Australia is currently in the midst of a reform called the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS. This reflects a widespread national recognition that change is necessary for the way that we care for and support those with disabilities. This scheme rolls out in 2017 in New South Wales.
Under the NDIS, Australia’s funding will now be allocated to and controlled by the individual with a disability rather than by service organizations, which traditionally provided programs that individuals had to fit or miss out. This change will enable eligible people to structure their income and their activities around their goals.
This potentially opens new opportunities for people with disability, as they gain voice and control and are able to decide what matters to them as a person.
In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that “disability” is not a medical diagnosis, but a bio-psycho-social one, as in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning (ICF). This just means that our understanding of what disability often reflects our social environment. Advocates suggest that the word “dis-ability” indicates a limitation on the abilities of a person whom it describes.
With the technology we now have available and use today, many physical limitations can be now overcome – for example, people who wear reading glasses probably don’t see themselves as “disabled” while those of us who use wheelchairs and are unable to get access to the places where we do ordinary life are likely to identify themselves as having a “disability.”
The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or UNCRPD (http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml) has now been signed by approximately one hundred and forty nations, including Australia. The UNCRPD is a commitment from governments to change the way they provide support to citizens with disability. This is of particular importance because many studies link disability to low socioeconomic status or poverty.
The Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of The University of Sydney, has been involved in some of the preparatory work for the NDIS.
And one of the interesting findings is that Australia’s NDIS may mark the potential reappearance (or more regular appearance) of many people with lifelong disabilities into Australia’s religious communities.*
In 2015 at the L’Arche 50-year Symposium conference hosted by The Centre for Theology & Ministry at Melbourne University, Dr Vivienne Riches and Dr Tanya Riches presented their research, outlining the self-reported religious affiliation of 246 Australians with disability during a trial assessment. This was the basis for a scholarly article for AlphaCrucis’ AustralAsian Pentecostal Studies (APS).
Of our respondents, 14 (5.7%) replied that they had ‘no religious affiliation’. The majority of others (92.5%) identified themselves as ‘Christian’, with many specified denominational affiliations.
There was another theme in the interviews with people with disability – staff was largely unable (or, occasionally unwilling) to take people with disability to church. Support for religious activities on the weekends within group homes has been patchy at best.
Now under the new funding arrangements, a person with a disability could articulate their goals as involvement in a faith community, and receive adequate support in order to attend church every weekend, visit the venue each week for music rehearsals, or regularly attend youth or discipleship meetings.
In most Australian cities, this finally marks the arrival of a real weekend for many people with moderate to profound disabilities. The weekend is the time when most people do social things. But until now, support staff structured support around their schedules – and most carers worked midweek.
Interestingly, however, within much of the Christian church, the massive impending social changes that are possible with the NDIS have not even raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this highlights a disconnect with the needs of our community, How much do we really love our neighbour with a disability?
Jesus was highly interested in people with disability – especially those who were dis-abled by their society. Jesus did not see disability as a curse (John 9:1-3). He often healed symptoms, of course, but his main contribution was in solving the wider social problems related to the stigmatisation of people.
Paul wrote several times of his physical weakness (e.g. 2 Cor 12:7-10). The great leader Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10- 16). Elijah was depressed to the point of suicidality in 1 Kings 19. And one of the most beautiful stories of hospitality in the Bible is the way King David treated Mephibosheth, the son of his friend Jonathan, who had a physical impairment (in 2 Sam 9).
Perhaps the church needs to be more open and connected to the needs of the people within it? …. Is your church community ready to wholeheartedly say “Welcome home” to those rolling over to the NDIS in 2017?
Anglican Reverend Ray Minniecon cuts an iconic figure in Sydney’s inner city. His heritage is Aboriginal, drawn from the lands of the Kabi Kabi and Goreng Goreng peoples, but also the South Sea Islands, with his grandfather brought to Australia as a forced labourer from Ambrym Island in Vanuatu.
He is honest that he still longs for his hometown, Cairns. Perhaps us city dwellers could better appreciate his presence in “the big smoke” as incarnation, extending himself on behalf of peace. Living in fast-paced Glebe he is somewhat reminiscent of the lead character in the movie Crocodile Dundee. He bears a cheeky grin and an Akubra hat covered in crocodile teeth. But Minniecon isn’t interested in the appearance of anything, really. His gaze looks straight through you to deeper things – maybe things you’d like to keep hidden in the recesses of your soul. Or perhaps, in the nation’s soul. He has no qualms when it comes to speaking truth about he ANZAC story – a story that has become almost central to Australian national identity in the last few years.
He is the ultimate truth teller. This may irritate some in politics who like receiving information through official channels. But it also breaks the spell of fascination that many seem to be under when it comes to all things First Peoples. For many years, Western society seems to have enjoyed crafting a mythological Aboriginality, depicting it as lost in Dreaming mythology and inept at fact.
Uncle Ray dismantles all stereotypes simply by his existence. Which is really his point. Aboriginal people exist. Their trauma is real. And that seems an inconvenient truth many Australians would like to avoid.
If it wasn’t for government cuts to Indigenous services, or states declaring the closure of homelands, or radio shock-jocks speaking out almost weekly on issues facing his peoples, perhaps Minniecon’s voice wouldn’t be needed. But if ever there was a time for truth telling, it is now. As ANZAC Day approaches it’s an honour to meet him on a darkening Autumn night to talk faith, nationalism and hope.
This year you celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Coloured Digger ANZAC March…. How did this movement to honour Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers come about?
