Aboriginal Spirituality & Christianity: An Indigenous Perspective

March 01, 2015

Aboriginal Spirituality & Christianity: An Indigenous Perspective

Image: Tresola 

Interview with Pastor Ray Minniecon

Pastor Ray Minniecon

CASE: Pastor Ray, could you start by describing your background?

Ray Minniecon: I’m a descendant of the Kabi Kabi nation of South East Queensland on my father’s side, and the Gooreng Gooreng  nation of Central Queensland (north of Bundaberg) on my mother’s side. And also, my grandfather was forcibly removed from Ambrym Island of Vanuatu, in the Australian ‘blackbirding’ slave trade.

C: How did you become a Christian?

RM: I’m what you’d call a third generation Aboriginal follower of the Jesus Way. My father’s a Christian and my grandmother before him. So we were brought up within that message. Up there in Bundaberg there was a move of the Spirit of God amongst our people which led to a lot of our people coming to faith. And for people brought up on missions and stuff, especially on our mission, the only act in town was the local church, and Dad was the pastor. I guess too, in terms of that faith journey, we have seen and experienced the grace of God in so many different ways, and the Spirit of God working amongst us and trying to encourage us to continue to strive for justice and strive for the things of God at the same time, so we just continue the things we need to do through faith.

C: How did you end up in Sydney?

RM: That’s the Big Boss upstairs! After my wife and I got married in 1970 I wanted to study at Bible College so I went to the Assemblies of God Bible College in Katoomba in the early 70s where I completed my Diploma of Biblical Studies. And then we started our ministry out here at La Perouse—it was quite historical and very meaningful to me. And then we went over to WA and I was ministering over there amongst our Noongah people. And then I decided on further education so I went through the Baptist Theological College at Murdoch University back in the 80s, and completed my BA degree there, and then I started work. Then from there I was headhunted by World Vision Australia, who wanted us to head up their indigenous program, so that brought me back to Sydney, and I haven’t left since.

C: What is your current role, or more accurately, your current roles?

RM: I don’t even know that! I use the word pastor loosely—more as a political thing rather than as a traditional notion of what a pastor is of a congregation. But I’m not a pastor, I’m more of an activist. I see the streets as my pulpit, wherever those streets are—here in Sydney, Redfern, Glebe, or Alice Springs or Darwin or wherever. To me that’s more the Jesus model because he wasn’t a pastor at the local community, he just walked through his community and among his community, to inspire them, uplift them, let them know that the Kingdom of God is at hand—and not the Anglican church! (laughs) I like the Jesus model of ministry because he did get out there and the world was his pulpit rather than the local synagogue.  So that’s how I see myself. So if you call him an activist, then I’m an activist.

Paul was the same too. He was more out there. Though he was a little different because he tried to create the opportunity for fellowship amongst the Gentile communities, and I’m still trying to understand how those early people there met together, whether in the local synagogue, or the local PCYC hall, or community hall. A lot of them were home churches. Looking at those particular models too, the question is how did Jewish community and the Gentile community come together and have fellowship one with other. Because trying to resolve those matters will help us try to resolve the issues of [Indigenous and Western Christians] today. There’s a lot of work to be done.

What else do I do? My wife and I helped found the Gawura Aboriginal school here at St Andrew’s Cathedral school. I’m the founder of the Coloured Diggers March in Redfern on ANZAC Day to give recognition to our Aboriginal diggers. I’m part of a global movement of Aboriginal Christian people throughout the planet, and we meet on regular occasions, or as much as we can. I’m the National Secretary of the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship of Australia. I do a lot of consultancy work. What else? Husband, father, grandfather. I did make a documentary once for NITV called Searching for God in Australia. I’d love to do another one of those. It’s a good time to live, an exciting time to live. One day at a time. One interview at a time!

Rock painting

On Aboriginal Spirituality

C: Does it make sense to talk about Aboriginal spirituality as something common to all Aboriginal peoples across Australia?

RM: It would be common amongst all peoples across Australia. All the Aboriginal nations. The language and details might change, but the meaning behind that language remains consistent.

C: What are the main elements of Aboriginal spirituality?

