Why Aboriginal Ceremonies are Incompatible with Christianity ~ an Indigenous man’s view

Anderson George Balang’s View of Aboriginal Christian Spirituality.

Anderson George is a Wuagalak Aboriginal man who now lives on Jawoyn country, Wugularr community (also known as Beswick, located 110 kilometres east of Katherine in the Northern Territory).

Anderson’s Christian experience is foundationally shaped by his convictions by the Holy Spirit through his reading of the Bible. This article unpacks Anderson’s experience of ‘culture’ and the way in which it has informed his spiritual life and his navigation of Christian and Indigenous traditions. The primary objective of this article is to allow Anderson George to speak on his own terms.

The interaction between the Dreaming and the Christian faith is often contentious in remote communities. For example, in Beswick, some respected community men have taken a stand to say, ‘no more sacred ceremonies’.

As one of these men and as an Aboriginal Christian leader from this community, Anderson George shares how the Holy Spirit has convicted him about sacred and smoking ceremonies, particularly those he sees as involving the worship of other spirits.

Anderson’s particular approach, which involves a rejection of Aboriginal ceremony, contrasts with that of those who express a desire to ‘redeem’ traditional ceremony, many of whom profess a sincere Christian faith. His perspective contributes an important voice to this discussion, highlighting the diversity of belief within the Aboriginal world.

Anderson is an Aboriginal man who originated from Ngukurr (Roper River), with some time spent in North East Arnhem Land, but who now resides in Beswick. In Ngukurr he had a strong Christian grandmother who would read the Bible to him.

Anderson gives thanks to the Lord for healing him from witchcraft in 1998. Since then, he has had a heart to share and preach the Gospel.

He is married to Emeriah and has two sons, a daughter and an adopted son. His extended family also live in Beswick, a place where their identities are deeply established.

Anderson has described his Christian conversion as follows:

I was in the Darwin prison when God said, “Wake up Anderson, wake up” – to stop sinning. My sister Loretta kept praying for me, even when I was an alcoholic and sniffing petrol.

In 1998 I was saved, and had a faith in Jesus, as small as a mustard seed. I knelt down and was praying in my language, Kriol.

The Lord just spoke clearly, “Anderson, do you want a good life or a bad life?” [I accepted Christ] and just cried more than I had ever cried.

I [had been] dying slowly of witchcraft. I had a grandfather who was a witch doctor and I would question, “how come he didn’t heal me?”

I have not been to Bible College, but through the journey growing up as a Christian, I had to really focus on the Lord. The Holy Spirit has revealed to me, because He is the teacher, comforter, counsellor and helper, and He knows the Word.

I didn’t have time to be a baby Christian. God just raised me up. It has been 19 years. Being a Christian means being part of the largest tribe of the world.

ANDERSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH CEREMONIES

Anderson continues:

The topic of being in and practicing the ceremonies was burning on my heart as an Indigenous man. The Lord really put on my heart [in 1998] to ask Him a question. Reflecting to back when I was a teenager in 1982, involved in a sacred men’s ceremony, I asked God  in Kriol, “Dedi God gin ai weship la Yu en weship main serramoni? Bikos main old pastor weship Yu Sandei en wen det serramoni bin on imbin weship det serramoni, gin ai dum lagijat?

The translation in English is, “Can I worship You Father God; can I worship You and worship my ceremony?

My old pastor back in Ngukurr where I come from – he worshipped You on Sunday and when the sacred ceremony [i.e. secret men’s business] was on, I saw him worshipping [i.e. dreaming spirits/totems/ ancestor animal spirits]. Can I do that? Can I serve God and serve ceremony?”

God made me realise, when I was being initiated … that the ceremonies [promoted] a wooden object and that in these ceremonies we were worshipping idols. From [that point on], I didn’t want to believe and be involved in the old way or interfere with them. This has led to total transformation, freedom, healing and blessing. [Now for] 19 years I have been healed from witchcraft.

I did not directly talk to my old pastor about his view on sacred ceremony and it was only much later that I learnt that he later expressed concerns about ceremony himself.

Anderson notes the pressure that ceremonies impose, particularly on men who have chosen not to participate in them:

Blackfella jealous saying, “You’re still young men because you haven’t seen ceremony”. They think that you need to go into the ceremony to be a man. I could boast about taking you to the business-men or lawmen [traditional Aboriginal sacred ceremony leaders].

