The ethics of being church on stolen land

The ethics of being church on stolen land

Rev. Dr Chris Budden is the Interim National Coordinator for The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress ( UAICC).  He teaches theological ethics at Uniting Theological College (UTC) and is a member of the public and contextual theologyy research centre at Charles Sturt University.

For years Chris has studied and observed relationships with Indigenous people. His interest in justice for Frist Peoples in Australia – as well as theological ethics and the church’s “truth-telling” capacity in Australia – led him to write Following Jesus in Invaded Space – Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land.

Insights recently caught up with Chris to find out more about his views on ethics our current theological context. We discovered Chris’ wisdom is all about asking the right questions rather than offering the right answer.

Q How do you teach theological ethics?

I have taught for quite a long time. The difference between theological ethics and what you might call Christian ethics or moral theology is that there is a very conscious and disciplined effort to connect the theological claims of the Church to the behaviour of the Christian community. It actually revolves around the question: What theological claim of the Church is challenged or engaged with when you deal with this kind of issue?  What parts of our faith tradition are at stake when we talk about things?  It may be about human nature or what it means to be made in the image of God or the nature of the church, or the meaning of salvation, for example.  Or, how can you live out the teachings of Jesus? It may be around the question of whether God expresses God’s sovereignty through political dimensions of the state. Or, more broadly, where does God express sovereignty? How do we understand the texts of the scriptures?  So, major theological issues are at stake.

How do you see the dilemmas presently facing the Church in decision making around First Peoples and covenanting? How can we use an ethical framework to move into a new direction?

Let me say that I actually don’t believe in a difference between theology and ethics. I think what we have usually done is try to sort out our theological beliefs first. Once we have worked out what we believe in, then we try to work out what we have to do in response to that. Ethics becomes a second order activity. But I think what we do, our usual practices and habits of life, are not just a consequence of what we believe but a statement of our belief.

So when you offer hospitality, for example, you are actually saying something about the nature of God. That is at least as important as the theological statement. They are actually parallel statements.

There is a sense for me that the questions around Aboriginal people are about the moral shape of the church. The question for me in ethics is What kind of people do we want to be? And what do we have to be to be that kind of people?  So the question for me is – What kind of Church do we want to be? And how do our relationships with Aboriginal people give expression to that understanding of ourselves? So it is a slight reframing of the question with no yes/no right answer to a simple question about behaviour.

It is about being a certain type of people. I want to start with the nature of community. A lot of ethics is about individual stuff and I think at the heart of our life is relationships with community.

There are some things that mark our church. For instance I think the church is meant to be a truth telling community. Not in the abstract sense because I think truth actually emerges in community and relationships, and obligations. But if you don’t tell ‘truth’ you can’t confess, and if you can’t confess then you can’t grab hold of the meaning of new beginnings.

How do you identify with the Church as a truth-telling community?

I think that social location is really crucial. Where you read from and who you sit with and who you share the world with and where you believe God is located is really crucial. The mark of the early Church for me is that is stood over against empire. It stood up for a view of the world that said God stood for little people and that God was actually God and that those empires that claimed they were God or spoke for God or represented God were wrong. The Church was a counter cultural community.

It is no accident that it took two years to be baptised in the early church because you had to learn a new way of life. When the church became part of the establishment and faith became the official religion of the Empire then we shifted spaces. So the truth-telling question becomes really difficult at the point where you actually join Empire. The Empire does not want to hear the church’s truth.

And so one of the major challenges for me for the truth-telling capacity of the Church is where it wants to keep locating itself socially and theologically. Which people do you actually sit with and whose interest do you represent and who do you talk for? And because we have bought into the argument that in some ways the state represents God, then we have no problem working with Government around a whole pile of issues. I think we lose the tension that is in the New Testament which says that the Empire often works against the interest of God and you can’t always sit with it very easily. If you are telling its story or supporting its story then you are not always telling truth.

There is no easy answer. We struggle constantly with our desire to, if you like, be ‘inside the tent’ and we want to stay at the table with Government and people who can make decisions because we think we can influence decisions that way ….and often it is true.

