CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Now That We’ve Said Sorry

Feb 13, 2008

Well, the speeches have been made, the protests have been held, the emotions have poured forth and the rhetoric has been sprayed over wide areas. Time will tell whether today’s historic gesture will achieve anything of real value, for blacks as well as for whites. It is hoped that some genuine good will come out of it all.

Of course whole oceans of ink have been spilled on all this. As would be expected, it is of mixed quality. There were however two recent pieces – both appearing in the Australian – which I thought were especially noteworthy.

The first appeared yesterday and was written by Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. It was a significant piece and deserves careful reading. I here offer some snippets from this incisive and nuanced article.

Pearson, unlike so many “experts” and commentators on this issue, realizes what a complex and multifaceted issue this is: “The truth is the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of Aboriginal families is a history of complexity and great variety. People were stolen, people were rescued; people were brought in chains, people were brought by their parents; mixed-blood children were in danger from their tribal stepfathers, while others were loved and treated as their own; people were in danger from whites, and people were protected by whites. The motivations and actions of those whites involved in this history – governments and missions – ranged from cruel to caring, malign to loving, well-intentioned to evil.”

He does not buy the ‘white men evil, black men good’ myth, or the idea of the noble savage. He realises mistakes have been made all around, and just as the past has been complex, so too the way ahead will be complex. He does for example think that a case might be made for compensation. It seems to make sense, if we have in fact done something wrong. If we say sorry, we must believe something bad has taken place. Keith Windschuttle brought this up recently. Pearson takes note of it:

“A second way the apology might be considered is from a philosophical angle, and my argument here has been pre-empted by Keith Windschuttle, writing in The Weekend Australian. Which is more sincere: to say ‘we will not apologise to the Stolen Generations and we won’t pay compensation’, or ‘we will apologise but we won’t pay compensation’?”

Of course that issue is a minefield which I here cannot enter into. Pearson also expressed concern about how an apology would be taken: “One of my misgivings about the apology has been my belief that nothing good will come from viewing ourselves, and making our case on the basis of our status, as victims. We have been – and the people who lost their families certainly were – victimised in history, but we must stop the politics of victimhood. We lose power when we adopt this psychology. Whatever moral power we might gain over white Australia from presenting ourselves as victims, we lose in ourselves. My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.”

He even questions the celebrated “Bringing Them Home” report: “Then there is the historical angle on the apology. The 1997 report by Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson is not a rigorous history of the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of families. It is a report advocating justice. But it does not represent a defensible history. And, given its shortcomings as a work of history, the report was open to the conservative critique that followed. Indigenous activists’ decision to adopt historian Peter Read’s nomenclature, the Stolen Generations, inspired Quadrant magazine’s riposte: the rescued generations.”

He acknowledges the good whites have done in the past: “The 19-year-old Bavarian missionary who came to the year-old Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford in Cape York Peninsula in 1887, and who would spend more than 50 years of his life underwriting the future of the Guugu Yimithirr people, cannot but be a hero to me and to my people. We owe an unrepayable debt to Georg Heinrich Schwartz and the white people who supported my grandparents and others to rebuild their lives after they arrived at the mission as young children in 1910.”

Christians in particular did much good: “This history cannot be understood simply through the specific policy intentions of the governments and the missions. It must be understood by reference to the severe life options available to Aboriginal people in the wake of European occupation and indigenous dispossession. The life options of the Guugu Yimithirr on the frontiers of Cooktown in the 1880s had near collapsed. Without the Cape Bedford Mission, the Guugu Yimithirr had no good survival options. Yes, like missions throughout colonial history, the Cape Bedford Mission provided a haven from the hell of life on the Australian frontier while at the same time facilitating colonisation.”

The second article worth noting appeared today. It agreed that a government apology was needed: not for so-called stolen generations, but for the appalling way past governments have handled Aboriginal welfare. He begins this way:

“Today, the federal Government says sorry to the Stolen Generations. But others who share responsibility for the problems in indigenous communities should also apologise. And it should be a sincere sorry, with a real outcome. The sorry debate has been hijacked by a misunderstanding of the sources of present dysfunction in Aboriginal Australia. It’s been hijacked by those who want to salve their consciences but who can’t stomach the hard decisions that have to be taken. Most remote Aboriginal dysfunction has absolutely nothing to do with the Stolen Generations and Ronald Wilson’s Bringing Them Home report. Although some of those people have been wounded, it’s not the basis of wider dysfunction.”

