On #BlackLivesMatter, colour blindness, centering, and Aboriginal deaths in custody

I’m still learning lots about Australia’s racism problem.

You see, I’m white, I haven’t experienced racism, either overtly, or through my interactions with the structures and institutions that form part of Australian society — and even within the structures of the Australian church.

I’ve had position, and forms of power, given to me through my education, my employment, and my family’s relative prosperity, secured through generations of free education, inherited wealth and social capital, and through my own efforts in securing an education — primary, secondary, tertiary, and post graduate. I am an ordained member of an institutional church in Australia that requires people in my position to have a certain amount of privilege; the type that enables access to and success in an academic context. My denomination only affords this particular positional privilege to men. Its structures are rigid and built on tradition, as well as doctrine. One doesn’t have to be white to be a Presbyterian minister, in fact there are many non-white ministers and elders in our denomination, but it sure seems to help. One does have to be educated, and adhere to certain social and cultural norms. It’s hard for one to not conform to the parts of our culture that look pretty institutionalised and based on credentials that require a certain sort of privilege; the sort that often seems to limit the pool drawn from (you know, like judges and other positions draw from the same milieu, but also the same schools and suburbs).

It’s easy for people in our particular context, where once one has a platform, and so a voice, one assumes a degree of being there by merit, or calling, to assume there’s a sort of ‘colour blindness’ that should mark our interactions within this institution, and then to extrapolate that as a norm we’d like to see in a sort of post-racial society.

We might even project colourblindness on to God; arguing that this is the default way we’re called to see and treat one another, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile; we are all one in Christ Jesus. And yet, our oneness in Christ Jesus does not eradicate our difference — it’s a paradox, or tension, we are called to hold that is held up as part of the Bible’s own vision of the kingdom of God.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” — Revelation 7:9

The Gospel of Jesus and our union with him does not eradicate distinction and difference, it unifies us across difference in our created purpose — loving God and enjoying him forever.

Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles made two mistakes in this area; one, suggesting that God is colour blind, the second, suggesting that because the organisation registered as BlackLivesMatter has a radical vision for the end of oppressive structures that might go beyond a Christian desire to see such structures (like family) redeemed and reconciled in Christ, that all use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag supports the boogeyman of marxism. His post fundamentally commits a kind of reverse ‘genetic fallacy’ in that it links a hashtag that emerged on Twitter, with an organisation that developed around the hashtag and the conversation it linked. Hashtags on social media are a way of participating in linked conversations in a democratised way; and these links can give rise to different movements; but to use a hashtag is to participate in a conversation, and to affirm a truth, it is not to affirm a movement, or an organisation.

I am actually colour blind. Red-green. Just, not on issues of race. A few years ago I was invited by Common Grace and Aunty Jean Phillips to speak at a seminar in Brisbane, and there I repented of the idea that to be a follower of Jesus is a call to be colour blind on issues of race. You can read the talk, which drew on the super-powered Mantis Shrimp, an animal that sees a much greater spectrum of colour than I do, to suggest that we are more aligned with God, and the kingdom re-imaged and re-imagined by Jesus, when we see colour (and ethnicity) than when we pretend not to. But here’s a passage from it…

“I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of Indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the way we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have Aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.”

In my ongoing process of confessing, and listening, and learning, I’ve continued to journey with Aunty Jean Phillips, and with Brooke Prentis, who is now the CEO of Common Grace; Aboriginal Christian leaders who have worked hard to draw the Australian church’s attention to racism at work in our nation and in our churches.

I find myself facing a dilemma now, because the more I listen and learn, the more aware I am of the privilege afforded to me; as one occupying a position ‘at the centre’ of power and influence in my denomination, with some platform in the wider church (because apparently some people read stuff). I enjoyed one of my institutional colleagues’ reflections on white privilege on Eternity News a couple of days ago, James Snare wrote:

“What I’m suggesting is that the ethical imperatives of Christ, the growing awareness of my own privilege and seeing the consequences of not addressing racism and sexism in culture – and in the church – has led me to believe that people like me can’t let our privilege go unused for others any longer.”

I feel similarly. And yet I’m increasingly aware of the challenges facing people like me, with platforms, occupying positions close to the centre, that speaking up, even attempting to use one’s privilege for the sake of others, can be a form of what is now being called ‘centering’ — it can be a tool that people like me, at the centre, use to keep ourselves at the centre beyond an awakening. We can, in exercising our voices, continue to de-centre the voices of others. I’m aware of how tempted I am to speak up before listening, and how much that speech, even well intended, can be hurtful. I’m also aware that black Christian friends are often commodified as a sort of ‘resource’ in times like this; those we turn to only when it’s convenient and we feel there’s mileage to be made in centering activities; or those we only reach out to when it’s popular to do so.

