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‘We Do Need Healing’: What First Nation Christians Make of Australia’s Indigenous Representation Referendum

(UPDATED) Leaders want a seat at the table. Not all are sure about changing the Constitution.
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‘We Do Need Healing’: What First Nation Christians Make of Australia’s Indigenous Representation Referendum
Image: William West / Contributor / Getty
A sign of the Australian Aboriginal Flag referencing the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum.

Update (October 18, 2023): Australians voted “no” to the Voice referendum on October 14. Across the country, 60.4 percent chose this option while 39.6 percent voted “yes.”

The outcome was “shocking and devastating for Australia’s First Nations people,” said Anne Pattel-Gray, who voted “yes.”

“If we were ever unsure of how Australians felt about its First Nations people, it is very clear that we don’t matter and that this country is extremely racist towards us.”

“Lies and untruths” about Indigenous peoples is the “new normal,” said Raymond Minnecon, who also voted “yes.” He cited Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

“I would like to say to the ‘yes’ voters [to] please let this pass” and focus on addressing “real issues” in Australia, such as poverty and sexual and alcohol abuse, among both Indigenous and nonindigenous peoples, said James Dargin, who voted “no.”

Brooke Prentis, who declined to reveal her vote, is planning to call Australian Christians to join her in creating a Truth, Justice, and Conciliation commission. “Through 250 years of injustice and disadvantage, I continue to hold out my hand in friendship to nonindigenous Australians and ask you to walk with me for a better Australia,” she wrote in a statement.

“I pray you join me in building an Australia we build together, an Australia built on Truth, Justice, Love, and Hope.”

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia were not granted citizenship until 1963. And they were not counted in the census until 1967.

To Brooke Prentis, the former CEO of the Christian social justice organization Common Grace, these numbers aren’t just dates and statistics. As a woman from the Wakka Wakka people of southwest Queensland, they’re a part of what she calls her “living memories.”

Australia’s upcoming Voice referendum will be yet another milestone etched in Prentis’s mind. On October 14, the country will vote “yes” or “no” to amendments in the Constitution that would recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (a broad term for people hailing from 274 small islands between the state of Queensland and Papua New Guinea) as the First Peoples of Australia.

If the Voice referendum is passed, the Constitution will be amended to include language that calls for the formation of a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. It will also state that this Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Indigenous Australians; and that Parliament has the power to influence what the Voice looks like.

These constitutional changes are one of the calls to action in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was crafted in 2017 after dialogues with Indigenous peoples across the country.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise 3.8 percent of the Australian population. Just over half (54%) identify as Christian according to the 2016 census, but they face challenges within their own First Nations communities and also from the larger Australian Christian community.

“For a long time, I’ve been the only Aboriginal theologian in the country,” said Anne Pattel-Gray, a descendant of the Bidjara nation and head of the Victoria-based University of Divinity’s School of Indigenous Studies. Many Indigenous believers “have been excluded from theological education through mainstream or denominational seminaries,” she added.

Indigenous Christian communities are experiencing mixed reactions to the Voice, say the Aboriginal pastors and leaders CT interviewed. Many lamented the factious ways in which Christians have engaged on the topic and the spike in racism that First Nation peoples have experienced in the midst of the campaigns.

“What I have called for from Christians [particularly], and all peoples in these lands now called Australia during this time, is to listen with love and compassion. That’s what I’ve seen missing from the campaigns, the debates, how people are talking to each other,” said Prentis, who declined to reveal what her vote would be for.

Where history and future collide

Some Indigenous Christian leaders are unequivocal about voting “yes” to the Voice referendum, especially in how it seeks to address historical injustice against their peoples.

“To be recognized in our Australian Constitution would be really significant as the First Peoples of this land,” said Pattel-Gray.

“It will be recognizing all of those omissions of history where terra nullius [Latin for “nobody’s land”] was the basis on which colonization and invasion took place, where we didn’t belong here. We weren’t here.”

Pattel-Gray also emphasized the importance of having permanent Indigenous representation in the government. “For over 200 centuries, Aboriginal people have been silenced, marginalized in this country, and our voices have not been heard,” she said. Having a Voice in Parliament would help First Nations peoples “influence and have a say about what kind of future and destiny we would like to create, where our children have an opportunity to prosper and to be nurtured,” she added.

Indigenous children’s health and education are two of the foremost issues that Pattel-Gray hopes the government can address if the Voice is included in the Constitution.

The Indigenous child mortality rate was twice that of nonindigenous children in 2018, and the average Indigenous student is around two-and-a-half years behind the average nonindigenous one.

“We are called to be Christ’s ambassadors. … We Christians need to remember that we’ve been given a mandate to uphold, and how we do that now, with integrity, is yet to be seen,” she said.

A land of one’s own

Raymond Minnecon, a descendant of the Kabi Kabi and Gurang Gurang nations of southeast Queensland, echoed Pattel-Gray’s views, saying that his Christian faith is “fundamental” to how he will be voting this Saturday.

“The Bible says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.’ We’re the peacemakers in this business. We’re not the ones trying to antagonize,” said the co-pastor of Scarred Tree Indigenous Ministries at St. John’s Anglican church in Glebe, Sydney.

Minnecon also sees the Voice as a means of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. “To us as Christians, we should be saying this is a fundamental, God-given right, not [only] a human right. He gave us this voice. He gave us our language, he gave us our culture, he gave us our land.”

The Uluru Statement is “an invitation of transformational forgiveness offered to those who benefit directly from the dispossession of our country, culture and spirituality,” said Glenn Loughrey, a Melbourne-based Wiradjuri man and chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council (NATSIAC) in a Q&A with Eternity News.

