“Because of her, we can”

Like many countries colonised by European nations, Australia has a sorry two century history of poor treatment of our indigenous peoples, resulting in a significant reduction in their numbers and the quality of their lives. But they have survived, their numbers are building again, and many indigenous leaders are become more forthright in their pleas for greater recognition.

NAIDOC week, which is finishing as I write this (I wrote this Sunday night but only posted it Wednesday morning), has been set up as a celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It has been, in my view, a resounding success.

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Have we really fallen this far?

Last week Fariborz Karami committed suicide. And I don’t think many Australians noticed.

He was just 26 years old, and he had been held behind bars for 5 years without any hope of safe release. His mental health had been deteriorating for years.

But I don’t think many Australians cared.

Worse still, I don’t think many christians cared.

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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.

Patriarchy, headship and equality

It hasn’t always been comfortable being a man during these #metoo days. Men we might have thought could be trusted have been accused, and often admitted to, all manner of unacceptable, sexually predatory and abusive behaviour, mostly against women.

For me, it became most pointed when this last weekend I read a long article in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Great Sexual Reckoning by David Leser.

We christians surely need to listen, take notice, and act in whatever way we believe is necessary and appropriate.

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The slow easy slide into brutality

I went on a political demonstration today. Well, it was called a vigil, and it was quiet, peaceful and non-confrontational, but it was a protest. It was expressing concern about Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers, specifically several hundred man on an island in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s northern neighbour.

Realistically, there is very little prospect, right now anyway, that our government will make a major change to its refugee policy, but we have to try. Down the track, change must surely come.

Because Australia has slipped ever so easily into a casual brutality in its treatment of desperate people, and one day we must surely be shamed into recognising how low we have sunk.

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Self-giving love and the New Testament

As a young christian I was told that the love God has for us, and the love he wants us to have for others, is a self-giving love, for which the New Testament writers used the Greek word agape. This understanding was reinforced by reading the CS Lewis book, The Four Loves, which spoke about the following Greek words:

  • eros – romantic or sexual love (this word isn’t found in the New Testament);
  • storge – natural affection, as in a family (not used in the New Testament in this form, but used 3 times in compound words);
  • philia – friendship (this word and its derivatives is used many times in the New Testament);
  • agape and agapao – self giving love (by far the most common word for “love” in the New Testament).

Preachers, authors and bloggers still have the same understanding today, and sometimes build take-home lessons on the difference between philia and agape.

But it seems that the meaning of agape may not be as distinct as we have been told, and the two words may not have had very different meanings back then.

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Colonialism, war and selective memory

Photo: Slaves Waiting to be sold in Richmond, Virginia, painted in 1861 from an 1853 sketch. Wikipedia.

The world has changed enormously in my lifetime.

One thing that I never knew as a child but which seems to characterise the present age, is international terrorism. Terrorism, via car bomb, motor vehicle driven into crowds, gun or knife seems to be almost a daily event somewhere in the world.

The attacks are rightly condemned. Sometimes they target police or military, or some other target against whom the terrorists have a particular grievance. But so often the victims are random, ordinary citizens who may not even support the government actions the terrorists may be protesting. And the fact that too often these are “innocent victims” makes the condemnation stronger and more powerful.

As a christian who takes Jesus’ teachings seriously, I have difficulty justifying any killing of fellow human beings. But I fear we have selective memory about terrorism and innocent victims.

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