Yesterday Eternity published an article written by Mark Powell who is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Community Church. Mark presents 10 'reasons' why Christians shouldn't engage in Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies... and for some reason also throws in an uninformed rant about smoking ceremonies.
So lets look at Mark's 'reasons':
1. It takes away from the worship of God. The Bible declares that “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) and that God says “I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). Hence, the practice of things such as smoking ceremonies to ward off evil spirits is completely at odds with Christian theology.
OK... acknowledging and giving respect to people apparently takes away from the worship of God... Let's look at the opening of the acknowledgement of Country used by Bishop Chris McLeod provided in his article on this topic :
We acknowledge that God is sovereign over all land. Everything in heaven and earth belongs to God. We acknowledge the Kaurna people as the traditional custodians of the Adelaide region in which this church is located, and we respect the spiritual relationship they have with their country.
I don't know about you, but it seems pretty clear that God is first and foremost here - God is acknowledged as sovereign creator, as the one to whom all belongs. You see doing a welcome or an acknowledgement of country takes nothing away from God - it in fact honours Him first and only acknowledges the fact He entrusted custodianship of this land and waters to certain people groups... where have we seen that concept before I wonder...(c.f. Genesis 12).
As for the smoking ceremonies... it is a completely different topic. But to be clear, smoking ceremonies when done in the context of Christian worship are used as symbol of cleansing and of our prayers rising before the throne of God (Revelation 8:3-4), they have nothing to do with warding off evil spirits.
Lets move to No. 2
2. It leads to syncretism. Following on from this, because Aboriginal cosmology is pantheistic – God and the creation are one – there is a tendency for the traditional religious beliefs to be fused
Where to start. Aboriginal cosmology is pantheistic? Well it is true some parts of Aboriginal spirituality exhibit signs of pantheist ideas to be sure. However In my own people's spirituality there is an 'All Father' Creator Spirit (Called Baiame), from whom all of creation comes. He is not part of creation, He is separate to it...yes there are many other spirtual beings in our Dreaming Stories - but all of these also only exist because of the All Father's creation, and they mould and change the created land and waters - they do not create them themselves - nor are they the same as or part of them. Essentially there is one creator and then there is creation, including humanity, animals, land, sea and spiritual beings. Sound familiar?
However if we move on from Mark's clearly misinformed and also rather insulting take on Aboriginal spirituality, he then makes a remarkable claim -He claims acknowledging that Aboriginal people are traditional custodians of the land and waters of Australia leads to Syncretism...He then promptly demonstrates this alleged syncretism by pointing to an article written by CEO of Common Grace Brooke Prentis which he (mis)quoted completely removed from context - Brooke did not refer to Uluru as'the most sacred and holy place'. She had spent a significant part of her article explaining that all lands and waters are holy and sacred because they all come from God as creator, and in the actual sentence that he pulled this wording from the full sentence is:
'This weekend, I was in a place that I consider one of the most sacred, most holy of places. Uluru.'
You see Brooke at no point equated creation with creator, she at no point even came close to suggesting that creation should be worshipped or idolised. I encourage you to actually read her full article. For Mark to have deliberately misquoted Brooke like this to try and establish some form of 'evidence' to support his syncretism claims is appalling - and sadly I can't think of any way this could have happened accidentally.
3. The parallel to ancestor worship. Official Indigenous protocols insist that words like “Elder” should be capitalised to acknowledge the continuing real presence of those who have died. (This is also why there is a warning on television programs which show images of deceased Aboriginal people). However, acknowledging Aboriginal “Elders”, past and emerging, is not simply honouring the memory of the departed – like many Australians do on Anzac Day – but is more akin to the ancestor worship still practised by many people today.
The more I read of Mark's article the less I believe he actually knows anything about Aboriginal people, our customs and beliefs. Protocol dictates that 'Elder' be capitalised because it is a title! It is capitalised for the same reason that we put a capital at the start of Rev. or Dr. or Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms... etc.
The reason that there is a warning on TV programs which show Aboriginal people who have died is precisely because they are NOT still here and it is considered to be insensitive to show the persons image or speak of them directly because they are no longer here.
Then of course there is the next unsubstantiated claim - that acknowledging those leaders who have come before is different when it is done for Aboriginal people, apparently when we acknowledge past elders we are worshipping them... but when non Aboriginal people acknowledge those who have gone before its totally different... presumably because of... what?
4. Biblical peacemaking principles of forgiveness teach that past sins should not be continually re-raised once they have been repented of. However, these prescribed “politically-correct” statements do precisely that. They have the practical effect of perpetuating guilt, while allowing no final resolution or real reconciliation to occur.
