Opinion: “For your sakes he became poor …”: How the churches can reckon with their colonial legacy

From: ABC Religion and Ethics by

Posted updated 

[This is the edited version of an address given at “Walking Together: How Can the Church Embrace First Peoples’ Theology in a Post-Colonial Australia”, a conference organised by the Uniting Church Synod of New South Wales and the ACT, 22 October 2022, and convened at the Wesley Conference Centre, on Gadigal country.]

I want to remind the churches that you have a colonial legacy, and in five senses:

  • You participated in, and still benefit from, the stealing of our lands.
  • You have blood on your hands because those who participated in the massacres, the frontier conflicts, the genocidal policies concerning our people, were overwhelmingly Christian.
  • You took the lead in the attempted destruction of our spirituality, our way of life, especially during the missions period.
  • You participated in, and continue to be largely silent in the face of, the ecocide which accompanied the genocide: as you acquired country, you damaged it through your ignorance about how to manage it.
  • Many of you continue to deploy an imaginative terra nullius regarding our people by effectively pretending that we don’t exist. Our voices are not there in the policy-making bodies of your councils, your agencies, and your educational institutions. You are uncurious about the country you walk on and the knowledge we have of its ways and its spirit. There continues to be a lack of curiosity about our theology, which is different from your theology in fairly fundamental ways.

This account gives rise to a fundamental question: how are the churches to reckon with this colonial heritage. Well, to answer this (at least in part), I will appeal to the Pauline tradition as we have it in the New Testament.

Consider the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which says:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

Notice a number of features about this passage. It is addressed to a group of Christians who are divided, one against another, who are selfish — who look out for their own survival and wellbeing at the expense of others. Does that sound familiar?

The Apostle then contrasts this behaviour to that of Jesus — who, though enjoying a certain ascendency in the cosmic order of things, empties himself (kenosis) of all such power and privilege in order to come among human beings as a slave who has no power at all (doulos).

The passage then creates a model, a pathway, which Christian communities are encouraged to imitate and follow in order to be truly alive and vital. It is the path of “kenosis”: a dying in order to rise to a rather more elevated — more other-centred — mode of being; a dying to all that is power-over, power-acquisitive, power-for self-alone; and a rising to power-with, power-giving, power for the wellbeing of others.

The questions then arise: How are you settler Christians, you immigrant Christian communities — you who have empowered and enriched yourselves at the expense of Indigenous people — going to let that power go? How are you going to redress the balance? How will you take the power you acquired by genocide and ecocide and return it to those you wronged, and continue to wrong? If you are Christians, then it can never be a question of whether you return such power; it can only be a question of how. For if you do not imitate Christ in this manner, can you really be called Christians at all?

Let us interrogate further the question of “how”, beginning with a couple paragraphs from the eighth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something — now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”

The context here is that there are two church communities: one that is very poor and another that is quite rich. We’re referring to actual, economic, resources here, not so-called “spiritual” resources — intangible things like wisdom or humility. We’re talking about money and property. The Apostle appeals to the rich church to share its abundant resources with the poor church by invoking, again, a kenotic Christology. His argument, in summary, goes something like this:

  • Remember the story of Jesus: he was rich, but he became poor for your sakes, so that you might acquire some of his riches.
  • So, like Jesus, I’d like you to hand over your wealth, your money, to the poor church. I’d like you to act with the same love, the same generosity of spirit, as that which you found in Christ.
  • Not, mind you, to the point where you become destitute and in need of help yourselves. Think, rather, that the excess you enjoy can provide what is lacking in the poorer community.
  • The goal here is something like a balance, an equality, so that you both have what you need.

Now, obviously, there is no hint in this text that the rich church gained its riches by stealing its wealth from the poor church. But, this being so, how much more ought the colonial church consider the ways in which it might return its stolen resources to the people from whom they were stolen?

It is at this point that the question usually arises: “Fine, but what would that actually look like for our own local church community, our own denominational organisation?” The answer to that might become the substance of treaty proposals, the ways in which the deeply uneven balance of power between colonial and Indigenous communities might be rendered more equal. So, I invite you, the members of the colonial church, to consider the following.

At the denominational level:

  • Make arrangements to hand the properties you were given by the crown, without fee or compensation, back their original Aboriginal owners, without fee or compensation.
  • Where properties were purchased from the Crown, or else from other colonial owners, make arrangements to vest the title of those properties in the name of the original owners under a lease-back scheme. This makes both the use, or the disposal, of those properties a matter of negotiation and careful agreement (or treaty) between Indigenous people and settlers.
  • Where purchased properties remain in the hands of the denomination because local mob do not want to become owners, contribute half of the income on such properties to mob: 25 per cent to local owners and 25 per cent to Indigenous ministries run by and for our people. The same would apply when properties are sold: split the proceeds of the sale.

At the local congregational level:

  • Contribute 10 per cent of your annual budget to ministries run by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, in perpetuity.
  • Whether there is a denominational agreement for lease-back of properties in place or not, approach your local mob with the question: Could we form a relationship with you that includes your use of this space for community gatherings and programmes without fee or compensation?

A more just sharing of the land you have stolen from us, including its commercial value, would obviously make a huge difference to the kinds of programmes Aboriginal Controlled Community Organisations could run to assist our people to escape from poverty and reclaim our rightful heritage as the sovereign peoples of this country. It would also make a huge difference to our capacity to reclaim and pass on our practical wisdom and spirituality to the next generation, whether Indigenous or settler.

In the church, the sharing of these resources would provide a sure and reliable economic base for the work of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries, and for our theological research and teaching. The fruit of these ministries would make for stronger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and higher profile for our spiritualities and theologies in the knowledge repositories of our nation. Knowledges that are desperately needed if we are to heal, and form a more mutually supportive relationship with Country.

Reverend Dr Garry Deverell

DipEd, BA, BTheol (Hons), PhD

Garry Deverell is Lecturer and Research Fellow in the new School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Divinity.

A trawloolway man from northern lutruwita (Tasmania), Dr Deverell is the author of Gondwana Theology (Morning Star Press, 2018) and The Bonds of Freedom (Paternoster, 2008). He is a graduate of the University of Tasmania, the Melbourne College of Divinity, and Monash University (where he completed doctoral studies in 2004). He has held the Sanderson Fellowship and a lectureship in liturgy and preaching at the Uniting Church Theological College as well as the Turner Fellowship at Trinity College Theological School, both within the University of Divinity.

Garry is an international expert in sacramental studies, especially insofar as sacraments intersect with theories concerning the formation of human selves in community. His more recent research has turned towards theologising the experience of Indigenous peoples within and beyond the colonial church.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: “For your sakes he became poor …”: How the churches can reckon with their colonial legacy

  1. Bev Floyd

    It’s interesting to think about whether land can be ‘owned’…
    or if it can be ‘stolen’.
    When Abraham came from UR to the land of Judea, he was a nomad grazing sheep across land shared with other nomads. In the time of the Kings, David went to war and wrested ownership of the land from its other inhabitants. After that, the Jewish people claimed it as theirs… forever. Hmmm?

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