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Reclaiming the Trinity as Kin: a thought experiment on Sorry Day

Monday, 27 May 2024  | Garry Worete Deverell

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the tabling in Federal Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report, an enquiry of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from our families. The report found that the practice, which began in the earliest days of British colonisation, had persisted well into the 1990s and was specifically designed by the state to destroy the indigeneity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The report noted that children removed from their families were far less likely to speak their language and practise traditional culture. At the same time, they were far more likely to suffer the spiralling effects of childhood trauma. Unsurprisingly, if you try to remove the indigeneity from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kids and superimpose a toxic form of whiteness in its stead, Indigenous kids grow up with a sense of spiritual homelessness. Cast adrift in a world that simultaneously denies our indigeneity but also loudly and publicly blames us for it, we invariably retreat into the large hole inside ourselves where our country, family and culture used to be. A very dark and lonely place, usually.

The removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids from our families was a cruel and hideous policy which, despite beautifully crafted apologies from church and state in the intervening years, continues unabated. The rates of child removal are arguably higher now, in 2024, than they have ever been. That is why ‘Sorry Day’, which is commemorated on this day each year, must continue to be commemorated. For it reminds the Australian community of both the damage done by past practices and the damage it continues to do.

Now, as it happens, today is also Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Western Church. The Church that came to this country as part of the colonisation project. The Church that continues to enculturate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into its spirituality. The fact of this correlation creates an occasion when an Aboriginal preacher, like myself, might engage in something of a thought experiment. And the thought experiment goes something like this: where would Christianity be if Jesus had been removed from his Jewish family and placed in the ‘care’ of a non-semitic culture and society? Would Christianity even exist? Would its God, the God named in the bible as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, even be thinkable? I rarely answer my own questions with any degree of nuance, but here perhaps is a start.

You will have noted already, I hope, that the trinitarian dogma[*] is irreducibly familial in its language. It speaks of the divine as a little kinship network, a family. The historical Jesus, who apparently lost his father, Joseph, well before he reached his maturity, called his God ‘abba’, one of the more intimate names for ‘father’ in Aramaic. For him, the divine was not simply the progenitor of all creation or, in that very general sense, the father who watched over the Jewish people. For Jesus, the divine was his father. One who cared for him and taught him how to be a responsible member of the community as all good Jewish dads did.

It follows, then – or so the trinitarian dogma would have it – that since the ‘daddy’ of Jesus was divine, the creator of all heaven and earth, then Jesus himself, precisely as a son, also had to be divine. That is the point of the birth narratives constructed by Matthew and Luke, is it not? Yes, the evangelists say, for all earthly intents and purposes Jesus was Joshua ben-Joseph, the son of Joseph. But at a more profound level, he was also the son of a divine ‘father’: not simply ‘created’ by divine power but ‘begotten’, conceived not by the passage of sperm into his mother Mary’s uterus, but by the action of the Holy Spirit.

This ‘Holy Spirit’ cannot, at one level, be imagined in familial terms at all. Neither male nor female in the basic grammatical constructions of New Testament Greek, the Spirit is variously described in the biblical texts as fire, as water and as air or breath. None of these images are particularly familial. Not if you are a hurried reader, that is. Dwell a little longer, however, and you will pick up some connections with maternity and with mothering. Take John 3.1-17, for example. Here Jesus tells Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, that entering the region of the divine involves being born of water and spirit. The image here is multilayered. Water is both the amniotic fluid that protects a child until they are born, but also the amniotic fluid of the new birth in baptism, which has been placed in round, womb-like, fonts since the earliest of Christian centuries.

In the same passage, the children of God are said to be born of the breath or wind of God, a more literal translation of the Greek pneuma or ‘spirit’. Here the mysterious breath or wind takes on a decidedly maternal function. The Spirit gives birth to God’s children and then imprints them with a divine identity and vocation. In the passage we read from Romans 8, the children of God are only able to recognise God as their familial ‘father’ because the Spirit cries out a breathy ‘abba’, daddy, within them. Here the children are being led by the actions of Spirit who has given them birth and imprinted them with its own DNA. Just as a mother does with her children.

Of course, in Christian discourse, the Spirit is never simply female, in the gendered sense. Because the Spirit also carries the imprint of the Father and the Son. The texts very often name the Spirit as the ‘Spirit of God’ or the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. In this sense, as the Uniting Church version of the Creed notes, the Spirit can be said to ‘proceed’ from the Father and the Son, with all their maleness. This means, in the end, that the Spirit is that dimension or experience of the divine that resists simple binary categories, especially if those categories are gendered, whist retaining a crucial role in the parenting of every single Christian child. The Spirit takes all that is nurturing in the being of God — whether that nurturing be imagined in masculine, feminine or more gender-neutral terms — and makes it real and active for you and I in the nursery that is the church.

So, let me now return to the question I asked a few minutes ago: where would Christianity be if Jesus had been kidnapped from his Jewish family and community and placed in the ‘care’ of a far way, non-semitic culture? Where would the Christian understanding of the divine be? Would it be anything at all? Well, possibly not.

For the Christian experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is predicated upon the experience of a thoroughly semitic Jesus with the divine, an experience almost entirely derived from his formation as a Jewish child, raised in a Jewish home, according to the nurturing practices of his Jewish parents in their Jewish homeland and kinship networks. His experience of the divine as a nurturing family — male, female and neither male nor female — draws deeply from the well of semitic culture and spirituality. Were Jesus removed from this environment as a young child, he may not have become the spiritual teacher who was able to imprint his followers with that experience and understanding. Were Jesus to have been kidnapped by an invading force, for example, and placed in a society where the divine was understood not as a nurturing family but as an emperor ... well, Christianity may have ended up being an imperial religion of war and of conquest rather than a trinitarian religion of family, and of care, and of kinship.

But wait! Isn’t that precisely what happened with Constantine and with Charlemagne and with the colonising empires of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? Did they not kidnap the kinship religion of Jesus and put it in prison? Did they not absorb it into a patriarchal and colonial religion of empire and of force that gave rise, in the end, to the practices of child removal that have so damaged the Indigenous children of Australia and many other places? Well yes, actually. Yes.

On this Sorry Day, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the faith and spirituality of Jesus, whose religion was deeply imbedded in a particularly semitic experience of family, of kinship and of care. And perhaps we should remind ourselves, on this Trinity Sunday, that the dogma of the trinity is essentially about being part of a loving and caring family and the blessing of having one. And finally, perhaps, on this Sorry and Trinity Sunday, we should commit ourselves anew to practices of nurture that allow our Indigenous children to become who they are. Proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kin.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Garry Worete Deverell is a trawloolway man from northern lutruwita/Tasmania, an Anglican priest and Academic Dean in the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Divinity.


Image credit: Aboriginal dot art vector painting. Family concept. By Rasha Singh at Dreamstime.com.


This is the text of a homily given at Pitt Street Uniting Church, Warrane/Sydney, on Sorry Day/Trinity Sunday, on 26th May 2024. Texts used: Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17. First published at https://uncommonprayers.blogspot.com/2024/05/reclaiming-trinity-as-kin-thought.html. Edited and republished with permission.

[*] I mean dogma in its true sense of the word: a cultural-linguistic framework for interpreting the faith of the Christian church.

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