Reconciliation, Miroslav Volf, and the Case for ‘Remembering Rightly’

In a previous post, I began to discuss the (incredibly important) work of theologian Miroslav Volf and how it might be applied to the issue of current Australian policy towards asylum seekers.

In this post, I would like once again to bounce out of Volf’s amazing Exclusion & Embrace and begin to think through how his ideas might be applied in Australia around the issue of Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This is a complex, wide-reaching topic, and I do not want to claim for a moment that what I’m about to say will somehow ‘fix’ everything. Neither am I going to pretend that what I’m about to say is all that needs to be said on the matter. Rather, this is intended to be a relatively simple reflection on Volf’s extraordinary work, and how it might offer some practical ways forward for these discussions. It is intended as a very small part in a much larger conversation; I do hope it’s received as such.

In addition to this, it’s important to note that what I say here is directed firmly and deliberately towards my fellow non-Indigenous Australians. I came to the conclusion a while ago now that, as a non-Indigenous Australian, it is not my[/our] place to tell Indigenous Australians ‘what they need to do’. The very idea is as naïve as it is offensive. Rather, my task (as I see it) is to stand in humble solidarity and conversation with my Indigenous sisters and brothers, as we seek first and foremost to ‘speak to our own mob’ and then to return to the conversation with each other1 (and then, of course, to repeat the process), as we walk together towards a better future.

Though there is much in Volf’s work that could be useful to this discussion, I want to focus here on his notion of remembering rightly. There are a number of steps in the process of ’embrace’ (Volf’s very helpful metaphor for reconciliation), but the act of remembering rightly holds unique relevance, I believe, to the current situation in Australia.

The Need to Remember Rightly

It’s worth beginning the discussion here by asking why remembering rightly is so important, or, indeed, if it’s important at all.

As Volf makes clear, memory of ‘how it happened’ is inextricably connected to justice:

Erase memory and you wash away the blood from the perpetrator’s hands, you undo the done deed, make it disappear from history. Erase memories of the atrocities and you tempt future perpetrators with immunity. (Exclusion & Embrace, p. 234)

Simply put: the failure to remember rightly means that there can never be true or full justice.

Failing to acknowledge the truth of the matter means that the perpetrators of violence, harm, oppression, and exploitation are not held to account. Failure to acknowledge how it was means that we are unable to understand fully why things are the way they are now.

As such, the failure to remember rightly robs us of the chance of full [R]econciliation.2

In addition to this, we must remember that deception is often the best friend of oppression. Deliberate attempts to veil truth and to control the historical record allow for ongoing oppression and systemic inequality. It is often noted that the victors write history, but it should also be noted that the powerful manipulate (or obfuscate) history in order to maintain their power.

And this is why, of course, speaking truth is such a dangerous, subversive act. In many situations, to do so can cost one their life! This can be seen clearly in the record of the Hebrew prophets (calling things as they are and doing so often with significant personal cost), and in the life of Jesus himself. ‘Setting the record straight’ is no small thing.

How does all of this, though, relate to the Australian context?

In general, it seems clear that Australia has done a truly terrible job of remembering rightly when it comes to the last 200-odd years. From the violence and the massacres to the denial of full humanity to Australia’s First Peoples, from the good intentions with bad consequences to the attempted cultural and physical genocide, (perhaps the majority of) Australians are quite often clueless to the full extent of the trauma experienced by our Indigenous population. In addition to the general apathy towards understanding Australia’s modern history, it must be said that there are also many attempts to deliberately obscure elements of the past. Sometimes due to well-meaning attempts to ‘leave the past in the past so that we can move forward together’, sometimes with a much more sinister motive, these attempts to disconnect us from our past leave us with situations such as the arguments over the ‘culture wars’. The current Australian Government, for example, has suggested that too much focus on the sad history between Indigenous Australians and colonial powers constitutes a ‘black armband’ view of history, and is not a helpful exercise.3

The use of language here is interesting, to say the least.

