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Radio National Transcripts: The Religion

Wednesday, 28 May, 1997.
"The Conundrum of Reconciliation"

Woman: I can not move on until people who claim to be church leaders begin to speak out for us.

Lyn Gallacher: Church leaders were criticised in Melbourne this week, at the Australian Reconciliation Convention. They were accused of not speaking out on behalf of indigenous people. At the same time, in another part of the country, they were accused of speaking out too much.

Welcome to The Religion Report and the Conundrum of Reconciliation.

A Week of Prayer for Reconciliation began yesterday. It's an interfaith event. The presumption is that all religious traditions want to be part of the reconciliation process as an expression of their faith. The Week of Prayer was the initiative of an advisory group to the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council. The convenor of this group is Jeremy Jones. Between sessions of the conference, he told me how the idea got started.

Jeremy Jones: Well the Week of Prayer commenced in 1993, and the aim has really remained the same. That is, to set in the religious calendars, in the faith calendars of all groups within Australia, the idea of devoting time to prayer, thought and reflection on the soul of the nation and one particular question relating to the soul of the nation, and that is the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Lyn Gallacher: And how do you manage to do that over diverse faith groups?

Jeremy Jones: It's very difficult, because groups operate in very different ways. The Jewish community for instance, often does things through their roof body, or through organisations which are both secular and religious. Other organisations devote part of their liturgy to the indigenous situation; others will have special services where they will invite indigenous Australians to play a major part. So it really is quite difficult, but what hasn't been difficult is getting people to agree that this is a worthwhile project.

Lyn Gallacher: Do you have to agree on some notion of a reconciling god?

Jeremy Jones: No, we don't, because we don't discuss issues such as that. But what's interesting is there are some common terms that come up from every group - the idea that we're each responsible for one another, whether that is brother's keeper, or whatever it might be, we all see that. The idea of human beings being common under a god, or in a spirit or whatever, is something which is quite common. Also the idea that if you do something harmful, there is a concept of sin, there is something that you don't only act because of self-interest, you act also because of a moral question, a values question. And it's been quite a good learning experience I think for all of us involved in this process. I don't know if many of the other participants had ever met a Jewish person before the first meeting with me. I was the only non-Christian at the first meeting. Since then, partly at my initiative, Muslims have become involved, Buddhists, Hindus, the Baha'is, there've been quite a number of groups, and we're all learning from one another, and I think it's been very enriching for all of us. Now that's very useful personally, but it becomes much more difficult when we try to translate that into direction in the form of some kind of common goal, and the goal at the moment being Aboriginal reconciliation.

But I do think it's very valuable to the outside community when they see religious groups, or faith groups working together, given I think there is an image out there that we're all in competition for souls, or we all think we're better than one another, or whatever. You don't get that coming across at all in the concept of working together for Aboriginal reconciliation.

Lyn Gallacher: And what is your general feeling about the spirit of the age? Are we in a world now that can cope with these broader social questions, or are we in a mean-spirited age?

Jeremy Jones: I do think it's a bit harder now than it has been sometimes in the past, to get people involved in broadly what we call social justice issues. But it doesn't mean it's impossible and there are many people out there working and trying to build up a momentum to say, 'All right, if this age is a bit mean-spirited than another age, let's make sure the next age, the one just around the corner, is even more generous-spirited than the previous generous-spirited age'. There's a saying in the Talmud, or an injunction in the Talmud, that if you allow some social ill to take place in your community and you don't seek to do something about it, you're as bad as somebody who is actually doing it, once you've seen it, once you're a witness to it, and you're not acting. And I think that principle is broadly translated right across the various faith groups, right across the religious spectrum, and there is always a response to that though that says 'I'm OK so I'm not really going to bother about it, I have my own personal spirituality.' But I think that becomes a broader theological question about how you encourage people to think that for part of their covenant with God includes a covenant on behalf of the broader community with God.

Lyn Gallacher: That was Jeremy Jones, convenor of the Advisory Group on Faith Communities to the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

But prayer isn't all there is to it: the churches have been writing letters as well. Last week, the national heads of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches issued a joint letter. It warned against 'voices in the community that called forth racism and hate in the Australian community.' The letter called on Christians to 'unmask falsehood masquerading as truth' and 'prejudice which pretends to be patriotism'. (Obviously, the letter was written by a flamboyant stylist.) But for all the rhetoric it seems a tad tentative. The letter wasn't so bold as to name Pauline Hanson, and notably Pentecostalists didn't sign.

The dilemma for the churches is that some members may well support Pauline Hanson and her views. This tension between the church leaders, and those in the pew, is felt most of all in Ipswich, Ms Hanson's electorate. David Busch reports.

