One of our active members of the St James community and editor of the Red Wings newsletter Merilyn Tandukar delivered this contemporary word recently. If you didn’t get a chance to hear it in person it is a fantastic look into the role of compassion, humility and gentleness in the face of rules, as illustrated by our biblical tradition and how it applies to modern day issues like indigenous affairs.
Merilyn is also a keen photographer and appreciates the beauty found in the natural world.
‘LAWS AND THE OTHER CHEEK”
23 February 2014
by Merilyn Tandukar
Today in the Lectionary we see the words of Leviticus urging its readers to learn the laws and statutes, follow the rules and commandments. Then in Matthew there appears to be a development on the theme, as Linda mentioned last week, where we are asked to consider the rules and laws as a basis for our behaviour, but to go one step further.
So Jesus says, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” ”if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” For those living within the rules of the Jewish society, and also having to comply with the regulations and laws of the Romans, the people of the day must have thought these words of Jesus revolutionary and possibly subversive. Who was this Jesus, who was turning their minds upside down and asking them to be kind, gentle, forgiving, how was that going to work?
Was it worth it to even think this way, let alone change their behaviour? Better to just stay under the radar of the Roman soldiers, keep quiet, do your usual job or business, not listen to these new ideas or follow those disciples around who might make them change, that could be dangerous!
Travel forward with me to today’s world and how do we act or react to these words, think of the scenario that is the focus of the media at present, violence fuelled mostly by binge-drinking and possibly drug use. How do we advise our young people to behave given these situations? Is it wise, first of all to be out on the streets, but if you must, how to react in this situation? “Turn the other cheek”? Walk away? Show them some kindness? Or learn self-defence, as some are now choosing?
The other area of concern is of course, asylum seekers, and this I have spoken to on One other area of concern (for me personally) is the attitude of the Australian and State Governments to our indigenous people. How are we to react or respond to legislation or policies which we might find abhorrent or unjust?
While some of the recent legislation, Closing the Gap, the Intervention and Stronger Futures have had some good intentions and some good outcomes, in many of these cases a problem persists with consultation.Just for a moment, imagine how you would feel if you, or your family, or your community (or church as it happens) owned a block of land, or as we do in ACT, leased it on a 99-year lease. Imagine the government planning to build a road across our land, or erect a phone tower or other structure for their purposes. We would expect first of all, to receive some communication, by mail, or email, and be asked, if we had any issues with this plan, to make a response in writing by a certain date. If the matter came to a difference of opinion, one would expect some consultation to take place between us and government representatives. This could be just the beginning of a process which could take some weeks or months and involve various meetings and negotiations.
Just keep that thought in your mind. A book was published recently, called “In Absence of Treaty” (1) concerned with the changes in legislation concerning the Community Living Areas (or CLA’s) in the Northern Territory. This book is not about treaties, but it is a demonstration of what might happen when treaties have not been set up with indigenous peoples. It is part of a series published by a group called Concerned Australians, which has attempted to bring to light the effect of various policies of the Government, including the Stronger Futures Legislation. This small book highlights the attitude of recent administrations which appear to be slowly eroding the rights of the people and their ownership of the land, especially in this case, the CLA’s. The process by which the government has gone about the business of administering this policy, has been assessed and commented upon by many organisations and groups, indigenous and non-indigenous, and referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (PJCHR). In short, the PJCHR committee, in its report, published in June 2013, made various recommendations including a set of guidelines to be followed in consultation with indigenous peoples. This was entitled: “Features of a Meaningful and Effective Consultation Process” (originally set out in Chapter 3 of the Native Title Report 2010).
The main issue is the lack of information, consultation and professional advice provided. It has been construed by some as a denial of human rights. Many people in these CLA’s may have their lands leased in the future under this legislation without any real understanding of the use of the land for private or commercial purposes. Most of us, I would surmise, have read about and have an understanding of the meaning of the land for indigenous peoples, not only in Australia, but across the May I quote from a statement made by seven elders from different areas of the Northern Territory in 2011. This is a small part of what the elders said:
“We are the people of the land. The land is our mother. For more than 40,000 years we have been caring for this land. We are its natural farmers. Now, after so many years of dispossession, we find once again we are being thrust towards a new dispossession. Our pain and our fear are real. Our people are again being shamed.”
The connection to land has been documented and studied by many students and academics and researchers over a long period of time in our history. The indigenous people have spoken of it and described it many times also in books, speeches, poetry. But still those in government over these past ten years or more have seemed to ignore this knowledge and limited the rights of some indigenous people to live and connect with their land.
So how do we sit with this question? Whose laws do we recognise, the “ancestral law” of the indigenous people who have lived on this land for forty thousands of years or more, or the “laws” or “regulations” of the government of the day? Or do we take the advice of Jesus? What would he be saying about this situation at this time and in this place, in Australia, right now?
If you are wondering where the Uniting Church, via the Assembly, stands on some of these issues it is worth noting the Uniting Church has made some strong statements about the rights of indigenous Australians, and about the responsibility of second Australians in the form of a covenant relationship with first Australians. I refer you to changes in the Preamble of the Church’s constitution, in 2009 (2) and also statements made by Uniting Justice on behalf of Indigenous Australians in their report: UCA Response to the Passing of the Stronger Futures Legislation, 29 June 2012, (3). I have provided copies of these documents, as well as a copy of the book, for you in the foyer. The book will be placed in the library within the next week.
I leave you with a few thoughts. We acknowledge that turn the other cheek does not mean that the oppressed should put up with injustice. It does mean that we need to engage with those who persecute others. It acknowledges that we need to listen to those who are marginalised and to stand firm with them. Jesus knew there were not simple answers, and that laws can be used in both positive and negative ways.
I leave these questions and issues in your minds, to consider and discuss. I realise they are complex and take time to digest, but as members of the Uniting Church I urge that we have a role to play in standing up to injustice.”
1. In the Absence of Treaty, edited by Michele Harris, published by Concerned Australians, 2013.
2. Features of a Meaningful and Effective Consultation Process. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/social_justice/nt_report/ntreport10/pdf/ntr2010_App4.pdf
3. Revisions to the Preamble of the Uniting Church Constitution. http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/justice-for-indigenous-australians/news/item/865-uca-response-to-the-passing-of-the-stronger-futures-legislation and https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/covenanting/PREAMBLE.pdf
4. UCA Response to the Passing of the Stronger Futures Legislation, 29 June 2012. http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/justice-for-indigenous-australians/issues-papers/item/729-recognition-respect-justice-for-indigenous-australians-issues-paper