RM: The only way I can explain it, the term that they come up with these days, is the Dreaming. For me, the Dreaming is like what the Bible is to Christianity, or the Koran is to Islam, or any of those great books that define a religion and help people understand their relationship to their Creator, their relationship to the land, to each other, all of those things are embedded in those particular books. We don’t see it as any different. So if we put it into that kind of framework, it helps people to understand that the Dreaming is comparable to all other religions, it’s just that we didn’t write it down. I think the major difference is that: that one is written down and you’re trying to interpret it, the other one is not written down, it’s passed on through oral tradition. But your ‘Bible’ is your land, it’s already there. Everything is written in that particular format, and because of that you have a direct relationship with the Creator. You’re not theorising about his existence; he’s already there.

In Aboriginal belief system, the Creator made many other beings and they’re the ones that co-created all the landscape.

(If you look at the biblical story, the whole creation story from an indigenous perspective anyway,  Adam would be seen as a co-creator because he named the animals. He may not have created all that there is, but he was a part of that creation story.)

So those co-creator beings who helped create the landscape, they settled in those places, and metamorphosed into the places and they help us to understand the laws of our Creator, and how all of those relationships and laws work.

 For us, all land is sacred because it’s made by our creators, and we come from that dirt, that soil. For example in our birthing beliefs, when a mother first feels the pangs of childbirth, to us it’s not only the relationship between the man and the woman who’s giving birth to that child, but it’s also the spirit of that place. So that child is already connected to the Creator, and when that child is born the mother will take the placenta and place it in the ground, and in that symbolic act, is making sure that the connection point between the child and all the land and its meanings, all the things that are in it—totems, stories, everything—are part of that child’s learning process from the womb to the end of eternity—to the earth again. It’s a deep connection, obligation as well as responsibility. You’re a part of a co-creator. You’re a part of a huge system that needs to be protected, cherished, looked after, cared for. The work your Creator made out there—the trees, the animals—they’re all your brothers and sisters and they’re part of you.

Within our systems there are relationships that we need to observe such as our totems and our kinship systems and how they operate within our culture.  They are there for us to make sure that all of our relationships are working in the right way and that connection point then between us and our responsibility for the land and each other remain then as a part of that—what you would call the Aboriginal law or political system.

The laws are passed on through the elders. They’re passed on and on and on; taught to boys through initiation ceremonies. And then they had the responsibility to make sure they were passed on to the next generations.

We know that beyond this physical realm there is another deeper spiritual realm that we want to connect with because we know that this physical realm that we live in is temporary—we’ll all die and go back to that—but in the meantime we have this incredible opportunity to know more about who the Creator is.

C: Could you explain the idea of totems, and how you know what your totems are?

RM: That’s probably a birth thing. Once you’re born, your mother already has a moiety or relationship—so too has dad, so too have the grandparents—that forms part of your identity. It’s an inheritance.

It’s a responsibility I have to the rain, the ocean, to the land. There are certain ceremonies you have to be part of to ensure that certain aspects of nature are maintained for the next generation. One of my totems, for example, on my grandmother’s side, is the Kookaburra. Now in our belief system the kookaburra is the first bird you hear in the morning and for us the kookaburra sings the day into existence. So without us you haven’t got a day. Kill us all off, and that’s the end of the story.

I think where the West has got it wrong is through this notion of paganism, that the ways we saw those kinds of thing was idolatry, and so they thought that we worshipped animals, trees, rather than the Creator. But that’s not so, there was no idolatry in that particular way, although we do acknowledge that the spirit of our ancestors will always be among us.

The way I’ve been taught by some of my elders as an Aboriginal Christian is that the Bible is tribal. It comes from a certain tribal group of people and you need to read it that way because it’s a tribal Bible. So when we read the story of Jesus we know that he was a tribal man—he came from the tribe of Judah. We know that he also had totems. He called himself the Lion of Judah. That’s a totem. He’s not worshipping the lion, but he’s identifying with certain aspects of his cultural traditions and stories that are meaningful not only to him but to all of the people. It put him into a certain kinship system that they’re part of. These are simple facts for us to observe and understand.

C: What was the consequence for breaking the law of the elders?

RM: There were advocates, there were certain crimes that demanded these kinds of punishments. It’s similar to the laws we have today. It just depends what the crime was. In some indigenous cultures, for example, the greatest crime you can commit is not murder, but the intent of the heart to murder: the hate that leads to murder. To us that would be a much greater sin than to commit the sin. I think Jesus said that in the Sermon on the Mount. But often people see murder as the greater crime.