It’s a fraught space to step into, especially if it is perceived as coming at the cost of those from the margins who have had to work for a platform, or to be listened to, in ways I can’t imagine — whether they are women, or from minorities, or in this particular case, women who are Aboriginal Christian leaders; those whose counsel I’ve sought, who have taught me as I’ve been on the journey with them.

Last week Aunty Jean Phillips phoned me about a rally being held in Brisbane over the weekend; a rally reported as a #BlackLivesMatter rally. She told me she would be attending, and she wanted to draw it to my attention. I didn’t go, partly as a result of my privilege — where I was still trying to decide on the efficacy of rallies, partly because life with small kids, in ministry, in this weird semi-lockdown age is confusing enough, life in ministry is challenging in this season, and for a whole bunch of other reasons that as I spoke to my friend Brooke today, just sounded a whole lot like the excuses I can make as a result of privilege, and only being indirectly effected by structural racism, and by Aboriginal deaths in custody. I admit that another large reason for not attending, for me, on Saturday, is that I think practicing social distancing is still the right thing to do; which is why I’m also not campaigning for restrictions to be lifted faster when it comes to church gatherings. And yet, Aunty Jean went. She’s in two significant risk categories. But how could she not? How can I not?

What I did promise Aunty Jean is that I was working on a letter about Aboriginal deaths in custody; following the urging of Brooke on the Common Grace website (there’s even a template). Brooke has been asking Australian Christians to pay attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody for years now. I’ve been to several #ChangeTheHeart services around January 26 where this is one of the key calls for prayer and action, alongside other initiatives that might close the gap. Brooke consistently urges us to listen, to learn three stories of Aboriginal Australians who have died in custody. This sort of listening is an act of de-centering; so to is acknowledging that listening is something you have been led to by those leaders who have been speaking up against racism in society and the church for years.

So I’m hesitantly offering this letter that I sent as an act of using my privilege for the sake of others, but also as an act of being on the journey with Aboriginal Christians; of listening, of seeking to not put my voice at the centre but to amplify others. Because Black lives do matter, and Australia still has structural issues that are the ongoing result of a time where nobody even paid lip service to that idea. We can’t jump from there to being colour blind; repentance and reconciliation are a process where we do have to examine the institutions, laws, cultural expectations, and practices — and the results they produce — that are the fruits of racism, whether that examination is in the church or society at large, and we must keep committing ourselves to reforming these structures.

I produced this letter because I told Aunty Jean I would, and I wrote it in consultation with Brooke — having asked her first if she, as an Aboriginal Christian Leader, was happy for me to not use the template (she was, so long as it rightly acknowledged a connection to a request from Common Grace, in connection to hearing first nations voices), and if she was happy to give advice as a first nations person — which she is, because to blunder in without such advice perpetuates a marginalisation of Aboriginal voices, and because part of ‘being on the journey’ together is a commitment to relationship and listening, and she gave me great advice on non-centering — particularly that always acknowledging those who have taught you is a good way of not making yourself the centre of attention.

Having witnessed, on Twitter, occasions where transgressions around centering behaviour and feeling the weight of the dilemma, I am thankful for the way that Christian leaders, powered by the Gospel, practice forgiveness around the bumbling efforts of privileged white blokes like me to escape the blinkers of colour blindness and privilege. Brooke and Aunty Jean are both consistently gracious in their responses to me, and others, in a way that without the unity we share in Jesus would be, evidently from Twitter, much more difficult. As Aunty Jean often says, there is no hope for reconciliation or a different Australia around these areas without the cross of Jesus.

Before you read my letter, can I encourage you to do six things:

  1. Commit yourself to listening to Aboriginal Christian leaders, not just privileged white blokes like me and Martyn Iles. There are good resources on the Common Grace website.
  2. Learn the stories of three Aboriginal deaths in custody — like Brooke has been urging us to for years. Here’s a starter on the issue.
  3. Write your own letter, using the template as a starting point, and ask for help from Brooke at Common Grace — join the journey (before you ask, Brooke has put plenty of resources for you to read on the website over the years. Read them first).
  4. Follow the example and call of Brooke, and Aunty Jean, and pray for our nation in this area.
  5. Don’t make this an issue of culture war/social justice ‘woke Christians’ v conservatives; make it an issue of seeking to learn our nation’s history and seeing the ongoing effects of that history, and committing yourself to act as someone shaped not by our nation’s story, but by the Gospel.
  6. Consider donating to the Common Grace 20 for Twenty campaign to employ an Aboriginal Christian Leader to work in this space.

To the Hon Mark Ryan MP, Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Services, and Corrective Services,

CC: The Hon Craig Crawford MP, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, The Hon Daniel Purdie MP, Shadow Minister for Police and Counter-Terrorism, and Corrective Services, the Hon Christian Rowan MP, the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

My name is Nathan Campbell. I live in Upper Mount Gravatt, in the Bonner Electorate. I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, and my parish meets in Annerley, in the Moreton electorate. My parishioners come from across the greater Brisbane area.

