The risky business of being ‘reformed’

end of the lineIn her book Moving Forward, Looking Back: Trains, Literature, and the Arts in the River Plate, Sarah Misemer describes the trains of Argentina as symbolising ‘the dialectical influences of the forward trajectory (progress/future), while at the same time embodying the backward glance (regression/past)’. When travelling on an old train in particular, despite being aware of the technology that makes such eccentric carriage possible, one can have a sense that even though one is moving forward, there is also the sense that one ‘travels into a quaint and less mechanized’ world, escaping backwards in time.

The same theme is picked up by artist Michael Flanagan in his brief essay ‘The Backward Glance’. He explores the intersection between time and memory, suggesting that our vision of the past operates akin to the view of a disappearing landscape glimpsed from within a moving train: ‘How can the Past ever be anything but a mystery … We see life as if from the end car of a speeding train, watching through the rear window as the tracks slip away beneath us … everything passing, receding, disappearing into a point on the horizon’.

Insofar as this is true of our experience of train travel, the same might be said of our thinking about Christian community – we can lament that our past ebbs too quickly. Such lament can encourage the creation of romanticised images, like those of nineteenth-century artists George Angas and Gottfried Lindauer who Europenised the New Zealand landscape. Flanagan calls this the ‘nostalgia problem’.

At the other end of the train are those who seek to drive on, aware only of what lies in front. Like perpetual teenagers, they are those for whom the past is forgotten and irrelevant; indeed, it is not even part of their being today.

But here the analogy breaks down, particularly for those of us who profess to be concerned with the project called ‘reformed’: we have no tracks upon which to travel, and even the existence of the train itself is not a sure thing. Entirely bereft of the familiar and the certain, the reformed – i.e., that churchly tribe of which Presbyterians form the largest part – are concerned to live entirely dependent upon God’s speech, upheld solely by the Word who continuously calls us into being. To be reformed is to be always open to the risky possibility that what one hears from God tomorrow might be entirely at odds with what one heard yesterday.

Such a situation poses a real challenge – and opportunity! – for a tradition concerned to confess the faith by way of formal statements. One of the hazards of writing confessions, for example, is that institutions are then tempted to build upon them, to trust in them, to look to them to do the work of safeguarding whatever it is that the institution most values – to turn the living Word of God into a ‘thing’. Even the desire to confess and embody our unity in Christ can mask efforts which are at core idolatrous: namely, to locate the unity of the Body of Christ in something – in a ‘thing’ – rather than in the person of Christ himself and his claims upon us, claims which precede and bring under judgement all our efforts.

The Christian community is called to be at once more free and more bound than a train. It is called to be entirely unburdened from all efforts to keep it from falling off the rails, and it is called to be entirely bound to him who alone brings it into love’s true freedom.

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This piece first appeared in ‘Theology Matters’, Spanz 58 (Winter 2014), 16. A pdf version is available here.

‘Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, But yet the body is his book’

  • Jason Byassee on tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan and the Masai creed: ‘I love the way Herbert McCabe, the Dominican priest and theologian, put it: “We don’t know what Christians will believe in the 24th century, but we know they will not be Arians or Nestorians.” Creeds, usually occasioned by a new teaching the church must either bless or condemn, cut off certain roads. But they do not mandate which road we all must go down for all time. Future ages will have to figure that out, while submitting to what has come before. But that submission is a granting of freedom, not a tragic cutting off of possibility’. There are some important implications here for the conversation currently going on in my own denomination about writing a new confession of faith.
  • Anthony Gottlieb on God and gardens.
  • Cynthia R. Nielsen continues her series on Gadamer with two more posts.
  • Stanley Hauerwas responds to Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
  • Renardo Barden reviews Dylan’s Christmas album: ‘Occasionally Dylan chases and misses the high notes and botches daring full-throttle endings. His church Latin is no good, and he’s losing yet more ground on his claim to sing as good as Caruso. But he’s still out there, making new of what’s old, light of what’s silly, and merry for merriment’s sake’.
  • Halden Doerge offers some critiques of individualism as will to power: ‘… “individualism” is only scary to those who want to control the social lives of others. Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts. Indeed I’m hard pressed to think of a single female scholar who has attacked individualism in ways akin to say Robert Bellah or Zygmunt Bauman … It seems to me that critiques of individualism invariably come beset with a totalizing vision of “the good society” that, ostensibly should be actualized whether people like it or not (because obviously they don’t like it or they’d be doing it already). In short, I don’t know how critiques of individualism, as such, avoid the charge that they are simply instances of the will to power. They are always animated with angst, fear, and revulsion towards the current shape of social life and deeply desirous of reshaping society in accordance with their own vision. It’s hard for me to image that not being ultimately fascist (Milbank is perhaps the most sophisticated example of a theological fascist writing today)’.
  • Andre Muller posts on music.
  • Finally, I’ve been posting on advent: Part I, II, III, IV.

