John Pilger’s ‘Utopia’

Last night, I was fortunate enough to be able to make it along to the Australian premier screening of John Pilger’s new documentary, Utopia, at The Block in Redfern (see the trailer for the film here). It was an emotional experience—some parts are very difficult to watch—with deep sadness, shame and guilt (as a white Australian), anger and even rage being stirred up, but there was also an almost tangible sense of hope that flooded the open-air event.

Utopia is in some ways a kind of follow-up film to Pilger’s The Secret Country (1985), though The Secret Country focuses more on the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous contact in Australia while Utopia focuses more on the present situation. At the beginning of the film, Pilger describes his shock in finding out that Indigenous Australians are still facing many of the same issues as they did when he filmed The Secret Country, and how (non-Indigenous) Australia still hasn’t adequately acknowledged it’s shameful history and grappled with the (ongoing) injustice of how Indigenous peoples have been—and are being—treated in their own land.

I was quite interested in how the film would unfold, considering the fact that Pilger is not known for his diplomacy. Personally, I very much appreciate Pilger’s work, but I also recognise that he doesn’t do well in acknowledging shades of grey. The best way that I can think of describing Pilger’s manner is that it’s like he suffers from ‘Truth-Telling Tourette Syndrome’, a condition that causes involuntary bursts of truth-telling in a manner that breaks the usual ‘rules’ of social interaction.* Pilger’s interviews in the film with people like Mal Brough, I suspect, will be seen as more or less effective depending on where one situates themselves on the political spectrum.

As the film unfolded, it also became apparent that Pilger was attempting to highlight a broad range of issues. The film covers living conditions and health issues in remote Aboriginal communities, the emptiness of Federal Government promises (no matter which party has been in control), Aboriginal deaths in custody, early movements towards workers rights for Indigenous people, the Intervention in the Northern Territory (in significant detail), the history of Rottnest Island (as a kind of ‘concentration camp’ for Aboriginal men) and it’s total ‘whitewashing’ of that history, the role of the Mining Industry in opposing Indigenous land rights and profiting from doing so, and the deeply saddening and alarmingly high rates of suicide among Aboriginal people in Australia. Each one of these topics, it could be argued, deserves its own full-length documentary (and more!), but Pilger touches on them all in more or less detail in the course of the film. My fear, then, was that the documentary would be ‘a mile wide but an inch deep’, and that by spreading itself too thin it wouldn’t have the same impact as covering a few issues in greater detail.

However, Pilger manages (somehow) to hold it all together, chiefly through the troubling but necessary comparison between the Canberra suburb of Barton (the most socio-economically advantaged location in Australia, named after Australia’s first Prime Minister**), and the central Australian community of Utopia (the least socio-economically advantaged location in Australia). This overarching structure is alluded to enough times throughout the film to allow an overall sense of connectedness. Though Pilger does, admittedly, make a couple of jumps in the documentary (the links between which, I’m sure, make more sense in his head), the issues raised and the stories told to seem to have, for the most part, an inner cohesion due to the people involved and the places visited. In addition to this, the issues that are covered each seem to be treated with enough depth to at least spark the curiosity of the viewer to find out more for themselves, or to be sufficient in dealing with the point that needed to be made without feeling like the only option left is despair. Perhaps the film is a tad too long in order to be able to do this, but it is gripping nonetheless.

I’m honestly not sure how much screen time is devoted to each ‘issue’, but it certainly felt like the point dwelt on in the most depth was ‘the intervention’ in the Northern Territory. Pilger covers, in detail, the ways in which the Government at the time unleashed an extraordinary wave of propaganda in order to justify its actions, and exposes some of the startling facts about the veracity of the information that was released and the complicity of the media (specifically in regards to the ABC’s Lateline reports). By seemingly insinuating that (perhaps most) Aboriginal men in remote communities were predatory pedophiles, community outrage (in non-Indigenous Australia) was sufficient to allow the Government to do, basically, whatever it wanted to do—including suspending the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT which, as is noted in the film, is something that needs to be done if the proposed action is fundamentally racist!

I guess the only thing I’d note here, by way of critique, is that Pilger’s coverage of this issue does, in the emotion of it all, tend to play down the findings in the Little Children Are Sacred report, which was central to the Howard Government’s ‘response’ in the Northern Territory. Though it has been noted many, many times—and correctly in my view, for what it’s worth—that the Howard Government seemed to ignore pretty much every single recommendation in that report, the report itself was significant enough that it shouldn’t be brushed off in the process of heavily critiquing the Howard Government’s policy and actions. It felt, just a little bit, like this nuance was lost in Pilger’s film.

