Award-winning author, historian and ABC radio host Meredith Lake is well aware of how privileged she is, as a white middle-class Australian.
For the author of the much-lauded work, The Bible in Australia, growing up in church was a comfortable experience that suited her cultural background.
But three years of interviewing people on ABC Radio National’s Soul Search program have given her a new perspective on “people who’ve had to live their faith in contexts that have been much more challenging than the ones I’ve had to face.”
“I made a program just the other day on Archbishop Desmond Tutu, reflecting on his legacy in standing up to structural racism in the form of apartheid in South Africa and the spiritual resources that he had for living the way he did and for the kind of prophetic witness that he was,” she tells Eternity.
“And then just for International Women’s Day, I interviewed the head of the women’s department of an evangelical denomination active in the Highlands of West Papua and her story of coming to terms with the essential truth that we are made in the image of God. And, like it says in Acts, God designed the places where people will live, that we are all of one blood. This idea that land and culture is a gift of God’s. I mean, for her to take hold of that revelation, that truth, has been incredibly challenging as a person in a colonised situation trying to follow the way of Christ under incredible pressure.
“That’s helped me understand that questions around how we read the Bible and take hold of that affirmation of our incredible worth as made in God’s image is a live question for people all over the world. And it has the potential, I think, to transform our witness in the world.”
“How we read the Bible and take hold of that affirmation of our incredible worth as made in God’s image is a live question for people all over the world.”
This “live question” of how the Bible has been used to contest what it means to be human and the reverberations of those debates are key themes of Dr Lake’s upcoming Northey Lecture, entitled Race and Scripture in Australia, to be held on Thursday at 7.30pm and live-streamed (details below).
At a time when public discussion of religion is deeply polarised, she will draw on insights she gained researching and writing The Bible in Australia, particularly the history of the Bible in 19th-century colonial society, sharpened by her more recent encounters at the ABC.
“I’m speaking to you today on the 15th of March, which is the anniversary of the massacre of 51 Muslims who were gathered together in the act of prayer at the time that an Australian white supremacist turned up with automatic weapons and slaughtered them,” she reminds me.
“It was immediately and widely condemned as a horrific crime, as it was, but in the aftermath of that we had a member of the Australian Senate at the time, Fraser Anning, quote from the Gospel of Matthew in his official press release in a way that basically tried to blame the victims for the violence that had been directed against them.
“Quoting a verse about those who take up swords – and that use of the gospels to victim-blame in the aftermath of a massacre by a member of our own federal parliament is disgusting, but it happened. And the temptation for Christians is to say that is so obviously a complete contortion of the biblical witness … and that’s true. And the impulse for the secularist is to go, ‘Why even bring religion into this? It tips fuel on a toxic fire.’ But part of what’s difficult in our moment is we have to face that the Bible does get used like that, in very dangerous ways. And we all have a stake in that, whether we’re Christians or not. Bad theology can cost people their lives. And we see it. It’s not an abstract thing. It happens. It did happen.”
“There are so many good reasons for the church to recover a robust theology of human value, especially when in the face of dehumanising racist alternatives.”
Dr Lake contends that Australian Christians don’t have the luxury of saying these are fringe opinions that we don’t have to engage with.
“There are so many good reasons for the church to recover a robust theology of human value, especially when in the face of dehumanising racist alternatives. This is something where Scripture has a real word of life and we need to recall that as well as recognising there is a history that’s not that past. It’s still very present of the Bible being used to justify the interests of one culture over another, of white people over non-white people.
“That’s a very confronting thing to name, but it’s important for churches and Christian communities to address in order to better speak a word of life to the world and especially to a neo-colonial community like this.”
Dr Lake asks how we can find resources in the Scriptures that help us love our neighbours when the Bible is used as a weapon to divide people.
“What are the resources within my Scriptures that can help me navigate this? So to reflect on a very complicated but ultimately non-contentious thing, which is that as people made in God’s image – all people made in God’s image – we have a call to register very practical and interpersonal ways of love for one another. And I don’t know if we do that very perfectly. There’s a lot of room for growth, but to come back to that baseline principle is what I hope the lecture will help us do,” she says.
Dr Lake notes that the man the lecture is named after – Rev JD Northey – was a congregational minister of the early and mid-20th century in Victoria who was very involved in the ecumenical movement and the formation of the Uniting Church, as well as in theological education.
“But he wanted public theology to emphasise not rule-keeping but fundamental principles. And I hope in a small way that by thinking about questions of race and that idea of people being made in God’s image, and of culture being a gift of God – not something to overcome necessarily but a gift of God – that will honour that impulse that he had.”
The Northey lecture series is hosted by Pilgrim Theological College, part of the University of Divinity in Melbourne, with the overall goal of opening up theology for the enjoyment of a wider public.
“The church could be the custodian of a real word of comfort in the midst of anxiety.”
Dr Lake believes that tuning into the different ways faith communities have drawn on the Scriptures in the past shows us the kind of conversation we can have now.
“It can also help clarify the relationship between gospel and culture and what some of the opportunities are. Our current society is for good reason marked by a considerable degree of anxiety, and there are lots of things in the world to be anxious about – a huge number of things. And in that context, one of the truest things that the gospel has to say to people is that you are made by God and loved by God. And that is a beautiful thing to be the custodian of. To some extent, we’re not the only custodians, but the church could be the custodian of a real word of comfort in the midst of anxiety.”
This is true for people living with structural racism and all kinds of oppression and anxiety, she says.
“And it’s one of the hardest things to believe for people living in our time that you could be worth something, that you could be beloved of God, that God might value you as you are, that it doesn’t come with a list of conditions. There’s no checklist for what you have to be in order to be beloved of God. You don’t have to be white. You don’t have to be middle-class, whatever.
“That is something that I’ve found myself reflecting on in a very troubled world, but also as someone who’s grown up as a white middle-class Christian in Australia with relatively few challenges in my own life. I know that the kind of churches I’ve attended have often suited me in a way that they haven’t suited other people. And the church has this truth to witness to, and it’s worth going back to movements like Black Lives Matter, all kinds of movements that I think challenge or expose the limits of the way, particularly white, churches have been able to take hold of that truth, that everybody, not just people like them, but everybody is beloved of God. And there are resources there to actually challenge injustice in all its forms.”
“What does it mean to go to a church on land that was given to that church by a government that just unilaterally declared that all this land is ours?”
Asked where we find those resources, Dr Lake says she is conscious of speaking to Eternity from Gadigal land.
“And I think that is a profoundly unresolved aspect of our life together in this place. What does it mean to go to a church on land that was given to that church by a government that just unilaterally declared that all this land is ours?
“We might think, ‘Oh well, that happened a long time ago,’ but I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to respond justly to that. Now that’s an obvious one. What does it mean when we read in Acts that God has determined the places where people shall live? Was that true for first nations? Yes. So what do we do?
“How do we organise our communities now? How do we embody that truth in our life together today? Do we need to reread some parts of the Bible, perhaps with fresh eyes, with fresh ears, in order to figure that out? These are the questions that I’m asking for myself. But what I hope the lecture will do is pose some questions that I hope we don’t lose sight of when there is so much going on, but the task of following Christ in this time, in this place includes addressing these kinds of questions out of our past here in Australia.”