On the writing of Reformed Confessions

pcanzIn recent times, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has been engaged in drafting a contemporary, indigenous confession of faith – Kupu Whakapono – with a view to it being accepted as a new subordinate standard. (You can read more about it here and here.) Among other things, the writing of this confession is evidence that while theology by committee is never easy – if not usually downright impossible – miracles still happen. The draft confession reads:

From this land of Aotearoa New Zealand
we confess that we believe in and belong to God
who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We believe in God
the Father of Jesus Christ,
sender of the Holy Spirit;
Creator and Nurturer of all,
Love above all loves,
and Judge of all the earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ our Lord,
truly human and truly divine.
He lived among us full of grace and truth
and suffered death by human hand,
He was raised by God to new life,
setting us free from sin
and bringing to birth God’s new creation.
Now ascended, he calls us to repentance and faith,
and restores us to God and to one another.

We believe in God the Holy Spirit
who makes Christ known,
inspires the Scriptures,
transforms hearts and minds,
gathers us into the community of Christ
and sustains the Church in worship and in mission.

We belong to this triune God
who calls us to become what we are in Christ:
God’s own people, diversely gifted
witnesses to his love in word and in action,
servants of reconciliation,
and stewards of Creation.

Brought together in Christ,
women and men,
young and old,
tangata whenua and tauiwi,
we look forward in hope
to that fullness of life
in which justice and peace will flourish,
the reign of Christ will be complete,
and we shall forever sing praise to the glory of God.

Eberhard BuschIt’s not perfect – there’s no mention of Israel for a start – but its very existence does recall something inherently built in to our DNA as those people of God who identify most strongly with the Reformed branch of the Church Catholic. I was reminded of this afresh recently while reading an essay by Eberhard Busch titled ‘Reformed Identity’ Reformed World 58/4 (2008): 207–218). In this essay, Busch recalls not only that being Reformed entails what he calls ‘the unconditional subordination of [our] own tradition and doctrine to the holy scripture’, and that the Reformed consciously confess that they are members of ‘one, ecumenical church’, but also that the arrangement of the Reformed denominations occurs ‘in the travel of God’s people’. To be Reformed, in other words, means to affirm (as the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia would have it) that we belong ‘to the people of God on the way to the promised end’. It is the taking serious of this on-the-wayness – that the community is a participant in God’s eschatological liveliness – that calls for fresh expressions of the ancient faith. So Busch:

In every shape the Church is only on its way, – following the aim which is determined and brought about by Him alone. Therefore the life of the congregations and their members is essentially a pilgrimage, not fleeting life on earth, and not being obsessed by it. It is like the way of Israel through the desert. It is being on the way, in restlessness, in uneasiness, in fights, in sighs, and in thirst, but always with the motto: let’s go! Calvin indicated this direction: ‘After we have accepted the testimony of the gospel about the free-gracious love of God, we are waiting, till God will show that, what is still hidden below the hope’. For the Confessio Belgica (1561) or the Confessio Scotica (1560) this goal is clearer in the visible appearance of the rule and the realm of Christ, which had already begun when He rose to heaven. And the Heidelberg Catechism formulates that the coming judge is no one else than the already appeared redeemer. Therefore, we walk towards him ‘in all [our] sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head’ … In this context it becomes clear that the Reformed are not so much interested in the possession of a confession, but more in the determination to confess. The Reformed acknowledge – in line with the ancestors – that we do not always have to say and do the same as they said and did. It is possible that we will be asked new questions, to which we will have to give new answers. It is possible that other insights become the focus of attention, inviting us to decide whether we confess or deny Jesus Christ. Certain biblical sentences speak particularly at different times. In 1942 the long forgotten words ‘Salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22) began to be heard in the Swiss churches in favour of the Jews. Monopolisation of biblical words is beyond such an experience. The Reformed denomination reminds us that we have to reckon with the Holy Spirit who wants to lead us in all truths. We have to be open to His concrete, new instructions. It is the Spirit, who allows us to think, say and do what is necessary now. The same Spirit urges us to get on the way from our own denomination to what is more than our and all other denominations.