Ray: Just like all good problems, we solve them in the pub! The trouble is when we go outside that door… (Laughs) we have so many good ideas in the pub… I was telling a friend of mine, a local non-Indigenous guy Chris Carbon the story of my grandfather who fought in WWI, and the problems he and my two brothers faced when they came back from Vietnam in terms of non-recognition. We decided from that time on we would do something … And, so Chris said “I’ll be the Gubba (non-Indigenous) gatherer” and I was naturally the Koori gatherer. How things start.
So, I organized with the three Aboriginal churches in Redfern at the time – the Catholic Church, and the ministry that I was at Crossroads, and Lighthouse ministries with Pastor Bill Simon. We got together and we decided to have our first ceremony at our church.
… We attracted around thirty odd people, and one old Digger, to this beautiful ceremony. That’s when we decided we needed to take it one step further, and march in the streets of Redfern, to take it into the public arena. Which we did.
What were the experiences or realities for these men, both during the war and when they came home?
The need arose from the way Aboriginal diggers were treated when they came back from the World Wars. Many didn’t get their allotted land grants or benefits for fighting for their country. They actually came back under state regimes and segregation.
The Vietnam vets, I think got treated the worst. But our Diggers weren’t even given that recognition. Yeah. Still. My brother told me the story that he was sick of going to the RSL and them saying, “you’re not allowed in here.” He’d just come home from fighting overseas, and the RSLs wouldn’t allow him in there.
And, one Premier said that he couldn’t give Aboriginal people land rights because they didn’t fight for the country. … It was a whole range of those kinds of incidents that got us involved. Their story wasn’t being honestly recognized or respected.
Why, in your opinion, did they fight for Australia?
First and foremost they did it in defense of our country, our land. Second, because they felt it their obligation or their duty to go and fight. Thirdly, many of them would have said they were going to fight because they were treated differently in the military and they thought they might get something better when they came home. And, fourthly, it’s just that pride in being able to be the warrior you’re supposed to be. So all of those things combined would have added to reasons why our mob wanted to go over and fight for our country.
… Once they did get into the military, they found out on the battlefront that bullets didn’t discriminate. So you had to look after your mates, care for each other. There was no what you might call “discriminatory practices”. You didn’t have time for that kind of stuff… it was just when they came back, that’s when separation between soldiers began.
What have you as a community been able to do to honour the Digger’s legacy?
What we intended to do is just to make sure that we, here in the inner city would have this little march to bring this story to life for us. “Lest we forget”. That’s the reason why we did it.
We decided that we wouldn’t spoil ANZAC day… what we would do is that after the great marches finish and they all go down to the pubs to play two-up with their mates, we would have our march and it wouldn’t interfere with anybody.
What we were declaring was that ANZAC Day is for all diggers. And if our diggers weren’t included, we needed to make sure they were … Of course, once we did that, the community came and wanted their family members recognized, given that recognition. And that’s how it started.
Have other ANZACs supported this movement?
Oh yeah. There were some really good strong friendships there that were formed. I know one Aboriginal Digger was in the prison in Changi, and he saved a white fella. All those Diggers had the highest regard for him. And if he wasn’t allowed in the pub, they weren’t going to it. They tried to fight against the system with the guys. We tried to fight against the system…
Why do you think this march has received so much attention?
We did not realize that this little march would have such an impact on the nation. It wasn’t our intention at the time. But because the institutions resisted our march, it sort of… their ways of dealing with it … highlighted the issue. More than we ever expected. And from that, the floodgates were opened, and people wanted to know about this story, about the Aboriginal diggers.
Because before that, you know, not many people knew about it. Some non-Indigenous people had written records, and highlighted these stories, but it didn’t get what you’d call a groundswell of interest. The moment we started marching then somebody got interested in it. Now universities and other professionals are researching, trying to get as many stories collected as possible, so that there’s a continuation of this story.
It would be unthinkable for New Zealand to whitewash the Maori warrior out of any wars. But over here we did. That’s the comparison I always make. It’s unthinkable for that little nation to say, ‘these fellas didn’t fight and they don’t deserve this and they don’t deserve that” but coming here to Australia, that’s what our people faced.
How many Coloured Diggers were there, do you know?
We think it could be between 3000 – 5000 Aboriginal diggers. We’re not quite sure how many. There’s a lot of research that has gone on and we do know our people fought in every world war, in every conflict –the Crimea War, Boer War and every other war. Our men were there at the forefront of these battles.
There are deeper questions around that that I can’t answer, that we can only surmise. Why would you fight someone else’s war? Because it wasn’t our war. That was a war between England and whomever they wanted to fight against, a white fellas war. So that’s another part of the question I guess.
We were excluded from joining the army. I know my grandfather’s records – the only way that he could get in there was to say that he was brought up by the white people. So the story is much more powerful if you weren’t even allowed, but you fight for the country and then you come back and get treated as though you didn’t exist.
Do you think that much of this has to do with the image of the ANZAC, that it’s become the national myth?
We can make statements about it, but really, it is a very good question to put to the Australian nation, to the Australian government, about the reasons why they don’t recognize us. I can’t get my head around some of the push-back from the white community around these stories. It’s beyond my imagination.
There’s a huge paper mural of a Coloured Digger at Redfern station, and I wondered what the story behind this image was?
Once again, the story captured the nation in so many ways. Hugh Snellgrove is an amazing artist. He was so captivated by this story, and he did all his research around a particular solider from South Australia. He went and visited the family, and he did all the right things in terms of protocols. When he put that up there it became a very big and powerful symbol. It brought a lot of pride to the family… a hidden history has now been revealed and is now open to see and to celebrate together.
How has St John’s Anglican Church, Glebe been involved in the groundswell movement? You mentioned that it played a part?
