Sticks and Stones: Adam Goodes and Australian Racism


First published on Starts at Sixty website, August 12, 2015.

I’ve never told anybody this story before. 

61 years ago on the veranda of the Infants’ Class Room at Tambellup School, I called Valma Eades ‘a black boong’. I remember the year precisely because the Infants’ (Year I) Room was separate from the rest of the school, and I sought out Valma on the veranda. This veranda was up two steps from a bitumen path. I was a skinny five-year-old white boy, and Valma must have been seven. She loomed over me.

But where on earth did I find the expression ‘black boong’? It was not a term that our family used. I think I had heard the town kids whispering it, and I wondered what the reaction would be if I used it directly on an Aboriginal person, so one play-time, I sought out Valma Eades and  I called her ‘a black boong’. Her reaction was instant and strong. Her fist landed under my jaw and lifted me off the veranda into the air. I landed on my back on the bitumen path.

In that instant of painful encounter first with Valma’s fist and then the hard bitumen path, I learned that Valma was right and I was wrong. Even though I was only five, I learned that it was wrong to use racist names against Aboriginal people. Even though issues between children should not be resolved through violence, in this case, Valma was right to give me a swift, sharp lesson.

You see, I lived on a 4,000 acre (2,000 hectare) family farm that until 100 years before had been the summer range of Valma’s great-grand-parents and their family group. On our farm was a freshwater lake that we called Lake Toolbrunup. Each year for forty, maybe fifty thousand years until just the end of the 19th Century, large groups of Noongar people had gathered at Lake Toolbrunup at the end of summer to enjoy its water,the freshwater crayfish they called ‘gilgies’ and cool shade. Now it supported our sheep.

How this farm had come into the possession of our family, and the white people from whom we had bought it, neither Valma and I had any idea.

Valma, on the other hand, lived with her parents and brothers and sisters  in a canvas tent, 6 foot by 4 foot, on a reservation on the edge of town. A trough at the end of the line of tents boasted one cold water tap between two tents. Their only heating in the bitter Tambelllup winters was an outdoor wood fire. To keep warm, kids burrowed into the sand near the fire. Valma’s mother cooked over this fire.

There were Aboriginal children at the Tambellup school who camped with their families on our farm, as on other farms. They lived in tents and brush shelters. Their diet was kangaroo, sheep and damper. We knew, vaguely as six-year-olds, that the feared Mister A.O. Neville, Protector of Aborigines, had prescribed the places where Aboriginal families could live and who they could live with.

However this exchange of land had taken place, Valma and I were brushed with this history. There was unfathomable sorry business between us. And this history was, and is still, inscribed on every Australian girl and boy. None of us can escape the fact that we live in the shadow of a gigantic land swap.

White Australians booing Adam Goodes is always wrong, just as calling Valma Eades ‘a black boong’ was always wrong. And if Adam Goodes is strong enough to stand up and fight back, it hurts, just as Valma Eades’  uppercut hurt. So it should.

What is Prayer? (II)


WHAT IS PRAYER?

for the Pastoral Care Group at  St George’s, Dunsborough

 23 April, 2015

On February 13 in 2008, I was on my way to a meeting south of Melbourne. I remember because I caught a taxi at 9 a.m. and heard on the taxi radio the Prime Minister’s apology to Australia’s indigenous people, and I was very moved.

Our meeting was at the Community of the Holy Name, a community of Anglican nuns, and lasted three days. Mother offered me a lift to the airport coach to save the cost of a taxi on the way back. Sister Jenny, who I hadn’t met, jumped at the chance to volunteer to drive me to the coach stop. She talked non-stop. She wanted to know about my back, why my mobility was limited, and why I was putting up with pain.

Surely I should be able to fix it by prayer. I told Sister I had prayed, and as far I was concerned, I had been completely healed. I could walk – which was in doubt before my operation in 1969, and I had had 30 years of rich living as a husband and father, a school chaplain, a parish priest, head of an inter-church organisation (YouthCARE). In fact, I rather resented what Sister was saying, and in my mind, I christened her Sister Grinch.

