The place of Christianity in the history of Australia, and the actions of individual Christians, churches and denominations, has not always been a happy story. The presence of Christians and Christianity in our nation has certainly not always been “good news”.
In many ways, Christianity 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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, through the pursuit of a form of Christianity that 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, nor do I want to ignore the many missionaries who sought to actively preserve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 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 in retrospect seen as participating in cruel policy, were perhaps 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.
But there is much that can be done to improve relationships. Firstly, there needs to be a genuine, deep repentance on behalf of Christians in Australia to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. 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 repentance.
Painting of the three crosses by Anangu artist Yvonne-Edwards.
This should, of course, be a very natural move, since repentance is at the very heart of the Christian message. Not coincidentally, so is the whole idea of reconciliation.
At its core, Christianity is a call for reconciliation on an epic scale. The overriding message of the biblical story is the search for, and the call to an active embodying of, shalom. This sort of peace (or, perhaps better, wellbeing) is central to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and it therefore should be central to the life and ministry of the Church in Australia.
Where that shalom is absent, we need to be working to see it restored. Where we have been instrumental in causing that absence of shalom, we hold a special responsibility.
And that’s why, to my mind, National Reconciliation Week offers the Church in Australia an amazing opportunity. It’s a time when we can make sure our faith is put into practice! It’s a time when we can celebrate the significant achievements of the 1967 referendum and the Mabo decision, and every small step towards reconciliation in between.
At my church (a smallish Anglican church in Sydney’s northwest), reconciliation is about moving beyond talking about it all (which is at least a good place to start)and seeking to actively start building relationships with the Indigenous ministries that are within our denomination—as well as other individuals and Indigenous community groups in our area. It means learning from rather than just about, Aboriginals and Torres Straight Islanders.
It means, as far as we can tell, acknowledging the fact that our church has been operating in the area for more than 100 years without ever having asked permission from the traditional custodians of the land to do so. We’re not exactly sure how all of this will work out, or exactly what it will look like, but we are dedicated to the journey in the hope of contributing—even a little bit—to the shalom I wrote about above.
There are so many opportunities. This National Reconciliation Week, let’s take hold of those possibilities. Let us not shy away from the task, but rather dedicate ourselves to the journey of reconciliation in Australia.