26 January 2020

Australia Day Prayer

Yesterday was Chinese New Year and today is Australia Day! We can give thanks for our nation and I would like to lead us in a prayer of thanksgiving. But as the church, as disciples who come under the authority of Christ’s mandate to love- we also should pause to reflect on the cost of our national success. That our history bears witness to great injustices against the Indigenous peoples of this land. And to acknowledge that we are all in some way beneficiaries of the suffering of others.

The current Australia day campaign has the slogan – “we are all part of the story” – and that is a good and unifying message - but I’m not so pleased with my part of the story. Over the past month, really since the fires began, I’ve taken to digesting as much information as I could about Indigenous culture, spirituality, land management and what happened in the years after 26th January 1788.

I discovered I have a blind spot not only in how rich is their culture but how dark is our history since 1788.  (Check out my last to blogs for those reflections and a resource list here and here). 

Within a few years of Arthur Phillip landing on the shores of Botany Bay the majority of the Aboriginals in our part of Sydney were gone. After thousands of years, gone. Firstly, through disease, then deprivation as food resources were gobbled up, and eventually government sanctioned murder. And over the next 100 years the custodians of our continent were pushed to the point of extinction –Tasmania Aborigines for example, were, barring a few survivors, systematically exterminated. Our history is a record of great cruelty and inhumanity on a genocidal scale – I was not taught this at school in the 80s.

So today I would like to lead you in a prayer in three parts – a thanksgiving for Australia, an acknowledgement of country, but also prayer of repentance.

Jesus we thank you for this great nation. For the freedom we enjoy through a stable democratic system of government, a healthy economy, to clean drinking water, access to excellent health care, to excellent education for our children, to freedom to speak and to practice our faith, to the tapestry of cultures that make us who we are, to the way that community comes together in times of crisis like the bushfires and the way , to our RFS volunteers who have magnificently given of themselves and to those who have served our country in our armed services to protect all these freedoms. We thank you.

But Jesus, we acknowledge that the colonisation and development of Australia brought with it terrible pain and destruction to the original custodians of our nation – to their culture, their way of life and to their connection to Country – and also as a result, to the health of the environment in which we now live. We recognise that your Church in Australia has at times played a role in their suffering – through ungodly actions or in many cases inaction.

But we also recognise that this is not only the sin of past generations. We repent of our own indifference, ignorance and neglect concerning their past suffering and their marginalisation in Australian society today. We are grieved that they are still fighting for the same basic rights that we celebrate, and recognise that human dignity is not restored simply with increased government funding or good policy. That we each have a part to play in restoring dignity.

So, we your church by the Georges River…

"We would like to acknowledge, the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather today - the Dharug people this side of the Georges River and the Dharawal people to the south. We would also like to pay our respects to the elders past, present and emerging. They are the people who for thousands of years fulfilled the creation mandate of our creator God, and we honour them for their stewardship of this great land.

Jesus, your ministry was to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. We pray, your ministry be our vision too - you may open our hearts with compassion and see our Indigenous peoples with dignity and honour, to co-labour with them in the care for our natural environment, to be an advocating voice for justice, to lift up the oppressed, proclaim your favour. And we ask this in the name and power of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ.


“We are all part of the story." Ok, well what part of the story are we writing today and into the future as the dominant culture? Are we choosing ignorance over truth? What are we teaching our children? Are we giving them an appreciation for Indigenous culture and for the Australian environment they worked so faithfully to tend? Are we turning toward Indigenous people or away? What would Jesus do if He were you?

24 January 2020

Gardening Terra Nullius

In the late 90s my parents left Sydney for a large patch of rocky brown dirt atop a hill in the Southern Highlands of NSW. A paddock really, this was to be the site of their new home and the canvas for a garden of grand proportions. Twenty something years later grows a majestic garden full of mature trees, manicured hedges and lawns, an orchard and seasonal flowering plants. It has been a labour of love for my mum in particular who has likely devoted many days a week for two decades to transforming the land.

