Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

The Lamb and The Day of Mourning

This is a completely inadequate sermon, but I think it holds truth.

There were no indigenous people where I lived growing up. My nanna told she thought they had all died out. I found out later that was a lie; they were still there, they are still there, and the deaths didn't just... happen. But already, many people— Nanna included— didn't know they were not telling us kids the truth. They were simply repeating what they had been told. Indigenous people had already been made invisible in my part of the world by the 1950's.  And most of us didn't know people like the local farmer, for example, who showed one of my colleagues, with some pride during the 1990's, the rifle "great-grandpa used for hunting aborigines."

We didn't know about the massacres— even the one down the creek from our farm. And when, up north, I met indigenous folk who had witnessed massacres, and survived them, it was a shock. I didn't realise, even then, that the continent is littered with massacre sites.  I didn't know that the war of resistance against white invasion that had been fought in the Kimberly— I found this in an obscure book on my parent's shelves, but no one seemed to want to talk about it— I didn't know this war  had been fought all over the continent from the earliest days of the invasion. 

I didn't know— we didn't know— that indigenous people built houses, hay stooks, ingeniously engineered weirs and fish traps. We didn't know that entire ecosystems had been destroyed by the introduction of sheep and cattle. In the 60's, as a child, I wondered why things were so different and so much drier than the stories of the grandparents: it was us, and our farming.

We didn't know indigenous people were forbidden to speak their own languages, and now, still, have European school-teachers marking them down in class, and discouraging the indigenous ways of speaking English which indigenous people in many localities have developed to survive. It's fine to use Americanisms in our speech, and change all our spelling to suit Rupert Murdoch's papers, but indigenous people report that the use of language— I'm guessing— like deadly, or proper-dark, or sister-girl... which all describe real things, have teachers telling their children, "You are wrong: Don’t speak and write like that! " Here

Walk in the cities and towns of Australia with your eyes open and it is immediately apparent that indigenous people are treated... very differently. 

And this stuff is ingrained within us.  My daughter is named for her Pitjantjatjara mother, a wonderful, inspiring Christian leader, a human being among human beings, and yet I find that prejudice rises in me, unbidden. I hate this. Pitjantjatjara people gave me my life... and yet the old prejudice will not die.

In Australia, we have learned the truth about ourselves.  Indigenous people have always known the truth, of course. They live with the constant hostility of the way our entire society is structured. They live with the lies that somehow they have it better, that they are given special treatment, that they are lazy! — when the truth is they live with the knowledge that they are always liable to violence and rejection. They live with shocking mortality rates. Prejudice is rampant.

I listened to Henry Reynolds being interviewed by Phillip Adams this week.  Reynolds is the historian who began to remind us of the massacres and all the other horrors that were openly reported in the newspapers of early Australia, and then purposely forgotten. (Here)

There was massive pushback against his truth-telling from the Prime Minister down, as you may know; people saying he was lying and exaggerating. There's been a lot of work since then, by many historians, and now, Reynolds says, he can see he hugely underestimated the death toll... not the deaths from smallpox and other diseases, but the deliberate killing. His estimate of 20,000 deaths nationwide in the resistance to the white invasion (and 2,000 colonial soldiers, police and settlers) is nothing like the reality, he said. Later work suggests in excess of 40,000 indigenous deaths— killings— in Queensland alone!

A number of countries have had truth and reconciliation commissions.  These are a structure for confessing and owning and beginning to redress what has been done in the past, and which still shapes our communities. We know, as a species, that when we don't do this, the sins of our past rot us from within.   Phillip Adams remarked that in Australia we now know much of the truth, but we seem more determined than ever not to reconcile.

How do those of us who are 'white' and who wish to reconcile, deal with our shame, with our sense of betrayal by our forebears, and with the prejudice that is within us? How do we relate to indigenous folk in a way which is just and healing, since our prosperity is built upon stolen land and lives?

And what does the Gospel say about all this?

