Both sides now: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases for the Voice from Christian leaders at a church debate

Three flags of Australia

What do indigenous people mean by the word “spiritual” in the Uluru Statement from the Heart became a significant talking point in a discussion on the Voice hosted by Hoxton Park Anglican Church in southwest Sydney. The video of the debate is here.

Quoting from the Uluru Statement, Presbyterian Minister Mark Powell, a speaker on the “No” side, said that Christians voting “Yes” would be supporting a different religion. “This is really important for you here tonight, who are Christian, particularly if I could call you conservative, biblical Christians,” Powell said. “The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a religious document. It’s specifically designed that way because of the religious, spiritual, Aboriginal animistic iconography that is associated with its presentation But not only that, its the content of the Uluru Statement from that Heart, which Gabriël Moens and Augusto Zimmermann, who are constitutional lawyers, say could very well violate Section 116 of the Constitution, of actually establishing a religion.”

Powell read from the Uluru statement. “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

He comments, “But there’s a massive problem, I think, for us as Christians, that this is a spiritual sovereignty. And it’s explicit, but then compare that statement to Psalm 24, verse one, ‘The earth is the Lord’s everything in the world and all who live in it. He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.’ Do you see the difference?

“And this is when a shocking thing for some of you hear, but I think it’s true: the claiming that there is an eternal, spiritual connection to the land is pantheism or panentheism. More accurately, that is the sin of idolatry.” 
Powell referenced Ezekiel 18:20, The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son, making the argument that people should not be required to make up for the sins of past generations.

In response, Wayne Oldfield, a speaker on the “Yes” side, who served for ten years as a CMS missionary at Nungalinya College, said, “My recollection, reading the Old Testament passages [is that] it talks about the sins that will be visited down to the third and fourth generations… I think we are all in agreement that coming to faith in Jesus is the critical thing. However, not everyone is going to do that. I also want to quote from our Archbishop Kanishka [Raffel] writing, ‘For reconciliation to take place, there must be a frank acknowledgement of wrongs done, especially where present generations include both those who experienced such wrongs, such as the stolen generations and those who continue to benefit from dispossession, which surely includes many churches.” 

Mandy Jones, who taught with her husband Wayne at Nungalinya, took up the question of how language causes real communication difficulties and tackled the issue of what “‘”Spiritual” might mean in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“And we offered to go with CMS [Church Missionary Society] to the Northern Territory. When I got there, I learned pretty quickly that although the people were people like me, they had the same feelings – I could be lazy, they could be industrious, they could be kind, they could be unkind – there was a heck of a gap between my understanding our world and theirs. 

“And it made me wonder why CMS sent people like me to go into a place where I didn’t know how to communicate effectively the gospel. Fortunately, CMS is [into] the long-term mission. So after a while, you begin to understand something I understood this much [indicates a small gap with her nands] of that much [opens her hands wide.] It was a slow process. I didn’t understand what many of our students think about the world. When they use the[ir] language, I don’t always know what they mean. They may not be using English all that well. The principal of the college was asked recently, what do you think of smoking ceremonies? … He made the observation that people up north, the people in the cities, and the people in the centre probably have different understandings of what happens with smoking ceremonies.” (The views of Bishop Greg Anderson and others on smoking ceremonies are detailed in an Eternity article I wrote on smoking ceremonies.)

“Some of them will be Christian people who will have a different understanding of a smoking ceremony. And people who are not. Just the fact that somebody has that background doesn’t mean that [smoking ceremonies are] what people think it does. When Aboriginal people talk about being spiritual, I think some of the time they mean the non-material. We have bits of paper that say we own the land; we have money that you grab hold of [that is] material. 

“They’re trying to voice something that says their connection with the land is something deeper than that. And they need words for that. It’s not about things; it’s something more. 

“That isn’t the same as “I don’t think that students are idolaters any more than we are with money. I believe we are idolaters too; that’s not unique to anyone.”

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, speaking on the “No” side, wanted evidence that a particular practical outcome could be achieved. “And the problem is the activists will get hold of this. Let me tell you what, if I were to be convinced that the voice was even headed in the right direction, it would go straight to the fundamental problem. It’s not housing, it is not education, it is not employment, and those things in remote areas. It’s the fact that so many of those precious children are growing up in an environment where they are not emotionally, morally, spiritually, or physically safe.”

