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Racism and reconciliation

NOTE: I preached this sermon at the Murri Evangelical Church (a Baptist church) in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia, on the first anniversary of the 1996 Australian federal election which swept Pauline Hanson onto the national political stage. Ms Hanson’s seat of Oxley, since renamed Blair following electoral boundary changes in 1998, included most of the city of Ipswich, where I was at that time a Baptist pastor, and where a significant community of Aboriginal people live.

Acts 10:1-11:18; Revelation 7:9-10

Prejudice is a great time-saver. It helps us form our opinions without getting the facts straight. Not one of us is entirely free from prejudice of some kind: “unfavourable opinions or feelings formed beforehand, or without knowledge, thought or reason.” There are families in this city that quarreled 30 years ago, and today they still don’t talk to one another when they meet unexpectedly at the shops.

In many ways our whole world is shaped by prejudice and division. People in our community feel free to promote ignorant opinions about race, ethnicity, politics, religion, and many other contentious subjects.

Religious prejudice

Prejudice also lurks just below the surface of otherwise respected, upstanding religious leaders – even among those in very public office. When Billy Graham visited Northern Ireland in May 1972 to encourage increased understanding among Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians, he learned by experience the bitter reality of prejudice.

As he preached at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in Belfast, the most prominent Protestant preacher in Northern Ireland, Rev Ian Paisley, was preaching a counter-sermon in his own church, condemning the visiting US evangelist for his compromising attitude toward Roman Catholics.

Not known as an irenic spirit, Paisley announced that “the church which has Billy Graham in its pulpit will have the curse of the Almighty upon it!” Graham offered to meet with Paisley while in Belfast, but Paisley refused, explaining that he did not “have fellowship with those who deny the faith.”[1]

The religious prejudice that Paisley expressed was intertwined with centuries of political and cultural conflict, and there was little that Billy Graham could do to ameliorate the tragic situation.

Racial prejudice

In our own backyard, social researcher Hugh Mackay highlights another form of prejudice when he describes longstanding attitudes toward immigrants – attitudes perpetuated today by the Federal Member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson:

“Migrants are welcome, as long as they are prepared to embrace the Australian way of life … as long as they make the learning of the English language a top priority … as long as they are not robbing Australians of jobs [and educational places] and other opportunities … as long as they leave their own racial and cultural tensions behind … as long as they do not lower the Australian standard of living by imposing too much strain on our urban infrastructure, or on our welfare system.”

When life appears tough, and there seems insufficient money – or love, or goodwill – to go around, we look for scapegoats: people who are different from ourselves. And we tend to blame them for our problems. And so the virulent and invasive cancer of prejudice spreads.

Racism in our community

We have our own strain of this cancer here in our local community in Ipswich, recently encouraged and exploited by ignorant people, but a long term problem. I am talking about racism against Aboriginal people – a spirit of death and fear hanging over our city.

I love Ipswich. It is a great place to live and work. It is the geographic centre of south-east Queensland. My mother was born here and lived here for 34 years. My maternal grandfather lived in Ipswich for 60 years, spending most of his working life as a coalminer. I know this city well. But do you wonder why so many Ipswich people have a low self-esteem? Why so many local businesses fail and close their doors, and relocate to Brisbane or Toowoomba and then flourish? Why the rate of serious criminal offences is sky-rocketing? Why more and more people are losing employment and relying on government handouts? What is wrong with our city?

There are many reasons for these unpleasant realities – some clear and easily understood, others deep-seated and complex. But I believe that healing the rift that racism has torn in our community is one key to the problem.

I believe that encouraging genuine reconciliation between the peoples of our community, and coming together in understanding and unity, will deliver blessing to our city. We all breathe and bleed and breed the same way. Why can’t we all get along together?

The first Christians lived in a similar environment, inheriting the strong traditional prejudices of Jewish culture and religion. But Luke the historian records, in Acts 10, events over four days that changed the world; four days that made a difference.

Four days that changed the world

On day one, Cornelius, a Roman centurion at Caesarea (about 50 km from the capital) responds to a message from God in a vision and travels to Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast, to meet a Jewish person named Peter. At noon the next day Peter receives a second vision from God. In this vision, God commands Peter to eat animals forbidden by the Law of Moses. Peter interprets the vision as God encouraging him to view non-Jewish people just as he views himself – as people loved and accepted by God. And, with this preparation, Peter meets the messengers sent from the house of Cornelius.

On day three, Peter sets off for Caesarea with six others to meetCornelius, his family and friends. They arrive the next day. Imagine Peter’s feelings when he is confronted by a room wall-to-wall with what seem to him like godless, despised Gentile “dogs” (see Ac 10:28)! He was confronted with a large crowd, and with a difficult mission from God.

But I am sure he also felt confronted by his own deep-seated prejudices – prejudices that required the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit to quell. Peter’s world was in deep need of healing, understanding and reconciliation between alienated peoples. The Good News of Jesus Christ delivered what they needed to bring them together. As he explained the Good News, Peter saw these people as God saw them: as citizens of one world, members of one race: the human race.