For a few years now I have been “on the journey” with Aboriginal Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips — that’s what she calls it when white blokes like me are prepared to sit with her and to listen. Her generosity in thanking me for being “on the journey” as I listen blows my mind, because I feel like I am powerless to change much at all when it comes to structural inequality and its experience here in Australia. I often feel like I’m doing nothing. Common Grace, a movement led by CEO and Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis has invited Christians to speak up, particularly about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

As a Christian I believe that each human, regardless of tribe, tongue, or nation, is made in the image of God; that our lives should reflect his goodness and love in the world, but also that each person has a dignity bestowed upon them by something beyond the self. This dignity cannot be taken away — but we humans can be good at not seeing it in ourselves, or in others. For too long, our western society has claimed to be developed from this idea that each person has inherent dignity, that each person is created equal, while not considering how an inter-generational failure to recognise that dignity in the other has become embedded in our structures, and in the experience of those at the margins of our society.

In recent weeks, as we marked Reconciliation Week, and witnessed the Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, we have all been reminded that one way this failure to recognise dignity, equality, and even the humanity of our first nations peoples manifests is in the ‘gap’ that is yet to be closed here in our country. We have also been reminded about the supreme goodness and necessity of genuine reconciliation, and our desire for it — another bedrock of any society that has been influenced by the Christian message of repentance, forgiveness, and new life together built on love. We are in need of deep, structural, repentance in Australia; in need of turning from an old way to something new, and we must, as we make these changes seek reconciliation with, and forgiveness from those we continue to wrong, our First Nations peoples.

While the Black Lives Matters movement gained momentum because of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police; the arms of government; we have our own very similar issues here in Australia. Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In 1991 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that began in 1987 delivered its findings on 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody. 99 Australian Australian ‘George Floyds,’ with their own names, and stories. Since the Commission handed down its findings there have been hundreds more Aboriginal deaths in custody; many harrowingly similar to George Floyd’s death. Brooke Prentis and Aunty Jean Phillips challenged those on the journey to reconciliation with them to learn just three names and stories of first nations people who have died in custody. I wonder if you might be able to name three? Or whether you might learn three stories?

So I remember Trevor King, a 39 year old man from Townsville, who couldn’t breathe after officers spear tackled him into the ground, whose wife had called police because Trevor was talking about self-harm. Who died in the ambulance police called in 2018.

I remember Shaun Charles Coolwell, a 33 year old from Kingston, who, during his arrest was pinned, handcuffed, and injected with a sedative, before he had breathing problems. He died in hospital a few hours after his arrest in 2015.

I remember NRR, a 37 year old from Cairns, who was pinned to the ground by six neighbours after a violent altercation, and restrained face down with zip ties. By the time police arrived the Coroner’s Report says that Mr Reading was unconscious, and no longer a threat, however police handcuffed him and shortly afterwards his breathing stopped, he was unable to be resuscitated.

The idea of custody is an interesting one; that those who were the traditional custodians of our land, responsible for stewarding this part of God’s good creation are dying in what should be our nation’s care is a profound problem that should lead us to consider, for example, whether our police should be a “force” or a “service.” The Royal Commission’s report in 1991 made many recommendations that have not yet been implemented, including many that would have resulted in a different approach to policing in these three stories; recommendations about the decriminalisation of public drunkenness (recommendation 79), and of arrest being a last resort in situations like the ones in these stories (recommendation 87a). The report also recommends that officers should receive training that involves listening to Aboriginal people in “appropriate training and development program, designed to explain contemporary Aboriginal society, customs and traditions. Such programs should emphasise the historical and social factors which contribute to the disadvantaged position of many Aboriginal people today and to the nature of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities today. The Commission further recommends that such persons should wherever possible participate in discussion with members of the Aboriginal community in an informal way in order to improve cross-cultural understanding” (Recommendation 96).

As the Minister for both the Police, and Corrective Services departments here in Queensland, I urge you to consider the urgent adoption of these recommendations. There have been 28 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Queensland since 2008, many in situations paralleling George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Implementing many of these recommendations would require the sort of partnership between states, territories, parties, and the Federal government that we have seen displayed in the recent efforts to combat Covid-19 here in Australia; we now know such action in response to a health crisis is possible, and so I call on you to exercise the same leadership of our nation in this area by listening to the voices of First Nations people, and the Royal Commission, and ensuring we do not see another George Floyd, or TK, or Shaun Charles Coolwell, or NRR, here in Queensland.

I would love a reply to my letter outlining how the Government intends to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody, and where it stands in the ongoing process of implementing the recommendations of a Royal Commission that concluded 29 years ago.

I will continue to uphold you and other members of the Queensland Parliament in prayer as you seek to lead us in listening and seeking reconciliation with our First Nations people. I would be happy to arrange contact with Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis should you wish to join us on the journey.

Yours Faithfully,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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