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Does the hope for reconciliation lie with the Millennials?

Wednesday, 23 May 2018  | Brooke Prentis

Sorry. Such a simple word, but, as Elton John sang, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ (from the 1976 album, Blue Moves). This seems the case in the Australian church and broader Australian society, especially in regard to saying sorry to Aboriginal peoples. Except for the Millennials.

I was invited to speak to a year 11 Legal Studies class of approximately fifteen students, including one Aboriginal student. I presented on a variety of topics.

I started with the Dreaming and explained how you can read any Aboriginal dreaming story and it will contain at least one of these three elements of lore: who the Creator is; how to care for creation; and how to live in right relationship. These are also three Biblical principles.

We journeyed through invader/settler relationships with the Aboriginal peoples, examining the interactions between Lieutenant James Cook and the Aboriginal peoples in the place now called Cooktown, and between Captain Arthur Philip and Bennelong in the place now called Sydney.

We went from Terra Nullius to Mabo to present day Australia – the only Commonwealth nation, and the last liberal democracy, without a treaty with its first peoples. We reviewed the constitutions of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, all of which include beautiful and poetic preambles recognising Aboriginal peoples, followed by disclaimers to ensure that recognition does not ‘create in any person any legal right or give rise to any civil cause of action’ (Constitution of Queensland, 2001). In the words of the year 11 students, ‘What’s the point?’

We looked at what a national Treaty could contain. The year 11 students shook their heads as they realised how simple it was to include things such as ‘entry restrictions to nominated Aboriginal sacred sites’ and ‘the return…of all Aboriginal human remains residing in museums plus all Aboriginal artefacts’ (See Bob Hawke’s draft treaty). The students asked, ‘Why wasn’t it done already?’

I had assumed the National Curriculum was covering such topics, but it seemed I had presented these Millennials with new information. They were surprised because information and an answer from Google are only ever two seconds away (or perhaps two minutes with the NBN!), yet these were found wanting. I was surprised by their participation and analysis. I was also shocked by an act of Reconciliation at the end of the class – a 16-year-old boy approached me, put out his hand out to shake mine and, with tears in his eyes, said just one word … ’Sorry’. Three-quarters of the class came up to me and said, ‘Sorry’. Why was I shocked? Because I had preached in many churches of all denominations but no one had ever said ‘Sorry’. The reaction I usually received was, ‘But you don’t look Aboriginal’. Perhaps my experience of not having a Christian say sorry was a reflection of Millennials missing in our churches. Sorry seemed the easiest word for these Millennials. For them, it was a logical response and the least they could do.

Since then, I have had Christians of all generations say sorry, but still it is the exception, not the rule. Millennials continue to show me that saying sorry is the rule, not the exception. I have since had the opportunity to speak in many Christian schools. I love speaking with Millennials because, after I speak, they are lining up often to simply say hello or sorry – it is quite the phenomenon. In comparison, I have spoken in many churches of all denominations and sometimes no one will approach me, even when I preach about Reconciliation as friendship.

A vision for a different Australia

Much has been studied and written about the positives and negatives of Millennials. My experience has shown me that Millennials understand friendship, caring for creation, inequality, white privilege and our collective responsibility for the future. I recently encouraged a cohort of year 12 students by sharing this Nelson Mandela quote: ‘Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great; you can be that generation’. It strikes me that the Millennials could be the generation to realise Reconciliation in their lifetime. And, as I told the students, when one of their generation becomes Prime Minister, and I come knocking on the door, I hope they let me in and yarn with me.

The Barunga Statement, presented to Prime Minister Bob Hawke on 12th June 1988, is an important document for our nation. So important, that Bob Hawke’s final act as Prime Minister was to hang it in Parliament House. As he hung the bark petitions, he said he was doing it ‘for whoever is Prime Minister of this country, not only to see, but to understand and also to honour’ (Transcript of speech delivered by Bob Hawke at Parliament House, Canberra, 20th December 1991). Will it be a Millennial Prime Minister who finally honours the Barunga Statement and in so doing honours Aboriginal peoples?

