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Reconciliation - the mark of a civilised society

Archbishop Peter Watson
Archbishop of Melbourne
Delivered at a special Institute for Spiritual Studies seminar
Wednesday 25 October, 2000

The issue of Aboriginal Reconciliation is now at the bottom of the list of concerns for most Australians. This Newspoll claim chimes in with social researcher Hugh Mackay's view that, "for most Australians there's no actual link with Aboriginal affairs. There's very little contact with Aborigines and little sense of the relevance of all this to their own lives." However, he goes on to add that he believes it does have relevance to their lives, "because it is an important aspect of Australia's cultural development and a very dark stain on our cultural and political history."

It is also interesting that it was Education that ranked at the top of the issues canvassed in the Newspoll research. Without wanting to read to much into it, in this survey at least no connection seems to be perceived between the top and the bottom. It is somewhat ironic to me that when I spoke at the launch of Australians For Native Title I mentioned that my education failed to make me aware of indigenous Australians and their place in our nation, in particular their sense of alienation in a land which is in every sense theirs.

We know that perhaps the most pressing challenge facing all of humankind is the issue of reconciliation: between individuals, communities and nations, and between humanity and God and all of His creation - and is therefore a matter for education at the most profound level.

What do we mean when we speak of a civilised society?

I approach this question from the viewpoint of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Jesus and His teaching about the Kingdom of His Father show us that human life as it is intended to be experienced is based on two axiomatic imperatives: you must love God with all your heart; and you must love your neighbour as yourself. Here is the base from which we build our expectations of a civil society. Thus Christians begin with a set of obligations to neighbour.

It strikes me that one of the core statements that our society often refers to in its understanding of the civil society is the American Declaration of Independence, with its commitment to certain inalienable rights and the pursuit of liberty and happiness. But we should not forget that those lines were forged in the heat of the Enlightenment, and have enshrined the values of the secular humanist more than the Christian worldview. The humanist may prefer to speak of rights, whereas the Christian should understand his or her life relationships in terms of a liberated humanity expressed in the service of others.

There exists a much lesser known statement than the American Declaration of Independence by an indigenous American which speaks to us with a poignancy that goes closer to the heart of what makes a truly civilised society. This is Chief Seattle's reply, in 1854, to the 'great white chief' in Washington who was seeking to buy Indian land and promising to create a 'reservation.'

This is a powerful and deeply moving address which understands the profound connectedness of all living things, and their relationship to one another, in much the same way our own indigenous Australians understand these relationships.

"The shining water that lives in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors," Chief Seattle said. "...The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father. The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst... if you sell our land, you must remember and teach your children that the rivers are our brothers and yours and henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give a brother."

It ends with the words:

"So if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it, care for it as we have cared for it, hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you take it. And with all your strength, with all your mind, with all your heart, preserve it for your children and love it... as God loves us all.

"One thing we know. Our God is the same God. The earth is precious to him. Even the White man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all."

We may be brothers - and sisters - after all! Chief Seattle's understanding of human beings' interdependency between one another, their environment, and their Creator, has much in common with Celtic Christianity and goes right to the heart of the Christian understanding of civilisation, which recognises that there is such a thing as society - not just a collection of individuals. There has been a danger for white people, and for Christians, to assume that our European civilisation is superior to the indigenous civilisations of the countries we have invaded and colonised. The recent comments by the Minister for Immigration and Reconciliation probably represented the views of many when he implied that Western civilisation is superior because of its technology.

We all know that the Australian Aboriginal culture is older than Christianity - though there are clear parallels between their fundamental veneration for creation, and the relationships God clearly intended for humanity. In Genesis, human beings are made in the image of God and are created for harmony with one another and for stewardship of God's creation.