On the “Yes” side Michael Duckett, pastor at Macarthur Indigenous Church, gave a perspective from the streets of southwest Sydney. “What I long for isn’t the recognition we put in legislation [but} above all, is trying to get some respect and recognition on the land we walk upon. We can understand it is everyone’s land; it’s God’s land. Under the laws, it’s everyone’s; It’s God’s country. But they want to be recognised and allow their children to walk in the street, not be attacked, and walk in the shops and not be followed by security guards. That’s how I have been; that’s how my people react, being constantly watched and monitored. When the police come down to my suburb, they pull my people over. You can be Indian and drive down the street, and you ain’t get pulled over. And that’s where I am looking from, from the grassroots up.” He was pointing out that discrimination is not based on colour in his experience but on his people’s identity. Duckett’s said his people were not talking about the voice because they spend all their time just “trying to survive another day.” But if the Voice can keep even one kid in school, one person out of jail, in his view, it is worth voting “Yes.”

To this listener, the most shocking thing Duckett said was: “I have seen more racism in church than out of church.” 

The third speaker for “No,” Anthony Dillon, an indigenous ACU academic, questioned whether the Voice would make any difference to disadvantage and spoke of tough decisions that need to be made about remote communities. “When we look at the architects of the proposed indigenous voice, all of them, I have a great deal of respect for Langton, Calma, Pearson, Davis, and Anderson, are high achievers; undoubtedly, there is no doubt about that. But they’ve all got to where they are without the Voice, without a treaty because their fundamental needs were met.

“They were given opportunities to contribute to society; they connected with other people. They abided by a good moral code that didn’t shut themselves off from other people. And they become high achievers without the Voice. So I believe they should be using their voices to tell their disadvantaged brothers, sisters and cousins, ‘Hey, you can have what I have.’…

“It’s typically in the remote areas where you have the problems. And Stan Grant himself said that eight years ago, we need to seriously consider moving those people to where the opportunities are. So if you can open the opportunities to the people, then you bring the people to where the opportunities are so that they can have what I’ve got, what he’s had, and what the architects of the voice have had. As Noel Pearson said many years ago, you should be either ‘earning or learning,’ working or in school. And we know that’s what makes a difference. That’s what closes the gap.”

He added, “To meet that need that I talked about, especially in remote communities, is very challenging, there is no doubt about it, it is very challenging. And I’m not just saying you need to rip up people in remote communities; we need, for some of them, a sense of effective strategy. If those communities are viable, then yes, we need to invest in them. But that’s all hard work. That’s pretty hard work.”

In response, “Yes” speaker Mandy Jones said, “There are disasters in remote areas. Some of them are the way that schools operate.” Pointing out that better consultation could help, she said, “A lot of kids going to school in remote communities speak the local language. … They don’t seem, teachers that have been trained to teach kids that speak a language other than English, they just send normal teachers. What effect do you think that has? That’s a clever thing to do.

“There are a whole lot of things that happen in remote communities where the fathers are there. There are plenty of families with their fathers there who love their kids and want the best for them. We know many intelligent people; we know successful people. But there is still a lot of dysfunction around.

“I mean, Michael [Duckett] is a great person; I admire him greatly. He’s, in a sense, successful that he sees lots of people on our team that are struggling. That’s what it’s like in remote communities too.
“I just want to say something about where I have seen a consultative process work. James Watt is a teacher, and they initially thought he would never be a proper teacher because you need to do the TIA Qualifications, which is a nightmare for anyone. But it turns out you can do a skill set. So he’s now a qualified teacher. 

“He’s Christian. He has been a Christian for quite a long time – he became a Christian because his mother, his mother’s side, his mother, sisters, and his mother prayed for a long time. He has an understanding of the gospel of grace, and he has an understanding of culture. He can bring those things together, just as we need to; we need to bring our culture, which says ‘money is good’; It says ‘I am important;’ without faith. These people are doing the same. 

“Since James has contributed to our classes, things have improved out of sight. Because his teachers, when I was there, understood so much more about what was happening. That made a huge difference.”

Note: the speakers were speaking as individuals, not representing institutions they belong to as far as The Other Cheek is aware

Image: 3 Flags of Oz Credit: Leonard J Matthews

One Comment

  1. Note that the actual words of the proposed amendment to create the indigenous “voice” to parliament do not contain any spiritual language at all.

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