20 years on, and the shame continues: the Palapa, the Tampa, and “children overboard”

It was 20 years ago today that the “Tampa incident” occurred. That began a series of actions that has left a permanent stain of shame on the national identity of Australia.

The “Tampa incident” involved the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter which was sailing in the Indian Ocean, and a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1. The Indonesian fishing boat had left from Indonesia a few days earlier with 438 asylum seekers aboard. The boat was heading to Christmas Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As that island was part of Australia, the asylum seekers were aiming to land there so that they could make new lives in Australia, eventually on the mainland.

On 26 August 2001, the engines of the fishing boat stalled in international waters between Indonesia and Australia. The Palapa lay stranded for three days. The Australian Coast Guard put out a call for boats in the area to rescue the people on the boat. The MV Tampa was plying its commercial route in the Indian Ocean, so it headed for the Palapa and rescued 433 of the 438 people who were aboard the stranded boat.

The Tampa draws alongside the Palapa

On board the Tampa, the Norwegian crew set up makeshift accommodation and bathrooms on the deck, out in the open air. Indonesia have permission for the Tampa to return passengers to the Indonesian port of Merak. Those on board became distressed at this news. The captain of the ship, Arne Rhinnan, met with a delegation from the asylum seekers, who asked to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) rather than being returned to Indonesia (11 hours away).

The asylum seekers rescued from the Palapa on deck on the Tampa

Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island. Most of the refugees were Hazaras from Afghanistan. To be returned to their country would mean certain death for those fleeing the political situation of their homeland. To be allowed to land in Australia would mean life—a new life, in a new land, a new start. It would mean everything.

It’s a wonderful story. It’s the Gospel in action. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, acted out in a different setting and a different time—our time. It’s reaching out in love and concern to people whose lives were in imminent danger. It’s embracing the stranger, the homeless, and taking them in.

I love the welcoming actions of Arne Rhinnan and his sailors, in taking the asylum seekers on board, feeding them, giving them water and shelter, advocating for them. It’s exactly what Jesus advocated in his command to “love your neighbour” (Mark 12) and his story about “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Matt 25).

Except that’s not the end of the story. The intransigence of the Australian Government soon became evident. Within hours, the Tampa was told it was prohibited from entering Australian waters. The penalty for doing so would be the imprisonment of Rhinnan and fines of up to A$110,000. A stalemate ensued. The captain of the Tamp had to decide what to do with the asylum seekers now on board that ship.

Australia’s policy to this point had been to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. Success in this process would mean release into the community on permanent protection visas. Failure would mean being returned to their country of origin.

But the Federal Government changed their practices. Enter the practice of “boat turnbacks”. Boats carrying asylum seekers were called Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs. No SIEVs were to be allowed to enter Australian waters. No asylum seekers on boats were to land on Australian shores. The Government had set the course for the next two decades of rejection and stereotyping of asylum seekers as “illegal” (which they weren’t, and aren’t, under international law).

And boat turnbacks morphed into border control. And Immigration, a federal department, transformed into Border Protection. And Labor governments (2007–2013) followed the practice of conservative governments (2001–2007, continued from 2013 onwards) in refusing entry to “boat arrivals”—even though there were thousands of “plane arrivals” each year, and they all managed to enter Australia. And the success of a certain Minister for Immigration and Border Protection would catapult him into the leadership of the nation.

It’s the exact flip side of the parable of Jesus—those who fail to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, those who fail to give shelter to the homeless—these are the ones who fail to recognise Jesus in “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matt 25:45). These are the one to who Jesus declares that their fate is, “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. That’s in the story that Jesus told.

But in the story of the Palapa and the Tampa, the Norwegian sailors and the Afghani asylum seekers, a very different fate lay in store.

The shameful saga of the claims about “children overboard” took hold in the public narrative. The claims were later proven to be entirely confected. But the stigma attached to the asylum seekers took hold. It exacerbated the racist denigration and discrimination that had been fostered already in Australia by Pauline Hanson in 1997–98, and which Prime Minister Howard refused to condemn or even to address.

None of the asylum seekers came to Australia. An Australian naval vessel collected them and took them to Nauru. Some were then taken to Aotearoa New Zealand. A small number were eventually given entry to Australia, some years later, under very limited restrictions.

