Sermon on Aboriginal Reconciliation | DB Home | RCL Resources Index | Comments & Questions | Templestowe Uniting Church Topical Sermons |

Do you feel a need for reconciliation?

[Note: This sermon was first preached shortly after the release of the report Bringing them Home from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in May 1997. Posting it again three years later recognizes that the central issues remain. But significant public debate has taken place and progress has been made in terms of developing public opinion, as was demonstrated in the march across Sydney Harbour Bridge by perhaps 250,000 people of all races and backgrounds on Sunday 28 May 2000 in support of the report of the recently presented Reconciliation Statement (See news picture). Except to remove some local church references, make a few minor corrections, and include the poem "Children of the Mist", I have not attempted to update what is said here. It is difficult to address new developments without a complete rewriting. In any case what was written in 1997 addresses basic questions which are still being debated. I would wish to continue to given attention to a general Christian perspective on those basic questions rather than to take a partisan stand on what should be done in detail in the present circumstances. Citizens and government leaders must work out those things for themselves.]

Today I will not be preaching from the lectionary and the written version of the sermon will include additional background for study of the important topic of reconciliation between aboriginal people and those of us whose people came to this country from Europe and elsewhere.

This past week or so [in May 1997, but also in May 2000] has been one of those times when things that matter come into focus. The report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission on aboriginal children who were removed from their parents some years ago has received a good deal of publicity and the President of the Commission, Sir Ronald Wilson, a former High Court justice and a past President of the Uniting Church Assembly, has made some very strong statements on the injustice that was done to aboriginal families over several decades until as recently as the nineteen-sixties. At the same time native title to land, which the High Court has determined in the Wik case implies the sharing of rights in the use of land under pastoral leases, continues to attract the time and attention of the government and the media. Negotiations and policy formation continue in the aftermath of the High Court decision. These major concerns, dealing with such emotionally significant matters as children and land, have been central themes of the national conference on Aboriginal Reconciliation which was held in Melbourne in the last week. That conference was part of the long term work of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. This week has been designated a week of prayer for reconciliation.

The Uniting Church has been deeply involved in the process of reconciliation apart from the personal contribution of Sir Ronald Wilson and the long history of missionary work in the past. The Rev Dr John Brown, former head of the Assembly Commission for Mission who negotiated the covenant adopted at the last Assembly, has spent the years since as a special officer of the Assembly working exclusively on this matter. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, which is a branch of our Church with its headquarters in Townsville, is one of the principal organisations at work among aboriginal people both nationally and in the Northern regions of Australia. About half our ordained ministers in the North of Australia are aboriginal. The Wik people on Cape York Peninsula who brought the case to the High Court are mostly members of the Uniting Church, and when they meet they sing hymns and offer prayers.

Synod representatives who attended the Melbourne conference told the Standing Committee what a profound affect it had on them and how they were moved to tears many times as those affected by past injustices told their stories, and they how much they felt the proceedings had been influenced by Christian thought and tradition. This has occurred against a background of conflict in recent weeks between various groups as some political notoriety is gained by a people forming a new party with policies opposed to immigration and any special provisions being made for advancement of aboriginal people, about which concern was expressed in the pastoral letter from heads of churches in the National Council of Churches which was distributed last Sunday. [That reference to a political party which was called 'racist' now in 2000 is largely irrelevant because the 'One Nation' party has suffered serious defeats and has practically been wiped out.] These are momentous times in race relations in this country. How we come out of it will have profound effects in the history of Australia.

The Christian imperative to seek reconciliation

Do I need to spell out the Christian content of these concerns, or the Biblical basis for the need to seek reconciliation? We have heard many times how Jesus taught people to act as neighbours or brothers and sisters to those who were different in race or nationality, and how the early Christians learned to recognize that there could be no such distinctions, neither Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28), among the members of the body of Christ. So today I will not give the Biblical basis of my message in detail as I commonly do, except in this, to remind you of two things now and one later:-

1. the high priority that Jesus gave to reconciliation with anyone who has a grievance against you, so high that it may even take precedence over the worship of God:

2. And we have been given a ministry of reconciliation in which there is a healing of relationships with God and between people:

In this last point it is important to see that through Christ we are reconciled with God. It is on the basis of peace with God, that we become ambassadors for Christ and his agents for peace and reconciliation in the world. Let me then turn to the present political and social questions about racial conflict in this country, with that ministry and that priority in mind.

Who is responsible?