He continues, “It’s easy to apologise for what someone else did. And to tut-tut about failures of the past. But the problems a 10-year-old raped child in Aurukun is facing today were not created by the policies of removal in the early 20th century: they were fertilised in failures of the present generation and those who lead us.”

He says there is a place for apologies: “The people who should be apologising are those who during the past 40 years presided over deeply flawed indigenous affairs policies that created separatism, nepotism, welfarism and isolationism: dysfunction and despair; the wide-scale abuse and neglect of Aboriginal children and the poorer health outcomes of Aboriginal people in general. The apology should be from the Government, because it still has people who want to return to the failures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and some who participated in the politics of nepotism. It should be from the Howard government: after all, it persisted with those failed policies for much of its time in office as a political holding strategy because it was afraid, until its last year or so, to really do something. It should be from the Keating and Hawke governments, which fostered and cultured the policies of separatism and gave real succour to the Aboriginal industry by building ATSIC into the monster it became. And it did so not because it didn’t know this caused problems, it did it because it didn’t want to face the political challenge that really tackling Aboriginal poverty would create in its own ranks.”

He concludes, “A symbolic apology for something we haven’t done is meaningless. Only real and sincere regret, a genuine apology and a steely determination to take the hard decisions will ensure we don’t lose more generations of Aboriginal Australians in the future.”

These thoughts on the issue are not the last word, nor even a major part of the story. But they do offer some perspective which is often lacking in much of the mainstream media. The simplistic slogans and heated rhetoric need to be replaced by careful reflection and sober judgments. Reading these two pieces will hopefully help toward that end.

www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23196221-28737,00.html
www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23203981-7583,00.html

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21 Responses to Now That We’ve Said Sorry

  • Of course we here in Adelaide have a Stealing Generation of some 49 or more Aboriginal youth involved in often violent theft.

    The tragedy is that many seem to come from homes witout a father figure, and when brought before magestrates, are let out on bail often to re-offend in days.

    I suspect much of the reason for absence of a father figure for the young lads is sit down money and alcohol.

    Stephen White

  • I truly think that saying ‘Sorry’ was important to this nations fabric and identity. Any talk of an empty, symbolic apology for something we did not do, is simply bitter. Kevin Rudd has stood in front of the nation and the world and admitted that wrongs were done by white Australians to indigenous Australians. The symbolism of this act was clearly important; look at the massive turnout of Aboriginal people at Parliament House yesterday! Words can never undo the wrongs of the past, but they can be an important step towards the healing and change that our nation needs. I feel a little better about being an Australian since yesterday!
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • This article has balance in relating the facts that there were injustices on both sides – notably the Government of the day not realizing the real needs of the Aboriginal people and addressing those needs plus the irresponsible behaviour of Aboriginal leaders and the fermenting of resentment in Aboriginal communities fueled by government funded binge drinking and subsequent crime. If there were wrongs on both sides, then perhaps there should be an apology given by both sides.
    Michael Treacy

  • Is the P.M. contemplating another ‘stolen generation’ within 5 years to insure all indigenous children under 4 will learn to read & write. Or does he, against all experience, expect an ‘apology’ to so change attitudes that all will want to learn. Poverty is not solved by money. Unless the underlying factors of lack of education, drugs, broken families & absent fathers, & unplanned pregnancies in unmarried mothers, are corrected, all that money will achieve is that those who receive can be miserable in some comfort.
    Arthur Hartwig

  • Arthur, your description of “lack of education, drugs, broken families & absent fathers, & unplanned pregnancies in unmarried mothers” is hardly specific to the Indigenous community. And, from personal experience, I would say that the children, when given the chance, will want to learn. It is perfectly achievable and realistic to aim to provide education to all indigenous children under the age of 4. Cynicism like yours is partly why it hasn’t been achieved before now.
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • I think the greatest thing lacking in the mainstream is a knowledge of history with respect to this issue, and I do not propose to have knowledge of it, but it concerns me that decisions are made with media driven frenzy by a Government that would like to be SEEN to be doing the right thing, as oposed to doing the right thing!

    Even more concerning is the politicizing propaganda that seems to be forced upon children in school. Why is it that my children MUST view and then write about an issue they have absolutely NO understadning of?

