Joel 1.8–10, 17–20
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was still to come but the basis of it, the gradual ascent from beast to civilised man, dominated the psychology of Europe at the time. The first British visitors sailed to Australia contemplating what they were about to find, and innate superiority was the prism through which their new world was seen.
When Darwin’s theory was put forward, it gave comfort to those who believed it was their right and duty to occupy the ‘empty’ land. As anthropologist Tony Barta commented:
‘The basis of that view was historical: it held that the advance of civilisation was a triumphal progress, morally justifiable and probably inevitable. When Darwin lent his great gifts and influence to making the disappearance of peoples ‘natural’ as well as historical, his theory … could serve as an ideological cover for policies abhorrent to his humanitarian and humanist principles. Darwin’s fateful confusion of natural history and human history would be exploited fatally by others.’
Under the influence of these cultural certainties how would it have been possible for the colonists not to believe that Englishmen were on the steepest ascent of human endeavour? How would it have been possible for them not to believe that the world was their entitlement and their possession of it ordained by their God? — Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu
Today is Outback Sunday. What does the word ‘outback’ conjure in your mind?
Is it images of Uluru, of bronzed shearers, of red soil? Or do you see Aboriginal people, perhaps living in indigenous dignity or post-colonial squalor? Do you see open-cut mines scoring vast gashes in the land, staffed by fly-in fly-out workers? Do you recall the murder of Peter Falconio, or do you dream of being a grey nomad?
When European people first came here, they saw a vast alien landscape, empty, arid, and full of threat. Perhaps that’s why so many of us still huddle around Australia’s coastal regions. Life can be hard out there.
‘Outback’ is an Australian word. We don’t read it in the Bible, but we do hear about the ‘wilderness’. Wilderness refers to ‘desolate, abandoned, and deserted places beyond settled areas, beyond the law and social controls’ (Alice M Sinnott, in Season of Creation). Like the outback, it’s a hard place, even a dangerous place. Mind you, the biblical wilderness isn’t necessarily desert; the Jordan River is in ‘the wilderness’, and there John baptises Jesus.
Something that strikes me is — as I understand it — that we second comers see the outback as empty, miles from nowhere, while indigenous people find it to be their country, full to overflowing with food, with stories (like the tale of Tiddalik), with belonging.
Last year Karen and I went to the Red Centre, and I had a marvellous experience. I couldn’t live there though, it’s just too far from familiar things for me.
This picture shows Kata Tjuta from Uluru, at sunrise.
In the language of the Anangu peoples of Central Australia, Kata means ’head’ and Tjuta means ‘many’. Kata Tjuta: ‘Many Heads’.
You can see the heads, but at some point a question will naturally arise: whose heads are they? Our guide to Kata Tjuta was a young woman; she didn’t know the answer. Why not? She couldn’t know because it’s men’s business. No woman may know whose heads are represented here. I’m a man, so surely I am allowed to know? I can’t know either. It’s a mystery; I’m not allowed to know it, because I am not an Anangu man.
To me, it is a wonderful sight, the equal of any I have seen. But to the Anangu, it is a sacred place. A holy site. It is home.
I on the other hand stood in the Red Centre as an alien, a foreigner, though sympathetic.
Yet not everyone is sympathetic.
We have heard recently of a clash between Indigenous and European ways of living on the land. I’m speaking of Rio Tinto and Juukan Gorge. The traditional owners of this part of the Pilbara in Western Australia are the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.
Juukan Gorge is a place that has been home to people for 46000 years. That was in the last Ice Age. A cave there contained ancient animal remains and artefacts — including a 4000-year–old belt of human hair — that directly linked the DNA of the PKKP people of today with that of people 4000 years ago.
In London, executives of Rio Tinto wanted to expand their iron ore operations in the Pilbara. They devised a plan to blow up this cave.
They could have proceeded without blowing up the cave, but they chose to destroy it along with the priceless objects within.
Why did they choose this destructive alternative? It was so they could get access to another 8 million tons of iron ore, worth about $135 million dollars. And it was all perfectly legal.
When you’re in London, the remote Australian outback seems a strange place. What good is it, except as a place to mine? There’s only a few unimportant Aborigines there. The executives are answerable to their shareholders, not to those who live in such a godforsaken place.
The cave is gone. Yet the shareholders were furious at what was done in their name. They turned on the executives who made the decision, who are now serving out their notice.
Mind you, they will leave Rio Tinto as very wealthy people, and the cave is forever gone.
The Scripture readings for today speak of the Earth groaning in pain.
The fields are devastated,Joel 1.10
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.
And the Apostle Paul writes,
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now …Romans 8.22
Surely we can say that Juukan Gorge grieves. That the land cries out in pain. Surely we can grant the Earth a voice.
In this Season of Creation 2020, the land mourns the past and fears the future. What will climate change bring? Are our forests safe, or rivers secure, our reefs viable? Will indigenous people suffer yet more loss?
I was taught as a child and in my younger years that ‘progress’ is necessary, inevitable, and good. Yet in the last, say, thirty years our inability to limit the destructive effects of so-called progress has become increasingly obvious.
To progress now surely means to hear and work to heal the cries of the ground, of animals and plants who are in danger because we do not know how to change.
I’ll never feel ‘at home’ in the outback, though it’s a wonderful place to see. I don’t have to feel at home there; but I do need to listen to those whose home it is. We all need to listen carefully, as people of prayer; and act prayerfully, as people who care. Amen.
West End Uniting Church 20 September 2020