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.

_______________
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.

Advertisements

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

_______________

* 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.

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.

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

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

A Scandalous Community (Or: ‘The Church’)

A community of people who have no right to be in relationship with one another

This is fast becoming my definition of the Church, or at least one of its core elements.

I’ve come to this conclusion due to my reading of the letter to the Ephesians, wherein the author (I’m happy to call him ‘Paul’) describes how Jesus of Nazareth—in his life, ministry, death and resurrection—has “…destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”, bringing Jew and Gentile together into one family of faith.

Using Paul’s words,

[Jesus’] 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 2:15b-18

The concept is profound.

Through God’s work in Jesus, formerly warring parties have been united. Once they were enemies, now they are family. But, even more than this, the kind of reconciliation described here forms, for Paul, the basis of the hope towards which God is working: the reconciliation of all things. The Church is God’s ‘Exhibit A’, the example God is showcasing now as the foretaste of what is to come (Ephesians 3: 10).

What this means, I think (if I am making any sense of Paul’s words), is that the Church is the place where people who do not belong together—who should not even be in the same room as one another—are brought together in deep unity through the reconciling work of God in Jesus. The Church is, or at least should be, the one place on earth where all of the symbols of exclusion that keep us divided us as humans are overcome. It should be the place where wealth and status and race and gender and all of the other tribal markers that we use to divide are brought to nil through common faith, and where humans relate to each other simply as humans (created in the image of God). It is the place where such markers of exclusion are to be rebuked and scorned, rather than celebrated.*

This, it seems to me, is the essential core of what it actually means to be Christian: humans who, in reconciling with the Creator, are reconciled with one another and with the rest of Creation (and this last bit obviously has some other profound implications which I won’t go into here).

The Church should—nay, must!—be a symbol of the potential of true human community.

The challenge is rather simple, then, it would seem: do our churches reflect this?

_______________
* I feel the need to point out that I’m not arguing here for the loss of all that constitutes ‘difference’. Difference can be a wonderful thing to celebrate, and I firmly believe that the church should be a symbol of ‘diversity in unity’ rather than uniformity. What I’m talking about here is the sort of tribalism which uses difference as a means of exclusion.

National Reconciliation Week

This week I wrote a post for Reconciliation Australia‘s blog. You can find it here: Celebrating National Reconciliation Week

As I note in the post, National Reconciliation Week is the perfect time for Christians and churches in Australia to think about issues of reconciliation; our past history, our current situation, and future possibilities.

Make sure to check out Reconciliation Australia’s Guide for Churches for this Reconciliation Week.

Understanding Easter (or “A Short Easter Essay”)

Today is Good Friday.

I want to use this opportunity, if I may, to set out (more or less) clearly some things I’ve been thinking about recently in regards to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – things that may seem a little different to what is often called the “traditional” view, but things that I think are helpful in understanding what this event actually means.

By the way, this is going to be quite a long post, so you may want to get comfortable if you’re going to read it all the way through…

Anyway, the so-called “traditional” view, as expounded in many churches of a Reformed heritage, is that Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven – the perfect “Lamb of God” standing in the place of the guilty, the righteous in place of the unrighteous, in order that the wrath of God in regards to sin could be fully satisfied. The wages of sin is death, after all, and thus God could not leave sin unpunished (and still be a righteous God). In God’s mercy, however, Jesus was offered in our place, as the perfect “sacrifice of atonement” that allows us, if we are to place our trust in Jesus, to stand before the great Judge and be declared “not guilty!” Jesus’ righteousness has somehow been imputed to us in this great exchange, and we are set free!

Hallelujah!!!

The first thing I’d like to say is that I think there is probably a legitimate basis for this in the Christian Scriptures. I have had debates about this with a number of biblical scholars and theologians, but I think it’s fair to say that the apostle Paul (at least) seems to offer this idea, in part, as one of the many different ways he explains what happened in the event of the cross.

But this is just the point.

