The following is an edited extract of the John Saunders Lecture which was given by Dr PETER ADAM, principal of Ridley College - an Anglican theological college in Victoria, earlier this month. The John Saunders Lecture is sponsored by the Baptist Union of NSW Social Issues Committee and seeks to address contemporary social and ethical issues in Australia from a scholarly, evangelical perspective...

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on this important issue, one of the great issues facing Australia. I am not an expert, and do not speak from first-hand experience of the human suffering that lies within the question. I am in danger of speaking glibly in the face of an immense tragedy which has engulfed Australia since 1788, and in the face of the ongoing effects of that tragedy still present all around us. 

However I am saying what needs to be said, and I want to encourage Christians to take leadership in these matters. 

All lands belong to God, and He distributed them to many nations, setting the time and places where they would live. The land is God’s land. To respect and honour God is to know that He made Australia, and to treat the existing indigenous peoples who were here in 1788 with respect. The appalling theory of terra nullius treated people as if they had no significance. This was an insult to them, and an offence against God their maker. 

In many situations we do not know if God’s will’s includes the re-allocation of land. However our best moral rule for individuals and nations is to assume that theft is wrong. Even if we suspected that someone did not have full legal rights to the land on which they lived, we would not think it right to dispossess them: why would our rights be any more legitimate?

"God in His mercy may have worked some things for good when the Europeans arrived in Australia, despite much that was evil. But that does not make that act of conquest and act of will of God."

God in His mercy may have worked some things for good when the Europeans arrived in Australia, despite much that was evil. But that does not make that act of conquest and act of will of God. Europeans assume that theft is wrong, and our legal codes support that view. We do not assume that every theft reflects the will of God. Why should we think that the theft of land is any different? 

In some cases, it is impossible to know the nation to whom God first gave some land, and they may not exist at the present time. That is not the case in Australia. We know those to whom God gave the land, and we know when it was stolen from them. It is time for sorrow, repentance, and reparation. For the European invasion and capture of Australia similar to when the Council of Berlin in 1884 carved up Africa between Germany, France, England, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal. Australia is a particularly clear example of the continuity of indigenous ownership and possession of the land. 

The curious and painful fact is that while England and the other European nations have returned the African land to indigenous ownership, that has not happened in Australia, New Zealand the United States of America, or Canada. The British left India, and the British, Germans, French Belgians and Portuguese left Africa, and the Dutch left Indonesia, why has it not happened here? 

Perhaps we still need more winds of change. The practical answer is that the indigenous Indians, Africans and Indonesians were clearly in the majority, whereas in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America they are not. However, that is to say that genocide is to be rewarded. It would in fact be possible, even if very difficult and complicated for Europeans and others to leave Australia. I am not sure where we would go, but that would be our problem. 

It is right to say, ‘Sorry’. For they were serious crimes and sins. They included the theft of land, which was not only the theft of livelihood, but also the theft of home, identity, and religion. They included murder and manslaughter, the destruction of social structures and culture, the breaking up of families, the desecration of the dead, and genocide, with no legitimate justification. 

But are we responsible for the sins of others? My ancestors arrived from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in the 1850s. As far as I know, none of them killed any indigenous people. But we have benefited from death and dispossession, and have grown wealthy from the poverty of others. If I discovered that my grand-father had killed a man, impoverished his family, and plundered his property to enrich himself, I think that I would try to find any descendants of the murdered man, and at least say sorry. For I would have benefited from that crime. 

But what of the defence that many Europeans did not intend to do evil? No doubt there were some who did not intend to do evil, who did not realise the evil that they did, who intended to do good but who did evil, or who intended to keep at a distance, and so were complicit in the evil deeds of others. We have to face the fact that unintended evil still have grave consequences. If, by accident, I killed a person while driving my car, I still have to face the reality of what has happened. In that situation, whatever the legal judgement, I would still think it right to go to the family of the person whom I had killed to say sorry. 

Do churches have any responsibilities in these matters? Why yes, because the land and wealth of churches came from land that had been stolen from the indigenous people of Australia. I was Vicar of St Jude’s Anglican Church in Carlton, Victoria. The land on which the church was build was a ‘Crown Grant.’ That meant that the government stole the land and gave it to the church. We received stolen goods. However even if we had bought the land from another owner or from the government, it would still have originally been stolen land. The prosperity of our churches has come from the proceeds of crime. Saying sorry is the least we should do. So our houses, our churches, our colleges, our shops, our sports grounds, our parks, our courts, our parliaments, our prisons our hospitals, our roads, our reservoirs are stolen property. Churches that know the Scriptures and so know the will of God should be the first to say sorry. 

However, saying sorry is not enough. It is time to repent, to turn from our sin, to acknowledge our sin before God. Repentance must lead to recompense, as we will see. 

Christian believers around Australia would be horrified at the thought of murdering their neighbours in order to steal their property, and would be highly offended if we suggested that they might do such things. But we have benefited because others have done these actions for us, and we continue to live off the proceeds of those crimes and sins.