Of course, the history of Australia over the past 250 years has been one in which racist discrimination has occurred again and again. The people who travelled on the First Fleet and set about making their new life beside Sydney Cove were not benign colonial settlers; they were the violent imperial invaders.

The “settlement” of the “colony” in 1788, bringing the overflow British population of petty criminals, was an illegal invasion by imperial forces. They established a society that took land, raised lynch mobs, murdered Aboriginal people, executed massacres, built mission ghettos, and managed to all but eliminate the indigenous peoples who had lived on the continent and its islands for millennia.

A representation of the many First Peoples nations present on the continent of Australia in the late 18th century

However, in the outback of Australia, Afghan camel handlers had long plied their trade. In the mid century gold rushes, Chinese prospectors worked alongside English and Scottish men. Indeed, on the First Fleet, there had been eight Jewish convicts as well as eleven convicts of Afro-American heritage. Australia had been “a multicultural society” since the very beginning of the British imperial invasion and settlement, to establish their colony.

When Australia became a nation in 1901, one of the earliest legislative acts was to establish “the White Australia Policy”, which lasted into the 1970s. Blacks and Asians were under no illusion that they were not welcome. The dictation test was set up to ensure that non-English speakers would fail and thus not be granted entry.

A White Australia badge from the early 20th century

Yet tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia to work on plantations in Queensland, often by force or trickery, in the mid to late 19th century. They existed in slavery in this country; it was not the land of “the young and free”. Right up to 2020 there had been thousands of Pacific Islander seasonal workers, caught into slave-labour conditions, picking fruit on Australian farms.

And the Chinese who had worked in the goldfields and across the country in countless towns had suffered under the press of stereotyping and vilification throughout the 19th century; this surfaced in a new form with the claims of the “yellow peril” threat in the 20th century.

And throughout all of this, the First Peoples of this continent and its hundreds of associated islands were marginalised, mistreated, and massacred; their children were stolen, their jobs were unpaid, their health suffered, their reputation was disfigured.

The incident involving the Palapa and the Tampa was not a one-off, unusual occurrence. It actually taps deep into the Australian psyche that has been fostered in various ways since 1788. It is a continuing shame that stains our conscience and disfigures our society. It provides a warning, a rebuke, a challenge. Is this really who we are? who we want to be? who we should be?

Twenty years years on from the Palapa and the Tampa, and the dishonesty of “children overboard”, it is time to reconsider—to leave behind the racist discrimination and vilification that has too often been evident in Australian society. It is time we became something different.

*****

For more discussion of the Tampa incident and its consequences, see:

https://theconversation.com/australian-politics-explainer-the-mv-tampa-and-the-transformation-of-asylum-seeker-policy-74078

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2011/August/Tampa_ten_years_on

https://www.smh.com.au/national/from-the-archives-2001-three-nations-cast-refugees-adrift-20210819-p58k2m.html

International Day of Indigenous Peoples

Today (9 August) is International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Last Wednesday (4 August) was National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day.

The theme for National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day 2021 is proud in culture, strong in spirit.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have provided love and care for their children, growing them up strong and safe in their cultural traditions, for thousands of generations.

For our children, safety, wellbeing and development are closely linked to the strengths of their connections with family, community, culture, language, and Country.

The continent of Australia and its surrounding 8,222 islands have been cared for since time immemorial by the indigenous peoples of these lands. When the British began their colonising invasion and settlement of the continent, it is estimated that there were over 400 nations across the continent and its islands, with about 250 languages being used at this time.

The land was not terra nullius (nobody’s land), despite the action of “claiming” the continent for Great Britain.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/31/whats-in-a-name-reconciliation-ruminations/

The situation of our First Peoples merits particular and ongoing attention. In Australia, we have NAIDOC WEEK in July to celebrate the survival and continuing culture and language. We have National Reconciliation Week, running from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which recognised the indigenous peoples of Australia and gave them the right to vote, through until 3 June, the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

We also have Sorry Day, a time to pay respect and acknowledge the many thousands of Aboriginal and Torries Strait Islander children who were taken away from their homes, whom we now know as The Stolen Generation. And for indigenous peoples, 26 January is commemorated as Invasion Day, or Survival Day, as they remember the invasion that led to countless massacres and their systemic marginalisation as the imported European culture grew and dominated the land.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

These occasions are very important for focussing our attention on the wonderfully rich heritage of the First Peoples of Australia. They also help us to remember the ways that we can work together with our First Peoples, to ensure a better future for the present and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year, the theme for International Day of Indigenous Peoples is Leaving No One Behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract. That is particularly relevant in Australia, where the call for a Treaty (or Makarratta) with the First Nations of this continent has been growing in strength in recent years.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

I recently participated in a workshop on advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, with the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First People’s of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of indigenous peoples across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.

