This coming Sunday, we will be celebrating Trinity Sunday in worship, and hearing from biblical passages which our ancestors in the faith have assumed to provide some “biblical basis” for the Doctrine of The Trinity.
This year, I’ve been musing on the words of my colleague, the Rev. Dr Peter Walker (Principal of United Theological College in Sydney). Peter has contributed a fine set of commentaries and questions for the week leading up to this Sunday, for With Love to the World, a daily bible reading resource that I edit. In reflecting on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Peter writes:
“The church has pursued its curiosity about the identity of Jesus, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and the biblical witness, for two-thousand years. John’s contribution is critical. With John’s help, the church has come to believe that the relationship of Jesus to the One who sent him is even deeper than what might be named as the sensitivity of a son or daughter to their father or mother. So, too, the relationship of the Spirit is more profoundly entwined to God than is captured by ‘Advocate’.”
I’m accepting of the notion that the way God relates to others—Jesus of Nazareth, the spirit of holiness, the woman of Wisdom (Prov 8, also offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday), and even to each and every human being—can’t be fully contained within one title or one phrase or even a single proposition. So we need multiple terms, multiple ways of envisaging how God relates to us, as well as to Jesus and Spirit, and shouldn’t be limited to just one way (or a small, finite set of ways) to describe that relationship.
Nevertheless, we have biblical passages that have been “used” throughout Christian history to provide the “building blocks” from scripture for the systems and doctrines that human beings have devised, over time, to explain and interpret the nature of God and the ways that God relates to us. So I think that it is incumbent upon us to deal with those scriptural passages in ways that are sensitive to the original intentions of the documents in which they appear, and cogniscent of the dangers of overwhelming these texts by placing upon them layer after layer of later speculative and systematising thoughts.
I like the turn of phrase that Peter uses—our “curiosity about the identity of Jesus”—and have been thinking about how we might foster that curiosity, as we engage with the biblical texts that are offered—and perhaps, also, as we resist the path into an “easy acceptance” of what those who have gone before us have decided that these passages must mean.
I think Peter exemplifies very well this open attitude towards the biblical text, in dealing with John 16:12-15. He writes, “The phrase of Jesus in v.15a [“all that the Father has is mine”] is unconditional: all things of the Father, whatsoever, are also of the Son. The divine Word, born to flesh, is one with God. And the Spirit, whom Jesus says takes and declares ‘what is mine’ and therefore the Father’s (v.15), is also one with God. ‘Father’ is John’s preferred term for God, ‘son’ his preferred term for Jesus. This gendered, finite language is pushed to its limits, of course, in any attempt to describe the infinite glory of divine life.”
That last sentence identifies one of the critical issues relating to the notion of Trinity in our own times. The strongly-gendered language reflects the hegemony of patriarchal power in society, both at the time that the scriptural texts were being written, and in the centuries when “The Church Fathers” undertook the work of interpreting, collating, systematising, and theorising, in relation to the nature of God—to say nothing, of course, of the way that patriarchal dominance has continued into the 20th century, and has, in so many ways, resisted the challenges brought against it from the 1960s onwards into the 21st century. We need to recognise its limits and be willing to explore beyond those limits.
There is still work to be do to re-gender our language, both about God, and about us as human beings. There is work crying out to be done to deconstruct the patriarchal power structures of our times and, alongside that, to reconstruct an understanding of people, and of God, that is not limited, constrained, and diminished, by slavish adherence to language and concepts that held sway in past eras. If we really are in the post-Christendom era, as many now propose, then we need to be willing to enter into this process and to embrace the unexpected, challenging, and enlivening results that we will experience.
Peter concludes his comments on John 16: “Through Word and Spirit, divine life has and is unfolding among us and throughout the world while still enfolded, all the while, in the Creator. How fortunate we are to have the Spirit of truth as our guide as we seek to bear faithful witness to the wonder and work of God.” That might be the best gift that we have from our focus, this Sunday, on the Trinity: a deep and abiding awareness that our perception of “the divine life” is growing, deepening, expanding, transforming, as we faithfully undertake our witness to God, insofar as we know God, in our lives.