The most fundamental question is whether you feel the need to be reconciled. It is one thing to say let us do all we can to overcome disadvantages of people who are less well off than we are, and to recognize that aboriginal people still suffer greatly from poverty and poor health; but it is a different matter to acknowledge that they have something against you. Most of us would not have been in situations where we could have done anything to cause or to increase their difficulties through our own deliberate action. Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about being reconciled to your brother or sister "if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you". Do you feel they have anything against you?

Here we come to all the difficult questions about guilt, which the Prime Minister is not prepared to acknowledge and which he knows that most people will not accept. Amongst those of a certain outlook we hear disparaging references to "the guilt industry", in which it is claimed that financial advantages are being sought by promoting a sense of guilt amongst gullible well meaning but soft-headed people who are easily conned. In regard to a sense of guilt, it is important to take notice of what our Church representatives have told us of the attitude of the aboriginal representatives at the national reconciliation conference where they denied any wish to make non-aboriginal people in Australia today feel guilty for actions done by others in the past; and you might have noticed that Sir Ronald Wilson said that the word "guilt" is not used in his report. There is no need for that sort of talk, but I would certainly agree that there is a cult of the victim in what Robert Hughes has written of in his book The Culture of Complaint. People at opposite extremes do play political games with such feelings.

Edgar French, a Uniting Church lay preacher and a former university colleague of mine, has written a well argued booklet entitled The Nation's Guilt: An Australian Psychosis, in which he condemns much of the loose talk and manipulation in contemporary politics and church affairs. He makes a useful distinction between moral guilt and empathic guilt. You can identify with people in their distress and share a sense of responsibility for it without accepting guilt in the individual moral sense. I do not wish to get too sophisticated about that, but it is an important distinction. We need to think clearly about emotionally charged concerns in race relations. Martin Luther King had a fitting phrase for it, which I might have quoted to you before: we need a tough mind and a tender heart.

The fact that some people can be manipulative and even make fraudulent claims, does not mean that there is no reason for us to accept any responsibility as a society for what has happened in the past. At one level it is a fairly simple idea to see that if we are prepared to take pride in what our ancestors did, or what our country has achieved in previous generations, then we should be prepared to feel something of the shame that comes from shameful actions. You can hardly justify claiming a share in the good things if you are not prepared to share responsibility for the bad things they did as well, can you? There is a way out: perhaps you would not wish to take any pride in what your nation or your family has accomplished, but I doubt it. It is quite true that nationalism is a disease in our global interdependent society and we can modify our patriotic enthusiasm knowing its danger. As Samuel Johnson put it a couple of centuries ago, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". But, however much we might say we see the dangers, we do swell with pride a little when we hear of some outstanding achievement by people of our own nation, and there would be few in any nation who would not take some pride in their family: indeed it is interesting how much effort people these days will be put into tracing family histories. Our identities do depend to some extent on the history of our people, whoever it is that we regard as our people. We are not individuals alone in the world or in the present day without any roots. If you claim the heritage, which most people do, you have some obligation to ask about shared responsibility.

The Biblical tradition about shared guilt

Before I make too much this sense of belonging, we should pick up one more theme from the Bible. You remember the saying about the guilt of the fathers being visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation. Perhaps it is remembered well because it is in the ten commandments, where punishment is threatened to those who worship idols:

But I wonder why we do not remember the great contrast with the love shown to the thousandth generation of those who love me. However that may be, there is an ancient and common depth to the sense of solidarity and joint responsibility in which the consequences of guilt are shared by the members of a group. Do we not know how it is to feel something for and with a family member who has done something shameful? And there is no doubt that the affects of wrong doing can extend through others for a long time. It is like John Donne's word on grief:

Still, there is another saying in the Bible: the prophet Ezekiel had a word concerning personal responsibility that is perhaps a little more like our modern regard for the individual person, and it seems to be closer to the New Testament understanding:

As for relying upon the blessings of previous generations for one's own security in our relationship with God, John the Baptist had a word about that:

Group or individual credit and responsibility is a vexed question, but much that needs to be faced does not depend upon you as an individual admitting guilt for what others did. We might prefer to emphasise the rights and responsibilities of the individual person, but we cannot escape our membership in a body of people either. Certainly you cannot claim the credit or the benefits of membership without accepting also the responsibility of the body as a whole. As far as aboriginal land is concerned, we might not as individuals have killed anyone or driven them off their land, but we who have any stake in the Australian economy have gained benefits from their dispossession even if it occurred 150 years ago. This leads me to the conclusion that if the resources of this continent were unfairly transferred from one group of people to another, and if they are not distributed today in a manner that is fair and equitable because of differences of race then there is a wrong to be put right: responsibility of one group to another should be acknowledged and appropriate reparations made. We should acknowledge that much has already been done by the Commonwealth over the past twenty years in the restoration of land to aboriginal people, but the question of national responsibility remains with us as a central issue in seeking reconciliation. I have been talking here about the land question rather than the breaking up of families, but in that respect also we can accept responsibility and take action without individual moral guilt.

