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Australia’s Redemption: The process of restorative justice for First Nations People

Sunday, 27 August 2023  | Anne Pattel-Gray

The Statement from the Heart is an appeal from Australia’s First Nations people asking to be recognised and heard. It is a deeply heartfelt plea and reflects the vulnerability of our people. The Australian First Nations people face a very anxious time over the next few months as we wait in anticipation as to what the future will hold for us in Australia.

The Australian Government will be holding a Referendum later this year for the nation to vote on whether the First Nations people should be recognised in the Australian Constitution as the first people of this land and whether there should be an Indigenous Voice to Parliament that will give us the opportunity to influence government policy and decisions that affect our lives and our destiny. Whatever the outcome, this will have an impact on black-white relationships; whether this is for the better or for the worse, only time will tell. It is important for every Australian to reflect upon our history as this will be the measure by which we are judged.

Racism and reconciliation

Australia has a long history of racist treatment towards Aboriginal people and its history is littered with injustice – the colonial theft of land, violence including massacres and rape, racist government legislation and policy, the collusion of church and government in oppressing Aboriginal people, cultural genocide, the taking of Aboriginal children and the list goes on and on.

This history is one that, as Australians, we all have inherited. It leaves us morally and ethically deficient, as we are all accountable for our actions or inactions. This includes Christians, for we are Christ’s ambassadors who have been given the message of reconciliation by the Creator Spirit, called in the righteousness of God to stand for justice. How will we answer this call in fulfilling the ministry of Reconciliation?

Since the earlier 1990s, the Reconciliation process was and still is nothing more than a way of appeasing the conscience of White Australians, offering nothing more than hollow words and an empty apology and nothing of substance. The process has stopped short of making full restitution to the First Nations people. Saying sorry without full restitution means falling short of true reconciliation.

The denial of our humanity in the face of colonial greed involved taking what didn’t belong to the colonial invaders through whatever means necessary; destroying and persecuting First Nations people simply because we weren’t one of them; and demonising every aspect of our humanity, spirituality and religious culture because it had no value to them. The impact of this destruction of First Nations worldviews and cultures throughout Australia is still felt to this very day as the racist oppression continued to be perpetuated against us in our everyday lives.

This racism is ingrained in western ideology and philosophy, and in western theological and hermeneutical praxis. It is evident in the discourse that only reflects western contexts and is very limited in its engagement with us and with its historical impact on Australia’s First Nations people in the name of God, King and Country.

In fact, there is very little theological reflection on the privilege gained by the West at the expense of Aboriginal people. This ‘first sin’ has never been properly or fully addressed by the churches or the ecumenical movement in its totality. We have seen a great deal of lip service given to the topic but not much action in the way of true repentance, justice, restitution or atonement, and this is equally true of the Church which is God’s messenger of reconciliation.

Costly grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and breathed what he wrote about ‘taking up the Cross’ and dying to oneself. With a prophetic voice, he wrote: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’. Bonhoeffer would do just that: die for what he believed the Grace of God in Christ had called him to do.

Aboriginal people have witnessed for themselves the failure of the Christian Churches to truly repent for their part in the dispossession, destruction and damning of our people; their failure to recognise the privilege they have gained as a result of our people’s suffering; and their denial of what the Creator bestowed upon us as our inherent cultural rights and sovereignty.

Most Christian Church apologies are presented in such a way that we First Nations people must accept and forgive and be reconciled without any justice or restitution, and that if we don’t forgive them we are somehow less Christian than they are.

Yet Jesus repeatedly called on people to repent, making it clear that without repentance there could be no reconciliation with God. Moreover, when Jesus spoke of forgiveness in the gospels it was almost always embedded in financial terms such as a debt, a cost or something that must be repaid. That is, because sin always causes a loss or debt, under normal circumstances it is totally reasonable to expect that debt to be repaid – this is called restorative justice. As such, forgiveness does not automatically include reconciliation and there is no reconciliation without repentance.

Over the decades, most Aboriginal people have known and experienced the unrepentant heart of the Christian Church, whereby superficial words have been spoken and the biblical process of real repentance hasn’t been taken seriously or followed.

