Brooke Prentis brought a challenging and inspiring message at Surrender Conference this year on the 2016 conference theme of what it means to love God, our neighbours and our enemies in Australia in 2016.
'On Eagles Wings' by artist Saffina Stewart of Wuthathi country in Far North QLD and Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait. Image not to be reproduced without permission of the artist and Brooke Prentis. See more at artbysafina.com.au.
Love God. Love your Neighbour. Love your enemy. Jesus’s three mandates to love. What does this look like in the Australian context for us as a nation, us as the Australian church and us as individual Australians? Can we see that not only our world, but indeed Australia is marked by division and conflict, isolation and loneliness, injustice and oppression? Is the church, and are we loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving our enemy? What would it look like for our country to tell an alternative story and find unity in love?
Many questions and those of you that know me know that when I speak I like to ask a lot of questions.
So a bit of a random question for you is do you prefer sunrise or sunset or do you love both sunrise and sunset equally the same?
I want you to stand up if you prefer sunrise.
I want you to stand up if you prefer sunset.
I want you to stand up if you love both sunrise and sunset equally the same.
There is of course no right answer. My answer is that I love them equally the same, but for different reasons.
Sunrises and sunsets mean a lot to me. When I look at the mess, the chaos, and the ruins that our country and our world are in, sometimes the sunrise and sunset is all that we can rely on to happen consistently each and every day. And beauty radiates out of each one. I love paintings and each sunrise and sunset I see feels like you are looking at God’s canvas. The Bible talks about rainbows being God’s promises and I love that image. I love rainbows too. But for me I see God’s promises twice a day, every day, in the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun.
And you see our land, that we now call Australia is in a mess, in chaos and in ruins.
We are not loving God, not loving our neighbour, not loving our enemy as well as we should. Many Australians don’t see this. As Aboriginal peoples we can’t escape this. We feel it under our feet as we walk this ancient and sacred land. We feel it in our hearts as we suffer racism and are treated without human dignity. We feel it in our minds as we battle systems that are designed for us to suffer injustice – systemic injustice.
In each sunset, I reflect on the end of another day with the sun setting on another day which has been filled with grief, frustration, tiredness, even of exhaustion. This past year, past month, past week people have checked in with me and asked “Brooke, how are you going as an Aboriginal Christian Leader?” I’ve said, I’m tired, I’m so tired, I’m so tired of this country.
This past year we have had to battle to protect Aboriginal peoples from being moved from their homelands through the #SOSBlakAustralia campaign – fighting for our country to uphold the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. Fighting against this country’s culture of forgetfulness. The great Australian silence. Where not only 200 years ago did this country remove Aboriginal people from their lands, their country’s, their connection to culture and language going back over 60,000 years, but we think of 1963 and the forced removal of Aboriginal peoples from Old Mapoon in Western Cape York. And here again in 2015 and 2016 we are still fighting to remain on our homelands. Still fighting against dispossession. A fight that we’ve had for over 200 years.
This past 6 months we’ve had to battle against a nuclear waste dump being put on Andnyamanthanha country in the Flinders Ranges. A place so sacred where dreaming stories that have been handed down over 2,000 generations are still told, in language, part of our culture that is so special and must be preserved but we fight our state and national governments against greed and profit to protect God’s creation, to protect the health of the land, to protect the health of our people. A fight that we’ve had for over 200 years.
This past month we’ve had to fight for the dignity of our children. We’ve had to say that torture of Australian children, of mainly Aboriginal children in onshore detention centres is not acceptable. Our precious, precious children. We saw it play out on our TV screens as we watched 4 corners and the treatment of Aboriginal boys in the Don Dale detention centre. For us as Aboriginal peoples we have seen it in our families for many years in all States and Territories, we have spoken out against it, but no one was listening. Fighting for our voice to be heard, listened to, loved. Fighting for our country to uphold the UN declaration on the rights of the child. Fighting for our country to uphold our human rights. A fight that we’ve had for over 200 years.
This past week we’ve had to fight the mainstream media, the police, the apparent justice system as we watched, read and heard about what the mainstream media called a riot but what we know as an injustice and that the real story was about the murder of a 14 year old boy. A child. Who happened to be Aboriginal. A fight for the truth. A fight that we’ve had for over 200 years.
And then the other fights we have each and every day. Fighting against Aboriginal people having the highest rates of suicide in the world, the highest rate of child suicide in the world, the highest rates of prison incarceration, the highest rates of dying too young where still in 2016 we have a life expectancy gap of 11 – 17 years, the highest rates of child removals, the new Stolen Generation. The fact that as Aboriginal peoples we are 5 times more likely to be unemployed, 14 times more likely to be homeless, 6 times more likely to die from diabetes in this country!
Deaths in custody that continue to rise with no answers for Aboriginal families and no one held to account. Inquests that take over 3 years to complete when CCTV footage exists but is not released and never shown. And even after a royal commission in 1991 where 339 recommendations were handed down but only a handful were ever implemented.
We fight the lack of recognition of the Frontier Wars, the destruction of sacred sites, for the truth to be told of slavery, massacres, genocide.