The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.

You can read my reflections on this part of the workshop at https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/working-with-first-peoples-and-advocating-for-them/. On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:

Learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, their aspirations, with an open mind, with a compassionate heart

Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it

Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism

Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First Peoples (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty all have resources)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local Aboriginal organisation

Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives

Make your church space available for use by the Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

The UCA Assembly has produced a study guide based on the UCA Covenant with Congress, available at https://assembly.uca.org.au/walkingtogether/item/download/881_c020cd5241975ded067ba11194535b24

Working with First Peoples and advocating for them

I recently participated in a workshop on Advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, in the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, we explored what we know about the history and current situation of First Peoples. In the second part, we considered what actions we might take to work with and advocate for First Peoples.

What do we know?

In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First Peoples of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.

The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the Truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.

First, there is the story—now becoming well-known and widespread— of the impact on First Peoples from the invasion and colonization that took place from 1788 onwards. (I use these terms deliberately; describing the British colony as a settlement is far too benign; it ignores much of the harsh reality of what took place.)

The period of invasion and colonisation saw innumerable massacres take place. As well as the thousands of Aboriginal deaths that occurred through these massacres, British invasion also led to the deliberate marginalising of people in many of the Aboriginal nations that existed at that time.

There is a powerful visual symbol of these massacres at The killing times: a massacre map of Australia’s frontier wars | Australia news | The Guardian

The map is interactive. The number of massacres that were perpetrated by ordinary people—not soldiers, not government officials—is truly horrifying.

Associated with this is an observation that provides a second area worthy of note. It is the case that virtually no white persons were charged for the acts of violence and murder that they perpetrated. (The Myall Creek Massacre provides one of the rare exceptions to this claim. See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/myall-creek-massacre-1838)

Third, Nathan referred to the rationale that was driving both the colonisation of the continent and the massacre of First Peoples—the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated in medieval times and driving the expansionary colonisation policies of many European nations, including Britain. It was this Doctrine which formed the foundation of the claim of terra nullius—the notion that the there were no people in the land who were settled in the land.

The Uniting Church in Australia has joined with other churches around the world in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

Fourth, Nathan noted the issue of the Stole Generations, a blight on the history of Australia since the nineteenth century. This matter was addressed in Bringing Them Home, a highly important report issued in 1997. The commission that produced this report was led by Sir Ron Wilson, a High Court judge who had served as UCA Moderator in Western Australia and then as the fifth national President (1988–1991).

See https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-social-justice/publications/bringing-them-home

The continuing saga of Aboriginal children being taken from their homes remains with us today, to our national shame. Even in the 21st century, indigenous children continue to be taken from their families. In fact, there are far more Aboriginal children in out-or-home care now, than there were in 1997 when the Bringing Them Home report exposed countless stories of terror and tragedy amongst the Stolen Generations.

The final area canvassed in the first part of the workshop focussed on the theme of Voice. Treaty. Truth. This was the theme for NAIDOC Week 2019. It consists of a call to give Voice to the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a representative body to advise federal law makers; to establish a Treaty with each of the nations that were in the land before the British sent their invading colonisers; and to tell Truth about the history and the present situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

Nathan encouraged all of the workshop participants to learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, and their aspirations, and to approach First Peoples with an open mind and with a compassionate heart.

What can be done?

In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:

Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it

Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism

Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First People’s (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples, eg those advertised by FISTT (Fighting In Solidarity Towards Treaties, a Facebook group)

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local organisation

Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives

Make your church space available for use by Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)

There are plenty of practical suggestions in this list. It is worth the effort to start implementing some of them!

The Spirit was already in the land. Looking back on NAIDOC WEEK.

