Reconciling !

from Rev. Bruce Wood - February 2019

Published in News First — our monthly church newsletter  

A couple of weeks ago I spoke about Reconciliation and it has received considerable response.  This is a summary of that reflection.

Reconciliation is a rather huge task and I am aware that it can’t be dealt with in a few lines - and - I also know that it’s an issue that has been bandied around, and pushed back and forth for as long as I can remember.  As a country we have tried many different ways to approach this issue.  In reality some of the methods have been horribly wrong, and terribly harmful, and have made the situation far worse.

The church doesn’t have such a good track record on this issue either - although having the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) as part of our church has helped - and has made considerable difference to the way we approach our Indigenous people, their history, and their culture.  However, we still seem to get to a point, and throw our hands in the air - and shout - what do we do now?

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), suggest that there are an estimated 761,300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia - or 3% of the total population.  There are many demographic differences between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations - but as we all know - they don’t show the real picture.  If we add a note that says - Indigenous Australians experience widespread socioeconomic disadvantage and health inequality.  Factors like racism and discrimination, violence, alcohol and drug use and high psychological distress, negatively affect their social and emotional wellbeing.  Poor social and emotional wellbeing, in turn, negatively impacts on employment, income, and living conditions.

Would you like that to be your life picture?  Probably not!  Those statistics give us a tiny glimpse of a situation that none of us would want to be in - yet this is the daily living condition for many of our Indigenous people - those people who were in this country for 60,000 years, before our ancestors arrived approximately 230 years ago.

There are varying accounts of how the Indigenous people were treated by the first white settlers - but most of those accounts are not beneficial to the local Indigenous population.  Many were pushed aside so that settlements could be established.  Many were driven from their ancestral lands and many were killed for pushing back against these people who were seen as invaders.  Diseases that were common to the settlers also killed many Indigenous people - often wiping out whole clans.

Since those early settlement days we have seen waves of settlers from many different countries.  Many of these people have been incorporated into our society without too much turmoil - usually after a period of adjustment.  In all of these phases of migration, the issue of our Indigenous people has been stuttering along in the background, without any real resolution or way to honour their heritage and their culture.

However, we seem to have done this at the expense of our Indigenous people - who were treated as non-people until 1967 - who were pushed aside as ‘in the way’ of what we call progress and civilisation - who were treated as unintelligent and uncivilised savages who wouldn’t and couldn’t understand our ways - who were considered pests, in the way of farming and urban living practices - and who we have managed to label as undesirable in far too many cases.

We have treated people from other countries far better than we have treated our own Indigenous people.  How can this be so?  Why do we treat some people one way, and some people in a way that is very different and sometimes downright appalling?  Does a different coloured skin make that person less intelligent?  Does the shape of someone’s facial features make them uncivilised?  Do the habits or the customs of another person make them a non-person that we can order about, or push aside, or even kill with immunity?

No, no, no and no!  These are senseless, mindless, and terribly judgemental conclusions.  How did we ever get into such a position that we can treat our Indigenous people as we wish - as second-class citizens - as no-bodies - as nuisances to be moved aside and forgotten?  How did we do that - and WHY - did we do that?

Jesus would be horrified!  AND he would be in our face, challenging our attitudes, our actions, and our way of thinking.  To him this would be a total betrayal of his words and his actions.  Just as he got in the face of the religious leaders of his day - so he would also be with us - who have treated our Indigenous people with such distain.  As followers of Jesus Christ we have a duty, and a calling, to treat ALL people with respect, with dignity, with love, and to value them as human beings.

The love that Jesus calls us to, always demands more of us than simple justice.  This is love that always takes the first step in reconciliation - this is love that is collective and inclusive - this is love that wants all of us to act lovingly toward all other people - this is love that does not allow some people to be seen as ‘other’, even when they may be very different to us. 

Jesus spent his life encouraging people to be inclusive and supportive of each other - and to be real about how they live and their relationships with other people - a task that may take a lifetime - but one that is immeasurably important and profoundly significant, to God.

The Uniting Church has made considerable steps towards a better relationship with our Indigenous people with the creation of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress - and has asked us to specifically remember our Indigenous people and the way we treat them on one Sunday each year - to be known as ‘Day of Mourning’.

My prayer is that we recognise and value our 60,000 years of history as Australian people - and we do so, with good will and an open mind - which hopefully - will bring new understandings and a renewed compassion, toward our Indigenous people. 

Peace, Rev. Bruce Wood.