Centre Launch: Response to Mark Brett's address on Indigenous Issues


Revd Dr Gordon Preece gave the following address in response to the keynote address by Mark Brett at the launch of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy | Collins Street Baptist Church | 8 December 2016.


I thank my friend Mark Brett for a typically challenging talk, and also Naomi Wolfe, whose exciting indigenous work at ACU I just read about. Their work together with Meg Nelson on the University of Divinity’s Indigenous engagement goals augers well for addressing some of these challenges.

For Mark, in almost Dickensian tones, this is both the best and worst of times for RASP to launch. Times when at best even the last of the great Enlightenment thinkers, Habermas, contemplates post-secular possibilities, even religious dialogue. But at worst, still times too when he, Habermas, and we in the West still largely turn a blind eye to less specialised or siloed, more spiritually holistic or integrative indigenous learning. Attention to Aboriginal insights might bring light to albino eyes burnt by midday sun’s rays in this most vulnerable and ecologically incontinent continent since white settlement. European expansionism and its entailed absolute rights to fill the alleged emptiness of terra nullius arrogantly and enviously claimed and Christianly rationalised and ratified the doctrine of discovery and domination.

The University of Divinity goal to ‘Identify effective means of engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the development and delivery of theological education’ might in the light of Mark’s daunting challenge to mutual conversation be taken up in RASP’s research and public engagement charter as well. In Naomi’s terms this could be a Third Place, a safe space, a liminal, linking, in between place for conversation.

Mark reminds us that this mutual conversation can only be achieved if the link well-woven by indigenous people using religion’s (etymologically literal) bindingness of the everyday is recognised. This should not be unravelled by, for instance, the de-classification of many sacred sites near Broome wanted for gas exploration, because they are not specifically religious or ritual sites in the privatised western sense, but mythological or Dreamtime sites.

This is relevant to RASP’s logo being an A shaped tip of the iceberg. This is the AND that links religion AND social policy, visible and invisible, research below the waterline, social engagement above. It’s the basis not of a shallow secular multiculturalism, really a growing global monism of money, but a deep multiculturalism and multi-faith dialogue and debate that takes the religious integrative dimension seriously and slows western society’s serious social and ecological erosion. The first dialogue of all these multi-cultural and multi-faith latecomers to this land has to be with its original owners and spiritual custodians.

Contrary to the patronising plea by a West Australian former Miss Universe on SBS’s First Contact that Aboriginal people should forgive and forget their loss of land and near genocide, they have been extraordinarily forgiving, hospitable and open to dialogue with Europeans. They are a remarkably resilient people. It is up to Christians, as first colonisers, to work with other religions to take up the invitation towards mutual healing.

Indigenous social problems are in some ways a mirror image of our own. In a recent report on the appalling treatment of young indigenous offenders in Darwin, the serious suggestion was made to bulldoze the whole centre and remake it as a healing place. It’s a much better suggestion than the Victorian Labor Government’s plans for longer sentences for young offenders, some of whom recently rioted at Parkville, some now in adult prisons and solitary confinement etc. There are major concerns over what will happen to young Aboriginal and islander and South-Sudanese offenders so over-represented in our juvenile justice system.

As the Parkdale riot proceeded a helicopter hovered ominously over our nearby home in West Brunswick. Like a giant vacuum cleaner for the unwanted detritus of our society, it reminded me of the nightly police surveillance helicopters over our home in Pasadena in LA, especially during the Rodney King race riots in the early 90s. Mark’s plea for a more restorative rather than merely distributive or surveillance and punitive justice system is essential if black and white youth are not to become conditioned to criminality in a society that can’t offer secure, not precarious work, and educate them toward a shared indigenous and western economy of hope. This is the kind of restorative education ironically pursued by the noble and very successful attempts of Parkville College in the youth detention centre.

This is also so in Mark’s challenge to integrate indigenous and western democratic and human rights law, as in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Something like this dual law was recently highlighted in the magnificent maiden speech by newly elected Yingiya Mark Guyula, MLA of East Arnhem Land: ‘We talk about closing the gap, but what gap …? The … gap created when Yolngu law is not properly acknowledged. When the power of self-determination is increasingly being removed, that gap grows. When our people are starved out from the homelands and forced into major growth hub towns by the funding of our infrastructure, health facilities, roads, homeland schools, etc…. We are capable of learning both ways but we need the strength of our first culture and language to obtain both. The only way to fix this is with policies of self-determination, self-management, self-governance and ultimately, a treaty’.

‘This is not the first treaty for Yolngu people. When the Macassans first landed on the north-east coast of Arnhem Land they recognised Yolngu sovereignty and that a system of government already existed here.’ A pity we white European Australians often weren’t as enlightened as them, or as Baptist pastor Roger Williams of Rhode Island.

Mark’s retrieval of Williams shows that the way forward is not to simply trash the traditions as if irrevocably tainted by our colonial hands. Instead, Mark cites one of my favourite quotes, from MacIntyre regarding traditions as ‘ongoing arguments’. This is the living tradition of the dead not the dead tradition of the living (Chesterton). These dangerous memories can be used by the Martin Luther King’s, Mandelas, Lowitja O’ Donoghues, Pastor and Governor Doug Nicholls and others to counter their colonial misuse.

This is where repentant research is required to recover the invisible, deep and dangerous currents and memories that can undercut the complacency of the centuries and of the contemporary, the parochialism of the present. This is not only in relation to indigenous issues, but also other perennial research projects we hope to tackle like the precariousness of work, the increasing inequity of Capitalism, spirituality and aging, the public role of friendship etc. We welcome your personal and financial support if you have some xmas spirit and spending to spare, (see forms) and partnership (see website for research members application forms) in forging, like a wood-working RASP, a circle of public intellectual and reflective practitioners, in civic friendship, to challenge not only the content of social policy debate, but the tone, in a more dialogical direction.

Finally, thanks to our predecessor, YTU Institute for Religion and Social Policy, especially Bruce Duncan, who have so skilfully passed on the baton from their pioneering first lap. I also want to thank particularly my and UD’s friend, Simon Holt, pastor of Collins St. Baptist Church who’ve so generously hosted us. Our setting reminds me, like Naomi’s ‘Third Place’, of Simon’s use of the wonderful Australian image of a verandah as a liminal, linking space of welcome, seen in its café on Collins St at Melbourne’s heart. But also I can’t forget the welcoming I received in the rear, Baptist Lane, by the homeless and vulnerable, and educating students and the city concerning its hidden underside or iceberg through Urban Seed, which I once directed. Between those two publics RASP will seek to be a welcoming verandah too. Thank you for supporting us in that quest and please see the forms on the website for contributing in either material or intellectual form.