The mission of the land

Much of the extended Dutney family and friends gathered recently to celebrate a significant birthday. Good times. But there was another milestone being celebrated too. The party was held at the family home in Toowong – the house we moved to from Charleville in 1966.

We all lived and grew up there together until the mid-seventies and then absented ourselves one by one over the next decade, as adult life beckoned. When my parents decided it was time to downsize in anticipation of retirement, one of my brothers and his wife bought the house and proceeded to raise their own children there. It continued to be a place where we gathered as a family.

Now, after fifty years at the center of our family, the house has been sold. The birthday party was the last time we would be there together.

It would be reasonable to expect a bit of angst over that. But, in the event, it’s all been surprisingly well accepted. What’s made it comparatively easy seems to be that the house has been sold, not to developers, but to a young family. That matters a lot, as it turns out.

My parents bought the house from a family that had lived and grown there and finally dispersed. My brothers and I found lots of evidence of their occupation. In the cool dirt of the under-the-house we found roads, rivers, dams and occasional corroded remains of Matchbox cars. Boys like us had lived here. They’d grown up here. We were taking custody of the relics of their imagination and ingenuity. My brother’s boys probably found the leftovers of our childhood and adolescence there too – hidden or lost around the house and yard. One family, another family, a further family.

Now this family was passing the house to yet another family. It actually felt OK.

The secret of home ownership

But it got me thinking about home ownership. What kind of possession is the family home? You need to start somewhere so I did a quick search for “possess” and “possession” using my Bible app – and was flung into a completely different frame of reference.

It certainly got me to biblical passages connected to “home ownership”, but most often it was ownership based on dispossessing the original owners in order to take possession of land promised by God: “…you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” (Numbers 33:52-53) And that was the general tone of almost all of the sixty-three results that my search delivered.

I’ll come back to that biblical theme shortly. But my first response was to recognize painfully the unspoken part of my own stories of “home”: that, except for the four years that I lived in Scotland, I have always lived on stolen land. I was born in Charleville on land stolen from the Bidjara nation. The family home in Toowong was built on land stolen from the Turrbal nation. For several years I lived on land stolen from the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. And I now live on land stolen from the Kaurna nation. This is the secret of home ownership in Australia. The uncomfortable, shameful secret. Except for the members of the First Peoples who have retained a place on their own land, Australians make our homes on stolen land.

Of course neither my parents nor I did anything illegal in coming to occupy the homes we have. It’s all there in the title deeds – blameless and in good order. But further back in the past, and deeper down in the present, there is the knowledge that the colonization of Australia involved the violent dispossession of the nations who were indigenous to this continent. And their continuing situation of extreme disadvantage within Australian society is evidence of that crime and the unfinished business that relates to it.

Stolen land and promised land

I’ve noticed that, like many Christians, many Aboriginal Christians see the creation of the modern state of Israel and the occupation of Palestine from a dispensationalist position – in the prophetic witness of the Bible Israel is promised an earthly kingdom, while the ekklesia, the new Israel, is promised a spiritual kingdom. The creation of the modern state of Israel is interpreted as the fulfilment of the first part of this divine plan.

But many Aboriginal Christians celebrate the creation of the modern state of Israel not only as theologically significant, but as representing the fulfilment of a longing that they identify with – the return of the land of which they have been unjustly and violently dispossessed. This makes sense, in spite of the fact that the project of Zionism and the modern state of Israel involves the dispossession, displacement and oppression of the Palestinian people, Christians as well as Muslims and Druze. The political and moral similarities between the Zionist slogan “an empty land for a landless people” and the British myth of “terra nullius” are not as captivating as an historical example of a marginalized, persecuted people being restored to its traditional land and its law.

Living on their stolen land, as I do, I have tried to engage this complex theological and ideological commitment not as an abstract exegetical or doctrinal issue to argue about, but as another aspect of the broken relationship between Australia’s First Peoples and Second Peoples. In this matter justice and reconciliation is far more urgent than intellectual consensus.

I turned to the Palestinian Christian theologian, Yohanna Katanacho, to hear what the biblical witness sounds like to people following Jesus on contested land.

The “mission of the land”

Katanacho points out that the promise made to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3) involves being a blessing not only to his biological descendants but to all peoples and nations (Katanacho 2013, loc 1203). The promise of land is integral to that. “The text does not claim an unconditional grant of land to Abram, let alone his descendants.” In fact occupation of the land requires participating in God’s mission to bring peace and unity – reconciliation – to the whole earth, ruptured and scattered after Babel and the flood, agonizingly distorted by sin. So Israel must “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:1). “Justice and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). And while injustice, corruption and idolatry will be punished by exile, “whoever takes refuge in [the Lord] shall possess the land and inherit my holy mountain” (Isaiah 57:13). The consistent witness of the Bible is that “inheriting the land is associated with righteousness, justice and obedience” (Katanacho 2013, loc 1325).

Katanacho argues further that the biblical vision for the land of Abraham was not one of fixed borders protecting and isolating Israel from other nations but “to unite the ends of the earth under the Abrahamic banner. Thus many lands will become one through Abraham’s seed” (Katanacho 2013, loc 1228).

The “global aspect of God’s promises” expressed, for example, in Psalm 87 or Isaiah 2:1-4 involves the hope that, “The nations are born again in Zion and they are now part of a community that values the city of God and lives in it. They have become part of a multiethnic and multicultural group whose legitimate differences are not stronger than their loyalty to the God of Zion. Zion hosts all of them and her God grants them local citizenship without any biases.” (Katanacho 2013, loc 1239-1244)

From this biblical perspective he insists that, “Any solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must take the mission of the land into consideration. Any political solution must reflect justice, righteousness, and biblical love for both Palestinians and Israelis. It must empathize with the oppressed, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis, Arabs or Jews” (Katanacho 2013, loc 1364).

Living in a crime scene

The biblical notion that within the missio Dei the land itself has a mission resonates with me as a person living on stolen land.

As Aunty Denise Champion has taught me, the land is not only a source of sustenance (Champion 2014). Through the stories and songlines etched in every surface and contour of the continent the land speaks. It teaches. It tells its Peoples who they are, where they’ve come from, how they are related to each other, how they should behave and what they may hope for. This gentle, wise land – the mother of its Peoples – was stolen, enslaved and exploited by the colonizers; a crime from which I have benefitted for my whole life.

We need to have a conversation about this, not so that I can feel better but so that I can learn what I need to do to change my life towards justice and reconciliation. Chris Budden has pointed out that this kind of conversation is hard for Second Peoples, who habitually want to control the agenda. He says, “But this is a conversation in which we are guests, in which it is not about what we want, but what Indigenous people want… The best we can do is to prepare ourselves to listen, to be able to hear hard things that we do not like to hear, and to remain silent rather than to immediately defend ourselves (Budden 2009, loc 3683).

It’s taken me a lot of words to get here, but I think I can do that now. Be silent and listen. Here on this stolen land. And you?

References

Budden, Chris. Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology on Aboriginal Land. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications. 2009

Champion, Denise, with Rosemary Dewerse. Yarta Wandatha, Adelaide: Denise Champion, 2014.

Yohanna Katanacho. The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2013.

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