“Rainbow Spirit Theology” – a review (more of a reflection really).

“Rainbow Spirit Theology”

(Cover art by Jasmine Corowa. The art is explained in the book)

Author – Rainbow Spirit Elders
Publisher – ATF Press
Rainbow Spirit Theology
ISBN – 9781920691806

“Rainbow Spirit Theology assumes that God the Creator Spirit has been speaking through Aboriginal culture from the beginning.”(p.11)

All Australian Christians should read “Rainbow Spirit Theology”. It is a small and cheap book, there is no excuse!

This is not a new book, it was first published in 1997. It is based on workshops in 1994 involving a number of Aboriginal Christians in Cape York. It is not a definitive manifesto and claims only to attempt to get the conversation going, which it surely must for anyone who reads it. It is fascinating.

The book and the notion of a Rainbow Spirit Theology are very relevant to the Australian church, at least to the Uniting Church (of Australia) whose presbyteries and synods are presently discussing proposed changes to the Church’s constitution. These changes include acknowledging the existence of God in this country before the arrival of the missionaries and the legitimacy of Aboriginal people’s experience of God in pre-colonial times.

The cover notes of Rainbow Spirit Theology claims the book “represents a landmark in Australian theology”. I support this claim. The book, or rather the idea of Rainbow Spirit Theology is indeed a landmark in that the perspective of Aboriginal Christians has been presented clearly, publicly and with some authority, perhaps for the first time (1994/7). I know that many of the issues raised in the book have been discussed by Aboriginal Christians for a long time. However these discussions have mainly been private conversations because they mark a departure from traditional Roman Christianity and therefore have been perceived as heresy by many in the church, including some Aboriginal Christians. This book marks a brave “coming out” of this new theology.

The cover notes also states the book’s aim is “integrating the traditions of Aboriginal culture with the traditions of Christianity”. I have some problems with this. While the book determinedly insists on the validity of Aboriginal spiritual perspective and experience, it also affirms the validity and legitimacy of the Roman Christianity of the non-Aboriginal church. This is where I think Rainbow Spirit Theology is wrong in its assumptions about European Christianity and this wrong-ness has the capacity to continue to undermine Aboriginal spirituality. If European Christianity is set as the standard by which to judge the legitimacy of Aboriginal spirituality, then the tendency will be to describe and defend Aboriginality in terms of the European consciousness, thus corrupting the essence of Aboriginal spirituality.

The attempt to incorporate the creator ancestor spirits into a notion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit seems wrong to me. The book does not directly do this, rather it leaves all the questions open. However this is the obvious assumption and conclusion to draw from Rainbow Spirit theology if there is any attempt to reconcile it with the Christology of the Roman Church.

“Rainbow Spirit Theology” offers a profound challenge to the whole church in regard to our understanding of God and the spirit of creation in the land. Aboriginal consciousness is proposed, not as different to the ancient mythology of the Old Testament but as a parallel manifestation of the very same thing.

However, “Rainbow Spirit Theology” falls down, in my opinion, in its uncritical adoption of Roman orthodoxy as to the nature and purpose of the life and mission of Jesus.

The universal (catholic) Roman concept of Jesus has been simply represented as an Aborigine.

Jesus was indeed an Aborigine, but not of this country or Rome. He was a tribal indigenous Hebrew man in the land of the covenant of his ancestor Abraham, that is the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, The Nile River, The Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. To take Jesus away from his country, as the Roman church has done, is to deny the truth of Jesus’ mission. We must understand Jesus’ country to understand Jesus. We cannot understand Jesus relationship to the Jerusalem temple without understanding that his ancestral father David is buried at Mt. Zion.

The Roman church, as a church of empire, has not been able to acknowledge The Kingdom of God as indigenous sovereignty such as the kingdom of Jesus’ ancestral father David or the institution of Moses’ law or the covenant of Abraham. The imperial church has reduced the kingdom of god to an idea about pie in the sky when we die.

The indigenous tribal Jesus, the one who proclaimed the Jubilee, the son of his ancestors, the liberator in the tradition of Emmanuel, Elijah and his namesake Joshua does not yet seem to have been fully explored by Rainbow Spirit Theology.

