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Religion and violence in Australian-Indigenous history



Colloquium on Violence and Religion Conference, Australian Catholic University, 16 July 2016

I have been asked to offer reflections on violence and religion in Australia-Indigenous history, particularly by reflecting on the experience of the Catholic Church in Australia. I am told that the aim of this session is to give participants a sense of the role of religion and violence in Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations (in a general way), particularly to inform our overseas guests. I am happy to join my fellow panellists Naomi Wolfe, Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier and Scott Cowdell. Australia and the academy are coming of age when Indigenous scholars like Naomi and Kathleen are accorded their place on such a panel and when the audience is anxious to hear and learn directly from the Indigenous perspective. Naomi and I have appeared at a number of ACU gigs together but this is the first time I have been at an academic event with Kathleen and I welcome her to the ACU campus. I have known Philip since he and his wife Joy were working at the Kowanyama Aboriginal community on the west coast of Cape York in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the early 80s. I have the pleasure of sharing an office next to Scott at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra. He has introduced me to the thinking of Rene Girard.

In his COV&R ConferenceRene Girard and Secular Modernity Scott Cowdell tells us that being Christian entails 'coming to share mimetically in Christ's nonrivalrous desire, which uproots self-definitional hatred against the despised other and the violence that follows'. Cowdell reminds us that Frantz Fanon describes the dynamic in colonial environments when 'respect and hatred for the master coinhere in the frustrated bosom of colonised peoples'.

The violence at the pastoral frontier of the British colonies here in Australia was all pervasive. 228 years after it commenced, we are still experiencing the after-effects. Some Aboriginal people find religious faith and the following of Jesus a graced path to transcending the effects of their dispossession and marginalisation. Others think missionaries of the past simply witting or unwitting apologists for the pastoralists and governments who were committed to extermination at worst and assimilation or marginalisation at best. Though the modern nation state and its cultural elites have belatedly accorded recognition to Aboriginal spiritual relationships with the land, this has not impacted significantly on the non-religious and sometimes anti-religious perspective of those cultural elites. Cowdell somewhat provocatively writes:

Humanity's mimetic predisposition to violence, as emphasised by Girard, is ... anathema to inheritors of the Enlightenment who champion a more rational and noble account of human motivations and capacities, contrary to all available evidence. All this is directly contradictory to the 'atheistic chic' agenda of today's cultured despisers of religion, such as Richard Dawkins, who blame religion for violence while extolling humanity's natural capacity to sort itself out if left alone by the gods. Girard shows that, culturally and historically, the opposite is closer to the truth.

When I started advocating Aboriginal rights here in Australia almost 40 years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that the missions and missionaries were all bad news, and the sooner they left the scene, the better. It will come as no surprise that I have always doubted that Aborigines were well rid of religion and the missionaries in all circumstances. Often it seemed to me that the missionaries provided the one buffer to the depredations of pastoral expansion and a path to negotiating life between the Dreaming and the Market. The missionaries were often the only trustworthy, long term intermediaries. Some of these missionaries displayed limitless patience and capacity to observe change and turmoil compassionately but without interposing self or ego. Some of them took a stand at the frontier; others, as Philip Freier says, leapt over the frontier and shared life with Aborigines one step removed from that frontier of conflict and assimilation.

Fifty-six years ago, the Australian anthropologist W E H Stanner wrote his essay 'Continuity and Change' theorising about the 'quite marked disinterest the Aborigines have shown and still show in so many kinds of European activity'. He invited his non-indigenous readers to consider a few of the contrasts:

We are deeply interested in futurity. We try to foresee, forestall and control it by every means from astrology and saving to investment and insurance: the Aborigines are scarcely concerned with it at all; it is not a problem for them. Their 'future' differentiates itself only as a kind of extended present, whose principle is to be continuously at one with the past. This is the essence of the set of doctrines I have called the Dreaming. Our society is organised by specialised functions which cut across groups; theirs on a basis of segmentary groups ... Theirs is a self-regulating society knowing nothing of our vast apparatus of state instrumentalities for authority, leadership and justice. Ours is a market civilisation, theirs not. Indeed there is a sense in which The Dreaming and The Market are mutually exclusive. What is the Market? In its most general sense it is a variable locus in space and time at which values – the values of anything – are redetermined as human needs make themselves felt from time to time. The Dreaming is a set of doctrines about values – the values of everything – which were determined once and for all in the past. The things of the Market – money, prices, exchange values, saving, the maintenance and building of capital – which so sharply characterise our civilisation, are precisely those which the Aborigines are least able to grasp and handle. They remain incomprehensible for a long time. And they are among the foremost means of social disintegration and personal demoralisation.

