In 1991 the Federal Parliament voted unanimously to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to promote and guide a formal process of reconciliation. One task Parliament set the Council was "to consult Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the wider Australian community on whether reconciliation would be advanced by a formal document or documents of reconciliation".
Over several years of discussions, consultations and independent research, the Council determined that there is wide support for such a document.
In June this year the Council launched a Draft Document for Reconciliation. The Council has been seeking the views of all Australians about this draft and will take account of these in preparing its final proposals. These will be launched on 27 May 2000 at Sydney Opera House as part of Corroboree 2000. The corroboree (a word in the language of the Darug people from the Sydney region) will also include a People's Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May.
Representatives of the NSW Churches met in Sydney in September to consider a joint response to the Council's draft document. This is an edited version of one of the papers given at that meeting.
I had thought that the Document drafted by the National Council for Reconciliation should be supported in its entirety unless there was a widely held objection to it among Indigenous people. There was. In mid-September, over 60 leaders of the Indigenous peoples made their response to the Draft. They regarded it as too weak on Indigenous rights.
They declared it should include a statement on Indigenous rights including the rights to self-determination, equality and identity. They warned that it should be made clear that this Draft Document is not the end of the reconciliation process.
Consequently I think the NSW Churches should take a two-fold position: first, to affirm the positions already reached by the Draft Document; second, to take account of the Indigenous leaders statement and to back their call for a statement on Indigenous rights.
The Draft Document should be affirmed as far as it goes because it enunciates a number of positions considered contentious within mainstream Australia. It is important for the Churches to take a moral stand on these.
I will make only brief comments on the National Strategies because they are sketched only in general terms. To comment upon them would be too complex and would require a lot of specialist expertise. On the other hand I fear that not taking up the Strategies may seem to imply that reconciliation is mostly an interpersonal matter. The Strategies are rightly concerned that the socio-economic-political levels are necessary elements of reconciliation.
The response that Christian Churches together make will issue from our sense of who we are and what has been our relationship with the Indigenous people. We need to spell out the authentic church viewpoint as Christian bodies within Australian society.
This 'taking stock' came home to me when reflecting upon the sections of the Declaration regarded as 'contentious'. On some of these our judgment must be founded upon what is objectively true. But in a few key sections we will need a viewpoint above that of ordinary inquiry, a viewpoint grounded in wisdom.
Can we find one? Truthfulness is at the core of wisdom. We have to admit that we have often failed in our attitudes toward the Indigenous. On 10 December 1997, leaders of the churches of NSW together in St Mary's Cathedral Sydney, offered a service of apology to the Indigenous peoples. We confessed that the blindnesses and biases of mainstream Australia have affected us and still affect us.
But this Draft encourages us to revive our calling as churches to reconciliation. We are people who cry out to the Spirit to guide us, to take us beyond ourselves. If we are to measure up to the demands of reconciliation with Christian wisdom we must reach deep into ourselves, into our traditions, trusting the Spirit to bring to our minds the Gospel way of Jesus.
The Gospel tells us God reveals wisdom not to the learned and the clever, but to little ones. In our situation the learned and clever tend to be of the culture that perpetrated the injustice. Forgiveness must arise from the party that has been traumatised. The perpetrator group cannot dictate their own forgiveness!
The churches, therefore, must give weight to the views of their Indigenous members, especially those whose lives have reflected Gospel wisdom.
A number of deceased Aboriginal people came to my mind. One was Rev Charles Harris of the Uniting Church. In 1988-89 he jolted me into seeing how we in the churches, even when sympathetic, still presume to make judgments from outside the Aboriginal experience.
There are other Indigenous who could be mentioned from various churches.
I would settle on one, Mum Shirl Smith. Mum Shirl was forthrightly church but from deep within the struggle of her people. She brought her Aboriginal identity and authentic church prophetically together. Her life work for those in prison and her care for so many children reflected the Gospel. Further, Mum Shirl cared for white prisoners as well as black. Her nephew said at the funeral that, whilst he himself could only hate, she had no hate. In her, reconciliation lived and she is credited with the most profound word on reconciliation I have ever heard. She said, "If you can't find anyone to hang on the cross between two thieves, I'll do it." Could anyone reach into the wisdom of the cross more deeply?
Hopefully I have suggested something of a Gospel standpoint that is also Indigenous.
Let us consider the 'contentious' sentences in the Draft line by line.
"We value the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original owners and custodians of traditional lands and waters."
This is a foundational statement for reconciliation. In support there is a considerable amount of well-researched data from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal sources. This was taken into account by the High Court in its Mabo and Wik judgments in favour of Indigenous native title to land.
These judgments constituted recognition of the connection between particular Indigenous and their particular land. Their title of ownership/custodianship was different from the property law that evolved in Britain. But it was recognised as a firm and public form of title. So this statement can be safely judged to be true.
