Confessions of a dying priest

Australia: Confessions of a dying priest.
Our savage moment of truth

Some time ago I suffered a stroke that triggered in me a decision to live the rest of my life as if I were already dead. I am more inclined to state things as they are, or as I see them, without fear or compromise.

I tell you that this is a savage moment in the history of Australia, and I feel obliged to mark it. Our young Aboriginal people are carrying a humanly impossible burden laid on them by white society. The problem is not that we white people are unaware of this. The facts are overwhelmingly sufficient as they come to us through the media.

The problem is rather to be found in the way we manage the facts so clearly presented to us.

It is not a question of more information. It is really a question of understanding. The word "understanding" is, I think, what Aboriginal people themselves use to pinpoint the almost despairing problem they have with us whites. We simply don’t understand. We don’t know them, we don’t understand them.

Yet they remain in a strategic position that has allowed them to observe us with remarkable accuracy. They know us well and often make the crucial observation that, not only do we not understand them, but we don’t understand ourselves.

We desperately need a new way of looking at ourselves so that we might come to recognise that we are in need of liberation and that our liberation ultimately is bound up with theirs.

Over recent years I have been performing or attending the funerals of young Aboriginal people frequently. Some of them appear to have suicided. It forces me to reflect on some of the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The pride and pain of their race is being held almost in a sacred trust, but always unfiltered and undiluted.

Nothing is blocked out. It is humanly unbearable to hold that sort of fire in one’s heart. Without promise, they can only lose all hope.

We white people, on the other hand, are ordinarily well equipped with the defence mechanisms of denial. Selective hearing of truths is an understandable, even necessary, psychological device for use in the face of bitter realities, particularly basic human survival.

One would like to think that Aboriginal people could resort to such safety devices when it is they who are fighting to live at the harsh edge of survival.

Yet it seems one of those cruel ironies that they are the ones who do not possess any alleviating mechanism for their pain.

In contrast, we whites tend to keep safe control of our personal environment; we exercise reserve powers of manoeuvrability.

As things get tough, we can move to safer ground. And, whereas we can do this to keep on top, they have a desperate need just to keep afloat.

There is yet another depth to the dismal irony. By poison and starvation they have so often been deprived of the physical means of survival. In individual cases at least, they are now deprived of the psychological means of continuing to live. And this only points out more sharply the miracle of their survival as a race.

As Paul Keating said in his memorable speech at Redfern Park on December 10, 1992: "We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases, the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice and our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

"With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask, ‘How would I feel if this were done to me.’ As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us."

As I stood there in the open-air gathering in Redfern Park in that gala, summery atmosphere, I saw what I had never yet seen in all my years – the tears welling up in the eyes of countless Aborigines who had believed that they would never hear a prime minister of Australia say that.

But look what has happened with a change of government since then.

We can ignore Pauline Hanson, but when the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, John Herron, can each be capable of uttering such a collection of gauche, insensitive, uneducated and plainly insulting remarks about Aboriginal people we must protest.

It is possible for a white person to hold respect and credibility in the eyes of Aboriginal people; witness the late Nugget Coombs. Measuring them against his stature, these two forlorn, pathetic figures get no marks at all, not even for trying.

Why should the Aboriginal people be required to tolerate this empty posturing, this clumsy pretence, this masquerade of solutions pulled arbitrarily from the air, when they themselves were not consulted? I refer in particular to Howard pillorying the so-called black armband view of history, evading the admission of shame, and Herron denying the stolen children.

For us whites, reconciliation starts not with guilt but with the acknowledgement of the truth.

Unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated. Guilt is a wasted emotion; it cannot be passed down, for Christ has taken guilt away.

Guilt is unproductive, indeed harmful, but shame is another matter. We do share the shame.

We must all remember that not one of these good things that we non-Aboriginal Australians enjoy today – benefits that are the envy of the world, which seem to sparkle the more in the Australian sunlight – not one of these good things has been attained without the wrenching distress and grieving, starvation and dying of Aboriginal people in the past.

The way out lies in letting go of the grand, deluding myth, so pervasive in the white psyche as to cause us to brandish hollow sounds of what we call "Australian pride", so invasive of the black world as to assure them that the invasion is still going on.

When Aborigines notice that we non-Aborigines are beginning to see that our liberation is bound up with theirs, the healing power of truth will begin to set each of us free.

This is an extract from Who is Worthy? (Pluto Press, $20) by Father Ted Kennedy, which was launched at St Vincent’s, Redfern, yesterday.


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