'We are called to be Christ's ambassadors for reconciliation'

This NAIDOC Week, we will hear from several First Nations Christian leaders. 

Today, we listen to Prof. Anne Pattel-Gray.

Professor Anne Pattel-Gray is Head of the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Divinity in Melbourne. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney, with a major focus on Aboriginal Religion and Spirituality, and a Doctor of Divinity from India. She is a recognised scholar, theologian and writer with several publications. Prof. Pattel-Gray is a descendant of the Bidjara/Kari Kari Nations in Queensland, and has dedicated her life to the struggle of Australia First Nations (AFN) as a campaigner and lobbyist seeking justice, equity and equal representation for First Nations people.

Here’s what Anne shares with Eternity readers.

If you could say anything to Australian Christians right now, what would you say? 

There’s so much going on in Australia at the moment, and I suppose the issue that is relevant and certainly high profile in the media is constitutional recognition and the Voice to Parliament.

Looking at the [Voice] referendum, it is disappointing to hear media quite often wanting to give the negative – to present this opportunity for our nation in a negative framework, rather than as something that’s positive that we should embrace as a nation. It will reflect our integrity as to how we respond.

It’s also really disheartening to hear some of the media comments that say this referendum is dividing us on the basis of race. If Australians knew their history, they would know that this country was founded on division of race, and legislation and policy has been on the basis of division of race. Aboriginal people have always got the short end of the stick and have been disenfranchised, marginalised and made outcast in their own land.

“It’s a small step towards a treaty, but it’s one that has a volume of empathy, commitment and compassion that Australian Christians could express to the First Nations people of this country.”

And now we have an opportunity in front of us to correct that and to make it right. It’s a small step towards a treaty, but it’s one that has a volume of empathy, commitment and compassion that Australian Christians could express to the First Nations people of this country.

This opportunity that lies ahead of us – to give our people recognition in the constitution and to give us a Voice to Parliament – comes at no cost to any individual in this country. It doesn’t take away from your salary, your profession, your income, your assets. It has no economic impact upon you, except a moral one.

That, to me, speaks volumes about how this nation perceives itself in the global sphere, as to how people around the globe are going to judge Australia after this referendum. Whether it will consider this country a racist country that denies the truth and reconciliation with its First Nations people, or whether it is going to be perceived as being a nation of integrity who are prepared to own our history and set the truths right by writing the wrongs of our history.

“I would ask people to really be in deep prayer about this. If you don’t know what position to take, be guided by your relationship with the Creator.”

This also speaks to our faith, as we are called by God to be Christ’s ambassadors for reconciliation, which is to bring justice and truth to the oppressed and the marginalised – to “the least of these”. For the least in this country, which is the First Nations people, perhaps it’s God’s time for us to be first. When I say first, it doesn’t mean first in any way of economics, power or privilege. It just means recognition. We still are the first peoples of this land, and it’s only right that you give us that recognition.

I would ask people to really be in deep prayer about this. If you don’t know what position to take, be guided by your relationship with the Creator, rather than by your relationship within a country that perceives itself to have little worth for the First Nations people. Reach deep and find if you can, your empathy, your commitment and your compassion for the First Nations people.

The church has been a double-edged sword for First Nations people – having been a tool of oppression and yet it’s also part of many people’s faith. How do you reconcile that as an Aboriginal Christian?

A lot of people say, how can you be Aboriginal and a Christian? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To me, it’s not. It just makes sense because my Aboriginality is deeply embedded in my spiritual connection to country, which is founded on our ancestral narratives bestowed by the Creator to us.

So it is not difficult for me to embrace Christianity and to Indigenise and contextualise Christian faith into my context and my understanding and relationship to country.

What I reject is the Westernisation of that faith and the colonisation of that faith. This is an opportunity, I think, for Christians in Australia to also look at how they decolonise their Christian faith, their theology and their interpretation of biblical narratives. Because we have all been indoctrinated through the colonial regime and it’s important that we become aware of that indoctrination.

In becoming aware of this, then we begin a process of decolonising ourselves and asking, ‘What does this mean now in the context of being Australian and in partnership and relationship with the First Nations people? How does my truth speak into historical truth around what was done in the name of Christianity? What do we need to do now to rectify and address those wrongdoings?’

“While I am oppressed, brother or sister, we are not equal. And that’s what’s got to change because Christianity is about the oneness of Christ in us.”

It’s a long struggle. It’s a hard struggle. But truth is something that we all should seek because, as Christians, we’re on a continual journey of growth to have a closer relationship with God.

Sometimes we want to reject any kind of truth that may be confronting or may convict me or challenge me, or my perceptions or my wealth, my privilege, my power. So we need a safe space where we can have these deep challenging conversations and talk about, ‘What does it mean to address repatriation, to address justice, to address these sins, and find a way in a new relationship, born in truth, to move forward together? What might that relationship look like?’

Because while we continue to hold on to historical lies and mistruths, our relationship’s not founded on biblical truths or God’s truth or Christological truth. Therefore, trust can never be nurtured. We need to have trust and honesty as the basis of our relationship going forward.

I hear all the time that “we are all one in Christ”, but I cannot be one in Christ with you while I continue to be oppressed. So while I am oppressed, brother or sister, we are not equal. And that’s what’s got to change because Christianity is about the oneness of Christ in us. That gives us justice and equality, and we need to be seeking that.

The theme for NAIDOC Week this year is ‘For Our Elders’. What does that mean to you?

When I think about my elders, I think about all the people who have gone before me and who have contributed to my learning and education. I think of my mother. I think of my ancestors. But I also think of church leaders, like Pastor Don Brady,  Reverend Charles Harris, Reverend Bernie Clark and Reverend Jack Thomas. These people had an enormous impact on my life and made me who I am today through their own sacrifice, their commitments and their wisdom.

I want to celebrate and remember those elders that have gone before us and those that have cut the path of challenging injustice. That enabled me to get an education. A lot of people laid down their lives for that, and I’m ever so grateful for those who I don’t know and those who I do know that valued my future.

It’s my opportunity now as an elder to value the next generation of leaders that are coming behind me, and to cut that path so they too can benefit from what I’ve done and the opportunities that I try to provide for them.

Is there anything else that you would like to say to Australian Christians?

Many churches have been eager to support the Voice to Parliament. I’m somewhat confused by the enthusiasm with which they are standing up for this because as yet within the church, our voice is ignored. Our leadership is not recognised. How many Aboriginal people do we have teaching on faculty in our seminaries? How many core courses, not electives, do we deliver on Aboriginal theology, Aboriginal spirituality, Aboriginal missiology, Aboriginal Old and New Testament interpretations?

I mean, none exist, and that to me is disheartening. So while many in the church are eager to support a Voice to Parliament, your lack of actions reflect that you are not prepared to have a ‘voice to church’. You are not prepared to embrace our wisdom, knowledge and scholarship into your realm to influence the next generation of clergy and theological educators.

I think the church needs to seriously consider, at this point in their journey, how genuine they are in their commitment to First Nations people. It’s not enough to have an Aboriginal enclave. I wanna see a president that’s Aboriginal. I want to see moderators that are Aboriginal. I want to see general secretaries that are Aboriginal. I want to see Aboriginal people on standing committees. Not because they’re Aboriginal but because they bring professionalism and business acumen and knowledge to the position.

Then I can say, ‘We’re no longer a white church with a black enclave. We are truly in partnership and we are appreciated and respected and valued within the body of the church.’