by Andy Mitchell
[5 minute read]
As a Pākehā New Zealander living in Australia, it’s always interesting to observe the differences between the dominant cultures of our countries. I still have to remember to say ‘Esky’ instead of ‘chilly bin’ and ‘Texta’ instead of ‘Vivid’ (though with the accent it’s more like ‘vuh-vuh-d’). On a more serious note, I also notice a difference in the way we approach intercultural work. This isn’t to say one is necessarily better than the other, but I do notice far less anxiety around the idea in my home country. In my experience this anxiety is never more heightened for white Australians than when the intercultural work concerns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
I lived in England for a time after high school and worked at an outdoor education site alongside a bunch of Australians. In NZ we typically learn a bit of Māori language, culture and ceremony at school, spending time at the local marae, and learning from the Whāea and Mātua. Being vaguely aware that there was more than one Indigenous language in Australia (though not realising there were over 500 distinct sovereign nations with more than 250 languages and 800 dialects) I asked which Indigenous language my new friends had learned in school. My question was met with some awkward laughter and the information that there weren’t really any Aboriginal people left in their home state of Victoria, so what language would they even have learned? According to the 2006 census, the Indigenous population of Victoria at the time numbered roughly 30,000 people, a number that grew to nearly 50,000 people by 2016.
When I arrived in Australia a couple of years later I was struck by the apparent invisibility of the Indigenous community. Even more striking to me was the lack of interest or awareness my new church had of their nation’s First Peoples, who could apparently be found in Central Australia or the Northern Territory, but not anywhere near us. Although Indigenous peoples are often identified with the most remote parts of the county, about the same number of Indigenous people live in the Northern Territory as live in Greater Brisbane and the largest Indigenous population in the country can be found in Greater Sydney.
My experience in Indigenous community first came about in 2014, when I was asked to lead a classic church mission-tourism trip to remote, predominantly Warlpiri communities in the Northern Territory. I was confronted by ideas for which my western evangelical theology didn’t have room, like when one Elder explained how her people knew God before the arrival of white missionaries. In order to try to wrap my head around ideas like this, I enrolled in an intercultural unit at the Bible college I was attending, but there I was told that Indigenous people often held a syncretistic faith and that their cultural practices were, at best, idolatrous or, at worst, demonic. I remembered being present at a baby dedication where smoke was used instead of water. In part, this was just a practical move – there’s not much water in the desert – but also, smoke had greater ritual significance to the community who was dedicating the baby. The Elder performing the ceremony even opened with a biblical reflection on God’s presence as a pillar of smoke in Exodus 13:21, leading the nation of Israel through the desert. I struggled to see where syncretism, idolatry or the influence of Satan was at work.
I think the church is beginning to grow tired of this narrative about Indigenous peoples and their faith, realising that it is, at its most base level, simply racist. In 2016 NCLS found similarly, with 62% of respondents feeling that the wider church should more actively promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, this was also paired with the finding that only 15.1% of non-Indigenous respondents believed they mixed with Indigenous people with any regularity and 76% of church leaders responding that their churches had no relationship to Indigenous people or organisations whatsoever.
Some years later I found myself attending a course of study with NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community. NAIITS is a unique Bible college experience, in that it’s led by Indigenous theologians from all around the world teaching theology from Indigenous perspectives. It was there I was properly introduced to the concept of right-relationship, perhaps best explained in Australia by Noonuccal academic Aunty Karen Martin’s ‘Relatedness Theory’. Martin teaches this theory via paintings, but I’ve displayed it here in a different way:
For Martin, right-relationship means first being able to answer certain questions about yourself, then learning to show proper respect to others (including land, animals, waterways, etc.), learning to listen well and allowing yourself to be changed by your learning, drawing you into better ways of being in relationship.
A key takeaway from this model is that, for us in the Western church, developing strong relationships with our Indigenous brothers and sisters begins with ourselves. We need to understand who we are, and how our words and actions are interpreted by people from other cultures. We need insight on how we’ve enculturated or syncretised the gospel ourselves. We should be asking whether our services or small groups are culturally safe spaces, listen to the answer and then do something about it. We should put off acts like displaying Indigenous artists’ work or plaques acknowledging land ownership until our communities have proven track records of successful, committed, respectful and safe relationships with Indigenous peoples.
In my experience, the outcome of this work is fruitful, grace-filled and generous relationships with Indigenous partners in the gospel, leading to mutually beneficial outcomes. In my own church context these have looked like a decrease in the anxiety mentioned above, greater awareness of issues that concern Indigenous peoples, and a richer, more Australian theology as the church learns from Indigenous theologians. Ultimately, I believe it reflects something of what we read about the inclusivity and diversity of the kingdom in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
 A te reo Māori or Māori language term for a non-Indigenous person
 Usually a complex of buildings where Māori community events take place, with plenty of space for people to sleep, though people don’t often live there permanently.
 A Whaea is a female Elder and a Matua is a male Elder. They might also be called Aunty and Uncle, as in Australia.
 AIATSIS, ‘Living Languages’, n.p. Cited 14 July 2021. Online: https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/living-languages
 ABS, ‘2006 Census Community Profiles’, n.p. Cited 14 July 2021. Online https://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2006/communityprofile/2
 ABS, ‘2016 Census: Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples QuickStats’, n.p. Cited 14 July 2021. Online https://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/IQS2
 Steve Bevis, Miriam Pepper and Ruth Powell, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Relations in Churches: Occasional Paper 33 (North Sydney, NSW: NCLS Research, 2018), 7.
 ibid., 6.
 ibid., 15.
 For more info see: https://divinity.edu.au/study/indigenous-theology/
 Karen Martin, Please Knock Before You Enter (Teneriffe, QLD: Post Pressed, 2008), 71.
 For more on this, I’d like to recommend Tim Foster’s work Suburban Captivity of the Church.
 For a good introduction to Indigenous theological perspectives try Aunty Denise Champion’s Yarta Wandatha or Anaditj; Uncle Graham Paulson’s ‘Towards an Aboriginal Theology’; Aunty Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann’s ‘Dadirri’; or Uncle Ray Minniecon’s ‘Job – An Aboriginal Story’.