And then you have the other problem of both those particular legal systems. The Western system is a guilt orientated culture, and so you’re innocent until proven guilty. And so it’s an individual thing. And you need a court to prove your guilt. Whereas indigenous communities, including Asian communities, we’re much more of a shame orientated community. So if I harm someone, I’ve actually brought shame on my own family too, so it’s much more of a group thing—that I’ve offended my own family and brought shame on them. It’s a very different way of looking at crime and the ways in which we deal with it.

Up until the present time in some of our more traditional communities where traditional laws are still alive, it’s much easier for us to go through those particular systems than the other way. The elders can come together and make certain arrangements for that person to be reconciled with the offence they’ve caused and the problems they’ve created. Up until recent times also that could’ve been a spear through the leg or a flogging or something of that nature. In Aboriginal ways, there is always the notion of sacrifice or atonement through blood. It’s not sacrifice of a kangaroo or an emu or anything like that, in terms of those older Jewish laws, but if I got speared in the leg, the blood-letting would help appease the wrath of those who had been offended. But under white man’s law that’s not possible. It’s a much more individual way of doing it, it doesn’t resolve the problem in the community.

C: What do these beliefs mean in the day to day lives of Aboriginal people today? Have they changed?

RM: I wouldn’t say the beliefs have changed, it’s just the practices with ceremony and those kinds of things—we don’t have access to those sacred sites and those places where these were practiced. The belief is still there, but the practice—we just can’t do those kind of traditional practices as we’d like to. It’s impossible.

But they still matter a lot for how you live. It connects you back to country and land and community—it’s really important. Actually I think the greatest punishment for Aboriginal people is being cut off from their people. To be completely cut out.


Aboriginal and Christian

C: How easy, or difficult, is it to be both Aboriginal and Christian?

RM: It’s not an easy question to answer because we’re trying to understand the theology of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, because it has much deeper parallels to Aboriginal spirituality with its emphasis on law. Right up to the gospels Jesus still operated under the Old Testament theologies and practices. It’s just when Paul came along that he then faced the responsibility of making the Jewish story relevant to other tribal groups. In my humble observation or opinion—I’m not too opinionated about it—Paul then became one of the greatest indigenous theologians that we’ve ever had because he had to translate this aboriginal or indigenous theology and make it meaningful to other groups, who they called Gentiles.  So that was quite a challenge. I admire him for that. When you look at his writings, I think the only one who came close to Paul’s theological understanding in terms of its spread to other people groups would’ve been John, with his much more spiritual overlay as he presented his gospel.

If you’re steeped in your cultural tradition, you can actually have what I’d call a parallel theology, and that can make comparisons easier. We can work out what’s good or bad within our [Aboriginal] culture according to those particular [Christian] teachings. We can also assess what’s good and bad within Western Christianity from that particular way too [by comparing it with Aboriginal culture]. It makes it easier for us to walk down this path. That’s why we call it following the Jesus way. I think Western Christianity is too rationalistic, too philosophical, and it’s lost its way there somewhere. I don’t know where but it’s lost its way and it hasn’t connected with that spirit [you see in John’s writing].

For Indigenous theologians, we’re only coming to grips with this in the last 40 years or so, 50 years at most, simply because we’ve never had this opportunity of actually exploring these kind of matters before because for the last 200 years we’ve always had missionaries come and tell us who God is, rather than trying to understand [our background]. There are exceptions like the Lutherans who went out to Hermannsburg and wanted to understand the particular point of view of the local Aboriginal people there. They tried to understand it more from inside the culture rather than from outside and telling the culture to change and become like a whitefella. But they’re rare exceptions. The major ways in which Western Christianity has come to us is much more through what I’d call arrogant evangelism: you’ve got to become a whitefella if you want to become a Christian, if you want to become a follower of Jesus. And so we’ve only had the opportunity of actually looking at this ourselves for a short time.

I meet up with many other indigenous theologians around the planet. One thing we see is that Western Christianity, sadly, starts in Genesis 3 with sin and a judging God. Whereas as indigenous theologians, we want to start in Genesis 1, and then we get the whole story. And then we can see how sin looks and what it is, and then we can make up our minds how we interpret that in our context, in our own cultural ways.

I would say, my own observation anyway, I think there is more conflict with Christianity in the Western world than there are in the Aboriginal world. There are conflicts, and there are tensions, and we’ve just got to work through those particular tensions. We have more tensions with the teachings of the church than we have with the teachings of the Old and New Testament. We’re only 50 years old—not even that—in terms of our development of what you would call an Indigenous theology. Western Christianities have had hundreds or thousands of years to formulate theirs. So we’re at the beginning point.