I choose to speak blessings to you rather than to take you to worship the ceremony. Because what good will it do to you?

Anderson will sit and watch public ceremonies, but wouldn’t be painted up or become involved. He will not encourage his sons to participate in sacred ceremonies, including the circumcision ceremony, because of the scriptural passage, ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15). He has chosen to take his boys to the hospital to be circumcised because of health issues and will teach them at home.

Anderson also acknowledges that ‘not everyone [that is, Aboriginal Christians] has come to the same conclusion [or revelation] or approach’ on the relationship between ceremonies and the Christian faith:

I was sharing with my cousin-sisters who have been serving the Lord for years and my brothers, where I originally come from. They said, “God gave us ceremony”.
I said, “show me in the Bible, maybe I am reading the wrong Bible.
God showed me [what I now believe about ceremonies and], I will stick with it”.

He explains the revelation that he has received from God about who to serve and his refusal to participate in ceremony:

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.
Either you will hate the one and love the other,
or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and money and man’s things.
That’s why we need to think about who we are serving and what we are doing.
That’s been on my heart.

This, Anderson says, is ‘One Way’ [as opposed to a ‘Two Ways’ approach], which means you need to leave all traditional ceremonies.

The particular theology of Christian Aboriginal people like Anderson has created conflict in the community, so he has often felt the need to clarify and defend his worldview. Anderson’s views are shared by some well-known leaders in remote, tribally-oriented communities and it is important to note the central place of testimony, or story, in his articulation of his navigation of the two cultural heritages, including his engagement with the spirit realm. Anderson desires that his adoption of the Christian faith be understood as God’s providence in his life and as a conscious decision on his part to embrace it:

Some people have criticised me over the years, but this story is not about myself but about how God came into my life and healed me. I was going with people on a mission trip and there was a smoking ceremony happening.

The other non-Indigenous Christians walked into the ceremony, but I didn’t want to. As a non-Indigenous it seems like a harmless act, but as Indigenous, to my knowledge, it’s about sending the dead spirit back home to his or her country, to make it peaceful for people not to get attacked [by the dead person’s spirit].

It’s connected to spiritual things [and] that’s why I don’t join in. Because in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus Christ is the author and the finisher of our faith. When we die, our spirit is not going back to our own homeland but to God’s Homeland (Heaven), a better place.

Anderson’s particular approach, which involves a rejection of Aboriginal ceremony, contrasts with that of those who express a desire to ‘redeem’ traditional ceremony, many of whom profess a sincere Christian faith.

It is important to note that Anderson’s position is not so much about rejection of these ceremonies as it is about a demonstrated allegiance to his Christian faith as an Aboriginal man. His participation in certain events and decision not to participate in others demonstrates Christianity to those observing, and declares who he is ‘putting first in his life’ in a community setting where ‘the culture has the potential to move into practices such as sorcery and the exploitation of women’ (Murray Seiffert, Gumbuli of Ngukurr, 2011, 334).

It is easy to confuse Western and Indigenous uses of the term ‘culture’. Within the non-Indigenous context, the term ‘culture’ is commonly used in a more general sense — defined by anthropologists as a pattern of interrelated activities. This differs from its use in some remote Aboriginal community contexts as a particular reference to sacred traditional ceremony. However, in wider Northern Territory Indigenous community life, the term ‘culture’ also refers to kinship, law, language and etiquette.

Within the community, sacred ceremonies must not be talked about, upon threat of the person who ignores this rule being ‘sung’ to death. As such, Anderson recognises how serious the issue is:

It is not easy for me to [share publicly]. I had a target on my back. It is like you are marked for dead, especially speaking [about] and exposing sacred men’s business. That is why I don’t take it lightly to [share] with you. I come humbly to share what God has given me.

It doesn’t worry me if we are going to die. We are all going to die one day. We might as well preach the Gospel and start preaching the truth. That’s what I told one of the communities: “If you sing me, go ahead, if it works you will send me home earlier to heaven. But if not, I will still preach the Gospel here.”

Anderson’s reflections in this article paint a picture of his strong position on the navigation of Aboriginal and Christian cultural heritages. While for some Anderson’s rejection of many aspects of Aboriginal ritual life might be uncomfortable, it is important to note that Anderson does not disclaim his Aboriginality altogether.