Well, in the text this week, when Jesus comes to be baptised, John the Baptist says, twice, "Here is the Lamb of God." He means the sacrificial Lamb. The first time... he says "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" That is, here is the Lamb of God who heals a nation which is built on a terrible foundation of massacre and murder. We are, in the end, no different from anyone else. Civilisation, which begins when Adam and Even leave the garden in Chapter 4 of Genesis, begins with a murder. Some theologians call it the founding murder. Jesus is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world.

The question is how.

I was taught that Jesus was sacrificed by God to pay the price for my sins. That is, God, who forbids child sacrifice, and who stopped Abraham from sacrificing his only son, then sacrificed his only son for me. And somehow that saved us from the violence that was still going on 1800 years later in our country, and still continues today.

But no, it's not God who wanted a sacrifice from us. It's God who came to us in love, despite our violence, in Jesus the Christ. We... insisted on sacrificing... him. We murdered him, an innocent man, because we thought God demands that we kill people we don't like when they upset our plans for society. It is we who think violence will heal violence and that murder will bring peace. Do you see the difference between the two ways of understanding the Lamb of God?

When Jesus is raised from the dead, when the man who is the son of the King of the Universe comes back, we know what to expect. We know what will happen.  When you try to get rid of the king or his son, and it doesn't work, then you get killed in revenge. Except that this didn't happen. Jesus, who says in Matthew that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, says: "Peace be with you, and do not be afraid." That's how to live. That's how the sin is taken away, and disarmed, and neutralised.

Jesus shows us how to live. He shows us the way to live which means that we are raised up even from death.  Forgive. Be compassionate. Sit alongside. Suffer with those who suffer. This will heal our sin.

I say to us, most seriously, even if we think we do not know one single indigenous person, that if we live with compassion towards the people around us, the people we do know, then when we meet an indigenous person we will have learned already some ways of being a reconciling person who is being healed.  If we live with compassion we will learn already... that we can smile at an indigenous person in the street, and in a shopping centre, and sit next them on a bus, and talk with them on a train, and it will turn out that they are real people just like us. That's just the beginning...

I can also say, in this difficult time when some of us wonder if the world is beginning to fall apart, that indigenous people know... how to live in a world that... has fallen apart. The indigenous people I know are incredibly gracious. They can be the Christ to us in this troubled time if we will let them be so. We will be able to let them be Christ to us just as much as we treat them like the human beings they are, and just as much as we are able to confess, even if only to ourselves in the beginning, that we are the second peoples in this land who need to respect and honour its First People.

And for the shame— and the grief— ?  We can lament. We can mourn. And we will pray some of those prayers after the hymn. Lament and compassion together, I think, bring us to a place where we can see that God loves us anyway, totally, completely, just as much, and no more or less, than all other people. Including First Nations people. And it is a place where, then, we can all be reconciled. Amen.


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Not knowing the truth
Eileen Ray 18-01-2020
I was born in Tasmania. At school I was taught that the white settlers had killed all the Tasmanian aborigines. We did learn about Truganini, the last full blood. But then were simply taught that there were no genuine Tasmanian aborigines. . In my year was a girl with slightly darker skin that the rest of us. She was called Darkie by her friends. I assumed she was of Mediterranean origin. It was only about 20 years after finishing school that I learned of her aboriginal heritage. She would also have been taught that she didn't exist. I now shudder every time I'm reminded of high school days.

re: Not knowing the truth
Andrew 18-01-2020
Eileen, in South Australia, we were taught the same thing. But here, I now realise, there was a slight feeling of superiority. After all, we had not been barbaric like the Tasmanians. It was never stated as bluntly as that, but it was the obvious conclusion, and it took me years to understand that by holding that view I had conveniently ignored the absence of indigenous people in our area- despite their presence, and despite the presence of two or three stolen children fostered in the district- and was making a neat scapegoating move to absolve myself, and us. Andrew

Thank you
Steve Crowson 20-01-2020
I was born in Alabama in 1939. I lived in a "separate but equal" culture that was in fact virtual apartheid-- colored and white. In spite of new laws, civil rights, and progressive movements, abiding hatred lingers beneath the surface or on the surface as white nationalism and such. God bless you in your following Jesus, the lamb of God. Abide!

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