There can never be any hope of a true and just reconciliation without a Truth-Telling process, whereby the people of Australia are fully conscientised and made aware of their forebearers’ acts of wrongdoing against the First Nations people; submit to a Damascus journey (as experienced by the Apostle Paul in Acts 9:1-22) and are transformed; openly repent and make restitution to the Aboriginal nations; and implement this transformative process in practical ways through the dismantling of the current political structures and powers and economics systems. Anything short of this is nothing more than simply lip service.

However, for this to happen within the Christian community will require a deeper understanding of and commitment to what Bonhoeffer describes as ‘costly grace’ in contrast to ‘cheap grace’: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’ (The Cost of Discipleship, 1937). The Protestant church was founded on the teachings of God’s free grace to us all in Jesus Christ. However, Bonhoeffer saw that there were many Christian Churches that thought this meant that God’s grace could be possessed without needing to be repentant or to change anything in their lives; life could go on as if nothing had happened. We as Aboriginal people have experienced this lack of repentance and cheap grace from the churches for over two-and-a-half centuries.

Sadly, we see too often Bonhoeffer’s description of ‘cheap grace’ everywhere in today’s Christianity. Christians the world over hold to a faith that comes at no cost to them and requires little or nothing in exchange for God’s grace. This is a Christianity that is more concerned with seeking social approval and belonging and that risks nothing; it is this form of Christianity that doesn’t understand the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s ‘costly grace’.

Hebrew 4:12 states that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and morrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’. The word lays open the true condition of the heart! And Paul states in Ephesians 6:12: ‘Take the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God’. The reason the Word of God can have such power to lay open the hardest of hearts is because it’s the sword of the Spirit, not the sword of a human. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth, the true word of God is God’s Word, and God loves it and honours it and empowers it so that it can cut to the core of any human heart.

Further, John 1:14 states: ‘The Word became flesh and made its dwelling among us. We have seen the glory, the glory of the one and only Son from God, full of grace and truth’. And John 8:32 states: ‘Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’. It is this form of truth that needs to be injected into the Christian Church and that will inform our theology to embrace the Spirit of God as the Spirit of Truth, which when we seek it will set us free.

We Aboriginal people know the meaning and context of the ‘costly grace’ Bonhoeffer speaks about. Just as he paid with his life, so have our men, women and children in protecting what the Creator had given to us.

Walking together

The Statement from the Heart is a genuine sign of Australia’s First Nations people extending the hand of grace to all Australians. Can you imagine that here are a people who are placing their hope in your hands and asking for a relationship that is built on biblical justice and proper restitution? If you haven’t read the full Statement from the Heart, I suggest you take the time to do so, as it is powerful and spiritual, and expresses a graciousness that should melt the most hardened hearts.

Just as God gave his only Son who suffered and died for our sins so we could have eternal life, so too must we give of ourselves to the Creator God. There is no shortcut. Grace costs nothing but demands everything. Quoting Bonhoeffer again, ‘Costly Grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the repentant heart. Grace is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him’.

Thus, we Christians are all called by God to be Christ’s ambassadors, to stand on the side of the poor, downtrodden, brokenhearted and oppressed. Surely this also means Australia’s First Nations people. So let us be bold and courageous in the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called, to act for justice and to be transformative as we raise our prophetic voice through our actions for justice for the First Nations of Australia. This is a time for us to right the wrongs, to transform this nation and to carve a new path that is built on love, justice and hope.

I have come to realise that my people’s redemption is tried to the redemption of white Australia and that we can only find our redemption together. It is important, therefore, that we walk alongside one another, listen to one another’s truths and cry together as we share our pain. For this, we draw upon God as the Creator Spirit, as a Wisdom Teacher on country, opening our hearts to the wisdom of this ancient land. In doing so we will find understanding, compassion, empathy and friendship.


Anne Pattel-Gray is a descendant of the Bidjara/Kari Kari people of Queensland and an expert in Black theology. She is Professor of Indigenous Studies and the inaugural Head of the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Divinity. Anne was the first Aboriginal person to earn a PhD at the University of Sydney, published as The Great White Flood: Racism in Australia.


Image credit: ‘Uluru Statement.jpg’ by BrownHoneyAnt. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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