Busch then proceeds to speak about the ‘gratitude of the Reformed Church’, recalling that when the freedom of the Spirit of Jesus in the Gospel does not exist in a denomination, then that denomination becomes inflexible. Busch believes that this danger is no longer a particular issue for the Reformed churches today (I’m not so sure about this), and he cites another danger which is ‘far more of a menace’:

That is the threat of a certain kind of liberalism: the danger that they gamble away the talent of a church, Reformed according to the Word of God, which has been handed over to them for safekeeping and for passing on to their neighbours. It is the danger of selling this talent for a small profit. Maybe they seem to be ‘Reformed’, but they have the title without the ‘Word of God’. That is the danger of wrongly interpreting the formula ‘The Reformed Church is always to be reformed’, so that they think they are Reformed because they are doing their work in a different way than the Reformers. They do not understand the true sense of that formula that we have to turn again and again to the fountain of faith, love, and hope. It is dangerous for the Reformed to store their legacy in a museum, which is visited occasionally, but not used in the daily life. In short, there is the danger that present-day Reformed Christians live in the church, as if it were not true that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore, our ancestors can not really join in our conversation today and are not allowed to have a say in our decisions. There is no space for their questioning whether we still really are Reformed Christians. When we think in this way, an unspiritual arbitrariness will appear in the church.

For the contemporary Reformed who live in Aotearoa New Zealand and who are seeking to carve out what it means to be faithful to God’s good news in Jesus Christ in this land, these words from Professor emeritus Busch are both timely and imperative. It is, after all, Reformation Day.

Australian Government Apologises to the Stolen Generations

How good was this!

Unfortunately – and shamefully – not all get it; and some remain skeptical about the whole affair. But what was said – and done in the saying – was and is momentously important and ought not be either trivialised or mocked. As Phillip Adams recently reminded us, ‘Sorry and reconciliation aren’t dirty words’. Indeed, they are the stuff of the reign of grace, of holy love, of God. Sure, there’s lots still to say, and to do, but this was a really great day. Thank you Mr Rudd.

Here’s a full transcript of what the Prime Minister said:

‘I move that today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future. Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time. That is why the parliament is today here assembled: to deal with this unfinished business of the nation, to remove a great stain from the nation’s soul and, in a true spirit of reconciliation, to open a new chapter in the history of this great land, Australia.

Last year I made a commitment to the Australian people that if we formed the next government of the Commonwealth we would in parliament say sorry to the stolen generations. Today I honour that commitment. I said we would do so early in the life of the new parliament.

Again, today I honour that commitment by doing so at the commencement of this the 42nd parliament of the Commonwealth. Because the time has come, well and truly come, for all peoples of our great country, for all citizens of our great Commonwealth, for all Australians—those who are Indigenous and those who are not—to come together to reconcile and together build a new future for our nation.

Some have asked, “Why apologise?” Let me begin to answer by telling the parliament just a little of one person’s story—an elegant, eloquent and wonderful woman in her 80s, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life’s journey, a woman who has travelled a long way to be with us today, a member of the stolen generation who shared some of her story with me when I called around to see her just a few days ago.

Nanna Nungala Fejo, as she prefers to be called, was born in the late 1920s. She remembers her earliest childhood days living with her family and her community in a bush camp just outside Tennant Creek. She remembers the love and the warmth and the kinship of those days long ago, including traditional dancing around the camp fire at night. She loved the dancing.

She remembers once getting into strife when, as a four-year-old girl, she insisted on dancing with the male tribal elders rather than just sitting and watching the men, as the girls were supposed to do.

But then, sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men. Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide. What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone.

They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip. The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck. Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.

A few years later, government policy changed. Now the children would be handed over to the missions to be cared for by the churches. But which church would care for them? The kids were simply told to line up in three lines. Nanna Fejo and her sister stood in the middle line, her older brother and cousin on her left.