So much sadness, grief, righteous anger. Or as Stan Grant said, “The Australian Dream.”
It’s enough to make you scream “Enough is Enough”. And believe me, I have been on my knees crying out to Jesus “Enough is Enough”, as have many Aboriginal peoples. Crying out for justice, crying out for our Nation, crying out for love.
Martin Luther King Jr once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
As Aboriginal peoples in this land, we now call Australia, hope is distracted, disrupted and disturbed by over 200 years of disappointment, destruction and death. Hope seems hard to find when we know our land is in ruins, in chaos, in a mess.
But we haven’t lost hope.
So whilst the sun sets to grief, frustration, and tiredness, the sun rise brings us change. So the next morning as the sun rises it’s filled with such hope, such promise, such a reminder that God is with us. That God’s promises of truth, justice, love and hope ring out from the Heavens through that painting that is the sunrise.
There was one morning as I was thinking about the theme, Love God, Love Neighbour, Love Enemy, and I was driving to work and watching the sunrise over the beautiful country where I now live, Gubbi Gubbi country, which is next to my country, Waka Waka country. The sun rises over the ocean in my part of this world. And I looked out over the ocean and the sun’s rays gently licked the calm, still, silent waters and I thought about how below the surface of the waters the sea is full of life but that life can be so fragile. I thought about Love God.
And this image came to mind. (above)
This painting, titled on “On Eagles Wings” was painted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leader, Safina Stewart. It’s my painting and this image will be used in TEAR’s useful gift catalogue to support the work of TEAR Australia through the Dhumba program.
In this image I see the sunrise and sunset that I’ve been talking about. Through the use of the colours. I also see me. But what Safina has painted is Creator God, Holy Spirit, Great Creator Spirt. How we as Aboriginal people see Creator Spirit.
Safina chose Exodus 19:4 to go with this message, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
The eagle is a significant totem to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, often symbolising the powerful Spirit who created all things.
Spraying out of the eagle’s wings are the mountains, rivers, sacred sites, and communities of people that reflect their Creator. The yellow background represents the heat of God’s refining fire, love and holiness. We remember the unique and significant role God has bestowed upon our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as custodians and leaders of Australia.
So here in this painting, this image, this message is Love God. As Aboriginal peoples we’ve been doing it for over 60,000 years. Loving God is about loving all God’s creation – all peoples, all trees, all plants, all animals, all land, all mountains, all rivers, all seas – all life. Our role as custodians, stewards, caretakers is part of our sacred spirituality. It is something we try to share with the rest of Australia as the world’s oldest living culture. A peoples whom God placed here as his custodians. A peoples whom are part of God’s miracle when you look at the affects of Stolen Land, Stolen Children, Stolen wages, when you look at the true history of this country, how Aboriginal peoples were treated as Flora and Fauna and even classified as such in legislation, it is God’s miracle that we have survived. He has loved us for over 60,000 years.
Unfortunately successive Governments, the non-Aboriginal peoples, even the church structures in this nation have not loved us as God has. They have not loved their neighbour.
And who is their neighbour. I think about love your neighbour. It’s us.
In this image I see the sunrise and sunset that I’ve been talking about. I think about how for 60,000 years, Aboriginal peoples have watched the sunrise and sunset.
Over 300 nations of peoples. But we are more than just your neighbour. We are your brother and your sister. We are your friend. But so often we are treated as strangers in our own country. So often we are stepped over in order for people to reach their overseas neighbour. So often we become invisible.
When we look at this world, where so many wars are fought each and every day, where there is conflict with our neighbours, where those living side by side each other even want to build walls to stop their neighbours getting in, we look at this map.
Over 300 nations once co-existing side by side one another. Each people group with their own history, culture, and language. A time before we even needed the word Reconciliation. What we could have learnt as a world about respect, love and co-existence from this picture is something we will never know. But what we do know is that elements of this still exist. We can still learn from Aboriginal peoples. The way we do community and family, the way we love our Aunties, Uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, cousin brothers and cousin sisters – our neighbours is something non-Aboriginal peoples and particularly the church can learn from us. If you are willing.
But sadly, we are often treated like the enemy. We are not loved, not respected, not learned from.
That day I was talking about where I was driving to work and watching the sunrise, I was listening to a song. The words that came out from the speakers were, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Yes those of you who are U2 fans will know these words well.
And as I thought about those words “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” I thought about what was it I am looking for. What am I looking for personally, what am I looking for from this country, What am I looking for from Christians in this country.
And I thought about those words Love God, Love Neighbour, Love Enemy. And the Love God – well that was easy – my people have been talking about Creator God for over 60,000 years. Love Neighbour – for me it was another easy one – And Love Enemy – well that was a hard one.
I think about love your Enemy.
It’s been a hard one for me since Surrender first announced it as the theme for 2016. And for me as a Waka Waka woman I had to think about what does Love Enemy mean. And for me as an Australian I had to think about what does Love Enemy mean. And for me as a Christian I had to think about what does Love Enemy mean.
One of the things I was looking for was as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples where we have not achieved Reconciliation in this country and as a person who continually strives to bring about relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples – what was I looking for – was who or indeed what was or is our common enemy?
