to the tragedy of my people. By failing to be the church – to love the neighbour rather than murder, rape and steal from the neighbour – the church guarantees that its neighbour will suffer rather than thrive.  The church carries the guilt of its original sin, and so fails to thrive. To be salty, to be a light for the nations.

But the good news is this: the story of our church and nations is not yet complete, it is not yet over.  I am here with you today to remind you of your power to change the story.  Allow me to quote from Isaiah once more: 

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

As we prepare to enter the fast known as Lent, there is before us yet another opportunity for the church to turn around, to forsake its evils, and to walk the way of Christ. To embrace a far more thoroughgoing fast. To finally do some measure of justice, so that the oppressed can begin their long walk to freedom.  For in the freedom of Aboriginal peoples is your freedom. In the liberation of those whom you have long oppressed is your own liberation. 

So, write to your churchly leaders, if you have a care. Implore them to do justice on your behalf. Write to your national leaders, implore them to take care for the First People of this land. Implore them all to make treaty with us, to enact a more just settlement that is able to heal the wounds that rend us all.  If you do this, your light will finally rise and the gloom that afflicts us all will be replaced by the brightness of noon.

I stand amongst you as one who does not like to say these things because doing so places me in a vulnerable position. But, as a disciple of Christ who knows nothing but Christ and him crucified, it sometimes falls to me to say what needs to be said. So I encourage you, I implore you, I beg you: choose to walk with Jesus as he commends to us the way of the law and the prophets. In this way lies justice for First Peoples, and ultimately healing for us all.

Garry Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2023