OPINION Jacob Sarkodee
‘The evidence of true and faithful worship is that as disciples we allow God’s expressions of loving and just power to define and direct our own and seek to build systems that do likewise.’ – Mark Labberton
In Matthew 5, Jesus says to his newly minted disciples, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’
To be a peacemaker, is to be someone who extends the warm hand of companionship to walk alongside their neighbour or enemy, even when power has been used previously to break the relationship.
The phenomenon of peace-making Jesus describes here is most profound when the neighbour in question has not actually seen or perceived that there was a need to make for peace in the first place. More troubling for the peacemaker, is when their neighbour not only cannot perceive that there is a basis or history which calls for peace-making and reconciliation, but fails at all to truly see the peacemaker as they desire to be seen and heard.
I feel that this is the backdrop that many people in Australia, and in particular, the evangelical predominantly white Christian church finds itself in at the moment ahead of the federal referendum on Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander recognition in the constitution via a Voice to Parliament.
These peacemakers wrote in a simple document to the Australian community from Uluru following on from 12 Indigenous constitutional dialogues (comprising more than 1200 people) in the lead up to 2017. This document was called the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
It is a peace making document written to the Australian public, not politicians.
But with peace must come truth. For how can their be peace between parties if there is no truth?
And the Uluru Statement articulates a deep, painful historical truth that eats away at the spiritual heart of each Australian – even if we rarely have been able to recognise its true presence or power:
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. (Uluru Statement from the Heart)
We have not had to contend with such truth, at least not regularly, because our worship has been unfortunately impacted by the disordered use of power that was at the corner stone of colonial Australia; and is still there.
You can see it in our very own Constitution.
Prior to the 1967 referendum, s 127 of the constitution stated that ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.’ The elected Government of the day ordered power to deny the citizenship of its own first peoples. Further, under the Crown, its own British subjects!
And today, the ‘race’ power still exists in s 51, where the Commonwealth has the power to make laws, to the betterment or detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples [yes, even to their detriment, as upheld in the Hindmarsh High court case of 1998].
I like how Mark Labberton puts it as “as worshipers, we know that underlying the disorder we can see are disorders we can’t see.” The systemic disordering of power in our own nation historically speaks to disordered worship between people and God himself.
Christians can look to Genesis 1 and 2 and see the whole cosmos and humanity worshiping God our Creator, and it is there that we see how true worship is expressed through the right ordering of power between people and God, people and creation, and between each other.
The story from there is one of our complete unravelling and downfall into a world of disordered power. What we might think as just ‘the way things are’ when it comes to power and its use in our world is not how God intended it.
And so as Christians we must come and confess the truth that other forms of power are used to systemically mar the image of God, dehumanise and systematically oppress our own brothers and sisters. That we ourselves use power – in all its various forms – to the same effect, and to our shame and condemnation.
And this misuse of power has been true over and over again for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, where laws can be made about them [and they are the only ethnic or cultural group the Government can do that for], but the Government of the day has no obligation or requirement to listen to them in the execution of such laws.
But the good news (in a list of bad news!) here is this:
Our worship is meant to continuously re-order who and what power is primary in our lives, who redefines and recalibrates our understanding and engagement with any and all other forms of power, and how God’s people should move into those places committed to pursue the honest, just, and hopeful use of power.
And so if God is interested in our true worship, not just in church on a Sunday, but in public, what does that look like? Faithful worship is not just about what constitutes orderliness, as recently expressed in the Australian Presbyterian Churches ban on acknowledgement of country. Sigh…
It is also about the integrity of such worship. It is not just what is said, sung or prayed in the pews, but how we live out the use of our power as a reflection of the Kingdom of God in public, on the street, and at the ballot box.
But we can be forgiven for getting this all wrong, just as the Israelites did – who knew a thing or two about proper worship (God’s chosen people!). Through Isaiah, God calls out the hypocrisy of their worship, ‘as if’ they knew Him:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58)
Jesus also draws the line between the integrity of our worship of God and our love of neighbour in Matthew 25.
You can picture it, awe-inspiring and fantastic moment of worship: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angles are with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.’ And at that moment he invites into His Kingdom those who have lived out their worship, as expressed in rightly-ordering power through ‘the love, mercy and justice of God in Jesus Christ’ (Labberton).
Of course, this is not a call to a theocratic state, but one where we make every effort possible to reflect into the world the God who ‘loves righteousness and justice’ (Psalm 33:5) and justice and righteousness are the foundation of His throne (Psalm 89:14).
So we can’t be the least surprised when Jesus says that all people will be judged by ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40). Jesus is calling his people to be the kinds of people who, when encountering and looking for neighbours who have been consumed by disordered power in our world – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the cloth less, the sick, the imprisoned – that they are served, seen and honoured as if it were Jesus. As if it were God Himself.
And the Australian Christian church will face a similar proposition on October 14 as we head to the Referendum. We know the constitutional question (to add a new 92 word chapter into the constitution) is:
A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?
But will we be thinking of Matthew 25 when approaching this weighty matter, because I yearn for an Australia where Jesus will one day say of His people, the Church:
‘I was unheard, and you listened to me.’
And of course then some Christian pastors will say, but Jacob, you are forgetting something! Paul said that, despite our lack of living up to Jesus call to integral worship in Matthew 25, we can be assured that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). So rest easy mate!’
But what type of love is this? A faith that just falls over the line? Is that it? Is not sanctification a life long journey of being made more like Him?
Because with this approach, we are fixed on the fear of what we haven’t done, rather than the true worship that is all about the right ordering of power in our world in reflection of and anticipation of the Kingdom of God.
Friends, see the opportunity! May we be a church community who can say, ‘Lord, when did we see you unheard, and listen to you?’ knowing full well that indeed, we did not exclude or ignore our own first nations brothers and sisters.
That, in our churches we centred the Indigenous Christian voices (as Anne Pattel-Gray puts so well here) that have so much to give us and enrich us from the story God has woven in their lives, as well as additional gifts they can reveal to us from the Scriptures.
That in our civic space, in our combined love for this country, our Parliament will hear from those who were once the least, but have now been empowered to take ‘a rightful place in our own country’ (Uluru Statement from the Heart).
This is my prayer for our whole nation in this moment. Indeed as Nicholas Wolterstorff said in his philosophical and theological tome, Justice in Love:
‘doing justice is an example of love.’
Let us on October 14 #VoteYes and seek the just, right, and proper ordering of power, as a reflection of our worship (for the Christian at least) that accepts the peace making gift from Uluru, and recognises Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people in our Constitution once and for all.
First published at https://sarkodee.substack.com