bringing them home: saying sorry to the aboriginal people

Today (May 26th) is National Sorry Day, and it will be followed by National Reconciliation Week from May 27-June 3.

National Sorry Day was first observed in 1998, one year after a report was tabled concerning the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The report, entitled as Bringing Them Home, acknowledged that these children were forcibly removed from their families and communities beginning in the early days of British occupation of the land, and that the government and missionaries were most directly responsible.

Reconciliation Week begins on May 27 with the anniversary of a Referendum in 1967 which removed clauses from the Australian Constitution that were discriminatory to Aboriginal Australians.

The week ends on June 3, the anniversary of the infamous Mabo case of 1992 in which the High Court of Australia recognised Native Title rights and overturned ‘terra nullius’ (the myth that prior to European settlement the land was empty of people and was unowned.)

Clearly this is a significant time for the Aboriginal people and for all Australians. It should be a time for us to celebrate the Indigenous people in this country, and what they have achieved. One Aboriginal leader and pastor in Redfern here in Sydney has a phrase in reference to Aboriginal leadership that seems appropriate:

Never have so few achieved so much with so little for the benefit of so many.

Sorry Day is also a time to think about the sins committed against the Indigenous people of this land, and to look forward to reconciliation, and hopefully more – restitution.

What could restitution look like? As a white fella my ideas are certainly not definitive, though I will reflect briefly on some theological areas that could be explored in the future.

1. Land
Peter Adam of Ridley College has already done a fantastic job of covering this area in his lecture Australia – Whose Land?, so I will refrain from lengthy discourse.

Adam’s lecture begins by pointing out that Australia is God’s land – he owns it. This was indeed the foundation of the concept of Jubilee in Leviticus; God owned the land, and so according to his love and justice it should be distributed fairly, without some taking more than their share. Jesus asserts the need for this reality in his time when he declares “the Year of the Lord’s favour” in Luke 4.

In brief, this has significant ramifications for how Christians think about the land in Australia now; it has been far longer than 50 years (the time span for Jubilee), and the justice of God surely demands that we redistribute the land for those who originally owned it, and those who are most needy.

2. Family
Jesus is critical of social constructions that obstruct equality for women and children. Mark 10 reflects this, where Jesus confronts divorce laws that benefit men and leave women vulnerable. In the same chapter Jesus confronts the disciples’ attitudes toward children, who are probably the most vulnerable people of his time (and probably of our time).

In following the implications of Jesus’ teaching and actions in these episodes, we must take seriously the call to ensure that women, children, and more widely family structures are protected. This is not merely about screeching for abstract family values at Christian lobby forums, but about calling ourselves and our government to account for the sins of separating families and destroying the lives of children in our past, particularly those of the Aboriginal people. It is also about ensuring that we protect Indigenous families in the future, and that we put in the required resources for Indigenous communities to thrive and benefit from the prosperity of Australia (and indeed all those who are marginalised).

3. Community
It is of course the vocation of Christians to be people of reconciliation. Outside of the famous call to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5), the Pauline corpus is filled with references to the fact that the barriers that once divided (Jew/Gentile, master/slave, male/female etc.) are now dissolved in Christ.

This is directly relevant to Australia. Any divide that has existed between Indigenous Australians and those of European descent (or that still exists) is void in Christ.

Those in Christ are called to embody the reconciliatory call in every way. While this may not necessarily mean White Australians going out and becoming friends with Aboriginals (there probably aren’t enough Indigenous people), it does mean changing our attitudes, our spirits.

Indeed, it is important that we do not assume that the sins are limited to the past – we still have much to answer for in the present. The Andrew Bolt episode of recent times should serve as but one example of the issues that still reside within us today.

If we can change the way we think, then we are taking the first steps toward a more equal, just, beautiful and godly Australia.

So as we find ourselves in the midst of Sorry Day, let us reflect on our sins, on what Christ might mean for today, and what an imaginative future of reconciliation and beauty might mean.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, because for me this is a challenging issue, and I have much to learn.


Posted on May 26, 2011, in Advocacy, Current Events, Mission, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Thanks Matt.

    Another Great read..

    On the Andrew Bolt issue, he like journalist from all sides like to tarnish the majority because of minority. There probably are one or two people using the term aboriginal for the govt benefits etc. They, journilist, like to divide and provoke people with such comments.

    On the name Sorry Day. Is is something that is productive. If you do wrong by me you say Sorry, once not every year.

    I’m just wondering if the name is causing more harm than good.

    Bless ya

    Daz (maybe Ash can give you a LOTR quote for each article).

  2. Good article again. Don’t shoot me, but I can’t help but wonder how I can say sorry for something I didn’t do? I can be sad that something happened, or express my sympathy, but how can I be sorry for decisions and actions I was not part of?

    Also a bit puzzled by your take on “sins” here – I thought you weren’t so much the “bad actions=sin”/”sins are a list of bad things we do” type?

  3. Hi Lauren,

    I haven’t got a gun, don’t worry 😉

    I completely understand your question, and indeed the sentiment you have expressed has also been expressed by thousands of Australians who point out they were not directly responsible for the past atrocities against the Aboriginal people.

    I would suggest a few points of reflection.

