Written by Dr Jehan Loza
Last Thursday the 21st of January 2015 I posted Part One of “How Can We Promote Reconciliation Between the Australian Church and Aboriginal Australia”? Today the article will continue with Part 2.
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?
Three years ago, while reflecting on the Aboriginal condition, I suddenly had what I thought was a great idea. I immediately rang my pastor at the time and told him that it was imperative and urgent that our church, in fact that the ACC overall, develop a RAP. I argued that the RAP should contain an apology and a set of practical steps as to how the ACC would work with Aboriginal Australians to bridge the gap both internally in its own organisation through initiatives such as employment and training, and externally through social welfare initiatives. After a lengthy discussion, where I attempted to explain to my pastor why this was such a leading edge initiative, he responded with, ‘there is too much diversity within the ACC’, I said, ‘Ok forget the ACC! We can just do it for our own church’. He said he would think about it.
Nothing came of the conversation.
This is not to argue that the development of RAPs by the Australian church is evidence of active engagement towards reconciliation. Rather, it is to suggest that the church is not engaging fully in the reconciliation agenda. According to Baum and Wells (1997), this lack of engagement is sometimes driven by the fear that engaging in divided relationships might bring the division into the church. At other times the lack of engagement is because of the church’s own guilt in being complicit to the division itself. For whatever reason, the question remains: What should active engagement look like for the Australian church?
The Church: To engage or not to engage is a question of theology!
Goheen (2001) asserts that the church is a minority in its culture and this means that it has the ability to question things that others do not. The church stands against the dominant cultural story as an alternative story – the true story. That is, the church is an alternative community, embodying a different story of understanding and living in the world.
However, based on the history of the church’s relations with Aboriginal Australia, can we make this claim?
Does the church appear to Aboriginal people as embodying an alternative story? Or is it perceived to reinforce, at the very least, be complicit to the dominant story of Western supremacy and oppression?
Goheen (2001:350) goes on to argue that, “the Christian community is properly counter-cultural only to the extent that it is engaged in culture; conversely, the church is properly engaged in culture only to the extent that it is counter-cultural”. Perhaps, then, the answer lies in the question: To what extent is the Australian church engaged with its cultural context as it relates to Aboriginal Australians?
According to Reconciliation Network (2005), there are several ideologies of escapism that make the church complicit and divert it from seeking full and active reconciliation. These are:
- Dualistic theologies: which keep the church silent about social concerns, naming enemies as purely non-human evil spirits, while preaching the message of individual salvation without transformation as sufficient.
- Ethnocentrism, racialism, sexism or nationalism: promote the fallacy of groups divided by gender, race and culture while also promoting the loyalty to and self-interest of such groups as an end in itself rather than loyalty to Jesus alone, who calls us to love our neighbours not just our own.
- A false belief in God’s creation of essentially different people: this justifies fixed boundaries between groups of people and includes heretic teachings that separate orders of people (e.g. Hamitic ideology).
- A spirit of individualism: marked by disunity, competitiveness, schisms and splits across and within denominations, churches and ministries. This disunity blinds our ability to see the need for reconciliation.
- Adopting numbers of conversion or church plants as a primary measure of Christianity’s growth: this allows churches and ministries to grow with superficial discipleship, homogenously, or in ways that perpetuate histories of separation and alienation.
- An underlying message of cheap grace: encourages shallow resolutions, a superficial discipleship which is powerless to engage social pain and reconciliation without repentance.
I would argue that it is point one above, the existence of dualistic theologies so common to traditional theology that maintains the existence of the five other ideologies and is what allows the church to, overall, remain disengaged from reconciling with Aboriginal Australia.
Bevans (2011) notes that traditional theology has been used to reinforce and privilege the status quo of (often) white middle class western men. I would add that it has also been used to reinforce oppressive power constructions that define relations between men and women, west and east, young and old and so on. As Mclaren (2007:148) states: “the modern Western understanding of the gospel was too often truncated, shallow, thin, bland, anaemic, privatized, personalized, polarized, and compromised”.
In February 2012, just before the leaders of our church were to gather for our fortnightly Combined Discipleship meeting, my husband approached our Senior Pastor and said, ‘I have something that is on my heart. Did you know that there are 1000 Aboriginal people living within two kilometres of this church? And while our church looks like a welcoming environment for people from an Asian background, I don’t think Aboriginal people would feel comfortable here’.
