Saturday, 20 March 2010

Indigenous Australians and the church's confession

OK, here's a final excerpt from my paper on the Uniting Church's proposed preamble. This is from the paper's conclusion, where I try to illustrate what it might look like to make a confession about what it means to be the church in Australia.

I am deeply sympathetic with the theological intentions of the new preamble to the Constitution, and I am convinced that the church in Australia needs to find creative ways to rethink and redefine its own identity in relation to the country’s indigenous peoples, those traditional custodians of the very land on which the church gathers. Chris Budden's question is in my view fundamental for the Australian church: ‘Can the church be the church in Australia if it does not properly honour the place of the Indigenous people in its life?’ And more than that, are we not denying the gospel itself—the message of Christ’s universal lordship—if we give the impression ‘that God was brought to Australia by the churches’?

[...] Nevertheless, the whole voice of the document would need to be different, spoken from a different standpoint, if the preamble was to become an exercise of Christian confession and Christian discernment.

The following points then are intended as an illustration of how the language of a preamble could form part of the church’s confession. Here, the church speaks not from a position of privileged insight into God’s ways, but from a vulnerable position of pilgrimage within history. The church does not occupy an elevated ‘view from nowhere’, so that it could survey the whole arc of human history at a single glance. Standing within history, the church sees another world to which it humbly bears witness. Listening to the voices of indigenous believers, the church hears Christ’s own voice calling, and so is compelled to confess:

  • Guided by Jesus Christ, the church’s Second Peoples listen attentively to the voices of our indigenous brothers and sisters, knowing that we cannot be the church without them, and that we cannot have Christ except together with them;
  • we rejoice in their witness to the Creator God who was already at work in this land, through Christ and the Spirit, long before the arrival of the colonisers;
  • in this witness, the church hears and recognises the word of Christ—a word that judges us for our cultural imperialism, our spiritual paternalism, and our hardness of heart; and that graciously liberates us to become together the people of God;
  • together with the First Peoples of this land, our brothers and sisters in Christ, we confess that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Together we entrust ourselves to this God, pledging to journey together as Christ’s disciples: to speak the truth in love, to bear one another’s burdens, and to seek and find Christ in one another along the way.

14 Comments:

remylow said...

I remember Hauerwas mentioning something like this in a sermon on the church and Jewish ppl in Europe:

"if Jews and Christians are to remember the Holocaust, a remembering that, to be sure, will be quite different for each community, neither of us can avoid forgiveness - the one by willing to be forgiven and the other by their willingness to forgive."

I also like that you made the point on 'one body' before you moved on to "Christ/God/Spirit". Often "Christ/God/Spirit" is an empty place that we fill with all manner of historical and cultural contingencies labelled as transcendence. Yet as a concrete 'body', I presume we must acknowledge, seek forgiveness, repent and listen to our Aboriginal fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters rather than try to 'cover over' our sins with statements or gestures. However, I'm not sure if the preamble itself can/cannot open up this possibility.

Anonymous said...

Indigenous members of the UCA have been heavily involved in drafting of the new preamble - at least that is my impression. First and foremost honouring their story is of paramount importance. This is one more step towards indigenous people no longer being "invisible".

Fat said...

Elegant and eloquent Ben.
You have moved the emphasis from pronouncement (from on high) to the mutual journey we share.
Thank you for your insight.

Brad said...

Thanks again for these excerpts, Ben. One question:

"Standing within history, the church sees another world to which it humbly bears witness."

What about, instead of "sees another world" you said "has glimpsed another world"? I wonder if that seems more attuned to your purposes of witness and historicity than present-tense "sees," as if we have a special, ongoing window into another world, whose access others don't share.

A small suggestion; great work sir.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Brad, an excellent point! I've made that change in the essay.

Ken said...

"...knowing that we cannot be the church without them, and that we cannot have Christ except together with them"

I do not know much about the specifics of the controversy with which you are dealing but in a more general sense, I find these statements odd. They seem to me to enforce/mandate communion or unity as a matter of salvation. Is that your intent?

bruce hamill said...

Great work Ben... I wonder if, in denying that 'God was brought to Australia by the churches' we avoid an aspect of the scandal of particularity and history which means that 'the gospel of Christ' was brought to Australia by the church. Do you think this is a fair representation of that scandal of historicity and the historical particularity of Christ?

