As we consider the upcoming referendum on the First Nations Voice to Parliament, we remember the calls from Indigenous and non-indigenous Christian leaders for the recognition and representation of First Nations people in our government throughout our shared history.
In 2017, Indigenous leaders from across Australia united to express a collective desire for voice, treaty and truth-telling. In the Uluru Statement From the Heart, they graciously invited all Australians to join the movement towards a reconciled future of equitable representation. The Uluru Statement does not come as a standalone appeal. Rather, the invitation for all Australians to join First Nations people in their struggle for justice began at colonisation and has endured through the many years since. In the face of continuing oppression and injustice and at each step toward equality, Indigenous Christians have called on the church to act. Many Christians have stood in support of these Indigenous-led campaigns, united by Christ’s love and vision of God’s kingdom breaking through on earth.
Noel Pearson, a Guugu Yimithirr man of Christian faith and key member of the ‘From The Heart’ Advisory Group, speaks of the long history of Indigenous people’s “unrequited campaign for recognition and justice”.1 He points to petitions as early as 1840 and protests throughout the twentieth century that share the goal of achieving recognition. These protests did not seek to remove or replace our current systems. Rather, they made legitimate appeals to Australia’s legal and political systems for acknowledgement. Alongside this ongoing campaign, Pearson also reminds us of the unfulfilled commitments to constitutional recognition made by almost every Prime Minister since John Howard in 2007.
As we look back at the last century of protest and petition, we can see Indigenous Christians occupying central roles in calling for social and political change. William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man and prominent political activist of the early twentieth century, identified his Christian faith as his motivation to call out the government’s acts of injustice and uplift the voices of the oppressed. Cooper’s central campaigns sought land rights, enfranchisement and direct representation to parliament for Indigenous people. His call for political representation is yet to be legislatively protected. Cooper initiated this campaign in 1934, and this year, through the upcoming referendum, we have the opportunity to be a part of its fulfilment.
United around our Christian conviction as the body of Christ... we seek to support Indigenous Australians through voting ‘Yes’ at the upcoming referendum.
The society that Cooper and other activists operated within was deeply racially-divided. However, it was in this same segregated society that non-indigenous Christians began to take a bold stand in acknowledgment of Indigenous people’s inherent dignity and humanity. James Ronald, a Presbyterian minister and politician, was one of the five parliamentarians in favour of Indigenous people gaining the right to vote in 1902. While this group was vastly outnumbered, his strong faith and personal belief in universal humanity led him to conclude that “to draw a colour line... is inhumane and unchristian”.2 It is in this same spirit, united around our Christian conviction as the body of Christ, that we seek to support Indigenous Australians through voting ‘Yes’ at the upcoming referendum.
Rev Glenn Loughrey, a Wiradjuri man, calls the Uluru Statement “an offer of absurd compassion”.3 He reminds us that Indigenous people have experienced horrid mistreatment and genocide at the hands of the Australian government, yet have extended an invitation through the Uluru Statement that is without condemnation or accusation. We must respond to this “absurd compassion” with full embrace. And so, as Ronald did 120 years ago, we too can use our vote to amplify Indigenous voices. As the referendum approaches, we must listen to the historic appeals made by William Cooper and by Indigenous Christians today, to seek justice through truth-telling and uphold the cause of the oppressed by ensuring their voices are heard.
1. Noel Pearson youtube.com/watch?v=LBsrUcjGizA
2. Page 65 (Judith Brett, From Secret Ballot to democracy sausage)