So where have we gone wrong? In my Synod charge I referred to the fact that the greatest international trade today is in armaments, and that there have been 75 million deaths as a result of armed conflict in the last 35 years alone.[1] We are only too painfully aware of the ancient and bitter hatreds and enmities which exist between different peoples throughout the world - in the Middle East, Serbia, Northern Ireland, South Africa and parts of Africa - to name just a few in what is a long list of ongoing tragic situations.

But I suspect there is a temptation for Australians to think - from their armchairs as they watch the nightly news - that that is all terribly sad, but it doesn't really concern us. We're not like that here. We don't have their problems.

Don't we? While it is true that we do not experience civil strife, How many of us nurse a grudge against a parent or family member, or someone at work, or have experienced a breakdown in relationship with a partner? Today's young people are the children of the most divorced generation in history. The drift to alienation between human beings is experienced at every level of our life.

How many of us secretly feel uneasy with those of Asian ethnicity, or have privately thought that Aborigines should stop complaining and get on with life?

How many of us really forgive those who have hurt us? Or say we're sorry when we hurt others? How many of us are quick to judge those who fail to behave according to our standards or customs, or are quick to anger if someone exposes a perceived weakness or vulnerability? How many of us are quick to blame others when things go wrong?

Reconciliation was at the heart of Jesus' message because it was, and is, the area in which humanity had, and has, most work to do. The Gospels are all about reconciliation. In the Prodigal Son, father and son are reconciled. In the stories of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, and the Samaritan woman at the well, issues of ethnic, cultural and gender difference are confronted and barriers broken down. What are the key ingredients in these stories? Forgiveness, unconditional love, emotional risk taking, a total lack of judgmentalism, the courage to be meek and vulnerable and not be afraid of failure and rejection - these are some of the hallmarks of the kind of civilisation which Jesus inaugurated.

The Sermon on the Mount is a sort of Christian manifesto. Is it not the charter to the Christian Church as it seeks to walk to the drumbeat of the Kingdom of God, where the wisdom of the world is turned on its head? The world is inherited by the meek, not the strong and powerful. A world shaped by the Kingdom of God is a world where the peacemakers are called blessed.

Pope John XXIII said that true peace 'cannot come save from God' and that it "has only one name: the peace of Christ." It is characterised, he said, by a peace of heart, where 'peace is before else an interior thing, belonging to the spirit, and its fundamental condition is a loving... dependence on the will of God.'

The apotheosis of Jesus' ministry - and the great defining moment of His civilisation - is of course to be seen on the cross. This is not only the point at which Jesus says of his persecutors "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," it is also the supreme moment of God's reconciliation with a fallen humanity.

Where does this lead us in relation to the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia today? Can I suggest that the sort of reconciliation we need in this situation depends on the same kinds of qualities - arising out of God's vision for human civilisation - that we see in the Gospel stories. But let be clear that we do not simply aim this comment at Government, or white Australians, although I certainly hope they will respond with positive leadership on this issue.

I am venturing to suggest that there can be no lasting or genuine reconciliation with those who have been wronged - Indigenous Australians - unless they can find it in their hearts to forgive. "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us," Jesus said when He was asked how we should pray.

It is this which is at the very core of who we should be as Christians - whether white or black - and the desire for reconciliation cannot be truly fulfilled until we affirm its central place in our vision of civilisation.

A society in recent times which has made a serious attempt to apply this vision to the reconciliation problem is South Africa. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presided over by Archbishop Tutu, there were clearly moments of extraordinary grace when forgiveness flowed from those who had gathered to hear some horrific crimes being confessed to. On one such occasion, the crowd broke out into deafening applause after the admission that an order had been given to open fire on a demonstration which led to a massacre. The response of the crowd prompted Archbishop Tutu to say, "Let us keep quiet for a while, for we are in the presence of something holy."

Nelson Mandela, in the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, demonstrated something of the blind faith which Aden Ridgeway implies is required if reconciliation is to succeed. It may also require, he says, "the sort of apology given recently by Germany to the Jewish people without guilt and without passing the sins of the past to our next generation."

