Clearing the smoke – why Christians differ on smoking ceremonies

A moving ceremony around the campfire at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra kicked off #Changetheheart Prayer Services held around the nation in January, led by First Nations people and Common Grace, a Christian movement seeking social justice.

“The welcome we received in the Tent and around the campfire then extended to the service on Thursday night, when Uncle Chris and Trent joined us bringing coals from the fire to do a smoking ceremony,” young Aboriginal Christian Leader Bianca Manning writes on the Common Grace site. “As I walked through the smoke, it was an indescribable feeling to know we had the blessing of the Tent Embassy, a powerful reminder of the struggle, and that I walked through smoke from a fire that’s been kept alive by my peoples since 1972, into a place of prayer, lament, and acknowledgement.”

It is a powerful example of Christian First Nations’ people use of the smoking ceremony, which can also be found at even conservative venues – in the southern states, at least. For example, the tenth anniversary of Gawura School at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney was marked by a smoking ceremony in the Cathedral square which “had the full support and permission of the Cathedral and the Anglican Diocese”.

But the picture is different in the north of Australia, where there are churches with many First Nations attenders and smoking ceremonies do not occur. “Up here in the north, smoking ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies doesn’t happen much – or at all in the Christian circles I am part of,” Rachel Borneman, an experienced Wycliffe worker, tells Eternity. She recounts going south to the Surrender conference in Melbourne (a large Christian gathering focused on social justice), where most of the Indigenous members of her team had afternoon naps or went to watch footy to politely miss the smoking ceremony at the conference.

Many First Nations’ Christians have strong views against the use of smoking ceremonies. Sometimes these views are expressed in strong language. “This ceremony is Aboriginal religion, linked to diabolical demon spirits portrayed to the Australian public as ancestral spirits,” an Aboriginal man, Rod Rivers from Perth, writes in an essay on the conservative Christian  Canberra Declaration site. His comments were also circulated widely via email. “But when you participate in the smoking ceremony, you automatically open the door to the spirit-world and you give millions of demons legal access into your life and your family and into society.”

Greg Anderson, now the Anglican Bishop of the Northern Territory, wrote an influential book back in 2007 which seeks to have First Nations people consider this issue and make up their own minds. Ola Serramoni langa Baibul’ (Ceremonies in the Bible) gives a simple guide – originally in Kriol with a back translation into English – to thinking through the matter of ceremonies. A former CMS missionary to the Northern Territory, Anderson can speak several Aboriginal languages.

The Anderson book remains a useful guide to thinking through the complexities involved. It begins with a Biblical theology of ceremony, describing how Jesus responded to the Jewish ceremonies of the Old Testament.

We have to use what God tells us in the Bible about other ceremonies to help us think about Aboriginal ceremonies

“The important thing to think about is that Jesus did not give us a big number of laws and ceremonies. He opened the way to come to God only through himself when he died on the cross and rose again from the dead. Sometimes the New Testament uses words about ceremony in order to talk about our Christian life. But when it talks that way, it is not talking about real ceremony, it is talking about what we do every day. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul says we have to give ourselves to God like a sacrifice, but that word means we have to give our life to God completely, every day.”

Anderson asks the key question: “What about Aboriginal ceremony and Christian people today?”

“The last question we have to think about concerns Aboriginal ceremony. A lot of Aboriginal people ask if God wants them to leave those ceremonies when they change their lives and follow Jesus. Some people say that God gave Aboriginal people their ceremonies. Some people have a different idea. Some people say they don’t know where those ceremonies come from.

“Our Bible does not talk about Aboriginal ceremonies, the people who wrote all the books of the Bible did not know about Aboriginal people in this country. But we have to use what God tells us in the Bible about other ceremonies to help us think about Aboriginal ceremonies …

“But in 1 Corinthians 8:4-9, Paul talks about the ceremonies that they were doing in Corinth. They would kill an animal and cook it like a sacrifice for those other gods. Afterwards, they would sell that meat at the market. Paul told the Christian people in Corinth they were free to buy that meat and eat it, even though those other people had used that meat for worshipping those false gods. He told them they were free to eat it because those other gods were really nothing. There is only one true God. But he told them not to eat that meat at the ceremony place of those other gods, and not join in when those other people were eating that meat to worship those other gods.”

