Message Listening to the voices of the past
Remember the days of old;
consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you,
your elders, and they will tell you.
Throughout the Bible, the people of God are reminded to remember. To remember and heed the wisdom, to listen to the stories of our ancestors and the generations that have come before. The word ‘remember’ appears in the Bible a total of 240 times. It is in this memory that God’s people remember God’s faithfulness, God’s character, God’s promises and all that God has done.
In the passage that the one verse of our Bible reading today came from, Deuteronomy 32, Moses teaches the Israelites a song. In the lyrics of which, he implores them not to forget what their elders knew and experienced. To hold the truth of previous generations close to their heart – lest they forget and find themselves turning away from God.
We too often let our inattentiveness to the past betray us. We too often fail to learn and heed the wisdom of our elders – and thus fail to progress in the direction they were pointing us. Or alternatively, we fail to examine our past actions and our history honestly and wholeheartedly, and in doing so fail to shape a better us and a better tomorrow.
Today is Aboriginal Sunday – a time to hear again the call to listen to our elders, to fully engage with our history, and in doing so, take steps towards the reconciliation that elders like Pastor William Cooper, Sir Doug Nicholls and Aunty Pearl Gibbs called our nation to embrace – in order that we can be a nation where all people flourish.
William Cooper, as I mentioned earlier, was an Aboriginal Christian leader, a Yorta Yorta man, who in a letter to the churches in 1938, 150 years after the arrival of the First Fleet, called on all Christian denominations to set aside this day, the Sunday before 26 January, as “a day of mourning” concurrent with the “white man’s day of rejoicing”. “We request”, he writes, “that sermons be preached on this day dealing with the Aboriginal people and their need of the gospel and response to it – and we ask that special prayer be invoked for missionary and all other effort for the uplift of the dark people.”
William Cooper continually advocated for justice, not just for Aboriginal people, but for all who were in need. In 1938, he, upon hearing of the treatment of European Jews in Nazi Germany led the only protest, anywhere in the world against Hitler – a dozen people that gathered to march to the German consulate in South Melbourne. I attended a memorial for that event at the National Jewish Memorial Centre just a few years ago.
Cooper established the Australian Aborigines’ League, the first all Aboriginal advocacy organisation. They advocated for greater land rights, a voice in the political system and more support for Aboriginal people.
Sir Douglas Nichols was William Cooper’s grandnephew. As a professional athlete, he accomplished great feats in boxing, athletics, and football, even winning a premiership with Northcote. At the age of 30, he became a pastor, and was known for work to address disadvantage. Preaching on the why people should care about the conditions of Aboriginal people he makes a theological, a political and a personal appeal; “Firstly, we belong to a great family of God and he has made… one blood all nations of men. Secondly, …we’re part fo the Great British Commonwealth of Nations. And thirdly, we want to walk with you. We don’t wish to walk alone.”
Also, a member of the Australian Aborigines’ League, Sir Douglas Nicholas was instrumental in the 1967 referendum, Australia’s most successful ever referendum, where Australia removed negative discrimination in the constitution towards Aboriginal people and ensured they were counted amongst the population.
Aunty Pearl Gibbs was another passionate advocate for her people. In the early 1900s she advocated for women working as domestics and itinerant Aboriginal workers. She was an organiser of the 1938 Day of Mourning protests and her speeches in the Domain always attracted large crowds. Throughout her life she advocated for better conditions for Aboriginal people and with Faith Bandler, another well-known Aboriginal advocate, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to work together on these issues.
This year is seen as another historical moment, as in 1938 or 1967. With another upcoming referendum, Australia can continue the progress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Here are some of the words from the Uluru Statement of the Heart:
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe [our] ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
This year we have an to take another step towards reconciliation and human flourishing – for all Australians.
The Voice to Parliament would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the Parliament on policies and projects that impact their live. It would give the Australian Government the opportunity to make policies with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
It is a step demonstrating that we can come together and listen to the hearts of our First Nations Peoples and their forebears. Failing to take this step will set back efforts for further decades. We should do this, as we continue to push for truth telling, treaties and justice.
As the Statement from the Heart reminds us, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are incarcerated at higher rates than any other people group on the planet. In Australia, we aren’t just locking up adults, we’re locking up children as young as 10 (the vast majority of them First Nations).
There is a simple and powerful reform that could help change this. It has been called for by the UN, by Aboriginal communities across Australia and by the government’s own attorney general’s department, where we. increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.
Rather than locking children up, we should be providing them with care and support.
Today we are invited to hear the words of Aboriginal elders, to listen to what they and other advocates for justice are saying – and to let these words inspire us to also work for justices.
I pray that 2023 is such a year for us. One of our small groups is currently engaged in a study of the Statement from the Heart. If you’d like more information about this, please come and see me. There are also lots of resources coming from Common Grace and if you’d like to be part of educating and advocating around the referendum, please also come and have a chat.
We’re now going to take a few moments to listen – to hear some of the words of the elders from quotes you have brought or quotes you have picked up. Roz is going to play some quiet music but feel free to come up and read a few words or sentences – leaving a bit of a gap between speakers so we can reflect on those words…