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Australia: The movement for reconciliation in the Uniting Church -- lessons for revolutionary struggle

“Never let us be blind to developments within the masses as we were to the rise of Liberation Theology.” – Barry Healy, “Who’s Afraid of Liberation Theology”, Marxism Summer School 2005

“Christ who suffered on the cross continues to suffer with the land and the people of the land. In the suffering of the land and the people of the land, we see Christ suffering and we hear Christ crying out.” Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology, p. 79, as quoted by Chris Budden in Following Jesus in Invaded Space, p. 70

By Karl Hand

January 18, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- For at least a quarter of a century, a movement within the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) has been engaging in a process of reconciliation with Australian Aboriginal and Islander peoples. 2009 and 2010 were historic years in this momentous course of action, with milestones such as the publication by Chris Budden of Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land,[1] a post-colonial Australian theology, and an amendment of the UCA constitution recognising Aboriginal sovereignty that has been hailed as “revolutionary” by Christian Today,[2] and which Budden describes as being the outworking of a deeply spiritual desire for justice in UCA members.

Leaders of the various movements and political organisations agitating for a socialist revolution in Australia need to pay attention. Revolutionary struggle belongs to the working people of the world, and they define its meaning through their own cultural, linguistic and spiritual frameworks. The excesses of the so-called “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s in China, with its failed and barbaric attempts to destroy traditional Chinese historical sites and artifacts, “anti-socialist” forms of traditional art, schools of traditional languages and institutions of religion (such as Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) should alert us to the importance of this principle.

The Cultural Revolution is an extreme example, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, during the same period, liberation theology was beginning to emerge in Latin America as a school of revolutionary thought. Catholic priests and theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino began a process of dialogue between Christian and Marxist thought, and did so contextually, reflecting on the context of the Spanish invasion and genocide of Indigenous cultures, as well as the heritage of the Bolivarian and Cuban revolutions. Gutiérrez reinterpreted the Christian story, from the location of an insider, and doing so provided a language which is now an effective tool for Latin American revolutionaries in the struggle.

The contrasting histories of China and Latin America serve as examples of what can happen if revolutionary socialism works contextually within the framework of popular religious and spiritual discourses to capture the hearts and minds of people. Hugo Chavez, for instance, identifying as Christian in a culture that is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, speaks of Jesus Christ as a revolutionary:

One of the greatest rebels, who I really admire: Christ. He was a rebel. He ended up being crucified. He was a great rebel. He rebelled against the established power that subjugated. [3]

I propose that the revolutionary process in Australia must also work contextually in order to thrive, or it will not work. Our founding narratives as a people are extremely diverse and include for instance traditional Aboriginal and Islander, Christian and humanist motifs. The revolutionary process will therefore involve engaging with discourses such as reconciliation on a theological level, and becoming involved in the movements in practical ways. This is taking place in the UCA, which functions uniquely in Australia as a crucible for progressive Christian and Indigenous people to work together.
In this paper, I firstly summarise Budden’s Following Jesus from a revolutionary Marxist perspective, with particular attention to how he describes the practical way forward. I then give an outline of how this “way forward” is being practiced now in Australia in the context of the UCA. Finally, I make some proposals about the implications for revolutionary struggle in Australia.

Following Jesus in Invaded Space: the contribution of Chris Budden

Chris Budden is the minister of the Uniting Church in Newcastle, and is also an associate researcher in the area of public and contextual theology at Charles Sturt University. His work, Following Jesus in Invaded Space, has the potential to do for Australia what the foundational text of liberation theology: A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation[4] by Indigenous Peruvian theologian and Domincan priest Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. did for the Latin American revolution.

However, writing some four decades after the Gutiérrez, Budden’s work cannot simply be understood by reference to liberation theology, which had a specific reference to the economic exploitation and Jesus’ concern for the poor. Budden, by contrast, pays attention to social and international angles as well as the economic one, and broadens his theoretical base by interacting with postcolonial theory. By doing so, he is able to tackle issues such as imperialism, cultural colonisation and racism head-on, and not merely as side effects of economic realities, as an overly simplistic or reductionist liberation theologian might be tempted to do. He identifies the cultural colonisation of Indigenous Australian people as being one in which Western socially constructed reality was imposed upon the Indigenous culture, and was then used to justify their exploitation.

