The Smith Lecture – 23rd May 2023 The Race to Change – A case for repentance.
Approaching the Art Gallery of Australia, I was excited to see this Christian event taking place in such a beautiful public place and on such a significant subject. The purpose of the Smith Lecture is summed up by the organisers as follows:
“The Smith Lecture provides an annual forum for the intellectually curious to hear the perspective of a Christian public figure on an issue relevant to the life of our nation. The Smith Lecture continues the legacy of the late Bruce Smith. He believed in the broad significance of the Christian message of reconciliation with God through the person and work of Jesus Christ Previous lectures have included: scientist and mathematician Dr John Lennox explored whether science had ‘buried’ God; economist Prof Ian Harper explored whether The Global Financial Crisis was a crisis of trust; and historian Prof Edwin Judge discussed the paradox of private faith and public reality.”
This year’s full lecture is here. The chair was Dr Meredith Lake.
During the whole event I took a number of notes. There was much to inform, stimulate and question. I came with a load of questions – genuinely seeking answers. I left with even more.
It was interesting to see that the event was billed as a Third Space event. I came to Australia to set up Third Space together with Steve McAlpine. It is good to see it flourishing!
We began with a pre-lecture panel with the artist Jonathan Jones and the art entrepreneur John Kaldor. I didn’t hear much of it so caught up with on the video afterwards. I loved Kaldor’s comment that the best indigenous art really tells stories. Is that not true of most art throughout the world? However, this panel was advertised as ‘exploring the place of art in transcending our differences”. But there was no attempt to answer this question. Indeed, overall I felt the whole evening tended towards emphasing differences!
Acknowledgement of Country
There is a ritual goes on at these events (the previous week I had been at the Opera House where the same thing happened). This is the ritual of an acknowledgement to country. This is different to a ‘welcome to country’ which is usually done by an Aboriginal elder. The acknowledgement of country is different – it is “a way of showing awareness of, and respect for, the Traditional Custodians of the land upon which a meeting or event is to take place.” https://www.indigenous.unsw.edu.au/strategy/culture-and-country/acknowledgement-country-and-welcome-country
What bothers me about it is why every speaker fills obliged to do it and whether it really has any meaning at all. For example, we were told that we were meeting on the ‘unceded land of the Gadigal people, the first sovereign artists”. I’m not sure what a sovereign artist is – but if those who own the Art gallery really believed that they were not the real owners, should they not give it back? Does that not apply for all the real estate in Sydney? There are only around 100 Gadigal people left in Sydney. They are going to be incredibly wealthy when all this ‘unceded’ (stolen) land is given back! The creedal statement ‘always was and always will be Aboriginal land’ is practically meaningless.
When did this ritual begin? And why is it now compulsory in so many gatherings of largely middle-class white people?
I found this video from the Salvation Army helpful in explaining why Welcome to Country is a good thing to do.
And this from Senator Alex Antic explains the case against…
Why are indigenous people often given the title ‘proud’ in their titles?I don’t have any objection to it. But why it is used? I don’t mind people introducing me as a ‘proud Scot’, but I’m not sure I would want it in my official title all the time. Here it seems to being used as a title rather than a description. Why? Is the suggestion that being Aboriginal was something to be ashamed of, but is now something to be proud of?
Where did the term ‘First Nations’ come from? Is that a Western liberal concept imposed upon Aboriginal people? As far as I can see it is a term imported from Canada where it was used for indigenous people there in the 1970’s. The term nation is usually used for a nation-state such as ‘Scotland’ not a tribal group or clan, such as ‘the Robertsons’. The idea that, as according to my phone company website tells us, there were 600 nations in Australia is somewhat disingenuous!
Why is it necessary to keep saying ‘in these lands now called Australia’? I suspect the reference is not to New Holland, the previous name! Before that there was no one name for Australia – the indigenous people named different parts. It is also true that Augustine and others spoke of Australia, without being aware of what we now know as Australia. The name derives from the Latin for great South land!
This was unquestionably the best part of the whole evening. Peter was unable to attend in person as his father is in palliative care. Instead, we got a replay of his talk at the prayer breakfast in Canberra. I would highly recommend watching it. It’s moving, challenging, humorous, and above all shows the hope found in Christ. “Most of all son, I want you to serve the Lord. Love the Lord with all your heart”. The Lord intervened! What a great phrase. And the only hope for reconciliation and renewal.
The thought occurs to me that if the government really want reconciliation and peace they will pay for preachers of the Gospel to go throughout Australia to indigenous and all Australians.
The whole evening was set up beautifully.
Dr Laura Rademaker –
I found her talk to be interesting and informative. Enough to make me want to buy her upcoming book. She is a good speaker and clearly a fine academic. Her talk raised several questions.
Whilst it is true that friendship is not enough to deal with injustice, the question remains – what does? This is a key question that was not addressed.
Dr Laura told us that her faith had changed profoundly because of her studies about Christianity and aboriginal cultures. It would have been good to know how. My faith in the truth of God’s Word was enhanced by my historical studies. The more I discovered about the injustice perpetuated by the Nazis, the more I realised that only Christ provided real answers to injustice.
Dr Laura asked a good question about the stolen generation children – how could we accept it was right to take children away from their parents? But that also set me thinking…how easy it is to question our ancestors’ sins and yet refuse to see our own? For example will children be taken away from their parents if they refuse to acknowledge their desires to transition? It’s so easy to condemn the past and refuse to deal with injustices in the present.
Another disturbing aspect is the unspoken assumption that cultures remain the same, people don’t change and are fundamentally a product of their unchangeable race and culture. To argue that because you come from a similar race the past lives in you, is at the least questionable.