She insisted that I should go to a healing service with Margaret Court when I got home. We parted, not very happily, because everything she said to me about prayer was rubbing me up the wrong way.

I know the theory: we are God’s children. God wants the best for us. There is nothing good that we cannot ask from God, and God will give it. Simply have faith. The implication of Sister Grinch’s sermonising was that I didn’t have enough faith. That may be true, but it was certainly not for her to judge me. If God doesn’t give what we ask, then there must be a reason: God must be teaching us something. Again, that may be true, but I experience life as more random than that. I believe God is in control of the big picture, but I don’t expect to work out the reason for everything. I’d go mad as a pastor trying that approach on the kids I buried who had committed suicide; or the boy in Special Ed. whose body simply gave up living on his 14th birthday.

God is not like Santa Claus, granting our wishes simply because we ask. Rae and I prayed hard that our son would be OK, that he wouldn’t have a problem, but he’s still struggling with mental and physical illness at 33 years old.

So our personal experience has coloured our ideas of prayer. In a nutshell, prayer for me is not about curing people from problems, prayer is a way of drawing closer to God and to the people prayed for. Of course, I’ve seen some extraordinary healings, and I celebrate those. But they don’t seem to be God’s usual way of working with people.

So I see prayer a bit differently:

Firstly, it is not primarily about asking God for things. We pray because Jesus prayed. We pray because, as we follow Jesus, prayer keeps us close to Father, Son and Spirit. Prayer keeps us, as St Paul says, in Christ.

 Secondly, prayer is recognising that we live in a broken world, as Jesus did. Jesus had the courage both to face the crowds of the sick and lame in Capernaum, and to move on to other villages and towns, leaving behind many not healed. He forgave those who betrayed him, and those who nailed him to the cross. He gazed on the world with love. That gaze can be our prayer too.

Thirdly, prayer is offering ourselves in love and service to that broken world, as Jesus did. Prayer is often only holding out our heart – but our heart is powerful. The gift of our solidarity with the suffering can be transformative. There is nothing I can say to someone dying of liver cancer. It is painful and quick, often only a few weeks from diagnosis to death. But I can gaze with love on the person – not look away – and stand with the person in prayer, and that can be the gift that truly heals, that opens up for that person a new wholeness in their last pilgrimage on earth.

Sometimes the prayer of solidarity turns into something practical that only I can do. Instead of telling God to do something, the prayer empowers me to act. A word, a card, a recommendation, an insight, a hug. But these practical prayers are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible heart of prayer, the 90% that is mystery, is the solidarity, the standing with the suffering person.

Of course, there’s much more to prayer than that. When teaching kids or adults new to the faith, I use a mnemonic:

A.C.T.S.

A for Adoration. All prayer starts in praise and worship.

C for Confession. We can only pray when we acknowledge the distance between us and God.

T for Thanksgiving. Our whole life should be Eucharistic, one big Thank You to God; and

S – and note it’s last – for Supplication. We ask God to help those who suffer. This is the portion of prayer we’ve been discussing today, and only really scratching the surface of intercessory prayer or Supplication.

We can’t help praying as Christians, because we can’t help loving. Prayer is a way of loving a person or people in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that!

* * * *

Handout : Click here:  What is prayer

Breaking down walls of division


NO Islam; NO Sharia; No Halal! These were the slogans on one side of yesterday’s demonstrations.

Ignorance breeds racism. Australia welcomes all. These slogans were shouted back.

Picture courtesy perthnow.com

There’s real pressure on us to take sides. We have beliefs about our friends’ beliefs, about our fellow-tertiaries’ strong opinions, about our fellow-Christians’ ideas, and our default position is to follow what we think they think!

Of course we do. We are social animals. I want to go to Perth and stand with Christians who welcome refugees and embrace Muslims. I can argue the case for inclusion with vigour and clarity. But therein lies a problem. To be a vigorous advocate at the moment risks creating divisions and fomenting hatred in the community.