We’ve had number of significant events here at St John’s. Last year the Aboriginal military men came here before they went to Gallipoli for the one hundred year commemoration. They had a special ceremony with a didgeridoo and some artifacts and dances they had performed. We had a dedication service before they went over. It was a very special moment for the men. I would have loved to have gone over there with them. But they went over with the blessings of our people. And they brought some soil back from over in Gallipoli back to Canberra.
Now the reason that they chose this place was the scarred tree on the property, on the grounds there. We believe it’s one of those very rare scarred trees that were probably here before 1788, one of the trees that some of our people cut some of the bark out of it to use for an artifact or something – either a shield or a Coolamon (wooden dish). So this tree has become very special to the community here in the inner city, and was an important way in which these particular soldiers wanted to honour their ancestors.
How does this connect to your faith, this truth telling and working for justice?
In a sense, this is just an outworking of my faith. It’s a natural, normal part of faith…
We are the beneficiaries of the men and women who fought for this country. The only reason why we can have a church, and have the freedom of religion and of worship, is because of these men.
You said there’s been resistance against the Coloured Diggers, but have organizers invited you into the official ANZAC Day ceremony?
There has always been openness there. But we saw the way our soldiers were treated. If you fought for your country with courage and bravery, and then when you come home you’re told to march at the back of the line, or not allowed to go into institutions that have been sent up for you to get the benefits from, then you don’t want to march. The honour is just is not there.
One of the soldiers who I admire is Captain Red Saunders. You know, he fought for this country in so many different conflict areas, including Papua New Guinea, and I think he went through Tobruk as well, and all these other countries. And he fought with such bravery and such honour. That he would have to come back and try to fight the government and the RSL to get recognition of our own Diggers… I mean, that’s just … you know… the fight didn’t stop for him.
We’re not doing this because oh, this is a wonderful idea. We’re walking in the footsteps of all of those Aboriginal men and women who fought very strongly to get that recognition. This is not you know, something new. We’ve just got to continue to allow their spirit to continue this journey until the country “comes up proper ways”.
We fought hard for five things when I first started. First, the march. Second, a commemoration service to go with the march. Third, we had in the early stages there, a couple of art exhibitions to tell the stories. Fourth, We wanted to have a roll of honour of Aboriginal people so that my grandfather for example would be “Private James Lingwoodock, Kabi Kabi”. So he would have his tribal identity associated with him so any of our young people could see, “Eh, that’s my grandfather there, he comes from my tribe”. Fifth, we really wanted a proper memorial for Aboriginal Diggers. We’ve got that now in Hyde Park here. They’re the things we wanted to see, and that gave us the passion to march every year.
We still have a ways to go, and I know there’s a lot of research happening now, but because we’re in this one hundred year commemoration of the Great War, we’ve got two more years until Armistice Day. Even though we didn’t achieve “armistice”. But at least that time frame gives us something to work towards, to commemorate and celebrate.
Sydney Council recently announced withdrawal of their funding. Do you feel sad about that?
I mean, the City of Sydney can celebrate with something like Chinese New Year or some other wonderful event like that –I’m not taking anything away from that celebration. But here are people who fought for the flaming country. You would expect a little bit more of a response. But you can’t just blame the City of Sydney. The state and federal government, they haven’t come to the party yet. Only within departments and the way they want to handle or manage it.
I mean it’s right that the RSLs should start doing something, but they couldn’t get an understanding of what we were trying to do. We were just trying to get our community to celebrate. If no one else wanted to do it, then we would do it ourselves. And just honour the fathers, mothers and grandparents that fought for this country. It’s still a community event.
What would you say to the people who are reading the article who are struggling with guilt over this, or don’t know how get engaged?
That’s a good question. White guilt. Well, it goes with a few other things too. White privilege. And a history of White power through White policy. It was exclusively a White man’s world and a White man’s system and a White man’s culture. We weren’t given opportunity to participate in that culture much until 1967 when we got the vote.
So when you’ve got constitutional processes that exclude us, and state regimes that push us away, and then you’ve got institutions like the church who keep us outside the centre of activities, then suddenly those particular institutions begin to realize, “we’ve done something wrong, what do we do?”
Shame is much more corporate thing. There’s a difference there. Once someone feels guilty, and they’ve found the truth, well I mean the truth sets you free. They can deal with it in their individual way. They can express their regret, and move on, and find a new release from the knowledge that they’ve been given.
But shame? Does that need some kind of community response?
Well we’re seeing more non-Indigenous people march with us to celebrate or commemorate the Coloured Diggers. There’s other things we need to expose and bring to the forefront. One major issue is really the Frontier Wars. I mean, we’re in this national conversation about invasion now. If the truth will set us free, then say it – the place was invaded. Simple as. You can’t hide the truth. It’s impossible. We can’t do that as a nation.
The 10th year anniversary of the Coloured Diggers March will be held on ANZAC Day, Monday 25th April 2016 beginning at 2pm at The Block, with the remembrance service held in Redfern Park at 2:30pm.
In every nation there’s a point where ordinary, everyday people turn from bystanders into activists. It’s naive to think that the citizens of any country, no matter how good it is, would be immune to political involvement.
In fact, that’s democracy. Our Australian democracy is built on the premise that ordinary people should, no in fact must gather and engage in their world – where necessary, look evil in the eye, and refuse it room to remain any longer. Men fought and women lost sons and lovers for that right. Not just to get a sausage sandwich after polling once every four years.
We shouldn’t doubt that people will have to stand up and give voice at times – even if seen at first as unsolicited, unrequested, unwanted opinion. The question is, at what point do you step up and make your voice heard?
The Bible offers a clear mandate for this:
Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.
