Well, I’m ridiculously surprised to see my January hits after a blog post on Hillsong. ABC’s Religion & Ethics published the piece online (editing out funny snarkies and clarifying vague allegations here). Writing is what I do (in many forms), so feel free not to needlessly applaud just for me. This week commentators concluded that a) it was an opinion piece and b) the media should present both sides, and I reiterated that c) Hillsong is not responsible for creating prosperity theology and learned that d) Lausanne IV will address prosperity doctrine in 2014 (and, hopefully, release a helpful theological statement for the global church). So, all went relatively well.
My PhD research, though, is actually at the intersection of Australian indigenous peoples* and Christianity. After the closure of the missions, stories of institutionalization and the ‘Stolen Generation’ abuses led Australians to an embarrassed, wide-eyed silence about indigenous peoples that still existed within many Christian denominations. In contrast, missiologist Richard Trugden is vocal about the continuing responsibility Christian churches have. My interest is in reconciliation, and the hope that Australia’s churches and Christians see, as Lausanne III missiologists loudly declare, “reconciliation to God [as] inseparable from reconciliation to one another”. But it seems to be a very long journey to get there. Perhaps indigenous Australians have, by necessity, had reconciliation as a more pressing goal.
The first true move of “white Australia” on this issue was arguably the formal government apology in 2008, where Kevin Rudd declared;
It is for the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close, as we begin a new chapter. We embrace with pride, admiration and awe the great and ancient cultures we are truly blessed to have among us – cultures that provide a unique, uninterrupted human thread linking our Australian continent to the most ancient prehistory of our planet. Growing from this new respect, we see our indigenous brothers and sisters with fresh eyes, with new eyes, and we have our minds wide open as to how we might tackle, together, the great practical challenges that Indigenous Australia faces in the future.
And… *Cue flag waving*.
However, when our national “Australia Day” celebration looms, the distance between indigenous and non-indigenous groups again becomes clear.
In 2014, a discussion on a simple tee-shirt slogan “established in 1788” became heated on twitter. Of course, this goes back to divisions in Australian history – meaning the stand-offs between “black armbanders” (those wanting to include undocumented Aboriginal history and genocides) and “white-washers” (those suppressing and even refuting stories told by the first group). It’s excruciating to interact online when discourses are so opposed.
Fascinatingly, mission journals give insight into how Settler culture remained unaware of the history of the first Australian peoples. Each mission station gives us a small story, that together, becomes a colossal narrative. Of course, it’s all very complex – but missionaries carried out ‘White Assimilation’ policies in remote rural areas. They sometimes suppressed languages and removed children while at the very same time offering food and shelter, education and medicine.
However, mission historian Peggy Brock navigates this brilliantly, in her books Outback Ghettos: Aborigines, Institutionalisation, and Survival (1993) and Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change (2005). Her work ranges from uncovering sordid realities of mission life in the 1800s, through to editing various opinions about contemporary Aboriginal Christianity, and the spectacular indigenous Pentecostalism of Africa. She starts with a comparison of three missions in South Australia, all with different geographic proximity to Australian cities. She notes different leadership styles, strategies and effects upon the Aboriginal people. However, one similarity between these missions was that in order to control indigenous Australian culture, the missionaries decided they must control corroborees.
A “corroboree” (for my US readers) is an indigenous word, meaning a ceremonial meeting or ritual performance. It included dancing and story-telling, clapping sticks, singing and in some parts of Australia, didgeridoo. It could go on for days at a time.
The missionaries tended not to be into performance, they were all about books. One particular book – The Bible. Many failed to learn indigenous languages (disclaimer: some were brilliantly bicultural) but most preached against corroborees, such as at the Poonindie mission, they where missionaries banned immediately as soon they began work.
However, in the Western part of South Australia, Brock notes a “cultural fluidity” between the mission and the ceremonial grounds. The Koonibba mission was split – on one side was a church, and on the other a camp ground suitable for dancing. People negotiated their involvement in these two spaces for many years through physical presence (attending at one or other or both alternately). During significant ceremonies, attendance at church would fluctuate – but most wildly when the mission was out of rations. I guess some people were willing to forgo a good corroboree for basic necessities, which Brock highlights – that Aboriginal people worked towards their own “survival”.
One story grabbed me from this first book. It is a missionary’s argument with an Aboriginal woman. The missionary was C.A. Wiebusch, a German Lutheran educated in St Louis, who spoke English very well. The woman was his long-time Aboriginal kitchen helper Ada, who married a “skillful” Aboriginal man named Arthur. Wiebusch had a vested interest in keeping Ada around, as he liked her cooking. I imagine him with a moustache in the Australian bush wearing a three-piece suit, and jumping at the eerie sound of Kookaburras as he washed his white body in the stream at dawn’s light, holding a bible in hand and praying fervently for “the souls of the Aborigines”. That last bit is just my imagination, though.
In 1903, a large group of Aboriginal people turned up unexpectedly to Koonibba’s ceremonial (or corroboree) grounds. So many, it caused disturbance at the mission. Brock states,
“The few who remained on the station were torn … they lost interest in their work and were rude and insubordinate, Arthur Richards among them. He got upset over small incidents, swore and was reprimanded. He was obviously looking for an excuse to leave. He requested a fortnight’s [vacation] but was refused, so he left without permission. Wiebusch went to the Richards’ camp and reminded them of their promises and asked that at least Florence and Ada stayed at the mission. But Ada refused, and was hit by Arthur with his spear. She, then enraged, attacked Wiebusch, biting him on the arm when those watching would not give her a weapon.