The response was, ‘make an appointment with my PA to speak to me about this after the conference’ (the Conference was held in mid April).
This conversation came subsequent to several others with another Senior Leader of the church who had committed to making contact with my husband on this specific issue three times over a four month period.
We left the church seven months later with no further conversations on this issue and no evidence that the church had began a serious inquiry into the issue.
Bevans (2009) calls for a contextual theology as one based on a rich and challenging dialogue, a theology that honours the experience of context with tradition and Scripture. Such a theology, he claims, will be one that is not tied to Western ways, themes and methods of theology. Contextual theology is an approach where one might have to read against the grain of traditional theology and this can become a powerful tool to fight against dominant constructs of oppression. In fact, the key to contextual theology is oppression and its major proponents have come from the Third World (Perkins 1976).
In their struggle against oppression, these Christians have turned to scripture, and their wrestle with Scripture has found that, “the theological struggle is itself a struggle for theological liberation” (Perkins 1976:288). They have come to realise that the theology they have received is based on a dehumanising tendency of Western hegemony; a theology that acts to serve the Western power structures, justifying hierarchical structures of authority in both society and church, while preserving colonial or neo-colonial impositions (Perkins 1976, Reddie 2007).
Reading against the grain of Paul’s writings, Reddie (2007) claims that in Galatians (3:28), Paul is concerned that those who have been reconciled to Christ should not be divided since it is through community life that God’s plan to reconcile all things will be witnessed. Paul pleads for a unity of that which divides slave and master, Jew and Gentile, male and female. This theme of homogeneity is filtered throughout the Bible but, according to Reddie (2007), White theologians have appropriated the language of homogeneity in Christ to construct an abstract and context-less theology. They have done this by “sublimating the reality of contextual particularity” (of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or economics) to address the seemingly more generic, spiritual and theological concerns that transcend all difference. Notwithstanding the inherently embodied and contextual reality that was and is the Incarnation (that Jesus was a human, born in a specific setting), Reddie (2007) claims that Christianity has perpetuated a dualistic framework by cordoning off the material and physical from the abstract and spiritual and concludes that, as a consequence, the Church has learned to ignore the material needs and the embodied nature of human subjectivity.
According to Reddie (2007), while the Nicene and Apostle Creeds tell us what Jesus stands for in terms of his symbolic, universalizing work of atonement and salvation, they tell us nothing about his liberating actions so exemplified by his life. In this spiritualised and abstract framework, Jesus is constructed as the fair, decent and kind bloke who does not take sides because he loves everyone. This Jesus does ‘not get his hands dirty’ nor does he get involved in the unfortunate and ‘can’t be helped’ nasties of things such as the racism and violence spread across the globe and which has characterised the life experiences of Black people.
By embellishing the hyper-spiritualised nature of Christ’s saving work, Western Christianity has been able to substitute practice with rhetoric. The effect of this is that Christian discipleship becomes tantamount with those who say the right words and identify with Jesus’ saving work without needing to follow his radical and countercultural actions (Reddie 2007).
Liberation theology, such as that of Reddie (2007), and his insistence on a theology of the material and physical that emphasises difference is critical. Such a theology does much to liberate oppressed people from dominant theologies that have rendered them invisible and worthless, justifying injustice and oppression. However, liberation theology, ultimately, does little to overcome the dualistic thinking between Us and Them. In fact, it can often serve to reinforce the concept of radically different Others that are unable to connect with one another. Therefore liberation theology, on its own, does little to promote a reconciliation agenda. In fact, Kaggwa (2003) argues that the categories of oppression and liberation have ruled theological reflection on social issues. However, these are not useful concepts and are detrimental in dealing with cultural conflicts. Kaggwa makes the point that this is because such categories can be used to provide either side with moral weapons “that make the battles so much deadlier”. Even when the perpetuator can be clearly named, argues Kaggwa:
…we need much more that simply to liberate the oppressed by defeating the oppressor. Since the former oppressors and the oppressed must continue living together as neighbours, we must work towards reconciliation. Liberation does this only to a limited extent (Kaggwa 2003:253).
Extending this, Sultan (2007), argues that liberation theology and liberation of the oppressed on its own does not adequately meet the demand of Christian mission since both oppressor and oppressed must be transformed with renewal needing to come about first in the oppressor and then in the oppressed.
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