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Reconciliation: the family business

Thursday, 1 June 2017  | Sarah Judd-Lam

This week is National Reconciliation Week, which commemorates two key events in Australian history: the 1967 referendum, where among other things over 90 per cent of Australians voted to include Indigenous people in the Census; and the Mabo decision, which ultimately established the concept of native title within Australian law. It is a week to humbly recognise the many injustices perpetrated against our First Peoples and to take steps together towards a fairer future.

I do not claim to be any kind of expert on this topic. I do not have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background. I am simply someone who is increasingly realising the importance of reconciliation in the Christian narrative, and why reconciliation with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters should be more of a priority for the church.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I live, the Wallumedegal people of the Eora nation. I recognise their rich history and culture, as well as the considerable dispossession and injustice they have experienced – and continue to experience – since the arrival of Europeans. I wish to pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and to any First Australians readers. If anything I write is inaccurate or offends you, I ask for your forgiveness and would love to hear your perspective, as I am eager to learn.

Ministers of reconciliation

As Christians, we ought to be experts at reconciliation. The very centrepiece of Christianity - the cross - represents the ultimate reconciliation between rebellious humankind and a loving God. The motif of reconciliation appears again and again throughout the Bible; indeed, its overarching theme is one of broken relationship being restored. Reconciliation is our family business.

In my experience, the church is well acquainted with the importance of an individual’s right standing with God through faith in the gospel. It also does a decent job of the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5), interpreted strictly as the bringing of the gospel to others, so that they, too, might be reconciled to God. Some churches even model a genuine interpersonal culture of reconciliation, where recognition of wrongdoing, repentance and forgiveness is practiced regularly by the congregation.

But what I have seen much less of in my 30 years as a Christian is a commitment by the church to corporate reconciliation – recognising wrongdoing done by the church to other groups within society, accompanied by repentance, forgiveness and restored relationship. In a time when instances of child sexual abuse within church institutions are exposed almost daily, and when an increasingly heated debate is driving an almost insurmountable wedge between Christianity and the LGBTIQ rights movement, this kind of reconciliation is sorely needed.

Surely, if God is concerned with individual sin, he is concerned with corporate sin. Indeed, we see God’s anger at injustice and defense of the oppressed throughout the Bible. We can therefore assume that, in our day and age, addressing injustice and oppression, especially when perpetrated by the church, should be a priority for us.

Towards reconciliation

The word reconcile comes from the Latin for ‘bring back together’, which implies a separation, but also an original reality, and future intention, of togetherness. So, in order to truly reconcile with someone, there must first be an expectation of unity prior to the acknowledgement of the reality of broken relationship. There must also be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

Some Australians resist acknowledging the injustices experienced by our First Peoples because they do not consider themselves culpable: perhaps it was their distant ancestors, so what has that to do with them? Or if they or their relatives arrived in Australia at a later time, or were not even of European descent, perhaps it has nothing to do with them at all. Others see the injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as confined to the past, something to get over or move on from.

However, I would argue that these injustices are all of our responsibility. Even if our direct relatives were not implicated in colonisation or the stolen generation, we are all part of a society in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are highly likely to experience discrimination and socio-economic exclusion. If we are passive in the face of this, we are part of the problem.

Some Australians even blame this disadvantage on the communities themselves - ‘Why can’t they just get a job? They should just get off the booze and they’d be alright’ – while others see them as somehow more advantaged than other Australians. This fails to recognise both the ongoing effects of trauma and dispossession and the very real disadvantage experienced by these communities today. Programs and policies that single out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities do not equate to special treatment; they are aiming to address rampant inequality.

If you fall into any of the above categories, I would respectfully recommend that you do some further investigation into this issue. Common Grace has developed some great resources from a Christian perspective, including a series of articles for National Reconciliation Week. SBS: First Contact also has plentiful information about the broader historical and social issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

While the church does not by any means have sole responsibility for the injustice, dispossession and disadvantage experienced by our First Peoples, much of it has been perpetrated by individuals and institutions that identified as Christian or claimed to be doing God’s work. We need to recognise this and ask for forgiveness, seeking to embody God’s heart of love and healing to the hurting.

Making things right

Acknowledging wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness must also be accompanied by a genuine effort to make things right, to restore connection. Where to start? Brooke Prentis has put forward a range of actions for churches to consider. Another option that my church is currently looking into is developing a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) with Reconciliation Australia, which supports your organisation to build a tailored, practical plan to develop and progress your vision for reconciliation. Sadly, few churches are listed as having RAPs – what if yours could help lead the way?

Sarah Judd-Lam is passionate about social justice and has a particular interest in the interface between faith and just action. She works in the community sector, however all views expressed here are her own.

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