Written 10 years before his book, Why Weren’t We Told: A personal search for the truth about our history, Henry Reynolds shared about our true history:

In the south-east and south-west of the continent Aborigines (Aboriginal peoples) assisted the pioneers. In the north and the centre they were the pioneers… The importance of black labour clearly challenges the still popular view that pioneering was the exclusive achievement of Europeans and that the Aborigines (Aboriginal peoples) contributed nothing to the successful colonisation of the continent. The reluctance to embrace the black pioneers is not surprising given the pervasive influence of white racism and the enduring power of a national legend which suggest that the outback moulded uniquely Australian values, attitudes and personality types. (With the White People: The crucial role of Aborigines in the exploration and development of Australia, 1990, 231)

The pervasive influence of white racism on Australian culture can be seen in the enduring power of this national legend, which still holds Australia back in 2017. It causes our government to disregard Aboriginal voices in their century-old call for a Treaty and decades-long calls embedded in the Uluru Statement, on the grounds that Aboriginal voices and ideas are ‘contrary to the principles of equality and citizenship’. It excludes us from sharing the ‘Australian values’ defined with reference to the day when the British flag was planted in Australian soil: ‘Changing the date of Australia Day would be to turn our back on Australian values’ (Malcolm Turnbull, Facebook, 16th August 2017).

I have a vision for a different Australia, one built on truth, justice, love and hope. It’s a vision of a new national story that exposes the truth of our history, pursues justice that endeavours to close the gap between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal Australians, fosters a love to end all racism, and gives and responds to the hope of my peoples for acknowledgement, honour and life in abundance. It’s an Australia in which I believe Christians can play a leadership role, if they are willing, as Jesus gives us the examples of truth, justice, love and hope.

Rosalind Kidd articulates the way bureaucrats and politicians can use language to create barriers to change:

In attempts to defend the indefensible, bureaucrats and politicians readily invoke, and thus revalidate, the concept of an ‘Aboriginal problem’. It has been all too easy to accumulate a raft of separate issues – territorial and cultural dispossession, erratic and unsafe food and water, under-supply and under-maintenance of housing, poverty arising from unpaid and underpaid labour, decades of defective teaching and medical attention – and file them under this convenient label. But these are problems of government. Chronic – bordering on criminal – underfunding has underwritten the defective, deadly and dispiriting conditions endured for most of this century. (The Way We Civilise, 1997, 345-346)

My hope is that Millennials will see through the government rhetoric as they are educated in Australia’s true history and seek information for themselves. My hope is that Millennials will understand the centuries and decades old call by Aboriginal peoples for dignified recognition, seeing through the government’s rhetorical ploys to persuade the Australian population that we are asking for something new and radical.

Overcoming the rhetoric of Reconciliation and bringing in the new dawn

In the last two years alone, I have had to correct three Non-Aboriginal Christian leaders in public forums because they regurgitated this bureaucratic and political language, using the phrase ‘Aboriginal problems/issues’. In fact, these are national issues, concerning all Australians. We need to be aware of the churches’ use of evasive rhetoric, silence in public debate and slowness to respond to injustices and human rights abuses facing Aboriginal peoples. This is evident in the lack of institutional support for Aboriginal Christian leadership, as well as the under-funding or defunding of Aboriginal ministries. If the church is to lead the Millennials back to the pews, it must abandon this rhetoric, enter public debate with humility and love, and show that the church cares about the lost, the last and the least in Australia, being the Aboriginal peoples. Or perhaps it will be the Millennials who lead the church from the pews to the streets, where the Millennials follow Jesus.

Following Jesus is about transformation on so many levels, but all of these levels are grounded in relationships. And the relationship that has been broken for the longest, or perhaps was never truly established, is the relationship between Australia and its Aboriginal peoples. The relationship needed to achieve Reconciliation is one resembling friendship rather than paternalism or assimilation. Sarah Maddison considers belief in our potential for transformation as the requisite of this new type of relationship:

To take these steps towards a different kind of relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia we must believe that such a transformation is possible… It is time to imagine a different approach, one in which non-Indigenous Australians start from a belief that we have the capacity to change ourselves and our institutions. (Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia, 2011, 175-176)

I believe Millennials have the courage to respond to this imperative, changing themselves, others and our institutions with their ‘can do anything’ approach and willingness to give anything a go. I believe David J. Tacey captures the Millennial archetype when he describes the dawning of a new era in Australian spirituality:

