The other day I attended another protest rally for Aboriginal justice. The scope and scale of the injustice explored by the speakers is too great to detail here. Suffice to say not a lot has changed since my first rally in the 1980s.
One of the keys areas that white Australia* does not seem to understand is the Aboriginal experience of Land. I am deliberately avoiding the term ‘connection to the Land’ as this implies, linguistically at least, an equivalence with New Age workshop experiences where one ‘connects to the Land’ before going off to sip a café latte. The concept of connecting to the Land implies two separate entities, one connecting to the other. While I cannot speak on Aboriginal experience of land, being a white Australian*, I suspect something different is involved.
Personally the closest I can come to an understanding is my own ongoing, intense connection (consciously using that term here) to the Land of my birth and childhood. The intensity and beauty of this felt normal as a boy, and it was only after leaving that I realised what it was. This is so intense I have consciously made decisions not to visit, because I fear I could never leave again and Perth is where my home and family are.
And this is nothing like the lives of the first nations people here.
As a kid, I accidently stumbled on woodland paths that I found out later were parts of old faery stories echoing a past time, perhaps like aboriginal peoples, when myth and story were sacred and explained the living features of the land. I was not the recipient of an ongoing culture of the Land, from conception onward, embodying 60 000 years of unbroken civilisation.
So, as white invaders^ we cannot understand the importance of Land for the first Australians*. At each gathering of first nation peoples I am privileged to attend, I am exposed to the barest understanding of the pain suffered by dispossession of Land and forcible relocation to other Lands, particularly dying outside one’s own Country.
As white invaders, our culture and religious background cannot encompass the reality of the Land as lived by the first peoples on this continent. Our conceptual, legal and cultural framework of ownership creates an impassable barrier. Our cultural religious tradition has a foundational myth of divinely mandated dispossession and genocide of first nation peoples. I will not go on …
It does seem to me, however, one thing we can do, as Christians and others of faith, is tell the truth:
WE WORSHIP ON STOLEN LAND
The Land where we pray, where we go to church, where our cathedrals, chapels and private sacred spaces are built, is stolen. Sovereignty was never ceded: it always was, and always will be, Aboriginal Land. As Peter Garrett sang on behalf of all white invaders over thirty years ago:
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back.
Recently as part of my own spiritual practice, I have begun adding words to reflect this truth. As well as acknowledging the original owners of the Land where I practice, and inviting the Spirit of the Land to be present, I acknowledge sovereignty has never been ceded. That I stand on stolen Aboriginal Land.
How would such truth telling – for that is simply what it is – look in our churches, in our liturgy, in our lives? I am not sure, but we need to find out.
Always was, always will be,
* The country we now call ‘Australia’.
^ I use this term in a the present tense, since even if not actively involved in ongoing dispossession of the Land, we all benefit from that dispossession.