Now, in the interest of making the point as clearly as I can here, I want to reiterate that, from the evidence I’ve seen, the Howard Government’s policy, and the implementation of said policy, was terrible (and it continues through Labor’s ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation). There was a determined effort in the rhetoric to demonise Aboriginal men (like middle-class white communities don’t also, sadly, have similar levels of child abuse!), in general, and the legacy of the (ongoing) implementation of the policy seems largely to be disempowerment. Instead of serious community consultation, there seemed to be even more centralised, external, and powerfully enforced decision-making. Rather than moving towards empowerment and self-determination, it seems, in general, that it’s been a process of shaming, and one only wonders at what other motivation there was in implementing the policy so forcefully (and Pilger hints at at least one possibility here, in the film).

All of that being said, the Little Children Are Sacred report should not be brushed away in the interests of (rightly) noting the critiques of the policy and its implementation outlined above. The point to be made, quite simply, is that addressing these issues means genuine consultation and empowerment of Indigenous communities in decision-making, rather than what has been done.

Returning to the film review, my final concern (though ‘concern’ might be too serious a word) was that Pilger would spend the whole of the documentary outlining the ‘problems’, and that audiences would be left with a sense of despair and disempowerment.

I don’t feel, however, that this was the case.

Though the film certainly doesn’t shy back from throwing a spotlight on some horrible facts, it ends on a positive note of seeking, it seems, to reignite the push for a formal treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and also towards the idea of true justice and self-determination. Pilger himself seems to be somewhat fixated on the idea of raising external pressure on Australia to act on these issues (like the way many nations pressured South Africa in regards to apartheid), but I am not willing to give up just yet on the notion that Australians do have the capacity to truly hear the voices of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and come to the conclusion ourselves. Though one might feel a certain despair in listening to the ‘bogan’ stupidity around ‘Australia Day’, I have an unquenchable optimism in the ability of humans (even bogans!) to change their minds and behaviour once they actually meet, in person, people who are being adversely effected by their ignorance, and to truly hear their stories.

All in all, the film was certainly worth watching, and I encourage all Australians to see it. Unfortunately it won’t be released on DVD or iTunes before ‘Australia Day’, but I think it should become part of a package of ‘essential viewing’ for all Australians (and perhaps an ‘Australia Day’ tradition in years to come). Being part of the screening at The Block was very special indeed. With something like (I’m estimating) 2,000 people in attendance, and with many rousing speeches before the film itself (especially one by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks), it is something that I won’t forget in a hurry.


Find an Australian screening of Utopia here, or purchase it on DVD or iTunes from May.

Utopia

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* I honestly do not mean to offend anyone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome by this reference, and have weighed up using the term here. I’m not at all trying to use it in a derogatory kind of way; I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Pilger’s manner. If, however, you are offended by the reference, please let me know and I will remove it (and offer my sincere and unreserved apology).

** Sir Edmund Barton also happens to be one of the architects of Australia’s ‘White Australia Policy’, which officially came about at the time of Federation in 1901.

A Ministry of Reconciliation

Reconciliation

I am convinced that Christians in Australia—if we are truly to call ourselves Christian—must engage deeply with issues of ‘reconciliation’ between Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Peoples and other Australians. In fact, I have come to the point where I think this needs to be at the very core of the ‘good news’ that Christians in Australia should be embodying.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have not always taken this seriously enough, but I’ve (eventually) come to this conclusion for two main reasons. Firstly, I am convinced that the heart of the Christian message is the multi-faceted concept of reconciliation, and that this is about much more than some individualistic notion of personal ‘salvation’. Reconciliation, in a truly Christian sense, entails right relationship with the divine, with one another, and with our environment (and each one of these elements must be present). Secondly, I am convinced that the Christian message must embrace a certain sense of contextuality and adaptability everywhere it finds expression.

In terms of illustrating this point, I would suggest that the 1st century C.E. context of the relationship between ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is a good place to start. Indeed, it is this issue that lies central to so much of the New Testament writing, and is certainly at the very core of the so-called Pauline material. I am hoping to offer a fuller treatment of the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ at some point in the near future (particularly noting the prominent call to abandon any notion of nationalism in the light of the Jesus story), but I want to highlight just a few points here in a broader sense as (what I consider to be) a poignant illustration.