    Last year for literacy, my son had to read a book titled ‘Global Warming’ what on earth has this to do with literacy? And why on earth is such a controversial issue being touted as settled and then foisted upon an ignorant child?

    Friends our country is beginning to look like some of the countries we dare not wish to be compared to of the past 100 years. Countries I wont mention here lest this blog is not taken as a serious concern.

    We see teachers so willing to strike for better pay, but God forbid they complain for a better grading system or to abolish this educational experiment and go back to the Classical Education that spawned some of the great thinkers of history, even when they KNOW this to be true.

    We certainly live in interesting times.

    Edi Giudetti

  • I suppose with all the ‘sorry’ words something might happen to fix up the mess but governemts thought throwing money at it would work, but it did’nt. In the 1960s I worked with Aboriginal people in Adelaide with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a welfare officer and (during that time) with semi-tribal Pijantjatjara people in the Musgrave Ranges. The cultural disparity was enormous between these two groups. One group was born into town and city culture and the other was still tribal. Since then policies have changed to 100% Aboriginal for both groups. Most of the town and city people had to adopt a different philosophy of life to their own and it has not resulted in social advancement for them as a group. Nor has it succeeded for those people in remote Northern Territoty and Torres Island settlements.

    Employment possibilites have not improved nor the problem of the high level of imprisonmen which remains over represented compared with the general population. Other indicators such as poverty, health and poor propress in primary and secondary schooling. In Aboriginal tertiary studies as well as some general courses gains have been made in that level of education mainly since 1967 when federal finances became available to assist aspiring students. It seems the ‘One Nation’ concept has not suited all Aboroginal people and I believe some room should be given to those who choose to live their lives as they wish. Probably many people in the Australian population have Aboriginal blood and do this but they are not numbered amoung the 500,000 who now claim to be Aboriginal.

    Peter Rice

  • Daniel’s apology to the Lord (Dan 9) was an identification with those who had rebelled against God, even though it can reasonably be inferred that Daniel himself was not at fault. Corporate sin involves us all. Whether by action, complicity or neglect, we have sinned and acted unjustly towards indigenous Australians throughout the more than 200 years of white settlement in Australia. The details of what wrong has been done will be argued interminably, but the clear fact of the depravity and injustice is unassailable. An apology is due. I agree with David Moore that it must involve much more than a symbolic apology, but the symbolic apology itself has been a significant step towards genuine reconciliation. The Prime Minister was representing all of us in expressing our apology for our complicity in the gross injustice done to aboriginal people. Now it’s time for all of us to produce fruit in keeping with our repentance.
    David Esdaile

  • Thanks David

    Of course as an Israelite Daniel was a part of God’s covenant people and understood the corporate nature involved. Like Moses and other leaders, he interceded for the rebellious Israelites, and prayed that Yahweh’s judgment would not fall, even though it was fully deserved.

    That is a somewhat different scenario from this one, with me having to say sorry for something I never did. The idea of collective guilt may have been applicably to the nation of Israel as a whole, but I am not sure I see that in the New Testament. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were quite happy to judge people as a group (a class, or race, eg.) instead of individuals. That is a mistake we should seek to avoid.

    And with all due respect, I really do not believe that I, “by action, complicity or neglect, have sinned and acted unjustly towards indigenous Australians”. But by your reasoning, one could apply guilt-trips to anyone and everything. Should you apologise for what the Nazis did? Should you say sorry for what Al Qaida has done? Should you identify with, and repent of, the sins of the Hoddle Street Massacre of the Port Arthur shootings?

    Of course we are all sinners, so in that sense there is group solidarity. But I am responsible for my own sins, and you for yours. That is the clear teaching, for example, of passages like Ezekiel 18:19-20: “Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”

    There may be a place for a national apology as a sort of symbolic gesture, but only when it is clear that there was something to be fully sorry about. As I have tried to demonstrate in these posts, the treatment of Aboriginals was a real mixed bag: some bad things took place and some good things took place. There were children stolen, and there were children rescued. Those distinctions need to be made clear it seems to me before any corporate repentance is invoked.