Rather than practising my lines bolstering my ‘side’ of the current arguments, I should be walking in the shoes of people who have different views.

One exercise in our training for non-violence involved splitting into two sides at opposite ends of the room and emphasising the differences in the two groups. Then individuals crossed the line in the middle and looked at the issue from the point of view of the other group. These actions brought the group back together.

I’ve studied Islam, and rather than shout at people with hateful catchphrases like ‘NO Sharia!’ I should acknowledge that there is real fear in the community. People look at societies like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and see the punishments certain Muslim governments mete out. We would not stand for the way women are banned from driving. We are outraged that people are put to death – often in barbaric ways – for converting from Islam. Rather than shouting back at those who shout ‘NO Sharia!’ I should agree. I fear a Muslim government that treats its citizens like that.

I don’t think Halal certification of meat costs the average shopper. I do know that certification provides a livelihood for ordinary Australian family farmers who sell livestock to the abattoirs in Katanning. I agree that the certifying most foods for sale is unnecessary and confusing and worth resisting. It’s more complex than saying either ‘No Halal’ or all certification is good. A conversation where there is more trust and less fear would benefit all.

Australia is not going to become a Muslim country overnight. At the 2006 Census, 63.9% of Australians claimed to be Christians as against 1.7% Muslims. The 2011 numbers have not been analysed yet, and, while it is true that the proportion of Muslims has grown, the size of the Muslim community is still a tiny minority. We are a strong community. We can handle that much diversity. But we must take care, as a settler society, to make changes slowly.

So I admit to being tempted to man the barricades, to take a stand on one side of this debate, and imagine that will make society more inclusive. I need to resist that temptation and find ways of healing division, of understanding legitimate fears and concerns and creating harmony. That seems to be the Franciscan way, the way of Christ for me.

A Man on the World Day of Prayer


Talk for the World Day of Prayer

6 March 2015 – Theme of the Service: Domestic Violence

The reading set is: John 13:1-15 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292090860)

I can’t help worrying about Simon Peter. He’s an angry man, and angry men can be a worry for all of us. We live in a world made dark by the shadow of angry men.

First, let me thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. The World Day of Prayer has long been a movement which brings together Christian women and men to pray and to be together, and, I believe, is a real force for good.

Our Bible reading this morning is a story about Jesus. And nearly every story about Jesus brings us closer to his cross, and in this story in particular, John helps us to prepare for the great events of the crucifixion and resurrection.

In this story, at the last supper, Jesus lays aside his outer clothes to prepare for ministry.

On the cross, Jesus lays aside his human life to prepare for his death and resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in water to make them clean – and this cleanliness goes beyond the physical cleansing of dirty feet. It is described as an all-over clean; holistic cleansing.

Jesus washes away our dirt in the blood of the cross. I know this metaphor is not always pleasing to Anglicans; it’s not a pleasant image, but it’s a strong Biblical metaphor and totally unavoidable.

And the thing about being cleansed by Jesus is that once you are clean, you stay clean. “A person who has bathed does not need to wash,” Jesus says. Once you have accepted the cleansing power of the Cross, your sins are forgiven; you start again with a clear page; you are a new person.

Jesus accomplished this cleansing by giving himself. He takes the role of a servant – even more than that, as we will see – to wash his friends’ feet. He gives his whole life on the Cross to wash the lives of all humanity, of all who will hear and accept.

This is what upsets Simon Peter. Offering to wash his disciples’ feet is more than a role reversal. It’s more than Jesus just taking the part that a slave would normally take. Or a woman. In poorer homes without a slave for this task, visitors would be welcomed by a woman to wash the dust of the road off their feet. It’s bad enough for Peter that his Rabbi and Lord is acting the role of a slave — or a woman, God forbid – but foot-washing seems to take too much away from Peter.

