Australians have to stop thinking of the Bible as a “white man’s book”, historian of religion Meredith Lake told a sold out-session on The Good Book? The Bible in Australian Culture Today at the Sydney Writers’ Festival yesterday.
Lake, the author of The Bible Down Under, a students’ guide to the Bible, told the audience at Sydney Theatre that the Bible had come as a “white man’s book” to Australia. She acknowledged that it had many harmful consequences for the country’s First Peoples.
“I think … there are plenty of examples of destructive applications of the Bible to indigenous society,” she said.
“The Bible is complicit in lots of ways with some of the worst European behaviour.”
“I think this is an unresolved issue in our culture.” – Meredith Lake
Lake was sitting on a panel with Lachlan Brown, a Christian poet and writing teacher at Charles Sturt University, and Roy Williams, author of the bestseller, God Actually, and an upcoming biography of Arthur Stace, Mr Eternity.
Asked by the panel’s host, Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke, to provide an example of the damage done by the Bible, Lake told the story of an Aboriginal girl Boorong. She was adopted by the first chaplain, Richard Johnson, and became the first indigenous Australian to have a substantial encounter with the Bible.
“She encountered, in his house, writing, paper, the English language – that whole technology of the written word – for the very first time, as well as all his theology,” she said.
“He was a humanitarian, he was kind towards her in the ways that he understood … but at the same time he was one of [Governor] Philip’s officers. When the officers are negotiating with Bennelong to try and get him to come back to Government House, and try and come up with some kind of neutral coexistence, Johnson and Boorong basically get used as political bait in that highly political scenario – because she learnt English; because he’s connected to her because of their living arrangements.
“So his desire to share the gospel with her gets caught up in the whole colonial project of establishing British rule on this land, and I think this is an unresolved issue in our culture.”
“It’s a very powerful argument … that white Australia still doesn’t really hear.” – Meredith Lake
Lake pointed out that the Bible did not start out as a ‘white man’s book’, being from ancient west Asia. It also is not a ‘white man’s book’ now because indigenous people have taken it, absorbed it, re-appropriated it and reinterpreted it.
For example, William Cooper, an indigenous leader from Victoria, used his knowledge of the Bible – specifically Acts 17:26, which says that God made all the nations of one blood and assigned to them the land they would inhabit – to push for Aboriginal land rights.
“In 1938, he wrote to the Prime Minister saying, ‘I’m an educated black, I can read the Bible, the British Constitution is meant to be based on this – treat us as people and give us our land, which has been stolen.'”
“He uses the Bible as a Christian Aboriginal man to push back at white society and say, ‘You call yourselves Christians.’ It’s a very powerful argument … that white Australia still doesn’t really hear. I think once we stop thinking about the Bible as our book, as a white book, and listen to other voices, we’ll actually have really productive national conversations about reconciliation, about the restitution of the land, all these kinds of things.
“I think there’s an urgency to listening to these voices that come from an indigenous engaging with Scripture.”
“To me, what the Bible offers is a sense of identity…” – Lachlan Brown
Asked to comment on what the Bible has to offer on the ethical issues facing today’s YouTube generation, Lachlan Brown said it helped in the search for identity.
“When we think of issues of the 21st century, these notions of identity are just huge. There’s a fragmentation of who I am, and a search to find who one might be.
“To me, what the Bible offers is a sense of identity, I am made in image of God … In a society where we’re measuring so much, you can rest in who you were made to be, redeemed to be.”
Roy Williams said young people need to recognise they are already living off the ethical capital of the Bible.
“It’s not as if the Bible is irrelevant…” – Roy Williams
“I can’t emphasise enough that the things we take absolutely for granted about ethics – the notion of equality, the notion that all humans are fundamentally equal – is a biblical concept. That is a not Greco-Roman concept; it is not a product of the Enlightenment; it is a product of Christianity.”
“Similarly, the idea that we are free moral agents, that we have choices to make, comes straight out of Genesis 3 and 4. The idea that humility is a virtue rather than a sign of weakness, the belief that compassion is a virtue rather than a sign of weakness – again that was a fundamental breakthrough. To us all these things are just givens. So it’s not as if the Bible is irrelevant because you are already living off the capital that’s been built up over centuries.”
For Lake, the urgent ethical question was how we can live sustainably in a world where the temperature is rising and the ice is already melting.
“The urgency of how, as a species, we coexist with other species, and how we’re going to love the generations that follow us, absorbs a lot of my thinking on ethical issues,” said Lake, who looked for guidance from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
‘No, our living standards aren’t the most important thing.’ – Meredith Lake
“The stranger stops and helps someone who’s not like him, who doesn’t know him, who he’ll never get anything from – because he’s a neighbour and they’re connected simply by the fact of need and sharing a common home.
“They’re on the Jericho road together, just like we’re on earth together. We might not meet the farmers in Bangladesh whose lands have been completely flooded who will be driven from their homes as refugees, but we have to respond to this.”
She said we can respond immorally by building walls and turning back boats of people trying to enter Australia.
“We can shut our communities because we’re rich and we’ve got the power. Or we can actually enlarge our moral imagination and do something radically different – to say ‘No, our living standards aren’t the most important thing. We are going to love neighbours we haven’t met yet.’
“I think some of Jesus’s teaching for me is so simple but so radical and so alternative to the way our governments act – technology is not enough; we a need really large moral imagination to rise to this challenge and we have profound resources in Scripture to help us deal with that.”