We don’t have to rest content with the “God as Father” language, nor even with “Jesus as Son” (although his maleness is not in dispute). We don’t have to limit ourselves to the ten, or twelve, or 42, or however-many names of God we can discern within the Bible; nor do we have to limit our understanding of “the person and work of Jesus” to eight key Christological titles and seven main theories of the atonement (or whatever numbers we find to be relevant).
Our explorations can canvass both the various scriptural passages and the ongoing patristic and medieval and reformed and enlightenment and contemporary formulations of God as three-in-one and more … and canvass them in ways that uses them, not as limitations on what is approved or orthodox, but rather, as springboards to wider, creative, exploratory thinking.
So may that be our experience this Sunday, when “Trinity” swims into view in our worship services and bible readings.
John Howard came to power in 1996, after 13 years of Labor dominance under Hawke and Keating. We have already noted that the themes chosen for NAIDOC WEEK in the early Howard years, 1996 and 1997, were both incisive comments about our public life.
Over the ensuing decade, Gardiner-Garden notes that “perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community”, and records a series of decisions and actions which provided ongoing concern within Aboriginal communities: the ultimate demise of ATSIC, the attempt to establish a Special Auditor “to make a determination on whether a prospective grantee was ‘not fit and proper’ to receive public money”, a contentious Ten Point Plan to deal with the Wik decision, alterations to the Native Title Act which were seen as racially discriminatory, a Racial Hatred Act (1996) which fell short of many provisions that had been requested, and finally the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more widely known as The Intervention.
This latter event was applied to 73 Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and involved withholding 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous welfare recipients—-bans on alcohol and pornography—-increased police presence in Aboriginal communities—-compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children—-and the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.
The Intervention was a highly controversial policy, with many Aboriginal leaders speaking out against it.
There was some support within the Australian Indigenous community as well as beyond it. Australians Together report that “two of Australia’s most influential Indigenous academics and leaders, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, supported several of the more controversial aspects of the Intervention.”
The Intervention, however, is viewed by most Aboriginal people as yet another instance of white colonial supremacy over blacks. It is perhaps appropriate, then, for this blog to go live on 10 June, which was the day that the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place, in 1838. This event has come to be a symbol of all that has been wrong about the way that the invading British colonisers treated the indigenous peoples who had been the continuous inhabitants of the land “since time immemorial”.
Creative Spirits describes the 1838 event as follows: “12 heavily armed colonists rounded up and brutally kill 28 Aboriginal people from a group of 40 or 50 people gathered at Henry Dangar’s Station, at Myall Creek near Inverell (NSW). The massacre was believed to be a payback for the killing of several hut keepers and two shepherds. But most of those killed were women and children and good relations existed between the Aboriginal people and European occupants of the station. Seven stockmen are eventually hanged for murder. This outrages the colonial press and parts of the public who cannot understand why anyone should hang for murdering Aboriginal people.”
A pivotal event took place in 1997, when Prime Minister Howard addressed the Australian Reconciliation Convention, a forum for Australians to discuss Indigenous issues. The conference drew widespread participation, but was overshadowed by the controversy that Howard generated in his opening address on 27 May 1997.
Howard said: In facing the realities of the past, […] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism […] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.
The reference to “blemishes” in Australia history was an incendiary remark. Indigenous delegates who were listening to the lecture stood up and turned their backs on the Prime Minister.
It was a shameful moment, a deliberate aggravation by the elected leader of the First Peoples present. The 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, Wik—Three Strikes for Justice—Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, offered a striking rejoinder to the mean-spirited assessment of the Prime Minister (see previous post).
