We Presbyterians are, next time our General Assembly meets in three years, deciding whether or not Presbyterians should conduct acknowledgments of country, or facilitate welcomes to country, in Presbyterian Church events.
I think it’s a no brainer. Others, including the Reverend Mark Powell, disagree. Mark has rehashed his arguments against acknowledgments of country in a public forum over on Eternity News.
I vehemently disagree with Mark on this issue; which won’t surprise him because we disagree on most things. I think his piece in Eternity is the worst form of religious culture war propaganda (up there with his columns in the Spectator, which are typically just culture war fodder, rather than being explicitly religious). While there’s an ‘opposite’ position already published on Eternity, and while I’d love to hear from Aboriginal Christian Leaders like Brooke Prentis (who Mark names in his piece) and Aunty Jean Phillips (who has been exceptionally helpful to me in ways you can read about here), there is, I think, a place for a fellow Presbyterian Minister to respond (so someone who is definitely a university educated male, and highly likely to be white). I don’t think being male, middle class, educated, and white prohibits someone from having an opinion, or from being right, or from speaking — but I do think when a room of decision makers, like our assembly, is made up almost exclusively of one type of people (men), with a fairly homogenous (though not exclusively western) cultural background, the onus is on us to listen well to those not in the room, not just to each other. I remain optimistic that our denomination will land somewhere good on this issue. I find myself feeling like there’s a similar dynamic going on here that was at play in the same sex marriage debate, where the ‘political ends’ shape our engagement with others rather than pastoral and evangelistic ends; like Mark I believe politics is also a form of love, and an outworking of the Gospel, but I believe our politics are meant to be pastoral and evangelistic as we are ambassadors of Jesus, through whom God makes his appeal for all people to be reconciled to him. There’s a consistency between this Eternity article and what you’ll find in Mark’s pieces on the Spectator; there’s a fusion of a certain form of western individual liberalism, a syncretism even, with Christian theology. I often feel that Mark’s positions are more concerned about politics and winning a culture war (or converting people to a syncretised western individualism and an individualised Gospel), than they are about bringing people into the kingdom; there’s a degree to which to accept Mark’s vision of the truth you must accept his late modern political assumptions (that late modern politics has to some extent been shaped by a protestant form of Christianity is not lost on me).
Here are my arguments against Mark Powell’s arguments.
- For Aboriginal Christian Leaders, acknowledgments of country and welcomes to country mean nothing like what Powell insists they mean. Powell reads the culture, and these ‘cultural texts’ through a prism of Western individualism (that comes through in his argument), and an idiosyncratic theological grid. To impose either that social or theological grid on others without listening to them is the very worst of the colonial impulse. Mark would do well to listen to people like Brooke, or even those indigenous men and women serving in our denomination before telling indigenous people what these aspects of their culture actually means or represents. I’ll include an Acknowledgment of Country I wrote, in consultation with Brooke, for a wedding for someone from our church at the end.
- The Bible consistently connects identity to land; and has God appointing the boundaries in which different people live and are connected to land. Think Adam and Eve in the garden as ‘gardening’ stewards, Israel in the ‘promised land’ — whose fortunes were intertwined so that blessing would flow from the land to Israel if they were obedient and worshipped God, while the land would become harsh and unlivable if they worshipped idols. But also, this is a point Paul explicitly makes in Acts 17: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Mark makes a very strange argument from the work of Manning Clark to refute this, but regardless of who the original custodians of this country were, Mark’s version of the history of European settlement is a troubling one that seems in part to be based on recognising that to make reparations would be expensive for individuals (who benefit from the historic dispossession of the occupants of this land), and institutions (though Mark’s western individualism is consistently applied here). The Bible consistently recognises the intergenerational cost of sin; from the ground being cursed because of Adam, to Israel in exile, to Pilate’s words about the blood of Jesus being on the heads of those who killed him and on futute generations. The Old Testament jubilee laws recognise an historic ‘birthright’ connection to country, and a corporate identity, closer to indigenous beliefs about connection to country than a western individual liberalism that turns land into something that individuals and corporations can own for perpetuity (not to mention foreign investment).