The historical problem according to Rainbow Spirit Theology is the cultural blindness of the European missionaries in Australia and their inability to present the Good news of the Roman Jesus in a culturally appropriate way. The conservative evangelical matrix of a personal moral code and a Son of God who died for our personal transgressions of that code seems to have remained intact within Rainbow Spirit Theology.

The parallels between the indigenous Jesus and the struggles for Aboriginal sovereignty in this country are just as obvious as the connections between the Rainbow spirit and Biblical creator God. These parallels are acknowledged in Rainbow Spirit Theology to the extent that they validate the history and experience of Aboriginal oppression but are not fully explored as a basis for the life and mission of Jesus in ancient Israel or modern Australia.

The messiah Jesus came to proclaim the Jubilee – the return of land in Israel to the traditional owners and in so doing redeeming all debt and bondage. This is what Jesus said his mission was. This is Jesus mission in Australia too. The New Testament clearly reinforces this understanding of salvation and redemption but there is nothing of it reflected in the Christology of empire that severs indigenous people’s – and Jesus’ – spiritual connection to land and replaces it with the one size fits all (catholic) Jesus.

The Roman Jesus has nothing to do with the indigenous Jesus. The Roman Jesus is an ideological construction of the very empire that crucified the indigenous Jesus. The Roman Jesus is a mish-mash of features of Hellenic deities instituted as the official religion of empire. This is the Jesus that is written about in the English bible and it seems that this is the Jesus that has been adapted into an Aboriginal framework by Rainbow Spirit Theology. The Roman Jesus has been Aboriginalised but he is still a construction of Roman Christology.

Aboriginal spirituality, culture and history have much more to do with the Jesus of the bible than the Roman Empire and its illusions ever did. The confluence of Ancient Australian and Middle East creation stories is fulfilled by a confluence of Jesus mission to overthrow Roman domination of the holy land and the Aboriginal struggle against colonial domination here and now.

Jesus was a tribal indigenous man. We have much more to learn about the person Jesus and his mission by looking at the bible with the assistance of Aboriginal perspective than we can learn through the Roman Creeds that are central to the modern churches definition of the faith.

Despite my concerns about Rainbow Spirit Theology’s adoption and adaptation of the Roman Jesus, the book clearly and profoundly articulates a genuine and deep spirituality and this is a profound gift to Christians and everyone else in Australia. I believe this Aboriginal spirituality has no need of the Roman Jesus, however mainstream Christianity has a great need for modes of spirituality from outside our tradition and culture such as that presented by Rainbow spirit Theology.

Mainstream churches are collapsing, largely because of the irrelevance of the Roman notion of Jesus to today’s mainstream world. The churches, or at least significant parts of them, are searching for a renewal, which they know, must involve a changing of the basic beliefs of the church. At the same time the internet has opened up to the whole church, including the people in the pews, information about church history and biblical exegesis that was previously locked up in theology departments of academic institutions. The hypocrisy, corruption, violence and dishonesty of the Christian tradition and its distance from biblical principles is now clear for all to see, or at least those who would dare to look.

Non-Aboriginal people cannot simply adopt Aboriginal creation stories or spirituality as our own in the same way that we have appropriated ancient Hebrew stories. By exploring Rainbow Spirit Theology we can get a glimpse of what a different and more authentic spirituality might look like, what a different way of being human might be. What this might mean for the non-Aboriginal church is not yet clear, but Rainbow Spirit theology certainly puts many heavy questions on the table.

John Tracey

See also my essay “Babylon and the Christian Church in Australia”


One response to ““Rainbow Spirit Theology” – a review (more of a reflection really).

  1. “By exploring Rainbow Spirit Theology we can get a glimpse of what a different and more authentic spirituality might look like, what a different way of being human might be.” You are so right John and I would like to add that anyone seriously interested in that should read Bob Randall’s book “Songman – the story of an aboriginal elder” because in that you have the best description of how Aboriginal culture – mind, body, soul and land – are totally integrated with that authentic spirituality. Bob writes that the teachings of Jesus he got from the Croker Island Missionaries were saying the same thing as Aboriginal spirituality in relation to connectedness, caring and kinship, with the emphasis on love and compassion, but the Missionaries behaved towards the Stolen Genleration children in their care brutally and heartlessly! “Songman” needs to be reprinted, although the 2nd hand copy that I have is signed ‘with love, Bob Randall’!

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