Truth, Lies & the Stories We Tell

Truth, Lies & the Stories We Tell

Our lives are defined by the stories we tell. Stories give meaning to our experiences, our relationships and our places. Many of these stories are personal. They’re my story, not yours. But we all have stories that define “us”, whether the “us” be a family, a community group, a nation, humanity, or all creation.

Australia has at least five great stories (each with many sub-stories), of which the first three are uniquely ours and the last two are shared more broadly: the indigenous story, stretching back 60,000 years and involving hundreds of indigenous “nations”; the British story, which began with the invasion of Australia and continued until the end of the White Australia Policy; the multicultural story, which began with post-White-Australia waves of immigration from all parts of the planet and continues to this day; the Western story, which has been a fusion of technological development, capitalist markets, and a championing of the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they choose; and the earth’s story.

Good story-telling requires wisdom, humility, empathy, and a sense of pride and shame. Wisdom allows us to connect the dots between people, places and experiences and weave a narrative that joins them into something meaningful; humility recognises the flaws and failings as well as the strengths and achievements of any story; empathy enables us to hear the voices of all participants in a story and to let go of the demand that they tell the story the same way I do; a sense of pride enables us to celebrate and build on the good in our stories, while shame allows us to respond with sorrow and repentance to that which has been destructive.

Over the course of my lifetime I think I have gotten better at telling my own stories, as I have learned that the deepest and most truthful storytelling comes when I move beyond a defensive approach that finds its reward in only the bright and glorious parts of the narrative, and neglects the dark and shadowy part, even perceiving them as a threat.

And I think that as a nation we have gotten better at telling our national stories. Our storytelling is becoming more humble, empathetic and sensitive to pride and shame. Nonetheless, some significant challenges remain. First, storytelling that is humble, empathetic and open to pride shame is difficult and will always be difficult. It requires us to listen generously to those whose experience is different to our own, to graciously hear their complaint and their pain, and to be willing to learn and change. This is emotionally and psychologically demanding. It is no surprise that we will feel tempted to retreat into narrative-ghettoes, where one-dimensional stories are told in which everyone “other” is the problem.

Second, while we are getting better at telling and listening to our great national stories, I am not sure we have determined how to join them up. Our unease over the date on which Australia Day is celebrated, treaty, and on an indigenous voice to Parliament are vivid demonstrations of this. Most of us recognise the British Invasion and subsequent development of Australia violated the rights of indigenous nations and caused ongoing damage to indigenous communities. We also recognise the achievements of the nation we have built since the invasion. We can tell the individual stories, but we are struggling to join these two stories together.

So here’s to more storytelling that is wise, humble, empathetic and sensitive to pride and shame.

Reconciliation Can Change Us All for the Better

Reconciliation Can Change Us All for the Better

I am 52 years old. In the half century of my life there have been dramatic shifts in the relationship between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians: the 1967 referendum to include indigenous peoples in the census and grant to government power to make decisions that positively discriminated towards indigenous people; recognition of land rights; Keating’s Redfern speech; the Mabo decision, its recognition that the Australian land mass was not empty but was taken from the indigenous nations, and the recognition of native title; and the apology to the stolen generations.

These changes at the national/formal level have been accompanied by some profound shifts at the popular level. In my childhood and youth I often heard people telling jokes about indigenous peoples that were not only racist but were venomously so. I don’t hear them very often today. Nor do I often hear the stereotyping of indigenous peoples as lazy and unreliable (usually masked behind the assertion that they would “go walkabout”) that were common in my youth. Similarly, we seem to be coming to grips with the ability to describe the colonisation of Australia as an invasion and to recognise that it was violent and unjust.

Nonetheless, we still have some way to journey. Indigenous people as a whole continue to suffer the long overhangs of two centuries of dispossession, marginalisation and exclusion. The annual Close the Gap reports by the Department of Prime Minister make clear that indigenous Australians, as a whole, have poorer health, education and lifestyle outcomes than non-indigenous Australians. For example, indigenous children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday than nonindigenous children; average life expectancy for indigenous people is still a decade less than that of the non-indigenous population. These are the outcomes of dispossession. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart puts it:

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.

And too many Australians retain racist attitudes. A 2014 survey by Beyond Blue found that one in five of us would move away if an indigenous person sat near us; one in five would suspect an indigenous person in a shopping centre is likely to steal; and one in 10 of us would not offer an indigenous person a job.

I am a white middle-class male. I have never experienced discrimination like this. I cannot begin to imagine the corrosive impacts it must have.