"We acknowledge that the land was colonised without the consent of the original inhabitants."
This too is foundational. Is it disloyal to our colonist forebears? The statement is quite unemotional and matter of fact. The issue is: is it true? Again there is a body of academically respectable historical writing about the violent dispossession in varied parts of the continent. This history also was a factor in the Mabo and Wik judgments.
"Our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of the past so that we can move on together in peace."
'Owning the truth' needs some effort to comprehend. Let me put it this way. As citizens of modern Australia we have inherited the good and bad of Australian society. We have inherited belonging to a wealthy nation that offers many opportunities for the good life. All these good things are founded largely upon our being able to live in this land, own property in it, etc.
Therefore the good things we inherit are largely founded upon the dispossession of the Indigenous. This is obviously true. 'Owning' is also a matter of feeling - and this must reach deep into our psyche and spirit. As the Declaration says: it needs courage.
There are those who declare that they are individuals, nothing more. They have no need to 'own' anything that has happened unless they personally have done it.
"And so we take this step as one part of the nation expresses its sorrow and profoundly regrets the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apology and forgives."
Here is the key to reconciliation upon which it is necessary that we get some interior understanding. It requires a wisdom that is deeply human. Only then can we grasp that the 'owning' of injustice impels sorrow, whilst receiving of sorrow impels forgiveness.
Let us go back to Mum Shirl's care for non-Aboriginal prisoners. One such had just had scalding water thrown over him in the prison kitchen. Mum Shirl went to him. The man was in despair and terror. As she sat with him she felt his pain within herself; it was unbearable. In recounting this she said, "There was more than me in that pain."
In philosophy and theology we recognise that there can be a spontaneous interrelationship between one person's inner self and the inner self of another. We have all cried at times, feeling others' pain. One philosopher notes how we spontaneously move to prevent a person falling, almost before we see the fall. "We are members one of another, at a level prior to our being separate." Being members of one another is a primal and intrinsic dimension of being human. That is why violence to a fellow human violates our own soul. Evil, to get its way, denies inter-human feeling.
It is shocking to read that Spanish colonists in Latin America, including some clergy, argued seriously that the Native Indians were not fully human and were fit only for slavery. Pope Paul III in the Bull Veritas Ipsa 1537 had to affirm "they are true human beings" and "they are not to be reduced to slavery". The contrary opinions among the colonists, he wrote, had demonic origins. The rapacity of the colonists suppressed the instinct of human fellowship.
The proposition that one is merely an individual owing no solidarity with those who have gone before or with familial or community groups is another denial of inter-human feeling. On the other hand an awareness of it throws light on Christ's reconciling of the world. By his communion in humanity, Jesus was opened to the violence and pain within souls. He was impelled to bear it with and for his sisters and brothers. He still does. Remember Mum Shirl's words: "There was more than me in that pain." She was struck with wonder.
If Australian society were to recover the feeling for human fellowship in a way that included the Indigenous, then, as the Declaration says, Australia would begin a new journey where the opposed histories could be shared and souls would attain a new
peace. The Declaration is also bold enough to mention another good that would be given, spirituality. By making reconciliation with the Indigenous and with the history between us we would also make a new relationship with the land. We may then come to taste, in our own fashion, something of the spirituality they sense within the land.
If this position is reached, then Australian society may come to understand to some extent the most contentious sentence in the Draft:
"We respect and recognise continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions."
This issue is at the heart of the Indigenous demand for identity and self-determination. It is resisted by the forces of assimilation.
They will not recognise "the heart of darkness" in the colonising of Australia. Not only the land was taken, but also the souls. It is on this point in particular that Aborigines want their position as the First Peoples to be recognised. They must not be denied their traditions and beliefs. As regards customary law, this issue applies particularly among traditional Indigenous people. It would be good for us to recommend to the churches in those traditional areas to face this issue.
Now to the second point: to back the call of the Indigenous leaders for the inclusion of a statement on Indigenous rights. We await the paper they have promised on this issue. Also, we back their warning that this Document must not be considered the end of the reconciliation process.
The Indigenous leaders are wise in judging that the process is being driven in part by some political figures who want reconciliation to look 'settled' by the Olympic Games and the centenary of Federation. It is clear that the depth of heart that reconciliation requires has not affected more than a minority of the mainstream population. Even in the churches the redneck attitudes remain common.
Why should the Indigenous settle for an inadequate protection of their rights by reconciling with a population that largely does not yet understand or care? As I said, the party of the perpetrators cannot demand to foist their terms upon the traumatised. I believe this is just obviously true.
Catholic priest Frank FLETCHER, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred
Heart, has spent many years with the Aboriginal Catholic
Ministry in Redfern.
by Frank FLETCHER