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!

Heal Country: the heart of the Gospel (for NAIDOC WEEK 2021)

This week is NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021).

NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week (Sunday to Sunday) of July that incorporates the second Friday. Historically, it began life as ‘National Aborigines Day’, then it became known as ‘The Day of Mourning’, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week.

Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. Two years ago, inspired by the Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth.

In that same year, the NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church adopted a proposal to lobby the commonwealth government to establish a Makarratta Commission and to advocate with state governments that they make treaties with the indigenous peoples of their region.

In the Uniting Church, as we have drawn on the voices of Indigenous peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as 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. The commission and these treaties would have Voice to the First Peoples, ensuring that their Truth was known.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/what-synod-support-for-the-statement-from-the-heart-means/

The next year, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, was the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. (It was held later in the year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

This theme 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.

In the Uniting Church, the National Assembly adopted a proposal in 2018 that affirmed “that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land.” The proposal noted “the Statement from the Heart’s acknowledgment that sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”. Connection to country is deeply important, profoundly spiritual, amongst all of the First Peoples of this land.

We have continued to strengthen the covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) and we have worked hard to give priority to the Voice of First Peoples in our church. See https://uniting.church/sovereignty/

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). Such a vision is offered in a highly imaginative, and much more detailed way, in the final book of scripture, where “a new heaven and an new earth” is described (Rev 21:1–2, 21:9–22:5, drawing on the vision of Isa 65:17–25).

These visions are built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31; so also Neh 9:6; Psalm 104:24–25; Job 26:7—14), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15; and see the laws that command respect for the land, such as Lev 18:26, 28; 25:23–24; Num 35:33–34; Deut 20:19).

Further to that, 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). The eschatological view of scripture is that God will “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at the time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) or 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.

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.

The theme of Heal Country is important for the life of the whole of Australia at this moment in time. It is also a theme that draws deeply from the scriptural witness. It is a theme that people of faith should embrace, proclaim, and live with all our being—this week, this year, and on into the future.

*****

A whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment.

Many local churches of various denominations have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

There is a prayer for Healing Country at https://www.commongrace.org.au/healingcountry_prayer

The Roman Catholic Church has been guided by the papal document Laudato si’, which provides an extensive exploration of environmental issues from a faith perspective. I’ve posted a series of reflections on this important statement at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (3)

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (4)

NAIDOC WEEK 2021

Today we start NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week of July (Sunday to Sunday) that incorporates the second Friday – which historically was celebrated as ‘National Aboriginal Day’. (Yes, like Easter, it moves around in a rather arcane fashion!)

On Australia Day, 1938, protestors marched through the streets of Sydney, followed by a congress attended by over a thousand people. One of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world, it was known as the Day of Mourning. Following the congress, a deputation led by William Cooper presented Prime Minister Joseph Lyons with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people. This was again rejected because the Government did not hold constitutional powers in relation to Aboriginal people.

From 1940 until 1955, the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day and was known as Aborigines Day. In 1955 Aborigines Day was shifted to the first Sunday in July after it was decided the day should become not simply a protest day but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture.

Major Aboriginal organisations, state and federal governments, and a number of church groups all supported the formation of the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC). At the same time, the second Sunday in July became a day of remembrance for Aboriginal people and their heritage.

In 1974, the NADOC committee was composed entirely of Aboriginal members for the first time. The following year, it was decided that the event should cover a week, from the first to second Sunday in July. In 1984, NADOC asked that National Aborigines Day be made a national public holiday, to help celebrate and recognise the rich cultural history that makes Australia unique. While this has not happened, other groups have echoed the call.

Next, the committee became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new name has become the title for the whole week, not just the day. Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect the important issues and events for NAIDOC Week.

Last year, 2020, the theme of NAIDOC WEEK was Always Was, Always Will Be—a reference to the reality that the lands of Australia have been cared for over millennia by the First Peoples of the continent and its nearby islands. The now-discredited ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and the notion of terra nullius undergirded the colonial enterprise of “claiming the country” for Britain? See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

That focus is further developed in this year’s theme, Heal Country—a theme that 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.

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.

The theme of Heal Country is an important and entirely relevant theme for all Australians, this year!