Virginia Clark: Some of our priests and ministers and pastors have been hamstrung because although they may think that we have to work in the wider community and make political statements, they are preaching to basic groups of people who are supporting Pauline Hanson, and we've had it here in Ipswich - people who preached against Pauline Hanson, people got up in the middle of some of their services and walked out the door. Now this is really deeply divisive for the church community as well as the wider community.

David Busch: That's Virginia Clark, an active Catholic layperson in Ipswich, and a member of the Ipswich Churches Social Justice Group.

Virginia Clark: I mean we've got a top-down situation where the hierarchy is saying, 'Fine, we agree with all these social justice principles' and then what do we have? We have congregations that are basically conservative, there's Sunday behaviour and there's Monday to Friday behaviour. And that's where the battle starts.

David Busch: Local clergy know the problem all too well. Here's Baptist pastor Rod Benson, and Anglican priest Howard Munro.

Rod Benson: I think people in our churches are often supportive of Hanson and what she stands for because of a general shift that has taken place in our society. People are crying out for security and safety, and they'll take that at any cost. And the cost to our local community here in Ipswich has been the enormous disjuncture and problems that have arisen because of Pauline Hanson and all the things that she has said. I don't really know what we can do about that as Christian leaders and as lay people in our churches, and my ministerial colleagues wrestle with this all the time. We may have personal views that we hold dear to our hearts - views from our own background or from where we come denominationally or theologically, but we're in the same boat as the political leaders, in that we're also often courting a large middle-class population. And so we have to tread a very fine line between what we believe is right and what we know is pragmatically good for us.

Howard Munro: Whether you decide to take the long view and try by the gentlest means on one-on-one bases to gradually persuade people to question their attitudes, or whether we have some more confrontational approach to issues of social justice, and some strong sermons and strong media pronouncements, it's a very difficult issue and it's one that I think is faced by a lot of pastors and lay leaders in the church.

David Busch: Church leaders feel the heat too. The Reverend John Virtali is Queensland President of the Lutheran Church, and he addressed an anti-racism rally in Ipswich last Sunday.

John Virtali: One of the pastors passed the comment that 70% of his members would probably support Pauline Hanson and what she says. Now that I hope is an exaggeration, but certainly there would be amongst our members, many who would support her and support the kind of solutions that she is proposing to our country's problems. I mean my own mother, dare I say? recently made the comment that she thought that Pauline Hanson was a really gutsy person. And I can understand how you would get that view that here's someone who's a simple fish and chip shop lady who has dared to take on the major political parties and has somehow rallied people to her side. Sure, I guess that takes a degree of guts and courage. It still doesn't make me feel very in tune with what she is saying.

David Busch: So you've even got to convince your own mother that there's more to Pauline Hanson than meets the eye.

John Virtali: Yes, we had an interesting debate around the table.

David Busch: So you address an anti-Pauline Hanson rally in Ipswich. Where does that leave you with respect to the constituency within your church that might take offence at that stance?

John Virtali: Obviously there is a risk, and a problem. I would want to say that I'm speaking there at a rally against racism, rather than an anti-Pauline Hanson rally, even for many that may be splitting hairs. The point is that if I say I'm speaking against Pauline Hanson, it would seem that I'm speaking politically, and I would want to say that I'm not speaking politically but I'm speaking as a Christian, seeking to present a Christian view onto the question of racism itself. And I'm still trying to work out for myself just how much racism there is in Pauline Hanson herself, or whether there are more sinister forces there in the background. And certainly we cannot in any way align ourselves with those people who are in fact creating and stirring up division and hatred in our community.

David Busch: So how would a letter like that from the National Council of Churches go down among the Lutheran constituency in Ipswich?

John Virtali: I would hope that where people really sat down and thought through the issues and looked at what the statement from the National Council of Churches was saying, that at least 90%-95% of them would come to recognise and see that yes, this is the implication of the Christian gospel for the lives who claim the name of Christian.

David Busch: So with such torn political loyalties within their own congregations, what mandate do the heads of churches have to speak out? Last week's pastoral letter was released by the National Council of Churches. Its General Secretary is the Reverend David Gill.

David Gill Essentially heads of churches are involved in ministry and their job is to be as sensitive as they can to their people, where their people are coming from, to be as tender as they can in dealing with the concerns of their people, but ultimately when they try to lead their people they've got to be informed by the gospel and not just by what people might want to hear. That's the responsibility of leadership.

I've had a number of phone calls since the heads of churches pastoral letter went out, and the phone calls have been very interesting. I mean some were very supportive of what the heads of churches had said; some were very hostile to what the heads of churches had said. And the hostile ones I found particularly interesting and concerning, because when individuals phoned me, they weren't just reacting to a particular pastoral letter, they weren't just talking about Pauline Hanson, this was working like a trigger: it led them to spill out anger, frustration, confusion, on a whole host of things about life in modern Australia. And I guess I've come out of this with a clearer recognition that what's going on here is a massive buildup of alienation from many aspects of life in modern Australia.