A personal illustration

It is not easy for a society to accept such responsibility. Let me illustrate the subtlety with which we are inclined to deceive and justify ourselves by reference to my own experience in researching my family history in the early days of Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was then. My family today is well respected and it included some political leaders in Tasmania, but we discovered in recent years that we came from convict origins which had been covered up by intervening generations. Some of our ancestors were there when true genocide occurred in the destruction of the Tasmanian aboriginal race. There has always been a deep dark sense of tragedy over the Tasmanian memory at the loss of what the nineteenth century citizens of Tasmania used to name romantically, "the children of the mist", as a poem from the West Coast of Tasmania by an unknown author "JS":


Through the valleys, softly creeping
'Mid the tree-tops, tempest-tossed,
See the cloud-forms seeking, peeping
For the loved ones that are lost.
Not for storm or sunshine resting,
Will they slacken or desist,
Or grow weary in their questing
For the Children of the Mist.

Where are now those children hiding?
Surely they will soon return,
In the gorge again abiding
'Mid the myrtle and the fern.
Ah! the dusky forms departed
Never more will keep their tryst,
And the clouds, alone, sad-hearted,
Mourn the Children of the Mist.

E'en the wild bush-creatures, scattered,
Ere they die renew their race,
And the pine, by levin shattered,
Leaves an heir to take its place.
Though each forest thing, forth stealing,
Year by year the clouds have kissed,
Vainly are those white arms feeling
For the Children of the Mist.

Dead the race, beyond awaking,
Ere its task was well begun;
Human hearts that throbbed to breaking
Are but dust beneath the sun.
Past all dreams of vengeance-wreaking,
Blown where'er the tempests list.
But the cloud-forms still are seeking
For the Children of the Mist.

[From In Tasman's Land: Gleams and Dreams of the Great North West by 'J.S.' Published for the Emu Bay Railway Company about 1900.]

Not that they have gone altogether. There are probably about as many people living in Tasmania now who call themselves aboriginal as there were living there at the time of the first settlement in 1803. Many of them, including some I know personally, are descendants of the mixed race community on the islands of Bass Strait which was formed by sealers and their women who were kidnapped, mainly from the North Eastern tribe which occupied the land in the region where I grew up.

Knowing the tragedy and injustice of what happened in the early settlements, and its climax in the "Back Wars" of the 1820s and the disastrous plan put into effect in the early 1830s to protect the remainder of the native population by removing them to an island in Bass Strait, I used to take comfort in the idea that our family could not have been involved because I thought they arrived later. We had been told that the original Thomas Beswick had been sent out by his family and the dates for the birth in their children in his wife's Bible, which I still have, only show them living there from the mid eighteen-thirties. So I was able to say to myself, they came after the damage was done; but I know now that was not factual.

When we discovered how my great great grandfather young Thomas Beswick was transported in 1823 for burglary, I still thought he was not likely to have been involved in the strife on the frontier because it seemed that he had spent his time in and around Launceston. You might wonder why I bothered making these excuses in my mind: after all, I was not responsible for anything my great great grandfather might have done in the bush so long ago, was I? Yet you see we do make excuses for our own people. Apparently, we feel in some way involved. Anyway, I found out that not only had his wife, the daughter of a convict woman and a soldier in Sydney, been resident in the area a little south of Launceston where her father had settled as early as 1816 but, more significantly, Thomas had been assigned as a convict servant to a land holder named Cottrell on a tributary of the South Esk flowing from the slopes of Ben Lomond, which was one of the districts where there was much fighting and loss of life.

Twenty white settlers were killed there within a few miles of where he lived, usually when their isolated huts in the bush were raided by natives seeking revenge, and there is documentary evidence of 31 members of the Ben Lomond tribe or band being shot. In fact he arrived there in 1824 just when the war began in earnest and stayed throughout. Not that he had any choice in that until he was set free on a ticket of leave after the war was over. You see though that I was surprised to discover that an ancestor or mine was involved in any way when I preferred to distance myself from those terrible events. But I could not escape so easily: I even found an account of one raid on Cottrell's establishment in December 1827, at a very humble house in the bush which the land commissioners, who happened to visit the place a few days later, described as "the miserable hovel where the raid took place". One of Cottrell's men was wounded. I have not found out whether it was young Thomas or someone else, but presumably he was there if not on that occasion then on others, for Cottrell is recorded as having been raided several times. He even led a contingent in the famous Black Line which could well have included Thomas.