Where do we go from here? It’s easy to fall into the trap of paternalism.

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

We love statements like these because they call us to address the causes of disadvantage and not simply the symptoms. Yet they assume that disadvantage exists because of something lacking in the person who is disadvantaged and posit our superior skills and knowledge as the solution. We would do better to say,

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Return the fishing gear and access to the fishing grounds that you stole and he’ll eat for a lifetime and show you how you can too.”

The Uluru Statement from the Heart and the final report of the Referendum Council, both issued in 2017, are the result of a long process of consultation with indigenous peoples and express an indigenous voice. It seems to me these are a good place for us to continue the journey together at a public/political level. They suggest the establishment of a representative body that gives indigenous peoples a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament; an extra-constitutional Declaration of Recognition; the establishment of a Makarrata Commission with the function of supervising agreement-making and facilitating a process of local and regional truth telling.

At a personal level I want to continue to learn about our first nations. It’s only in the last few years, for example, that I have heard the stories of indigenous resistance to the invasion and the appalling number of massacres of indigenous groups; understood that there were many indigenous nations; and started to appreciate that I am a citizen of a nation that has the oldest living culture in the world.

Some non-indigenous Australians feel threatened by suggestions like these. They seem to think that recognising indigenous history, indigenous peoples, and coming to grips with the injustices of the past require them to forget their own history and feel ashamed. It does not. The introduction to the final report of the Referendum Council graciously and beautifully reminds us that Australia has three parts to its history:

  1. 60,000 years of indigenous habitation;
  2. the British invasion and colonisation;
  3. the waves of migration from across the globe that that follows the ending of the White Australia policy.

In each of these phases there are things we would celebrate and things we would mourn. The report notes that

There is no doubt the second story of Australia is replete with triumph and failure, pride and regret, celebration and sorrow, greatness and shame. Like human history the world over. There is no doubt our constitutional system, our system of government, the rule of law, and our public institutions inherited from Britain are the heritage of the Australian people and endure for the benefit of all of us, including the First Peoples.

Reconciliation doesn’t require me to diminish my own story. It not only offers me an opportunity to be honest about its failings at the same time I celebrate its achievements, but it invites me to enlarge my story, to celebrate the fact that as an Australian I share in a story that goes back 60,000 years. Reconciliation it seems, if successful, will change us all for the better.

Don’t let today’s most important news story be overshadowed by the cricket

Don’t let today’s most important news story be overshadowed by the cricket

Today’s most important news is going to be overshadowed by the exposure of cheating in the Australian cricket team.  I love my cricket and I am extraordinarily disappointed that our team has been caught cheating. Like people all over the country I will follow the story and share my outrage with friends and colleagues,

But I don’t want to miss the most important news story for the day: the federal government is about to cut Social Security payments snd support services to 15,000 asylum seekers living in Australia. The vast majority of these people arrived in Australia over five years ago and are still waiting for their claim for refugee status to be assessed.  Their lives are held in limbo, citizens of nowhere,  unable to put down roots because they don’t know whether they’ll be sent back to the  country whose persecution they have fled. History suggests that the vast majority will be found to be refugees. They are men, women and children  who have fled unimaginable violence and terror and cast themselves upon Australia’s  mercy.

Discussions of asylum seekers in Australia have always proven problematic in the past,  unleashing debates about  whether our policy settings were only attracting more people and leading to more deaths at sea. This is not in play here. Australia’s policy of turning back boats is very clear and what happens to these people living in Australia will make no difference to that.

We are left only with the simple reality of men, women and children  in need of our care and protection. They don’t have families to turn to for assistance.  They have us.

A press  release from the Refugee Council says

The government is planning to make cuts to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program that provides a basic living allowance (typically 89% of Newstart allowance, equating to just $247 per week), casework support, assistance in finding housing, and access to torture and trauma counselling. People waiting for a decision about their claim for protection receive these supports.

An alliance of close to 100 civil society organisations, including the Refugee Council of Australia and Australian Council of Social Service, is calling on the government to urgently reverse their position to cut income support for people seeking asylum from 1 April 2018.

I find it incomprehensible that we would deny access to torture and trauma counselling to people who have been through extreme trauma; that we would consider cutting back a basic living allowance that already has people living below the poverty line; that we would strip away from parents the ability to provide the most basic care to the children.

The cheating by the Australian cricket team disappoints me. This disgusts me.

I’ll be contacting my representative in Federal Parliament today to ask him to take action on this.

You can learn more here

Why don’t we simply change the date?