This week, also, the Uniting Church Assembly launches its first Covenant Action Plan (ACAP) – a strategic and practical framework which gives shape to our commitment as a national church to walk together as First and Second Peoples.

The plan is being launched 27 years after the UCA formally entered into a covenantal relationship at the invitation of and with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). See https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

The plan can be read at https://mk0unitingchurcq6akw.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Assembly-Covenant-Action-Plan-2021_Feb2021-FINAL.pdf

******

The full list of themes of each NAIDOC WEEK, back to 1972, can be found at https://www.naidoc.org.au/previous-themes-posters

and posters from previous years are collected at https://www.naidoc.org.au/resources/poster-gallery

The history of NAIDOC WEEK is taken from https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/history

What’s in a name? Reconciliation ruminations

Today we are in the middle of National Reconciliation Week. The week runs from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which recognised the indigenous peoples of Australia and gave them the right to vote, through until 3 June, the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

Today, in the middle of this week, is Reconciliation Day in the Australian Capital Territory. Reconciliation Week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, “to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation”. Reconciliation Day was only gazetted for the ACT in 2018. It’s another public holiday for Canberrans—but the ACT government reminds us that it provides “a time for all Canberrans to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia”.

This year, as I reflect on the importance of reconciliation for the people of this nation, I am struck by the names we use, and their significance. I am thinking particularly of place names. There are many, many locations around the continent which bear names that have been imposed on those locations by invading colonisers without any regard for what names were already used by the people living there before the British began their colony at Port Jackson.

The suburb where I live, Gordon, bears the name of a man who was born in England but came to Australia where he was a jockey and police officer, and for a short while also a politician—Adam Lindsay Gordon. (Who knows why??) The suburb where I grew up as a child, Seaforth, bears the name of a loch in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (perhaps, bizarrely, because it reminded someone of that locality?).

There are other locations which bear names that refer to local indigenous people, or to specific incidents that took place in past years, involving indigenous people. You may have driven past Blackfella’s Gully, or Slaughterhouse Creek, or Nigger Creek, or similar names. They sound innocuous. They may not necessarily have been so.

Some sites identify specific massacres during the Frontier Wars. There is The Leap, in northern Queensland, where an Aboriginal woman leapt with her child, choosing suicide to avoid capture or killing by European vigilantes and Native Police. There is Red Rock, in NSW, where the name recalls the Aboriginal blood shed in a conflict there. There is Battle Hole, and Skull Hole, and no less than eighteen Skeleton Creeks, named for obvious reasons. (See https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p286811/html/ch08.xhtml?referer=&page=11)

There are other locations—quite a significant number of locations—that bear the name that has long been given to that location by the indigenous people of the area. The region where I live, Tuggeranong, bears a name which is said to be derived from a Ngunnawal expression meaning cold place. And at the moment, that feels like an entirely appropriate name!

From the earliest colonial times, the plain extending south into the centre of the present-day territory was referred to as Tuggeranong. The indigenous name was kept. I understand there is a rock shelter just a few kilometres from where I live, which dates Ngunnawal activity here at 20,000 years ago into the last Ice Age. They may have lived here much longer than that, possibly 60,000 or more years.

From the front of my house, I look out across to the Brindabella ranges—a formation bearing a name which is said to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning two kangaroo rats. However, another account claims that brindy brindy was a local term meaning water running over rocks, to which “bella” was presumably added by the Europeans as in “bella vista”. The British who invaded and colonised the area did such a comprehensive job of removing the indigenous locals from the area, that knowledge of the precise origin of the name has been lost.

The local nation, the Ngunnawal, shared the region we know as Canberra with a number of neighbouring nations, gathering during late spring for the arrival of the bogong moths. It was a time of feasting and ceremonies for those who joined with the Ngunnawal people.

The Ngambri came from the Limestone Plains (the area on which central Canberra sits today), although they are seen by some as a clan within Ngunnawal. The Namadgi people was a group inhabiting the high country to the west of modern-day Canberra (the area is gazetted as the Namadgi National Park). The Ngarigo people inhabited areas in the north and to the east of Canberra. There are also suggestions that some from the Wiradjuri people from the Central West participated in these regional gatherings.