Rather, Anderson’s rejection of ceremony needs to be situated in relation to a nuanced anthropological view of Indigenisation involving both redemption and rejection of culture, along with his right to self-determination in deciding for himself how his Aboriginality and Christian faith are to be navigated.

ANDERSON’S CHANGE SINCE CONVERSION

Anderson is clear that any change in him has not been imposed, but has occurred ‘from the Holy Spirit convicting [him], when [he asks], “can I worship You Father God? Can I worship You and worship my ceremony?” He reflects:

I am not denouncing my culture or my identity, but the worshipping of ceremony, my Dreaming. I turn my focus from worshipping ceremony to worshipping God. I will always be an Aboriginal person. I will die as an Aboriginal person.

This decision is controversial and causes him conflict within various relationships:

It affects me, even when I was a young Christian, as a young pastor. Being criticised for the preaching ministry I have been doing… it’s a journey that I have learnt to do. Not only that, I have been criticised by my own family, my brothers and sisters [in] debate about sacred ceremony and God.

Even by my own full-blood family I have been called a white man, ‘bible basher’. I have been criticised by [those] calling me everything under the sun. I am not trying to make myself a white man. I will always be a black man. I will always serve Jesus. It is Jesus Christ the son of the living God, it is Him who I am preaching about.

I am not preaching about Anderson. I am preaching about Jesus Christ; He is the Author and Finisher of our faith. He is the One Who saved us. That’s why we are all here, because of Jesus who came and died on the cross 2,000 years ago. He came as a man and died for our sins and rose again. That’s the only reason why.

It is clear then that Anderson is at pains to articulate that his acceptance and practice of a Christian faith should not imply that he is trying to be a ‘white man’. Rather, he demonstrates his agency in his articulation of faith and navigation of two spiritual traditions, grounded within a particular cultural context, without renouncing his Aboriginality at all.

Anderson’s story helpfully alludes to the diversity of opinion, spiritual identity and experience in the Aboriginal Christian world of the Northern Territory and beyond, and provides a forum for further discussion about matters of ‘legitimacy’ and ‘authenticity’.

THE CHALLENGE

For Anderson, continuing his walk in the revelation of the Gospel is about ensuring that he is faithful to the Christian message, not only for Aboriginal people but for all Christians. He states:

I like what the speaker at Surrender was saying: “a lot of people like to make Him Saviour. But no one wants to make him Lord of their life”. This is very true for Indigenous people. No one wants to make Jesus Lord of his or her life. We need to put aside the differences, not just for others but also for Indigenous people, and to worship the one true living God, and serve Him and only Him.

People throughout Australia think learning culture, [finding identity], which includes learning traditional ceremony, is the answer to the Indigenous issues today. Munanga [whitefella, non-indigenous] give money to black fella to make traditional cultural TV programs. This is how non-Christians think they are closing the reconciliation gap.

But to me from my point of view as a Christian Indigenous man, I see it as putting us in bondage. People will give money for culture but not for Christian things. Like a friend who is a Christian and wanted to start a drug and rehab place, but because he was teaching Christian values, the government would not support him. The government wanted him to run it how [they] wanted it. This [is] like bondage.

Anderson concludes:

I want to thank our Lord Jesus Christ and thank the Holy Spirit for helping me. I want to give all the glory to our Heavenly Father. What I have shared with you in this article, I do not share lightly.

I will always be an Aboriginal person, even with this view on sacred ceremony. I could die for it, but God’s truth, the Gospel, is worth preaching about. God’s word is alive and active. We serve an awesome, almighty God. Are you making Jesus not just your Saviour but also your King? God bless you.

___

This is an edited and shortened version of Anderson George and Rachel Borneman, ‘Anderson’s view on Aboriginal Christian Spirituality: “Who are you putting first in your life?”‘ in Australian Pentecostal Studies 20: Dreaming and Spirit-filled Christianity (2019), 55-76. Reproduced and edited with permission.

All quotes from Anderson George are from transcripts of his contribution to a panel discussion at the Surrender Conference 2018 and of his subsequent conversations with Rachel Borneman.