– Proverbs 31: 8-10
For many Christians in Australia, it’s been a long road that has led now to the formation of the Love Makes A Way Movement, that builds upon the Christian church’s nonviolent direct action (for more info see this amazing online pdf) throughout history, challenging the powers.
Women I’ve prayed beside worked in detention centers for thirty years. Father Claude has decades of experience in this area. He recounted to me how a Sri Lankan refugee slashed himself in their offices after receiving notice he was to be returned to the place he watched his brother and brother-in-law be murdered.
Yes, that’s right, I sat with Christian leaders in Malcolm Turnbull’s office this Monday, and prayed my heart out for our nation’s leaders to turn, and for our government to seize the day to change Australia’s policy on refugees.
I first engaged with refugee workers in 2006, when I worship led for an International Teams conference, and met missionaries stationed in Australia who engaged refugees. That’s when I realized my church, Hillsong, held weekly services in Villawood Detention Centre. I started to beeline for these friends while they were drinking coffee in the foyer of church. They introduced me to other friends working offshore. It started with curiosity and asking too many questions, but it ended with a deep empathy for them and the people they were serving.
Their eyes often filled with tears. Some told me of terrible, unthinkable things that were going on. That guards raped in the middle of the night, leaving women incontinent. Trauma that, through constant threat of deportation, turned into a deep fear and eventually, a madness. The complete loss of hope.
This contrasted sharply with stories of families who were being supported out in the community.
At that point, there were reportedly one million displaced people. Now, the UN says there are 20 million people seeking asylum.
During this time the media honed in on boat entries on Australia’s northern border. The Australian Labour Party decided it would intern those arriving by boat indefinitely, as deterrence. It was an act of arrogance, and of privilege but it was retained as a policy by the Liberal–National Coalition. Slogans were created. And sadly, elections were won with them.
All this time my friends wept, and tried to provide support for refugees. Denominations such as The Savation Army, Catholics and the Uniting Church have been long involved in endless behind-the-scene negotiations with the government. Eventually many denominations made public statements against the policies, including the Anglican Church, and Australian Baptists.
It is hoped that ALL Christians of Australia will join their hearts and minds, putting aside all other differences, to declare that the Australian government has crossed the moral line.
Australia has in indefinite detention about 2044 people, including 92 children on Nauru. And 112 children in Australia. There has been no change to this number for six months.
“For some of the children, this will be their third Christmas in detention and we can see no reason why they can’t be released before spending another one in detention”
It’s not only about celebrating Christ together. It’s about the fact that our Senators also believe they should be released. Seven days ago, the Senate managed to pass amendments to a bill that includes significant changes to refugee and asylum seeker debate. It does the following:
a) ends the detainment of children in onshore processing centers.
b) introduces mandatory reporting of abuse.
c) reverses legislation making it a criminal offence for public servants and contractors, including doctors, to disclose knowledge acquired in detention centres.
d) ensures reasonable access to journalists.
The opportunity is now for the Federal government in the House of Representatives to support the recent Senate amendments that would free all kids and their families from Australian detention centers before Christmas.
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.
Today I was able to chat to Dave Schenk & Damien on 92.2 Voice FM in Toowoomba about the recent events during the Sydney Siege, and how we can negotiate the aftermath, particularly on social media.
As always, I hung up, and realized there is much more that could be said on this topic. During the program, the hosts and I agreed that to be Christian is to practice the love shown by Jesus. How did Jesus act? Jesus demonstrated love for His enemies. To put this into words, he dealt with them as humans. We see so many times how Jesus drew any engagement with the ‘other’ down to the level of the individual. And I think we need to continue this model (not an argument that negates civil action, by the way). Jesus didn’t treat ‘Samaritans’ or ‘Romans’ all the same. He reached across boundaries and barriers and had intense, personal engagement. We don’t get away with stereotyping groups using the biblical text.
Our problem is, that many Australian Christians are still locked inside their cosmic conspiracies and stories.
During the Sydney Siege, for many hours we only saw a flag and hostages’ faces. We were free to speculate. Many questioned “why us?” In possible answer, we thought of recent events with ISIS, and even 9/11. An historical arc of “Islam versus Christianity” reaches far back into our psyche. Many have added a new chapter to this narrative entitled “Islam taking over Australia” – and can point to all the evidence. But this wasn’t a reality that we found once the doors were stormed, and individuals were carried out. We’re left here in the dissonance, with partial facts, and a whole lot of emotion.
Unfortunately, many Christians are motivated by emotion rather than rational thinking. This is both our superpower, and a fatal flaw. Many of my colleagues reject the church, running as far away as possible from groups that use internal logic to sustain theories after all evidence is presented. And because of it, Christians become used to ignoring ‘evidence’ presented by scholars and thinkers, assuming they are atheists and agnostics cruelly attempting to dismantle their very precepts of their faith. This is how we operate now.
Does this incident justify a Christian response against Islam? Should we be free to continue to speculate wildly under the guise of “watchfulness”, and to post hateful content online?
Well, as far as the facts go, it is a pretty isolated incident. This is not a clear continuation of 9/11. It is not a payback for hundreds of years of crusades. It is a self-professed Sheik, a guy with a record of evil actions, and a mixed history of religious activity that had recently found a home in the new Islamic state and Sunni ideology. Although the Christians I spoke with last night continue assertions that he was a part of a larger Islamic plan, this isn’t backed up by the known facts.
However there are some other lessons. We can say that this *is* another evidence of how globalization turns a relatively small act of terrorism into a global event. This *is* definitely a warning sign to our community that people will clothe themselves in whatever ideology suits them best, and at the moment Islam fits the bill. This is also a warning to our health professionals and legal systems to be vigilant in assessing warning signs. There may be some lessons for the police to take away, in addressing ideologically-motivated hostage situations that seem very likely to end in the perpetrator’s death.
