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Response to Questions over God’s place in the Dreaming

Rev Alistair Macrae. Photo by Paddy Macrae and courtesy of Crosslight
It is clear from a number of inaccuracies in Christopher Pearson’s piece ‘Questions over God’s place in the Dreaming’ (The Weekend Australian July 25) that he was not present at the meeting of the Uniting Church 12th Assembly last week.

The Assembly considered a recommendation from a special Task Group to include a new Preamble to the Uniting Church Constitution, with explicit reference to the mixed legacy bequeathed on Indigenous peoples by Christian mission. This Preamble was overwhelmingly supported by members of the Assembly and, according to Uniting Church processes for constitutional change, will now be referred back to the State Synods and Presbyteries for further consideration.

Pearson asserts that the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress “used its special procedural privileges to stifle debate”. This is not true. In fact the Congress explicitly told the Assembly that the gathering was a safe place for discussion.

It is true that at one point members of the Congress asked to leave the meeting for discussion because they felt the environment was not safe for them because the integrity of their Christian faith was being challenged. But they left in order that the rest of us could continue to say whatever we wanted to say. At a number of points Congress leaders emphasised that they weren’t interested in guilt or shame.

Rather, they were interested in a truthful statement of the mixed legacy Christian mission has left their people.

Aboriginal Christians are endeavouring to hold together two realities in their experience – the truth of their convictions about and experience of Jesus Christ, and the enduring power and place of their traditional law, traditions and ceremonies.

In recent conversation, Rev. Dr Djiniyinni Gondarra, a prominent theologian and tribal Elder from Arnhem Land, told me that “Jesus Christ affirms some parts of our traditional culture and judges other parts just as he does with any culture”.

From an Indigenous perspective, Christian mission has, with rare exceptions, tended to condemn Indigenous practice and spirituality wholesale but failed to apply a similar critique to the dominant European culture.

The Preamble states that God was here before European arrival. This would seem obvious. God the Creator is ubiquitous and presumably is self-revealing in many ways. The Christian claim that God is ‘fully and finally’ revealed in Jesus Christ is affirmed in the Preamble and by members of the Congress.

When the Congress Chairperson, Rev. Ken Sumner, told the Assembly, “Sometimes we struggle to see God in you” it was nothing like a claim of ‘moral superiority’ as Pearson claims. It was a gentle rebuke considering how the Church’s complicity in policies of assimilation, child removal, etc., have had such a destructive impact on Indigenous peoples in this country.

Pearson quotes Peter Sutton’s new book, indicating that the traditional aboriginal mindset does not include notions of “remorse, conscience or feelings of guilt”. If this is true then this precisely reflects the deep Christian influence on members of Congress!

They have absorbed the core Christian teaching about remorse, responsibility, confession and amendment of life for themselves; and are asking the wider Church to practice its own disciplines with regard to the harmful impacts of European colonisation on Indigenous people.

Pearson’s claim that “Christianity has always taught that its revelation was entire and whole and perfect” cannot go uncontested. Such a grandiose claim goes far beyond Christian orthodoxy. St Paul’s famous words are more apposite: “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”.

That is, even though the Christian church claims ultimacy and finality of God’s revelation in and through Christ, human apprehension of truth is always limited.

The Uniting Church’s foundational document, the Basis of Union, reflects its Reformation origins, “…since law is received by human beings and framed by them, it is always subject to revision in order that it may better serve the gospel”.

Throughout history great evil has been perpetrated when the church has failed to distinguish between its limited understanding and the mind and will of God. Good theology brings deep humility to its task.

If Christopher Pearson had been present at the meeting many misrepresentations in the article could have been avoided; and some important challenges in his piece given more attention.

For there certainly are significant questions for the church’s Indigenous and non Indigenous members to grapple with: at what points does God’s revelation in Jesus Christ affirm or challenge values and practices in all cultures?

Without idealising one culture or demonising another, how can we arrive at a shared account of ‘truth’ (in this case the truth of the mixed impact of Christian mission on Indigenous peoples) in ways that offer a sure foundation upon which to build further reconciliation; and to deepen understanding and partnership?

Rev. Ken Sumner’s words, that “together we can be a free church,” remain with me. Jesus said: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”.

The Uniting Church has embarked on a journey of truth-telling in relation to Indigenous peoples which began with a formal apology in 1994 and which still has some way to go.

Many people, but not all, in this nation breathed a sigh of relief when Kevin Rudd uttered words of apology and truth on behalf of the Federal Government 14 years later.

I hope and pray that members of the Uniting Church will continue to work and pray for ways and words to lay a foundation of truth that will set us free, to address more effectively the massive challenges facing Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and to identify and overcome the significant obstacles to meaningful reconciliation in this land.

Rev Alistair Macrae
National Assembly
Uniting Church in Australia

Photo : Rev Alistair Macrae. Photo by Paddy Macrae and courtesy of Crosslight