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Bishop Chris Mc Leod

Resetting the narrative on First Nations justice

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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:

  • Racism is present whenever persons, even before they are born, because of their race, are assigned to a group severely limited in their freedom of movement, their choice of work, their places of residence and so on.
  • Racism is present whenever groups of people, because of their race, are denied effective participation in the political process, and so are compelled (often by force) to obey the edicts of governments which they were allowed to have no part in choosing.
  • Racism is present whenever racial groups within a nation are excluded from the normal channels available for gaining economic power, through the denial of educational opportunities and entry into occupational groups.
  • Racism is present whenever the policies of a nation-state ensure benefits for that nation from the labour of racial groups (migrant or otherwise), while at the same time denying to such groups commensurate participation in the affairs of the nation-state.
  • Racism is present whenever the identity of persons is denigrated through stereotyping of racial and ethnic groups in text books, cinema, mass media, interpersonal relations and other ways.
  • Racism is present whenever people are denied equal protection of the law, because of race, and when constituted authorities of the state use their powers to protect the interests of the dominant group at the expense of the powerless.
  • Racism is present whenever groups or nations continue to profit from regional and global structures that are historically related to racist presuppositions and actions.(2)

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!

Bishop Chris Mc Leod
Bishop Chris McLeod is of Gurindji descent and has been involved in ministry among and beside Aboriginal people in Anglican orders for more than 20 years.

"'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."

Love in action

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!

Resetting the narrative

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.

  • “Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God”. Words that are familiar from numerous courtroom television dramas. “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. It will include stories of violence (sexual, physical, and psychological), massacre and genocide, the forced removal of land and children, and numerous other injustices, but there will also be stories of hope and expressions of humanity at its best. Christians are “Good News” people, but we have never shied away from addressing sin when we encounter it, and calling people to repentance, including whole nations.
  • A Voice to Federal Parliament. Our nation needs to hear the voice and wisdom of the First Nations peoples. More than 60,000 years of experience and wisdom is of utmost value to a nation that, officially, is still very young. Resolving the issues around First Nations justice demands that First Nations voices are listened to, and the shaping of a nation in desperate need of reconciling its past and present.
  • Raise the age of juvenile incarceration. Intergenerational incarceration is a serious problem for First Nations peoples. More than 30 per cent of inmates in Australian prisons are First Nations peoples. In the Northern Territory it is over 80 per cent.4 Our juvenile detention centres are primarily occupied by First Nations children. Incarceration is cyclical, setting up higher rates of recidivism, poor educational and employment prospects, poor health outcomes, increased rates of suicide, and the very serious possibility of death in custody. The “Raise the Age” movement is asking federal, state and territory governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14. I would argue that 14 is still too young to put a child in jail. For the long term benefit of First Nations peoples, and society at large, more work needs to be done at the grassroots level around breaking the cycle of crime and poverty. The money spent would surely outweigh the heavy spiritual, physical and mental health costs borne by First Nations peoples, and the high financial cost of incarceration.
  • Preach the Gospel. A personal story: as a young man I was truly lost. I was very unsure about where I was heading in life, and I suffered from very poor self-esteem. I was conflicted over cultural identity, amongst other things. I could have wandered into crime, or drug or alcohol addiction. I flirted with them. However, at 17 I came to Christ. I found my identity in Jesus Christ and I have never looked back. Perhaps I might have turned out alright anyway. I cannot say for sure, but what I do know is that becoming a Christian was the “reset” that I needed. As a Christian I am committed to proclaiming “Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), but what I also know is that this includes standing alongside the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalised in imitation of Jesus. In Australia that includes many people, but it certainly includes my people. As Christians we know the power of the Gospel to save. Proclaimed with cultural sensitivity, the Gospel has the capacity to impact individuals, communities, and, yes, even nations.

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)

4. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/corrective-services-australia/latest-release


Bishop Chris McLeod is of Gurindji descent and has been involved in ministry among and beside Aboriginal people in Anglican orders for more than 20 years. He is National Aboriginal Bishop in the Anglican Church of Australia. In this role, he is responsible for developing and overseeing ministry among Aboriginal people. He was recently appointed as the Dean of St Peter’s Cathedral in North Adelaide.