But perhaps the best take-away is that we have to be vigilant in making sure that we don’t *create* another crisis with our unchecked emotion. It is entirely possible for *any* faith to radicalize.
My attention was caught by many Christian posts about Islam and its dangers – not unusual on my feed yesterday. I finally objected to a small comment on facebook that read: “for every hour the hostages are inside, let’s bomb another Mosque”. It felt painful to speak up and say that I was distressed at this comment. When I asked that the comment be removed, the author of the status responded that she would not be held hostage on her own facebook page. It turned the attention on me, and people objected to my policing of facebook. They were incensed that I saw bombing Mosques as an act of terrorism in the same way killing people was. They cited human life as primary and Islam as a “lifestyle choice” that should be quenched in Australia.
I sadly say that in this instance, I do not believe these people are practicing Christianity. And should there be a day that their words become reality and they start bombing Mosques, or that one of them takes a gun and holds seventeen people hostage in the Lindt cafe, then I would be very sad that religious leaders didn’t speak more clearly and quickly to denounce these voices in the Christian community.
I know that there are many Christians who are saying #Illridewithyou. I think this is what Jesus would do. And if you don’t like it, I’m not sure you can call yourself a Christ-ian. Happy for you to prove otherwise.
My friends at Fuller’s Interfaith Evangelical Dialogue published one of my articles. I would love you to feel free to interact with the content I’ve provided. I’d love to hear your thoughts. The point of publishing is to start a conversation.
Although it often feels like this conversation is one that most Australian Christians don’t want to have, I hope we can begin to talk about the need for dialogue in regards to Australian indigenous churches, and their cultural expression.
OK, so I’m finding it works well to update here when something new happens in the media, that way I keep a record of it, but it’s also all in chronological order. Apologies for those of you who are facebook/twitter/instagram friends and hear things twice. More love from me!
This week, Dwayne Jefferies from Open House interviewed me in regards to my research. Last time I popped in the studio, we shared on different things.
I’m still learning how not to waffle and to answer oral questions directly (I’m sooooo much better with written stuff, but I think I’ll get there eventually).
(This post was written in July 2014 directly after attending Hillsong Conference, and is edited only for clarity)
After seeing my social media posts, some of my coolest academic friends asked me to write a summary of the annual Australian Hillsong Conference, 2014. This is partly because Hillsong is only emerging now on the radar of the U.S. mainstream, with its second church plant in Los Angeles earlier this year. One friend suggested I could do this summary privately, but after thinking, I realized that I don’t want to write anything that isn’t appropriate to share publicly. So this is the “low” view of Hillsong Conference, from the perspective of a long-term Sydney church member with some breaks, and a 2014 conference volunteer (who happens to be doing a PhD in theology in Los Angeles).
Hillsong Conference’s mission statement has always been “to champion the cause of the local church”. And the theme of this year’s conference was ‘No Other Name’. It was an intentional and shameless promotion of the name of JESUS. This was hammered home in Stephen Furtick’s first address, which was essentially an anti-marketing manifesto. Of course, you might say, this is from the church that has arguably the best branding strategy in the world? Oh, Yes. (FYI you can see here my peer-reviewed article in the Australian Journal of Communication on Hillsong Church’s Branding, as well as my thesis that covers Hillsong Music’s branding development). So will it stop marketing? Not any time soon. One of Hillsong’s greatest attributes is its capacity to hold two things as true. You can call this “irony” if you’d like, which liturgist Gerard Moore points out is a very Australian trait. But here at the conference, it was refocusing itself on the biggest name of all, Jesus.
There are a couple of newspaper reports you can read to get the Australian media take on this event. It’s no small thing to have 30,000 Christians together in the largest stadium in Sydney. And, there are always the annual, obligatory Anglican warnings of Hillsong’s heresy, that are released a couple of weeks beforehand to warn clergy against attending. This has become the annual cycle of Australian Christianity.
Of course, these blogposts always are published just as Pastor Brian Houston (the founder of Hillsong Church, along with his wife Bobbie) lands in Sydney and prepares his preaching. They find him ready with a platform to address their claims. And so, his message on the Wednesday morning on ecumenical relationships was probably the best I’ve ever heard on this topic, pitched directly at senior pastors, who are most likely to set the agenda of their congregations in regards to schoolyard, workplace and online interactions.
But it was, in Pentecostal style, delivered orally. So, unless you were there or ordered it through the website, you wouldn’t know. In that sense, the written word trumps the spoken one at Hillsong yet again. The thing is, I think it’s working. The goal posts shift every year, slightly further in favour of the lay-people’s church.
It’s hard to get people up to speed on thirty years of Hillsong Conference – all the way from Geoff Bullock with a piano singing contemporary choruses, through to Ron Kenoly and Alvin Slaughter singing gospel renditions of ‘Shout to the Lord’. It’s easier not to try. So I’ll just start with where we are, and hope people can catch up.
It has always been a future-forward (escahtological) movement. It’s not a conference where you would wallk away remembering the content, but definitely you would feel the momentum of the Australian church. And, despite the criticisms, I think there are some signs that things are becoming more clarified at Hillsong, and that this movement is maturing.
First, the conference is getting easier to attend, and is more focused … for example, there is a simplification of the amount of classes offered. The conference has been in the past made up of thousands and thousands of electives. This signified the diversity of the people coming – something for everyone. But luckily, gone are the days of keeling over breathless while walking to a venue forty minutes away. There are intentional common conversations being sparked, and the topics are better than they have ever been. Most notable was the session from “The Catholic guy” Bruce Downs, who has used Hillsong’s resource to revitalize the Catholic church in Perth, on Australia’s West Coast. This really brings up questions on how resource is being used in the church – a good question for the church at this point in time.
