The stubborn gap between First nations people and mainstream Australia has been called by some a ‘wicked problem’. There are many challenges and many different views on how to solve this national dilemma. One of the best things we can all do is listen.

Day and night, I hear ambulance sirens living here in Alice Springs.

I know Aboriginal people from our local church who attend funerals weekly or fortnightly in outlying communities. They mourn young and old, lives lost prematurely to suicide, violence or ill health.

I’ve met women who suffer alcohol-fuelled violence at the hands of their partners and at times use the refuges here in town for personal safety. I know many who undergo dialysis three times a week, and people who live with debilitating health issues that are preventable. They do not have the opportunity that most Australians have to live till their eighties or nineties.

Such things are quite normal here. To see this up close is very confronting.

First Nations People and the Gap

The gap between the health, wellbeing and education of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is labelled by some as a ‘wicked’ problem. It is a social and cultural predicament that is complex, longstanding, multicausal and interconnected. It is difficult, if not impossible, to manage or control.

From a Christian viewpoint, we know that spiritual oppression can break a people’s spirit, resulting in ongoing trauma which can be passed down through the generations.

I am very aware that there is a multitude of views, opinions and emotions felt about this ‘wicked’ problem. Here, I will be painting some very broad-brush strokes and making some general observations. Please bear with me: I write hoping that the reader will be made more aware and be moved to pray with insight and compassion.

European Contact: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The uncomfortable and harsh truth that has impacted our First Nations people is that many of the first European settlers and colonists believed that Indigenous people were non-human, savage, and doomed to extinction.

The doctrine of discovery – originating with the Catholic Church in the 1400s – gave the explorers permisison to enter territories uninhabited by Christians and claim sovereignty for their King or Queen. In the process, the Europeans showed deep dishonour to Indigenous people worldwide. One redeeming aspect of this, of course, was that the gospel of Jesus Christ, previously unheard, was preached.

Christian missionaries came to Australia, from Europe, with a godly desire to help, even if only to “smooth the dying pillow”. With few exceptions, no one else tried to help at that time, as most people expected the Aboriginal race to die out. Indeed, it may have seemed inevitable, given that many thousands did die from introduced diseases, murder, and the effects of dispossession.

From our modern vantage point, the missionaries’ methods were very different from how we might go about things today. To them, the only two choices were Christianise to civilise or civilise to Christianise.

They established European-type settlements that were inappropriate to the climate and geography and costly to maintain. The majority eventually failed to become viable or sustainable. And sadly, later on, some of the missions became enforcers of the government’s harsh policies.

For many reasons, the gospel message was inaccessible to most of the Aboriginal population. A major factor was the contradiction between the message and the actions of the white settlers, including the missionaries. The Indigenous communities wondered why the missionaries weren’t also preaching to the settlers!

Christianity Among First Nations People

Ironically, today, the percentage of Aboriginal people who say they are Christians is higher than in the general population of non-Indigenous Australians. Here in Central Australia, some credit the missionaries with preserving tribes that were at risk of demise during the days of first contact. One of their valuable contributions was language and translation work. This was particularly true of Bible translators, who were the most active in turning oral languages into written languages.

I have met some elderly Aboriginal women who have fond childhood memories of their lives on a mission as times of protection, security and stability. They love to sing the many hymns taught to them by missionaries that have been translated into their language. They are so very frail physically, but their voices are still strong.

In some remote communities, churches are used regularly and are well looked after, and can be projects of choice by the community, who use their funds from mining royalties. The churches nowadays are kind and a great source of help and solace.

The Realities of Life Today

During the 1970s, some significant events coincided, which had unforeseen results. Equal wages for Aboriginal workers were introduced, which led to many on pastoral stations losing their jobs and families being displaced (again). Missionaries with longstanding, trusted relationships in communities were moved out, and government workers moved in. Traditional authority structures had been so undermined at this point that it was very difficult to restore them.

The other significant events were the introduction of welfare payments and free access to alcohol. Today, the consequences of these events – on top of the original displacement and trauma – can still be felt. They include high levels of alcohol-exacerbated domestic violence and child abuse, high rates of suicide, lack of meaningful work and occupation, chronic preventable health issues, and premature death. These are all aspects of the ‘wicked’ problem.

The elders look for young men and women to whom they can hand down their precious knowledge, but many are lost to addictions. Grandparents bring up their children’s children because their children are sadly unable to.

Some of the health and wellbeing issues (especially domestic violence and chronic disease) are perpetuated by generational trauma and exacerbated by addictions. Sadly, some of these tragedies are also caused by some of the traditional Aboriginal cultural practices.

Overcrowding and poorly maintained dwellings make these problems worse. So does the lack of availability of good water and healthy food at affordable prices. The lived reality of many here in Central Australia is one of suffering.

The article ‘Kartiya are like Toyotas‘ by Kim Mahood addresses the lack of equipping and preparedness and the high levels of burnout of workers in remote communities. Her insightful, honest description is a must-read for understanding the realities of the current situation in Central Australia.

The Gap is Slowly Closing

Despite millions of dollars spent over many years, the reduction in the gap is only just beginning to happen. It is heartening that we see so much more Indigenous-created content and more information and open discussion about Aboriginal issues, arts, culture, history and connection to the land in the media. We are being educated and restoring some honour and respect – the things so lacking in how colonisation was carried out.

There are so many beautiful aspects of Aboriginal culture that we need to learn from, including the love for family, inclusiveness, and how to care for our land properly.

There are also success stories. Things are gradually improving in some communities. Of course, the greatest success comes from listening and allowing these communities to lead with their own solutions, which the government can then support.

So, as a nation, we have a past that is painful to acknowledge and a present that seems very sad and difficult for some of our First Nations peoples. The world of the First Nations peoples before settlement was not an ideal sinless world, and the response of our First Nations to European settlement has also been imperfect. God is the one who determines both the times and the boundaries of the nations. He did this so that we would all seek Him (Acts 17:26-27).

God’s Will on Earth as in Heaven

We can easily blame individuals, institutions, and governments for where we are today, and we might also look to them for some earthy solutions. But our hope is in God. We know he cares so much more than we ever could, and He wants to bring His salvation, healing and justice to all in this nation.

I write this hoping that we will be encouraged to keep praying and not give up, nor give in to hopelessness. For all the benefits we enjoy living in this county, let’s not forget that our forefathers gained, by dishonourable means, from the original inhabitants of the land we now live and work on – and the consequences of our history still impact many.

When we pray, let us pray with humility, without judgement, asking above all for the salvation of souls and for God’s justice. Let’s keep praying until the honour of our First Nations people is fully restored and our land is healed.

Pray for Heaven’s creative ideas to flow to governments and all others working in this space. Consider finding your local Indigenous church and community, and ask the Lord with whom and how you could connect.

Take time to respect and learn about Aboriginal culture. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and listen to their stories! Restore some honour by giving your time. God has honoured every human by giving His own Son for them.

Many Christians are convinced that The First Nations people hold the key for revival in our land. Can you see the wonderful redemption of God in this? Our God is the God of hope (Romans 15:13).

Image via SBS.