Friday, July 15, 2011

A Clear and Present Faith

The old man looked the missionary in the eye: “You keep telling us about how sinful we are and how we need to change, but no one ever says this to the white people who steal our land, our wives and our daughters. No one says this to the men who are killing us..."

I’ve been on holidays for the past fortnight, which has given me the opportunity to read One Blood: John Harris’ seminal work on the history between Indigenous Australians and Christianity. Even twenty years after publication, this is still a magnificent book. I’m not finished yet, but already there has already been a lot to give thanks for, as well as a lot of stories that have made me want to weep and pray for Jesus’ return.

Here is Harris’ assessment of the first 100 years of Christian witness in Australia:
  1. The missionaries often confused conversion to European civilisation with conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They attempted to conform Indigenous Australians to a life of European-style peasant farming and other symbols of European civilisation. This made them slow to recognise signs of genuine regeneration and maturity.
  2. The rhetoric of the Europeans and the Colonial Government made it difficult to distinguish Christianity from the culture around it. It was hard for Indigenous Australians to discern the Christianity preached by the missionaries in the lives of the Europeans who brought death, disease, dispossession, prostitution and alcoholism to their land.
  3. The church forgot to preach the whole gospel. They were very strong on preaching sin and judgment to a people seen by the wider colonial society to be savage and barbaric. But it was rarely accompanied by the hope the gospel of Jesus Christ brings. After the shock being disposed from the land and seeing their culture break down under the European invasion, this message of hope and justice may have been what they needed to hear. It was actually when missionaries in Victoria started to preach the whole gospel that they saw fruit from their labour.
  4. These were accompanied with a lack of interest for Christian work amongst Indigenous Australians that swept through the wider church in Australia and Europe.
The church also played a positive role during this time. Harris points out that it was almost exclusively only the Christians in colonial society who saw Indigenous Australians as humans. Harris recounts some moving testimonies from some Aboriginals in eastern Victoria who said that without the church missions, their people wouldn’t exist today. But overall this all contributes to tragedy of Australia since 1788.

Reading One Blood has reminded me of the need for the church to stand out from its culture and be distinguished and shaped by the gospel of Jesus. Harris writes:
“It is one of the tragedies of the recent history of Australia that true Christianity was for so long so very difficult to discern in the life of this outpost of a distant nation which called itself Christian.”
This reminded me of a quote from Tim Foster that I’ve used before on hebel. I heard it again a few days before I started reading One Blood. Reflecting on the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount for the church, Foster argues:
"The expression of these values (the Sermon on the Mount) by the church is essential to its successful engagement in mission. Just as Torah-obedience was essential for the success of Israel’s mission to the nations, ‘the church’s oddness is essential to its faithfulness.’ The logic of the Sermon on the Mount is that the disciples serve the world by demonstrating that a new society is breaking-in which offers an alternative communal existence shaped by the character and purposes of God.

Because the world is so deeply immerse in the prevailing order "the only way for the world to know it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people." The anticipated outcome is that others will ‘See your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ (Matt.5.16). Just as apostasy destroyed Israel’s capacity to mission, accommodation to the values of them world poses the greatest of dangers to the church, diluting its capacity to bear witness to radical nature of the new order." - Tim Foster, A Vision for the Mission and the Message of the Australian Church After Christendom.
The challenge, now as always, is for the church to be the church. I hope to post again soon with some stories from One Blood.

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