These nations gathered at the place that today we call Canberra. The region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. The name is believed to have been derived from a local Indigenous word Kamberri, which identifies the location as a meeting place of these many nations, for a gathering focussed around the bogong moth. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/30/learning-of-the-land-3-tuggeranong-queanbeyan-and-other-canberra-place-names/

So names are important. Names reveal much about those who bequeath the name. And names that have existed for millennia—indigenous names, the spirit names for the places—need to be honoured and remembers—and used! May that be one of the ways that we work towards reconciliation, this week, and long into the future.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/welcome-back-the-recovery-of-australia-s-indigenous-languages-20201120-p56gfp.html

Reconciliation: a theme for Trinity Sunday

Today (26 May) is National Sorry Day. It sits at the head of Reconciliation Week 2021, which runs from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, until 3 June, the day in 1992 that Eddie (Koiki) Mabo won and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

In 2014, Elizabeth and I wrote this sermon for the Wauchope Congregation for Reconciliation Week. There, we had an active youth group that comprised about 90% Indigenous young peoples. We were able to develop a very good relationship with Biripi elders there.

We preached the sermon in May 2014, and Elizabeth adapted the sermon for the Star Street Congregation (in Perth) in May 2018, then we repeated the sermon in Queanbeyan in May 2019.

The sermon, which connects themes between Trinity Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday, greatly spoke to Covenanting and International Mission Officer Tarlee Leondaris in the South Australian Synod of the Uniting Church. She adapted the sermon for the annual Reconciliation Week resources, fitting it with the 2021 lectionary, and linked it as well with the theme for the 2021 National Reconciliation Week—in doing so, reflecting on current covenanting relationships.

*****

Today, we also celebrate both Trinity Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday. Trinity Sunday is a celebration of who God is for us: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reconciliation is an important issue in the Australian context. The Uniting Church in Australia remains on a journey of reconciliation with First Peoples.

So, because the Trinity evokes the theme of community and relationships and restoring human relationships as a part of God’s reconciling mission in our world, the two do belong together. And through forgiveness, God’s grace works to provide all with hope and a new way of living.

One God, yet a community of persons. The Trinitarian doctrine insists that the nature of God is closer to a loving community than to a lofty individual. The trinity expresses the notion that the highest form of existence is communal. God is communal, so therefore we should find the true meaning of being as a person in fellowship with other people.

Because of this, the church community should reflect God far better than a lone person, no matter how gifted that person may happen to be. By insisting on being individuals over being community, we limit and diminish ourselves. Growth in faith really only takes place when we give to others and receive from others; when we know we need them and they need us.

What kind of wonderful creatures might we become if, in the fellowship of the church, we begin to model ourselves not on individualism but on God’s community, as symbolised by the Trinity?

David Unaiapon, a Ngarrindjeri man and preacher and the man on our $50 note, recognised this many years prior to Union. He said:

“We, as Aboriginal people, need you and you, as non-Aboriginal people, need us. You, as non-Aboriginal people who have come to Australia, have played a large part in making this society what it is, so you can’t just leave us Aboriginal people and expect us to fend for ourselves. You can’t leave us now because it’s like us taking you out in the bush and leaving you there. Most of you wouldn’t survive in the wilderness on your own.

“For many Aboriginal people, white society is like a wilderness. We need to be shown the way through what is, for many of us, very much uncharted waters; an unknown territory. However, it is inappropriate for you to insist that we become like you in order to succeed in society. This is what has happened so often in the past and Aboriginal people have been disempowered by this approach.

“Our society can encompass people who are quite different, and so can the Church. We can work together to fulfil God’s purpose for us all. Your relationship with God as expressed through the Trinity is the key to building loving relationships with those who are different. The love we are able share comes from God’s love for us and we have Christ’s example to follow, but we need the Spirit to guide us on our way.

“Loving one another means forgiving, trusting and sacrificing. It means opening our hearts to others; it means transforming your attitudes toward others.”

David Unaiapon raised important points here about culture, community and the work of Holy Spirit in our lives. In a very familiar Gospel reading (John 3:1-17), Nicodemus came to Jesus personally. He wanted to examine Jesus for himself and separate fact from rumour.

The passage reads that Nicodemus came at night or after dark. Possibly this was because he was worried about what his peers, the Pharisees would say about his visit to Jesus. Nicodemus himself was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling high council or Sanhedrin.