It might be said, of course, that the current attempts to obscure the reality of Australia’s modern history constitutes an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the historical record. (My choice of language here is quite deliberate.)

At any rate, the result is that we are left with this situation where ‘how things are now’ is effectively disconnected from ‘how this situation came to be’. Detached from the truth of the historical record, systemic inequality is often kept from view and we are left with simplistic notions of ‘personal responsibility’ divorced from social and historical context.

The salt in the wound, of course, is that the attempts to ‘leave the past in the past so that we can move forward together’ or to ‘draw a line under the past’ thus become grotesque acts of injustice and of sweeping truth under the rug. In doing so, we also sweep away all hopes of full and genuine Reconciliation.

The Difficulties with Remembering Rightly and a Way Forward

For anyone who’s still reading at this point, the obvious problem that we are now faced with is the enormous difficulty we have in defining ‘truth’ and how it relates to the study of history (and thus the task of ‘remembering rightly’).

As Volf notes—and, in the interests of keeping the discussion relatively simple and not getting lost in the detail, I’ll keep this discussion fairly short and (hopefully) to the point—the modernist approach to history was well and truly overly optimistic in its belief in and its search for ‘detached objectivity’. Simply remembering history ‘as it was’ (with ‘what is true’ lining up with ‘reality’) is not so simple after all.4 Likewise, postmodern approaches are essentially bankrupt due to the equal but opposite error of a thoroughgoing relativism, not only in terms of the notion there can only be ‘interpretations’ of truth (due to the admittedly important notion of humanity’s inherent situated-ness and finiteness) but also in the undermining of the very notion of ‘independent truth’ (and the claim that all ‘truth’ is thus ‘constructed’ or ‘produced’ truth, accompanied by the power dynamics inherent in such notions).

All of this, of course, is on top of the natural tendencies of perpetrators seeking to minimise the offence or harm caused, and ‘victims’ tending to amplify the same.

An answer as to a way forward, Volf suggests, is through the notion of double vision. As Volf notes, we are not able to see the world in a perspective-less way. Acknowledging our own finiteness and situated-ness, however, does not mean that we should not attempt to see things from ‘there’, as well as from ‘here’.

As such, we must seek to ‘step outside ourselves’—if only with one foot—in order both to see things from another (admittedly finite and situated) perspective and that we might catch a glimpse of any obstructions to our own view. This requires both imagination and love; ‘love’ in the sense that we only seek to see things from ‘there’ in the first place out of a will to embrace, and ‘imagination’ in terms of the creativity required for any (even momentary) self-transcendence.

(Though Volf himself does not explicitly make the link, the suggestion here sounds close enough to the kind of Critical Realism proposed by Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan, and applied to the study of history as outlined by N.T. Wright in the first section of his magisterial The New Testament and the People of God. This approach recognises both our essential situated-ness, as well as the possibility of at least some form of self-transcendance. In Lonergan’s words, “Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.” But I digress…)

The benefit of this sort of thinking, I would suggest, is that we are able to hold in tension both our own finite and limited nature (and perspective), and the goal—motivated by love and the will to embrace—of genuinely hearing the other (and making room in ourselves for what they have to say). The resulting conversation, then, as the cycle is repeated, allows us to start better working towards defining what ‘remembering rightly’ looks like.

In regards to the Australian context, though I sometimes, in my more cynical moments, doubt that there is, in fact, a genuine will to embrace in these conversations (from both ‘sides’, though I am focused here more on the attitude of my fellow non-Indigenous Australians), I would like to believe that, in general, there is a solid foundational desire for genuine Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. As such, I am prepared to take for granted that we are already operating out of the will to embrace.

