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Reconciliation balances guilt and hope


Feet walking a tightropeBefore the Apology to the Stolen Generations many people canvassed the relative merits of symbolic reconciliation and practical reconciliation.

The limitations of such symbolic gestures are evident: they may make divided groups feel better about each other but lead to no material benefit for the weaker group. The limitations of practical reconciliation have also often been noted. Actions may address particular needs, but, if imposed, can further alienate the weaker group.

To lead to reconciliation, both symbolic and practical actions must flow out of a shared imaginative world. Each group must make space in their imagination for a realistic view of the often terrible events that divided them and of who was responsible for them. They must also make space for a realistic view of the enduring consequences of these actions. And they must share a hopeful vision of what reconciliation might mean for their society.

How difficult it is to reach an imaginative world in which hope and acceptance of a horrifying reality are held together could be seen in the South African Truth Commission.

It was often difficult for White South Africans to acknowledge the horrific things the government had done in their interests and the extent of the sufferings caused to Black South Africans. It was equally difficult for many to hope that out of this acknowledgment could come reconciliation. But when hope and recognition of a terrible reality went together, seeds of change were sown.

Because it is so difficult to hold together in the imagination a vision of a full reconciliation and the recognition of past wrongs whose consequences continue to be felt many generations later, it is natural to reduce the tension between hope and recognition. We minimise the wrongs and horrors of the past and the extent to which their effects mark people's lives today. And we lower our hopes for what reconciliation might mean.

It may mean moving on without confronting the past and the way it has advantaged some and disadvantaged others, or thinking up plans to deal with the problem that the other group poses. Because the causes of division are not addressed, no reconciliation takes place. Indeed what is intended to benefit people is perceived by them as an imposition and resented.

If divided people are to be reconciled, both symbolic and practical actions are important. But both must flow from a shared imagination in which harsh historical realities and large hopes are held in tension. Symbolic actions of reconciliation are important because they help to preserve the tension.

In the Apology, Kevin Rudd spoke powerfully of the sufferings inflicted on people by a wrong policy, and of the continuing effects of those policies. But the context of the Apology expressed the hope and determination to build a better and reconciled Australia.

Symbolic actions like this give hope that by acknowledging a harsh reality we can be reconciled and set free. And in turn they strengthen us against yielding to the easy charms of a harmonising imagination.

Practical actions are also needed to heal what has been broken in society, and these will of necessity be enabled by the more powerful of the divided groups. But these actions must also come from a shared imagination that holds conflicting things in tension.

For non-indigenous Australia this means acknowledging the wrongs done to Indigenous people by the settlers and the continuing effects of these wrongs today. It also means acknowledging the harm that when the descendants of settlers analyse the situation of Indigenous people and devise solutions to what they see as problems, they will perpetuate the effects of the original wrongs.

Practical actions that will bear fruit demand listening with a humility born out of awareness of a destructive history, and taking time to listen and to build reconciliation, not simply to implement a policy. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Tightrope image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, National Apology, Reconciliation



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Existing comments

But all of it is premised on the idea that the aborigines have to reconcile themselves to us stealing their ancient lands, culture, children and everything about them and force them to be just like the thieves.

Marilyn | 29 May 2013  

An excellent, probing article - "probing" in the John Donne sense, to get to the heart of the matter - Andrew and something not to be attempted by someone without your maturity, depth, intelligence and insight. Hence a subject which I think 98% of clergy and politicians, as well as (all?) freelance opinionati of the "do good" variety, need to steer well clear of. I am astonished by the sheer fatuity of some comments on this and other "hot" social issues. As far as "the Aboriginal situation" (hopefully including Torres Strait Islanders) goes I think the great Gough Whitlam was the first Australian politician to take practical steps to include them in our general concept of society from which they had been consciously excluded by the drafters of our Constitution. The Australian populace endorsed Gough's vision. Anti-discrimination legislation and practical action e.g. Adam Goodes' have changed things. Noel Pearson looks forward to an Australia where we are all included and involved equally. The economic boom in Northern Australia is helping create an Aboriginal middle class nationwide - not just in Sydney and Canberra, This is important. We are, God willing, moving towards a just, cohesive and inclusive society. This requires not just preaching but action. Sometimes the Church, as in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the (sadly unknown in Australia even in his own Reformed Tradition) late, great and saintly Bayers Naude, combined knowledge, preaching and action. Australian Jesuits do this in their own quiet, understated way, as with Frank Brennan and the Aboriginal people. Because Frank and others are so modest many people are not fully aware. Young people need role models like Bonhoeffer, Naude, Frank and many other decent living witnesses to God's truth. They and their example can change the world. Practical Christian social and political action. "By their fruits..."

Edward F | 29 May 2013  

Congratulations Andrew!

Cornelius O'Donovan | 30 May 2013  

"....devise solutions" and "not simply implement a policy". Where do devised solutions go if they are not rendered as policies? May I humbly suggest that moralists and academics have to come up with better ethics than that.

Claude Rigney | 31 May 2013  

The Oxford English dictionary uses the words "an instance or occasion of friendly relations being restored" as a definition of 'reconciliation'. In the case of relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians this definition has no meaning as 'friendly relations' were never a reality. The more powerful group was always in control. It will not only mean taking time to listen deeply but a whole change of focus on the part of non-indigenous Australians to fix this particular thorny issue.

Pam | 01 June 2013  

As an Indigenous woman married to a non indigenous man, I would like to congratulate Eureka Street raising the issue of "Reconciliation". However neither Fr Hamilton nor Reconciliation Australia mention that reconciliation has been alive and well for many years -in our case 38 years. Even 20 years ago the demographer Allan Day showed that one in 3 Indigenous people formed unions with non indigenous people. Now the ABS estimates the percentage is about 40 %. Their children identify as Indigenous. Isn't this a good example of reconciliation that should be better known?

Jilpia Jones & John Thompson | 28 July 2013  

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