Now we start to see Mark's real motivation start to come out. He objects because he sees these ceremonies as 'politically correct'. He also makes a hash of trying to use 'biblical peacemaking principals'. He seems to think that acknowledging that we meet on land that was forcibly removed from others is 'perpetuating guilt' without offering solution, while also leaving the implication that we should all just move on - it's the classic line from racists rehashed - 'why don't you just get over it, it was years ago'.
Well here is the thing - the fact that this appallingly ignorant article has been written by a Christian pastor and published by a Christian organisation demonstrates that people simply do not understand Aboriginal culture, or the history of this nation. That tells me if we want to see genuine peace making, and genuine reconciliation, we need more of these ceremonies and more education on the real history of this nation.
5. The political nature of language. The secular form of language used in Indigenous protocols (such as “Traditional Custodians,” and “Respect to Elders”) is neither politically nor theologically neutral. As such, if we are serious about reconciliation, then we ought to use biblical language to express theological truths of sin, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Mark again betrays his real motivation - which actually has nothing to do with Christianity - he objects because he sees it as 'political', and clearly not on the right side of politics for Mark. The fact that he sees using a term such as 'Respect for Elders' as being anti biblical raises some alarm bells though - the BIble is in fact clear that we are to honour our elders... (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Leviticus 19:3 & 19:32; Job 12:12 & 32:4; Matthew 15:4). Now I assume as a good Christian man Mark seeks to follow the will of God in honouring his elders? So why the opposition to merely showing respect to Aboriginal elders? The more I read and reflect on Mark's words the more I worry about his view toward Aboriginal people in general...
Traditional Custodians is the other term he rejects as being neither 'politically nor theologically neutral'... I'm not sure how to respond to that - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had custody of this land for thousands of years... it is simply a fact that our peoples are the traditional custodians.
6. It implies guilt by association. There is a growing pressure in our country to conform to a progressive social agenda involving identity politics. As such, to what extent are Christian denominations – or their individual members – responsible for historic crimes committed during the colonial period of Australia? Whereas injustices have tragically occurred, we should be careful of condemning our own spiritual forebears or of implicating the church today through guilt by association.
Mark again lays his own political agenda over the top of what is actually being discussed. I am no 'progressive' with a 'social agenda involving identity politics', I am however a Christian who seeks to follow the example of Jesus in showing honour and respect to all.
To what extent are Christian denominations responsible for historic crimes? It depends doesn't it? What did the denomination do? When did it do it? Has it been involved in truth telling? Has it apologised for the previous actions? Has it made any attempt at genuine reconciliation with the people they wronged or their descendants? All of these things matter.
To what extent are individuals within denominations responsible? They aren't. No-one believes that Individuals should be in some way held accountable - however church bodies? You bet. Just as churches are being held responsible for historic child abuse because of the appalling policies they had in place at the time, so to they should be held responsible for the crimes that they committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
I would love to know when Mark believes the 'colonial period' ended, and presumably therefore when all the crimes against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ended?*
I could go on... but instead,
7. Theft must involve financial reparation. While many regularly acknowledge their guilt of dispossessing Aboriginals of their land, very few are willing to make financial restitution. But if one truly believes that they are in possession of “stolen property”, then they should give it back and not simply engage in disingenuous displays of virtue signalling. What’s more, this should be done by the individuals most concerned and not merely projected onto their own particular religious institution.
The implication being of course that Mark doesn't believe he is on 'stolen property'. But here's the thing - the High Court has determined that the land we now call Australia was not Terra Nullius (Land belonging to no-one), it has determined that the land and waters did in fact have owners. That is significant. That means unless there is a treaty in place or a deed of sale, the land and waters of Australia were forcibly removed from their rightful custodians by a superior military force - that is called invasion. Given this clear fact of history, Mark is on stolen property.
Now does that mean he should start paying 'rent' as Mark seems to imply as the only solution in this case? No. There is another solution - it is called treaty. The fact is the land and waters of this country were taken by force by government using military and police at their command. Originally the British government, and then that was passed to colonial governments and then at federation to the Australian Federal and State Government(s). It is at government level where action needs to be taken through treaty and voice - A voice is not a third chamber of parliament, it is an advisory body only. Treaty can bring about fair and just outcome, and is the only logical and fair outcome after an invasion.
Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that doesn't have a treaty with it's Indigenous peoples, which is a clear demonstration that the argument of it being unworkable and too hard is just nonsense.
8. It undermines gospel reconciliation. As the gospel goes out to the ends of the earth, the redemptive power of the cross will continue to deliver God’s chosen people from enslaving idolatries and unite us together in Christ. But Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country protocols support a worldview that privileges Aboriginal culture within our society and thereby hinders – rather than promotes – the work of reconciliation.