    The first is that though contemporary Australians did not partake in said atrocities, the reality is that the Aboriginal people are, by and large, still statistically much worse off in this country. That is to say that there has not yet been adequate reconciliation and reparation for the sins of the past, which in a sense makes those sins still present in our current society. In a way those of European descent have “benefitted” historically from the subjection of the Aboriginal people inasmuch as we are prospering on the land from which they have been dispossessed. To date we have not yet set things right.

    I guess this is also a reflection on Daz’s question about whether we should say sorry annually. I think that this is actually appropriate until things are actually set right.

    Of course, saying sorry with no practical change is pretty pointless…

    But perhaps “sorry” can be symbolic of a greater reality. When a parent says “sorry” to their fellow patrons in a restaurant because their child is mucking up, they are not making an admission of guilt (for they are not the one’s doing the “wrong”); rather they are acknowledging the inconvenience/frustration of those in the restaurant and signalling their wish to make things right.

    In a similar way our saying “sorry” acknowledges the pain and suffering in the past of the Aboriginal people, and reasserts a desire to see things made right. It also makes a statement about the kind of world we want to live in – one where we care about the pain and suffering of others, where we treat each other with compassion and love, and where those who are marginalised are not subjected to injustice but rather are brought into a state of equality.

    In regard to my view of sin – sin is, in short, that which falls outside the will of God for creation. This can include thoughts, actions, systems and relationships. Violent and cruel acts committed against the Aboriginal people indisputably fall into that which violates God’s intended pattern for creation, as are systems that keep them disproportionately marginalised (and indeed, marginalised at all).

    In addition I would argue that any attitude, or ‘spirit’, which denies the rights of the Aboriginal people to a life of justice and beauty in their own land is “sinful” inasmuch as it ignores God’s beautiful will of justice and life for all creation.

    I hope that adequately addresses your question, not with a “certain” answer but simply with a reflection, and that there are no bullet holes to be found.


  4. Thanks Matt,

    I get where you’re coming from. But the parent in the restaurant has the ability to do something about it (discipline/remove the child). Perhaps what they are “sorry” for is the lack of control they are exhibiting.

    I can’t do much about the sins of the past nor the problems of the present. And even if I could, what would you have me do? We can’t exactly remove all the land from non-Aboriginal owners and redistribute it.

    If we’re going to say sorry annually, perhaps we should extend it to include everyone who has been unfairly treated by the policies of past governments? Kids put into foster homes and abused? etc etc. Perhaps that’s why people get their backs up about it – the Aboriginal people are not the only ones to have suffered unjustly.

  5. I think that we can do something about it, inasmuch as we can live and think differently and positively in regard to the Aboriginal people (and all marginalised people). The problem is, at the deepest level, a “spiritual” problem in that our spirits are corrupted and this works itself out in our public life. From this corruption and the resulting lifestyle we must constantly repent, privately, publicly and relationally.

    I agree that we should be saying “sorry” to all those who have been sinned against. But that does not negate concentrating on one group on a specific day or week of the year, particularly since this country was, in many ways, built on their suffering. We do, after all, remember the suffering of ANZACS on one day every year (two if you count Remembrance Day), why not Aboriginals? Australia Day is, in a way, a celebration of the beginnings of the theft of their land, and we celebrate that too…

    I agree that we cannot give back the whole land (well, we *could*, but that is not ideal, nor do the Aboriginal people want that). We can however make sure that the small number of Aboriginal people that live in Australia (there aren’t many compared with the rest of the population) have the proper reparations made to them in terms of land and resource etc.

    Great thoughts, as they bring a necessary challenge and dialogue to better articulate what God might be wanting.


  6. Thanks Matt,

    Do we have enough weeks in the year? 🙂

  7. Mate, this is the biggest load of hogwash ever written. No offense, but you have no right to call what happened “a sin”.

    I am not responsible for the actions of governments of the past. The governments were implanting this policy as they thought it was the best thing to do at the time. May I also remind you this happened to orphaned children taken from their parents from England and other places within Australia who were not aboriginal.

    Reconciliation goes 2 ways. You cannot apply your Christian views on a secular issue. Even after the government apologized that isn’t good enough for them. Saying sorry isn’t enough and they always complain and whinge and say there is so much more to do.

    Saying sorry isn’t enough. All we here is how unfair it was for them. And they want com

  8. You cannot have a go at Andrew bolt who raises important points and true justifications. I am 1/8 sweetish. But that doesn’t make me a sweedish person. What is happening to Andrew bolt is disgusting and proves that freedom of speech is being removed in Australia.

    Your analysis of the year of jubilee is taken so out of context. So does that mean America gives the land back the Indians? And all over the world where these issues happened?

    When sin is confessed it is forgiven. The aboriginal people should understand it’s forgiveness they need before anyone can move on. I doubt that will happen at all.

    But please your deep biblical retoric analysis is so in accurate.

    I have a lot of aboriginal friends. Things like sorry day promote the continued chip on the shoulder aboriginal people continue with these issues. We did not take the land from them. The ancestors before us did. We are not responsible for their actions and thus this idea of this sin you talk about is not justified.

    It’s like if I kill someone, and then saying in 50 years time that my family are responsible for the sin. There not.

    I am all for helping aboriginal people, but true reconciliation works both ways, and until aboriginal people start forgiving the past and dwelling on it, nothing will change.

  9. why are they saying sorry ????????????????????????????????????????????

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