After a long gestation, the new session of Federal Parliament begins this week with an apology from the Australian Government to Indigenous Australians for treatment at the hands of previous governments. Such an action has a deep history, rooted within the Hebrew tradition. The prophetic tradition is littered with prayers by the prophets asking forgiveness for the sins of the people, at times when the people had acted against prophetic charge. The prophets recognised their place in the system which they were embracing in confession, and that in order to break the system someone needed to own responsibility for it. In recent years the British Government has apologised to its citizens for similar actions against its own citizens.
It is difficult to argue that there has been no deleterious impact on Indigenous Australians flowing from white settlement. Life expectancy, infant morbidity, unemployment, social disadvantage, rates of imprisonment, and of death while in custody are all significantly higher amongst Indigenous Australians than the wider community. Levels of education are markedly lower, and opportunities are similarly limited. Ability to own Indigenous culture, and its place on this continent for millennia prior to European settlement has been minimal, and at times completely denied. We have not treated our Indigenous peoples with the dignity befitting those who are created in the image of God.
To make an apology is to affirm that wrong has been done: to recognise and own the pain of our actions upon another; and to place ourselves at their mercy. Of course we ought to be aware that there may exist a desire for compensation. To rule it out is to behave with the same attitude and power which resulted in the current predicament. King David once rejected making a sacrifice of an animal which did not belong to him, affirming, "I will not sacrifice to the Lord that which costs me nothing." (2 Sam 24:24) An open apology places us before Indigenous Australians in humility, placing ourselves at their mercy. A hard place to be, but whenever has a sincere apology been an easy step? There are some things that need to be done because they are the right thing to do.
Our example is the One who hung upon the cross at Calvary, accepting responsibility for sin which was not of his doing, and so beginning a process of reconciliation with all creation. Can we do less?
February 10, 2008
(for reflection on my response to the apology, click here. For a Sorry Day prayer, click here. Read the full text of the apology.)