Sovereign voices speak to the heart of the violent ‘sovereignty’ of colonialism

Sovereign voices speak to the heart of the violent ‘sovereignty’ of colonialism

I was too young to vote at the 1967 referendum to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census. So the proposed referendum to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a Voice to the Australian parliament is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to national reconciliation with First Nations people.

At the time of the British Empire’s colonial invasion, many distinct Indigenous nations occupied this continent, each with their own sovereignty or dreaming. Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson – an academic and Goenpul woman of the Quandamooka Nation wrote that “since (our) spiritual belief is completely integrated into human daily activity, the powers that guide and direct the earth are believed to exist with all human life”. These powers that shaped the land were mythical beings whose “creativity and incorporation into the land provides the basis for First Nation’s sovereignty”.

The Genesis 2-3 creation story has similarities to this Indigenous understanding of sovereignty. Both stories speak of a spiritual power that guides all human life on earth.  For Jews and Christians, the spiritual power that guides life is Yahweh or God, and the Genesis story of mythical beings centres on a man, a woman, a chatty serpent, an abundant garden, and a divinely ordained tree.  ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shalt not eat of it: for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die (Genesis 2:15-17).  Our life on earth is proclaimed here as a gift of the Creator God’s goodness and creativity, a gift that sustains all created human and non-human life.

Israel came to this profound understanding of its sovereignty for life under God’s goodness in the context of a colonising invasion by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BC. The capital Jerusalem was invaded, the temple that was the centre of Israelite religion was destroyed, and the people’s leaders were displaced from their land and forced into exile in Babylon.  Everything Israelites believed was God’s gift was shattered.

Yet in the face of their apparent abandonment by God, Jewish belief in God’s gift of goodness to Israel was transformed through a growing understanding their plight was a consequence of their sin against God.

The Adam and Eve story evolved over some seventy years of Israel’s public shame and their reflection on how they had lost everything they believed God had given them. Their insight into their sin was summed up by the serpent: ‘in the day you eat from the tree (of knowledge of good and evil), your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ (3:5).  Israel recognised their exile was because their lust for power over other nations had turned their path away from God’s goodness.  They wanted God’s power so that they could rule over others.  They believed that after God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, God had given them King David to create a powerful empire.  And they wanted more. 

But without God’s love in their lives, decisions they thought would be for the good turned out to be poisoned by their lust for power. Their national life was corrupted and eventually mirrored the violence of other nations, worshipping pagan gods of military might, accumulating wealth, and exploitation of the poor.  Life in exile became a living death of chaos, war, and violence. The reasons behind their exile were inescapable to the author of Genesis: ‘their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (3:7) before God.  This story is Israel’s confession that they had turned away from the sovereignty and life source of God’s blessing.  They knew they had violated their human dignity before God and consequently had brought a world of pain upon themselves.

This Genesis creation story provides an explanation for two different and competing views about where humans find the source of our sovereignty or authority for the lives we lead. The first source of human sovereignty is in divine goodness.  It is the Creator’s gift of abundant life to the entire creation, human and non-human. This sovereignty is also present in Indigenous dreaming stories. In the 2017 ‘Uluru statement from the Heart’, Indigenous people affirmed their sovereignty as the first sovereign Nations of this continent, living under their laws and customs according to their culture from the time of Creation and for more than 60,000 years.

The competing source of human sovereignty in the Genesis narrative is in the power of empire, the desire to control life and exploit the natural and social world for the benefit of an empire’s powerful elite, from Babylon of the 6th century BC through to the colonising British crown of the 18th century and continuing today.  The Genesis story calls us to choose where our sovereignty or authority comes from to live our best lives.

When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples say their sovereignty has never been ceded, they are stating a profound truth about their creation stories.  The existence of sovereignty gifted by the mythical beings of their dreaming story does not depend upon Indigenous people’s belief in it, any more than the God of Christian belief depends on our belief for God’s existence. The spiritual realities of both Indigenous ancestral beings and the Christian God existed before our birth and exist after our death.  Neither exist because we have created them to fulfil a need of our own. We are who we are because we are children of either Indigenous and/or Christian creation stories.

For over 60,000 years, the integrity of Indigenous spirituality created a culture for humans to live entirely in harmony with their environment. The earliest reports of colonial scientists and explorers reported a veritable Garden of Eden across the continent.  Yet this reality of Indigenous people’s abundant life has suffered violent destruction at the hands of colonising bearers of western Christianity that began over 500 years ago.

In 1493, following Columbus ‘discovery’ of the Americas, Pope Alexander VI promulgated ‘the Doctrine of Discovery’, a decree that had the force of international law.  This papal decree gave kings of Europe the right to seize land in the New World for their own kingdoms if the land was not occupied by Christians or was not owned according to European definitions of land ownership.

Under the facade of Christianising the world, the conflict for trade and economic power between empires was unleashed.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptations shows a progressive escalation in the challenges to Jesus’ obedience to God’s will, from making bread for himself (4:3), to putting God to the test (4:6), to worshipping the devil (4:8). The devil tempts Jesus with the same offer Pope Alexander gave into: ‘the devil … showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and the devil said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

While Jesus said to the devil, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ (4:10)”, the Spanish-born Pope Alexander cemented his political power in the Holy Roman Empire by confirming the exclusive rights of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ to the Spanish king and conferring similar rights on other European kings. Fuelled by these beliefs 300 years later, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia for King George III and the sovereignty of the British crown. European Christianity had turned away from the sovereignty of God in its lust for secular power. Cook’s proclamation on behalf of the British crown in 1770 reveals a Christian era blindly captive to Satan’s temptations.

The Uluru statement reminds all Australians that Indigenous people have lived within the sovereignty gifted in their dreaming for over 60,000 years. They assert their sovereignty co-exists today with we who live under the self-proclaimed sovereignty of the British Crown as recent settlers of only 250 years. They express their deep sorrow at the harm Indigenous people have suffered at the hands of the Crown, then also express their profound hope in what they have to bring to our coexistence.  The Uluru statement asserts: ‘With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.’

Thus the question that the Uluru statement puts before the Australian people today is ‘what path we will choose to bring a fuller expression of life?’  Indigenous people seek greater power over their destiny so their children will flourish. Their flourishing is sorely needed if our land is to flourish. It is evident that us settlers do not know how to live sustainably in this country.  Never have.  Just never have.  A global pandemic, an ecological crisis, floods, drought, bushfires, dying reefs, galloping species extinction of flora and fauna: we settlers are a lost people, a nation in chaos.  For almost 600 years, western Christianity’s lust for power and devotion to making money has forgotten the sovereignty of God, forgotten the folly of the Genesis creation story, and forgotten Jesus struggle against the temptation to power. Faced with the lust for power Jesus’ every response places listening to God first. 

On this first Sunday of Lent, our scriptures call the church into a journey with Christ that leads to his cross and our calling to renew our lives listening to and living in God’s sovereign goodness. In this referendum year, we are also invited to listen to the consensus of Indigenous leaders saying to all Australians: today ‘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.’  Two roads.  Two journeys. As you listen to each voice on this journey, you may hear the two voices become as one. For of such is the reconciling kingdom of God, a kingdom of mercy and abundant goodness.
John Bottomley
Springvale Uniting Church 
26 February 2023


Leave a Comment

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

Scroll to Top