Having discussed how Christians appropriated Christmas Trees as a symbol in a different part of the world, Anderson asks whether Aboriginal Christians can decide which ceremonies they can carefully appropriate. “But Paul says one more thing in First Corinthians 10:10-13. He tells the Christian people that although they are free to eat that meat, they must not do something that makes their Christian brothers and sisters stumble. If some Christian people do not understand that they are free to eat that meat, and they think it is really bad to eat that meat, then all the Christian people who understand they are free must show respect for those who do not understand. Paul says it is better to leave the meat and not make weak Christians stumble.”

This opens up being able to understand how in different settings, different groups of Christians – even different groups of First Nations peoples – may quite legitimately have quite a different attitude towards ceremonies.

A helpful discussion in a different denominational setting shows how the issues Anderson raises land in a particular traditional environment.

In the Australasian Pentecostal Studies Journal, Rachel Borneman and Anderson George (a Wägilak Aboriginal man who now lives on Jawoyn country, Wugularr community) explore his “experience of culture, and the way in which it has informed his spiritual life and navigation of Christian and Indigenous traditions”. It is a paper well worth reading in full.

Their collaboration began at the Surrender conference in Melbourne where George shared his view on a panel.  “I was blessed and privileged to have a grandmother, so devoted to the Lord, who read the Bible,” is how George recounts his story separately on the 40 stories site.

“It was a bedtime story for us. As a kid I saw a vision of an angel coming and taking my soul … Jesus used my Christian cousin in the mid ’80s to come visit me in Berrimah Prison [Darwin].

“With non-Christians who participate in ceremony, or smoking ceremony, [they are] still family, and ask for things from each other, but when they participate in ceremony I do not get involved. I stand away.”

“God said, ‘Wake up Anderson, wake up’ to stop sinning. My sister Loretta kept praying for me, even when I was an alcoholic, sniffing petrol.

“In 1998 I was saved, and had a faith in Jesus, as small as a mustard seed. I knelt down and was praying in my language, Kriol. The Lord just spoke clearly, ‘Anderson, do you want a good life or a bad life?” [I accepted Christ] and just cried more than I had ever cried. My sister and brother-in-law laid hands. I was delivered from witchcraft, drugs, gunja, petrol sniffing, cigarette. He is a forgiving and loving Father.”

“I [had been] dying slowly of witchcraft. I had a grandfather who was a witch doctor and I would question, ‘How come he didn’t heal me?’

“[But] there is counterfeit healing, and true healing only comes from Jesus Christ. The Lord came and healed me and ever since then, I have been preaching and sharing about Jesus.”

In the paper, Anderson George outlines some of his own beliefs about ceremonies, including smoking ceremonies, which traditionally in his culture are held to discourage the dead person’s spirit from hanging around where they lived and died. He describes his decision not to participate: “With non-Christians who participate in ceremony, or smoking ceremony, [they are] still family, and ask for things from each other, but when they participate in ceremony I do not get involved. I stand away.”

The paper quotes Joy Sandefur, who worked for 25 years in the north of Australia, with Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Bush Church Aid Society, about other incidents at Ngukurr, the community where George grew up. “When a Christian woman died, her son and daughter-in-law, who were also Christians, saw no reason to have their house smoked, where she had died. They believed her spirit had gone to be with God and that the house did not need to be smoked. However, the grandchildren who did not have the same Christian convictions insisted that the house be smoked. The Christian couple went bush for the day and had nothing to do with the smoking. They moved back into their house the same day.”

In Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land, Murray Seiffert’s biography of Anderson George’s old minister (which won the Christian Book of the Year award in 2012), Seiffert explains that there is a difference between encouraging culture in a setting of “young families who have been long removed from their traditional ceremonies”, compared to a community setting where “the culture has the potential to move into practices such as sorcery and the exploitation of women”.

In this way, the meaning of a ceremony may differ from place to place. (We need to note that Anderson George disapproves of smoking ceremonies even down south.)

First Nations Christians in the Northern Territory hold a variety of views on culture. Local observers tell Eternity that Catholic Churches have incorporated Aboriginal ceremonies in their liturgy. In general, Uniting Churches appear open to incorporating ceremony.

Greg Anderson asks in his booklet “What is the meaning for us today?”

“Maybe we can use something from Aboriginal tradition to teach people something about our true God.” He wants the Aboriginal peoples to work through this issue carefully.

And concludes: “We have to keep thinking about all these things, but we must pray and ask God to show us from his word what he wants us to do, so that in everything we do and say, we will praise Jesus and spread the good news about him.”