"We may think that we are not the ones to repent, because we did not commit the sins. However although the Bible teaches that we may not blame the sins of our ancestors for our suffering in order to claim that we are innocent, it also give examples of repentance for the sins of ancestors."

Our guilt is great. If we tempted to excuse ourselves by thinking that perhaps God was punishing the indigenous people of the land by sending the Europeans, then we must acknowledge that we have greater committed greater sins. We prided ourselves on our civilisation, and our Christianity. We have greater responsibility, and greater guilt, and should prepare ourselves to be invaded and cast out of the land when the time is right. For nations sin, as John Saunders reminds us. 

We may think that we are not the ones to repent, because we did not commit the sins. However although the Bible teaches that we may not blame the sins of our ancestors for our suffering in order to claim that we are innocent, it also give examples of repentance for the sins of ancestors, as in Daniel’s prayer, when he confessed ‘my sin and the sin of my people Israel,’ corporate and ancestral sin.

Then it is at once our duty, and our wisdom to humble ourselves in penitence before God. But repentance supposes reformation, and where injuries have been inflicted it involves recompense...But the next step to reformation is restitution. And do we start at this word? It is one an honest man need never shrink from; it is one a noble mind will never discard; it is one which religious man will cheerfully adopt. It is our duty to recompense the Aborigines to the extent we have injured them.

We European Australians often claim that one of the strengths of the Australian character is ‘caring for the underdog.’ That claim is rank and blatant hypocrisy. We do not act with justice, let alone care. 

I recognise that some people have done their best to care for indigenous people, and to remedy wrongs. I recognise that some Christians have also done their best to remedy wrongs, to care for indigenous people, and to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Thankfully there have also been efforts to provide some sort of recompense. The Aboriginal Protection Act of the Queensland government of 1897 aided the provision of reserves. The recent Mabo judgement of 1992 and Native Title Act of 1993 has enabled some repossession of land, especially in northern Australia. In some parts of Australia there has been a policy of securing pastoral lease or freehold land for it to be owned and controlled by native title holders. These are encouraging first steps: I think that a more drastic act of recompense is required.

What might recompense require of us who arrived since 1788? 

We would recognise that recompense is a duty and responsibility, that we owe it to the indigenous peoples of this land, out of respect for them as our brothers and sisters made in God’s image, and out of awareness of the vileness of the crimes which have been committed against them and their ancestors. 

We would recognise that recompense is based on our duty, not the needs of indigenous people. I am not saying that we should not care, but that we must act with integrity and justice. 

We would recognise that no recompense could ever be satisfactory, because what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating, and so irreparable. 

We would ask the indigenous people if they wanted those of us who have arrived since 1788 to leave or to provide an equivalent recompense. Leaving would be a drastic and complicated action, but, as I have pointed out, it has happened in India, Africa, and Indonesia in the last sixty years. 

If we do not leave, then we would need to ask each of the indigenous peoples of this land what kind of recompense would be appropriate for them. This would be an extremely complicated and extensive task, but must be done. 

We would need to be prepared to give costly recompense, lest it trivialise what has happened. 

We would then need to adopt a national recompense policy, in the form of a Treaty. It would need to be implemented locally, according to the wishes of each indigenous tribe. 

By negotiation, it could be a one-off act of recompense, or it could be a constant and long-term series of acts of recompense.

"Love involves duty, as well as charity. We have wronged our neighbours. It is now time to pay our debts, to confess our sins, to give the recompense that we owe."

We could also implement voluntary recompense by churches in a coordinated way, and should include support of indigenous Christian ministry and training, as negotiated by the leaders of Christ’s indigenous people. Christian churches should lead the way in this, not least in supporting indigenous Christians and their ministries. For churches too have benefited from the land they use, and from income from those who have usurped the land. 

It would be difficult to agree to do this, complicated to negotiate, and costly and demanding to deliver. The alternative is to fail in our moral duty, to admit that, for Australia, in Martin Luther King’s words, ‘the bank of justice is bankrupt.’ We owe the indigenous people of Australia not only their full rights as citizens of our nation, but also recompense for the damage we have done. Recognizing citizenship and recognition of Native Title are just the first steps in a long process of appropriate restitution and recompense. 

The idea of recompense is not alien to our society. As one well-known example, James Hardie has had to provide recompense to workers harmed by working with asbestos. There is wide-spread feeling that this is right. If this recompense is right, then it is also right to offer recompense to the indigenous people of Australia.

Love involves duty, as well as charity. We have wronged our neighbours. It is now time to pay our debts, to confess our sins, to give the recompense that we owe. We who know God’s great love in Christ should be the most active in loving others. May God strengthen us to love the Lord our God, and so to love our neighbours. 

This is an edited extract of the speech. A full copy of Dr Peter Adam's speech can be downloaded at www.ridley.edu.au.