Those on the left were told that they had become Catholics, those in the middle Methodists and those on the right Church of England. That is how the complex questions of post-reformation theology were resolved in the Australian outback in the 1930s. It was as crude as that.

She and her sister were sent to a Methodist mission on Goulburn Island and then Croker Island. Her Catholic brother was sent to work at a cattle station and her cousin to a Catholic mission. Nanna Fejo’s family had been broken up for a second time.

She stayed at the mission until after the war, when she was allowed to leave for a prearranged job as a domestic in Darwin. She was 16. Nanna Fejo never saw her mum again. After she left the mission, her brother let her know that her mum had died years before, a broken woman fretting for the children that had literally been ripped away from her.

I asked Nanna Fejo what she would have me say today about her story. She thought for a few moments then said that what I should say today was that all mothers are important. And she added: ‘Families—keeping them together is very important. It’s a good thing that you are surrounded by love and that love is passed down the generations.

That’s what gives you happiness.’ As I left, later on, Nanna Fejo took one of my staff aside, wanting to make sure that I was not too hard on the Aboriginal stockman who had hunted those kids down all those years ago. The stockman had found her again decades later, this time himself to say, ‘Sorry.’ And remarkably, extraordinarily, she had forgiven him.

Nanna Fejo’s is just one story. There are thousands, tens of thousands of them: stories of forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their mums and dads over the better part of a century. Some of these stories are graphically told in Bringing them home, the report commissioned in 1995 by Prime Minister Keating and received in 1997 by Prime Minister Howard.

There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages. The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.

These stories cry out to be heard; they cry out for an apology. Instead, from the nation’s parliament there has been a stony, stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade; a view that somehow we, the parliament, should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong; a view that, instead, we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side, to leave it languishing with the historians, the academics and the cultural warriors, as if the stolen generations are little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon.

But the stolen generations are not intellectual curiosities. They are human beings, human beings who have been damaged deeply by the decisions of parliaments and governments. But, as of today, the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end.

The nation is demanding of its political leadership to take us forward. Decency, human decency, universal human decency, demands that the nation now step forward to right an historical wrong. That is what we are doing in this place today.

But should there still be doubts as to why we must now act, let the parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30 per cent of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers; that, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families; that this was the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute; that this policy was taken to such extremes by some in administrative authority that the forced extractions of children of so-called ‘mixed lineage’ were seen as part of a broader policy of dealing with ‘the problem of the Aboriginal population’.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory Protector of Natives, who stated: “Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian aborigine are eradicated.

“The problem of our half-castes— to quote the protector— will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white … ”

The Western Australian Protector of Natives expressed not dissimilar views, expounding them at length in Canberra in 1937 at the first national conference on Indigenous affairs that brought together the Commonwealth and state protectors of natives.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing. But we must acknowledge these facts if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic forced separation was somehow well motivated, justified by its historical context and, as a result, unworthy of any apology today.

Then we come to the argument of intergenerational responsibility, also used by some to argue against giving an apology today. But let us remember the fact that the forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s.

The 1970s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity. There are still serving members of this parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s. It is well within the adult memory span of many of us. The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.

There is a further reason for an apology as well: it is that reconciliation is in fact an expression of a core value of our nation—and that value is a fair go for all. There is a deep and abiding belief in the Australian community that, for the stolen generations, there was no fair go at all. There is a pretty basic Aussie belief that says that it is time to put right this most outrageous of wrongs.

It is for these reasons, quite apart from concerns of fundamental human decency, that the governments and parliaments of this nation must make this apology—because, put simply, the laws that our parliaments enacted made the stolen generations possible.

We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. And the problem lay with the laws themselves. As has been said of settler societies elsewhere, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors; therefore we must also be the bearer of their burdens as well. Therefore, for our nation, the course of action is clear: that is, to deal now with what has become one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history.

In doing so, we are doing more than contending with the facts, the evidence and the often rancorous public debate. In doing so, we are also wrestling with our own soul. This is not, as some would argue, a black-armband view of history; it is just the truth: the cold, confronting, uncomfortable truth—facing it, dealing with it, moving on from it. Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people. It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry. I offer you this apology without qualification.

We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted. We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.

We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments. In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation—from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.

I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the government and the parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally. Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that. Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing. I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.

I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive. My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia. And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.

Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot. For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history. Today’s apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting past wrongs. It is also aimed at building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—a bridge based on a real respect rather than a thinly veiled contempt.

Our challenge for the future is to cross that bridge and, in so doing, to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—to embrace, as part of that partnership, expanded Link-up and other critical services to help the stolen generations to trace their families if at all possible and to provide dignity to their lives.

But the core of this partnership for the future is to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities.

This new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future: within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous Australians, within a decade to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and, within a generation, to close the equally appalling 17-year life gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in overall life expectancy.

The truth is: a business as usual approach towards Indigenous Australians is not working. Most old approaches are not working. We need a new beginning—a new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure; a new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional Indigenous communities across the country but instead allowing flexible, tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership; a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation. However, unless we as a parliament set a destination for the nation, we have no clear point to guide our policy, our programs or our purpose; we have no centralised organising principle.

Let us resolve today to begin with the little children—a fitting place to start on this day of apology for the stolen generations. Let us resolve over the next five years to have every Indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre or opportunity and engaged in proper preliteracy and prenumeracy programs.

Let us resolve to build new educational opportunities for these little ones, year by year, step by step, following the completion of their crucial preschool year. Let us resolve to use this systematic approach to build future educational opportunities for Indigenous children to provide proper primary and preventive health care for the same children, to begin the task of rolling back the obscenity that we find today in infant mortality rates in remote Indigenous communities—up to four times higher than in other communities.

None of this will be easy. Most of it will be hard—very hard. But none of it is impossible, and all of it is achievable with clear goals, clear thinking, and by placing an absolute premium on respect, cooperation and mutual responsibility as the guiding principles of this new partnership on closing the gap.

The mood of the nation is for reconciliation now, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The mood of the nation on Indigenous policy and politics is now very simple. The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide. Surely this is the unfulfilled spirit of the 1967 referendum. Surely, at least from this day forward, we should give it a go.

Let me take this one step further and take what some may see as a piece of political posturing and make a practical proposal to the opposition on this day, the first full sitting day of the new parliament. I said before the election that the nation needed a kind of war cabinet on parts of Indigenous policy, because the challenges are too great and the consequences are too great to allow it all to become a political football, as it has been so often in the past.

I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement—to begin with—an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years. It will be consistent with the government’s policy framework, a new partnership for closing the gap.

If this commission operates well, I then propose that it work on the further task of constitutional recognition of the first Australians, consistent with the longstanding platform commitments of my party and the pre-election position of the opposition.

This would probably be desirable in any event because, unless such a proposition were absolutely bipartisan, it would fail at a referendum. As I have said before, the time has come for new approaches to enduring problems. Working constructively together on such defined projects would, I believe, meet with the support of the nation. It is time for fresh ideas to fashion the nation’s future.

Mr Speaker, today the parliament has come together to right a great wrong. We have come together to deal with the past so that we might fully embrace the future. We have had sufficient audacity of faith to advance a pathway to that future, with arms extended rather than with fists still clenched. So let us seize the day.

Let it not become a moment of mere sentimental reflection. Let us take it with both hands and allow this day, this day of national reconciliation, to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself, whereby the injustice administered to the stolen generations in the name of these, our parliaments, causes all of us to reappraise, at the deepest level of our beliefs, the real possibility of reconciliation writ large: reconciliation across all Indigenous Australia; reconciliation across the entire history of the often bloody encounter between those who emerged from the Dreamtime a thousand generations ago and those who, like me, came across the seas only yesterday; reconciliation which opens up whole new possibilities for the future.

It is for the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close, as we begin a new chapter. We embrace with pride, admiration and awe these great and ancient cultures we are truly blessed to have among us—cultures that provide a unique, uninterrupted human thread linking our Australian continent to the most ancient prehistory of our planet.

Growing from this new respect, we see our Indigenous brothers and sisters with fresh eyes, with new eyes, and we have our minds wide open as to how we might tackle, together, the great practical challenges that Indigenous Australia faces in the future.

Let us turn this page together: Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, government and opposition, Commonwealth and state, and write this new chapter in our nation’s story together. First Australians, First Fleeters, and those who first took the oath of allegiance just a few weeks ago. Let’s grasp this opportunity to craft a new future for this great land: Australia. I commend the motion to the House’.