I must say I do not see the current level of debate about the issue of Aboriginal Reconciliation in Australia as being particularly helpful in the healing process. There is too great a tendency to blame or attack the other side.

There is also a sometimes a fear of saying something lest it appear to give offence. I have sometimes been sympathetic with the government's view that it is unable to say anything of a critical nature because of what has been called 'political correctness.' But I believe the government is sometimes overly inclined to use this as an appeal to populism, and as a diversion from some of the real arguments. Nonetheless, genuine reconciliation will not, cannot and ought not occur unless both sides feel able to say what is genuinely felt, and know and believe they have been heard. What is also necessary is that both sides must be perceived to be open to 'change thinking.'

There is in Australia today what appears to be a hardness of heart, it seems to me, in relation to many social issues - we have seen this in connection with the government's promotion of a national welfare policy based on so called Mutual Obligation, and in its attitude to refugees and asylum seekers.

And when it comes to caring for Aborigines, Jesuit priest Fr Frank Brennan has talked about what he describes as governments' "mantra of self-determination" which can become "a convenient excuse for Australians to withhold resources." In this issue of reconciliation between black and white Australians, we can never forget that it is we white Australians who hold the power cards in our hands. It is not a coming together of equals in that sense.

Nor do I think the healing process will be helped by arguing about the Bringing Them Home report, or the precise number of those who constitute the Stolen Generation. That there was a policy of systematic removal of half-caste children is clearly on the record. Could there be a more eloquent and powerful expression of our horror and revulsion at the policy of child removal than the words of Robert Manne:

"At its origin and over the next 50 years the policy and practice of child removal was grounded in an astonishing indifference to two of the most fundamental of all human needs - the bond of the child to its mother and the rootedness of individual identity in a culture.[2]

So let us, in a spirit of humility and repentance, listen to the stories of women such as Wadjularbinna, who is a member of the Gungalidda tribe of the Gulf of Carpentaria. I will let her speak in her own words:

Mine is a painful story, but I'm sharing it with non-indigenous people because I want them to understand where indigenous people are coming from and how much pain they've gone through.

I don't want anyone to feel hurt or guilty, because you are not responsible for what your ancestors did. But you should understand how we are different. We all need to move on now and try to work together in making positive change in this country.

My name is Wadjularbinna, and that means child of warmth and sunshine. I was born in a tribal camp in the Gulf of Carpentaria, very close to the Northern Territory/Queensland border. I'm part white, because my mother was raped by settlers when they came to chase people off their lands. My grandmother told us stories about how, when she was a little girl, adults were shot and the children were picked up as they fell out of the coolibah trees (where they were hiding) and bashed against rocks and trees.

The missionaries came and took children off their parents. They took away both black and part-black and put them into dormitories that were run by the mission. Our parents couldn't come to us, and we couldn't go to them. My sister and I couldn't speak a word of English, so we had our mouths washed out with soap every day. After a while we were even scared to talk to each other because we didn't like this treatment. It was really, really bad. They sat us in the corner, and we weren't allowed to go out and play with the other kids. That was how they made us stop talking our language.

The missionaries said our parents were heathen, and they'd be preaching the love of Jesus Christ to us. I'd go to bed at night and cry for my parents and wonder why I was taken away from them. It was terribly sad and it confused us no end.

Missionaries have treated us so badly. They've tied people to trees and flogged them, simply for trying to run away and find their parents. But I've forgiven the missionaries for what they have done, because if we don't forgive, we destroy ourselves.[3]

While the Church has, and must continue to apologise unreservedly for its part in such stories, I would like to make a comment regarding the Church's past involvement with Indigenous Australians. (And I would like to acknowledge Dr Joy Sandefur, my adviser on Aboriginal affairs, for her contribution to this part of the address)

Today missionaries are often blamed for the destruction of Aboriginal culture. While it is true that many missionaries were convinced that the only future for Aborigines was for them to be assimilated into the dominant culture and leave traditional ways behind them, this is not the whole story.

