Grasstree Gathering: surely it’s time for recognition, unity and respect?

Grasstree Gathering

Australia’s indigenous peoples form a small minority (2.8%) in the country they once had to themselves, and have suffered significantly since white colonisation (which can reasonably be seen as an invasion). About three quarters identify as christian.

They tend to be a spiritual people, but it can be difficult for them to meet with other indigenous christians, because of their small numbers and often remote locations. Grasstree Gathering was organised to offer this opportunity.

Grasstree was held in Sydney this past week. 85 indigenous christian leaders and potential leaders attended for several days, some leaving their remote community for the first time. Non-indigenous christians were invited to support the Gathering in several ways, including attending several of the events.

We were privileged to attend, and meet many of the delegates.

Symposium

A full day symposium was held to inform white Australians like me about indigenous culture and viewpoints.

Aboriginal christians see their indigenous spirituality as consistent with the christianity they now believe, and one theme of the symposium was correcting what they see as a wrong impression among non-indigenous christians that their traditional spirituality is pagan or worse. They believe, I think with some justification, that they have a lot to offer the white christian church.

They naturally feel they have in the past been unfairly invaded and mistreated, and since then displaced, marginalised and disrespected. They feel they are still often treated as second class citizens who have to change to adapt to white people’s ways that they often feel are not good. It is hard to argue against this, even though it hurts to admit that “my people” have perpetrated injustices and mistreatment.

Even more hurtful is the clear fact that many white Australians simply don’t care about the hurts aboriginal peoples have suffered, and still feel, often thinking they should “just get over it”. I was asked by one aboriginal leader why I think that there is so little empathy and support even from white christians, was the issue simply too political? I had to say I suspect it is laziness and lack of christian love – for if we care, we will have to do something about it.

The interesting, and sometimes surprising, thing is that the aboriginal christians bear so little malice. Their plea is simply that we non-indigneous christians walk with them. They ask us to be accomplices in making change, helping make a better Australia and a stronger church.

The symposium also addressed aboriginal history, writing, art and education. I learnt a lot, and made a few new friends.

Uncle Rex and his wife Ida, from remote Central Australia are interviewed by Steve Bevis (a white pastor and singer from the same area) about life, spirituality and art.

Artist Safina Stewart explains the genesis of one of her artworks.

Prayer gathering

At a previous Grasstree Gathering, Brooke Prentis, who organised this gathering, had a vision of a place she had never visited, where she foresaw aboriginal and non-aboriginal christians gathering together to pray for reconciliation. Almost two years ago, Brooke came to speak at our church, and we took her to Kurnell, where Captain Cook first had dealings with aboriginal people. There she saw the place she had seen in her vision, a significant location in Australian and aboriginal history.

Her vision came to fruition this week as a large group of indigenous and non-indigenous christians (as in the photo at top) came together to pray for unity and to symbolically express solidarity.

It was a deeply moving time for me.

Sand and ashes from places all over Australia were placed on the map of the 300 aboriginal nations, and mixed, to symbolise the unity in diversity of indigenous and non-indigenous christians across this land.

Safina explains the symbolism of the sand and ashes.

Celebration night

This was more of a fun night, as a range of indigenous artists performed song and dance.

An ad hoc singing group from North Queensland and Torres Strait.

Aboriginal artworks, one of which was presented to the school whose venue was used for the night.

Sightseeing day

The day after the gathering concluded, we led about 30 of the delegates on a sightseeing day around Sydney city and harbour. It was a great opportunity to make some new friends.

On the ferry.

The group after lunch at Watsons Bay.

Reflections

Grasstree 2018 was a great blessing to us. We learnt, shared a small part of the journey, made new friends and gained a new status as “accomplices” in bringing indigenous and non-indigenous christians together. I don’t see this as my main mission in life, but I think christian love demands that I respond as best I can.

Aboriginal people have much to offer the Australian church – for example their humour, their sense of community, their laid-back nature, their spirituality and their focus on the essentials of following Jesus.

I hope many Australian christians are willing to journey with them, learn from them, support them and make a better Australia.

