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A hybrid Christianity for Aboriginal Australians

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Peter Kirkwood |  05 November 2010

A striking feature of the recent Vatican ceremonies elevating Mary MacKillop to sainthood was the central involvement of Aboriginal Catholics. Earlier this week Eureka Street published the text of an address given by Father Frank Brennan last Sunday at the American Academy of Religion in which he spoke movingly of his experience being with the Aboriginal contingent which attended the canonisation in Rome. 

He also gave some insights into the troubled history of interaction between Aboriginal and Christian religiosity in Australia, and he referred to the ‘deep, nurtured and nurturing spirituality’ displayed by many Aborigines in straddling the two very different worlds. 

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Someone who patently has this sort of spirituality is prominent Aboriginal elder, Tom Calma, who is featured in this interview. Though brought up a Catholic, he no longer sees himself as a Christian, and has gravitated towards his Aboriginal spiritual heritage. But he still envisions a positive engagement between Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality, and urges the Churches to be open to a hybrid Christianity that embraces both.

He spoke with Eureka Street TV at a conference held in July 2010 to mark the centenary of the Melbourne College of Divinity. The overall theme of the meeting was ‘The Future of Religion in Australian Society’.

Calma is one of this country’s most accomplished indigenous leaders and activists. He is an elder of the Kungarakan tribal group on his mother’s side whose traditional lands are south-west of Darwin, and on his father’s side is a member of the Iwaidja tribe whose country is on the Coburg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

For almost forty years he has had a distinguished career in various parts of the public service. From 1995-2002 he was a senior diplomat in India and Vietnam, and oversaw the management of the Australian Education International Offices in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

After this he served as both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, and as Race Discrimination Commissioner.

He was instrumental in setting up the recently formed National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples which will be the major indigenous consultative group for the federal government. He is a member of its Ethics Council.

Tom Calma sits on many boards, and is in demand as a speaker around the country. He is Patron of the Rural Health Education Foundation and the Poche Centres for Indigenous Health, and is Deputy Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation. In June 2010 he was appointed to the Board of Directors of Reconciliation Australia.

He delivered the 2009 Mabo Oration, and made the formal response in Parliament House to the Prime Minister’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations. In May 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles Darwin University in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of indigenous and multicultural Australia, primarily in the areas of education, employment and training programs for indigenous and remote communities.


Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 


 



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Submitted comments

We can't "be accepting of a whole range of things" as Tom Calma stated in the video. We must accept the one, true, Catholic, and Apostolic Catholic Church as founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of St.Peter.

Outside the Church there is no salvation.

We must always have our eye on the last four things, Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. We must be obedient to the Social Kingship of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. No Catholic can be saved by being a "hybrid Christian." We must fully accept Church Teaching and act as true faithful Catholics to gain salvation.
Many are called but FEW are chosen.

Trent 05 November 2010

Tom Calma touches on something many of us of non-indigenous background also strive for. How do we bring together all the strands of who we are into a constructive, and integrated spiritual life? For me those strands include the fascination and explanatory power of sciences, a love of the natural world, the riches of Christian tradition and community, and indeed all human community. It saddens me that dogmatic "certainties" such as that advocated by Trent label us as outside of salvation. Thank-you, Tom Calma, for your wisdom.

George 05 November 2010

I have been fortunate to meet another elder, Miriam-Rose, and her community and can say the deep faith,trust,respect and love witnessed by me and my son was overwhelming. This is tangible even where there is poverty and lack of opportunity to engage in modern life. Nurturing all who live and visit with christian values and as well as celebrating an holistic spiritual connection to creation seems to be sadly missing in european christianity.
We are not all from Europe and christian values are universal,so diversity is something which must be encouraged,rather than an homogenous,superficial, colonial approach to faith.

We have much to relearn,remember and discover from ancient wisdom. We are newcomers to this land and have little knowledge of 40.000 years before we 'claimed' ownership.

African wisdom says "If one person is sick the whole community is sick". Is this not a Christian view too?

catherine S 05 November 2010

The four MUST-s of Trent's comment bespeak the very enforcement which Tom Calma shows has alienated many of his indigenous people. Jesus loves you Trent as much as he loves Tom and me, and as for who is chosen, let's not try to make up God's mind.

Steve

Steve 05 November 2010

Spot on, Trent. Let's not confuse niceness and sincerity with the Truth that sets us free:

"Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend You?" ... From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?"

Do we also want to go away?

Ronnie Knox's hilarious, devastating "Reunion All Round" reveals the reductio of this sugar-coated poison. Essential reading:

http://www.space.net.au/~nethow/Sede/reunion.html

Nick Paul 06 November 2010

Spot on, Trent. Let's not confuse niceness and sincerity with the Truth that sets us free:

"Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend You?" ... From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?"

Do we also want to go away?

Ronnie Knox's hilarious, devastating "Reunion All Round" reveals the reductio of this sugar-coated poison. Essential reading:

http://www.space.net.au/~nethow/Sede/reunion.html

Nick Paul 06 November 2010

Not,I think, a hybrid Christianity, but a deeper Christianity, that is can touch into the experience that Abraham knew, of being on holy ground, and to recognize that Aboriginal people know and have known the sacred presence within the earth for thousands of years. Their tending of its flame with song and ritual,has kept it alive, so that on this ancient continent that presence can still be tangibly felt; a Christianity that can step out-side the cultural framework in which it views itself, and so be able to recognize the deep spirituality of Aboriginal people, and the depth of wisdom they carry. In the process it is possible to uncover untapped depths in the roots of its own tradition.

Margaret Smith 10 November 2010