In the revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, adopted at the 2009 Assembly meeting in Sydney, our church made the affirmation that “the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.”
That statement articulates something deeply important. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies.
What our First Peoples have long known about God, is consistent with what Christian people are discovering about God through Jesus. “The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, the revised Preamble continues. So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. We hear resonances with the Gospel. And in this way, we encounter God.
I am writing this at the end of NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. And as I reflect on the themes of the past few years, I realise that each of them articulates something that is central to the faith that we hold and the Gospel that we proclaim.
In 2017, the theme was Our Languages Matter. That’s a message which is integral to the Gospel—the Gospel that says, in the beginning, God spoke … and there was life (Gen 1). The Gospel that claims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).
We know God best of all, most intimately of all, because God speaks, God is word. Language connects us with God. Language matters. Language connects us with one another, enables us to know one another. Languages matter for First Peoples. They communicate, they articulate deep truths. Languages matter.
In 2018, the theme was the inspired message: Because of her, we can. That is another theme that resonates with countless stories throughout scripture. Because of the faithfulness of Mary, his mother, Jesus came. Because of the witness of Mary of Magdala, exclaiming “I have seen the Lord”, the male disciples believed.
Because of the proactive intervention of Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses survived and grew to lead Israel. Because of the fiercely powerful leadership of Deborah, centuries later, Israel survived the onslaught from the troops of Sisera, commander of the army of Canaan. Because of her, we can. (And there are many more such women; just ask the people who took part in Elizabeth’s Bible Studies last year, on women in the Bible!)
Two years ago, inspired by Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the 2019 theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth. The Statement called us to listen to the Voice of Indigenous peoples. As we do so, we realise that the settlement of this continent was a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. This is the Truth we must hear.
The Voice of First Peoples speaks Truth. And truth is something that we value in our Christian faith. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6); and he declared that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Truth liberates. Truth is important.
The next year, 2020, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, we heard the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. This recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.
We know the importance of land in biblical stories—the identity of Israel is completely bound up with land. The land where Jesus walked, we call “The Holy Land”. Land is important.
This year, the theme is Heal Country. This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19). That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3).
This vision of reconciliation is built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15). Furthermore, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17).
And the view of scripture is that God will ultimately “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at that time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) and bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).
So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.
The Spirit was already in the land, “revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony”. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies, Indeed, “the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, as the revised Preamble states.
Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.
From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle. From the testimony of the First Peoples, to care for country, we are challenged.
So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. And we encounter God. Thanks be to God!