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Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

More than two billion people in the world today identify as followers of Jesus. This includes a fair percentage of inhabitants of the USA, currently the world’s most powerful nation, its most influential via film, TV, social media and popular music, and home of some of the world’s richest people.

My country, Australia, still has a significant christian presence (maybe 10%), and you’ll find followers of Jesus in every first world country, as well as all over the rest of the world.

It is a long way from rural Galilee, a small backwater of the ancient Roman Empire, to some of the richest and busiest cities in the world. How have the teachings of Jesus survived the journey?

I wonder if Jesus came back whether he would be surprised and pleased at how his followers are doing? Or not?

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Book review: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes

This is quite simply one of the best and most enlightening books I have read about Jesus and the Gospels.

I have learnt so much that has helped me make better sense of the gospels and of my faith (although I am certainly not claiming to be like Maria in the Counting Crows song, Round Here, who says she is “close to understanding Jesus”!)

Let me tell you why I am so enthused.

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Book review: Disarming Scripture

Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood

The Old Testament world was a violent place.

For a christian, the most troubling violence is surely that said to be commanded by God, whether it be Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son and heir Isaac, Joshua commanded to exterminate Canaanites who are unfortunate enough to be living in the “Promised Land”, the command through Elisha that Jehu should kill all the family of the line of Ahab (Joram, Jezebel and all their relatives), or many other incidents.

Christians must face the challenge: if God commanded these killings, how can we say he is loving?

This book addresses the question of violence attributed to God in the Bible, and how that can be consistent with the non-violent teachings of Jesus. And it comes with recommendations from no lesser luminaries than Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Peter Enns, Jim Wallis and Brian Zahnd.

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Learning from our mistakes as the world changes around us

Christianity began as a minority group within Judaism and within the Roman Empire. But from the time Constantine made it acceptable, christianity became the dominant religion, and Christendom was generally the dominant social force, in Europe and colonies in Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. Christianity was often the state religion, most people were nominally christian, and churches had significant influence.

Until now.

For a couple of decades now, thoughtful christians have been warning that the age of Christendom and of privilege was over. And we are starting to see that more clearly.

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Moving beyond the Reformation: grace, faith and works

One of Martin Luther’s most important arguments with the Catholic Church was his belief that salvation is “the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin” (Wikipedia). This belief has formed the basis of Protestantism for 5 centuries, and his protest possibly assisted the Catholic Church to refine some of its teachings also.

But the Bible doesn’t seem to be as clear on this as is claimed.

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500 years later – a new reformation

This post is a revised version of my 2014 post The new Reformation.

Martin Luther with iPhone

Martin Luther is examined for heresy.

500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, and, it is often said, began the Protestant Reformation.

40 years ago I came to the conclusion that the church in the western world was, in the next few decades, going to go through changes as significant as the Reformation. I felt we had moved away from the truth in several important areas – inward looking and hierarchical churches with structures that hinder rather than help the mission of Jesus, dead orthodoxy in many christians’ lives (including me), and failing to heed Jesus’ teachings on non-violence, acceptance and the perils of wealth – and God surely wouldn’t allow this to continue unchecked.

I think we are now in the middle of this new reformation, and here are some of the signs I see.

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Knowing the Way – scripture, experience, learning, tradition and the Holy Spirit

In the discussion on my previous post, Nate has questioned my approach to authority and christian belief. I do not believe the Bible is inerrant, and I said that most christians accept other sources of knowledge also: “reason and evidence, church teaching and tradition, and the Holy Spirit”.

And so he asked: “Why does the New Testament speak so much about false teachers, if it’s perfectly fine to get your beliefs from private revelation?” and “How can there be such a thing as “truth” when each person’s version is just as good as someone else’s?”, and then saw problems “if I took my own random thoughts and feelings as revelation from the supreme creator of the universe”.

These are fair questions, and I think another blog post is better than a long comment to answer them. It also gives me the opportunity to set out how I believe we know truths about God. I hope other readers are interested too, and will also comment.

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