Why don’t we simply change the date?

Australia Day is, for the vast majority of Australians, a day to celebrate the nation we have become. Yet the date on which it is celebrated, January 26, is odd, and to some, odious.

Most of our national holiday/celebration days are celebrated on a day that has historical significance that is relevant to the celebration. Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Christmas are related to significant events in the life of Jesus. Anzac Day is commemorated on the anniversary of troops landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Yet Australia day is not celebrated on the day the modern nationstate Australia came into existence.

Australia has been inhabited for 60,000 years, and for most of that time consisted of many indigenous nations. The modern nation we know as Australia came into being with Federation on January 1, 1901. Australia Day is commemorated on January 26, which is not the anniversary of the founding of Australia, but the anniversary of the day Britain claimed sovereignty over Australia.

It is understandably offensive to many indigenous people. The British invasion of Australia and the ongoing displacement of its indigenous nations has had an ongoing legacy of disadvantage and deprivation amongst many of our indigenous people. Every February the Prime Minister’s Department releases the “close the gap” report, which highlights the gulf in health, employment and other well-being outcomes between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians. The only coherent explanation for this is the ongoing consequences of being displaced.

January 26 is therefore doubly inappropriate as the day to commemorate Australia Day. On the one hand it is a date that has no correlation with the birth of the modern Australian nationstate, and on the other it commemorates a date in our history that marked the beginning of the decimation of our indigenous nations.

None of us would be harmed by moving Australia Day to a different date. For most of us moving the day will make little difference, but for some of us it would make a huge difference. So why don’t we just get on with moving it?

The Decline of Religion in Australia.

The Decline of Religion in Australia.

The census data is out and one of the headlines has been the rise of people indicating they have “no religion” and the corresponding decline in those who indicate an affiliation with Christianity.

The census data, of course, only tells us about people’s nominal affiliation with a religious tradition. It doesn’t tell us much about people’s practise of religion. The sharp rise in people saying they have no religion and the decline of those affiliating with Christianity could very well represent those who have been irreligious for a long time now feeling comfortable to tick the no religion box on the census. To understand what’s happening in people’s lived religiosity we need to turn to surveys that measure religious practise, such as the Australian Community Survey (ACS), conducted every few years by the National Church Life Survey. This shows that:

Religion plays an important role in the lives of many Australians. The 2016 ACS shows that 16% of Australians attend a religious service at least one a month; 30% of Australians pray or meditate at least once a week and 39% say religion or spirituality is important in their decision making. These figures are far higher than I imagined and indicate that both institutional and non-institutional religiosity are a significant part of life for a lot of people.

Religion plays no role in the lives of many Australians 61% of Australians say religion play no part of little part in their decision making; 21% don’t believe there is any God, spirit or life force; 38% never pray or meditate and 48% never attend a religious service.

The number of those for whom religion plays an important role is declining. Church attendance has declined from 44% in 1950 to just 16% today and in each of the areas of religiosity that ACS measures the younger a person is the less likely it is that religion plays an important role in their lives. In the 2011 ACS, for example, half of the elderly population said religion or spirituality played an important role in their decision making, but only one-quarter of 15-29 year olds said the same.


So what does this all mean?

First, it is impossible to speak of the “average Australian” when it comes to religion. We live in an Australia in which there seem to be at least three distinct groups: those for whom religion is an important part of their daily living; those who have a sense of connection to religion and are open to religious/spiritual experience, but for whom it remains somewhat removed from daily living; and those for whom religion has no part at all in their lives.

Second, I don’t buy the “Australians are becoming less religious but more spiritual” line. The age based data suggest to me that unless we define spirituality in very broad  terms to mean something like “I am/want to be part of something bigger than myself” the trend is towards a life in which people give no thought to God, don’t see any reason to participate in religious rituals, and derive their meaning in life and sense of purpose without any reference to God.

Third, the changing status of religion doesn’t simply mean fewer numbers of religious people, but has entirely transformed the place of the Christian church in society. In the middle of the last century almost everybody would have been connected with the church in one way or another. With 44% of the population attending church regularly it would have been difficult to live in Australia and not know someone who was a churchgoer and the high level of attendance gave credibility to churchgoing and the faith attached to it. With just 18% now attending church a large number of Australians will go though life with little or no firsthand experiences of the church or religious faith.

