Getting out of the wilderness of reconciliation: 40 days for 40 years

The Revd. Dr. Jonathan Inkpin

Source: NATSIEC,

Just as the declaration of the end of slavery was but a beginning of the journey of freedom for black Americans, so the 1967 Referendum granted Indigenous Australia welcome overdue recognition but scarce little genuine economic and political liberation. Forty years on, Australia as a whole still seems lost in the wilderness of its own making.

Whilst certain aspects of Indigenous life and culture are now occasionally celebrated in national life, the scandalous levels of fourth world poverty, discrimination, and lack of genuine self-determination, remain. Like the ancient people of Israel, it seems, in retrospect, that Australia experienced the miracle of crossing over into new political territory in 1967, only to wander into that desert of frustration we now call Reconciliation. What is it that can offer manna in this wilderness, break the circuit, and assist a genuine return to the promise of the land?

At the heart of the issue, as with the biblical story, is a change of consciousness. It has been well said that, ‘it is one thing to get Israel out of Egypt. It is another to get Egypt out of Israel.’ Has the national mind-set really altered over forty years? Have the demons of racism, exploitation and division been exorcised? Recent events, such as the Mulrunji Doomadgee case, suggest not. Even the lessons of such national advances as the Royal Commission on Deaths in Custody sometimes appear to need to be retraced. Meanwhile, false gods such as economic rationalism, and strange fatted calves such as ‘the war on terror’, continue to be worshipped: potent distractions from the real challenges of justice for all Australians and the healing of the land, which alone can issue in sustainable community for all. Worse, and most basic of all, is the maintenance of ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitudes.

On the one hand, there is a continuing distancing of Indigenous suffering from the experience of the whole, as when general Australian health statistics are celebrated as global leaders without any attention to the staggering achievement of leaving fellow Australians at the very bottom of the world’s health league table. On the other hand, there is the, now dominant, resurgent view among white Australian political leadership that, whilst Indigenous people are not quite the same as ‘us’, they must be made like ‘us’ for their own salvation.

A different approach is offered at grassroots, where Reconciliation, although a tarnished word, continues to make headway in the building of generous relationships and in low-key, but sometimes surprising, steps of genuine advance in the journey of healing. The Australian Make Indigenous Poverty History campaign, for example, has been working for some time to challenge the invisibility of Indigenous people in the economic statistics and decision-making of the rich and powerful (including, sadly, some of the well-meaning who seek to help the world’s poor by doing things, and running campaigns, for, but not with the poor). In this Referendum anniversary year, it calls us to mark 40 Days of Action for 40 Years of Inaction, offering practical and symbolic ways to re-energise and re-ignite key aspects of the journey out of the wilderness. For Jews and Christians, the number 40 has always been much more than a mere mathematical figure. Not only does this represent the years the people of God wandered in the wilderness, but it is also, for example, the number of days the waters of destruction covered the earth before Noah looked out on a new creation. It is also the length of the reign, or era, of David, the ruler who lost the plot, and of Solomon, who re-established the foundations of justice and a fair community for all. For forty is the age at which maturity is expected, when individuals, communities, and nations, enter into true responsibility for themselves and others. Is it possible for Australia to do the same?

The three temptations of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness are certainly symbolically instructive: building upon the rich religious insights of the story of Moses and the wandering of the Hebrew people seeking their liberation in the desert of their times. Firstly, Jesus rejects the temptation to see the answer in ‘bread alone’. Practical Reconciliation is not enough, without a change of consciousness. Indeed, it cannot even be found, without recognising that such manna is ultimately a spiritual gift of a mature community, or at least one which recognises that we need to get our relationships and recognition right. Secondly, the temptation to try to solve the problems of the wilderness by the use of the power of one, or a few, is also rejected. Even where, on an immediate material level, we believe we can ‘fix it’, this takes away the responsibility of others and denies the fundamental human right, and need, for self-determination. Finally, to sum things up, the forty days (here, as elsewhere, a ‘type’, standing in for forty ‘years’) ends with Jesus’ rejection of a straightforward miracle show. For that too, is not how true reconciliation, political or religious, happens. Spectacular signs, all too often resulting in little more than self-satisfaction on the part of their proponents, are also insufficient. Rather it is a process, above all that of relationship-building, facing up to the truth with compassion, working together for justice, with a genuine valuing of difference, rather than a politically convenient distancing.

Appropriately enough, the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum coincides in 2007 with the great Christian festival of Pentecost, at the end of the ecumenical Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For Pentecost was, and remains, for Christians a new start, the beginning of a new community, uniting all, of whatever culture and background. At first glance, the symbolism might not look entirely helpful, especially as Pentecost has often traditionally been known as Whit (or White!) Sunday, reflecting the practice of dressing baptismal candidates in white. Yet, significantly, the story goes, those present began ‘to speak in other languages’, moved by the Spirit to share fully the one humanity and the one promise of renewed community promised of old. Perhaps that is the change of consciousness Australia needs: not merely the recognition of our differences, but the embracing of one another’s gifts and challenges as our own. The 40 Days of Action for 40 Years of Inaction helps provide steps on that journey, towards a different kind of miracle, that of a new, Rainbow, Pentecost, including all Australians.

The Revd. Dr. Jonathan Inkpin is Education and Advocacy Officer for NATSIEC (the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission of the the National Council of Churches in Australia) and General Secretary-elect of the New South Wales Ecumenical Council.

February 2007