I attended an amazing event in Parliament House in Sydney last weekend. Fifty marvellous Christian students, from different universities and colleges, re-enacted parts of my book on Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie, Judging the Macquaries.
They debated the issues of the treatment of convicts and settlers and above all, the treatment of Aboriginal people. And these student actors in full costume of the time did so well – their hearts were so much in it as well as their minds. It was a great occasion and to have been given the Upper House of the NSW Parliament just made it so real.
As part of that performance, the roles of Sydney Aboriginal people were played by Aboriginal people from today’s Sydney, including from the Burundi Theatre. As these Aboriginal people played the parts of their Aboriginal ancestors impacted by the penal colony of NSW, they spoke of invasion and suppression, of massacre and death and they wept. And although they were acting parts, we all knew that their tears were genuine, that they could not help but cry.
The continent we call Australia is a spiritual place. God did not come to Australia on the first fleet. Missionaries did not bring God to Australia. God had always been here. The creator of this continent – and whatever came before – the creator of Gondwana land, the creator of the forces that wrested it apart and forced this land from Asia down towards the poles – this was the God of the first peoples who came to this land however many thousands of years ago. And in this land, there has always been knowledge of God. As the Psalmist declares, as St Paul so forthrightly tells us, the universe itself proclaims the very existence of God.
I see the traces of the hand of God yet discernible in Aboriginal culture. Wherever there is knowledge of good and evil, there is evidence of the True God who is eternally good. Goodness in humankind is not attributable merely to moral evolution, as the atheists would tell us: this is evidence of God. Where there is law, there remains through all millennia the imprint of the Lawmaker.
God sits deeply in Aboriginal culture. Yes, some things about God have been lost or twisted – as indeed Western society has also lost some knowledge of God or twisted true religion. Human beings of all races and cultures have always shown themselves capable of manipulating the truth of God for their own advantage. But we are all still made in the image of God, that is, we are all capable of relating to the divine, to the spiritual realm. That ancient knowledge still flickers behind Aboriginal spirituality. It is there for those who are willing to seek.
I am working with the Kabi Kabi people of Southeast Queensland, helping them to revive, or, as they prefer to say, awaken their sleeping language. This is being done by translating verses of the Bible. In researching the writings of explorers and pastoralists and anthropologists, for this the Bible Society’s latest language project, the awakening of the Kabi Kabi language, we found the writings of someone who had visited and spoken to an elderly Aboriginal woman around 1900 when Kabi Kabi was still fully spoken.
They recorded her exact words. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I was playing on a big flat rock. I asked my mother. ‘Who put the rock here?’ My mother replied, ‘Birral put it here.’ ‘Who is Birral?’ I asked. My mother pointed up to the sky. ‘He lives up there,’ she said. ‘What is Birral,’ I asked? ‘Is he like you and me?’ My mother replied, ‘I have not seen him. One day we shall all see him.’”
When you’re restless and fidgety, find Jesus.
How do we know what God is like? We know because he sent his only Son who said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Indeed, God was here. And these were his people, as too were my ancient ancestors in England and Wales. What the missionaries did bring here – sometimes terribly inadequately and sometimes mixed up with European culture and values – was the knowledge of Jesus. And missionaries had to bring that to my culture too by St Patrick and St Augustine and all the rest of them.
I owe a great deal to my parents. My love of the Bible I owe to my parents. I learned to read from the Bible, from my mother’s Bible, which is falling to pieces now. When I was a fidgety little boy in church, she would give me a Bible and say, find the big letter J, find the big letter J. And I used to find Jesus. She said to me one day, ‘Always find Jesus, John.’ It’s very good advice for all of us, I think. When you’re restless and fidgety, find Jesus.
We used to sing a hymn about the spread of the gospel throughout the world: “From Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand.” And it went all around the world, the places where the gospel was being presented. It had a line in it that said, “The Heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.” My mother stiffened and she wouldn’t say the words. She put her hands on my shoulder and she said, “Not in their blindness, John, not in their blindness. In their hunger! The heathen, in their hunger, bow down to wood and stone.” That deep yearning for God. That deep yearning to make spiritual sense of life and the future.
We are helping Pastor Ray Minniecon and his people to bring his language back to life.
Everywhere I go, they ask me to translate the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the first thing Aboriginal people want in their language. The Father in Heaven, you see. Biraal, the Kabi Kabi people called him. “One day we shall know what he is like,” they say. That’s why they needed the knowledge of Jesus.
And it was the first thing we did in the Kabi Kabi language, your new Bible translation project. We are helping Pastor Ray Minniecon and his people to bring his language back to life. On Zoom they have started to relearn that ancient language from the southeast of Queensland around Brisbane.
You see, beautiful as the Bible in English is, and grateful as many Aboriginal people are for the Bible in English, especially those who lost language, it is in the language of the invader. That’s like it might’ve been if Australia, the allies, had lost World War II and here we were a colony of Japan and we are allowed to read the Bible only in Japanese.
It is the language of the invader. And that is why it is such an immense spiritual experience for people who have totally lost their Aboriginal language – who had it sometimes beaten out of children, not being allowed to speak it in school and so on – to hear Biraal, to hear Biyamey or however God is named in those languages, to hear that Supreme spirit again, named in the language of their land. It is a deep spiritual experience.
Of course, no Aboriginal people bowed down to wood and stone. Aboriginal people did not worship other gods. That is a falsity invented by anthropologists. Aboriginal people lived in a world inhabited by good and evil spirits. And they tried to avoid the evil spirits and to cultivate the good, not unlike the world in which our Lord Jesus entered as a man.
So it is a huge thing for these people to know God in their language and to learn to know through Jesus the one they longed to know but did not know. And now they can know.
Why do we do this? The verse that inspires all translators and people who work in the distribution and printing of the Bible, is John 21:30: “These words are written that you may know that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living. God, and in believing you may have life. Life in his name.” Amen
This is an edited version of a talk award-winning author and historian, John Harris, gave to Bible Society staff this week.