This article is written by By Dr Jehan Loza
Dr Jehan Loza holds a PhD in Sociology (Deakin University), a Masters of Vocational Practice – Church Practice at Tabor and has nearly 25 years experience undertaking qualitative evaluation and research with a range of stakeholders both in Australia and internationally.
Jehan has worked across diverse cultural and geographical contexts including with Indigenous communities. She has intimate knowledge of community and organisational capacity building processes and has applied this knowledge both practically and theoretically in her work.
How can a theology and practice of reconciliation promote intercultural contact and understanding in ways that can facilitate reconciliation between the Australian church and Aboriginal Australia?
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore, Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:17-20, NIV).
There is a deep chasm between my vocational context (as a social research and evaluation specialist with a focus on Aboriginal Australia) and my church context. For the last eight years, Social Compass researched and evaluated Indigenous programs and relations across the government, corporate and not-for-profit-sectors. We have evaluated programs for the Federal Government’s ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative and we have worked with large and small corporations and organisations developing their Aboriginal Employment Policies, Aboriginal Engagement Programs and drafting their Aboriginal Reconciliation Plans (RAPs). Our work has given us a privileged access into Aboriginal communities. Across Australia, we have sat and talked with Australia’s Aboriginals and we have shared their frustrations and shed tears over their trauma and oppression.
I have also sat in pentecostal churches and heard the theological rhetoric spewed forth from the pulpit – a rhetoric that talks of love, forgiveness and oneness in Christ; a rhetoric that tells me to love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my soul and love my neighbour as myself. Yet, I see little evidence of my church living the words it preaches within its own four walls or outside it and nor have those words better equipped me to do so.
And to be honest I am embarrassed. I have often thought, ‘What would my government and corporate clients think if they sat here too’? And I am thankful that they are not for the rhetoric that my church speaks of does not even include this nation’s most oppressed people!
I have sat in church and been incredulous at the lack of awareness of the pain, trauma and oppression of our Aboriginal Australians. That is, while rhetoric is spoken about love for my neighbour, the poor and the oppressed, I am yet to hear it applied to my Aboriginal brothers and sisters let alone see evidence of action towards loving these brothers and sisters under the banner of Christ.
Why is there a persistent theological and practical blindness by the Australian church to the Aboriginal condition?
I use a series of personal vignettes to illustrate the intersection of my vocational context with the apathetic, and, dare I proclaim, racist context of my local church and its ‘traditional’ theological approach – the aim being to highlight the theological myopia and even (current) oppressive practices that exists in the Australian church, more broadly, and my local church specifically.
There is a divide between (traditional) Scripture and the lived realities and historical context of Aboriginal people – a context marked by a persistent conflict, oppression and distrust. A theology and practice that seeks to go to the heart of these matters places human experience and tradition and Scripture in a dialectic relationship. The theology and practice I speak of is one of reconciliation: a ministry of reconciliation and a reconciling mission.
A ministry of reconciliation and a reconciling mission has intercultural dialogue and contact between the church and Aboriginal Australia at its core. It is a theology and practice based on spirit-led, holy relationships bringing to fruition, by word and deed, the unity, oneness and forgiveness by which, as Christians, we are called.
The ‘emerging’ question therefore, is: How can a theology and practice of reconciliation promote intercultural contact and understanding in ways that can facilitate reconciliation between the Australian church and Aboriginal Australia?
But first, what is reconciliation and what is the current state of affairs with respect to the nation’s and the churches reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia?
Australia’s Reconciliation Agenda: Where is the Church?
There is no one agreed definition of reconciliation since the term has different nuances in different contexts. According to some, reconciliation is merely an ideological tool for perpetrators to erase the past from their acts of crime. For others, it means conflict resolution and mediation; while for others still it is about seeking justice and compensation for victims (Schreiter 1998, Kaggwa 2003). Then there are those who believe reconciliation is about healing from trauma and the pain of memory and others who believe it is about the moral reconstructing of broken societies. Despite the diversity of views, one thing is certain, argues Kaggwa (2003:253), and that is that reconciliation “is about seeking justice, healing memories, rebuilding societies”.
Australia’s historical relationship with Aboriginal people has been characterised by conflict and, in some places, frontier battles. Massacre sites have been identified across the country with more continually being identified. This is a history built on violence and oppression, a history that has stripped our First Nation’s people from their spiritual and cultural identities, and in those exposed and empty places, has infected it with violence, trauma and oppression. Like a virus, the physical manifestations of white man’s ways are manifested in the high rates of diabetes and alcoholism, the trauma fuels lateral and domestic violence, sexual abuse and high rates of suicide and the oppression is played out in loss of aspiration and hope and a dependency on welfare.
Who could disagree with Wilken (1992:67) when he asserts that:
One has to say that sin is structured into Australian society, and has been since 1788. What might be described as the primal (or original) sin of the Australian people is the injustice done by the European settlers to the original inhabitants of this continent.
The process of recognising our past sins and seeking to rectify them, through the commitment of reconciliation, has been a slow one and one long overdue.