During Jesus’s time, the Pharisees were a group of religious leaders. Jesus and John the Baptist often criticised the Pharisees for being hypocrites. Many Pharisees were resentful of Jesus because he undermined their authority and challenged their perspectives.

Contrarily, Nicodemus was inquisitive and he believed Jesus had some answers. An educator himself, Nicodemus came on this occasion to learn from Jesus. It is a reminder to each of us no matter how well educated we are, we must come to Jesus with an open mind and heart to be lifelong learners.

Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that the kingdom would come to the whole world, not just to the Jews, and that to be part of the kingdom we must be born again. This was a radical concept: Jesus’ kingdom is personal not pertaining to a particular race, and entrance requirements are repentance and spiritual rebirth.

David Unaiapon spoke to this point well by stating, “The love we are able share comes from God’s love for us and we have Christ’s example to follow, but we need the Spirit to guide us on our way.”

It is this same understanding of God’s love and presence of the Holy Spirit that bonds the Uniting Church in Australia into a covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. On Sunday 10 July 1994 the then President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Dr Jill Tabart,mread the Covenanting Statement. In doing so, the church was lamenting historical wrongs and systemic failings—whilst at the same time committing the Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to journey together in the true spirit of Christ.

Further, Dr Tabart stated: “We acknowledge that no matter how great our intentions, however, we will not succeed in our efforts for reconciliation without Christ’s redeeming grace and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit at work in both your people and ours.”

Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus informs the Covenanting Statement. That spiritual renewal transcends race and that no one is beyond the touch of God’s Spirit. Towards the end of today’s Scripture reading in John 3:16 the entire gospel comes into focus. God’s love is not stationary or self-centred. It reaches out and draws others in. Here God sets out the pattern of true love, the basis of reconciliation for all relationships. Our challenge as Christians is to adhere to the words of the Covenanting Statement. By journeying together in the spirit of Christ and discover what it means to be bound as First and Second Peoples in a covenant. 

On that same day in 1994, the Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Pastor Bill Hollingsworth responded to the Covenanting Statement. He set out a roadmap to practical reconciliation. Pastor Hollingsworth stated:

“Your commitment to be practical in seeking to be united in this relationship will be assessed by your decisions to resource the Congress ministry and to be actively involved in ministry alongside and with Aboriginal and Islander people to change the present disadvantage … We pray that God will guide you together with us in developing a covenant to walk together practically so that the words of your statement may become a tangible expression of His justice and love for all creation. We ask you to remember this covenant by remembering that our land is now also sustaining your people by God’s grace.”

Nearly 27 years have passed since the formalisation of the Covenant. During this time, there have been many wonderful achievements in covenanting and reconciliation. Yet this year’s National Reconciliation Week theme ‘More than a word. Reconciliation takes action’, urges the reconciliation movement towards braver and more impactful action.

Although 27 years later, this year’s theme is reminiscent of Pastor Hollingsworth’s response. That commitment to covenanting must be practical. It is in this moment that we should truly take a moment to assess our practical commitments towards covenanting.

To reflect upon our own individual commitment but more importantly our collective commitment as a community of called by Christ. In this moment, it is right to ask ourselves as a Christian community, is this where wewant to be on our covenanting journey? Are we satisfied with reconciliation between First and Second Peoples within the life of our congregation?

This Reconciliation Sunday, can we as Christians take the risk like Nicodemus and bring our questions to the Lord? By asking where, might the Trinity Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer be calling us into commitment to covenanting? How can our Christian community continue or start to make our contributions to covenanting be more than words and put into action?

*****

National Reconciliation Week (NRW) started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation in 1993 (the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples) and was supported by Australia’s major faith communities. In 1996, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation launched Australia’s first National Reconciliation Week. The theme for 2021 is ‘More than a Word – Reconciliation takes Action’.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

A vision, a Congress, and a struggle for justice

Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice (William W. Emilsen, 2019, MediaCom)

In August 1983, a National Conference within the Uniting Church was held from 22-26 August at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, in the Northern Territory. The Conference inaugurated the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress within the UCA. It built on the work that had taken place in 1982, as a series of meetings brought together Aboriginal and Islander members of the Church and other interested people in a conference at Crystal Creek, near Townsville.