For more information, ABC News has dedicated this site to it.

Australian Parliament Finally Says ‘Sorry’

Australia‘s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has finally revealed the wording that he will use tomorrow as he delivers Federal Parliament’s apology to the Stolen Generations:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

For some reactions to the wording from the National Aboriginal Alliance, see here.

Also, ABC News Online will stream Kevin Rudd’s apology from 8:55am AEDT on Wednesday. The apology will also be broadcast on ABC TV and ABC Local Radio.

I have posted more on this issue here.

On Bastard Philosophies, Stolen Generations, and the Forgiveness of Sins

Writing of Bacon, Locke and Scottish common sense philosophy (uncritically lumped together), Nevin writes: ‘The general character of this bastard philosophy is, that it affects to measure all things, both on earth and in heaven, by the categories of the common abstract understanding, as it stands related to simply to the world of time and sense’. – John W. Nevin, Human Freedom and a Plea for Philosophy: Two Essays (Mercersburg: P. A. Rice, 1850), 42. Cited in Alan P. F. Sell, Testimony and Tradition: Studies in Reformed and Dissenting Thought (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 173.

This leads me to draw attention to a recent reflection by Aussie theologian, Frank Rees, on what it means for the new democratically-elected Australian government to say sorry for past and not-so-past sins, and why ‘sorry is not the hardest word: indeed, it will be a word of life’. Frank’s post is a timely reminder of how ‘bastard philosophies’ don’t bring life, but only death; in this case that death bred of fear, misunderstanding (of the issues, of people, and of the gospel itself) and mistrust, the wounds of which will probably take decades, if not centuries, to heal.

In a related post, Rory suggests that the apology to Australia’s stolen generation should be made on our behalf by the Governor General rather than by the Prime Minister. He writes: ‘He is the head of government in Australia, and he holds a position that is above party politics. Whatever you think about the virtues or otherwise of the current government, surely addressing this part of our history is bigger than who won the last election. I can only think that an apology coming from the GG would better speak for the nation, and it would allow the apology to loose itself from any particular party’.

I think I like this (Are there any good reasons – constitutional or otherwise – for why this cannot, or should not, happen?). But regardless of from whose vicarious lips the apology comes, one hopes that it may also model and encourage the way of life and a softening of heart (and a less bastardly-informed philosophy) for other people, governments and organisations. One hopes … [I confess to having no such confidence in human nature of itself to bring about such a change of heart. This too must be a work of the Spirit].

Frank’s and Rory’s posts reminded me of Stevan Weine’s book, When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a volume which includes some powerful documentary of those closely affected by the tragedies attending the recent conflict in the Balkans. One such testimony witnesses:

I remember Bosnia as a beautiful and peaceful country. We all lived together. Before the war, it was unnecessary to know if your neighbor was Serb, Croat, Muslim or Jew. We looked only at what kind of person you were. We were all friends. But now I think it is like a kind of earthquake. A huge catastrophe. After this war nothing will be the same. People will live, but I think they will not live together. they will not share the same bread like before. Maybe they will be neighbors, but I think the close relationship will not exist any more. Because the Bosnian people, especially the Muslim people, had a bad experience, partly as a result of our attitude. (p. 13)

In his brilliant treatment on forgiveness, The Cleansing of the Memories, Geoffrey Bingham reminds us that ‘memory has always been a problem with mankind. It may seem a curious thing that man can be troubled by his past, as also delighted by it. Some memories bring a renewal of shock and trauma when they come unbidden’. Bingham proceeds to speak of ‘God’s holy amnesia’, of ‘the Divine forgetfulness’ or ‘the Divine non–remembering’. ‘God refuses to remember our sins! If then God refuses to remember our sins, why should we choose remember them?’ While our consciences never let anyone off the hook, Bingham writes, ‘God–through Christ–has so purged our sins, that they have been worked out to exhaustion and extinction, and all their power of guilt, penalty and pollution has been erased. In other words there are–effectively –no sins to remember! God has not simply ignored our sins. He has destroyed them, forever! … Of course–from time to time–we will remember the sins we once did, but we must not make them back into substantial things. God has denuded them of substance, of guilt, power and pollution. If they come to us in memory, then in faith in the Cross we should say, ‘Whilst you represent the sins I committed, you have no substance. God has emptied you, purified you, and taken away the guilt which accompanied you. You are wraiths, ghosts of the past come back to haunt me via the accusations of Satan and his hosts, but you have no substance’. [See The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf, and my post here on Redeeming Bitterness - An Interview with Miroslav Volf].

