National Aboriginal Bishop Chris McLeod writes that Christian influence in Australia should offer a vision of a world shaped by God’s reign of justice.
In 2020, in the midst of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the death of George Floyd in the United States. It was shocking to witness for most of us. This event unleashed a global movement to draw attention to the unacceptable rates of deaths in custody experienced by people of colour around the world. It highlighted our own unacceptable problem here in Australia. Senseless and avoidable deaths in custody is not just a problem for the US; it is an issue that is prevalent here in Australia.
As I write, there have been 11 more deaths in custody of First Nations people since 30 June 2021, bringing the total deaths in custody of First Nations people to at least 500 since the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were handed down in 1991.(1) While the number of individual deaths in custody is in itself totally unacceptable, the impact upon family, friends and communities only accentuates the ongoing trauma and grief experienced on a large scale by First Nations peoples who are already trying to cope with serious morbidity issues and premature deaths.
Christians are called to live the life of God’s reign in the present ... we have something to say to our world about justice now!
A number of us have highlighted the problem we have with systemic racism here in Australia. It is a touchy subject for many Australians, as most of us do not like to think we are racist. We often associate racism with white supremacist movements, and, thankfully, most Australians have little to do with these groups. However, systemic racism has to do with how racism is deeply embedded in our society. There is, and it is not often articulated, the view that “white” society and its institutions are inherently superior to those of others. It is so embedded in our nation’s culture and identity that we take this view as inherently correct. In 1975 the World Council of Churches produced a report, now almost 50 years old, defining racism of the systemic kind:
It could be argued that Australia is well on the way to dealing with many of these issues, but there is much in this list that is ongoing: the high rate of incarceration of First Nations peoples; First Nations peoples’ poverty and underemployment; low educational levels; and poor health outcomes, to name just a few. Theologian Eleazar S. Fernandez reminds us that the systemic nature of evil encompasses many dimensions: classism, sexism, racism and naturism (the destruction of the ecosystem). These are often intertwined in the experience of the oppressed.3
The First Nations peoples of Australia carry the burden of all of these. The consequences of these “evils”, as Fernandez calls them, are systemic as they are reproduced from one generation to another. Their consequences, often not named, are intergenerational. We see this sense of inevitability of outcomes in the high rates of juvenile crime and detention, youth suicide, drug and alcohol addictions, abuse and violence, and in poor educational and health outcomes of even the youngest of our First Nations peoples. Now is the time, surely, for a reset!
"'Truth telling' has become a major theme for discussions around First Nations justice. We have nothing to fear from telling the story of our nation with all honesty."
Christian influence in our nation should not restrict itself to addressing a few laws that we feel impact upon our personal freedoms or to issues around sexual morality. It should offer a vision of a world shaped by God’s reign of justice and reflect God’s love in action bringing peace and hope to the world. The future of eternal freedom meets us in the present through the person of Jesus, as he inaugurated the reign of God’s justice through his life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection. Christians are called to live the life of God’s reign in the present, not just to bide our time until Christ’s return. We have something to say to our world about justice now!
Clearly the existing national narrative of “no problems to be seen here” in regards to First Nations issues around justice is not convincing. It is time to reset the narrative. Here are some conversation starters that I think provide a way forward.
1. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services
2. Racism in Theology and Theology against Racism. World Council of Churches: Report of a Consultation (WCC, Geneva, 1975) pp. 2-3, reproduced by Rowan Williams, “Afterword”, in Piers McGrandle: Trevor Huddleston: Turbulent Priest (Continuum, London, 2004) pp. 213-214.
3. Eleazar S. Fernandez, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil, (Chalice, St Louis, Missouri, 2004)