Stanner concluded:

If we tried to invent two styles of life, as unlike each other as could be, while still following the rules which are necessary if people are to live together at all, one might well end up with something like the Aboriginal and the European traditions.

Most indigenous Australians do have a foot in each of these worlds. For the majority, the Market is now more determinative than the Dreaming with the result that there is less straddling to be done. It remains my opinion that it is impossible for most human beings to straddle two such different worlds without a deep, nurtured and nurturing spirituality. And such constant straddling often occasions violence with the straddlers themselves being both perpetrators and victims. Those of us who have never had to straddle two such diverse worlds are not those best placed to advise how to overcome the 'social disintegration and personal demoralisation'. Governments which place a deep faith in the Market and in 'law and order' policies enforced by instrumentalities of the State may be well intentioned, but unless they consult and work collaboratively with local Aboriginal leaders, they will be sure to make big mistakes, wasting precious resources and forfeiting trust.

In 1961, Mary Durack wrote a series of articles on the Catholic Missions in the Kimberley. In June 1968, she completed the manuscript of her book The Rock and the Sand after researching many church and departmental records. Writing to Bishop John Jobst in June 1968, she indicated that she had also conducted many interviews with Kimberley residents 'of various colours' and in various 'walks in life' — 'some in favour, some critical and some politely dubious of missionary work'. I read this book early in my time advocating for Aboriginal rights, back in the early '80s when the prevailing government attitude was of antipathy to Aboriginal missions, being seen as the last vestige of the patronizing colonisers' stronghold on Aboriginal life. I have remained taunted by Durack's observation:

The extent to which past missionary work has benefited the Aborigines will be differently assessed according to the reader's own criteria. One who sees progress in purely material terms may find little to have justified the continuance of these establishments in the face of such terrific odds. Those who seek evidence of the wholehearted conversion of the Aborigines and their satisfactory integration into the white man's social system may also find reason to doubt. Be that as it may, it seems clear to me at the conclusion of my task that the work of the missionaries, sometimes inspired, sometimes blind, was the only evidence the Aborigines had of anything in the nature of consistent altruism within an otherwise ruthless and self-seeking economy. It provided a ray of hope in the prevailing gloom of their predicament. It was for many their only means of survival and their sole reason for regeneration.

Six years ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonised its first Australian saint, Mary MacKillop, the founder of the Josephite sisters who have provided education and welfare services to the poor, especially in remote and rural parts of the vast Australian continent. Her brother Donald, a Jesuit who ministered amongst the Aborigines of Daly River in the Northern Territory at the end of the nineteenth century, wrote one of the great letters to the editor when he sent his 1892 Christmas epistle to the Sydney Herald: 'Australia, as such, does not recognise the right of the blackman to live. She marches onward, truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The blackfellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart; her heel is of iron and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet.'

Indigenous Australians played a key role in the celebrations for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in Rome. I was sitting with an Aboriginal group at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Pauls Outside the Walls. Aboriginal dancers participated in the Offertory procession. Aboriginal deacon Boniface Perdjert assisted the Cardinal at the altar. The Aborigines around me were very proud of the Aboriginal participation in the liturgy. It was their participation which rendered the celebration most Australian, even for those of us who were not indigenous.

At the conclusion of the liturgy at St Pauls Outside the Walls, some of the Aborigines invited those gathered around them to join them outside the entrance to the church. They had visited the church the previous day, concluding their researches and ascertaining the burial place of Francis Xavier Conaci. They led us in the most moving prayer for Francis, the Aboriginal boy who left Western Australia on 9 January 1849 for training as a Benedictine monk. Francis died on 17 September 1853 aged about thirteen and he lies buried outside the front of the basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Gathered around his burial place, we were moved to tears. The didgeridoo was played; a traditional dance was performed; Graham Mundine and Elsie Heiss led the prayers; and Vicki Walker led the singing of 'The Old Wooden Cross' (the hymn which is sung at most Aboriginal funerals) and the Aboriginal Our Father.

Little is known about Conaci other than what is found in the memoirs of Bishop Salvado who departed for Europe with two Aboriginal boys in 1849. When they were in Paris, they witnessed civil disruption on the streets following the workers' revolt of the previous year. Soldiers were pursuing some rioters through the streets on 13 June 1849. Here is Salvado's description:

One of my boys, agitated by this extraordinary display, asked me what it was all about. I told him that some of those who had just rushed by shouting were bad men, and that the soldiers were going to fire on them if they failed to keep the peace.