The second sign is how relevant these sessions are to Christian community-building. There were sessions on very practical issues that local church leaders face, including how to think through a theology of the Holy Spirit, how to write a songlist, that kind of thing. It is a pastor’s conference. In that sense, itinerant ministries, touring worship bands, NGO workers and/or academics may now feel more uncomfortable being there, but I am incredibly pleased about the focus getting back to communities of faith. I can’t clap loud enough.
This year Hillsong Church leaders described a consolidation of the departments and ministries away from their separate ‘silos’. In the past, there were ‘worship leader’, ‘senior pastor’ and ‘community action’ streams, in which people learned practical skills. To be in the ‘worship’ stream meant that you never engaged ‘biblical studies’, or ‘community action’. Hillsong almost encouraged the church to specialize. Now, ‘elective’ sessions are freely offered to all delegates. This makes it easier to be a worship-leading pastor or a community-minded worshiper. And so, the conference was also brought back to its main focus – championing the local church. In this sense,
I believe both the conference and church are well poised for their future. It is a local church with a global mindset, helping local churches. And that’s the difference between Hillsong Conference and the other conferences out there.
This doesn’t suggest that it, as a local church isn’t facing real issues in Sydney. Here are three theological and cultural areas Hillsong itself is grappling with, that an average bystander may not be aware of. In this sense, I’m presenting them as points of prayer, and also to illustrate the way Hillsong navigates the concerns at hand. One thing I know is that the church continues to grow and challenge itself, and that the collaborative solutions it comes to will be as important as these debates themselves.
1) The first is Australian politicians that proclaim Christ and yet represent some of the most inhumane policies the country has ever known, in particular indefinite detention of refugees, including children. Australia’s political system has two main parties, and a few smaller ones. Both main parties are complicit in our current policy of detaining asylum seekers in indefinite detention. This is most visibly backed by the current Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, a former member of Hillsong (by that he means Sydney Christian Life Centre or ‘The City Church’ before acquired by Hillsong). He now attends an affiliated church in Sydney’s southern shire area, called ShireLive.
Many of the Christian denominations in Australia are standing against this immigration policy, however unfortunately Hillsong hosted Morrison recently on behalf of the Prime Minister Abbott (they may have been forced to do so as the PM’s representative?). So the question hangs in the air – does Hillsong stand with other Australian denominations in decrying inhumane government policies? It’s never gotten involved directly in politics in this way, so I suspect it doesn’t know yet. But, Pastor Brian staged a prayer two weeks ago at a mega prayer night FOR refugees. This marks a change in their stance to date.
(I should here add that Hillsong has a Sydney campus in the Villawood Detention Centre, for refugees and asylum seekers. It has been practically on the ground assisting for decades with the provision of services to individuals and families. I am here talking about protesting inhuman government policy).
The echoes a question often directed at me in my seminary behind closed doors – is the Pentecostal movement capable of seeing the evil within the system as sin? I hope so. Why? For the sake of justice.
Although, at the moment, I’m reading countless tweets and emails coming out from pastors and lead figures in the movement that warn against the “politicizing” of the gospel, as it leads away from evangelism. There *are* many Pentecostals that vote conservatively, and lean towards the right. Although, my personal position is pretty clear by what I’ve written. The resolution of this situation remains to be seen.
2) The issue of women speaking the gospel is as yet unresolved in Sydney. The state church is currently in the midst of an enormous debate as to whether women should be permitted to preach or speak in church. John Dickson, an Anglican theologian affiliated with the Centre for Public Christianity recently presented the book ‘Hearing Her Voice’, pushing back against the strong hardline stance of Sydney evangelical seminary, Moore College, that has for decades stood against women preachers. Many evangelical churches in Sydney do not believe that women should be leaders either. This new book has led to a recent, incredible, and perhaps unprecedented facebook show-down between Mattias Media guys who published the book and are receiving criticism for doing so, and Dickson. I’m not completely sure what happened. I think Mattias Media reserved the right for board members to disagree with the contents of the book, although Mattias had published it. John Dickson debated these leaders’ views very publicly, on his facebook page, for weeks.
In Sydney, NeoPentecostal movements such as Hillsong were, until recently, the loudest voice for the progressive side. They have promoted women as leaders in church. This is best represented by the Colour Your World Hillsong Conference, which is a feminine conference, with *only* female speakers (with a few exceptions here and there). It has been described from the platform before as a quest to empower women.
Unfortunately, as Hillsong has grown, in the last five years secular universities and theologically liberal commentators have now entered this debate, complicating it further by presenting what they consider Hillsong’s oppressive position. In some ways, this was precipitated by former insider Tanya Levin’s famous expose of the church, entitled ‘People in Glass Houses’. Marion Maddox at Macquarie University in 2013 presented (adding to her range of articles on Hillsong’s “growth theology”, politics, and economics) a so-called Hillsong “Princess Theology” from a quasi-theological feminist perspective. Sigh. This voice is largely promoted by secular women now, who believe that Hillsong is as oppressive as any other church when it comes to women’s voices.
And now, the discourse extends in multiple directions. Most troubling to me is the claim that Hillsong defers in issues of domestic violence to headship theology.
That’s not to say there haven’t been issues with Hillsong’s presentation of gender over the years. Key leaders admit freely to me that there was an infiltration of values from the magazine industry that were promoted unintentionally from the platform, and, because of this perhaps some claims that Hillsong women are “hyper-feminized” are correct. But whether the church generates these problematic values and images, so far in my research, everyone has denied this.