It’s hard for those who are frail to accept someone helping them to shower. It seems to be a complete loss of dignity. I’ve been in hospital when nurses and other care-givers have helped me with my daily routine. I had to swallow my pride. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if my Archbishop came to help me shower. Embarrassed, angry, a complete loss of self-respect. At least, that would be my first reaction.

I think that’s what provoked such a strong reaction from Peter. His Lord and Teacher was offering to do something for him for which, in part, Peter had to swallow his pride. He was embarrassed and angry. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

It’s a hard lesson for Simon Peter: first to accept the loving care that Jesus offers, and then to be told to offer and receive that level of care from others. The implication for Peter is that he has to put aside that pride in himself for ever if he is going to be any use in offering loving service, and if he is to continue to have the joy of receiving loving service from others for himself.

We know Peter takes a while to learn, but St John thinks he gets the message after the resurrection, (in John 21:15-19) when Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” If you still have that macho pride inside, you can’t answer that question, even if the answer is yes. As long as you carry that pride inside saying “I love you” is a sign of weakness. That’s why Jesus insists Peter makes the declaration, “Lord, you know I love you!” otherwise it’s a waste of time telling Peter to “Feed my sheep.”

You see Peter has two choices after his feet have been washed and the blushing has receded from his face: either he can put the old pride back in his heart and go on being an angry man, the kind of man that lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant (John 18:10). That’s only a few steps away from the kind of anger that fuels terrorists who coolly cut off the heads of their captives.

Or he can learn to dismantle that pride by accepting the loving service of others offered to him, with the implication that he is a vulnerable human being. Giving and receiving love leads to intimacy and to a genuine experience of love, of being cleansed from anger and pride. St John knew that Peter was a work in progress.

I don’t find this path easy. I am definitely a work in progress. We men would rather hang on to our macho pride of independence. That’s the picture of manhood our culture teaches us, and to be different requires an effort. But I see the positive effect that strong vulnerable Christian men have on others.

All of us, men and women, are challenged to lives of mutual self-giving service, and the vulnerability that goes with that.

Women, and men, too as mothers, fathers, or grandparents are challenged to give their sons and grandsons a cleaner picture of what makes a strong man: the angry, macho self-reliant hero, or the caring, strong and vulnerable servant-leader.

The more there are of us who tell the story of strength in vulnerability, the more we push the shadow back, and the more God is revealed.

Invasion, Survival or Celebration: A Native Australian’s Day


Ngaala kaaditj Noogar moort keyen kaadak midja boodja

We acknowledge Noongar people as the original custodians of this land. In particular, on this Australia Day in this place, Busselton, I acknowledge the Wardan people, the Noongar sea people, who have walked this part of Noongar boodja for tens of thousands of years.

Reconciliation Australia puts before Australians three options for marking January 26: for many Indigenous Australians, this date can only be remembered as the anniversary of the British invasion, with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney. For others, they celebrate the survival of their culture despite every hostile attempt to destroy it. For others, it is a day of celebrating the rich culture brought to this country by Europeans and shaped as well by indigenous and later migrant influences.

As a wedullah man, I tread carefully in this conversation. I am a native, but not indigenous. I have held positions of authority, and as a white man with a privileged education, I can make no claims to share the lot of the powerless.

January 26 also happens to be the anniversary of my baptism in 1949, so today is also coloured by being claimed by Christ. My formation in Christ leads me to seek confrontation only if it will lead to reconciliation, and to rejoice in human culture only if it reflects in some way divine creativity.

Noongars had a different experience of white settlement than Aborigines in the Eastern States. Firstly, contact with individual ships of explorers and lost traders was earlier than on the East coast and it seems that Noongar elders developed some strategies for welcoming wedulahs into their midst. While they didn’t count on the level of violence the wedulahs would bring, it seems they were not so much on the back foot as were the Sydney mob. The Noongars lost land – and that was and is a calamity – but they did not entirely lose the initiative. They can be proud of Yagan and others who resisted the newcomers.

