On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”*
The other evening, I drove to Sydney to hear writer and social activist Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way speak as part of the Surrender series of conferences. Having read about the work Shane and his team do in Philadelphia, I was really excited to hear him share about what is being achieved by Christians across the globe in the field of social justice and community activism.
I got a lot more than I expected, and I don’t think I was the only one.
After the traditional Aboriginal Welcome To Country, and a few moments before Shane took the floor, the audience of 200 or so was introduced to a small, elderly aboriginal lady named Aunty Jean Phillips. Aunty Jean bowed her head to acknowledge our polite but slightly puzzled round of applause, then shyly took the mic and moved to the front of the stage to address us.
If any of us had been under the delusion we could all be just a little bit pleased with ourselves as a group of committed Christians involved in social justice and activism, then our hip little balloon of smugness was about to be decidedly burst.
Perhaps some of us had expected Aunty Jean to modestly deliver a report from some remote Aboriginal mission field, or provide an interesting anecdote to entertain us or reinforce our stereotypes. That wasn’t what we got. I can’t repeat word for word what Aunty Jean said to us, because like most people, I was too busy squirming in my seat. The notes I tried to take say things like “damaging perceptions of aboriginals in the general community” and “evangelical church absent and indifferent when it comes to indigenous issues”, but I know she said much more than that.
Aunty Jean told us in no uncertain terms about the burden of sin that lies on this nation because of the “Stolen Generation.” She told us about the toxic – albeit well-meaning – actions of churches and governments in the past, who conspired to remove every skerrick of aboriginality from their vision of a new, white Australia. She talked about how, even long since we knew better, the general populace has done little to bring about a healing of the rift between white and indigenous Australians, believing that the crimes of the past should simply be forgotten. White Australia has long insisted that aboriginals ought simply complete their assimilation into mainstream society, believing that the collective pain and memories – and eventually, the remains of aboriginal culture – will conveniently just go away.
But neither the things we did – nor nor the people we did them to – are going away.
Aunty Jean talked about how, for the majority of Australians, January 26th is a day of celebrating our history as a nation, but for the original owners of this land, Australia Day is a time to mourn and grieve. Their land was taken from them on this day. Their people were evicted, killed, murdered, captured and enslaved. For aboriginal people, said Aunty Jean, marking Australia Day as one of celebration is an insult. At this point I looked around the room at the mainly young, middle-class, white audience. Some appeared to hang their heads. Others nodded solemnly. Nobody made a sound.
Aunty Jean went on to describe what many of us already know full well. Infant mortality statistics for aboriginal children are amongst the worst in the world – three times higher than the national average – inexcusable when you consider Australia is one of the most developed nations on the planet. Adult life expectancy for aboriginals is 57 years for an Aboriginal male and 62 years for an Aboriginal female. Aboriginal people generally have higher rates of ill health than any other group in Australia, and major concerns for indigenous people include diet, children’s health and diseases such as cardiovascular disease, sexually transmitted diseases or STDs and diabetes.** This is not India or Africa we are talking about. This is Australia – the same Australia with one of the strongest economies in the developed world, and amongst the highest standards of living in the world.
All Australians are aware of the systemic poverty, the health problems and the indignation about past injustices that wound and damage indigenous communities. But somehow, even as socially active Christians, we’ve been able to ignore them. But if we believe our mission to be Christ on earth includes bringing equity where there is social injustice, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and just as importantly, healing the wounds of the past, then why exactly are the issues facing indigenous populations in our own country not our problem?
There was a lot of squirming and blushing in that room before Aunty Jean left the stage.
As I write, I glance sideways at a list I wrote about two months ago. At the time, child trafficking in Asian countries was the current social justice flavour of the month, but I just couldn’t extend my vision beyond what I was seeing every day in the city where I live. Looking for ideas for my blog, I made a few notes on some issues the church in Australia needs to start addressing in order to both remain socially relevant, and also to deliver the mission of Christ to our communities. Here’s my list –
- Refugees in detention
- The environment
- Alcoholism and addiction
- Mental illness
- Australian indigenous social issues
Now, in light of what Aunty Jean said to us all the other evening, I’m looking at my list again, and feel even more determined to find ways to address whatever mindsets I may have that contribute to and sustain these social problems. Specifically, I think it’s time that Australian evangelical Christians confronted their own perceptions, prejudices and mindsets.
Aunty Jean was handing out flyers that evening. One describes in detail the concept of “white privilege”, and lists some practical examples:
- I can excel in some pursuit without being called a credit to my race.
- I can be confident when I go shopping I will not be followed around by security personnel.
- I can purchase alcohol without without it reflecting poorly on my race.
- I can walk around at night without being viewed as a threat, and I can be in a group without us being perceived as a gang.
Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, but perhaps it’s time we stopped merely stepping over our brothers in search of the neighbours.
To add your support –
The Vision Trust
Aunty Jean Phillips has established a fund for the support of families who minister with indigenous youth and children, and for other one-off projects or needs. The fund is administered by volunteers, and almost every cent supports holistic indigenous ministry.
For information on making a contribution to this ministry, or for more information on The Vision Trust, please contact Philip Hall on 0402 454 804 or Aunty Jean Phillips on (07) 3844 7640. (For callers outside Australia, please add country codes).
To learn about or donate to the work of World Vision Australia in indigenous communities, please click here.
*Luke 10 – The Parable of The Good Samaritan