Jacqueline Grey, the Dean and Old Testament scholar at the Assemblies of God denominational college, may differ with my assessment. The Pentecostal Bible College, Alphacrucis, is now a leading voice in regards to Australian women’s rights, particularly regarding ordination. However, the most vocal feminist of this group, Shane Clifton — attends Hillsong Church. Despite the claims that Hillsong is ‘oppressive’ to women. Yes. So. Well, I hope this accurately paints the absolute confusion in Australia on this issue.
Look, I might have been more sympathetic to Maddox’s viewpoint except that she sat in front of me in a seminar at the American Academy of Religion Conference, Baltimore in November, and waxed lyrical that she was from “the heartland of Hillsong”, proceeding to list its characteristics – that were clearly based in scanty understanding of the community. I was just glad I’d recently written a chapter on Australian Pentecostalism for the presenter, who caught clear view of my grimace.
Anyways – back to Hillsong – the greatest shock for me of the conference was related to this debate and the announcement that Mark Driscoll would be a speaker for next year. There are no women on the 2015 headline – yet again. Driscoll’s views on women are known. I’m a little nervous about him standing next to women who freely preach, sing and minister at Hillsong. But I think it’s evidence of this continuing wrestling.
So. The issue of whether women should speak in church, whether they are “allowed” or “permitted” to do so by men, and on what platform they may speak is, in my opinion, still being resolved at Hillsong, whatever Maddox may say. Whether Hillsong is pro-woman or indifferent to gender, scholars have evidence for both viewpoints. The role of a Christian woman is unclear in the Sydney church as a whole. I say this as a well-educated, second generation Hillsong attendee, who rarely feels prevented from any spaces due to gender. But I, and other women, want to know where the church really stands, if only to refute the misleading perceptions in Christian and secular scholarly circles.
3) Thirdly, the last issue I think Hillsong wrestles with valiantly is race and ethnicity. The church is often believed to be “white” by North Americans. And, I don’t want to ruin an intelligent marketing strategy, but this is far from the truth. Neither the church nor the conference “white”. I can tell you that definitively.
One thing that emerged from the new system of conference group seat allocation is that it created a way of “seeing” the diversity in the stadium when people were seated. This was a smart idea to try and facilitate better relationship-building in a very large venue. I almost died when the All-Blacks Football team were mentioned, and the Māori section next to me started trumpeting. We could argue that more segregation occured, as those who couldn’t afford registration and came only to the cheaper night sections were in the top two levels of the stadium. I know because I was giving out bibles – there was hardly a white person among them.
Either way, I think there is need for greater Asian, and indigenous Australian representation on stage. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that people be promoted because of race. I just think that it’s important to ensure that Hillsong includes some awesome voices that are representative of these groups attending the conference. Chinese-Australian Steve Chong would be a brilliant speaker, if he’s willing to stand on the stage alongside Mark Driscoll, his mentor. I think there are *many* other people from the Asian-Australian or Asian-American community they could include. Francis Chan.
One clear win for broader notions of diversity was African-American Robert Madu, who was given Friday night (the penultimate night and largest crowd) to preach at. I cannot express *how* popular he was in the top balconies, nor the appreciation for his off-sider Af-Am artist LeCrae. Let’s just say the roof was quivering and threatened to fly off. In the past, T.D. Jakes has been a valued contributor (although of course, he’s on the Anglican hit list for Oneness theology). Alvin Slaughter and Ron Kenoly were both beloved Hillsong Conference artists in their day. So I’m *really* glad that Madu proved that he could be invited back. He forged a clear place in the Aussie church’s hearts.
My main question is, can the Australian church include and promote its own black leaders who are similarly carving it up? I would say the platforms we are giving indigenous leaders are only our side stages at most. I believe we are ready for that new season of true equality. I can’t wait for THAT day!!!!!
Well, there’s lots else that happened – great sessions on leadership by the Hillsong team, great sermons, awesome songs, amazing energy to the conference. God was there. all in all, this was a brilliant conference, and I know as always, the messages and themes will be unpacked in Australian churches for months…. maybe it’s worth flying out, North American academic friends… it truly has to be seen to be believed.
Today is probably a bad day to post a WordPress. But it’s been a week of pressing back internal seas of discontent and frustration. As I’m not yet sure when this tide will subside, I’m going to have to work out how to live with it. Usually, I tend to surf feelings, exploring their potential and measuring them – but this time, it’s more difficult, like a rolling wave I can’t get out of, and I’m taking small breaths hoping I’ll find myself on the shore eventually. I’m an East coast Aussie, trained to swim in uncontrollable ocean swells. And, the most common advice given by our iconic lifesavers? Whatever you do, don’t panic. So, in my attempt to notpanic, I’m just going to write this out for my seven regular readers. I hope I can leave it all there. Of course, I realize that this may bring up some emotions for other people too, but that’s not my intention.
I guess my overwhelm came from the 2014 Australia Day celebrations, the day we as a nation commemorate the English First Fleet landing at Botany Bay in 1788. As the date fell on a Sunday, it was inevitable that our history be mentioned in church. Or so I thought. I attended a big celebratory national holiday worship service that welcomed new migrants and laughed at our many idiosyncrasies, but failed to mention first Australians, let alone deal with issues of genocide and pain that I read about daily in my PhD work.
So, another opportunity for non-indigenous peoples to celebrate indigenous peoples in church passed by. Yet again.
And I found myself suddenly bobbing alone, out on a sea of sadness.
