Rosalie Kunoth-Monks is an Amatjere woman, born in the outback in 1937 at the height of Australia’s so-called assimilation policy.
At that time, it was believed that Aboriginal peoples were so vastly inferior to the culture of white settlers that they would soon die out altogether. The government adopted a policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their families in order to be assimilated into white society, for “their own good”.
(Think Rabbit Proof Fence, if you’ve seen that film)
Children were taught to reject their indigenous culture and history and to adopt the ways of white society. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. Some children were adopted by white families, and others were placed in institutions, many of which were run by Christian denominations, where abuse and neglect were common.
Little Rosalie Kunoth was nine-years-old when her father naively took her to Alice Springs, 260 kilometres from Utopia Cattle Station (Arapunya) where she was born, to “get some white education.”
To his horror, his daughter was taken from him permanently and made a ward of the state.
“We put our heads in the noose, and it tightened very fast,” is the way Rosalie Kunoth-Monks describes it.
Little Rosie was assimilated.
Raised and educated in a Christian boarding school, she went on to spend ten years as an Anglican nun in Melbourne, before emerging in her 30s as an Aboriginal activist and political adviser.
Today, she views her faith with an uncertain ambivalence. She knows that the church was involved in facilitating the policy of assimilation, and she’s justifiably angry about it. The church has let her people down. She says,
What white people and their interpretation [of Jesus] have done, they’ve almost anglicised this wonderful person. I never quite feel I am a part of the joy of the imitation of Christ. I am black, you see.
After all, how can a black Amatjere woman imitate a white Jesus?
But she hasn’t completely abandoned the faith of her youth:
I can easily let go the hand of men who purport to be Christian but divide the church. So far, I have not let go the hand of Jesus.
In Australia we often speak of reconciliation as the process of mending the great gulf between white society and the descendants of the original inhabitants of this continent, members of the oldest living cultures in the world. But for many non-indigenous Australians reconciliation is just a warm, fuzzy concept of forgive-and-forget. It’s the cultural equivalent of thoughts-and-prayers for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.
But Rosalie Kunoth-Monks says, “I don’t want any reconciliation as long as it’s an assimilation process.”
So, what is real reconciliation if it’s not mere platitudes and the papering over of past hurts and deep grievances?
Put simply, to reconcile is to make things right or to harmonize discordant relationships. But for the Christian, it has an even richer and broader definition. Reconciliation sits at the very heart of the Christian story, which is primarily about the idea of sinful people being made right with God. As theologian David Bentley Hart explains,
Christianity has from its beginning portrayed itself as a gospel of peace, a way of reconciliation with God, with other creatures, and a new model of human community, offering the ‘peace which passes understanding’ to a world enmeshed in sin and violence.
During Advent we celebrate this gospel, that in spite of that sin and violence that grips the world, Christ came to reconcile us to the Father. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
Now, rather than seeing us as enemies, Christ calls us friends (John 15:15). Jesus is our peace; He is our mediator who makes us right with God. Paul writes, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
What disappoints someone like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks so much is knowing that the message of reconciliation is so central to Christianity and yet so rarely embraced by Christians. It’s as if Christians believe that being reconciled to God has no wider implications in human society or even beyond. And yet, if we dare to revel in our being reconciled to God this Christmas, let it be that we also see ourselves as called to the ministry of reconciliation. This has at least three important implications.
- We must make it a priority to reconcile
This is stressed in Matthew 5:21-25 where we are told that if we have an unresolved disagreement with someone that we should deal with it as soon as possible. Jesus assumed reconciled people would be reconciling people. Australian Christians should be at the forefront of seeking to reconcile with their indigenous brothers and sisters, as much as American Christians should be at the center of any work that tries to bring black, white, Hispanic and Asian citizens together as one society.
- We should reconcile in a spirit of meekness
In Matthew 18:15, Jesus instructs his followers to reconcile with others discretely and gently, not using the opportunity to shame or humiliate the other. The goal is to communicate that you want to resolve the problem, not make the other person look bad or put them in their place. When we take this approach, it communicates grace and love to the other person.
- We must be willing to ask for forgiveness and always forgive if asked
The English term ‘forgive’ is made up of the words force and giving. It describes a process whereby the offended party gives up the right to enforce justice on the other. Forgiveness is always a two-way transaction: the humbling and asking for forgiveness by the offender and the release of the right of the offended to enforce justice. When Peter asks how many times one should forgive another, Jesus tells him not simply the conventional seven times, but 77 times (Mt.18:21-35).
And here lies the great shame on so many white Australians, especially Christians. Aboriginal peoples from across the continent, whether Christian or not, have often embodied these postures far better than us. They are committed to reconciliation, willing to offer gentle and discreet resolution no matter how badly they’ve been treated, and prepared to forgive.
As those in the wrong, we should follow Jesus’ advice and humble ourselves and confess to indigenous Australians that we have sinned against them, and ask for forgiveness. We should repent of our own actions and those of our forebears, and listen – really listen – to the hopes and desires of our indigenous sisters and brothers, aunties and uncles. As Proverbs 10:12 says, “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers a multitude of sins.”