I have just finished reading Wilhelm Herrmann’s Systematic Theology (Dogmatik), which I recommend. At one point, he notes that ‘It is the realization of the impossibility of friendship with God that creates in us the religious consciousness of guilt. Obviously we cannot be quit of this burden of guilt by any effort for our own betterment; for the sense of guilt before God will paralyse our courage to start a new life’. To all who have tried to be quit of the burden of guilt by their own efforts, Herrmann’s words sound out as a prophetic rebuke and caution against the futility and arrogance of such resolve. This is one of the reasons why in the final chapter of his The Wondrous Cross (reviewed here), Steve Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. He writes:

Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ.

In a recent paper I heard, Alan Torrance bore witness to the truth that it is only by virtue of Christ’s vicarious humanity that we discover the two forms of liberation that are intrinsic to atonement: first, liberation as victimisers for our sin of victimisation; and second, liberation as victims from the bitterness and hatred that attend the sense of irreversible injustice, the hurt of damaged lives, irretrievably lost opportunities, and all the other evils that result from sin. There is liberation here, he said, because precisely at the point where we cannot forgive our enemies the Gospel suggests that our sole representative, the sole priest of our confession, does what we cannot do – he stands in and forgives our victimisers for us and in our place as the One on behalf of the many – and then invites us to participate in the very forgiveness he has realised vicariously on our behalf. On these grounds we are not only permitted to forgive but obliged and indeed commanded to forgive others. Alan said, ‘Where we are not entitled to forgive, the crucified Rabbi is. And where we are unable to forgive, we are given to participate in his once-and-for-all forgiveness and to live our lives in that light and from that centre – not least in the political realm’. He cited his dad (JB Torrance), who defined worship as ‘the gift of participating by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father’. The consequence of any ethic, therefore, that warrants the name ‘Christian’ must be conceived in parallel terms, namely as the gift of participating by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. ‘Forgiveness’, Alan stressed, ‘is the gift of participating in a triune event of forgiveness. In an act of forgiveness, the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives as God but also, by the Spirit, as the eschatos Adam on behalf of humanity. The mandate to forgive must be understood in this light.’

The ‘apology’ that will be made when the federal government next sits is ultimately possible because in Christ, God has already confessed humanity’s sins and forgiven all parties. To say ‘sorry’ is to take up Christ’s invitation to us to ‘participate in that forgiveness that he has realised vicariously on our behalf’. It is, as Alan presses, to participate in a triune event of forgiveness in which the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives. And, it is to participate by the Spirit, in the action of the last Adam on behalf of humanity, to the joy of the Father. Whether or not the Australian Government (or Governor-General), those of the Stolen Generation (and their families/nations), and all Aussies (even Faris QC) know that this is what it means to say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Receive the forgiveness of sins’ does not undermine the reality that the very human actions of confession and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to be imago dei, and to participate in the ministry of the Triune God in our maimed and besmirched world.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14).

‘See to it’, therefore, ‘that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him’. (Col 2:8-15)

Forsyth on the gift of Jesus Christ

It’s been a while since I posted a quotation from Forsyth and this one reminds me again why his voice is both so unique and needed today to combat the heresy of (merely) incarnational theology:

‘… all Christ’s teachings about the Kingdom were only facets of His act of the Cross, which founded it where nothing can be shaken—on the holiness of God and what that holiness both required and gave. Roused, melted, or crushed by His words, we need more than a present God for a help in time of trouble; we need a God doing eternal and historic justice to what is the most perfect and real thing in the universe, and our own last interest there—to the holiness of His own love, which we have so deeply wronged. The effect on us of the mere spectacle of Christ carries us beyond spectacle. We need there an act of judgement and not merely of exhibition, of reparation and not mere confession. We need a confession so full and perfect as to be reparation—the full confession of the Holy by the Holy amid the conditions of universal sin. For the purposes of the Kingdom Christ preached. We need more than a God made mortal flesh; and what we are offered in Christ is God made sin for us’. – PT Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, 88.