Tragically, we have not learned from the past. While it is true that, in Jesus Christ, God has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Eph 2:14), and established a framework for peace between Jews and non-Jews, that often does not flow into actual relationships between people – even Christians – of different ethnicity or colour or class.

Fresh vision, fresh attitudes

We need a fresh vision of our fundamental unity under God, just as Peter received that day at Joppa. We need the same vision today in Ipswich, and in many other places in our country. Above all, we need the humility toward others who are different, and the obedience to God, that Peter possessed.

How can we achieve this? How do we bridge the gap, attaining an ideal that is so painfully birthed and so easily shattered in our imperfect world? How can you and I work together to bring genuine and lasting reconciliation between our estranged peoples?

The road to reconciliation

The road to reconciliation is love, understanding and acceptance (Ac 10:23a, 28, 48) – by both parties; from both sides of the fence. I enjoyed a wonderful privilege of sharing in the work of sanding Pastor Ben Bird’s house yesterday with my Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal brothers.[2] Working together, talking together, sharing experiences: these interactions bring about a change in attitudes, and enable us to break down the deplorable walls of misunderstanding and hostility and ignorance that divide us. Do what you need to do. Do whatever you are able to do to encourage love, understanding and acceptance of each other. It starts with a single action.

The risk of reconciliation

If the road to reconciliation is love, understanding and acceptance, the risk of reconciliation is pain and misunderstanding (Ac 11:1-3).

Changed attitudes and a new perspective leads to changed behaviour that will inevitably attract criticism, and some of the strongest criticism will come from those closest to you, and it will hurt. The trouble with good ideas is that you always find someone who opposes you or who finds something wrong with your good idea.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that pain can work in your favour, providing motivation and spurring you on to further progressive action. We don’t change when we see the light but when we feel the heat!

We can choose to use criticism and opposition to our advantage. We can seek to overcome misunderstanding by reducing misinformation, by educating people with wise and factual information, and by encouraging dialogue. Ironically, one of the benefits of the rise of Pauline Hanson (and what she stands for) is an opportunity to engage in public debate; to tell the truth and let the facts speak for themselves. The truth will win in the end. It always does. Seek to listen well, and understand the opinions and perspective of others, before you explain your point of view. Look at Peter (Ac 11:18).

The reward of reconciliation

The reward of reconciliation is unexpected blessing (Ac 10:44-46a; 28:28, 30; Rev 7:9-10). At Joppa, God’s voice overturned religious prejudice. At Caesarea, God’s Spirit overturned racial prejudice. Prejudice drives people from one another and from God. It is God’s enemy, and anyone who is consumed by prejudice needs the liberating grace of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of Holy Spirit.

What is God going to overturn at Ipswich? Where shall we begin the process of healing? Where does the long journey of reconciliation commence? I believe our society needs structural change, and that is achieved through the ballot box and through public policy reform, and through the influence of our national institutions.

But it is also achieved through the influence of prevailing prayer, and through the inspiration and dedication of grass-roots people like you and me. The ordinary people of this troubled city can help heal the wounds that have long gone unattended, and that have been opened over these last 12 months.

Genuine and lasting reconciliation is possible between the Aboriginal people of this great continent and the descendants of those who invaded the land and who killed many of the first peoples here – yes, even in the now quiet suburbs of Ipswich. In the nineteenth century Aboriginal people were massacred at North Booval, Yamanto and Purga [local Ipswich communities].

It is time to work together with warm hearts and clear heads to achieve concrete solutions for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. We need affordable housing and living conditions, reasonable employment opportunities, basic health care and better access to education. We need and end to the large number of Aboriginal deaths in custody, and the tragedy of so many Aboriginal men in prisons. We need effective education and training for Aboriginal Christian leaders who can pastor their people in the bush and in the cities.

There is so much that needs to be done. There is so much you and I can do. For me it is an issue of justice and righteousness. I understand that not all Christians will agree with me. I am aware that there are many people and communities in Australia who need assistance, or who feel sidelined or ostracised by public policies and popular practices and prevailing attitudes. But I believe that Aboriginal Australians and Torres Straight Islanders do need economic empowerment. They do need cultural empowerment. And they do need spiritual empowerment.

By God’s grace, as we listen to the plight of the poor and the oppressed in our own land – just as Jesus listened – and as we work together, we will change this world. It all starts by accepting the Good News of Jesus Christ, allowing our attitudes and behaviours to be transformed by the Holy Spirit of God, seeing the world as God sees it, and finding the courage and inspiration, regardless of opposition or ridicule or embarrassment, to follow Jesus confidently into the future.


Sermon 107 copyright © 1997 Rod Benson. Preached at Murri Baptist Church, Dinmore, Queensland, Australia, on Sunday 2 March 1997. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).


References

[1] William Martin, A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991), p. 402.

[2] Pastor Ben Bird was the pastor of Murri Baptist Church at the time this sermon was preached.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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