'But I see,' said the boy, 'that the others have rifles too. Who will win?'

'There are only a few of the bad men,' I replied, 'and so the soldiers will win.'

He was silent for a few minutes, and then he went on: 'Why don't you go between the soldiers and the bad men, take all their weapons away, and lock them up in this house and stop them from fighting – and the two of us will help you?'

'Because this is not my country, and I don't know anyone here', I replied.

'That doesn't matter. You don't belong to my country either, and you didn't know the natives, but when they were getting ready to fight or had already started, you went in among them, took their gidjis, shut them up in the Mission house and it was all over. Why don't you do the same here?' This argument, which was so much to the point and so unexpected from a boy who eight months before was wandering naked in the bush and was as uncivilized as only a native can be, left me bereft of a satisfactory reply. I did not want to tell him that in a case like this, it was easier to get good results from natives than from those who boasted they had reached the acme of civilisation.

From Paris, Salvado and the boys travelled to Rome before Salvado then delivered the boys to the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Cava, Italy. Francis fell ill at La Cava, so he was taken to St Paul's Outside the Walls to take the fresher air. There he died on 17 September 1853; and there he was buried.

Many of us who had arrived at St Paul's Outside the Walls knew nothing of this story. The simple Aboriginal ritual over the burial site of Conaci was in stark contrast to the pomp and hierarchical ceremony in St Peter's Square the previous day. Here were indigenous people not only finding voice but leading those of us who are the descendants of their colonizers, teaching us the history, sharing the story, and enabling us to embrace the mystery of it all in prayer. Our role was to follow, to join in prayer and to express thanks for the gracious sharing and leadership of the indigenous people.

For many Indigenous people, the attempt to live between the two worlds of the Market and the Dreaming is difficult and violent. A reason to live, a reason to live well, a way to live authentically eludes them. Jonathan Lear's book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation provides reflections of universal import on the life of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation. Plenty Coups had shared his life story with a white hunter Frank Linderman who had settled in Montana at the end of the nineteenth century. Lear, a philosopher from the University of Chicago, was haunted by Linderman's note at the end of his book:

Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. 'I have not told you half of what happened when I was young', he said, when urged to go on. 'I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,' he added sorrowfully, 'you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.'

Lear's insight contributed to my tears when the Aborigines led the simple ceremony at the grave of Conaci. They had reclaimed his story. His story was a vehicle for communicating their own ongoing struggle with straddling the divide of belonging and meaning. Their liturgy provided the means for communicating meaning, dignity and hope despite all that has occurred. Reflecting on Plenty Coups' vindication of life, Lear says:

Plenty Coups' dream — and his fidelity to it — also enabled him to live what Aristotle would call a complete life. In spite of the devastation to traditional Crow life, Plenty Coups's dream became a thread through which he could lead his people through radical discontinuity: and at the end of his biological life, he was able to see his life as having a unity and a purpose that was confirmed by the unfolding of events. Indeed, the repetition of his story to Linderman is its completion. In telling his story, he presented himself as having a complete life; and he was able to pass on to a future generation what he thought was still essential to the Crow way of life.

At the liturgy at St Paul's Outside the Walls, some Aborigines thanked me for accompanying them and for sitting with them during the Mass. I would not have wanted to have sat anywhere else. It was such a privilege to share the fullest liturgical expression of indigeneity colouring and leavening the universal, globalised Roman ritual. They, and only they, are able to break the cycle of violence, to bridge the radical discontinuity of their lives and history, finding a place of belonging in a globalised world where the Market can attribute value to everything, except that which is most important and valuable to the human person — that radical hope which allows us to weather the worst storms of the Market in all its manifestations. Indigenous people know this better than most of us because they have endured the violent market forces of empire which denied the value of all that their ancestors held dear religiously.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, John Molony, Don Luigi Sturzo, Democracy



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Existing comments

Thank you Frank for another great article about Australia's First Peoples. The world would benefit from more accounts like this and moving stories of reconciling the Dreaming and the Market.

Brian | 28 July 2016  

These indigenous people are truly the leaders Australia desperately needs. The fundamental challenge is how to live in a world that rejects mutuality ... A mutuality which embraces a whole ecology ... One that sustains and regenerates people, place and life. The ever-present generosity of spirit the indigenous people offer to all of us is so humbling and gracious ... It behoves each of us to uphold its message. Mindful that the healing of such deep discontinuity will take a long and arduous journey towards reconciliation. Thanks for a thoughtful article ... And thanks to tall indigenous peoples fir their wisdom and endurance.

Mary Tehan | 29 July 2016  

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