This transformation, inspired by nature and the archetypal feminie, is currently on the horizon of cultural awareness. The patriarchal, heroic ego still reigns in the conscious sphere, in our political and social institutions, in the uppermost layers of human experience. But down below, beneath the cultural surface, a new era is being prepared, which is partly already anticipated by new age spirituality, feminist theology, and deep ecology. Some may laugh at or dismiss these phenomena now, but they will not be laughing for long, because when archetypes are set on achieving goals, these goals will be achieved… The archetypes… are teleologically oriented…We are at the edge of a new experience of the sacred. (Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia, 1995, 203-204)

There is, however, a warning that may be based on the reality of what has happened to each preceding generation. Is it actually the essence of the Millennial that could bring about Reconciliation, or is it merely the vibrancy, hopefulness and spirit of youth? A youth that flourishes for five to ten years, and then becomes cynical, open to manipulation and sceptical of their capacity to bring about change? I have vivid memories of being in year 12. As a 17-year-old, I thought Reconciliation and a Treaty would be achieved by the year 2000. As each year goes by, my fear that Reconciliation will not be achieved in my lifetime becomes closer to a reality. Yet I think there is a difference: the Millennial generation’s thirst for knowledge and ability to so easily find information. Rosalind Kidd gives this advice:

Ignorant of our historical heritage, we remain vulnerable to manipulation by those who have the most to gain from a truncated and distorted debate… If we are to give real substance to the rhetoric of reconciliation… then we must retrieve, explore, understand and accommodate the whole spectrum of experiences of all Australians. (The Way We Civilise, 349).

Minds and Hearts

We started with sorry and we will end with sorry. I think back over 200 years and to the generations of Aboriginal Elders and leaders whose hopes and dreams have not been realised in their lifetimes. To those leaders and Elders, I say sorry. I’m sorry for the inhumane and dehumanising treatment of yesterday and today, I’m sorry for the massacres and genocide, I’m sorry for the government policies of forced removal of children from families. I’m sorry for so much more. Why am I sorry?  Because I am a Christian who follows Jesus to the lost, the last and the least. Was I there, or did I participate in past atrocities? No, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be sorry. Millennials understand this.

Australia has only said sorry for the Stolen Generations. There is still so much to say sorry for: Stolen land, Stolen Wages, no Treaty or Treaties, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the list goes on. We have not matured enough as a nation to set aside significant dates to mourn, celebrate and apologise. Let’s set aside 26th January as a National Day of Mourning and change the date of Australia Day – this would truly be an act of Reconciliation. Let’s do this as the church and have the government catch up to us. If the hope for Reconciliation lies with the Millennials, these are some of the first steps that need to be taken.

Millennials want to change the world. I want to change the world by changing Australia. Let’s really talk about Reconciliation. It troubles me that so few Australians even know what the Barunga Statement is. When Bob Hawke hung the Statement in Parliament House, he gave this advice:

(If) you want to proudly to take Australia into the 21st Century there is no chance that you’re going to be able to do that unless you do have a reconciliation. Personally I would like to see that embodied in a document. I think it is infinitely more preferable that we have the courage to do that. But it is also true that the document itself, in one sense, is not the important thing. The important thing is what’s in our minds and in our hearts. (Transcript of Speech, 20th December 1991).

Though I believe the Millennials can more easily and readily open their minds and their hearts, the same call extends to all followers of Jesus, of all generations, to open their minds and hearts to Jesus, to listen to his prompting, to learn and to love Aboriginal peoples. As Justin Bieber sang, ‘Is it too late now to say sorry?’ (from the 2015 album, Purpose). My hope is that it is not too late for the Millennials; indeed, there is great hope that Millennials will help to bring about Reconciliation. My prayer, therefore, is that they will commit and invest their passion, energy and time into building a lifelong friendship between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal peoples. Yet the truth is that, ultimately, hope for Reconciliation lies with a multi-generational approach – and what better multi-generational structure than the church?

Brooke Prentis is an Aboriginal Christian Leader who is a descendant of the Waka Waka peoples. She is the Aboriginal spokesperson for Common Grace and the Coordinator of the Grasstree Gathering. Brooke is a community pastor, speaker, writer and advocate who has a vision 'to build an Australia built on truth, justice, love and hope’.

This article first appeared in Zadok Perspectives, No. 137, Summer 2017, pp.19-21. You can subscribe to Zadok Perspectives, Ethos’ quarterly print magazine, here.

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