Then we got on to the question of repentance. We were told that reconciliation without repentance was impossible. But what is repentance? We were told that the Christian idea of repentance means turning around. But that is only half the truth. The Shorter Catechism 87 put it better.
Q: What is repentance unto life?
A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.
And that is the key. It is a key that Peter Gibbs pointed to. But one that the rest ignored. The Christian doctrine of repentance does not just mean turning around – or turning away from our sin – but turning towards God. Otherwise, it is not a race to change but rather a never ending circle of blame, shame, revenge, hate, virtue signalling, and rage.
During the panel discussion it was mentioned about Peter’s incredible capacity to forgive – but nothing about the source of that capacity – which Peter himself identified as Christ.
A comment was made that “friendship can be too comfortable for these non-indigenous people” – made by a non-indigenous person. But so can social justice warriors? Again, the thought struck me is that so much of this seems to be about white guilt and white saviours.
We were told by Jonathan Jones that you can’t collaborate with an aboriginal person – because collaboration would imply that there is a level playing field and equality and not recognise the imbalance. Yet he collaborates with John Kaldor and has received grants, awards and commissions from others. Is this in spite of, or because of, his aboriginality?
My problem was not that Jonathan made the statement that indigenous and non-indigenous people could not collaborate – it was that it went completely unchallenged by the rest of the panel. Here we were in a meeting about reconciliation and repentance, and it was being stated as an absolute and unquestionable fact that Aboriginal people could not collaborate with non-aboriginal, by a man who makes his living doing just that!
“As an aboriginal person I come into a room like this and, this sounds terrible, I just assume that everyone is not going to believe me…that’s kind of how I’ve been programmed – especially an aboriginal person who looks like me”.
There was an element of narcissism and paranoia in this. I have no reason to disbelieve Jonathan. Maybe he needs to be deprogrammed. I took him as his word that he is indigenous although I have to admit I did struggle to understand his claim that being in a room of white people made him uncomfortable – given that he looked as white as me! And therein lies another major issue – who gets to claim or define aboriginality? I read one Aboriginal scholar who said that she thought up to 300,000 of the 800,000 claims to be Aboriginal were false. In that regard I was surprised to hear the panel refer to ‘Uncle Bruce Pascoe’ and cite his book Dark Emu as though it were established truth! Neither of the historians on the panel questioned that. And the Aboriginal credentials of Bruce Pascoe, are, to say the least, questionable. https://www.themandarin.com.au/163175-the-kinship-question-bruce-pascoe-and-the-long-search-for-his-mob/
If we are going to have reconciliation, then we will need to get rid of the racial stereotypes – like assuming that most Aboriginal men are violent drunks. Or the idea that all Aboriginal people are about country – caring for country. I suspect that there are a lot of white farmers who would share that care!
And if we are going to have reconciliation then we need to stop playing the (white) guilt card. Jonathan speaking on behalf of all indigenous people stated “we are still asking people to see us as humans and treat us as such – I sometimes wonder what more we can do”. Meredith’s response was ‘it’s on us’. I’m glad I wasn’t in the chair because I would have called Jonathan’s statement out as a ridiculous statement. I’ve been in Australia four years and have never yet heard any Australian, of any colour, say that Aboriginal people are not human. I don’t doubt that in a nation of 25 million people you will find some people like that – but there is no evidence that such an attitude is a general attitude. You can’t have reconciliation based on false claims.
Nor on false history and current politics. Jonathan told us that “colonialism has failed everyone” (apart from a handful of people) and the world is plummeting because of colonialism. Like all caricatures it contains a grain of truth, but like all simplistic analysis that truth is coloured by the falsehoods contained in it. There have been many benefits to colonialism as well as many downsides. I’ve just started reading Nigel Biggar’s book on colonialism – which is a lot more balanced!
Laura suggested that this cannot be assimilated into general multi-culturalism? Why not? Is one culture to be given a greater say or superiority? Perhaps that should be the case – but I doubt that it will lead to any kind of reconciliation!
Which brings us to the Voice. The assumption seemed to be that all civilised, kind and ‘Christian’ people would clearly be for the Voice. I got the impression that to be against it could only be because of racism! Of course it was not discussed or spoken about. I was so disappointed – because I would like to hear more discussion from all sides about this vital issue – especially from a Christian perspective.
Greg Clarke –
summed it up. I thought he did his best to bring it back to Peter Gibb’s solution – Christ. He said that metanoia – the Greek New Testament word for repentance – meant change of heart and mind. And that Christ prioritised mercy and love. Greg said that we had heard the language of love, hope and truth telling. But if I am being honest I heard also a lot of bitterness, falsehood and hopelessness as well. I left really discouraged.
At the beginning we were told that if we were triggered by the discussion an event chaplain had been appointed; my boss, Phil Wheeler. I was triggered – but perhaps for different reasons than those who offered the chaplain were expecting. In a gathering to promote the Christian approach to race, reconciliation and repentance I was upset that, with the exception of Peter Gibbs, Christ was side-lined and the biblical idea of repentance was left out. There was very little to distinguish the Smith lecture from any ABC discussion programme. And little to commend Christ to the non-Christian.
One interesting question asked from the audience was ‘is repentance an ongoing process or a symbolic moment?” From a Christian perspective the answer is certainly the former. I think Paul’s ‘lecture’ to the Athenian philosophers in the 1st Century is appropriate for 21st Century Australia –
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
We are all created by God. God is not far from us. He is not one of our own images. Now all people everywhere are commanded to repent – in the knowledge that the risen Christ is coming back to judge us. Preach that message and there will be real change and reconciliation for all. Listen to the Master’s Voice!