Amidst the widespread protests following the death of George Floyd in the US, a truth is becoming ever more evident for all of us here in Australia. Now and for far, far too long, too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been treated like they do not matter. They are treated as if their cultures don’t matter, that their safety doesn’t matter, and that their lives don’t matter.
While some people may bristle against this, protest or defend themselves, the truth of this is plain to see when we have open and humble hearts. It is evident in the dismissal and mischaracterisation of the Uluru Statement of the Heart by the Federal Government, in the erasure of the Frontier Wars from our history and collective identity, in the pain and devastation of the Stolen Generations and the intergenerational trauma that pervades to this day.
We can witness it in the lack of reform and justice when faced with over 400 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1989-1996) and see it in the immoral destruction of a sacred site over 46,000 years old – ten times older than the pyramids – being perfectly legal. We are challenged by it in the footage of a teenager having his feet kicked out from under him, falling face first in the dirt, with his hands held behind his back.
As a non-Indigenous person, and a proud Australian, this truth is heart breaking and shameful. However, having the courage and humility to recognise this truth, to collectively admit it, listen and do the work to understand where we’re going so wrong and how we can stop it will allow us to do better and set us free.
We can and must do better because Black Lives Do Matter. We can and must do better because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives matter. They matter so much and so deeply how on earth can it be otherwise?
In 1986, St Pope John Paul II spoke with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Alice Springs. He said:
“I want to tell you right away how much the Church esteems and loves you…
“For thousands of years you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit of God has been with you. Your ‘Dreaming’, which influences your lives so strongly that, no matter what happens, you remain forever people of your culture.
“Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear.
“…the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the longest surviving cultures in the world. They are strong, resilient and wise. They shaped and are the true custodians of this land that we love and have been for the past 60,000 years. They formed this land of milk and honey through agriculture, fire stick farming and careful, sustainable use. Every day, I have seen so many amazing uncles and aunties, parents and young people building up their community. We must not get in their way. Like every human being, they are created by God with beautiful gifts, with talents, dignity and value. So how is it that they can be treated so disrespectfully?
Pope Francis said on 3 June 2020, “My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
Just as in our own personal reconciliation, to truly be renewed, to truly be forgiven, to be truly reconciled as a society, we must acknowledge and come to terms with the truth of our sin, genuinely endeavour not to do it again and recognise when we fail.
We must humbly admit and call out our racism and understand that racism is a sin. We must admit our mistakes, learn from them, listen and act on the truth of God’s love which speaks in our hearts and respond to the cry of our neighbour, echoing in David Dungay Jr last words while he was dying from asphyxiation in a cell in Sydney, “I can’t breathe”.
In this moment, this kairos as Bishop Vincent says, we must ask ourselves, as a Diocese with perhaps the most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the country within it, do we really live up to the words of our leaders? As a Church, do we really celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their beautiful cultures and lasting genius? Are we ready to be set free by the truth?
It is beyond time that our words are made real through clear and concrete actions. It is beyond time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have their rightful place in their country and in the Church.
Patrice Moriarty is the Social Justice Coordinator for the Diocese of Parramatta.