    And the horror of how many Aboriginals live still continues, even after the apology. See these two recent articles: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23221669-7583,00.html#
    http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/sorry_to_these_children_we_will_now_not_save/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill
    I am interested in answeing the following.
    I was at a birthday party last Saturday and while talking to a Chinese friend I was asked.
    “Jim, I came to Australia 17 years ago, I was not involved in any way with the “stolen generation, why is that now I am responsible, more than likely will have to pay compensation and the Goverrnment issues an apology on my behalf?”
    Rather tricky.
    Jim Sturla

  • I actually disagree with what Bill said about a nation’s corporate responsibility before God. It requires some theological dexterity to demonstrate that nations are no longer collectively responsible before God because there is no long-term historical narrative in the New Testament. I don’t want be harsh or disrespectful but I fear that this approach flirts with Marcionism.

    To Jim’s friend, I would ask, “if I emigrated to China and identified myself with the Chinese nation, paid taxes to the Chinese government, and subsequently discovered that between 1949 and 1980 there was a government policy of taking sons from their families and brainwashing them with communist doctrine, would I be responsible before God to repent of and seek to make restitution to those families?”

    Our practices and attitudes reveal that deep down, we know that there is a national identity that has moral responsibility. I was born after the Vietnam War but I am personally embarrassed and sorry for the way my people treated the returning Choco’s. My Grandfather was born after WWI but I am proud of my people’s God honouring courage and sacrifice throughout that war.

    Damien Carson

  • Thanks Damien

    I am happy to be convinced on this point. But you would need to make your case. To begin with, you need to provide chapter and verse in the New Testament for such a position.

    I am not saying that nations are no longer accountable to God in NT times, or that God does not judge nations anymore, as he did in the OT. But Australia – or any other nation – today is not the same as God’s covenant people in the past, Israel. Thus the idea of national corporate guilt and all that goes with it (corporate repentance, apologies, etc.) needs to be teased out much more biblically before I am convinced.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • With all due respect to you Bill, and I have heaps of it, I think you are going to have to learn about this thing of National Responsibility for the past sins of our forefathers/mothers, and the horrors they heaped on the original people of this great land. I repeat, I wasn’t there when Gallipoli happened, but I draw great pride from the way our men acted there – shouldn’t it work the other way?
    Ian Brearley

  • Thanks Ian

    As I mentioned, I am open to persuasion, but as I also said, please provide chapter and verse. The biblical case has not yet been made here.

    And your last statement does not follow: what does being appreciative for those who fought for our freedoms long ago have to logically do with national apologies?

    And why stop at Aboriginals? Christians believe we are all ultimately bound up with one another, in corporate solidarity, going back to Adam and Eve. So going by the reasoning of some here, we should be saying sorry to God for Adam’s sin, saying sorry to Abel for Cain killing him, saying sorry to Bathsheba for what David did, saying sorry to Israel for what the Babylonians did, saying sorry to Peter for what the Romans did, saying sorry to Tyndale for what Cardinal Wolsey did, saying sorry to Europe for what Hitler did, saying sorry to Martin Luther King for what James Earl Ray did, saying sorry to John Lennon for what Mark David Chapman did, etc. etc. We should, in other words, be saying sorry to everybody for everything.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I guess the difference is that I am not a European in the sense that I was born and raised in Europe. I was born Australian. I identify with Australians as my mob. In my family (mother’s side) history book, it says that William Charles Wentworth (a relly) regarded Aboriginals as little more than animals. If I lived then, and came from England, I would probably have felt much the same, but we know better now. I have made mistakes in the raising of our children, and I have apologised to them. If I had the time over I would do it differently. As to looking for a biblical precedent for everything, where in the bible is the name of your spouse, or cars, or mobile phones, or the warning of the Great Depression? General guidelines on all these things are there. There is a biblical precedent where the harvest was poor due to the misdeeds of a prior generation. In Genesis 4 God says to Cain,”the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”. Kris Schlyder says that the Lord showed him that Gallipoli was His judgment on Australia for killing so many Aboriginals, tribe by tribe. I have often wondered if Changi and the death railway was similar. God has different ways of seeing things than we do. God bless you Bill.
    Ian Brearley

  • Thanks Ian

    But with all due respect, it was you, not I, claiming that somehow national apologies were the Christian thing to do. Now you and I both know – or should know – that our beliefs and actions should be grounded on and guided by the word of God. Yet when I ask for just one New Testament passage that backs up your claim, you cannot provide any. Plus the few shaky examples you provide – only two from the Old Testament – have nothing to do with the situation at hand.