Darren said...

thanks for your posts Ben, I'd certainly love to read the entire paper one day when it's published/public.

one of my questions re the preamble and your suggestions is in regards to making a claim for all first peoples, certainly there can be a claim and agreement for many, or a select group/community but to make a claim on behalf of, or together with (all) first peoples seems to still beat with the same imperialist heart.

your final point reads:
"together with the First Peoples of this land, our brothers and sisters in Christ, we confess that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all."

while your intent is to be a confessional church, not constrained by this imperialist past it's hard to remove it from the way that we write.

Perhaps, politically we could say that together with the UAICC and other Christian first peoples, but to say "together with all" is difficult to write when there are first peoples who would not hold to the Christian faith.

Not sure of a way to get around it, which I guess is a part of our discussion re the preamble.

Darren said...

Or is it better to say that as the Church we confess that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Together we entrust ourselves to this God, pledging to journey together as Christ’s disciples with the First Peoples: to speak the truth in love, to bear one another’s burdens, and to seek and find Christ in one another along the way.

Something like this would negate the need for us all to actually believe the same thing?

Justin said...

Thanks Ben for your insightful attempt to offer a constructive alternative (something I'm not seeing elsewhere...).

I know this is not the focus of your essay but I think part of the particularity of this situation goes to the heart of listening to our First People brothers and sisters, or as you eloquently put it, "rejoic[ing] in their witness to the Creator God who was already at work in this land, through Christ and the Spirit, long before the arrival of the colonisers;"

Our specific situation in the UCA is that this witness to the church has come in a form of words that were primarily written by the UAICC.

I also understand much time and energy was spent in various councils and committees to edit the original draft proposed by UAICC.

My question is at what point does "rejoicing in their witness" and confessing our colonial past mean we need to let UAICC speak in their own words, even if we don't think they are the right words?

Anonymous said...

Justin,
Your last paragraph was spot-on. In this whole discussion, we still have been privileging the voice of the "Second" people of our land, as if our "reality" is the only reality. Our "theology" the only theology.

Emerson said...

Hey Ben,

What exactly do you mean when you say that the "word of Christ" places us under judgment for "our spiritual paternalism"? I am not an Australian, and have a shameful lack of knowledge into the cultural history of the country you live in. Are you intending to divorce "spiritual paternality" from your country's historical context? Are you critiquing a method of evangelizing that can and has been found in other historical contexts?

The phrase, of itself, seems to imply to me something that-far from being harmful- is necessary in the witness of the church.

The phrase would be consonant with the way Paul testified to Christ: "...in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me." (1 Cor 4:16)

Or to the Thessalonians: "For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory." (1 Thess 2:11-12)

Would you say that Paul's "spiritual paternalism" comes under the judgment of the word of Christ? Or would you say that we are merely doing wrong in attempting to imitate something that was uniquely Paul's?

And is it only the church that does wrong when it attempts to teach the world about the one Lord, Jesus Christ in a "paternal" manner?

I live in Canada, and the local indigenous tribes seem to be more than eager to take on a fatherly role in teaching the West about native spirituality. Does their "paternalism" come under Christ's judgment as well?

Is it inherently repugnant that Christ would mercifully bestow a "paternal authority" on a Christian in his relationship to someone who does not believe? What other model would you suggest for "making disciples (students) of all nations...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded...."?

Will the fulfillment of the Great Commission finally come about by one long, endless conversation? Will disciples be made of all nations in a setting where it is the unbelievers, not the Christians, who do the teaching?

Chris Donato said...

"And more than that, are we not denying the gospel itself—the message of Christ’s universal lordship—if we give the impression ‘that God was brought to Australia by the churches’?"

If God=the gospel, the good news of God's saving through the cross of Christ Jesus, then yes, "God" was brought to the land. "God" in the sense of generic deity was not, of course. And it's helpful to recognize this. But there's nothing imperialistic about suggesting that that which is "worshiped in ignorance has been revealed in these last days," & co.

How will they hear if no one is sent? Etc., etc.

Darren said...

Or is it better to say that as the Church we confess that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Together we entrust ourselves to this God, pledging to journey together as Christ’s disciples with the First Peoples: to speak the truth in love, to bear one another’s burdens, and to seek and find Christ in one another along the way.

Something like this would negate the need for us all to actually believe the same thing?

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