As a respected Christian Indigenous leader, Brooke Prentis wants to change the conversation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australian Christians. In this personal account of her own experience with inequality, she gets the dialogue started.
Twenty years ago, I was a 17-year-old Aboriginal Year 12 student at a public high school with hopes and dreams. I dreamed of a Reconciled Australia. The 1990s was, of course, the decade of Reconciliation. It would be another four years until I became a Christian, when I realised that Reconciliation was also used in a particular way with Christians (or is it indeed the same way?).
What did this Reconciled Australia look like? It was one where I was treated as an equal citizen. For me that meant an end to racism – racism I had experienced or witnessed many a time in the school yard. When a 17-year-old knows that inequality exists in Australia, it means Australia is broken. Twenty years later I still know that inequality exists in Australia, and Australia is still broken.
Has anything changed? Our national conversation has. The unfortunate thing in Australia is that our national conversation is directed and dictated by politicians and the media. The 1990s was ‘Reconciliation’, the 2000s was saying ‘Sorry’, the 2010s has been ‘Closing the Gap’. Recently, the conversation has been ‘Australian values’. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “(Australians), We’re defined by a commitment to a common set of political values and they are... freedom, equality, mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy, a fair go. That’s our Australian values.” If these are our Australian values, then why are Aboriginal people treated as they are? As Frank Hardy once said, “If this is The Lucky Country, the Aborigines must be the unluckiest people in the world.”
Donald Horne coined the term ‘The Lucky Country’. However, as is often the case with conversations in Australia where, what W.E.H. Stanner termed a “cult of forgetfulness” has existed since colonisation, Australians misinterpreted this phrase. For the last sentence of the first chapter of Horne’s book, ‘The Lucky Country’, said this, “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck”.
But what does the Bible say about luck? My first lesson as a Christian was that we don’t believe in luck. I often think that the Australian psyche which perpetuates the myth and misuse of the ‘lucky country’ is why inequality exists and why Aboriginal peoples suffer the most. Our view of ‘Lucky Country’ equals the view of ‘Stolen Land’. Add to that, stolen wages and stolen generations (over 18 decades of stolen children). It is also not just what has been stolen but what has been used. This country has been built on the backs of Aboriginal peoples. Our blood, sweat, and tears were used to build the foundations of this country. Literally our labour was used to build roads, hospitals, prisons – oh the irony. What is one left with? Theologian Rev. Dr Peter Adam, in his theological lectures on stolen land, describes what we are left with in terms of an old English proverb, “Old sins cast long shadows”. Australia is covered in many, big, dark, long, shadows.
Our Aboriginal churches are filled with people living the reality of our statistics. They may seek and cling to Jesus, but they experience high rates of poverty.
Aboriginal ministry also remains covered in these shadows. The few Aboriginal churches that exist around this nation, of any denomination, usually meet in leftover buildings, in need of significant repair and maintenance. Thriving Aboriginal churches are closed down across many denominations because they cannot be financially self-sufficient. This is part of my own story. An experience of inequality in the church, the place I least expected. Inequality screamed in my face. Our Aboriginal churches are filled with people living the reality of our statistics. They may seek and cling to Jesus, but they experience high rates of poverty. One in 20 Aboriginal people are homeless, one in 20 are in prison, one in 3 report high to very high levels of psychological distress – but yet the church structures in this nation either don’t understand inequality, let alone inequity, or they don’t understand that Jesus loves and cares deeply for the lost, the last and the least. Australia’s poorest of the poor.
We are often left with nothing. Inequality exists on a grand scale in Australia. We must open our eyes to the truth and to the reality of Australia since 1770, for the world’s oldest living culture. We must open our mouths and begin a new conversation.
The conversation begins like this, by listening to Papa Jesus, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). It is in love that we can speak truth, seek justice, and then see hope.
It is a new conversation that followers of Jesus in Australia must undertake.
In 2005, the National Council of Churches in Australia, in partnership with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission (NATSIEC), launched the campaign Make Indigenous Poverty History. The goal was aligned to the specific statistics of Indigenous disadvantage inherent in the Millennium Development Goals. Aboriginal Christian Leader, Uncle Graeme Mundine, at the launch in 2005 said, “We must work as hard for our own poor as we do for those overseas and MAKE INDIGENOUS POVERTY HISTORY by 2015”. But 2015 came and went. The National conversation about Make Indigenous Poverty History didn’t gain much momentum after about 2010, except in the Aboriginal community and in our very close friends. We continued to wear our wristbands and our t-shirts. We continued to live a life where 58% of Aboriginal people in Australia live in poverty. We continued to face our reality of inequality in Australia.
The government and the media then changed the language to “Closing the Gap”. In 2017, Australia again failed to ‘Close the Gap’. Ten years of Close the Gap and Aboriginal peoples are sicker, poorer and living shorter lives than the rest of Australia. Inequality screams in our faces.
In my own translation from the Gospel of Matthew (25:35-40):
For I had Stolen Wages and you gave me flour and sugar to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing but gave the God-created fresh, clean water to your livestock to drink and damage, I was made a stranger when moved in the name of colonisation and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you made Bennelong write a letter in English to Governor Phillip to request stockings, a handkerchief, and shoes, and was denied, I was sick and dying of diabetes six times more often than non-Aboriginal peoples and in prison as a 10 year old boy, being more likely to be in a juvenile detention centre than to finish year 12, and you did not look after me.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
As Christians we have the tools and teachings to change the reality for Aboriginal brothers and sisters. We must ensure Aboriginal peoples are no longer stepped over or stepped on. Are we willing to share the stolen resources to make things right? Do we have enough love in our hearts to make the Aboriginal 17-year-old’s dream of equality in Australia a reality?
For those of you yet to embark on the journey of friendship with Aboriginal peoples I suggest you start by finding out which Aboriginal nation’s land you live, work, and worship on, watch the SBS series ‘First Australians’ and then get to know your local Aboriginal community. For those of you already on the journey with us, I suggest we advocate on a local, State and Federal level including in our churches for real change, for a better life for your friends.
Charles Ringma says, “to bring into being a community of equality requires both spiritual transformation and the hard work of building solidarity.”
Aboriginal peoples have thousands of years of stories of the Creator in this land we now call Australia – the land has the tools and teachings to enable spiritual transformation. Aboriginal peoples are in the business of solidarity – a solidarity that has seen us survive nearly 250 years of inequality, racism, and genocide. The question for us as followers of Jesus is: Are we willing to live out the Australian value of hard work to build the solidarity required for an Australian community of equality? My dream, my hope, my prayer is that we will.
Let’s start this, as followers of Jesus, as our national conversation, a conversation of love, and maybe, just maybe, my prayer will be answered.