Tending to land is no small feat, it requires vision, insight, intuition and love.

Imagine then that a space ship lands in the back yard and after examining the surrounds, the aliens conclude that the land is unoccupied and empty other than a well-aged primitive and her husband. So, they claim all the land as their own and proceed to flatten the garden, demolish the house and set up their own martian civilisation. Surely they can see the evidence of people living their lives together in community and tending to the land? Surely they see culture and the work of these people? Clearly the land is not unoccupied.

It sounds fanciful but that is basically what took place in in 1770 when Lt. James Cook in his journey around the great southern continent declared the land to be terra nullius – empty, unoccupied and ripe for the taking. And that mind set returned with devastating consequences in 1788 when Arthur Phillip established the first colony in Sydney cove. Sure, they found people but not civilisation as they understood it – the British kind. And because these people lacked so many of the cultural and technological markings of modern life, they were simply treated as unsophisticated primitives, lesser humans with no claim to the land. The church, echoing this imperialistic mindset, thought the best thing it could do was teach them how to wash regularly and dress appropriately, and do away with their own spirituality!

What they failed to understand, let alone appreciate was that Indigenous Australian culture was not only socially complex but perhaps the most ecologically sophisticated culture to ever exist – the product of thousands of years of refinement.

Caring for Country was the vocation of every inhabitant of the Australian continent before 1788. Land management was no indulgence, no ancient version of Better Homes and Gardens. Life was land care, it was a spiritual mandate of the Dreaming and a social necessity for communities. Too much fuel on the ground not only might unleash a hot, angry fire that could not be controlled, but it may unnecessarily kill precious flora and fauna so vital for the balance of the local ecosystem. Fire was the daily tool of trade for Indigenous people (under strict guidance from elders) and they could wield it with the sharpness and accuracy of my mother’s secateurs. Patches of bush were carefully burnt each year across a tribe’s land, determined by a multitude of carefully considered factors. Land was often burnt in a mosaic pattern which preserved cover for vulnerable fauna whilst killing or clearing other vegetation or fuel in others. Indigenous peoples had such a vast and intimate understanding of how every plant and animal beneficially interacted with fire. Tens of thousands of species were catalogued in their collective memory. It showed as Bill Gammage wrote, “the breath taking complexity of land management at a continental and scale.” Particular animal and plant communities needed and got very precise fire timings and intensity. Gammage illustrates,

“Northern grassland was burnt annually, Kangaroo grass every 2-3 years, Mulga at most once decade, dry ridges every 15-25 years, Tuart every 2-4 years, Jarrah every 3-4 in early summer, Karri about every 5 years in late summer. Mountain Ash needs fire every 400 year or so.” 

“Gliders and possums like frequent fire, but rat kangaroos need casuarinas burnt about every 7 years, a native mouse needs heath burt every 8-10, mainland tammar wallabies need dense melaleuca burnt very hot every 25-30. In the centre, ‘when little emus are on the ground you do not burn.’ 

All plants and animals thrived in 1788 and people timed a great variety of local and specific fires over years, decades and even centuries. Many parts of the continent was burnt about every 1-5 years and one of the most frequent observations of new arrivals from 1788 onward was the continual and systematic burning of the land, accompanied by smoke. Aboriginal elders from one tribe would be concerned if neighbouring land was not marked with rising smoke - it suggested something was wrong for the tribe to not be burning land, and people should go and visit!

A byproduct of this continental curation was that many early settlers could not help but think that the Australian outdoors had been landscaped by gardeners. Gammage details dozens of early accounts, summarising their observations, he says - “trees planted as if for ornament, alternating wood and grass, a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country, a civilised land.” Much of Australia was like this in 1788 and the most common word newcomers used about Australia was not ‘bush’ but ‘park.’ At Bong Bong for example, Lachlan Macquarie named Throsby Park for its very ‘park like appearance’. Hardly terra nullius!