Though the clearest specific reference to the concept of a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ appears in the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (5:17-20), I believe it is actually best illustrated in the letter to the Christians in (and most probably around) Ephesus. In this letter, the relationship between ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’ is front and centre, and the author1 spends quite a bit of time and effort outlining the ways in which there is now (through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) opportunity for peace between the (formerly and constantly) warring parties. Indeed, this peace is not only possible, it is the very demonstration of God’s purposes in the world! A few examples from the text might suffice to make the point.

For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

In this passage, Paul seems to be suggesting that, due to (his understanding of) the work of God in Jesus, there is a new possibility available for human relationships. This new possibility is not contingent upon one party recognising that the other was ‘in the right’ all along, offering ‘peace’ by essentially denying the identity of one group and allowing it t be subsumed by the dominant party. It is, rather, setting the two parties on a level playing field and offering a whole new framework of understanding. Though it is not immediately evident from this one passage, it also does not mean losing the essential identity markers of either party. The New Testament abounds with examples of ‘Gentiles’ entering into this new possibility for human relationships without losing their essential identity (or, perhaps, taking on the identity of another). Indeed, much of the work of the apostle Paul was convincing those he spoke to that the really innovative work of God was that now Gentiles did not have to become ‘Jews’ first in order to be ‘Christians’! In the same way, there was nothing to stop ‘Jews’ bringing to this new situation an essential ‘Jewish flavour’ (i.e., social and cultural expressions of tradition). The point was, quite simply, that those things were no longer barriers. These ‘identity markers’ no longer distinguished ‘us’ from ‘them’, but were simply a matter of preference.

But Paul takes it a step further.

In addition to indicating that this new possibility was available, Paul seems to indicate that it is actually the prime demonstration of God’s work in the world and the hope for the future:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, [his] manifold wisdom should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

God’s ‘manifold wisdom’, it seems, is (at least meant to be) on display in the Church. That is, the people who form the early Church are those who were formerly enemies but who have now been drawn together in this new possibility for human relationships. This reconciled people, then, is the very demonstration of God’s work in the world. There is no way, Paul seems to suggest, that this could ever have been accomplished by anything other than the work of God, and therefore this group of reconciled people is being held up on display—as ‘Exhibit A’, so to speak—as a small-but-significant demonstration of what God desires to do on a much grander scale in time. God holds up this example to the powers and structures and systems of the world, indicating that a new possibility has appeared that does not buy into the old structures of separation and fear and hate and division. A new day has dawned.

It is no wonder, then, that Paul offers the extraordinary prayer that he does in very close succession to this point.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Amen indeed! Paul acknowledges that this new possibility is only available because of God’s empowering Spirit at work amongst us, and he prays that the people he is writing to would really, really get it.

In the same way, I pray that us Christians in Australia would really, really get a grasp of this idea too.

Now, I’m not saying by any means that the analogy is precise. The relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the first century was complex, and was (in a good many ways) quite different from the (equally complex) relationship between modern-day Indigenous Australians and other Australians. Having said that, the similarity in regards to ‘dividing walls of hostility’ is strikingly apparent, and it is this reality that offers us a connection here.

What I would like to think through, then, (getting back to what I noted at the beginning) are the ways in which this ‘ministry of reconciliation’ might be contextualised in Australia. If this ‘good news’ we preach (and attempt to embody) really is based around the idea of reconciliation, and if this is going to truly make sense in the modern Australian context, what might it look like?

What I think this looks like, as a starting point, is Christians in Australia engaging, firstly, in humble and deep repentance towards our Indigenous brothers and sisters and, secondly, actively embodying the new possibilities for reconciled human relationship in all we do and say.

The first point is, I think, simple. ‘Christianity’ has not necessarily been ‘good news’ for Indigenous Australians. In many ways, it was used as a tool of, and justification for, those who desired to dominate. It has also been responsible for the active destruction of much Indigenous culture, through the pursuit of a form of Christianity which could not separate the ‘good news’ from a certain (white, British) understanding of culture (and ‘civilisation’). I don’t wish to push this too far and to ignore, for example, the many missionaries who sought to actively preserve Indigenous languages and cultural traditions—many of whom dedicated their whole lives to service of Indigenous Australians. I also don’t wish to ignore the Christians who, though now seen as participating in cruel policy, were simply trying to make a terrible situation a little less destructive by implementing Government policy with at least some concern for the wellbeing of those affected. However I think that, overall, it’s pretty safe to say that Christianity has simply not lived up to its name in terms of being ‘good news’ for our Indigenous population.