- The Bible has a sacramental, though not idolatrous, view of creation. To make all sacramental approaches to nature idolatrous is to throw out a whole bunch of baby with the bathwater; or to avoid the “abusus non tollit usum” principle (wrong use does not negate right use). If the divine nature and character of God are revealed from what has been made, and if the heavens and earth declare the glory of God, and if the Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made by human hands but put people all over the world so that we might seek him; then those places that are recognised as beautiful, that thrust us towards the transcendent as they take our breath away are truly sacred, but also we should not be surprised that such places become ‘sacred’ in idolatrous systems. Regarding Mark’s treatment of Brooke in his piece, Brooke (who was recently appointed as the CEO of Common Grace) says she was drawing on Stan Grant’s observation that ‘the sporting field’ is the most sacred place in Australian culture; she wasn’t even making the theological point that I am.
- Acknowledgments of Country, or Welcomes to Country, especially those conducted by Christians, do not deny that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ — in fact they acknowledge that, and the role God gave humanity as stewards or custodians.
- Even if there are idolatrous forms of an Acknowledgment of Country or a Welcome to Country, and that is quite possible, there are lots of other idolatrous forms of things we westerners embrace; the Presbyterian Assembly, for example, took place in a church building with a metal archway entrance bearing the words ‘Lest We Forget’ with flagpoles carrying the Union Jack and the Australian flag (but no Indigenous flag).
- Even if there are idolatrous beliefs associated with traditional indigenous religion, as there are with every non Christian belief, it is possible for us, as Christians, to hear the existential cry of those practices and show how it is answered in the Gospel by participating in adapted forms of the cultural text or artefact. This, for example, is what Paul does in Athens as he introduces a new foreign God to a place searching for meaning through connection to the transcendent; Paul does this by following the cultural conventions for introducing a new God to the Areopagus in Athens (there’s a paper by Rev. Dr Bruce Winter that makes this case about the structure and content of Paul’s speech in Athens).
- There is, perhaps, very good reason historically, but also presently, that Presbyterian Churches are not known for having Indigenous membership that reflects the breakdown of the population in any given area. Many of these are structural — both around building design (our buildings feel ‘institutional’ (the ANZAC arch being a great example), and because of our forms of worship being quite western and structured. But our failure to listen, and indeed, our baptising of ‘not listening’ as something sacred where we came bringing the light of the Gospel such that we should not listen to our indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ who bridge that cultural gap, insist that people leave their aboriginality behind to become Christians (while not leaving our western individualism and conservative culture war politics behind), seems to me to be a significant blocker to our ongoing witness in partnership with our indigenous brethren, and it stops us acknowledging the historic injustice that so many of out Aussie neighbours are now prepared to acknowledge. Plus, in a week where we’re seeing more ongoing horrific institutional abuse, including deaths in custody, it’s just massively tone deaf to be making such an argument now. It’s possible for us to walk and chew gum; so I’d love to see Mark make some acknowledgment that embodied practices of sin, by individuals and communities and institutions end up affecting systems so that we can speak of systemic sin and its implications on different groups of people within our community. I’d love to hear him explain how deaths in custody emerged as a problem ex nihilo.
- Conducting theologically thoughtful acknowledgments of country that articulate Biblical truths is not ‘syncretism’ but an invitation for our community to connect its desire for justice, a connection to country, and a desire for reconciliation to the one in whom God is reconciling all things. The Lord Jesus. We don’t lose anything by taking a form of communication that is not inherently idolatrous, and like Israel with Egyptian gold, and Augustine with oratory, using that gold to preach truth about Christ. An acknowledgment of country is not a golden calf, but a sometimes idolatrous expression of our humanity, that can also be used to connect people with the truth about our creator; as some of our own indigenous poets have said… (Which is, of course, how Paul engages with Stoic philosophy while in Athens).
It’s not that hard to do this. Here’s the wording of an acknowledgment of country I put together listening to Brooke Prentis, reproduced with her permission. I’d love to hear more about how this is awful pagan syncretism… or actually, I wouldn’t.
“We would like to acknowledge the ____ people who are those appointed by God as the traditional custodians of this land — both within the area called ______, which we know as _____, and of this nation.
We would like to pay our respect to Elders past and present of the _____ nation for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, and we extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and those future generations who we pray will continue this task, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.“