Out of the closet: a meme

Inspired by Peter Leithart, Ben Myers has invited us to post some ‘theological confessions’. Judging by the huge response, there’s obviously a lot of need for confession around. I’ve been trying to resist, but OK … I give in.

  1. I confess that although my confession in Jesus’ lordship seems way too important to be part of this confession, there is no place in which such a confession is anything less than entirely proper.
  2. I confess that sometimes I think that all the problems in the world would go away if people (not me of course, but those other people) could just read and take in (just about) everything that Forsyth says.
  3. I confess that I prefer Wittenberg to Rome, I prefer Geneva to Wittenberg, and I prefer a good fishing spot more than them all.
  4. I confess that reading books about prayer is almost as hard as actually praying.
  5. I confess that Barth’s Dogmatics gets better as he warms up.
  6. I confess that although I’m stimulated by the Torrance’s reading of Calvin (and Barth), I’m unconvinced that they are always telling us the truth about the two blokes (i.e. are always faithful interpreters).
  7. I confess that I was fairly serious when I asked recently whether or not PhD theses on Barth ought to be discouraged for a wee bit. (I am not implying here that we ought to neglect the bloke).
  8. I confess that that I’m glad that there’s only three in the Godhead because my maths is useless and the doctrine is hard enough to understand, let alone live in.
  9. I confess that the US version of The Office is better than the UK version. I sub-confess that as an Aussie I never thought I would say this about anything American.
  10. I confess that American Football is the most boring game on the planet. The fact that it is enjoyed by so many morons is both the greatest single simultaneous evidence for the doctrine of total depravity and common grace.
  11. I confess that I’m glad that the fire accompanying the open theist debates seems to have died down.
  12. I confess that sometimes I wish Beza had never heard of Calvin.
  13. I confess that I feel far too stupid to be doing a PhD.
  14. I confess that bad coffee and bad shoes are not better than no coffee and no shoes.
  15. I confess that there may be one or two people who disagree with #14, particularly those who actually don’t own a pair of shoes.
  16. I confess that (with Sean) I am one of the few Baptists that still think that studying Greek ought be a mandatory part of training for the pastoral ministry of word and sacrament.
  17. I confess that (following on from above) I am something of a hypocrite and that I wish had stuck at my Greek and Hebrew more than I do.
  18. I confess that Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was onto something when she said that ‘Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense’. If only she had known about the great joys and distractions of blogging!
  19. I confess that theology happens best not in the academy nor on blogs but in the local Church and its proclamation which it exists to serve.
  20. I confess that I always enjoy reading a good fiction book with a cup of tea.
  21. I confess that I don’t understand the objections to ‘double-predestination’ by those non- Barthians who imply that ‘single predestination’ seems so much more gracious.
  22. I confess that the Gospel is still good news to the poor.
  23. I confess that I find it hard to trust teetotallers.
  24. I confess that I am genuinely grieved at the dearth of contemporary hymns on the atonement.
  25. I confess that I learn more theology in an hour with Dostoevsky than in an hour with almost any other theologian.
  26. I confess that I’m pleased that sinful bloggers have decided to exercise their bondaged will’s and ignore Ben‘s invitation that these confessions concern themselves with ‘a list of intellectual confessions’.
  27. I confess that I have prayed that some of the brilliant Barthian theologians around might start to do some serious bible exegetical work when doing their theology.
  28. I confess that I have prayed that some of the brilliant non-Barthian theologians around might start to do some serious bible exegetical work when doing their theology.
  29. I confess that I’ve enjoyed Byron’s confessions the most of all.
  30. I confess that Christianity stands or falls with its preaching.

BTW: some have been asking – even confessing – that they don’t know what a ‘meme’ is. The answer is here.

Repentance


‘When repentance helps the believer to peace it is not ex opere operato, because he has repented and may now trust grace; but it is because in his repentance he has part and lot in the infinite pain and confession of Christ.’ – Carl Heinrich von Weizsacker

The decay of a real belief in baptism

‘The decay of a real belief in Baptism, the vogue of mere dedication services, and such-like decencies, which can be made family festivals, and are no part of a Church’s confession, is a chief reason why the Churches are listless in the care of the child, and why they leave it haphazard to those who are fond of that kind of thing.’ P. T. Forsyth, ‘The Church and the Children.’ Letter. British Weekly, 15 May 1913, 169.