With recent world events captured in the small hashtags #Icantbreathe and #blacklivesmatter, my PhD subject at the moment proves to be of grave importance as emotion runs high.
Summarizing my initial project into common language, I was interested in what life would be like if I were a black Australian. It didn’t start as a macabre curiosity, but emerged out of a most unusual and strong spiritual impression while sitting under an old fig tree in a park in convict-hewn Sydney. I felt a sense of calling to the margin as an expression of my Christian faith – which flourishes best, it seems, in places like Nazareth, Galilee (in other words, nowhere in particular according to Rome). That Jesus turned up in the Bible as an indigenous Hebrew boy in a Roman world suddenly felt like an imperative. I felt called to walk out in faith into the shadows, and in a sense, let them consume me. And, as much as I was able, let this darker world swallow my white skin, and then, to look again for God. Here I stand on the precipice of a new year that should be the final one of my PhD. It marks the year I will report on my project.
Within the Australian church, there is a sense of immunity to race issues. There’s shock at seeing footage of race riots on the television and also a reassurance that by Sunday all things will go back to “normal”, and our many diverse voices will raise together in unity praising Jesus. Christians in general shy away from talking about colour.
But, I’m beginning to hear questions being asked about these spaces and strategies. Perhaps this is an extension of the sentiment encapsulated in Dr Martin Luther King’s famous quote from the National Cathedral at DC in 1968 “…eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America.”
We’ll tell you that we don’t have racial segregation in Australian Christianity. In my humble view, however, the unity we feel has a lot to do with our early decades as a colony – if not directly, then symbolically. As much as I dearly love my Anglican friends, there is for me a sinister ring behind the often-quoted pulpit message of that first colonized Sunday.
… As the historian Stuart Piggin points out, this church’s role was to partner with the English government, working towards moral reform of Australia’s depraved convict citizens . Admission to these particular sermons was quite the exclusive honor. This congregation had been in the hold of a ship for nine months, and were seated at church in stocks. They were compelled to accept homilies from the same magistrate who midweek dealt them punishment with the cat o’nine tails. I’m not sure how far away the bodies of hung prisoners were from the church building. Probably the short walk from the Sydney cathedral to the barracks. But, it took a good generation before clergy interest turned to brown-skinned first Australians who observed it all incredulous from behind the gum trees.
There was something seriously wrong with this type of reform. It didn’t work. Many of the transported crowd actually believed themselves entirely god-forsaken. This was a belief they faithfully enacted when emancipated and sent out to settle the continent. By the time the moral arbiters of the state caught up with their actions, it was all a big, big mess.
Australia’s ethnic scars are still real to its people. The convict ships sailed so far away from the global economy that the new society was irrelevant for well over one hundred years. Sometimes transported for taking a piece of bread, the convicts were removed from English cities and intentionally forgotten. We have contained the sentiment best in our war stories – of strong, rural Australians ordered to their death in Gallipoli by English aristocracy. Due to a communication mistake, the ANZACS held an impenetrable Turkish cliff-face for months. It is now an honorary Australian territory. In our continent, the law had already won. Yet rogues flourished, and the Irish fought back. Ned Kelly became a national icon – a guy in a hand-smelted suit of amour with the claim to fame that he managed to kill three Victorian police.
It is no mistake that the Australian national crest features two animals that cannot walk backwards. Similarly it is no mistake that in Australia’s newer contemporary churches, central values of modernism (e.g. joy, forgiveness) are communicated so strongly.
Nevertheless, I suspect the world has little to fear from radical Australianism. We have no intention of returning to the Machiavellian structures we inherited. Which of course, our Italian community applauds as loudly as our former convicts. We slowly gathered more groups of exiles. In most things, white convicts and migrants learned to stand together. For any nation, there has to be a certain amount of safety before it can rethink its value system. If Australia could look backwards, we would realize that the very basis of the culture we built is drawn from the scars of the cat o’nine tails.
With their ancestors’ bodies marked with their failures, Australians stubbornly refuse to believe that failure or success is what anyone else says it is. Failure is celebrated. Success is giving it a fair go. And both black bodies and white bodies are present in church giving it a go, so this whole race stuff doesn’t apply to us, right?
It’s poignant to me that MLK’s famous comment was spoken only one year before indigenous Australians gained the vote. Which means that before 1967, the brown peoples in the church pews had no ability to participate in decisions directly affecting their families. It was in 1992 that the idea of terra nullius (empty land) was overthrown. Many of my Australian readers think “get over it and move on”. As the adage goes, hurt people hurt people.
