He was in his early teens. A fine looking young man struggling to find his way in a white world, often accused of crimes he had not committed, we worked together to overcome the injustices that came his way. When he was 10 he filled a bathtub with water, poured in a bottle of White King bleach, and climbed in. He wanted to be white like all the rest of the kids in his class. He was a young man in exile.
Sometime later I was working in the funeral industry and visited the mortuary at Mt Isa hospital. A man had been placed on the slab for forensic examination by the GMO; a blood stained white sheet covered his body. Freezer doors weeping on one wall, a pile of torn decrepit clothes absent-mindedly flung on the untidy bench as a brief reminder of a life once occupied, and the half closed screen door, all spoke volumes about the place in which we stood. The man was an aboriginal person who had been sleeping on the highway, run over by an eighteen-wheel road train. While it might seem trivial to say his body was badly damaged, it is impossible to know just how much unless you had witnessed the results. Remarkably his face was unmarked.
Standing there, I experienced being in the tomb with the dead Christ, standing on the edge watching as people performed the necessary routines. I knew I was witnessing a scene that would change my life forever. And it did.
I struggle to understand why people sleep rough on the road in the path of the ubiquitous semi-trailer. What sense of hope do these people have, or indeed, is hopelessness the only gift our society gives them? Here was a human being who did not deserve to die in such a violent manner. Here was someone who had at some time in his life dreamed dreams, held hopes, loved another and possibly fathered and raised children. Where had all that gone, and what part did the dominant culture of our society, including the church I am apart of, have in his decline? Here was the image of Christ crushed into death, not simply by the truck, but by the failure of society to engage and include him. He remained in exile.
Talking with the GMO I heard about indigenous teenage suicides. The method chosen spoke eloquently of the hopelessness experienced. They simply tied something around their neck and on to a fence, sat-down and waited. What is our response or do we rationalize what happened as the life style choice of the individual? Exiled and disempowered.
I grew up in a town renown for its violence against local tribes. Visiting the library, reading newspaper cuttings and letters from the mid 1880’s to the early 1920’s, I realised the steps taken by my family to hide my grandmothers’ heritage was a strategy deemed necessary for survival.
My grandfather made my Uncle promise to keep my grandmothers indigenous heritage hidden. No one in my family speaks of it; her background is shrouded in mystery. There is only a mother who registered the birth some time later in a different town. No father is mentioned. She had the name of the family she was left with when the small aboriginal community from which Jimmy and Joey Governor, part-aboriginal men who killed 9 people during a fourteen week rampage in 1900, the year of federation, and who inspired the book and movie “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” came, were forcibly moved out west at the request of the white community.
While it was our family secret, it wasn’t a secret to the locals. I grew up known as ‘Young Darkie’ or ‘Young Blackfella’; my friend, when angry, called me the son of a drunken bush black; another friends’ father told a group of classmates they could be friends with me but to remember where I came from. Bullying at school was never-ending.
My father lived in exile, caught between a world he knew and a world he never knew, growing more bitter and angry as the years went on. He acted out his violence through alcohol, directing it at anyone nearby, particularly his family and I as his eldest son. He was never able to reconcile within himself these two worlds even when he stopped drinking. It was bigger than him and his family. It was the internalised oppression of a people and country from which he was exiled.
These incidents are metaphors for the destruction of the primal spiritual essence of our people and symbolise the battle for the soul of our nation. Our people are suffering from the cumulative effect of internalised oppression giving rise to the situation we see in front of us. It will take imagination, humility and a drastic rethinking of our own lives and the way we find value and meaning in and for ourselves, and others before we will be able to reach out to those we continue to oppress. They, we, are living in exile.
Perhaps exile holds the key for the future. ‘Only when you are out of rhythm with the familiar do you begin to investigate and explore the possibilities. Exile is the place in which such an investigation not only can begin, but becomes necessary for both survival and renewal. It is the place where one is forced, as an individual and a community, to reflect on who or what is at the centre of one’s being.’ Both cultures are disconnected from their centre due to the violent history of our country, and in a very real sense, both black and white, are exiled from belonging. Homeless and exiled, the violence continues and can only find peace when we own such disconnection together.
Standing at the edges of the abyss, a place our country has teetered on for sometime, reveals both the emptiness and the fullness of our situation. Emptiness and fullness of place, time and country, language and symbolism, and myth and meaning in a land overflowing with mythic and creative possibilities as yet untapped. Both cultures have been reduced to a literal reading of the situation and are concentrating on solving practical and in your face problems – work, housing, education (all good things) but not that which will change the situation in the long term.
What will change our situation is the conversation from the edge, from exile. This is not a conversation for insiders on both sides, but for the outsiders, those whose voice isn’t heard in conventions, parliaments or peak body discussions. It is not about the pronouncements by high profile leaders or designated spokesmen and women. This is dialogue, the conversation between ordinary individuals, telling stories and sharing both knowledge and ignorance, informing pathways and possibilities. This conversation begins here with you and I, exploring experiences, questioning stereotypes, forming relationships and breaking down walls.
Thomas Merton suggests “The deepest of level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless … beyond speech … beyond concept.” It is sometimes called Dadirri by indigenous people. Inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. It is a ‘tuning in’ experience with the specific aim to come to a deeper understanding of the beauty of the other.
It is listening and hearing, not just to what is said but what is not said, what is felt, what is hidden. This takes great imagination and risk. It takes time, and is not linear. It involves learning in depth, far removed from the head and the rational desire to solve problems.
It requires respect, the capacity to allow others to make the journey at their own pace and in ways we find uncomfortable and counter intuitive. It recognises others as our teachers and removes us from the responsibility of knowing everything. It recognises the reign of God as the companionship of empowerment and looks not for measurable results but fulfilled lives.
Merton, in writing to race activist Jim Forrest in the US in the 1960’s said; “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
Whatever we do in terms of reconciliation and engagement with indigenous people must keep this in mind. It is not about ideas or solutions, but people. Individuals of goodwill like you and I who are seeking a better world for all, can only do so in relationship with each other and those we share the future with. John Baxter, speaking at a NRW gathering said that reconciliation is relational – it happens between individual people, not cultures. For people driven by easy answers and quick solutions this maybe seen as doing nothing, wasting time and avoiding the problem.
It is the good news Jesus performed. He did little, he wasted time and, as far as the Zealots and others were concerned, he avoided the elephant in the room – the system. Yet he changed the world. We can do the same. It can only happen through dadirri and communion, and it must begin tonight.