All of the mainstream Christian denominations in Australia have acknowledged, in one form or another, the complicity of the historical church in the colonisation of this country and the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land, culture, spirituality and families.
This acknowledgement has not come easily and it is not a unanimous position even today but in general the church has been able to face up to the facts of history of the last 200 years.
A question that does not seem to have been raised, and I hope to do so with this essay, is why did the Church in Australia behave as it did, what are the causal reasons for our blind conformity to the colonial agenda in this country?
Many churches have apologised for various misdeeds but have not yet taken a serious look at why these things happened or more importantly, asked how can we make sure these things don’t happen again and how do we know we are not doing the same thing right now?
Tradition is very important in the Christian church. It deliberately and consciously replicates the paradigms of the past as a matter of faith. Some of this tradition is based in the bible such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However most of the tradition of the church, in particular how it manifests in the world through ceremony, organisational structure and mission, is based on the tradition of the Roman Church and western civilisation. Even the modern church’s notions of God are defined primarily by the fourth century Nicene Creed which still today is held as the template to divide correct doctrine from heresy and the lens through which to correctly interpret the bible.
The church’s complicity in imperialism and colonisation did not begin when the European missionaries arrived on this continent. The missionaries arrived with pre-conceived notions from their own history and tradition that had been well established long before 1788. This tradition goes back to the fourth century when a “universal” church was brought into being by the emperor of Rome. The history of the church and imperial power has been synonymous since that time until only recently.
The Australian church’s complicity in the colonial agenda is not a historical anomaly but a faithful replication of the tradition of the church.
The history of the people who proclaim the name of Jesus underwent a major shift in cultural paradigm after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, the ongoing war of indigenous Hebrews against Rome until late in the middle of the second century, the continuing massacres of nationalist Hebrews resisting Rome and the exile of the Hebrew people from their homeland to all over the empire where they and their gentile converts to the law of Moses were persecuted.
By the end of the second century, the original Jesus movement of tribal indigenous Hebrews had been totally wiped out.
Those who took up the Jesus story in the second half of the second century were citizens of empire of many and mixed ethnicities and traditions united by a common Hellenist culture language and consciousness, The universality of empire provided the cultural matrix of the new religion rather than the previous specificity of indigenous tribalism and the connection of land, god and people by way of the ancient covenant of Abraham in the bible.
The Hellenistic culture gave rise to theological debates that are not anywhere represented in the Hebrew bible, such as the trinity, but were based on god archetypes and philosophy from Greece, Persia and Egypt. However these Hellenized Christians still proclaimed Jesus as Lord and since this excluded loyalty to Caesar as Lord they were persecuted as intensely as the Hebrews were for exactly the same reason.
In the fourth century, Caesar Constantine legalized and institutionalized Christianity as one of many official religions of the empire. He created a centralized institutional church that no longer denied the lordship of Caesar and the first task of this institution was to fashion an understanding of God and Jesus that was universal for the whole empire. This was the mission of the council of Nicaea in producing the Nicene Creed, which still today is the foundation document of Christian institutional churches.
Before, during and after the Council of Nicea significant sections of those proclaiming Jesus were persecuted because of a particular perspective they had in a theological dispute about the nature of Jesus. What this theology was is not properly known, as the only record of it is the allegations against it. All their writings were burnt, many were imprisoned or exiled and many who refused to renounce their heresy were killed.
Today the church religiously recites most of the Nicean Creed, affirming it as God inspired and correct. However the church has omitted the last part of the Creed that gives meaning and purpose to the theological pronouncements of the rest of the creed.
The original creed of the 325AD council states – “And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.”
The Nicene Creed identifies the correct doctrine, identifies the incorrect doctrine and authorizes the persecution of those who adhere to incorrect doctrine. This modus operandi had nothing to do with the New Testament narrative of reconciliation and restoration or its instruction for dealing with disputes in the church. Rather, the Nicea process was itself a manifestation of the agenda and process of the empire. The institution of church that was created by the emperor operated not only within the frameworks of Hellenistic culture as the new Christian movement did but also within the frameworks of the Roman state itself, a role that would later be expanded to the exclusive religion of the empire and on to the church itself becoming the imperial state.
From the fourth century onwards the church has a clear history and tradition of collaboration, symbiosis and union with Roman, Holy Roman and European imperialism. I do not intend to explore all of that here except to repeat my earlier point that there are no surprises in the Australian church’s racist and colonial history when considered in the broader context.
The churches entire history and tradition as an agent of imperialism and colonization begins with, and can be explained by, Caesar’s project at Nicea. No longer was the biblical narrative about oppression by empires such as Egypt, Babylon and the empire that crucified the Messiah – Rome. No longer did the messiah provide hope of liberation from the oppression of empire. No longer was the radical sovereignty of Jesus and the God of Israel a threat to Caesar, as in the biblical narrative. Now Jesus authorized the sovereignty of Caesar and enforced conformity to the official religion of imperial Rome.
Matthew 4: 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 9″All this I will give you,” he said, “If you will bow down and worship me.”
Mark 10: 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
If we were to hold the history and tradition of the church, from the council of Nicea onwards, up to the light of biblical teaching we can only conclude that the imperial agenda of the church has both worshipped Satan and adopted the form of the gentile rulers.
When faced with the truth the church’s history, many respond along the lines of “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of god” or “god works in the most unlikely circumstances”. While both propositions are true, in the context of understanding church history they represent an avoidance and denial of the truth rather than an explanation of it. Furthermore they provide a justification of the continued acceptance of the history of the imperial church as legitimate and still authoritative despite its acute contradictions and evil brutality.
We can just as easily say, as many do, that the colonial mode of church in this country has caused suffering and dispossession but in the bigger picture, despite the sins and flaws of the missionaries, this colonisation was still gods will in ways we can’t understand.
However in the case of the recent or ancient history of the church I believe we have to repent of our colonial and imperial history rather than glorifying and replicating it. The truth has to be acknowledged on its own terms rather than through some sugar coated retrospective justification. If we cannot face up to the truth of our own history and the reasons why and how the Australian Church – and wider society – has been an ignorant agent of racism, colonisation and genocide, then there is nothing stopping us from continuing the process into the future. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Index and links to other essays – here