We know a quite a lot about Cottrell [see an article on Cottrell in the family history section of this web site.] He took part in the capture of the last aboriginal people at large in the North East, helped capture the man-eating bushranger Jefferies, worked for a time with Robinson, the "conciliator", on the West Coast, and was described by visiting Quakers as a man motivated by a genuine concern for the welfare of the natives. He was a friend of John Batman, before and after he chose "the spot for a village" [ie. the foundation of Melbourne] on the Yarra; indeed it is consistent with what we know of his character that he offered to look after the education of Batman's children when "the founder of Melbourne" died in poverty. There is a hill named Mount Cottrell after him where a new suburb is now developing on the outer Western fringes of the metropolitan area, south of Sunbury. So life is complicated; people are complex, and it hard to classify them as simply good or bad, and certainly not according to whose side you think they are on; such complexity is at the heart of tragedy, and I have very no sympathy with zealots who try to put people in moral boxes according to their own political agenda. You can see in any case that young Thomas, who got there because he threw a brick through the window of a watchmakers shop in London, was in a highly ambiguous situation in which there were well meaning people who contributed to what has sometimes been described as the world's only successful case of genocide.

How we avoid the reality

There is another bit of rationalization which I caught myself at. You might say, well there were a few baddies on the frontier of settlement or bushrangers who committed awful crimes, but most would have had better attitudes. But Robinson wrote to his wife in 1830:

The white population in general had been aroused by the conflict to what Robinson saw clearly to be unjust and unchristian hostility. No doubt people in the bush were genuinely afraid. The land commissioners testified that,

Such had not been the general attitude at the beginning, but hostility developed as settlement expanded so as to conflict seriously with the livelihood of the natives. Governor Arthur wrote home to the Colonial Office in 1828:

Yet that is what happened as deliberate government policy. Just as the expansion of settlement was government policy, so was their removal to a distant place. As you will probably know, Robinson was later commissioned to bring in the remaining 'wild natives', as they were called, by peaceful persuasion, and no doubt he meant well just as people in this century thought they were acting in the best interests of the people concerned when they removed children from their families; but Robinson and the government made the tragic error of removing them from the land they knew and treating them as captives.

We have heard a good deal about attachment to the land and the spiritual nature of this attachment, and it is sometimes doubted whether it can be true when they say that if their spiritual bond with the land is disturbed they will die. That is not our kind of religion, and we may think it is only special pleading to gain some kind of economic advantage, and I suppose that is sometimes the case; but quite clearly in the Tasmanian experience they did die, as they sat outside the false English village houses they had been given on Flinders Island and wept as they looked at the blue hills of their homeland across the sea. Professor Stanner, who spent many years studying aboriginal culture, says

The Rev Djiniyini Gondarra, a leading Uniting Church aboriginal minister from the North, and former Chairperson of the Congress put it this way:

One final rationalization needs to be put to rest. I might at one time have taken some comfort in the thought that, while they may have had a primitive spiritual attachment to the land, they had no conception of law and civil rights as we know them, so it might be argued that we should not try to accommodate them in our system of rights and law, or at least not accept any historical justification which assumes our kind of rights in the land. Not that the conclusion follows in any case, but the assumption about how much they understood what was happening to them is also false. Gilbert Robertson (not to be confuse with G A Robinson) had no doubt that the Tasmanian aboriginal people were fighting for their country and knew their rights in it. He referred in 1829 to those who were seen as martyrs of their country ... having ideas of their natural rights which would astonish most of our European statesmen. Yet it was the same Robertson who suggested to Governor Arthur that the aborigines could be rounded up by a conciliator and moved to an island in Bass Strait, where an establishment could be formed to educate the children. So it continued. It has taken an awfully long time for European settlers, even with the best of intentions to realize the damage they can do when they think they know what is best for a different people.

I have dealt with the issues in terms of what I know of Tasmania in very early times. Similar things happened in Victoria as land passed into the control of Europeans a little later around 1840, and the story could be repeated at later stages of settlement elsewhere although there was not the same complete wiping out of a people anywhere else.

The question remains, do you as a member of this society, far removed though we may be from those tragic times, or from more recent development in which we had no personal part, feel that you should share some responsibility for the effects of that great conflict, effects which are still with us today? Do you feel a need for reconciliation?

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