In Australia, this meant locating a people considered (wrongly) to be uncivilized, primitive, pagan, and without rights on the edges of a community that saw itself as the pinnacle of civilized life – white, British, Christian, enlightened and scientifically sophisticated. To enforce this new set of social relationships involved denial of land and sovereignty, violence, imprisonment, slave-like work, herding people onto missions, and continually changing social policies (assimilation, integration, self-determination) that involved stolen children and denial of separate identity. It was a situation underpinned by racism and paternalism.[5]

This identification of reality as socially constructed could be thought of as a post-modern approach to theology, rather than a specifically Marxist one, such as that of Gutiérrez. Budden, however, does not explicitly categorise his work as post-colonial, post-modern or as liberation theology. He identifies it as contextual and cross-cultural. More specifically, it is a “second-peoples’ theology”. He also seems to consciously avoid the individualising and idealist tendencies of post-structural thought, admitting that “any ongoing conversation needs to be more aware of the way ideas serve social interests and are shaped by them.”[6]

Writing from the perspective of a fifth-generation white Australian male, Following Jesus does not use the term “white” theology, because in a culture where black people are so invisible, “white” people do not tend to shape their identity around race. He also prefers not to speak of “settler” theology, because white people did not enter this land peacefully. Rather, he adopts the terminology of “second people” from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC, an Indigenous community within the UCA), who refer to Indigenous people as “first peoples”.[7]

The question which Budden addresses is how to do theology, specifically, how to speak of providence, justice, forgiveness, the church and the location of God in our society, given the fact that the second peoples are living in an invaded space, but it is impossible now to undo what has been done. Budden tackles these issues in Chapter 4 of Following Jesus. There he talks about how it is possible to find a way forward in such a situation.

He paints a picture of a God who was always known by Indigenous people of Australia because of their spiritual connection to the land, as well as traditions, laws and ceremony – and who is now present still specifically among Indigenous people because the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus shows that God is to be found among the marginalised in any society. The post-enlightenment, “scientific” worldview of the invaders enabled an understanding of colonisation as a minor and unfortunate necessity in the expansion of British culture and human progress, but God’s location among the marginalised does not allow us to absolve ourselves so easily. The church is complicit in this wrongdoing, and a process of reconciliation, and redistributive justice is necessary as a precondition of true repentance.[8]

Of particular interest to the topic at hand are Budden’s suggestions about the way forward, how the process of reconciliation will work. He suggests that three movements would enable the creation of more just and inclusive relationships between first and second peoples, namely: reconciliation, covenant and treaty:[9]

Reconciliation

Budden defines reconciliation as the healing of broken relationships, and puts forward Reconciliation Australia as an exemplary non-government organisation campaigning on this issue. This movement seeks the recognition of Indigenous people as the first people and their full participation in Australian society, an end to racism, the apology for the stolen generations and constitutional recognition of first people.

Covenant

A covenant is an agreement in a church context, which expresses the parameters of the relationship between the parties of the covenant. The UAICC, for instance, has a covenant with the UCA giving it oversight of ministry, resources and decision making with regards to ministry to Indigenous people.

Treaty

Budden outlines the history of the demand for a treaty by Indigenous people in the 1970s, on the basis of Australia’s denial of their sovereignty and of their right to administer their own land and law, and the continued response by the Australian government and courts that Australia was settled peacefully, and that Indigenous people were therefore British subjects.

The practice of reconciliation in the UCA

1985: Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress

The UAICC is a self-governing body of Aboriginal and Islander Christians within the UCA. Its origins, according to the UAICC website, are in the Galiwin'ku settlement on Elcho Island. It was here that, in 1979, Aboriginal people began to discover a Christian faith independently of missionary intervention. At the same time, in North Queensland, Aboriginal activist Charles Harris was agitating for Aboriginal control of affairs relating Aboriginal theology and church governance. In August 1983, a national conference was held in Galiwin'ku and the conference adopted the name Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. In 1985, the UAICC was recognised by the UCA. It now has regional branches in every state in Australia, committed to a vision of reconciliation, unity between first and second peoples, and the spiritual, economic, social and cultural independence of Aboriginal people.

1994: Covenant

In 1988, UAICC requested a covenant with the UCA, and the UCA responded affirmatively in 1994. The covenant was a commitment to developing more just, inclusive and equal relationships in the church that recognise the fFirst peoples, the history of colonisation and the independence of the UAICC.