In 1998, the theme for NAIDOC WEEK was equally striking. It was a direct reference to the landmark report on the stolen generations which had been issued in April 1997 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home, and that exact phrase was used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.
Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at that time, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”
The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.
The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies were made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997), New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.
The Howard Government did not offer a formal apology; instead, they brought a motion to the Parliament in 1999 which expressed “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations”, noting “the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.
The government described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “
“most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or “apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries.
Subsequent NAIDOC WEEK themes would speak back to this inadequate and insulting governmental response.
In 1999, the theme was Respect: Show Some, Earn Some. This was a plea to provide what many Aboriginal people had felt had been missing over the decades: respect.
In 2000, the theme was Building Pride in Our Communities. This connected back with earlier themes in which community had been a motif. It also offered an encouragement to Aboriginal people, to be proud of who they are and what they have to offer.
2000 was the year when hundreds of thousands of people “walked for reconciliation”, a strong statement of the popular support that existed for clear action in the way that Aboriginal and Islander people are treated. The most memorable walk was across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000, when a quarter of a million people (250,000 people) walked across the bridge.
For the centenary of Australia as a nation, the theme for 2001 was Treaty—Let’s Get It Right. This was another strong statement to government and public intransigence in the face of a growing recognition that the situation of Indigenous peoples was damaged by injustice upon injustice.
The history of seeking a treaty reveals stalled attempts, negative responses, and inaction by various governments. In 1979, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had convened a number of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians, working towards the implementation of a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples.
In 1981, the Fraser Government responded by rejecting the notion that a Treaty was needed. Treaties, it was said, are concluded between separate sovereign nations; the Aboriginal people were not a nation with which a treaty could be concluded.
In 1983, the National Aboriginal Conference proposed that, rather than a single national treaty, each individual Aboriginal nation might negotiate its own treaty or agreement. By 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had signalled a willingness to produce some form of agreement for the Bicentenary of 1988. The BarungaStatement was presented to him in June 1988, but no action ensued.
By 1991, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been formed. In 1996, iconic rock band Yothu Yindi released their single, Treaty, which peaked at number 11 on the Australian charts and number 6 internationally. But no action followed. By the end of the decade, Prime Minister Howard had definitively rejected any notion of a treaty, because “it implies that we are two nations; and we are not, we are one nation”. Thus, the 2001 theme of Treaty—Let’s Get It Right was a clear political statement.
In the following years, the NAIDOC WEEK themes referenced familiar motifs.
For 2002, the theme continued the explicit political plea of 2001, with the triple alliteration of Recognition, Rights and Reform. In 2003, the theme of Our Children Our Future looked back to earlier themes.
In 2004, the theme had four parts: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility. The poster had a striking indigenous image set within a pair of cupped brown hands.
The 2005 theme, Our Future Begins with Solidarity, reinforced once more the importance of working together, both within the Aboriginal community as a whole, and also with white allies in the wider Australian society.
Perhaps the theme for 2006, Respect the Past—Believe in the Future, was chosen with an eye to the prevailing “black armband” view of history that had been actively prosecuted in the so-called “history wars” during the Howard years.
The “black armband view of history” had been first suggested by historian Geoffrey Blainey in a public lecture he gave in 1993. A series of polemic interactions from historians and commentators ensued over the next decade, fuelled by comments made by John Howard in a 1996 lecture, soon after he had been elected Prime Minister.
Mr Howard asserted that “the ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.”
Howard continued, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. … But … our priority should … [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.”
This Prime-Ministerial advocacy added fuel to the fire raging in the debate. It was countered by the patient work of Henry Reynolds in advocating honesty in the public discourse about “The Frontier Wars”, a term which has come into popular usage to describe the series of aggressive engagements and terrible massacres that took place from early in the years of British colonisation, through into the 20th century.
Respect the Past—Believe in the Future was a fine and suitable theme to highlight in 2006. The theme for the following year built on this with its reference to Looking Forward, Looking Blak.