Jim Belshaw on Aboriginal policy

13 Mar

I commend Jim’s entries on this topic, as I have before. In his most recent entry, however, Jim says this:

Just so I do not get caught in semantic traps in saying all this, I am very comfortable with the idea of Australia as a nation of ethnic and cultural diversity. Just as I am proud of my English, Scottish and New Zealand heritage while also being Australian, so I expect other Australians to be proud of their ancestry.

My own daughters add the Irish Catholic tradition to the mix from their mother. Should they marry a Lebanese, a Chinese, an Indian, an Aborigine or whatever, then I would expect their children, my grand children, to be proud of this added stream.

I also take pride in what I see as the growth in those things covered by “official” culture. I, too, can take pride in the increase in standards in those European cultural pecking order things such as opera, ballet or classical music.

Where I part company with at least some of our cultural elites is that I am very comfortable with being Australian and see no need to cringe or apologise for our past. In fact, I am proud of it.

I do see the need to redress past wrongs, but that’s a different issue.

The context is an account of the place of country music in our culture, a genre looked down on by some, but not by me, even if it is not my preferred music, though 1) that is just a matter of taste and 2) I have been known to enjoy such music in appropriate circumstances — indeed, on reflection, there are times I have really enjoyed it.

Jim and I are not so far apart in practice on these matters, but I quarrel with Where I part company with at least some of our cultural elites is that I am very comfortable with being Australian and see no need to cringe or apologise for our past. In fact, I am proud of it just a bit. I have signed “sorry books” and so on, but I don’t see that as cringing, nor do I see it as an elite attitude, nor, I would say, would most people who have felt the need for an apology, or, if you prefer, an acknowledgement of the dark side of our past. While Jim sees “the need to redress past wrongs” as a “different issue” (and we agree on the need) I don’t. I wear that quite happily alongside a love of many of the things Jim also loves.

Take the Apology to the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada by The Presbyterian Church of Canada, for example.

…3. We recognize that there were many members of The Presbyterian Church in Canada who, in good faith, gave unstintingly of themselves in love and compassion for their aboriginal brothers and sisters. We acknowledge their devotion and commend them for their work. We recognize that there were some who, with prophetic insight, were aware of the damage that was being done and protested, but their efforts were thwarted. We acknowledge their insight. For the times we did not support them adequately nor hear their cries for justice, we ask forgiveness.

4. We confess that The Presbyterian Church in Canada presumed to know better than Aboriginal peoples what was needed for life. The Church said of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, “If they could be like us, if they could think like us, talk like us, worship like us, sing like us, work like us, they would know God as we know God and therefore would have life abundant.” In our cultural arrogance we have been blind to the ways in which our own understanding of the Gospel has been culturally conditioned, and because of our insensitivity to aboriginal cultures, we have demanded more of Aboriginal peoples than the gospel requires, and have thus misrepresented Jesus Christ who loves all peoples with compassionate, suffering love that all may come to God through him. For the church’s presumption we ask forgiveness.

5. We confess that, with the encouragement and assistance of the Government of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to take the children of Aboriginal peoples from their own homes and place them in Residential Schools. In these schools, children were deprived of their traditional ways, which were replaced with Euro-Canadian customs that were helpful in the process of assimilation. To carry out this process, The Presbyterian Church in Canada used disciplinary practices which were foreign to Aboriginal peoples, and open to exploitation in physical and psychological punishment beyond any Christian maxim of care and discipline. In a setting of obedience and acquiescence there was opportunity for sexual abuse, and some were so abused. The effect of all this, for Aboriginal peoples, was the loss of cultural identiy and the loss of a secure sense of self. For the Church’s insensitivity we ask forgiveness.

6. We regret that there are those whose lives have been deeply scarred by the effects of the mission and ministry of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. For our Church we ask forgiveness of God. It is our prayer that God, who is merciful, will guide us in compassionate ways towards helping them to heal.

7. We ask, also, for forgiveness from Aboriginal peoples. What we have heard we acknowledge. It is our hope that those whom we have wronged with a hurt too deep for telling will accept what we have to say. With God’s guidance our Church will seek opportunities to walk with Aboriginal peoples to find healing and wholeness together as God’s people.

Being a church statement this is of course cast in religious language, but even so I like the principle of naming the problems, sharing the problems, and turning from this to embracing a healing process.

Whatever the language we might use, I think such statements clear the decks and provide a surer foundation for cooperative endeavour. They are of course no substitute for that endeavour, but endeavour without such acknowledgement seems to me to be tainted by not naming the ghosts in the room.

Next day

Jim has responded to my contribution to “our on-line dialogue about Australia’s indigenous people.” See Ninglun on Australia’s Aborigines. He promises a longer response in future. Meanwhile, we do have common ground here: “official policy often implemented with the best will in the world has failed and that we need to stand outside the box to find new ways.” I would however insert “often” before “failed”; I suspect Jim would not object too loudly to that, as he has also been drawing attention to success stories.

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Posted by on March 13, 2007 in Aussie interest, Cultural and other, Faith and philosophy, Indigenous Australians, Jim Belshaw, Multiculturalism and diversity



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