We have to work these things out, and we don’t have any frameworks to do that. And the broader theological frameworks [of Western Christianity] actually challenge us more than anything, when they say ‘that’s right’ or ‘that’s wrong’. But it’s more tricky than that. Say, for example, playing the didge [didgeridoo] in church. For most churches, that’s just anathema. Or even things to do with Aboriginal dance, or to acknowledge Aboriginal country. These things are new within the framework of the church today.

Aboriginal People, Christianity and the Church

C: Is Christianity attractive or unattractive to Aboriginal people?

RM: There are three things: the message, the messengers, and the messengers’ methodology. There’s nothing wrong with the message that our Creator wanted to give everyone the opportunity to get to know him better through his Son.  But the messenger, when he brought that message, also brought his own a cultural understanding of how that should be interpreted. So the messengers and their methodologies are a major hindrance to that message, and I think that’s where a lot of our people have had issues with church, because its hypocrisy and its arrogance, and then its dismissiveness of all the things that are very important to Aboriginal people, or any other culture for that matter. So its methodology at this stage is that if you want to know Jesus more then you have to, you know, sing Hillsong songs, or you have to become an Anglican, or you have to become a Baptist. So within Western Christendom you have this huge tribalism that’s all the same message, but the methodology is so hypocritical of the message itself.

It became very relevant to us when the government here in Australia wanted to look at this whole issue of reconciliation between Australian community and Aboriginal people. The first thing we said, was, Look, that’s a theological issue first and foremost. We understand reconciliation because of the message of Jesus. And the term reconciliation means that we had a good relationship to start with, which we haven’t, and now we’re trying to ‘reconcile’ those differences. So reconciliation is not the language we should be using.

And then when the church took on that political thing and said, Oh, we need to reconcile with the Aboriginal people, we said to the church, well hang on, Baptists don’t get on with Anglicans, don’t get on with Catholics don’t get on with Pentecostals. You can’t reconcile your own differences, so why do you want us to be part of that when you can’t get your own act together?

And then when we do come into those particular sites, we then take upon ourselves the same biases, and we start looking through your eyes at Anglicans, at others, through those particular lenses. So we’re in a dilemma, a huge dilemma:  here are these sites of the message, but those sites can’t get their own flamin’ act together.

It’s really up to the Western church to get its act together. It’s just that we have to come into these sites to actually work through our own issues in relation to this. It is really tough for us, because as soon as I identify as Anglican, I then exclude a Baptist Aboriginal person, or a Pentecostal. So it’s not the message, it’s the messenger and the methodology.

We’d prefer to see something much more simple. For example, I’m a pastor with the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship. I’ve been a pastor with them ever since I graduated back in the late 1970s. And the reasons why I love being with our people is the ways in which they have had to think through these matters very clearly. And come up with not a denomination but a fellowship.  And so the emphasis on fellowship, because we came from missions, we came from some denominations that we were part of, and other Christian traditions. So we had to—or our elders had to—work out how do we come together as Aboriginal people who have embraced the message? So we are Aboriginal, we are evangelical, and we are a fellowship. And so I can have fellowship with an Aboriginal person who is from a different denomination or background. It doesn’t matter. Because we’re in fellowship. It’s that whole notion of Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit fell upon the people they had fellowship together.

And then we’re still questioning the church, especially here in Australia, as to its message again, and then the ways in which it has really stolen Aboriginal land. So it’s going against its own teachings. It’s living on stolen land. It’s there. So how do you resolve that? The church needs to get together and say, ‘Ok we’ve got to do something here, because it’s not our own laws we’re breaking, it’s our Creator’s laws. We’ve invaded someone else’s country and this is the land the Creator’s given to these people, and we have broken his laws. How do we respond?’  Then we can start to work through this whole process of reconciliation to the one Creator. Because we have Genesis 1, Genesis 3, the gospels. All those historical and theological points give us the opportunity to work through these matters here in a spirit of grace. But we haven’t even had that conversation. We haven’t even started. So I don’t know when that conversation will start, all we’re doing is trying to offer the opportunity to do it in a way that our people can say, ok, these people are genuine about the message they’re delivering, because they’re now starting to address those issues that are contained in that message.

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