This sort of imagery is offered as part of a range of ideas that made sense to the people to whom Paul was writing. The sacrificial imagery was perfectly acceptable to first century Jews and Gentiles alike, and didn’t really present much of a conceptual problem. The idea that God’s wrath must be poured out on sin made a lot of sense in a context where the pagan gods were always angry at something, and needed to be placated. Thus, Paul works within that framework and suggests that, unlike the pagan gods who were capricious and vindictive, the [Judeo-]Christian God was always and only angry at sin. Unlike the pagan gods who forced the worshipper to take the initiative, the Christian God took the initiative in presenting Jesus as the perfect sacrifice of atonement. Unlike the pagan gods who needed to be placated by many and various measures, the Christian God was only satisfied with the sacrifice of Jesus who was, after all, both fully God and fully human. (I’ve basically plagiarised most of this summary from Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, and would recommend checking it out if you’re interested in these things.)

So, in summary, Paul presents the idea (among others) that God offers God to God, in a sense, so that God’s righteousness remains intact while at the same time God remains ultimately merciful.

Paul was brilliant! He was an absolute genius! He did theology in his own context, interacting with the ideas that were current and that made sense to the people he was talking to. Three cheers for Paul!

Our task is to do the same.

Our problem, however, is that the whole idea of sacrifice doesn’t really make sense any more, and thus we need to be far more creative in the way we present the meaning of the cross to people today (not to mention the fact that the view described above tends to lead towards a very individualistic understanding of the Gospel as “Jesus dying so my sins could be forgiven”).

Fortunately for us, there are a whole bunch of other ideas in the Scriptures that we can work with. There are a range of ideas that give us a bit of elbow room to move and work out how to best explain the game-changing work of the cross and what it might mean for us today.

I want to start with the Gospel of John, chapter 2, verses 13-20.

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem around Passover time, walks into the Temple courts, and begins to tear.it.up! He drives out the animals, overturns the tables, and basically gets pretty cranky at the whole scene.

Some people have suggested that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day when he did this, or perhaps just couldn’t control his temper as well as one would expect of the Son of God (tsk tsk!).

But there’s more going on here.

It’s interesting to note what the Jewish authorities say to Jesus: “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” This was all about authority. This was all about who was in control, and who could change the system.

The system was corrupt. The office of the High Priest was able to be bought from the Romans (who were in control), and the Temple authorities were becoming quite wealthy due to their decisions to play the Roman game and work within that broader system.

But Jesus steps in and overturns the heart of the system – the profiteering from the sacrificial system that was the means by which covenant relationship was maintained to that point.

It’s even more interesting to note that in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) where this incident occurs, Jesus actually quotes from Isaiah 56:1-8.

This passage from Isaiah is extremely important!

Basically, it suggests that those who had formerly been specifically excluded from taking part in the Temple cultic system in the Law (foreigners and eunuchs) were now being called to fully join the people of God. As long as they “bound themselves to Yahweh” they could no longer be excluded, for “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).

The point of it all was that Israel was meant to be the shining light to the nations of the world, drawing them in to come and worship the one, true, Creator God.

But it hadn’t turned out this way.

Israel’s system had become hopelessly exclusive – working on principles of keeping people out rather than drawing them in.

And this is what Jesus overturned.

He overturned the Temple system that set up dividing walls between where Jewish men could go, where Jewish women could go, and where Gentiles could go – each being kept respectively further and further away from the Temple itself (remembering that the Temple was meant to symbolise the very presence of God). It may be useful here to also reflect on where the money-lenders’ tables and the animals for sale were probably located – in the court of the Gentiles, taking up more space and further excluding them from getting near the Temple.

But Jesus couldn’t leave it this way.

So he overturned the tables, symbolically overturning the whole system, demonstrating in the most effective way he could that he was challenging the very authority of the Temple and the whole system set up around it.

And the Jewish authorities asked him: “Show us a sign to prove that you have the authority to do this.”

And Jesus offers them this cryptic response: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).

At this the Jewish leaders scoff. “It’s taken 46 years to build this thing. What, are you going to have some sort of Amish barn-raising to try to build the thing again or something?”