Fourth, the changing status of religion has left many Christians with a sense of dislocation and they are struggling to come to grips with life as a minority group. We are discovering that our ethics are not considered “common sense”, find our beliefs and values caricatured and mocked, and are increasingly overlooked in discussion of  public policy. This has led many to argue that we are losing our freedoms, which is not true – no clergy have been banned from preaching sermons articulating their faith, Christians are not routinely dismissed from jobs because of their faith, Christian schools and churches remain free from provisions of the anti-discrimination act. And while there is good reason to believe our society will need to renegotiate the nature of religious freedom, that we will need to champion religious freedom as the renegotiation takes place, and that this might make things uncomfortable for Christian institutions (e.g. institutions that act on behalf of the state may find they can no longer do so) I see no reason too believe our society is about to turn its back on the ideal of pluralism and the protection of  freedom of speech and religion.  What we are discovering is that when you are part of a religious minority people will disagree with you and often disagree quite strongly. Fortunately we live in a secular, liberal state in which the freedoms of minorities are protected so that even on those rare occasions critics overstep the mark our freedoms are legally protected.

Fifth, many parts of the Christian community have focused their sense of dislocation on opposing the new sexuality (assertion of traditional approaches to sexual intimacy and gender roles; opposition to marriage equality; opposition to new approaches to gender). I have been involved in faith-based advocacy for the last 15 years or so and I have been shocked at how the energy of the churches in the public arena has become so strongly of focussed on sexuality. This seems to  me to reflect a Christendom mindset in which we pretend that Australia is a “Christian country” and that conservative Christian values should be preferenced. We need to get used to living as a distinctive minority in a secular, pluralist country. In this context surely our calling is not to oppose the freedoms of others but to live lives of such magnificent graciousness and love that people are drawn to the Christ we follow.

Sixth, following from the last point, I believe we should see the decline of religion as an opportunity. There is something tremendously disconcerting that so many Australians could feel (and still do) comfortable identifying themselves with Christian faith and values. The Jesus of the Gospels calls us to belief in a God of love who is establishing his reign over our lives and world; to build our lives on the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was the greatest revelation of God in history; to live out of the conviction that Christ rose from the dead, is history’s lord and will return to remake our lives and world; to love our enemies; lay down our lives for each other in love; divest ourselves of wealth; remain steadfastly faithful to our spouses; value inclusive community over the exclusivity of family boundaries; take the initiative in making peace with those who have offended or wronged us; abandon the quest for revenge; value the interests of others before our own; seek justice for the exploited and oppressed; and to share the good news of the reign of God. These are values that are radically and subversively counter-cultural and that were tamed and muted during Christendom. Perhaps now that our community is distancing itself from Christianity we can finally be rid of the notion that the consumerist bastard child of British imperialism ever represented the Christ of the Gospels and rediscover what it means to say we are followers of Jesus.

my first citizenship ceremony

Last Friday I attended the citizenship ceremony for a friend from my church. It was a profoundly moving experience. Just on 100 people were becoming citizens and what a marvellously diverse bunch they were. They came from 30 countries and every inhabited continent. They aged from the young to the old. They included a buddhist monk, a Catholic nun, at least one Muslim, and two Sikhs. The majority were “straight”, but there were also some who openly identified as gay. They all pledged their loyalty to Australia, its democratic beliefs, rights, liberties and law.

I wasn’t expecting to be so emotionally moved. I am sure that part of it was knowing all that my friend, a refugee, had been through to get to this point. But there was something more. In this ceremony I saw the promise that Australia offers.

We are a nation with a troubled recent history. After 60,000 years of indigenous habitation, around 250 years ago Europeans invaded this land, dispossessed the indigenous nations, and, through the implementation of the White Australia policy, set about building an Anglo enclave in the South Pacific. It’s hard to believe that ended less than 50 years ago. What a remarkably different nation we are today!

There we were last Friday, continuing to forge a new history. We were welcomed to country by an indigenous elder, which struck me as an act of generosity and grace given Australia’s past. And in that welcome was a plea to recognise and respect the claim our indigenous nations have to this land, something we have been inching toward ever since the 1967 referendum and which we will have the opportunity to progress further when the Constitutional Reform Commission brings its recommendations.

In this group of new citizens we continued the process of exorcising the ghosts of the White Australia policy, trading an Anglo enclave and Christendom for a culturally and religiously diverse Australia in which we are bound to one another not by a common language, creed or culture, but by respect for each other and a promise that we will forge a society where each of us can live freely.

This new Australia was present in that room, as people of diverse faiths, sexualities, cultures and histories celebrated not only those things that united us but the perspectives, values and cultures that were unique to each of us.

It was bloody marvellous.

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