Truth and Reconciliation
Ordinary Sunday 23: 9th September, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
- The eastward spurs tip backward from the sun.
- Night runs an obscure tide round cape and bay
- And beats with boats of cloud up from the sea
- Against this sheer and limelit granite head.
- Swallow the spine of range; be dark, O lonely air.
- Make a cold quilt across the bone and skull
- That screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff
- And then were silent, waiting for flies.
Judith Wright's poem "Nigger's Leap: New England" (A Human Pattern: Selected Poems, p. 8) is set at Point Lookout, an outcrop of rocks near a favourite family camping ground that she often visited as a child. It is a dramatic landscape that seemed magical to her as a child, but as the poet grew up she became increasingly aware of the ominous history behind an alternative name for the outcrop: Darkie Point. This was an execution site, a place where numerous Aborigines were forced off the cliffs, massacred as punishment for stealing cattle: "be dark, O lonely air. Make a cold quilt across the bone and skull that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff and then were silent, waiting for flies." In an essay written much later the now activist-poet describes the tension she feels as a white Australian: "those two strands — the love of the land we have invaded, and the guilt of the invasion — have become part of me. It is a haunted country" (Born of the Conquerers, p.30).
Our reading from Isaiah today is one of the great eschatological promises that are found throughout the Bible: "Say to those who are of fearful heart, 'Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God ... he will come and save you.' Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped ... waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert." The liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, describes the Bible as "the book of the Promise" (A Theology of Liberation, p. 91). These words of Isaiah are living words of hope for an oppressed people. They speak of a time to come but they also speak powerfully into the present.
Gutiérrez offers a critique of theologians who spiritualise eschatology and disconnect it from the justice issues of the here and now. The word "eschatology" is derived from the Greek escatos, "last", and logos, "treatise/words", and in traditional dogmatic theology the focus has been the end of time. There have been numerous vivid depictions of this theology such as "The Last Judgement" by Hans Memling (1433-1494; available here...). At the end of the age people will be separated, like sheep from goats, the saved from the damned. Gutiérrez suggests that this relegation of eschatological promise to a mythical future is a misreading of the Bible. He writes: "the Bible presents eschatology as the driving force of salvific history radically oriented toward the future. Eschatology is not just one more element of Christianity, but the very key to understanding the Christian faith" (p. 93). When the author of the Book of James urges us to treat rich and poor with equity, he wants us to engage with God's eschatological promise here and now. Similarly Jesus heals the man who is deaf and mute as a powerful reminder that the end of time is now; God's reign has come. The object of our faith and hope is at hand.
Personally this liberation theology came into sharp focus with Fr Sam Ata's arrival in Australia. As many of you will know, Fr Sam has been serving as the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Solomon Islands. In February his team handed a five-volume report to the Prime Minister. It has been a grueling task: holding public televised hearings, receiving death-threats, unearthing hidden burial sites, some of them mass graves. Fr Sam was mentored by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and has been awarded an M.B.E. in recognition of the hugely significant work of the Commission. I see this work as full of eschatological promise. Rather than burying injustice, or demanding an eye for an eye, the work of the Commission has been to bring to light the atrocities — to speak the truth — and alongside this to plant very real seeds of hope and reconciliation. God's eschatological promise is not yet, and yet it is here and now; an act of faith. "Your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven."
Truth and reconciliation is of course something we need here in Australia too. Kevin Rudd's "Sorry" for the Stolen Generation was a start but there are many more stories to be told — stories such as Judith Wright's — and many more apologies to be made. Perhaps it is something we can do on a small scale here at St Peter's. What do we know about the land we stand on? What stories might we learn from the Wurundjeri people, the traditional custodians of Eastern Hill? At the Institute for Spiritual Studies we are planning just such a gathering. There is much to be done, and perhaps the best place to begin is in our own lives: seeking truth and reconciliation, speaking eschatological promise, beginning with those we have hurt or who have hurt us.
- Say to those who are of fearful heart, 'Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God ... he will come and save you.' Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped ... waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.