But the author of the Fourth Gospel adds in a very important note at this point: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:21-22).

Jesus was suggesting that he was to become the “new Temple.” The Temple was the centre of the Jewish faith, with its sacrifical system around it, but Jesus was suggesting that he himself was to become to the new centre of Israel’s faith. Israel was now to be organised around Messiah, rather than Temple. A new day had arrived.

Jesus was pretty smart.

He knew that the Temple system was headed for destruction. He knew that the way Israel was organised would only lead to death. This exclusive system had come to be based on nationalistic zeal, and, though the Temple authorities were alright with the fact that they were profiting off their relationship with the Romans, the Jewish people would ultimately come into direct conflict with their Roman overlords in all-out war. The Jewish people, with the stories of Gideon and Judas Maccabeus to guide them, would one day pick up the swords that they kept under their beds in anticipation of the coming of the military Messiah who would lead them to victory, and would run headlong into battle with the mighty Empire.

And this is just what happened in 66-70AD. It didn’t work out very well.

But Jesus knew this. He knew that if nothing changed, death would follow. He knew that the nation of Israel would die the death of Roman criminals if they kept on their course.

And so he offered himself.

He offered himself in their place. He offered himself as the Temple to be destroyed, rather than the physical Temple to be destroyed in 70AD. He suggested that, if Israel would re-organise around him, then they wouldn’t die the death of Roman criminals.

He would instead.

And here’s the beauty of it: If they kept their course and ended up in all-out conflict with the Romans, their system would be thoroughly destroyed. The Temple has still not been rebuilt! But, if they organised around Messiah, then he would take on the destruction to himself. And rather than being destroyed forever, he would rise again three days later. In this, he not only demonstrated that he was truly the Jewish Messiah; he demonstrated that he was truly the Lord of all.

He went up against the most powerful Empire that the world had ever seen – with their god-like Caesar and all – and yet he overcame. Death could not hold him down. He rose again on the third day and demonstrated once and for all that he was truly Lord.

And what this all means is, I think, something very profound.

In re-organising Israel around himself, Jesus did away with the exclusive system that kept people separated from God.

Paul says it like this:

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he 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. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:11-22).

For Paul, the prophecy of Isaiah 56 has finally been fulfilled in Jesus.

For Paul, Israel is now not the people organised around the physical Temple and its system, but around Messiah. There is now no longer any separation between those who wish to centre their lives on God, because the only badge of membership is faith in the Messiah.

And this is great news!

We, those of us who are not Jewish by birth, are now able, though Jesus, to be part of the true Israel of God – the family of faith organised around Messiah (which includes, by the way, the concept of the forgiveness of sins, albeit within a broader understanding of the gospel).

But Jesus is not simply the Jewish Messiah; through his death and resurrection he has been demonstrated to be Lord of all!

What this means, if we go a little further into Ephesians, is that this family of faith, true Israel or “the Church,” is the demonstration of God’s manifold wisdom. God is holding up the Church as “Exhibit A” declaring that what he has done here – uniting together in family parties that formerly saw each other as arch-enemies – is the foretaste of what he will do with the whole of creation.

The unity of the Church is the very demonstration of God’s wisdom, as we live together in peace and unity as a living demonstration of what will come in full one day.

And therefore, this Easter, as we ponder the work of Jesus on the cross, I want to suggest that we think very carefully about what this means.

The unity of the Church is the demonstrations of God’s manifold wisdom.

We often make God look like a fool.

This Easter, I want to suggest that, for those of us who call ourselves “Christian,” we think about these things deeply.

Let’s pray this Easter that the Spirit of peace would work among us to help us live up to this great task.

Let’s put aside the useless squabbles and remind ourselves once more that we are united in Christ by the Spirit – that we are meant to be the inclusive family of God that lives out true reconciliation and peace.

We are meant to be the demonstration in the now of what will come in full in the not-yet.

Let’s take this responsibility seriously.

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.

_______________

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).