Reconciliation: a spiritual journey

Reconciliation can be a spiritual journey, which includes repentance and a change in behaviour.

The Diocese of Melbourne has launched its Reconciliation Action Plan.

By Marjorie Houston

September 15 2015I found the recent launch by the Archbishop of the Diocesan Reconciliation Action Plan an inspiring occasion. Produced by a Working Party experienced in Aboriginal ministry and committed to reconciliation as an essential aspect of being Christian, the Plan is part of a program initiated by Reconciliation Australia in 2006. All community organisations are being encouraged to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) for promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the wider society.

Since the evening in the Cathedral I have been reflecting on the distinguishing marks of a Christian RAP, where reconciliation with others flows from a renewed relationship with God. It could be seen in fact as a spiritual journey with recognisable stages along the way.

The first stage must be a revisiting of our history. The arrival of European settlers in 1788 led directly to consequences for Aboriginal people that still exist. There was appropriation of land, dispossession of the traditional owners, massacres, forcible removal to reserves, disrespect of language and culture, stolen children, unbridled racism, all undergirded by the doctrine of terra nullius and a belief in the subhuman nature of “the natives”. Is this a black armband view of our history? Absolutely! But if we are to change the current situation in any meaningful way, acceptance of this historical reality is essential.

From this acceptance must flow acknowledgement of the consequences of these historical events. For a people so spiritually connected to the land they had lived on for millennia, its loss, with the ensuing loss of culture and language, had terrible outcomes. It entails a major cultural leap on our part to comprehend such an identification with “country” as it is not part of our western spiritual heritage. The loss of traditional lands deeply afflicted the Aboriginal psyche and contributed to their physical decline, leaving them rootless and drifting in an alien culture indifferent to their needs. It led to the significant current gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in health, life expectancy, education, access to employment, to name just a few, exposing our nation to censure from the United Nations. In recent years understanding even a fraction of this suffering has led to feelings of regret (not necessarily guilt) that the misguided actions of our forebears caused such degradation of a people-group made in the image of God.

At this point many Christians may say: “I am truly sorry that so many awful things happened to your people in the past, and that there are still ongoing distressing repercussions. But it’s not my fault. I did nothing wrong. I would make it up to you if I could, but I can’t.”

But living in Melbourne today, we are certainly benefiting from the theft of the land. We may not have committed the crimes of the past but we are profiting from them daily. The wealth of our nation is based on use of land not offered by the traditional owners, nor paid for, even by a pittance. Every time we say (as in The Secret River) “This is my land now”, we are living a lie. As we recognise this, the regret should lead to repentance, echoing the words of the prodigal son, “I have sinned against God and against you. Forgive us for all the land grabbed, all the murders and massacres, all the children stolen, all the deaths in custody, all the disrespect and abuse — everything in fact derived from the conviction that we were made in the image of God and you were not!”

What follows repentance when Christians recognise that we have wronged another? Are we not expected to change our behaviour? “Let him that stole, steal no more” (Eph.4: 28). Do we not also consider some form of compensation, if possible? Zacchaeus told Jesus, “Listen, I will give half my belongings to the poor and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times as much”. What a challenge for us in the Diocese of Melbourne, in our beautiful parish churches and comfortable suburban homes! Preaching at the launch of the RAP Rev’d Glenn Loughrey said, “Our [Aboriginal] people are suffering from the cumulative effect of internalised oppression, giving rise to the situation we see in front of us. Let us put right what our colonial ancestors made wrong by holding out our hands in reconciliation and working together. Here’s my hand.....”

What is in our hand?

Perhaps in humility, with heart searching and prayer, we might find an Aboriginal person and make our own symbolic apology. We could “pay some rent” by calculating an amount (large or small) to pay monthly to an Aboriginal ministry/initiative, or support Reconciliation Victoria. We could try to find out what Aboriginal people themselves want from us. More humility? An apology for taking the land? A Constitutional Amendment? A proper treaty?

Let us get in touch with our godly imagination, both as individuals and in our parishes.