By |2020-01-10T18:01:26+11:00January 6th, 2020|Australia, Faith, Indigenous|11 Comments

About the Author:

Rachel Borneman Ngarritjan, photographed here with Anderson George Balang, grew up in a missionary linguist family in the Northern Territory and now serves with Wycliffe Bible Translators as a support worker with Kriol-speaking communities along the Central Arnhem Highway east of Katherine. Rachel is not Indigenous and so has little personal experience of traditional ceremony. She therefore chooses to leave it to Indigenous Christians, who do have such experience, to work out with the Holy Spirit the compatibility of those ceremonies with Christianity.

Rachel professed Christianity and was welcomed into an indigenous Australian community at the age of five, when she was given her skin name, ‘Narritjan’. While completing her education in Darwin, she co-led camps and coordinated ISCF (high school) groups with Scripture Union Northern Territory (SUNT). When she left Darwin in 2000 to train with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), it became increasingly clear that her gifting was working with indigenous peoples, so she returned to Darwin and worked for six years with indigenous high school students. She is currently working with indigenous adults to develop Kriol materials specifically designed for children and youth and to address youth-at-risk issues.

11 Comments

  1. Michael January 13, 2020 at 1:12 am - Reply

    This is hard as a person identified as a first nation person walking ii the holy spirit I know how you feel it is not easy but you know that you are right in your walk with God the Father and Jesus just hang in there brother know that you are not alone in your struggle with Christianity and our culture but God wins every time Thanks for the strength you have shown in sharing your story

  2. Jim Munro January 13, 2020 at 11:26 am - Reply

    This brother is confronting issues similar to those faced by many people who come to Christ from other religious/spiritual cultures!
    e.g. Does someone coming to Christ from a Hindu family simply add Jesus to his/her collection of gods, or is he/she prepared to risk losing everything in making a stand for the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ?

    • Mike Fischer January 14, 2020 at 1:18 pm - Reply

      Exactly! Christianity calls for conversion, not syncretism.

  3. Drue Mc Laughlin January 14, 2020 at 11:35 am - Reply

    A well presented and pertinent article involving a topic which bridges the cultural divide…The “one way” movement is gaining traction in Arnhem Land, and is empowering first nation peoples toward a biblical defined faith..The trouble is the Western peoples(confessional Christians) will they also embrace the one way movement or remain captive to the present zeitgeist?

  4. Heather Clayton-Callaghan January 15, 2020 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    As a mature Christian white woman I am greatly enlightened by the sharing from Anderson about his walk with Christ as a Christian black man. How refreshing to know that when Christ sets us free, we are free in deed, no matter what our origin was !!!! The scriptures Anderson shared here to show how he is first a Christian, and then a black man. No different to myself: first a CHRISTian then a white woman. GOD made us both and we both need saving from “sin”.
    I feel greatly blessed that you (Anderson) have shared the need to be set free from the spiritual side of being a black man. This is a subject I have pondered over … how do these 2 world’s co-exist ? And my understanding was … they can’t. But I’ve never heard anyone express that from a personal point of view.
    THANKYOU Anderson. I’m always touched deep in my Spirit when I recognise the effort a fellow servant of the Lord, has made in stepping up in faith and sharing that which honours God our Father, but at the same time can anger/upset family and/or community.
    May God continue to guide you ANDERSON, and grant you knowledge & wisdom as you serve HIM alone as your Saviour AND as your LORD and KING, AMEN 🙏 Hallelujah 🙏PRAISE you Lord 😇

  5. Debra Mieth January 17, 2020 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    Your stand against idolatry is wonderful to hear. I understand what it is like because I have family in Papua New Guinea who still cut their sons with crocodile markings in our village on the Sepik River. My ex-husband and children’s father is in the village witnessing to them but they refuse to stop because it brings money to the village when tourists come to watch the poor boys get sliced from shoulder to heel and all down both arms. They rub ash into the wounds to make them scar and stand out. Philip, my ex is the only man in his family not to be cut because he was at Bible College where we met. The village and whole area is very poor because of the curse it puts on them.

  6. Karl Taylor January 18, 2020 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Thank you Anderson for standing strong for Jesus. By this Word you will continue to set the captives free.

  7. Keith Sharples January 19, 2020 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Yes, I’ve been waiting for a clear response to the question of how to best bring about harmony between indigenous and other Australians.

  8. Tom Cleland February 2, 2020 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    I think a he shows an understanding of the Christian way. This does not mean he cannot actively preserve his aboriginal culture, it simply means that he choses the christian values. Christian values have often where possible been absorbed or adapted to fit in with significant cultural celebrations.

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