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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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