Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land

Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land

Chris Budden
Yale University Press, $22.00

Months later, I still feel that this book is the most important theological text written in Australia. I was excited, inspired, and challenged with every chapter.

The Rev. Dr Chris Budden is a Uniting Church minister in Newcastle and a former Synod General Secretary. He speaks to where I am standing.

We must face certain facts:

  1. Racism is still part of our life, and it shapes our perceptions, discourse and relatedness.
  2. We, as Second Peoples and as church live on stolen land.
  3. Our relationships in this land were based on violence, a violence that still distorts those relationships.
  4. Indigenous people continue to be marginalised in most areas of life.

The goal is not to abandon immigrant views in favour of indigenous views, as if that were even possible. The goal is to find a dynamic way, like improvisation in music, not to build a new institution. The goal is to play with others, to blend our parts, to develop harmonies, and to share in the creation of the whole.

Following Jesus in Invaded Space asks what and whose interests are protected by the theology and institutions which come from within a community that invaded this land. Yes, he uses the word “invasion” — and with a naked gaze he looks for a reconciled path forward together.

Budden dares to speak of God, church, and justice in the context of past history and today’s dispossession. He examines what we feel is “normal”, what theological constructions that we feel are complete, what is privilege and what is fear and guilt. There is a deep unconscious resistance to this process in any Australian, especially people like me (white educated middle class, any who have done well in the social structures that we have set up).

Yet somewhere between the casually disgraceful rhetoric of a “black armband” view of Australia and a “white blindfold” view, Budden is building a path. He purports:

If the church is to do theology in this country as Second Peoples it needs to deal with a history that still shapes the nation, and the present reality — both good and bad. It needs to relate to, sit down with, and speak of faith alongside Indigenous people.

He is not following an academic goal of “getting it right”. He is pursuing this change of perspective and process because some Australians are daily, bodily and emotionally, harmed by the lack of it:

Theology that is consciously contextual, and which seeks to hear the voice and experience of people who are not always heard will question the way we have read the tradition, the assumptions that people take to that task, and suggest that the tradition is incomplete. It will suggest that the tradition has been constructed by a particular part of the population to meet and pass on their experiences of the journey, but does not take account of people who have found themselves in a different relationship with the Christian faith and its practices. The goal of such theology is not simply to describe “reality” but to enable and encourage a more just, liberated, holistic world that reflects the Triune God’s intention for the whole of creation.

The perspective that Budden brings helps me to update and globalise my way of talking about this. Some of his theological perspective is also new to some, because his view of faith is not a privatised inward-directed comfort system. Linking with Ched Myers, Budden insists that theology has to do with real socio-political issues and not simply with spiritual realities.

Clearly, the Australian followers of Jesus have an inner and an outer task if we are to put aside a centuries-long habit of siding with the wealth-takers to the exclusion of all opportunities for Aborigines (except to be the objects of our charity). These tasks need courage, and such courage can only come through faith in a greater God than the one who appears to have sent his followers to conquer and invade:

A major contribution of theology by Second People is our willingness to name invasion, and its consequences as evil. What occurred was not simply an unfortunate side-effect of progress and European economic expansion. It was evil. And in case the reader wonders, I am not simply talking about wrong human action, some moral failure. I am speaking about action which is opposed to God, action that undermines and disturbs God’s desire for life and wholeness, and which harms God’s image-bearing people in their communal and individual lives. The church shared in this evil. There can be no throwing of rocks by a pure and self-righteous church, but an honest naming by a church capable of repentance, change, and reparation.

As I read, I heard the refrain: “But I didn’t do anything. It was all so long ago. What have I to be sorry about?” In discussion of the Northern Territory Intervention of 2008, Budden suggests:

Intervention does not help people engage in developing relationships and processes that hold people accountable, makes them responsible, and forces them to restore wrong doing. The need is for a form of intervention, based on consultation and support for local leaders (women and men) who can rebuild respect for law, boundaries, relationships and accountability … This position recognises the brokenness of human lives and community, but challenges the liberal theological view that wants to ignore sin and blame circumstances for everything. This position recognises sin, understands the way people’s lives are distorted, broken, and limited in their choices, and still calls them to be responsible for what they do.

Instead, what the Territorians and Australia got was the suspension of land rights, racial discrimination and community employment projects that were under way. In the Territory, the police action was needed and appreciated, but all the rest of it was just another invasion. In my desert journeys in that area, this is the commonplace way of describing it. So all these actions and oppressive ideals are not “so long ago” in 1788. It is 2008, and carried on in our name by governments of both persuasions. We are today responsible, just as we are today beneficiaries of this land. Yet we carry a benign belief in government to solve this. Why? Is this benignity itself a clear indication that we have chained ourselves to the system?

Budden quotes Natalie Watson, introducing feminist ecclesiology, to say that “The church needs to be a place where those who are excluded “can hear each other into speech”. The church needs to be a place where all people “begin to find spaces in which they can flourish and enable each other to flourish and live in relationships of justice”. The foundation for this sort of community is the Trinitarian God, whose relationship to the world encourages human flourishing.

The central issue, the one that runs right through this book, is how Second Peoples give up control of relationships, and help build more mutual, and more equal lives. The issue is how we place all forms of sovereignty, and control within the sovereign, serving lordship of Jesus Christ, and our Trinitarian God.

I must admit my own failings here. In Stolen Generations relationships and support, to which I feel privileged to belong, I keep making mistakes. Even with the best intentionswe all get caught within a framework of control, marginalisation, and barely concealed racism. It is hard to approach the situation constructively by the kind of rules and procedures that are invented by only one side:

The issue for theology as it seeks to listen to the encounter between cultures and theologies is how the hearing can occur within the priorities of relationships, and how a culture of written texts and rules can be open to change that will sustain the emerging relationships.

How can we be open like that? Do we need to be reminded that it is love (by which we mean as modelled by Jesus at the heart of the Trinity as recorded in the matrix of scripture) that is the greatest thing — not order, not definitions, not creeds. So our course of action must include that priority in practise. If the congregations, theological colleges and councils of the church aren’t about love they aren’t worth attending.

This is a turning point book. Hitherto we have looked as far as new theologies written from the point of view of other migrants, because we understand that position. We are at last doing theology that is located honestly in Australia.

The Rev. Dr Ian Robinson is a Chaplain at the University of Western Australia and co-convener of the Bringing Them Home Committee (WA).

Following Jesus into Invaded Space is available through

The Rev. Dr Ian Robinson is a Chaplain at the University of Western Australia and co-convener of the Bringing Them Home Committee (WA).


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top