At some stage in the future my mum has admitted she won’t be able to maintain such a big garden. I imagine when the time comes, the disconnection will be a source of grief and concern. Grief because any true gardener will tell you, they have a deep connection to their gardens. And concern because of the uncertainty of whether the future owners will have the same devotion. How much more must our indigenous peoples experience the trauma and dislocation at being separated from Country (which is inseparable from culture), and anguish that the grand estate they, and a hundred generations before them had so carefully stewarded, is a shadow of its former glory.

As a Christian I am challenged by all of this because there are some ageless parallels between Indigenous spirituality and my own. The Bible begins with a creator’s vision, insight, intuition and love. And the final act of creation is God breathing into a creature that will bear God’s likeness and creativity. In Genesis 1 we read The Lord God, took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

The very first command given to humanity was to work it (the land) and take care of it. Here are two fundamental roles built into a biblical vision of life. We have a dual role to work the land in productive ways, but equally to take care of it, love it, enable it to display its glory. These have become opposing rather than complementary forces today. And the result is a planet increasingly diminished in glory and capacity to sustain life.

It seems to me that our Indigenous peoples understood this transcendent mandate in a way that all of us, the church in particular, should urgently recapture. Christians, the gospel begins in creation and ends in the renewal of all things – How did we forget this? How did we think the gospel was only about saving souls and exiting the planet? How do we recapture this creation mandate? How might we partner with the one culture that just might have the answers we need?

If you would like to dig deeper on any of these issues I can recommend the following books:
The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia - Bill Gammage
Deep Time Dreaming – Uncovering Ancient Australia – Billy Griffiths
Dark Emu – Aboriginal Culture and the birth of Agriculture – Bruce Pascoe =
Blood on the Wattle – Bruce Elder

20 January 2020

Bushfires - Is climate change to blame?

Climate change continues to dominate the commentary surrounding the fires that have ravaged eastern Australia in recent months as if all of a sudden we have found the culprit for the Aussie bushfire. The Australian climate is clearly warmer than it was 50 or even 20 years ago and the last decade was officially the hottest on record. It’s very hard to deny this continuing global trend and I’m not debating the data nor its seriousness – nor should I, as I have no expertise in any of this.

A string of hot summers and a long drought has certainly contributed to our current crisis, but it seems our collective memory is very short and it was a little strange to hear the Science Minister Karen Andrews in parliament recently call the latest fires “surprising” as if this is somehow a unique occurrence.
This summer, tragically, 29 people have died, and 17 million hectares of land has burned – bringing with it massive impacts on livelihoods, communities and native flora and fauna. This is awful, but it is not unprecedented.

In the summer of 1974-5, 117 million hectares burned (15% of the entire continent) but this event lacked publicity because of its minimal impact on communities. In the Northern Territory, in 1968, 40 million hectares burned, and again, in the summer of 2002, 38 million hectares of the Territory burned. We have recorded fires as far back as the Black Thursday fires of 1851 when 5 million hectares burned. More recently the Black Saturday fires in February 2009 only burned half a million hectares but killed 173 people and destroyed over 2000 homes.

The latest fires were massive, but I reckon an exclusive link with climate change is a myopic and convenient answer to a much broader problem.

Firstly, it’s myopic because we forget what I just described, our recorded history of massive fires. But also, because we ignore how perfectly our landscape has adapted to bush fire. Localised and large scale fires have been, and will remain, common to, and vital for, the Australian landscape. This is Australia, not Alaska – we already were the hottest continent on earth and it wants to and even needs to burn. Fire is one of the most important forces at work in Australian ecosystems. Fire is, as Bill Gammage described, “drought with legs and the majority of plants deal with both in the same way.” 70% of Australia’s flora either need or tolerate fire. Thousands of species would cease to exist without the regular, direct intervention of fire. Most of the approximately 700 species of eucalyptus trees across the continent need some aspect of fire to germinate, grow or fend off competition. The oil within their leaves is highly resistant to drought yet also highly flammable in fire – they actually promote fire. And when the fire has passed a miracle of regeneration takes place renewing and nourishing the tree and its surrounding landscape.

