Apologising for the past: An act of grace and courage

November 19, 2018

Apologising for the past: An act of grace and courage

Image: Ramon Williams of Worldwide Photos

John Harris

We are shaped by our past—not only by our immediate past, not just by our upbringing, but by the more distant past beyond our lifetime, the past which shaped the culture and society to which we belong. Our past lives on in us.

The invasion of Australia, as if it were devoid of human residents, and the subsequent uncontrolled occupation of Indigenous land, as if nobody owned it, are a part of our Australian past which cannot be forgotten, hidden or ignored. We are not, despite our present National Anthem, ‘young and free’. The Aboriginal culture of this land, the oldest culture on earth, is not ‘young’. Many of its members, still bearing the emotional and spiritual scars of a violent and oppressive past, are not ‘free’.

For the first 200 years of European settlement, the deep issue which Australia could not honestly face was generally called the ‘Aboriginal problem’. It was a national ‘blaming the victim’. It was their problem that they couldn’t get over what happened 200 years ago, their problem that they would not assimilate, their fault that their children dropped out of school, their fault that their health was bad. A few thoughtful people tried to encourage Australians to see this as a national problem. It is one thing, however, for an individual to feel sorry for historic injustices and to wish they could do something about it. It is another thing entirely for an institution to feel a corporate responsibility for the past.

In the 1980s, churches began to lead the way, very tentatively broaching the idea of a public apology. With the approaching ‘Bicentenary of Australia’ in 1988, thoughtful people realised that there were less triumphal views of the meaning of that day, that the colonisation of Australia by a foreign power was not necessarily a blessing to the original inhabitants.

The first church to make a formal, public apology to Aboriginal people was the Anglican Church of Australia. On the first Sunday in February 1988, the bicentenary of the first Christian service on Australian soil, the Anglican bishops of Australia gathered at St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney. There, on behalf of all Australian Anglicans, the Primate, Archbishop John Grindrod, expressed the church’s sorrow and regret for the past mistreatment of Aboriginal people. It was an act of grace and courage. He spoke his apology directly to Aboriginal Bishop Arthur Malcolm, which lent the solemn occasion a personal rather than institutional touch:[i]

…May I express on behalf of all non-Aboriginal people of our church our profound sorrow for the suffering that your people have had to endure, with its violence and hurt. We humbly ask God’s forgiveness, and we seek your forgiveness as a leader of your people for the actions of the past and those causing hurt at the present time…We have longed to share with your people the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We confess our endeavour has fallen short of his love. We want to walk together with you, sharing and learning together, accepting and respecting each other…Please accept our sorrow for the past and our seeking of your forgiveness…

Bishop Arthur Malcolm responded. Knowing he could not speak for all the Indigenous people of Australia, he replied simply on behalf of the Aboriginal people in the Anglican Church:

…For a long time, we have been hurting, our spirits have felt crushed by the wrong actions which took place between my ancestors and yours. Much suffering has been the result, but it is through the message of Jesus Christ that we have learned to forgive…On behalf of my people I accept your seeking of our forgiveness and thank you for your apology…

This was an important moment in Australian history, the forerunner of many apologies to come. But it was not without its controversies. The proposal for this apology had been debated at the General Synod of the Anglican Church and not everyone agreed. This raises the issue of who is apologising, an issue which applies to all later apologies, church or state. It also raises the very difficult issue of who is hearing the apology and if it can ever be possible for the whole group to forgive.

A minority of those who oppose apologising to Aboriginal people believe there is nothing for which to apologise or even that Aboriginal history has been faked for political reasons. They reject the word ‘invasion’—the Aboriginal people did not own the land so there was every reason simply to take it over and use it productively.

Most people opposed to apologising, however, simply believe that it was all too long ago, it was not our fault, and we should all just forget it and move on. This of course is a very easy thing for the powerful beneficiaries to say. This raises a very serious philosophical question. Is an historic injustice eventually extinguished by time? This remains a hotly debated question all over the world. Does the British Empire owe compensation to India for the exploitation of its people and resources? Have the Welsh and Scots suffered a thousand years of Saxon oppression?

Do we Australians owe an apology for what happened in the past? Australians like me know that our good life is built on Aboriginal suffering. In our own lifetime, we have been guilty of silent acquiescence to the status quo, not wanting to see the pain and social trauma felt by those who suffered and still suffer from the violence and injustice of the colonial past. We are guilty of moral insensitivity— that is, of not valuing our neighbour as much as we value ourselves. We are guilty of moral blindness, of simply not noticing or caring enough.

In the decade after 1988, churches and Christian organisations, convicted of their past blindness to suffering and injustice, began formulating their apologies, seeking the best words to say what they wanted to say. A big impetus to facing the past honestly was the ‘Stolen Generations Inquiry’ (The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families). For two years the Australian public, including the Christian public, daily faced the stories of the pain and suffering of the Stolen Generations. This was no distant history. These were real people, living people, traumatised at what had happened to them when wrested from their families and raised in institutions, some of which were run by Christian organisations. Convicted of past wrongdoing or past inaction or both, apologies came thick and fast.[ii]

We are ashamed that we have failed to recognise the extent of dispossession, deprivation and trauma over the past 200 years. We have been and are part of the culture that has dominated, dehumanised and devalued Aboriginal religious, cultural and family life. For this we are deeply sorry and express our heartfelt apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We commit ourselves to working towards a reconciled Australia. (Quaker Sorry Statement, January, 1998.)

Today the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council acknowledges our Church's part in these events and offers the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and especially the 'stolen generation', our sincere regret. We hope through this acknowledgement of the truth of the past to take another step together on the path to healing. (May 26 1988)

We confess that our failure to see what we were doing denied our common humanity, degraded us all, and was not Christian. For all this we are truly sorry and apologise unreservedly. (Victorian Baptist Union, March 13, 1998)

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s National Apology in 2008, his justly famous Sorry Speech, in some ways brought twenty years of soul searching and a hundred genuine and heartfelt apologies to some kind of closure. We are sorry. But apologies do not change the future, not without genuine and costly action. Bishop Arthur Malcolm’s prayer after the first great apology still rings true.

Dear God: You have forgiven us our sins; please enable us to forgive each other. Lord Jesus, bring healing and reconciliation to this nation, and make us people who will walk and live together in lasting acceptance and respect for each other. In Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.


Rev Dr John Harris is the author of numerous books and papers on Aboriginal history, education, language and Christian experience. He spent many years teaching in Aboriginal communities, and remains actively involved in Aboriginal issues through Bible translation, writing and speaking.


[i] The full text of Bishop John Grindod’s apology and Bishop Arthur Malcolm’s reply can be found in Church Scene, 5 February, 1988, p3.

[ii] For full text of these and other apologies, see Australian Human Rights Commission, Chapter 3, Church Responses, https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/social-justice-report-1998-chapter-3-church-responses (accessed September 2018).

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