David Busch: Are you concerned or embarrassed that it seems a lot of Christians in Ipswich, for example, support Pauline Hanson?

David Gill I'm concerned that there are many people in our churches who don't seem to see how following Jesus Christ has anything to do with the way they relate to contemporary social issues. There seems to be a clear divorce in many peoples' minds between their religion on the one hand, and the way they deal with the fact that Aboriginal people are getting it in the neck in many parts of Australia, or Chinese kids are being spat on on their way to school. They just don't seem to see a connection there. And that worries me.

David Busch: So what would your advice or guidance be to the churches in Ipswich which do find themselves torn perhaps on the one hand between pastoral leadership which does share the concerns for justice and equity, but a constituent congregation where there's a lot of support for the kind of issues that are running?

David Gill I hope they will take seriously the pastoral letter and study seriously the points that are made by church leaders. I'm not going to claim that church leaders are always infallible, they too can make mistakes, they too can fail to see something that they ought to see. But I am saying that their pastoral letter deserves to be taken seriously and discussed and thought about, and that's what I hope will happen all over the place, regardless of how people might feel about a particular individual called Pauline Hanson.

I think the real question for the people of Ipswich or anywhere else, is not whether you like Pauline Hanson, the real question is what are you doing to deal with racism, prejudice, small-mindedness and a coldness of heart that in many ways seems to be creeping across Australia at the present time.

Lyn Gallacher: The Reverend David Gill of the National Council of Churches in Australia, speaking to David Busch.


The National Council of Churches aren't the only ones who've been writing letters. The Australian Council of Christians and Jews has also released a letter condemning racism. This one does name Pauline Hanson. It says that the stated policy objectives on the part of Ms Hanson are discriminatory. It says those policies are racist, and it condemns them.

Yet the condemnation wasn't loud enough or fast enough for some. The Religion Report sat in on the faith groups sessions at the Reconciliation Convention. It was standing room only, we were on the floor. Delegates aimed to consider how reconciliation could become a reality within their religious communities. The session went an hour longer than it should have, because when time came for questions, about twenty people leapt to the microphone. Here's what we heard.

Liz Hayden: My name's Liz Hayden and I come from Western Australia. Several things I'd like to challenge the churches on. First I would say that when Pauline Hanson started running around this country creating divisions and a mindset within white Australia, I looked for the churches to speak out. And it was not until her speech affected the Asian population or the Asian businesses that this government and these churches began, and speakers within those churches began to speak out. I say to you, as church people who first brought the gospel to this country, Why didn't you speak out for us at the beginning? Why didn't you make a difference to the likes of Pauline Hanson when people like me cried our hearts out within ourselves. Our pain was too deep for tears. And I'm beginning to cry now because I didn't want to come to this conference, this convention because I asked myself, Why do I want to be reconciled with people who do not speak out against people like Pauline Hanson for us? I don't want to be reconciled to people who actually perpetuate the policies that existed back in the early days, since time immemorial, that white colonists set up here in Australia. White Australia says they have nothing to do with the past, but they do, as long as those policies keep on being perpetuated by those very people who are here. I thank you, my sister, because this isn't easy.

Allie Golding: I'm Allie Golding, and I'm from Redfern, The Block. And the sister was saying she gives - she held her hand out for churches. And I experienced this on The Block, Redfern. We were screaming out, we were holding our hands out for churches to help us, to help us to keep a community on that block there. But we did not get any response. Uniting Church is mentioned here, Anglican church is mentioned here, not the Catholic, but yet it was the Catholic was trying to do something about it. My hats are off to the Catholic people, and I'm proud to stand here and say I'm Pentecostal, but the Catholic, my hat goes off to, because we reached out to all other denominations and no response. If you're calling yourself a man or a woman of God, prove it, not to us but to yourself and to God because God is where we should put him first. If God is before us, who can be against us? Is it a game we play in church? I think it is. Because I am hurt, because I have grandchildren on The Block, that's suffering for the condition of The Block at Redfern. But I'm praying that God will undertake and over-rule the situation. I believe that with all my heart. Thank you for listening.

Ray Minnicon: My name is Ray Minnicon, I'm the manager of World Vision's indigenous programs. I want to say quite categorically in looking at our history, how my father was treated and how a couple of the elders in this meeting here today have been treated, that the church has failed us for 200 years. It's failed us in many, many ways. And I want to see the church begin, after 200 years, to recognise the incredible resources in terms of leadership abilities and talents and skills, that we have within our indigenous community. But not only recognise that skill, but also to resource it. Because it's no use giving us recognition without the resources. And all I can say is that I can condemn the church for its failure in providing the types of resources that it needs and the recognition that our Aboriginal leadership needs. And until you can turn around that and change your attitudes toward that and get away from this institutionalised racism that the church has portrayed over the last 200 years, we're not going to see the reconciliation process take a step forward from that.

