Yesterday indigenous leaders gathered at Uluru released a statement calling Australians to walk with them on a journey to a better future. It’s an invitation I accept.
As a follower of Jesus I think I’m called to this. One of the most significant Christian thinkers on questions of justice is Yale philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff. He notes that in the philosophical tradition from Plato through to the most significant contemporary thinker on justice, John Rawls, justice is understood through abstract reasoning, but that in the biblical tradition justice is about God coming alongside the orphan, the widow, the immigrant and the poor and seeking the redress of their situation. Deuteronomy 10 is typical:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. Deuteronomy 10:17-18
Where the gods of other nations were consistently seen to stand behind the powerful and to endorse their rule, the God of gods and Lord of Lords uses his power to execute justice for those who are trodden down, taking up their cause not because they are more loved but because they are more disadvantaged.
Israel’s writers must have believed that when we look at the actual condition of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor and compare it with the condition of other social classes, we discover that the former are not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice but usually disproportionately actual victims of injustice. Injustice is not equally distributed. The low ones enjoy those goods to which they have a right – food, clothing, voice, security, whatever – far less than do the high and mighty ones.
It takes no special insight to understand why Israel’s writers believe this. For any society whatsoever, it is likely that those at the bottom are suffering the most … injustice. Here is why. Robbery and assault are events, episodes. If the victim of a robbery is a wealthy person, the robbery is an episode in a life that likely has been going quite nicely. By contrast, it is all too likely that the daily condition of those at the bottom is unjust. Widows are burglarised and assaulted; episodes of injustice also occur in their lives. But in addition, the situation is all too often unjust – demeaning, impoverished, voiceless…
Wolterstorff, Justice. Rights and Wrongs.
In Australia today it is surely those of our first nations who are equivalent to the widows, orphans and immigrants of the biblical era. Following the way of Jesus and the God of justice means hearing their cries, as God did for the Israelites in Egypt, for the widow and orphan in Israel, and for the fieldworkers in the book of James. As a non-indigenous Australian this must mean I start by listening to my indigenous brothers and sisters, seeing the experience of life in Australia through their eyes.
My listening must include openness to the idea that there is something systemically wrong in our society. As the Uluru statement says
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.
This is certainly consistent with the biblical treatment of poverty and disadvantage. While there is acknowledgement that people sometimes fall into disadvantage as a result of their own failings, the dominant reason for their disadvantage lies in failings on the part of the non-poor and the powerful, who either have directly oppressed and exploited their vulnerable neighbours, or have acquiesced in social systems that keep people excluded from that which they need to flourish. It does not follow that because this was the case in the biblical era, that it is necessarily the case today. Nonetheless, it coheres so closely with what the Uluru statement says that I must give it serious consideration.
In their statement first nations leaders point out that they never ceded their sovereignty over Australia, yet their experience in modern Australia is one of powerlessness. And so they are seeking systemic change that will leave them empowered.
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. We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
The statement concludes
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
To our first Nations peoples, I accept your invitation. I will seek to walk with you gracefully, to listen carefully, and do what I can to help us find a better future.