Aboriginal dignity requires 'subversive' religion

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Aboriginal dignity requires 'subversive' religionIn this issue of Eureka Street, Brian McCoy SJ writes about the tragedy and hope embodied in the life of the late Aboriginal leader and activist Rob Riley. Riley is the subject of a book published late last year. It is 40 years since the 1967 Aboriginal citizenship Referendum. It is also the tenth anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report into the 'stolen generation' of Aboriginal children.

McCoy writes that the book captures a "particular slice of Australian history when Aboriginal leaders emerged in the 1970s and 80s with great energy and purpose". Riley had an impressive ability to focus on an issue. But as a member of the stolen generation, the psychological wounds inflicted early in life led him to towards drug addiction, mental illness and loneliness. These conspired to bring about an early end to his life at the age of 41.

What was missing from his life can be explained, at least in part, by some insights from Malaysian Jesuit anthropologist Jojo Fung (pictured below). Fung ministers to Malaysia's Orang Asli (Indigenous) people. He is visiting Australia this month as the keynote speaker at the New Pentecost Forum being held in Melbourne, Sydney and Wollongong.

Fung believes that it's a mistake to think that Aboriginal dignity depends upon a referendum of the dominant white society. Instead it is about recognising Aboriginal beliefs and rituals, which are part of what he calls the "existential DNA fabric of Aboriginal human dignity". Aboriginal dignity, he says, is firmly grounded in Aboriginal cultures and religiosity.

These beliefs were systematically suppressed in colonised societies. They were, and still are, considered subversive. Laws were passed, such as Zimbabwe's Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1899. Interestingly, this particular law was repealed last year as part of Robert Mugabe's heightened reaction against colonialism. This week, Pope Benedict XVI elicited a hostile response from Indian rights groups in Brazil when he suggested that Indigenous Brazilians acquiesced to their conversion to the Catholic faith of their colonial rulers.

Aboriginal dignity requires 'subversive' religionFrom his observation of life in indigenous communities in rural Malaysia, Fung suggests that indigenous beliefs empower people to hold their own against the dehumanising influences of the modern world.

He says: "In this subversive space, the scientific rationality behind the current logic of globalisation that reduces the many worlds into one world of neo-liberal capitalism is subverted by a 'space' that promotes the many worlds in the one universe."

Human dignity requires policymakers to provide for the many worlds of the earth's many peoples to be kept intact. Social transformation is inevitable, but there must be checks and balances. As Jojo Fung says, these must allow "democratic space and subversive space to coexist to bring about the full human flourishing where Aboriginal peoples themselves know they stand equal with the members of dominant society."



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Recognizing the Dreaming to be a state entered through long practiced meditative techniques allowing insight not available to ordiary consciousness, can explain awareness of the Power and Presence which unites Aboriginal people in a deep spiritual relationship with the land as sacred.
They know what we have long forgotten, but is present in our scriptures as 'the sound of sheer silence' heard by Elijah at Horeb, and in the 'sound of the Lord God' walking in the garden of Genesis in the evening breeze.
Aboriginal people can 'stand equal with members of dominant society' if we offer them the respect due to their keeping alive the flame of response to the divine which our biblical ancestors knew. They offer us the possibility of rediscovering the capacity to know the earth as the sacred dwelling place of the Spirit.
Margaret Smith | 24 May 2007


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