As such, I think there needs to be genuine, deep repentance on behalf of Christians in Australia to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I think this needs to be implemented in individual congregations, as well as at the denominational level, and it needs to be done in a ‘no strings attached’ kind of way. Unconditional repentance is the only way for it to be real.

The second point is a little bit tricky, because some could understand what I am saying here to mean that what I am really desiring is for all Indigenous Australians to ‘become Christian’ first, and then there will be ‘reconciliation’. Please let me be completely transparent on this point: I desire for every person in the world to understand and embrace the new way of being human that I think is demonstrated in the life, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that his humble example of selfless love—love demonstrated—is something that our world needs desperately.

But what I am talking about here is not contingent upon people becoming Christians first.

Us Christians are not, and can never be, responsible for decisions that people make, but we are responsible for our own action. We are called to embody the good news, and to operate out of the new framework (even if no one else does). We are called to treat all people with the inherent dignity and respect that they deserve, as people created in the image of God. We need to recognise the systems and structures that have actively denied dignity and have sought to disempower and, in our context, we need to stand in solidarity with those who are seeking to highlight (and restore) the dignity of the oldest continual cultures on earth.

How we actually do this is up for discussion, but I think it’s important to note, once again, that this is something that needs to be embodied, rather than something that is just spoken about.

Perhaps a good place to start is with education and understanding. On this note, the U.N. ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples‘ is, I think, well worth a read. It’s also necessary to meditate deeply upon what is says, rather than just reading it at a surface level. This Declaration offers a decent framework for understanding which also has wide acceptance.

Also, I think churches (and denominations) need to take seriously things like ‘Reconciliation Action Plans’. Though these “RAPs’ are certainly (currently) more targeted to the corporate world, it’s really encouraging to see Reconciliation Australia so willing to work with faith communities to develop ways forward. (Please contact me through this site if you’d like some more information about this.)

I think Christians should also be at the very forefront of efforts to recognise (and remove discrimination for) Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. Unfortunately, it remains true that many people in our congregations either wouldn’t know about these efforts, or wouldn’t understand why this is so important. It is my belief that our churches should be a wellspring of activity in regards to this issue, and that we should be working actively to make sure that any Referendum on this issue has the support it needs to pass. Check out the ‘Recognise’ website for more information.

Finally, in terms of a good starting point, I think we also need to acknowledge that, in so many cases, we have never sought any kind of permission to operate on the land that we do. I realise that this can be quite a confrontational point for many Christians, but I think it’s a really sad reality that so many of our churches have never even acknowledged, let alone sought permission from, our First Peoples, and thus I think there is a certain sense of illegitimacy for us to continue to operate without rectifying this point. I know that many might see this as either unimportant, or even condescending to a certain point, but I think it’s vital for us to set this straight and (finally) to let light shine on this often unacknowledged sin. At the very least, the process involved here necessarily puts churches in contact with representatives of local Indigenous people groups (which is a great step forward in and of itself), but it might also even lead to the possibility of churches opening their doors for local Indigenous groups to use our church facilities. Small steps, perhaps, but I think they are very important!

In all of this, the aim is quite simply to embody the love in action that is so central to the Christian message. Where we have sinned, we need to repent and seek forgiveness. Where we have been inactive, we need to resolve that we will no longer be complacent. Most importantly, we as the Church need to embody the new possibilities that are on offer in Jesus in all that we do and say. We must always remember that the very heart of the ‘good news’ is reconciliation and, in the Australian context, this has some very specific and important meaning attached to it.

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1) Many people simply assume that the Letter to the Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul. It is not quite so simple to state this with any sense of certainty, however I am convinced that the content of this letter is in many ways very much ‘at home’ with those texts that are almost certainly ‘genuinely Pauline’. As such, I’m perfectly happy to use the name ‘Paul’ for the author of this text, whether or not it was actually penned by the apostle himself (which is pretty much impossible to prove one way or the other).