As I noted prior, I was taking Dr Kip Elolia’s class on Liberation Theology and didn’t want the experience to end when the final exam was complete. I knew that God had vital lessons for me that I needed to keep learning, so after class ended, I kept reading liberation theology and was shocked to discover that our tiny seminary’s library had a robust collection of Aboriginal Theology.
How, you might ask, does a small seminary in upper east Tennessee* happen to have a selection of works from Aboriginal Australians? I have no idea, but I checked out, and subsequently own Anne Pattel-Grey’s “Through Aboriginal Eyes: The Cry From The Wilderness.”
For you liberation theology nerds out there, Pattel-Grey would be considered a Womanist Theologian, but her emphasis here is on general racism and white blindness to the gospel.
I grew up in one of the most beautiful cities in the world – Perth, Western Australia. The central business district is right on the magnificent Swan River. 20 minutes to the west is the Indian Ocean. Keep going a few thousand miles west and you hit Madagascar. Head East for 1200 miles and you hit the next major city. Perth is the most isolated city in the world. It was also home to the Swan Brewery, one of Australia’s most famous. When I was a kid, the local Aboriginal tribe were trying to claim the Swan Brewery as a sacred site. We thought this was one of the great ironic jokes. Aboriginals struggle with alcohol dependence at an alarmingly high rate. Of course they’d want the brewery, we thought, they want free alcohol. I was just a kid, influenced by other kids and the adults in our life, but it wasn’t until seminary that the rusty memory of my childhood came back to confront me. Patel-Grey spelled out how the Aboriginal tribe was in Perth long before white people showed up, they were there first. We didn’t colonize Australia, we took it over in a brutal hostile takeover. Aboriginals had a rich culture that involved the shores of the Swan River and that their ancient burial grounds, their sacred site, was under the current location of the Swan Brewery. They didn’t want the brewery, they wanted to honor their ancestors.
And not for nothing, but Aboriginal alcoholism is directly linked to the amount of white people who paid an entire generation of Aboriginals in rum for years. Want more? The stolen generation ought to do it. Oh my. I had no idea. I had been taught an altogether different history.
And then this from Pattel-Grey. Please excuse my paraphrase from memory. “It is the moral imperative of every Aboriginal Christian to visit every white church and proclaim the good news of Jesus, because they don’t know it. And what is the good news of Jesus? You don’t have to own anything any more. You don’t have to oppress people any more. Jesus died to free you from having to own stuff. You can be free of that now.”
You see Aboriginal people are nomadic. At heart, their culture doesn’t believe in ownership, they find it absurd and audacious that a white person can put a fence around a piece of creation and say “mine.”
I have never once heard this preached from a white church. The only time I’ve preached it is when I’m quoting Pattel-Grey which I’ve done a few times in the last several years. But without reading what she had to say, I never would have considered this before.
I couldn’t shake an awful growing reality: what she is saying sounds an awful lot like Jesus. A lot more like Jesus than what I was preaching. It reminds me of his conversation with the rich young ruler.
And so the gift of a different perspective. A gift of another voice, a marginalized voice, prophetically calling me to leave my place of privilege and consider what I was missing.
Even after all these years, I am still very much processing this. I’m writing more now because I am growing more and more alarmed at the narrow focus of modern evangelical Christianity. A faith that used to be broad and robust, but more recently has narrowed to a couple of key issues and inexplicably linked its hopes to a political candidate who doesn’t embody any of its teachings.
But also, a lesson more recently. Just this week I sat in a listening meeting with several african american faith leaders sharing their experience. It was a powerful time and I was struck by one of the white participants who pointed out how white privilege doesn’t lead to freedom, but that in the gospel we loosen our grip on it. I think that is right. I think there is freedom on the other side of recognizing bias and power and privilege. I really think Jesus knows what he is talking about when he say says, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” I think he wants us to see life from another perspective.
*When you ask someone from the tri cities region of Tennessee how they like living in “East Tennessee” they correct you. “We don’t live in East Tennessee. That’s Knoxville, we live in Upper East Tennessee.” The implication is not subtle: East Tennessee is smog and traffic and everything bad. Upper East Tennessee is the finest piece of real estate this side of heaven. With exceptions for Western Australia and the Front Range of Colorado, I’d have to agree.