The 1987 Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody signified the beginning of Australia’s formal reconciliation process. In its report, the Royal Commission recommended that political leaders and their parties acknowledge that reconciliation between Aboriginal Australia and other Australians can only be achieved when community division and injustice to Aboriginal Australians is addressed. Shortly after, the Australian Government established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (now known as Reconciliation Australia) and charged it with the task of promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginal Australians.
During 1995-1997, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conducted a national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal children from their families. The report released in 2001, Bringing them Home, presented 54 recommendations which included areas such as apologies by those involved in the forced removal of Aboriginal children (government, churches, police) and included measures for restitution, rehabilitation and compensation.
Since that time, reconciliation has been firmly on the Australian Government’s agenda and consecutive governments have sought to implement various policies and programs aimed at bridging the divide between Aboriginal Australia and non-Aboriginal Australia, with the most well known initiative being ‘Closing the Gap’.
In the last decade, the Australian not-for-profit sector and Australian corporations, both large and small, have also adopted a reconciliation agenda with many developing Aboriginal Relations Policies and Programs and Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP)
But what of the Australian Church?
Historically the church has been a significant player in the Aboriginal scene. Arriving in 1821, the Wesleyan Missionary Society was the first missionary settlement in Australia. By the 19th century, church settlements of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran were scattered throughout Australia. To varying degrees, these churches established missions with the aim of spreading the gospel and converting Aboriginal communities to Christianity. Missionaries brought with them not just a new faith but a new way of life and each missionary group combined varying degrees of oppressive paternalism and progressive respect for Aboriginal culture and tradition (Mikhailovich and Pavli 2011).
On the missions, nearly every aspect of Aboriginal life was governed. In cooperation with governments, missions: “controlled the language Aboriginal people spoke, their housing, their labour, their wages, their education, their movements to or from their communities, their relationships, their expression of sexuality, their religious practices, their marriages and their children” (Mikhailovich and Pavli 2011:10) . And nearly all missions (established from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century) actively participated in the removal of children from their families. These children are today known as the Stolen Generations.
According to Mikhailovich and Pavli (2011), the missions’ era is remembered with mixed feelings. For some it is remembered as a time when community life was stable and disciplined, while for others, it is remembered with much grief and pain.
15th November 2012
Yesterday I did an interview with a Stolen Generations woman. She told me how she lost a daughter 15 years ago and another 2 years ago – run over on a freeway by three different cars! Having spent years searching for her family and then finding them, she lost her younger brother earlier this year. She is living on TAC benefits but this not providing her with enough income to survive. Currently she is eating Weetbix and milk which is all she can afford. She is worried that she might default on her rent payment this month and definitely does not have the $25 to pay for her funeral plan. As she told me her story she cried and despite all my professional senses I cried with her. I hung up the phone having promised to visit her on Sunday with a bag of fruit and vegetables and to sit with her and have a yarn. Her last words to me were:
‘don’t talk to me about church, my foster parents were Christians. They were cruel to me. I don’t believe in that stuff’.
This woman lives 10 minutes from the city campus of ‘my’ church ‘Planet Shakers’ which we left in 2012. One of the reasons we have left the church is its lack of commitment to social justice issues. I am angry that ‘my’ church does not know about this woman and the many others like her scattered throughout Melbourne’s city. I’m not even sure if ‘my’ church even knows what a Stolen Generations person is! I will try and find a parachurch organisation that can help this woman on an ongoing basis.
The national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal children from their families occurred at a time when Australian churches were wrestling with the effects of missions on Aboriginal life and culture. The Bringing Them Home Report served to accelerate this process by confronting churches with in-depth stories highlighting the complicit role of churches in the separation of children from their families (Australian Human Rights Commission, 1998).
The Australian church was quick to respond to one of the recommendations of the Report; and many churches offered public apologies (see for example apologies made by the Anglican Church of Australia, the Seven Day Adventist Church, The Uniting Church and the World Council of Churches among some of those documented in the Social Justice Report, 1998). However, the Social Justice Report concluded that, while this was a positive first step, there was still much for the churches as institutions, communities of faith, and as distinct sections of society, to initiate (Australian Human Rights Commission, 1998).
This call to action was not new. More than 30 years before the Social Justice Report was released, The Catholic Weekly proposed a challenge to its community by printing the following headline: ‘Statement remains rhetoric unless Church backs words with action’. The article was intended to raise the social conscience of the Church by reporting the National Aboriginal and Islander Liberation Movement’s cynicism over the Statement’s ‘nice words’. The Movement’s General Secretary, Naomi Mayers, expressed it the following way:
…because of early neglect and silence, they [the Church] share a responsibility for genocide: in fact they are more responsible than others, because Christians, above all, should and could have prevented the tragic injustices to which Aborigines were subjected, just as they should and can play a far more active role now (cited in O’Sullivan, 2006:7).
It is important to note that 40 years after this view was expressed some Australian churches are indeed playing an active role in engaging and reconciling relationships with Aboriginal communities. However, it is fair to say that the majority are not. For example, from over 400 organisations across the government, corporate and not-for-profit sector, only four churches have or are currently developing a RAP (St John’s Anglican Church –Monovale NSW, Baptist Union of Civic, Church of Christ, Wembley Downs WA, and Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba).
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_________ (1998), ‘Chapter 3: Church Responses’ Social Justice Report, Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra.
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Reconciliation Australia, www.reconciliation.org.au