For tens of thousands of years, the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent have learnt how to harness ‘cool’ fire for re-creative purposes – to control or promote specific kinds of plants and nurture habitats into which native animals may feed and reproduce – so that food is predictable and plentiful for consumption. In addition, Aboriginal communities would regularly burn specific areas of their tribal lands so that, unlike the present situation, fuel levels on the ground were reduced and fires were less explosive. Tim Flannery, in his 2002 work The Future Eaters, writes that “The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it. It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia ‘This continent of smoke’.”

Adjunct Professor, Bill Gammage’s outstanding book The Greatest Estate on Earth (from which I’ve drawn extensively) has left me in awe of how the Indigenous custodians of our land insightfully tended their environment and how Australian flora is so finely and uniquely tuned to thrive in this inhospitable land. But I am also left dismayed that the Australian environment of 2020 is almost unrecognisable from the Australia of 1820 and there is little hope of slowing that trend at present.

Secondly, I’d argue that the exclusive link to climate change is also a little too convenient or easy. Hanging the debate on something as global as climate change enables us to shift the blame solely to politicians, big business and forces beyond our responsibility. I’m not letting our leaders off the hook, but they are ultimately us, and us is very conflicted in what we want.

We want a pristine environment but our high-consumption way of life is in direct competition with that desire – from our flat pack throw away furniture, to our second vehicle, our international flights, our almond milk lattes and our expectation that all kinds of food are available all year around.

We convince ourselves that putting out our yellow bin and installing solar is doing our bit for the environment. Or at a national level, we feel righteous by not building any new coal fired power plants yet happily dig up and sell as much of the black stuff as we can to power all the coal fired power plants around the world. Sure, some protest when an Adani or a Santos want to make a new hole in the ground, but for the most part, economics win almost all the time and our politicians and super funds are simply echoing the collective hunger for more. If we (I) were serious about our environment, let alone the planet – we would all have to lower our standard of living and rethink much of what typifies modern life. On a mass level, we would have to reject tokenistic environmentalism and radically change the way we live. Could I do that?

Aboriginal communities lived a low carbon, environmentally symbiotic lifestyle that Australia in 2020 can never return to. Eden is lost, the landscape is permanently changed and in many places unrecognisable from the Australia of 1788. We have trodden heavily over this ancient land, it has suffered greatly and so it is hardly surprising that from time to time we, in a kind of environmental karma, suffer along with it.

While the habitually outraged love to direct their anger on social media at the Prime Minister for taking poorly timed holidays, or governments for “not doing enough” or primary industry for environmental vandalism – I guess all I am saying is that we each need to look at our own lives before throw stones at others. We are all part of the broader problem. We are all implicated in the groaning of a continent that dispossessed its custodians, disregarded the wisdom of indigenous land management and in the classic words of Joni Mitchell, greedily “paved paradise with a parking lot.”

Gosh that’s such a depressing ending and I just can’t leave it there...

I predict the next three decades of this century will be just a revolutionary as the 60’s and 70’s were in the last. The seeds of the future have already germinated and the young global citizens of today just might have the motivation, technology, adaptability, and – in the not too distant future – the power to affect change on a global scale. My hope is that they do so with great respect for the ancient wisdom of our Indigenous Australians. I suspect it may be too late for my generation to lead the way because we are the product of a very different time. But it is not too late for Gen X and their parents to be the supportive shoulders on which they stand.

As a Dad with three children, I wonder, what passions will I nurture in them? What experiences will I give them to shape their perspective on the world and on environmental stewardship? And, personally, how will I do more than write words and have good intentions?