For your reflection
…Have you heard the sort of rhetoric that treats First Nations people as lesser humans? As more like children? Or animals? What is a Christian response to the claim one group of humans is lesser than another? Why is it such a persistent idea? Where do you have a tendency (if at all) to draw lines putting some humans outside your sphere of moral concern?
Despair and Hope
The twelve tribes of Israel are descendants of the patriarch Jacob, born from different mothers: from Leah – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; from Rachel – Joseph (later split into the “half-tribes” of Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin; from Bilhah, Rachel’s maid – Dan and Naphtali; and from Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. The baffling allocation of tribes to pronounce blessings or curses from holy mountains when they entered the land of promise is given in Deuteronomy 27. Zebulun and Naphtali, mentioned in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, were allocated to the cursing group on Mount Ebal (now thought not to be “as holy” as the site of blessing, Mount Gerizim).
In Isaiah 8, the prophet warns of impending judgment by God because they turned their backs God’s provision. There was dismay because the people found themselves without God’s light. Zebulun and Napthali are singled out for their previous suffering, and are upheld as beneficiaries of hope … and then we have the text frequently associated with Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). Now the lands of Zebulun and Napthali were essentially the Galilee, were Jesus’ exercised most of his ministry. The people there who despaired to the point of death were also the first to see the hope in Christ.
The light of Christ revealed to all people, which we celebrate through the Epiphany season, does not just happen or switch on. It is through God’s agency – “making glorious” (Isaiah 9:1). So it is for us. The light of hope does not simply happen. It comes through Christ working in us. What is it about Jesus which gives you the light of hope in times of despair? If you struggle to find that light of hope at times, what do you need to ask God-in-Christ to do for you to shed some of that light your way?
The Doctrine of Discovery
from A Voice in the Wilderness, available at abmission.org
On 27 May 1967, Australians voted to remove part of the Australian Constitution that treated Indigenous Australians as inferior to non-Indigenous Australians:
“In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted” (Section 127 of the Australian Constitution – removed by the 1967 Referendum.)
“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.” (Statement from the Heart.)
“I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, scarcely settled, great southern land.” (Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Keynote Address to the Australia-Melbourne Institute Conference, 2014.)
In July 2014, a statue of John McDouall Stuart appeared in an Alice Springs park where many First Nations people hang out. He is very bronze and very tall and is carrying a huge rifle. The statue was gifted to the Town Council by local Freemasons. (John Stuart was a Freemason.) It had not gone through Council processes for approving public monuments. However, after a public fight, it ended up displayed anyway. The statue’s inscription reads in part: “John McDouall Stuart and his companions were the first Europeans to pass through this region, going on to discover the centre of Australia in April 1860.”
There were, of course, people already living in the centre of Australia in April 1860. They had been living in the centre of Australia for a long, long time. Chances are their descendants wander past the statue most days. So, what is meant by ‘discover’ here?
The use of the word ‘discover’ makes it very clear who our point of reference is. And who it is not. We don’t ‘discover’ our sort of people, usually. We meet them. And we don’t ‘discover’ their homes or properties. We visit them. This is because we recognise that another human owns them already. This is not a neutral issue for the Christian church. Pope Alexander used the doctrine of discovery in 1493 to justify the Spanish conquest of the New World. He issued a Papal Bull that said that any lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be ‘discovered,’ claimed, and the rulership taken over in order that “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This doctrine became the basis for Europe’s claims in America, and the US Supreme Court used it to justify American expansion into the West. That is, Protestants also used whether people were ‘Christian’ or not to decide whether they had a right to their lands. In Australia, it appeared in the guise of terra nullius – a Latin expression that means ‘nobody’s land.’ This has been called “a morphed and more extreme version of the doctrine of discovery.”
The Colonisers believed in loving the neighbour as the self. Treating Indigenous people badly jeopardised people’s conception of themselves as good. This sort of cognitive dissonance has long been resolved by putting some humans outside the realm of people whose suffering we have to care about.
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’” (Luke 10:25-29). The Parable of the Good Samaritan follows.
The lawyer who questioned Jesus was doing the same thing. ‘You have to love your neighbour as yourself’, but you can hear him thinking, ‘not everyone.’ And, lawyerlike, the issue is: where is the line? This is a reasonable question. We are limited. Day to day we do have to delineate what we can care about. Jesus’ answer smashed the use of race or religion as that line. For much of Australia’s history, however, race was overtly used in this way. Many Colonists believed they were superior to First Nations people, who were such lesser humans that really they were more in the category of animals.
Early last century, Alfred Canning built the Canning Stock Route through deserts in the West. He captured and chained Indigenous people and gave them only salt water to drink until, driven mad by thirst, they led him to their sacred waterholes, which were then taken for cattle. For most of Colonial history, well into last century, the consequences for an Indigenous person who killed a whitefella’s cow were harsher than for a whitefella who killed an Indigenous person. As the Kimberley Land Council recently remarked “the fact that people are more important than cattle is something the gadiya [whitefellas] find very hard to accept.”
Rhetoric that makes one lot of people less human than another lot of people is an alarming precursor to untold woe. It came up again at the start of the Rwandan genocide and it was used recently in Britain about refugees.
For your reflection …
Have you heard the sort of rhetoric that treats First Nations people as lesser humans? As more like children? Or animals? What is a Christian response to the claim one group of humans is lesser than another? Why is it such a persistent idea? Where do you have a tendency (if at all) to draw lines putting some humans outside your sphere of moral concern?