“Those comprising the church are asked to accept this invitation and its accompanying offer of forgiveness from First Nations people as an opportunity for redemption,” Loughrey said.

But James Dargin, who pastors New Wine Life Church in Unanderra, Wollongong and is from the Wiradjuri peoples in central New South Wales, is choosing to vote “no.” One reason is because he holds a different view of land ownership.

“We have had decades of land rights, the 2008 National Apology, a national curriculum that elevates Indigenous issues, a dozen significant Indigenous dates annually, and Welcomes to Country everywhere we go. For many Indigenous Australians like me (James), these initiatives are already more than enough. Some even find it tiring or patronizing,” Dargin wrote in Australian Christian news outlet The Daily Declaration with co-author Kurt Wahlburg.

“If the ‘yes’ Voice get[s] in, we lose our sovereignty and [the] UN will control the land of Australia,” Dargin told CT. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still recognized as original owners of the land, but if they are included in the Constitution, it will mean they have ceded their sovereignty and that all Australians, including Indigenous peoples, will lose their properties and houses under Native title and will no longer be classed as owners or businesses, he explained.

“I believe our prime minister is using the Voice for distraction so he [can] focus on Australia becoming a Republic country,” he also said.

Dargin’s view represents one strand of thought in the “no” camp, which believes that if the Voice referendum passes, Indigenous sovereignty of their self-determination and control over their affairs would be lost.

A similar argument is held by the Blak Sovereign Movement, a group of Indigenous elders, academics, activists, and community workers who believe that Indigenous peoples are the only sovereigns of the land and that the Voice is “a vehicle of unwanted constitutional recognition” that attempts to “rule over us and our lands”.

Besides this, there are three other prevailing viewpoints that Indigenous peoples in the “no” camp ascribe to, explains Prentis. One view contends that the formulation of a treaty should come before incorporating an Indigenous voice in Parliament, like what occurred in Canada. Another thinks that the Voice is powerless because it would only be an advisory body to Parliament and the government. Yet another regards the Voice as a means of division between Indigenous and nonindigenous peoples, which is what leading Indigenous “no” campaigner and Catholic businessman Nyunggai Warren Mundine is promoting.

“For real reconciliation, it’s not enough that Australia as a nation says sorry, but Indigenous people also need to forgive Australia as a nation,” wrote Mundine, a member of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr, and Yuin peoples.

“As Aboriginals, we have a choice—to continue to feel angry, or to draw a line in history and not be captive to the past.”

In Mundine’s view, the Uluru Statement “presents a radical and divisive vision of Australia,” and the Voice re-introduces racial segregation into the Constitution, casting Aboriginal people as “one homogenized race” even though they comprise many different nations, and is “built on a lie” that Indigenous Australians do not possess a voice.

“The only person who can better your life is not the government, not the Voice. It’s you,” Mundine said, regarding his hopes for Aboriginal people in a campaign video.

The Uluru Statement’s ultimate goal is to establish a treaty, which refers to reparations that will likely be a fixed percentage of the nation’s GDP paid to Indigenous peoples, Dargin and Mahlburg also wrote. However, receiving more money as a form of reparations may not improve circumstances, and developing better management of existing funds could be a better solution, they argued.

“What if the Voice represents just a subset of Indigenous Australians, who have a special interest in keeping a spirit of resentment alive? … What if reconciliation efforts are undermined by an unwillingness to forgive?”

With outstretched hands

Whichever way the Voice vote swings, Indigenous leaders told CT that they have observed and experienced more racism this year than in years past.

In one recent incident, Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe of the Blak Sovereign Movement received a video of a man claiming to be from a neo-Nazi group. He burned the Aboriginal flag and made racist comments about First Nations peoples.

Prentis has been subject to racist attacks over the past year. “A couple of those [incidents] have hurt me very, very badly, and even made me scared for my own safety and property,” she said.

For Indigenous believers, what may add another layer of hurt is how the flames of racial hatred may be stoked by fellow siblings in Christ. Some Christians have made statements that Indigenous peoples are demanding their land back and will take “everything they’ve built,” which is “absolute rubbish” to Pattel-Gray.

“People who believe that really don’t understand what the Voice is about or the referendum. It is not about reprisal. It’s not about lashing out. It’s about the grace of God being extended to this nation, to recognize us and to hear our voice, and nothing more,” she said.

While reparations are necessary, Australia has a long way to go before this can be realized, say most of the Indigenous leaders CT spoke with.

“What we’ve tried to do in Australia for the last three decades is reconciliation with no justice,” said Pattel-Gray.

Reconciliation needs to take place first before reparations can occur, said Prentis. However, these efforts may be undermined because “reparations have been weaponized” by the “no” campaign: “It’s fed into this myth and stereotyp[ed] nonindigenous Australians’ minds that we get all this money: we get free cars, free house, free education. We’ve never gotten anything free. It’s a complete lie,” she said.

Prentis is already looking past the outcome of the Voice referendum to the ongoing work that lies before her in advocating reconciliation—or friendship, as she prefers to call it—between Indigenous and nonindigenous people. In her view, this needs to happen before reparations can truly take place.

“We do need to understand the true history of these lands now called Australia. We need Aboriginal people to stop dying too young and too early. And we do need healing, and the only way we can do that is by journeying together. In the church, it's to understand, What does it truly mean to love your Aboriginal neighbor as yourself?” she said.

“[This] will take a humbling, a relearning, and for our hearts to be in rhythm with each other.”

When talking about reparations, Minnecon looks to the story of Zaccheus the tax collector, who said, “If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

“Reconciliation is a daily activity. It’s a verb,” said Minnecon.

January/February
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