2010: Constitutional reform

At 12th triennial assembly of the UCA, which took place July 15-21, 2009, the Uniting Church amended the preamble to its constitution, becoming the first Australian church to officially recognise Indigenous people as the “first people” of Australia. 2010 was the year in which each individual synod (regional council) of the Uniting Church voted to ratify the constitutional change, a process which has been controversial, but ultimately successful.

Among the more controversial statements in the new preamble, the second clause recognises the first people as the traditional owners and custodians of the land from time immemorial, and specifically defines this as a reference to national sovereignty, the third clause of the constitution states that that the first people already knew God before being colonised by the second people, that Aboriginal law, custom and ceremony were inspired by the same God that the second people knew through Jesus, and the fifth clause mentions that second people members of the Uniting Churches have been complicit in injustices perpetrated against the first people, resulting in dispossession of land, language, culture and spirituality.[10]

The process of ratification during 2010 was hard. The democratic processes of the UCA meant that in rural Australia, where racial tensions exist between the first and second peoples, the debate was heated on the floor of the synods. It was a stressful time for my friends, who are leaders in the UCA, and who had to stand up to the face of grassroots dogmatism, traditionalism, fear about the future and sometimes even covert racism in various Synods. UCA president Reverend Alister Macrae has said that the process

has at times been a difficult journey, but it’s always been rewarding. Through this process we’ve grown together, learned to listen better to each other, worked harder at reconciliation and we have gained renewed respect for each other. We hope for the same enriching journey for our country.[11]

But if the people of Australia are to reach their full potential, then the difficult conversations cannot be avoided. Racism, symptomatic of our unjust system, of capitalism and imperialism, will not simply evaporate. When Bertolt Brecht spoke of justice using the metaphor of bread baked “By the people. Plentiful, wholesome, daily”, he evoked the image of a product which requires the grinding of grain, the kneading of dough, as well as the firing of the lump in the heat of an oven – and this baking is a task already taking place in the UCA. Liberation and post-colonial theologies are revolutionary tools that will make the process achievable, and even Eucharistic.

Conclusion

This has not been a paper about the truth or falsehood of Christian theological appropriations of Marxism, and I do not intend to make any claims about that. What I mean to present here is a “reality check” for some of our more romantic pictures of what “revolution” should looks like, which themselves are too often based on romantic retellings of past revolutions, French, Bolshevik, Cuban or otherwise. While the significance of these historic moments should never be underestimated, we should not expect a mirror image of these events to materialise when Australia comes of age. Our attention must be fixed firmly on the people in our own society, and the ways in which they are inspired to class-consciousness.

But one significant feature of the history and radical theory I have outlined above is the absence of a visible socialist presence in the movement. The theory mirrors the practice in this regard: it has taken up some of the key themes of liberation theology, and framed them in the concepts of a left-wing, post-structuralist theory, which has sometimes been prone to the mistake of trying to change social realities by talking about them differently – and fittingly, some of the key achievements of the movement have been changes of language (new terminology, covenants, preambles etc.) rather than economic reality. The movement needs a good dose of historical materialism to guide it back to the overwhelmingly materialist radical practices of Jesus: eating with the poor, healing the sick, restoring the outcast. The maxim holds “united we stand, divided we fall”. The way forward for the Christian spiritual practice of reconciliation and the revolutionary struggle for socialism is only together.

[Karl Hand is a member of Socialist Alliance in Sydney, and an ordained minister in Metropolitan Community Church. He is the pastor of CRAVE MCC, in Paddington, and is currently doing doctoral research in the school of theology, Charles Sturt University.]

Notes

[1] Princeton Theological Monograph Series 116; Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications: 2009.

[2] Derick Ho, “Uniting Church: ‘Aboriginals are the first people of Australia’”, Christian Today Australia, July 29, 2009, http://au.christiantoday.com/article/uniting-church-aboriginals-are-the-first-people-of-australia/6763.htm.

[3] Hugo Chávez, "Transcript: Hugo Chávez Interview", Nightline, 2005, http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/International/story?id=1134098&page=1, retrieved 21 January 2006.

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Teología de la liberación-perspectivas, Lima: Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1971.

[5] Budden, p. 19.

[6] Ibid., p. 168.

[7] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[8] Ibid., pp. 91-109.

[9] Ibid., pp. 154-57.

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