In light of this, I am more and more convinced that the very next step, at least for non-Indigenous Australians5, is the necessity of remembering rightly. Undercutting the objections of ‘the past is the past and we can’t change it’, this act would allow us at least to converse in the present on the basis of the truth of the past and how we came to be where we now find ourselves. It would be painful—both in terms of the grief and anger that many Indigenous Australians rightly feel in relation to the experiences of themselves and their ancestors, as well as in relation to the pain it would cause many non-Indigenous Australians to have to confront the horrors of the past and to find things in them[/our]selves that need confronting.

In terms of what it might look like, I guess it could be modelled in a (but not every) way on South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. Perhaps Archbishop Tutu and Professor Volf could even be enlisted as advisors for the process.

In terms of what might come from it, it’s hard to say. I suspect that there would certainly be opportunity for far more events like former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, though I suspect that such actions would need to resolve that they wouldn’t automatically be divorced from acts of material reparation/restoration from the outset.

There would also need to be large doses of humility and reminders that the process requires genuinely hearing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (and, in turn, that conversation is a two-way street).

This, it seems to me, is as good a way forward as any other option, and perhaps better than most.  Remembering rightly will not bring about Reconciliation overnight, but I am convinced that it is an important step along the way, and that it is one of—if not the—very next steps that we should work towards.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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1) The very idea of ‘conversation’ implies both speaking and listening. As a non-Indiegnous Australian, I would suggest that, due to the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in Australia, my/our speaking needs to be firmly subordinated to the listening to and learning from our Indigenous sisters and brothers. It seems to me that we haven’t had any trouble with the ‘speaking’ part, but we have certainly struggled with the ‘listening’ aspect. I’m not saying that there is no place to speak, but that, as things currently stand, there is a greater imperative to listen.

2) As noted in the previous post, though the will to embrace must precede all else (even truth and justice), the fullness of embrace cannot be achieved apart from truth and justice.

3) It does need to be said that the critique of the Australian Government’s actions towards Indigenous Australians is not necessarily a partisan issue. Though Paul Keating’s famous ‘Redfern Speech’ is a high water mark in regards to political rhetoric around these issues, the fact is that successive Australian Governments of both major parties have routinely failed to remember rightly and, subsequently, to move effectively through truth and justice towards the fullness of genuine reconciliation.

4) “To reconstruct the past as it actually happened, independent from a particular standpoint, is impossible.” (Exclusion & Embrace, p. 244.)

5) I do not for a moment want to be understood as suggesting here that this means that ‘the first step’ (and thus the power in the situation) lies with non-Indigenous Australians. I am convinced that there are certain things Indigenous people/communities can be doing that effectively alter the current power dynamic and put Indigenous people “in the driver’s seat” in these conversations. As I’ve noted above, however, I am focused on speaking with ‘my mob’ first and foremost, and working out where our responsibilities in these conversations lay.

The Necessity of Indigenous Self-Determination

There are a couple of issues that I consider to be crucial for Australia to address, and to address as soon as possible. One of those issues is our abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers. Another—one which is perhaps the single most important issue facing us as a nation—is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I write/speak/tweet/rant/shout quite a bit about the first of these issues. As far as I can see, the solution/s to the current situation is not overly complex. It begins by approaching the situation as a humanitarian crisis, rather than a small-minded, nationalistic issue of ‘border
protection’, and builds from there (e.g. directing funding to regional processing centres, community processing of asylum requests, etc.).

The second issue, however, is rather complex indeed—all the more so due to over 200 years of policy failure. While the issues are complex, and while I do not want to try to talk as if I (as someone who has benefitted from a lifetime of white privilege) have the answers, I think there is one essential ingredient that needs a whole lot more focus from those who are making decisions: Indigenous self-determination.

Though this idea has often been misunderstood and (perhaps deliberately) misrepresented, true self-determination for Australia’s Indigenous peoples must surely lie at the very heart of our future together.

