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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


  1. Interesting attempt to synchretise Christianity with the devil worship of aboriginal paganism.
    But allow me congratulate you on doing your part to drive innumerable nails into the coffin of the Voice referrendum. You probably should have been more careful than to have your subversive manifesto recorded on video!

    1. I'm really pleased to see that Garry's thoughtful explanation of the Voice referendum is being widely publicised, to an audience more used to misinformation. I'm sure you'll be encouraged to hear that there are at least 30-40 people at my own church who attended Garry's presentation and are now convinced to vote yes. We found his views to be robustly Christian, compassionate, clear and compelling.
      For myself, I grew up among Baptists, whom I deeply respected. They would be very ashamed, I think, to see someone calling themselves a Baptist who hides behind anonymity to abuse a fellow person of faith. Is this really how you follow the way of Jesus?

    2. Thanks for your kindness. And thanks for your appreciation of my syncretism. We all do it, of course, whether consciously or unconsiously. Your own version of the faith, for example, seems to be a synchretic union of coloniality and biblicism. Thanks, also, for sharing my lecture on the Statement from the Heart. I'm most grateful.