More emotion came from my decision to attend a different, secular space yesterday that did grapple with the longevity of Australian history, ideas of invasion, and survival of our indigenous peoples. Seeking out a corroborree (as mentioned in my last post) I attended Yabun Festival in Victoria Park (http://gadigal.org.au/events/). There was a dance circle laid out in sand, but the event mainly centered on a stage with its audio equipment. I almost broke down in tears when indigenous teens rapped that they were “not flora and fauna”, despite Terra Nullius laws. I wanted to cheer. The crowd was awesome, and heart-rendering and slightly scary, all at once – an indigenous celebration en masse was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t get to see the Mount Druitt choir perform later due to threatening rain, but I’m sure they were fantastic.
I realized that this wasn’t just a space for Australian indigenous peoples. In fact, “advocates” are attracted to indigenous issues like flies to a pavlova. This was obvious in the variety of agendas represented – as vast as the number of people attending. Everyone turned out – kids, the elders and aunties and uncles on the hill, indigenous performers – but also the communist newspaper, political advocates and journals, Christian groups and marijuana sellers.
Proximity to diversity is perhaps the most faithful type of Christian living, aka the Mars Hill experience written in Acts 17:22-31. But it’s also incredibly difficult. I want to be a person without agenda, and yet I have one. Viewed through the eyes of the communist paper, I’m even threatening. And, I come with a lot of guilt about past actions. I have desire to engage, but more than that, instinct to protect indigenous peoples from my culture. I don’t know what to do when I see creepy old white men walking around unsupervised Aboriginal kids, who are laughing and running around, meeting footy heroes and jumping on castles. I feel awkward that celebrations were held in a park well-known to Sydney university graduates for random acts of sexual aggression. I shot up many quick prayers for protection, knowing that indigenous kids have said prayers before, all seemingly unheard. I don’t have answers for any of that. As I walked past darker faces, I wondered if I’m perceived by them in the same light as the lady handing out the “red flag” paper, and if they mind that I’m there. To Yabun’s credit, the event was entirely safe, with not one brawl, so that’s better than white Australia events hosted elsewhere.
It was stranger still to drive back over the Harbour Bridge, and see the lines of white people viewing the tall ships re-enactment at The Rocks, Sydney’s colonial centre. While I know the value of telling our history to children, I couldn’t believe the two events were happening simultaneously. Two different Australias.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I realized the dissonance between all these different spaces and events. Because I want them all. I want to be able to say that my ancestors came in on tall ships. But I don’t want it to silence Indigenous Australians. And now I know I have to do all the work of holding the arenas in tension. Many white Christian leaders simply consider the lack of indigenous voice in church to be a non-issue. And it became obvious in just one day that my life-time may not be enough to see change.
Look, I’m not doing a PhD to convince anyone else that they need to make a step towards reconciliation. I’m doing this because I did. As an Australian there was a part of my soul that was unfinished. My feet rested upon the earth, but I didn’t really know it. The land called to me, and I couldn’t work out any longer how to shut it out.
I’d long dreamed of scenes that lay underneath suburban Sydney’s lego blocks. But it was difficult to know how to engage them. My first experience came when I decided to walk to school. It took an hour each way to walk through the former M2 corridor, which was about the same time it took to catch the train that repetitive one station stop, and walk up the hill, trying not to step on other girls’ toes. I knew the hill off by heart, it was predictable: house-house-house until the school buildings.
But when we walked through the bush, it was different every time. It took us a while to find local features such as Whale Rock, one eye peeking out from a moss covered boulder. Birds alighted onto branches above: cockatoos, crimson rosellas, parakeets, and galahs. Once, a goanna crossed in front of us, tongue hissing. After the rains, we saw Mount Franklin water bottles in quantities you could only imagine, floating in the river. This made us question whether bottled water was really a good idea. It seemed like we gained wisdom each time we walked.
Sometimes my two atheist friends would ask me about the biblical stories I believed in, such as Sampson and Delilah, or King David. It kind of made sense to be talking about Exodus while slowly working our way across an unexpectedly swollen river. It was almost like God was writing a symphony out of Kookaburra calls and rains, that had started long, long before we trod the path.
After I completed my MPhil, I sat under a fig tree in Camperdown, praying to find direction. I felt God direct me to look directly at the tree I sat under, just like Jonah did. I reflected upon its age, and wondered what the stories in the Bible meant in Australia. I felt the quiet suggestion, that if Jesus would turn up on the edges of Empire today, perhaps He would appear as a little indigenous baby. Maybe He would be found in a remote community in The Kimberlies, fighting for space and breath and to live without deafness that comes from untreated ear infections. Or, even more poignant, maybe He would appear as a brown kid I drove past every day, in Redfern.
While I was there sitting under the tree on a sandstone block created by convict picks, I realized the biblical world had become a measuring stick overlaid upon my contemporary one. And in fact, the bible could and did critique it well. Who was I in the Bible story? Was I an advocate for Rome? Or willing to see God Himself turn up as a message from Galilee?
I guess this could be called a delusion for those who don’t like to believe God speaks to humans. But for me it began to make a great deal of sense, and, as in Hebrews 12:25, the fig tree became woven into a symphony of sounds and signs that pointed towards a new way of being. But knowing and following is different – it’s not as easy as it sounds. Seeing possibilities also means realizing the ways in which we fall short.
I don’t know when these waves will stop throwing me around, or when I’ll find myself back on the ocean shore. I do know I trust the Great I-AM, the Creator of earth, the Spirit that hovered over the waters, the One who made Whale Rock, as well as that fig tree in Camperdown, and who breathed life into me. And maybe that’s enough, and all I need to know for now.
P.S. For those of you I emailed with an unfinished post, I’m so sorry. Somehow, WordPress managed to be incredibly insensitive and remove portions of my blogpost…
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.