Missionaries were rarely the first Europeans into an area where a mission was established. In the majority of cases there had been years of contact with whites that had resulted in a drastic reduction of the aboriginal population and dispossession from their land. Often the missions were established for the remnants who had seen their culture ravaged.

The first missionary, Rev. William Walker of the Wesleyan Missionary Society did not arrive in Australia until 1821. The Aboriginal population of the Sydney basin had already been decimated and he chose to establish a mission at Wellington over the other side of the Blue Mountains.

Missions in Victoria such as Lake Condah, Lake Tyers, Ebenezer and Ramahyuck were established areas where massacres of Aborigines had occurred. By the time that Ramahyuck and Lake Tyers were established in Gippsland in 1861 the Kurnai people had been reduced from 2000 to 250. The first 27 years of British occupation of Victoria had reduced the Aborigines to a mere 2364 (?) Aboriginal culture had suffered massive destruction prior to the start of most missions in Australia.

Many of the early missions closed in Australia because there were too few Aborigines to warrant them continuing. Lance Thralled calculated that in the region of his mission in the Lake Macquarie area and stretching westward to the Liverpool Plains that 500 Aboriginal people were massacred in a year and half. His mission closed in 1842 because the Aborigines were nearly extinct due to massacres, ravages of disease, and for the few left, the attractions of rum and prostitution in Newcastle.

There is no denying that many missionaries were guilty of cultural imperialism until recent years. They thought that the ideals of Western culture and the Christian Gospel were one and the same. Accordingly they argued that the best way ahead for Aborigines was for them to be assimilated into the dominant culture. While this was audacious given the attitudes of the dominant society that regarded Aborigines as less than human, it nevertheless saw Aboriginal culture as an inferior culture and one that should be replaced.

In spite of their views on Aboriginal culture many missionaries spoke up on behalf of Aborigines. Ernest Gribble exposed the Forrest River Massacres and was ostracised by local Europeans of Wyndham.

Rod Shenck in 1921 found Aboriginal people struggling to survive on garbage at the edge of Laverton, WA. If they went into Laverton they had to leave by midday or they would be chased out by Constable Hunter using a stockwhip. Shenck started what became the Mt Margaret Mission. Today he is criticised for his assimilation views. But should he have done nothing? He was criticised by the residents of Laverton as they did not want an Aboriginal community nearby. Local pastoralists criticised him because he sought fair wages for Aboriginal workers. Some Christians criticised him because he was concerned about Aboriginal peoples' material welfare. He was most severely criticised by AO Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in WA, because Schenk strongly opposed his plans to breed out Aboriginal blood till they were no longer visible.

It should not be assumed that Aborigines meekly went along with everything that missionaries said about their culture. They were far from passive and where there were enough of them they preserved much of their culture. In the north the complex kinship systems were retained, ceremonies were held away from the missions and Aboriginal languages survived. Examples of such places are Ernabella, Yirrkala and Bathurst Island.

Flo Grant, an Aboriginal woman of southern NSW, says of the view that missionaries brainwashed Aborigines:

This concept puts Aboriginal people into the category of mindless creatures.. and denies them the God-given ability to think for themselves.

Whilst we apologise for wrongs, much missionary work was well meant and effective. We must also recognise the resilience of an ancient culture well able to withstand the contact with others.

The formal part of the address ends here. At the start of part II, which begins after the break, I would like to say something briefly about my own awakening to the reconciliation issue... before inviting questions, comment and dialogue from you.

Archbishop Peter Watson,
Archbishop of Melbourne

[1] John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1997) 11.
[2] Robert Manne, 'The Stolen Generation,' Reconciliation (ed.M Grattan; Melbourne: Black Inc, 2000) 131
[3] This is taken from an edited version of an address she gave in Melbourne in 1996


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