Much has been written and said on this topic, but I have found Chapter 2 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s* 2002 ‘Social Justice Report’ (Self-determination – the freedom to
‘live well’) to be quite helpful. It’s worthwhile reading the whole thing through a number of times (in order to grasp the numerous excellent points that are made), but I thought it might be helpful to post one of the summaries here:

  1. Self-determination is an ongoing process of choice for the achievement of human security and fulfilment of human needs.
  2. Respect for distinct cultural values and diversity is fundamental to the notion of self-determination.
  3. The protection of self-determination unquestionably involves some kind of collective political identity for indigenous nations and peoples, i.e. it requires official recognition of their representatives and institutions.
  4. Respect for Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land and resources is an integral component of self-determination, from an economic, social, political and cultural dimension. A lack of control of traditional lands and resources is often a significant institutional barrier to the realisation of Indigenous self-determination.
  5. Self-determination contains a subjective element – it cannot be judged solely from objective criteria. The true test of self-determination is whether Indigenous peoples themselves actually feel that they have choices about their way of life.
  6. Essential to the exercise of self-determination is choice, participation and control. The essential requirement for self-determination is that the outcome corresponds to the free and voluntary choice of the people concerned.
  7. Self-determination does not have a prescribed or pre-determined outcome.
  8. Self-determination is a process that is ongoing. It is not a one-off event or something that is defined as at a particular moment in history.
  9. notion of popular participation is inherent to self-determination.
  10. In a democracy, Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is not necessarily safeguarded or respected by a reliance on majority rule. Self-determination raises the issue of representativeness and participation within the democratic principle.
  11. The existence in democratic societies of structural and procedural barriers which inhibit the full participation of Indigenous peoples must be recognised. The nature of participation and representativeness required by self-determination necessitates going beyond such sameness of treatment and to strive for institutional innovation.
  12. Ultimately, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the State is linked to respect for self-determination. Numerous UN declarations, such as the Friendly Relations Declaration, limit the exercise of self-determination so that it does not threaten territorial integrity or political unity of States so long as those states conduct themselves in compliance with the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and are representative.
  13. Continued government representivity and accountability is therefore a condition for enduring enjoyment of the right of self-determination, and for continued application of the territorial integrity and national unity principles.
  14. Article 45 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples** similarly qualifies the recognition of Indigenous self-determination in Article 3 of the Draft Declaration by making it subject to the provisions of the Friendly Relations Declaration (and other UN provisions). Hence, the recognition of Indigenous self-determination through the Draft Declaration is qualified in a way that guarantees the territorial integrity of States.
  15. Secession is an extreme expression of self-determination and one that will only occur in the rarest of cases when all other processes have failed. Separation or secession from the State of which a people forms a part should be regarded as a right of last resort.
  16. The fear of secession by States immediately conflates Indigenous self-determination with the concept of state-hood. The equation of self-determination with secession is made without reference to the existing state of international law and without an eye to history.
  17. In Australia, the absence of any conflict or political movement for secession by Indigenous peoples is an obvious indicator of the lack of reality, indeed the absurdity, of the claim that recognition of self-determination could lead to secession.
  18. Self-determination is not self-executing, unilateral or absolute in its application and is a process of engagement and negotiation. When balanced against principles such as the protection of territorial integrity, the international community is highly unlikely to recognise secessionist movements in States that are conducting themselves in good faith.
  19. Indigenous peoples have indicated that generally they do not aspire to secession. Examples from Australia indicate that there are no aspirations for secession by Indigenous Australians.
  20. The fear by governments of secession is not soundly based in existing law or political reality. What is required for progress in recognition of Indigenous self-determination is for governments to stop acting in bad faith by automatically equating self-determination with secession.
  21. There is no justification for imposing an arbitrary restriction to internal self-determination on Indigenous peoples. The participation of Indigenous peoples in UN processes and in negotiations on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples demonstrates that there are numerous external dimensions to their right to self-determination, other than secession.
  22. Attempts to qualify the recognition of Indigenous self-determination place the universality of human rights at risk.

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* Formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

** United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.