I thought we must have a common enemy because we often do not seem any closer to this seemingly elusive word of Reconciliation. Our relationship sometimes feels as far apart as it was in 1788.
I think often we can each see each other as the enemy. But as Aboriignal people we feel being the enemy more deeply. When you know how much racism exists in this country. As Uncle Jack Charles quote “Aboriginal people suffer a peculiar type of racism and if you don’t know that, I don’t know why you don’t know that.”
And we do.
You might look at me and go, “As if she would experience racism.” But what happens when you have the skin colour I do is you hear the truth in people’s hearts. I suffer a burden that is very deep – as people may not initially realise that I am Aboriginal, which is racism in itself, and that means I hear their true heart. I hear hate from their mouths. I feel my peoples are the enemy.
I hear how my peoples are not seen as individuals worthy of love but are seen through the false eyes of mainstream media. I see how my peoples can be drawn in racist cartoons in major newspapers in 2016. And it hurts, it makes me sick, it makes me tired.
You stand here looking at me and you can’t see it but my body bears many scars – all the scars of the racist jokes, the horrendous things people and the worst part are the scars caused by the church and caused by Christians. They are the ones that cut the deepest.
We often try to hurt our enemies. You just need to look towards Australia’s continual progress towards war. Where our federal government spends more on defence than on Aboriginal Affairs to try and close this gap we talk about once a year but a gap that never seems to close. When we scream out for the day that “Blessed are the peace makers”. When will we make peace in this world and in this country. This country, this land, the Australia, where Creator God has been screaming out for peace for over 200 years. We have not achieved peace. If we had we would have achieved Reconciliation. We have seen each other as enemies. But God calls us to love our enemy.
So we go back to that “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Part of what I’m looking for is the church. The church that lives out Jesus mandate to love. The church that really does love God, love Neighbour and love Enemy. I still haven’t found it. But maybe, just maybe, we capture that glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Where we can truly love God, love neighbour, love enemy.
And we capture that glimpse here at Surrender. It’s like that capturing the glimpse of the sunrise or the sunset. In a moment it’s gone. But the next day the sun rises and then sets. Then it rises again and then it sets again. Consistency. As peoples, as God’s creation, we must live out Jesus mandate to love with consistency.
Here at Surrender Adelaide I pray you can learn to listen like an Aboriginal person. As Aboriginal peoples we don’t just listen with our ears but also with our eyes, our hearts, our minds – our whole being. It’s something precious.
As custodians of this land as we walk this sacred and ancient land as we walk through creation, God’s creation, as we think about our Dreaming stories. We listen with our whole being.
Many of you would have heard me that when I take off my shoes and I walk this sacred and ancient land - I hear that the land is hurting, I hear that it is weeping, I hear it is screaming for that better tomorrow. The sound is deafening. My fear is that when non-Aboriginal peoples walk the land they hear nothing. That great Australian silence. What I don’t hear is the deafening sound of us, God’s people, followers of Jesus, screaming for that better tomorrow. And that is what we should be hearing. But it means living out Reconciliation. It means non-Aboriginal peoples sitting with us, standing with us, walking alongside us.
So over this weekend at Surrender as your listen to many voices, and Surrender gives us an equal voice as Aboriginal peoples. As you listen with your whole being. And as the sun sets on today and Saturday and Sunday – may you remember the sun rises the next day.
May you remember what it is we are looking for. And may you be like that sunrise – like a promise of God that we will work towards building the kingdom of heaven here on earth, here in Australia.
The painting on the screen is a 2016 NAIDOC themed painting by my sister, Waka Waka artist, Jasmin Roberts titled “Will You?”
'Will You?' by Waka Waka artist Jasmin Roberts. Image not to be reproduced without permission of the artist and Brooke Prentis. See more at facebook.com/mytimefordreaming.
In this image I see the sunrise and sunset that I’ve been talking about. The grief, frustration, and tiredness but also the hope, the promise, the reminder that God is with us.
So as we think about loving God, loving our neighbour and loving our enemy, my hope is that you find the strength, encouragement and hope that is in this painting, this image, this message.
So as the story that goes with this painting by my sister:
“Will you take my hand? Will you listen to my songs? Will you walk with me? Will you help me find truth? Will you help me seek justice? Will you please…please…please take my hand?”
Will you take my hand in love. As Aboriginal peoples we have already forgiven our enemy. And will you come and join me at the foot of the cross. As Aboriginal people we are there at the foot of the cross waiting for you.
This painting is actually also a picture of Songlines. And music is so important to all of us. So as I conclude I come back to the song that played out of those speakers in my car a few weeks ago.
As we currently sing out, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” but more importantly may we all be able to sing out, “And yes I’m still running.” May we all run together by loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving our enemy as we build the kingdom of heaven here in Australia, in an Australia that I dream of, and one I want us to build together, hand in hand, heart to heart, footstep beside footstep – an Australia that is built on truth, justice, love and hope.
This is what it would look like for our country to tell an alternative story and for our nation to finally find unity in love.