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.

Defining Justice

How do us Christians define ‘justice’? How is it defined in our churches (whether explicitly or implicitly)? How, in turn, are our actions defined by our understanding?

It seems to me that many Christians use the word ‘justice’ without necessarily understanding what (biblical/Christian) justice is all about. I sometimes hear Christians talk about justice in a way that makes it sound tangential to the gospel message at best, downright distracting at worst. Others speak of justice like it’s another passing fad, soon to be left behind by ‘the next big thing’. Others situate justice as a kind of subset of the Good News, or something that Christians might be involved with as a kind of add-on to the more core elements of their faith (or, perhaps, just give lip service to).

I don’t think that any of these options will suffice, and here’s why.

1) The ‘Justice’ of God refers to nothing less than God’s wise rule in action.

In the biblical material, justice is integrally linked to God’s righteousness and wise judgment. God, the truly righteous one, has set forth a plan for seeing creation operating at its full potential. This plan, or these judgments, cover every facet of our lives: our relationship with the creator, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with the rest of creation. Justice, then, is what flows from God’s wise rule being put into action. It is relationships (as defined above) set right, and operating in a way that sees life and wholeness flourish.

Through the testimony of those who have encountered God throughout salvation history we have a record of the way in which the people of God should work towards living out God’s wise rule in their communities and in our world. God has made it clear what these communities should look like. They are to be places where those who are not able to protect themselves are protected, where the vulnerable are cared for. Indeed, this has always been one of the defining features of the people of God! These are communities where the powerful are boldly confronted for ever daring to exploit or oppress others. These communities are also to care deeply for God’s good creation, recognizing humanity’s integral connection to the rest of creation. We are not, therefore, working towards something that is unclear or not yet defined; God’s plan is not hidden!

And this is most evident in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in Jesus that we see what God’s wise rule truly looks like. Through Jesus’ life and work, the kingdom of God (which is nothing other than the place/s where the wise rule of God is acknowledged) has broken powerfully into the present, and by the Spirit of God we are empowered to continue the same work. Our goal is quite simple: to model our own lives on the life of Jesus and to see God’s wise rule worked out through the whole of creation. This is what justice looks like.

This is certainly not, therefore, a subsection of the Good News of God in salvation history; it is the fullness of God’s wise rule being worked out in the whole of creation. Justice is what the kingdom of God looks like. It is shalom being achieved.

And this leads directly to the second point.

2) Justice must be demonstrated.

The concept of justice means nothing unless it is embodied or incarnated or demonstrated. Discussing of theory of justice will not do; for justice to be justice it must be worked out in concrete examples in our communities.

Where the vulnerable are being exploited or oppressed, it means standing in solidarity with them and challenging the oppressors. It sometimes means confronting and seeking to overturn significant ‘structures of sin’.

Where the dignity of those who are made in the image of God is denied, it calls for rebuke.

Where God’s good creation is used and abused for greedy gain and without thought for future generations, it means standing up for creation care and changing unhelpful habits.

It means challenging racism and classism and sexism and all the other walls of hostility that divide us up into warring tribes. It means feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and asking how it is possible that there are those who are hungry and naked in our world in the first place.

Basically, it means embodying the values of the coming kingdom in the present, living out an alternative way of being that holds at its very core the flourishing of the whole of creation.

But it means nothing unless it is demonstrated. It remains a fading dream unless it is embodied.

This, I would suggest, is a more helpful definition of justice. The question is, will we let our lives be defined by it?

Hospitality. Welcome. Community.

As I was reading this evening, I was struck by the following quote:

We are more concerned with improving our homes than sharing them.

I took to Twitter to share the quote (noting my own sense both of conviction and inspiration at the idea expressed), and a friend suggested I read the short poem ‘The God Letters’ by Steve Turner.

It’s amazing(!):

The Lord God says:
‘Share your bread
with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor
into your house,
cover the naked.’

Dear Lord God,
We have got
new carpets,
so this will
not be possible.

Selah.