The UAICC, or “Congress”, as it is more commonly called, has remained a significant feature of the UCA nationally, as well as in a number of Synods. Two Synods have contained Presbyteries composed entirely of Congress Congregations.

The Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) functions as one of two Presbyteries in the Northern Synod. Representatives of more than 28 Aboriginal congregations from East Arnhem Land, West Arnhem Land, the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, Alice Springs, Aputula and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, make up the Council.

For many decades, Calvary Presbytery served as the regional Queensland body of Congress, a Presbytery in the Synod of Queensland. It oversees Indigenous congregations in the Cape York and Gulf region (Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun and Mornington Island), as well as Congress congregations at Gordonvale (south of Cairns), Townsville, and Zillmere (in northern Brisbane). Since 2016, Calvary Presbytery and North Queensland Presbytery have worked together as Carpentaria Presbytery, one of seven Presbyteries in the Queensland Synod.

This unique ecclesial arrangement, of a Congress body functioning within the denominational structures of the UCA, but having the authority to make decisions in all matters relating to ministry with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, had been the vision of the Rev. Charles Harris, an Aboriginal community worker and pastor who was ordained a UCA minister in November 1980.

Charles was the first President of the national body of Congress when it was formed in 1985. This was a role that, over the ensuing decades, has come to be seen as equal and complementary to the position of President of the national Assembly.

Charles Harris would later describe the 1983 conference as a time “of discovery, of one another, of culture, and of common faithfulness. It was a conference dedicated to searching for the will and purpose of God.”

The passion and vision birthed at these historic meetings for First Nations Peoples has not subsided in hearts and minds of members of the UAICC.

William Emilsen has written much on the work of Charles Harris; after a series of articles published over some decades, he has now published a book-length account of the whole of the life and work of Harris, entitled Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3060-a-destiny-is-born-uaicc-beginnings. The book is available from MediaCom at https://www.mediacomeshop.org.au/test/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=426

At the end of his life, the activist and public servant Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5, quoted in https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183)

The book by Emilsen provides multiple examples of how Harris lived and worked by his ethical principles, grounded in the understanding that God’s justice is the heart of the Gospel, and our discipleship is to be focussed on seeking that justice in all of life.

The vision of an Aboriginal Congress was central to Charles Harris’ church ministry and community leadership. He toured the country, encouraging, urging, negotiating, to bring this vision to reality. In 1985 the National Assembly welcomed the formation of Congress, and in 1994 the Uniting Church in Australia formally entered into a Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to work together for a more just church and nation.

See https://uniting.church/covenanting-resources/

That work arose out of his work with local Aboriginal communities in Queensland, where Charles offered an integrated ministry that attended to material and spiritual needs, whilst building networks and undertaking advocacy for his people.

And the creation of the Congress formed the springboard for the work that Charles Harris undertook among nest Aboriginal communities across Australia, preparing the converge on Sydney in January 1988 for the BiCentenary celebrations. Charles was the driving force behind the creation of the Day of Mourning, with a march through Sydney and a rally at Hyde Park, which attended by 40,000 people, on 26 January.

See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

The Bicentenary protest was carried out in the spirit of the earlier Day of Mourning protest, also organised by indigenous leaders, led by William Cooper. This took place in 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first fleet. See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/Day_of_Mourning_protests_held_in_Sydney

It is a legacy continues in the current marches and protests organised each January to fight for rights and justice for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

In telling the story of the role that Charles Harris played in 1988, and in other key events in his life and ministry, William Emilsen had access to the history that Harris himself had begun to sketch, before his health issues predominated, and which led to his early death in 1991.

However, Emilsen has gained access to a wide range of sources–not only published accounts and transcripts of speeches and meetings, but also letters and recollections of events by the colleagues and friends of Charles Harris. He has interviewed and corresponded with key people, including the late widow of Charles Harris, the much-respected Aunty Dorrie (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3221-pastoral-letter-rev-dorothy-harris-gordon-1941-2020)

This makes for a rich account, with a proliferation of material enabling the reader to enter into a deep appreciation of the values and commitments of Charles Harris: pastor, community worker, evangelist, student, orator, organiser, visionary, and prophet. It’s a work that is well worth reading.

This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/