    I would have thought that a Christian trying to make a biblical case for something would at least be, well, biblical. If we are going to go on major campaigns for something, and claim it is the Christian thing to do, and yet not offer any clear biblical backing for it, then how is it Christian? Any secularist can make such an emotional case, but I thought believers were to be more careful, and want everything to be in alignment with the Word of God.

    Respectfully Ian, it is quite silly to talk about biblical precedents for my wife’s name. The issue here is this: you and others are claiming it is the Christian (and by implication, the Biblical) thing to do to offer a national apology to Aboriginals. If you are making such a claim, then surely at least one NT text in support should be forthcoming. If you cannot provide any biblical justification for such a position, then how can you say it is the Christian thing to do?

    I guess it worries me when believers judge other believers for not somehow being Christian on a certain issue, yet when biblical support is asked for, they fail to provide any at all. I find that very odd, and worrying, to be honest.

    To let emotions determine how we think about an issue, instead of the word of God, is not what biblical Christianity is all about. As I say, I am open to be convinced by the clear teaching of Scripture. But if none can be provided, then why act as if your position is more Christian than mine?

    When we all stand before our creator and judge one day, we will each be held accountable for our own actions, not anyone else’s. I will not be apologising for what you have done. You will not be apologising for what I have done. I am responsible for my own actions, you are responsible for yours. That is one biblical starting point on this issue.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • And far from healing Australia, it has just caused division. Case in point:

    PRIME Minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology to the stolen generation has sparked a spate of racial violence in Darwin.

    Five people had to be admitted to hospital after one brawl. The Caucasian men were attacked by a group of 10 Aboriginal men, who demanded that their victims “say sorry”. …

    “The police officer said since the sorry apology on Wednesday, it had been completely out of control.”

    The woman said there were four other victims of racial violence in the emergency room at Royal Darwin Hospital. Her friend had fractured ribs and bad bruising. Others had head injuries and bruises.

    Note that they didn’t call it “racist” violence although that’s exactly what it was.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • But Ian, much of the premise for this ‘apology’ is based upon a false perception of Australian history. As Christians should we not also be concerned about truth? Go here for Geoffrey Blainey’s review of Keith Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History – Volume 1.

    Also it seems to me that the secularists want us to apologise in part for our efforts to bring the Gospel to the aboriginal people. In their multiculturalist thinking, the aboriginals were better off sticking with their animism than being converted to Christianity. The secularists strongly equate aboriginal culture with aboriginal spiritual beliefs which as I said is animistic in nature. Therefore all this emphasis on recognising and celebrating the aboriginal culture carries with it implicit approval of animism. It’s a wonder then that so many Christian church denominations have apologised for their part in the so-called ‘stolen generation’.

    As for the Kris Schlyder ‘revelation’ it must be that even God was deceived by the misrepresentation of Australian history as exposed by Windschuttle. The modern tragedy of abortion is orders of magnitude ahead of the crimes committed against Australia’s aboriginal people. When is the professing Christian Rudd going to apologise for this?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Thanks Ewan

    I think that is a very good point about abortion. If there ever was something our leaders should apologise for, it is the abortion holocaust. Our leaders have allowed, even promoted, the slaughter of 100,000 unborn children each year in this country. If you want to talk about genocide, it surely applies to the abortion massacre far more than it could ever to our treatment of Aboriginals. If Rudd wants to be consistent in such national symbolism, then he really should lead the nation is a national apology for this tragedy. Talk about a real stolen generation…

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • In reply to Jonathon’s comment, I was very uncomfortable (a bit stunned actually) with some of the comments coming from the left-wing faithful gathered for the apology in Canberra and around the nation. Words to the effect, “Kevin is the one that we have been waiting for” and “these words will bring healing to the nation”.

    Some of them sounded like Simeon with the infant Jesus (Lk 2:26ff), and as for a political gesture that will “bring healing to the nation…” silly me, I was staking my hope on Christ and the leaves of the tree of life (Rev 22:2)!!

    Did these people know that they were using Biblical, messianic language? Where did that come from? Was it coincidence? Spiritual? I’m not familiar with Karl Marx – did he use that sort of terminology?

    Frightening stuff.

    Damien Carson

  • It gets worse Damien. Now we have Christian pastors comparing Rudd to King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

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