The United Church of Canada is participating in a dialogue process on reconciliation with the Uniting Church in Australia focussing on both countries' and churches' shared yet very different experiences of colonization and reconciliation. Rev. Dr. Chris Budden, a member of the delegation from the Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, which visited Canada July 14-31, reflects here on their experience. A group from The United Church of Canada will visit Australia in March.
In December 2016 Colleen Geyer and I received an email from The United Church of Canada. Near the beginning were the words:
I am writing on behalf of our Moderator, the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, to invite the Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress into a dialogue of reconciliation which we hope to hold in 2017 and 2018.
How could a Uniting Church in Australia person not respond to that? Reconciliation lies at the heart of our life. It is our vocation as a Christian community. The Uniting Church in Australia's Basis of Union has that wonderful sentence:
God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end…
So for three weeks in July 2017 I accompanied a group of Congress leaders to Canada where we learned about and shared in The United Church of Canada's ongoing journey into reconciliation.
This issue sits in the heart of the church in Canada because of residential schools, their version of the Stolen Generation. Children were forcefully taken from families and placed in residential schools all over the country in order to destroy their language and culture. They were lied to; told their parents did not want them. They ran away and died in the cold. They were sexually abused, were often hungry and cold. They worked in the fields so others could benefit. They died from disease. And these schools were run by the churches.
I talked to people as old as myself, and saw tears that still flow this many years later. People without their language or their traditions. People dislocated from their families. People who, through some extraordinary grace, still share in the life of the church. I said in one small group that it was a mystery to me why people stayed in the light of that history, and one gay person said: I refuse to give up the story of Jesus to racists or those who abuse my sexuality.
There has been a truth and reconciliation commission and hearings. People have endured the pain of telling their stories. The church has tried to listen, to acknowledge the pain – I saw the Moderator of the United Church deliver the church’s apology in three communities – and to make amends.
I was asked during a panel discussion at the church’s National Aboriginal Spiritual Gathering to say why reconciliation was important to me. I said what I have said about vocation, and then I said that there are three things about reconciliation between First and Second Peoples that are particularly important to me.
First, reconciliation is about putting things right, and not just talking about right relationships. Sometimes we assume that the issue is broken relationships, and both parties are equally responsible to repair the relationship.
But this is about more than broken relationships. It is about stolen land, abused children, destroyed culture and marred identities, loss of language, and continued racism and economic marginalisation.
We need to learn from Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus didn’t just apologise for his past behaviour, and expect that relationships would be OK. He made reparation, he sought to repair some of the damage he had done.
Proper reconciliation requires reparation and repair.
Second, reconciliation has to begin in truth telling. It is about owning up to the lies in our national stories; lies told to justify oppression, theft and injustice and make us seem like good people. In Australia our national story said that the continent was "terra nullius" – empty and unoccupied. We didn’t steal the land, because nobody owned it. We didn’t kill anyone but settled the place peacefully. We were doing the people a favour by bringing civilization and the gospel story.
But the land was occupied and owned, and people were massacred and pushed off their land. Our justifying narrative is deeply racist, and based in an assumed white superiority that is contrary to the affirmation Genesis 1:27, that all humanity is made in the image of God.
Reconciliation means facing the truth about our history and what we have done.
Third, we have to ask what happened to the story of Jesus when we got so close to power, and walked hand-in-hand with those who colonised the land and harmed the people. What truths did we have to withhold to walk in that space? What distortion of our understanding of people made in the image of God did we support by word or silence? What radical edge was lost when we befriended those in power, and enjoyed the privileges that came with that friendship?
Reconciliation invites us to re-visit our gospel message, the shape of the church, and our understanding of mission.
The Preamble to our Constitution recognises that God was not brought on the boat with Europeans, but was deeply present in this place already. This is an amazing shift from a mission history that treated First Peoples as god-less people, whose language, culture and spirituality were of little worth.
Yet I was struck again in Canada on what a job the church has done on people. People still have real difficulty owning their traditions, the traditions that make them the First Peoples of Canada. And when they do recover these traditions – often in the face of fierce opposition from Christian in their own communities – there is a sense of split identity. Their traditions and the Christian story are two worlds that do not easily meet.
I am deeply challenged by both our own Preamble and the deep ceremonial life I saw and experienced in Canada. I am challenged by the connections people have to the earth, and the sense of a world that is – and this is the best world I can use – inhabited with sacred life.
I am challenged with the sense that God has another story, and I need to find ways to hear that story, and to work out what it means that God has names – plural.
I am encouraged by a re-reading of the Old Testament. One of our difficulties when we read translations is that we sometimes miss or cover up issues that make us uncomfortable or do not fit our pre-conceptions. For example, in the Old Testament God has a number of names, but we obscure this by translating them all as "Lord." Take this example:
Elohim also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Yhwh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Saddai, but by my name Yhwh I did not make myself known to them." (Exodus 6:2-3)
As Old Testament scholar Mark G. Brett says, the writer/ editor of this passage “acknowledges a multitude of divine names and through them conveys a much more subtle account of divine sovereignty" [Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. p. 94]. Here we have an "inclusive monotheism" that affirms that all people acknowledge and worship the same God, regardless of which name they use.
This does not mean we abandon the name of Jesus as a unique name for God and God’s presence among us. The challenge, I think, is to ask what other names tell us about this one we worship and adore.
The final thing I want to say is that, in a world of division, distrust, and "them and us," a world that seems to need enemies to kill, cooperation, sharing, and fellowship between churches is an important thing. Visits like this offer an important sign to the world. They are a visible sign of Christ’s prayer that we be one so that others might see Christ (John 17:23).
— The Rev. Dr. Chris Budden is the Interim National Coordinator of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. He is a Second Person who lives on the lands of the Awabakal people in Newcastle, New South Wales.