There is no doubt about it, mainstream Australia is much more interested in what happens with little leather balls, runners and swimmers than what is going on in our own back yard. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveal that the average life expectancy for Aboriginal men and women is twenty years below that of the rest of the population (56 for men and 63 for women). Indigenous babies are close to three times more likely to die in the first twelve months of life than the rest of us (14.98 per 1000 live births compared to 5.29). Whatever side of politics or religion you come from, this is a national disgrace. In addition, we have suicides in our own city under investigation in connection with sexual abuse, and in some isolated communities infection rates of sexually transmitted diseases of up to 40% in the 15-40 year old bracket.
None of the recent talk of self-determination, reconciliation, cultural recovery and so on seems to have transformed the broken experience of many of the people God first placed in this country (Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26). Diagnosis of the problem is simple: alcoholism, welfare dependency, the corrupting influence of money and so on. We all know about the history of the “Stolen Generations” and indigenous prison deaths. Yet we fail to give attention to the fact that number of Aboriginal children removed from their homes by welfare agencies and the rate of black deaths in custody has soared in the last few years. Whilst there are outstanding exceptions, socially, things appear out of control.
Many non-indigenous people do not even know a native Australian by name. How many of us then can be touched by the sight of children with petrol – filled cans tied to their faces on the main streets of some of our outback towns? All this is too hard for the government, is it too hard for God?
Let’s start with the issue of prayer. Do we pray for our indigenous people? If not, why not? This is not like “adopting a people group” in a missions sense; these are our fellow citizens! My interest in the place of Aboriginal peoples in what God is doing in our country came directly out of a communication by the Spirit of God at a prayer meeting that originally had nothing to do with these issues. What God showed me led me on several journeys into central Australia. If I do not pray I do not open up my heart to what God may have to show me about his purpose for indigenous people.
Do we believe that these people have a special contribution to make to the progress of the kingdom of God in our country? I do not mean this in an idealistic sense. A little experience teaches that whilst native peoples are very sensitive to the spiritual realm, this is not always a vehicle for God. Similarly, tribalism both outside and inside the Christian church is a very real thing. My observation suggests that indigenous Christians have more barriers between them than the non-indigenous. Not only are their territorial issues to do with a variety of languages, homelands and family ties, but deep mistrust between groups over the role of the Holy Spirit today.
Leadership is a major bottleneck for the black church. Most Aborigines are not educated to white standards, and those who show promise are often inundated with responsibilities. Some simply burn out and die early under the pressure of trying to lift up their people. It is still the case that many Westerners look upon Aboriginal Christians as children. How many black pastors do you know heading up non-Aboriginal churches? Is this compatible with the gospel (Galatians 3:28)? How many of us seriously consider that Australia’s John Calvin or John Wesley (or whoever your favourite is) could be indigenous?
“Revival is the answer!” someone thinks. Yet there have been successive revivals amongst indigenous folk, especially in the outback, that terminate after a few years with untransformed communities. A major problem here (as with the history of revivalism) is a focus on experience and a lack of grounding in scripture.
Isaiah 61:7 is, I believe, prophetic about the place of Aboriginal people in God’s purposes for our land. As the firstborn God planted here in a direct manner, he has special things in store for them. This must be so on other grounds, because in the kingdom of God the first will be last and the last first (Matthew 19:30). As the most dispossessed, maltreated, broken and oppressed people in our community we would expect indigenous peoples to be the most likely candidates for a reviving work of the Spirit of God. God characteristically chooses the weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Do we believe this? (Which is really a question about how we see the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18,25).) Or, are we wowed by the large and the outwardly impressive in our culture: secular and spiritual?
Aboriginal people have a special contribution to make to God’s kingdom in Australia, not primarily because they are more spiritually sensitive, community minded and humble than the rest of us, but because they have a greater potential as a group with respect to the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:19). Those at the bottom of the world’s heap are most likely to turn to God as their refuge and are those who have the most to forgive. The terrible history of massacres, mistreatment and dispossession that our indigenous peoples have endured opens them up to a possibility of releasing the debts of a nation that has, for almost all of its history, ridden roughshod over their interests. Where and when Aboriginal people forgive in the fullness of the power of the Spirit they open up a path in the spiritual realm (2 Corinthians 2:1-11; Ephesians 4:26-27) where the rest of us may follow. The evil principalities that blind the minds of unbelievers lose their grip (given under the wrath of God, 2 Thessalonians 2:11) where this level of forgiveness is proclaimed (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 6:12).
It is the realisation of the unique leadership role of Aboriginal Christians that will at the same time humble the rest of the church, with all its education and resources, and deliver these folk from the shame of rejection and feelings of uselessness that the devil has heaped upon them.
This transformation of perception and practice will not come about easily, but come about it must. I can think of no first world nation of our general standard of living that has had a major community transformation as a result of a visitation of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is simply the case that without genuine partnership in the depth of the brokenness of the spirit of our indigenous brothers and sisters we in Australia can never see a spiritual awakening that will be powerful enough to impact our wider culture (Psalms 34:18; 51:17; 147:3; Isaiah 57:15; 66:2).
Yet, are we able to imagine the long-term impetus of gospel – healed Aboriginal communities throughout our country? The result would be enormous.
None of this can come easily. It will need prayer, interest, patience, sensitivity, finance and, above all, humility. If even our public newspapers are crying out to us about this, how much more the heart of God. How about we ask him to show us the truth about this matter.