But it does challenge our capacity to say truthful things. The issue around Aboriginal people is one of those stark illustrations. It is a constant challenge for the Church to be able to speak truthful things about our history, about our involvement in that history and about our continuing impact of that history when in fact we are so caught up in it.

As Walter Brugman said, “We want to cover our ears because we don’t want to hear it. We want truth spoken but we don’t want to hear it.”

 Is part of our challenge understanding Aboriginal theology?

The challenge for me is I don’t try to write or represent indigenous spirituality.  I have a role as a second person to keep asking the question – What is it like to live in invaded space? But part of the challenge is what you have asked about Aboriginal theology and belief. I understand that there is a sacred dimension to life, which I believe has been revealed in a unique way in the life of Jesus, which is what make me a Christian. But I also believe that there are multiple ways in which that sacred life is revealed and named in human life. For Aboriginal people that sacred life is found and revealed in earth and in land and in the narratives and celebrations that are needed to sustain the land and the life and the relationships and everything that connects to it. That is another revelation in the one that we name God (and creation).

This is part of what I think the challenge for the Uniting Church is paragraph 3 in the revised constitution is about – What do you do when God has another story other than a Christian story?  How is our faith enriched by that other story? So I think part of our challenge as we do theology and as we worship is to be aware that the God we worship in Jesus has another story. It’s a bit like my father, who has a story with me, but also another story with other people that runs alongside and will it enrich my story if I know it.

One of the struggles in particular in NSW is the whole question of land and support for Congress in NSW. What the Synod decided last time it met was that it would ask people to have a conversation around questions like: should people pay rent, should they pay a tithe on property sales, and other questions.

There are two issues involved in that.  One is – How do you set up a reparation scheme that says to Congress we know that we live on stolen land and we want to make amends? How do we actually fund the work of Congress over this time? The second is – How do we have a conversation that recognises we live on stolen land? How do we actually face that reality and how do we work that as a justice issue; not just a money issue but a relational issue? How do you actually learn to live with two narratives? There is a life-shaping narrative from Britain that says land is real estate, and that no one was here and the land was occupied rightly. And there is another narrative that speaks of 40,000 to 50,000 years of occupation, of land not just as economic space but the foundation of all life; and which speaks of invasion and dispossession. You can’t change history, but can we renegotiate a way of being Church on that land in ways that enable people to Covenant and to engage together around common space and access? I think that is the really big issue in NSW.

Do you see the same issue across other Synods?

I think it is a common issue across Synods. It is largely a financial issue, but needs to be part of a much broader conversation about relationships. The Assembly asked that the Church talks for the next 3 years about what will it mean with the Covenanting discussion if we recognise that Aboriginal people are sovereign people? Politically we have view of sovereignty that is well expressed in the Government’s obsession around border control. Sovereignty is seen as absolute control of a particular geographical space. So the idea that another group of people might actually have some sort of sovereignty in that space is really difficult to deal with.

I was really helped by someone writing about the way in which we have removed the importance of ethnicity as part of our identity. Because we have had so much ethnic conflict around the world, people think the idea of ethnic identity is really dangerous and therefore you shouldn’t use it. We actually live in a world where we think people’s primary identity is as consumers and producers. Our primary freedom is our freedom to participate in the economic system.  The thinking was that people’s ethnicity would actually disappear because of the global economy and their ability to be part of that wherever they lived, but in fact that is not what’s happened. The bigger the global economy becomes the harder people fight to keep their ethnic identity.

One Welsh writer talks about the way you have four (ethnic) nations in Scotland, England, Ireland , Wales living inside a state. In a colonial way England sought to be the only nation, and sought to suppress the language and cultural identity of the other communities. One of Great Britain’s struggles at the moment is some of those ethnic communities want to have some form of sovereignty inside a common state (i.e. they challenge the claim that nation and state need to be the same thing). They want to negotiate the way they participate in the state. Australia is yet to wrestle with that challenge, but that is what the claim to sovereignty for First Peoples is about.

Lisa Sampson


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