Ah, the privileges of being Aboriginal... Is Mark seriously suggesting here that having a Welcome or Acknowledgement prevents people being saved? Is he seriously suggesting that being asked to show respect for the history, culture and people of this nation who have been here for over 60 thousand years is something that splits us apart rather than joins us together?
Here are the simple facts - Aboriginal people are the rightful custodians of Australia, the land was taken by force and without consent. Those are incontestable. Now knowing that, and knowing that we can never undo what has been done, a simple way to acknowledge this truth and the hurt it has caused - and continues to cause - is to say a few words at the beginning of a gathering which acknowledge this truth. If possible it is even better to have a member of the local Aboriginal community offer welcome.
Think about that for a moment, a member of the community who had their land, waters, culture and language all stripped away by force, a person who likely has significant trauma in their family due to the effects of stolen generations, a person who almost certainly knows several people who have committed suicide in their community due to the substantially higher rates in Indigenous communities due to inter-generational trauma... this person doesn't stand up and condemn, rather they stand and hold out their hands and their heart in welcome.
If Mark looks at that person and thinks they are being offered privilege... I am lost for words. If he looks at them and believes they are hindering rather than promoting reconciliation, then I fear he doesn't understand what reconciliation is.
9. It harms Christian unity. Our doctrine of the unity of the body of Christ is harmed since it perpetuates an unnecessary distinction between Aboriginal and all other Christians who live in Australia. In short, it rebuilds the dividing wall which previously existed before the cross (Ephesians 2:14-18; Galatians 3:28).
It harms unity to acknowledge and give respect? Again - this just demonstrates more ignorance - there is no barrier being created here! It is about tearing down barriers! You are being welcomed by someone who has every right to reject you.
For me this is clearly analogous to what God does with us through the cross. He has every right to be mad with us, to reject us, to cast us off, and yet he humbles himself, bears the pain and offers forgiveness and welcome. The only ones erecting barriers are those who reject the welcome.
10. Because the current Aboriginals were probably not the original inhabitants. This is a position historically held by many Australian anthropologists, scientists and academics. For example, Professor Manning Clark (1915-1991) originally argued that the modern Aboriginal was a descendant of a racially distinct, third wave of immigrants, who had themselves invaded and conquered those living here before them.
This is so ridiculously out of step with modern anthropological study that it would be laughable if it wasn't the same kind of trope trotted out regularly by racist groups.
So lets put it to bed. Firstly Manning had a reputation for being a great narrative historian - who often ignored the facts in favour of his view of the narrative*.
Secondly the 'three wave' theory of migration to Australia has been soundly refuted and the vast majority of anthropologists now reject it along with the alternate two wave theory. The general consensus is now that there was one wave of immigration to Australia by the ancestors of the Aboriginal people who still inhabit this land.
Senator David Leyonhjelm made a similar claim to Mark back in 2015 arguing that Aboriginal people were not the first inhabitants of Australia, this claim which the senator clarified was based on his understanding research into 'Mungo Man' and also into rock art was subjected to a fact check by independent scholars over at 'The Conversation'. I include the full 'Review' of the fact check for your reference, and also provide links to the full article and other articles which conclusively show that modern scholarship is in agreement that Aboriginal people were indeed the first to settle these lands:
...The evidence from DNA of today’s Aboriginal populations, as well as those from the past recovered through ancient DNA is revealing new insights into the complexity of the First Australians population history. What we see in the DNA is evidence of an unbroken Aboriginal lineage for well over 2,000 generations.
In conclusion to what has turned into a much longer piece than I had envisioned. Mark's piece demonstrates an almost complete ignorance of Aboriginal culture, practice and history. It uses terms of the political right and far right to attack a perceived (though in my view non-existent) political slant to the issue. He uses arguments that are often used by racists and their supporters, to be honest I was waiting for him to use the line 'I'm not a racist... but...' or 'I have friends who are Aboriginal'...
Now I want to be clear, I am NOT accusing Mark of being a racist, I do not know him, and one article doesn't provide me enough evidence to make such a judgement. What I will say is that this article demonstrates the same tired, disproven arguments based out of ignorance that many racists use. I hope that Mark will take that on board and seek to learn and be better informed going forward.
I encourage All churches to include the use of welcome or acknowledgement of country, because it pretty much does the very opposite of what Mark's article suggests: It shows honour and respect to people and creation without elevating either to divine status. It brings us together for genuine reconciliation through truth telling, and sharing together. It is a way to educate our people on the importance of creation, care for it, and honouring others - even those we don't always fully understand.
NT Intervention Facts:
On the claim Aboriginal people weren't here first:
Daryl is a priest and chaplain living in regional New South Wales Australia. Learn more on the About page.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my church or any other organisation I am affiliated with.