Mission and Indigenous Rights

Written by Stuart McMillan

President Stuart McMillan shared a personal perspective on reconciliation and renewal with Australia's First Peoples at the Methodist Consultative Council of the Pacific in Tonga in May 2017.

Stuart McMillan: The picture I’m showing you is the late Rev Dr Gumana AO who I called father, through the gift of adoption into an Indigenous First Peoples’ Clan/Nation.

This is something that First Peoples do when you truly enter into relationship with them.

My Father grew up with the stories of how the white man had come to his homeland, killing many of the men, women and children of his extended family, as far as we can tell in the 1930s.

You might imagine the hatred and fear for the white man that this boy would have grown up with.

Later in his life as a teenager he was locked away with other Indigenous people in a leprosarium – a place they kept lepers on an island outside the township of Darwin. They were outcasts.

God drew this young man into a loving embrace.

In the place of his imprisonment as a leper he met the young woman who would become his wife.

When they were released from the facility he became a strong advocate and leader in the struggle for land rights.

Land rights were granted in 1976 and he led his people to return to their homeland.

Gängan is a very significant place in Arnhem Land – a place from which the Yirritja moiety creation stories spring forth from the earth.

For the Indigenous people of north-east Arnhem Land, the Yolŋu people, all of creation including human beings are either Dhuwa or Yirritja.

This concept of creation is similar to Yin and Yang – two complementary halves for all things.

God worked in my Father’s heart and he forgave the white man for killing his family and for locking him away.

He was recognised as the leader for his Clan/Nation, a respected Yirritja law man, an acclaimed artist and a passionate advocate for land rights, the homeland movement and the recognition of Yolŋu legal, political, economic and social systems and structures.

He studied and was ordained as a Minister in the Uniting Church.

His final work for his ordination harmonised Yolŋu creation stories and the Hebrew Scriptures, pointing to God’s presence with God’s people in creation, giving meaning and purpose for life and a deeper understanding of God’s gift to us all.

I am telling you this story of my Father because it illustrates a few points I wish to make about the journey of reconciliation, both in the nation of Australia and more particularly within the Uniting Church in Australia.

Firstly, and significantly, it speaks volumes about the grace of God in the lives of First Peoples.

My Father offered forgiveness without it being sought; he chose the way of reconciliation, to work with the white western dominant structures and people for the good of his people, to find mutuality and the way of peace.

Secondly, the story illustrates a point I want to make about reconciliation.

My brother-in-law, again by adoption, Rev. Dr Gondarra OAM, said to me one day that reconciliation looked like this:

“I have found things of value in your systems and structures, your culture, when will you find value in my systems and structures, in my cultural heritage and understandings of the world and God?”

How is it possible to do this? I believe it is only possible to truly value another’s culture, traditions and knowledge by choosing to enter into relationship.

My Father chose to forgive and to enter into relationship with many people of a foreign culture, with people who had destroyed his family.

I am a recipient of this grace, and I have found great richness in this relationship, in the culture and spirituality, in the ways Yolŋu see and interpret the world and its Creator.

I don’t think the same or act the same as I did before I embraced relationship with Yolŋu people, I have been transformed.

Reconciliation comes first when individuals in humility enter into relationship.

Reconciliation becomes a people movement for justice and truth, as the number of quality relationships grow.

Inherent in this movement is the recognition of the unique worth of every individual who is created from the womb of God, and in the image of God, because we are indeed one in Christ.

Australia was colonised by European powers who failed to even acknowledge the sovereign First Peoples’ existence. Two doctrines were the basis of this blindness:

  1.       Terra Nullius – the Latin expression from Roman law meaning “land belonging to nobody”.
  2.      The Doctrine of Discovery – a declaration of the Pope in 1493 giving Columbus and others an exclusive right to lands not inhabited by Christians; to “discover”, “claim”, and “exploit”.

While terra nullius was overturned by the High Court of Australia in the Mabo decision of 1992, the Doctrine of Discovery has been used by successive Australian, Canadian, US and New Zealand governments to claim sovereignty over the lands and waters of the First Peoples of these nations.

In 1994, almost 10 years after the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was formed within the Uniting Church in Australia, at our National Assembly meeting, a painting and documents were exchanged, symbolising and formalising a covenant relationship between the First and Second Peoples of the Uniting Church under God.

Then in 2009 the 12th Triennial Assembly meeting adopted a new Preamble to our Constitution which acknowledged the dark and violent dispossession of First Peoples.

The Preamble recognised First Peoples prior custodianship of the lands and waters of Australia.

Further it makes a theological acknowledgement of God’s revelation with and to First Peoples prior to colonisation.

So whilst as a Christian Church in Australia we have taken the lead in some ways, the fundamental justice issue remains the question of recognising and honouring First Peoples as sovereign.

When we met in our 14th Triennial Assembly meeting in July 2015 the question we resolved to discuss over the next three years was:

“What would it mean for the practices of the Church to honour First Peoples as sovereign?”

“What does it mean to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as the theological basis for the fact that, the very existence of the Uniting Church in Australia, is based upon:

A theological principle which, cannot be justified by Scripture and the ways of Christ; and

All our property holdings are on “stolen land.”

“How might a just declaration of First Peoples sovereignty reshape our Church?”

“What is the Spirit saying to the Church at this time?”

A mark of our maturity for the Uniting Church in Australia and which speaks to the depth of relationships between First and Second Peoples will be the way we face-up to this justice issue and foundational truth, openly and honestly. This is a Christian imperative for us, which holds the promise of Spirit led transformation and new life.

No longer in our global context does mission to the margins hold true, now the mission context can be described as mission from the margins. Mission contexts are premised by mutuality which says we have as much or more to learn from you as you might from us. This is true for us in Australia and certainly for our Church partnerships in the Pacific and other places. What might Second Peoples, learn – gain from the spirituality of the First Peoples of our land?

How might our partnership in the gospel with our sisters and brothers in the Pacific be enhanced and vitalised through a deepening relationship and understanding between the First Peoples of our Church and our Pacific partners?

Thank you.