There are so many layers to this story. Firstly, the missionary was patronizing, and conniving. But I’m fascinated with Ada’s desperation to bite her employer – due to her desire to take part. It continues:
Wiebusch had obviously pushed them too far, and they both left, but promised to return soon. They were punished by losing their cottage and the wheat Arthur had earned as a bonus to his wages… The missionary’s motives for wanting to keep Ada and Arthur on the mission were more than purely spiritual; he needed their services. Ada was the only Aboriginal woman with any experience in domestic service and was wanted in the kitchen. Without her, Wiebusch would have to hire white domestic help.
To make this into a marital dispute was pretty disgusting, as was removing a family’s earned privileges. But that the Richards actually returned (to live good, uneventful Christian lives according to the missionary) is also astounding. I find it so frustrating that no-one documented what was going on in that meeting! Brock summarizes Wiebusch’s diary:
… probably what upset him most was that Richards and those like them, who appeared to be progressing towards a European lifestyle, could suddenly turn their backs on the material advantages of the mission – stone cottages, regular food – to take part in ‘heathen’ ceremonies”
Now as a Hillsong-er, I love myself a good camp meeting! I remember as a girl sitting in the driveway, impatiently waiting for mum to pick me up after work so we could get to a midweek worship service. I remember driving into the parking lot, and hearing sounds of worship. I would ask her to hurry in locking the car door. I knew what it was like to miss a moment in a community’s history, only to hear it relayed badly second-hand. We had to be there.
Things are communicated differently with live performance. It’s totally different from a community for whom everything is (or can be) written down. Pentecostalism is known as an oral culture. Thus I feel, strangely, much more affinity for those at the ceremonial grounds in this story than I do those in the church meetings… .Ain’t nobody recorded biting anybody to get to boring old Lutheran church, is all I’m saying.
I’m open to an ecumenical discussion. But in the literature Pentecostalism is termed “primitive religion” by Harvey Cox, and perhaps this description is apt. I love Lutheran services, but constrained lengthy sitting in pews does make me twitch. I managed through Anglican schooling. But in an oral culture, being there is the only way a member can keep up to date with what’s really going on. Perhaps it’s like missing a great rugby, or football or baseball (see, I do still love you Americans) match. My question remains: What was going on that day that would cause Ada to bite her employer Wiebusch????
We may never know the answer.
But I think scholar Fiona Magowan’s work has a lot to offer in understanding the significance of ceremony. Spiritual connection between people and place is directly linked in Aboriginal culture. The land is said to have emerged from ‘The Dreaming’, or time the world slept in a vague consciousness (a parallel to Genesis 2). Dreams, visions and signs reveal the state of human relationships. Magowan notes that any severing of social ties causes great fear for the Yolngu, as does walking into wrong places and being exposed to inappropriate tribal knowledge (‘men’s business’ or ‘women’s business’). She believes that as rituals ceased, then traditional forms of society eroded. She also considers fear to govern the spiritual and emotional identity of the Yolgnu people. Exposure to fear and the release from it causes an “internal state of marr (spiritual power or strength) and the structural conditions for magaya (peace or a cessation of internal or external conflict materially, socially, spiritually and physically”).
After a long period of fieldwork, Magowan realized that meanings of Aboriginal dance were hidden to most non-indigneous Australians. In fact, many didn’t want to know what the moves meant, because it was “just dance”. But in contrast, performance was central to Aboriginal culture – in fact, life was built around “performative politics”. This means dance creates a common (but not a homogenized) identity. When people perform, they are performing in the same story, to the same music. A corroboree weaves society’s parts together into a whole.
I think this is revolutionary for Australians who’ve never engaged indigenous culture before. Perhaps, even in Sydney, the city that prides itself upon having no music scene, The Arts may be a key. Maybe ritual can create the forum for a new Australia Day celebration.
Magowan laments that Aboriginal themselves people now sometimes borrow Western dance as if they no longer remember the old steps. She believes the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1963 made sure indigenous dance was “packaged into neatly schematized and imperialized glosses for ready consumption by the spectator”. Harsh… and, of course, the Bangarra Dance Director disagrees, and believes Aboriginal dance serves a present role in reconciliation. It’s an interesting discussion, and one central to the issue of indigenous “survival”.
At this point, it’s probably important to say to Christian readers that Magowan ‘fills in’ the story of Australian Aboriginal Christianity in rural communities after the missions closed. In Arnhem land, following Pentecostal revivals, many services now incorporate dancing and traditional dress. Often they are held around the campfire, with a relatively ‘free’ liturgy and a mix of songs – some drawn from Australia’s Pentecostal churches, and others written by the community. In this way, Christianity is contextualized, and music acts provides an openness to the global church and society. During funerals in particular, Magowan notes “…[charismatic] songs sit alongside ancestral songs performed up until the burial fellowship that are intended to send the spirit to its ancestral land”. Magowan quotes Pastor Djiniyini:
If I am to have my true identity before God, you cannot lock me into your ways. You must give me freedom to be me…
She believes the Western Church has not yet truly given that freedom to Aboriginal people.
As our secular nation celebrates, I wonder whether we could actually create spaces where we return to the meaning of “Australia” as the land.
And, in our Australia Day church services, maybe we need to overcome our fear to engage local indigenous people in order to find out what “Australia” really is all about. Maybe, instead of thong-throwing competitions (awkward Aussie word, of course I mean flip-flops), white Australians should return to where the divide started, and attend a corroboree.
*You might call Australian indigenous people “Aborigines”. Australians often prefer to use the term “Aboriginal people” for mainland indigenous peoples, but to use “indigenous peoples” when it includes the Torres Strait.