Because Western Australia was not founded as a convict settlement, ownership of land was open to all classes of people. In the 19th century, some aborigines owned farms. It was only in the early 20th that discriminatory laws deprived most Noongar farmers of those properties.

Those who see today as Invasion Day, whether Aboriginal or whitefella, tend to have an Eastern States-centric view of history. The predominant emotion of their history-telling is anger. This anger provides energy in the search for social justice, in the genuine attempts to close the gap, in the attempts to empower Aboriginal and Islander people to take a prime role in Australian society. Australia needs to feel the fire of that anger and to be moved by it to make a more equal community.

Those who want to mark today as Survival Day are conscious of the extraordinary achievements of Aboriginal culture. I am constantly thrilled by new (to me) rock paintings and dance that are dazzling, complex, ancient and contemporary. Some proponents of Survival Day are upbeat and invite people to celebrate the glories of Aboriginal culture and its resilience against the odds. Others mark Survival Day with a grudging pride, a sense of “You have to admit it: Aboriginal culture has something special. How sad that it was nearly lost.”

Others want to celebrate the possibilities of Western culture and the tempering influence Aboriginal culture can have on it. It took courage for Jessica Mauboy to sing “Advance Australia Fair” at the Award Ceremonies last night. I am sure some will bring out choice epithets to describe her acceptance of the invitation to sing as a betrayal. But I’m sure Mauboy saw it the other way around: people would be impressed the quality of her singing regardless of her race, but, even so, she brought to her rendering of the Anthem resonances from her background.

Jessica Mauboy sings the national anthem – a brave gig? Photo courtesy Crikey.com.au

It’s true that whitefellas in particular can celebrate today in a spirit of forgetfulness as if the first inhabitants don’t exist. They mark Australia with the ongoing tag of terra nullius. They should be called out for their hypocrisy.

But as an Australian native, I want to celebrate much about this country: its natural attributes, and its people, some of whom have fled from fear and oppression in 2013, some whose great-great-grandparents made the dangerous boat trip from Britain 200 years ago, and others who ancestors crossed the land-bridge from Indonesia 60,000 years ago. It’s a rich mix and a beautiful blend.

I respect people who choose to mark today as one or other – Invasion Day, Survival Day or Celebration of a Nation. But personally I want the three together – the anger, the pride and the joy all make sense, and I hope extend my hand to Noongars and Aboriginal people around Australia.

No longer Charlie


Je ne suis plus Charlie

Neither my wife Rae nor I enjoyed the Southern banquet we attended in Durham, North Carolina. Right from the start the tone was didactic. We were the only guests and our hosts were determined to teach us culturally ignorant Australians about their superior way of life.

Our hosts’ hospitality consisted not in the warmth of their welcome but in the extravagance of food and drink. The display of wealth was meant to indicate how worthy the hosts were: wealth had come to them because they were good people.

Our conversation turned to those who were not beneficiaries of wealth. Poor people, our hosts asserted, were poor because they did not have the right qualities to attract wealth. They weren’t good enough. In particular they recalled the black Americans of their youth on their plantation, who were poor, lazy and dependent on the benevolence of the hosts’ family. They used the word “Negro” for black Americans.

I’ve been taught that it is rude to contradict one’s host, so I countered this terrifying statement with my recollection of aboriginal families who lived on our farm and the ambiguity of their situation. I tried to emphasise the cultural similarities, not the economic differences between black and white in each country.

As we drove home, Rae and I decided that the whole meal was a lesson in white superiority. We also thought that our hosts would be surprised that we thought this. They were blind to their prejudices. Husband and wife both were highly educated and both happened to be Episcopal clergy.

We saw this blind white superiority quite often in our two years living in the South. A fellow student, an Australian, got a holiday job in the construction industry. He was telling a group of students about working on the roofs of new houses. The white American students were aghast. “You didn’t go on the roof? White people don’t go on the roof.” We queried, “You mean you leave that for black Americans?” “Well, yes,” they said. When we pushed them, they said this colour difference was because they perceived working on the roof as more dangerous.

