“Do churches have any responsibilities in these matters? Yes, because the land and wealth of churches came from land stolen from the indigenous people of Australia. The prosperity of our churches has come from the proceeds of crime.”
– Dr. Peter Adam
Something is happening in the church in Australia.
My last post reported on the Uniting Church amending the preamble to its constitution to acknowledge that God was in this country before the missionaries arrived. “Uniting Church acknowledges Aboriginality in Constitution”
This post is reporting on the Baptist Union of New South Wales Social Issues Committee’s annual “John Saunders Lecture”. This year the lecture was presented by Dr. Peter Adam, an evangelical Anglican minister and principle of the Ridley Theological College in Melbourne.
The title of Dr. Adam’s lecture was “Australia – whose land?” and it is a scholarly biblical exploration of the history of this country and the implications for the church.
Here is the lecture – “Australia – whose land”
The following is some excerpts from the lecture that were published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
I encourage you to read the full lecture as it is much more comprehensive than the following and looks at implications for the church including modes of mission and action.
“Pay up or leave: our duty to the Aboriginal people”
August 12, 2009
Australia is a particularly clear example of the continuity of indigenous ownership and possession of the land. While European nations returned African land to indigenous ownership, that has not happened in Australia, New Zealand the United States or Canada. The British left India, the Dutch left Indonesia. Why has it not happened here?
The practical answer is that the indigenous Indians, Africans and Indonesians were clearly in the majority, whereas in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, they are not. However, that is to say that genocide is to be rewarded. It would in fact be possible, even if very difficult and complicated for Europeans and others to leave Australia. I am not sure where we would go, but that would be our problem.
God’s commandments are clear: ”You shall not murder … you shall not steal … you shall not covet.” But we Europeans coveted space for a penal colony, new land, new opportunities and great wealth. We coveted, and so we stole, and so we murdered.
It is right to say sorry. For they were serious crimes and sins. They included the theft of land, which was not only the theft of livelihood, but also the theft of home, identity, and religion. They included murder and manslaughter, the destruction of social structures and culture, the breaking up of families, the desecration of the dead, and genocide, with no legitimate justification.
But are we responsible for the sins of others? As far as I know, none of my ancestors killed any indigenous people. But we have benefited from death and dispossession, and have grown wealthy from the poverty of others. If I discovered my grandfather had killed a man and plundered his property, I think I would try to find any descendants of the murdered man and at least say sorry. For I would have benefited from that crime.
But what of the defence that many Europeans did not intend to do evil? Unintended evil can still have grave consequences. If, by accident, I kill a person while driving my car, I have to face the reality of what has happened. In that situation, I would still think it right to go to the family of the person I killed to say sorry.
Do churches have any responsibilities in these matters? Yes, because the land and wealth of churches came from land stolen from the indigenous people of Australia. The prosperity of our churches has come from the proceeds of crime.
Saying sorry is the least we should do.
Others coveted, stole and killed, and we still benefit from their actions. Even if we did not do the original actions, many of us complied with the policy of assimilation, which, even if well-intentioned, was so destructive to the social structures of indigenous communities, as well as causing immense personal suffering. If I have hurt someone, it is not enough to be sorry, not even enough to repent. I must also recompense the person, or else my repentance is shown to be a sham. The idea of recompense is not popular today, but it is essential.
We European Australians often claim that one of the strengths of the Australian character is caring for the underdog. That claim is rank and blatant hypocrisy. We do not act with justice, let alone care.
What might recompense require of us who arrived since 1788?
We would recognise that recompense is based on our duty, not the needs of indigenous people, and that no recompense could ever be satisfactory because what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating, and so irreparable.
We would ask the indigenous people if they wanted those of us who have arrived since 1788 to leave, or to provide an equivalent recompense. Leaving would be a drastic and complicated action, but it has happened in India, Africa, and Indonesia in the past 60 years.
If we do not leave, then we would need to ask each of the indigenous peoples of this land what kind of recompense would be appropriate for them. This would be an extremely complicated and extensive task, but must be done.
We would need to be prepared to give costly recompense, lest it trivialise what has happened. We would then need to adopt a national recompense policy, in the form of a treaty, implemented locally, according to the wishes of each indigenous tribe.
We could also implement voluntary recompense by churches in a coordinated way. Christian churches should lead the way in this, for churches, too, have benefited from the land they use, and from income from those who have usurped the land.
It would be difficult to agree to do this, complicated to negotiate, and costly and demanding to deliver.
The idea of recompense is not alien to our society. James Hardie had to recompense workers harmed by asbestos. There is widespread feeling this was right. If this recompense is right, then it is also right to offer recompense to the indigenous people of Australia.
We have wronged our neighbours. It is now time to pay our debts, to confess our sins, to give the recompense that we owe.
Peter Adam is principal of Ridley College, an Anglican theological college in Victoria. This is an edited extract from a lecture delivered on Monday.