And just one other thing, over in Western Australia, there is a law over there three strikes and you're down. Right at this particular moment, we have a number of our young indigenous people who are in jail because of this law. But do we hear the voices of the church or any others crying out for the basic rights of our people? It's stifled for some unknown reason. We want to hear the voice of the church a little bit more loudly. Thank you.

Arthur Malcolm: I'm Bishop Arthur Malcom, I'm Assistant Bishop in the Anglican Church in north Queensland. What I want to say on this reconciliation thing is that we are all part of it, we can't get out of it. And as we talk about our churches and what the church has been doing amongst our people, I think that my brothers and sisters, that I can speak that now we are the white Australian, the white churches are beginning to realise and understand that there are leaders amongst our people. But the thing is that we have to do was in ourselves; we have to look at ourselves. Are we fair dinkum about reconciliation? There are Aboriginal people who could stand up and talk for themselves, and I give thanks to God that the Anglican people at Yarrawa said to the white Bishop up there, 'We need a leader. We need a lead amongst ourselves to speak for our people in the north'. And I give thanks to God that I was chosen by them as a leader to speak on their behalf, and now I go to the General Synod and so on, on Dave Passi and I go to general syn×talk and speak on behalf of our people, the Anglican people and the Roman Catholic and the Uniting church, they have their leaders too. So brothers and sisters, a bloke got up in our Synod just recently, he said to all of us 'Look at my hand' and when everybody looked at it, and he turned it around, what's on the other side? The white black, so we are united together. You are with me and we are with you.

John Levi: My name's John Levi, I'm a Rabbi in Melbourne. In the 1980s a book was written on religion in Australia, a survey. Unlike the American experience, religiosity in Australia was shown to correlate positively with a lack of prejudice because when you go to places of worship, when you hear the stories, when you get inspiration and measure up your own behaviour to the highest status possible, you begin to understand the dynamism of change. And I would like to suggest that secularism, where people never sit in the pew, never participate in a discussion about values, never hear the stories, will never re-assess where they are. And for me, secularism is our major problem in this reconciliation process.

Fairy Houshman: I'm Fairy Houshman. I'm from the Baha'i faith group. There is a woman that I would like to mention her name because she has had a lot of impact on my spiritual life. Her name is Ann Thomas, she is the wife of a tribal elder in Bilpuri tribe in south coast. And Ann Thomas is also a member of the Baha'i community. What she does, as part of her contribution towards reconciliation process, is to hold camps for women and children. I have been involved with these camps for the last six to seven years, and at the end of the camp we have become so close that we almost don't want to go back to our families. It's just a wonderful way of hearing each other and understanding each other. And I think this is perhaps a lesson we can take away with us.

Vivian Sahana: My name's Vivian Sahana, I live in Broome, I'm a registered nurse, I'm the Secretary of NATSIAC, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council. And I'll just leave one little thought: before the white man came, we had land and they had the bible. They taught us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had nothing. Thank you.

Lyn Gallacher: That was some of the debate at the faith groups session of the Australian Reconciliation Convention.

For Anglicans the convention began with worship at St Paul's Cathedral. The service was called 'The heart of reconciliation'. The preacher was Father Dave Passi. He's a senior priest on Murray Island, and a leader of the Torres Strait Islander community.


Dave Passi: Australia today is called by God to rewrite its history and free itself of its own fetters that bind us or bind it to its past, the past that enforced and continues to enforce today the dispossession, degradation, inhumanity, greed, lies, and the list goes on. The Christian church today must endeavour to become more and more the hope of the hopeless, all to the needs of its peoples.

The three peoples I believe of Australia, the Aboriginal nation, the original and true owners of this land, the Torres Strait Islander, and our white Australian brothers and sisters, must sit together and work out how we can together turn Australia upside down for God, and in amazement with me, watch the great reconciling God in action in Australia. If we watch him, he is surely giving back to the Aboriginal people, slowly but surely what is rightfully theirs, ensuring justice and truth and freedom.

Let us all together free Australia from all the lies of the past, and let it be founded and built upon the virtues of truth, justice and love. Let us all be praying from now on that this reconciling process that we have begun, continue on for the good of all in this beautiful country of ours and to become truly the Great South Land of the holy spirit. Amen.

Lyn Gallacher: Amen. Father Dave Passi.

That's all we've got time for today; next week John Cleary is back on deck.

©Copyright 1997, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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