In his extraordinary speech on race, Barack Obama spoke of America’s “original sin” of slavery. Despite every American’s best intentions, this historical fact worms it way into contemporary life, making Americans appear both racist and hypocritical.

Not that Australians can boast. If America’s original sin is slavery, ours is dispossession. We Europeans declared the country void of human occupation and took it over for ourselves. Our leaders still use the language of terra nullius. Last November our Prime Minister told an international audience that before British invasion Australia was “nothing but bush”.

Outsiders see the apparently systemic disadvantage of Aboriginal people and wonder at the inability of ordinary Australians to see the disconnect between white attitudes and Aboriginal poverty, and our unwillingness to trace the causes back to that original act of dispossession.

Modern Western democracies have blind spots. Going back beyond the war in Algeria to its colonising of North Africa, France’s blind spot is the Maghreb: for the French, the “Arab” from Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria is the “Other”. French people have historically seen themselves as superior to those they deride as less cultured and sophisticated than they are. In particular, the North Africans are seen as inferior because they allowed themselves to be exploited. Add into this snobbery the French disdain for the pieds-noirs, the immigrants of French ancestry who lived in Algeria at the time of the Algerian war and who used their citizenship rights to return to France after the war. Many French-people blamed them for the disastrous war.

My friend and Third Order colleague Susan Pitchford drew my attention to an article by Thomas Chatterton Williams about the experiences of James Baldwin in Paris. Baldwin noted that absolute assurance of the French of the rightness of their approach to law and culture, and their “French-Algerian complexity” which enables them to denigrate anything from North Africa, and by extension, anything Muslim or Arab.

Baldwin in Paris

Charlie Hebdo is a magazine in a particular satirical tradition in France. Its design is to offend, on the principle that Emperors without clothes should be mocked. It trumpets the philosophy of liberté, freedom of expression, giving it licence to mock – in theory – any group in French society. I agree with the statement it its web-page: “Le crayon sera toujours au-dessus de la barbarie” – “The pencil will always be above barbarity”. But note: the French government censored Charlie’s recent attack on Jews. It is not good form to be anti-Semitic; however, Charlie Hebdo has used its freedom to offend Muslims, as a way of offending North Africans, with great frequency.

 

Obviously – at least, it is glaringly obvious to me – the response to being offended by religious cartoons is not to shoot ten people. If people use offensive language about Christ, I refuse to laugh; I may object in words; and I may discontinue my association with the offender. Violence is not appropriate. That is why I initially proclaimed “Je suis Charlie”: like millions of others, I wanted to be in solidarity with those murdered and their families.

 

But I now withdraw that solidarity. “Je ne suis plus Charlie”. I now want to stand with the friends of the Prophet, who continue to be offended by the imagery of their founder. Charlie Hebdo can go on publishing and drawing its contemptible pictures, but I now want nothing further to do with it.

Rite of Passage


On this day 55 years ago, 21st November 1959, Bishop Ralph Hawkins confirmed me into the Anglican Church in St Mildred’s Church in Tenterden. This was the first time I wore long pants – my new school uniform, in fact. Bishop Ralph preached on the unlikely theme of ‘Motherhood’, earnestly admonishing us to love the three Mothers, our earthly Mother, our Motherland Australia, and God. A feminist sermon before its time. I remember nothing of this sermon, but my mother (earthly mother) reminded me of it frequently!

My grandmother had prepared me for confirmation using the Scripture time at school for this catechesis. I don’t think I was a good student. I got stuck on the first question in the catechism, ‘Question: What is your name? Answer: N or M.’ I made absolutely no sense of this.

Bishop Hawkins prayed:

Defend, O Lord, this thy servant with thy heavenly grace,
that he may continue thine for ever,
and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more
until he come to your everlasting kingdom.

And I, as I had been taught, answered,

Amen.

St Mildred’s in Tenterden