If I am to be honest, there is muted interest in my work. I will admit that I’ve felt the reporting process of my PhD weighing heavily upon my shoulders in the last three years. It’s always there – when I am in public spaces, and when I’m home alone trying to do something that has no relation whatsoever to the pile of books towering on my desk. One day while I was in the United States, a phrase came into my mind that summed it all up: “the unbearable whiteness of being”.
Our mind tends to do that – take and subvert pieces of our experience. I assumed it was a ‘thing’. As in, something other people created because they knew the feeling, this weight. And so, seeking solidarity, I typed the phrase into google.
I found instead, the opposite, the title of a Czech novel, “the unbearable lightness of being”.
I was surprised. And yet, it made a strange sort of sense. I guess my kleptomanic brain picked up this title in a Czech bookshop between ancient attractions. Or perhaps it miraculously seeped into my consciousness while we played music in the Czech churches. I don’t know.
I sat there for a while, letting it rest.
Before the project, there was something that so darn light about life. And I really did believe I could float around the earth, making each of my interactions the kindest they could possibly be. I thought that could change things.
I love watching children for this reason, their lightness. Their inquisitive hands and eyes undertake research, just like me. But they do it with absolute newness, a belief that they may be the very first and only person ever to see the light shine through the leaves in this way. They believe that, should they get enough momentum, they may actually fly.
It may sound cynical, but I don’t believe that anymore. I’ve undertaken the journey of being weighted down.
You see, I was expecting to be able to comment on blackness. But all that has come of this project is a sense of what “white” actually means.
I only have broken words and flashing images, so I will have to speak it in poetry. Which I offer up here.
I am of the ocean people. As in, the ones who sailed throughout the world conquering and taking. They sang songs of the wind, and of the wide-open sky, and of lands beyond the horizon of the world. They imagined they owned it all, and that dream came true in many ways.
My people are also, as I said, the windswept ones that ended up in urban city jails because they stole a horse, and were chained to the bottom of a boat and banished away from their lives. But they were irrepressible. They looked upwards and faced their terrors and again built boats and sailed upon them, laughing at their captors.
But, the people that I listen to, they are the landed people. They are the ones with soil smeared on their faces, and they are beautiful. They know the path of the river, not because they have sailed it (although they may have) but because they have walked every metre of it. They climbed rocks and they know what it is to sit down, very quietly, and be still enough to hear the platypus play – a living miracle. They know that once upon a time, other things were also possible. And their tears fall into the earth, and it comforts them to know it brings life again in that place where it falls.
During these years, I tried to listen. I tried to weight myself with stories of those around me, the narratives and realities and deep grief these people feel. I have listened to women tell me of sitting in a truck headed to the missions. I have heard the anger in men’s voices as they describe the ways my ocean people ignored the land and all it means. I have laughed and laughed at the joking ways in which they describe us, their sharp observations and their witty retorts.
I have found that this is not the type of weight that causes you to die. It transforms you, but will not kill you. When I occasionally throw it all off, I begin to float away. But then I remember that in order to be real, to be human, my feet must walk upon the land.
You see, ocean life is not forever life. Plane life is not forever life. Internet life is not forever life.
We were first brought into Eden, a garden, and when we die, it is to a garden we will return. Soil life is forever life.
Strangely enough, I’m less able to point to where I live than ever before. There is a small place with a bed and some clothes, and some odd knick-knacks we’ve collected. I’m sure it won’t always be like that, but it is for now.
But I’ve found what is important – the wisdom of the land. Our world is dictated by the ocean life. It is competitive, fast, unhindered, and makes us think that we accomplish big things. But at some point, we must all stop our endless consumption and recognize that as time ages us, we are indeed human. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Soil is the very essence of the reality we try to escape – it is recognition that no matter how fast you go, how far, how high, that life is not held within us, but is gifted to us.
I cannot really comment upon blackness. My report will write up some features of three indigenous-led Christian churches in urban cities. It draws upon what people told me this was like. It will try and evoke the sounds, and it will paint a picture of what takes place after the final prayers on Sunday – what attending these churches means on Monday. But beyond that, I can merely say that I have a profound respect for the indigenous peoples of Australia, their political and economical critique, their constant working towards remedies, and their resilience. I have found more intelligent dialogue in this community than I see in dominant culture, that’s for sure. I see an intensity and spectrum of emotion. I see self-awareness. I am exhausted at the extent of issues my new friends deal with on a daily basis, and yet I admire the tenacity they have to overcome. “Survival” makes complete sense to me. It was inevitable.
I might not be able to comment on blackness. But I have found that I can now comment upon whiteness. And all I can say is that without an anchor, we will be lost. And all I have to say that with … is poetry.
 Piggin, S. 1996. Evangelical Christianity in Australia: spirit, word, and world: Oxford University Press.