Spirituality

Aboriginal Christians & Christianity

Christianity has influenced Aboriginal spirituality in many ways, and many Aboriginal people are Christians. Aboriginal and Christian spirituality can sometimes peacefully coexist in the same person’s belief system, and churches open up to this change.

Selected statistics

22.2%
Percentage of Indigenous Australians who are Catholics [1].
21.5%
Percentage of Indigenous Australians who are Anglicans [1].
2%
Percentage of all Catholics in the 2006 census that were Aboriginal [1].
48%
Percentage of Catholics on Palm Island, 22% are Anglican, 24% other Protestant, 5% no religion and 1% Baptist [10].

Christian Aborigines have nothing to hide. Ninety-nine per cent have spoken the praise of the missionary who brought Christ into their lives. —Pastor Robert Shanney, Kempsey, NSW [2]

Can Aboriginal people be Christians?

Christianity has influenced Aboriginal spirituality in many ways ever since missionaries (forcibly) taught Aboriginal people the Bible.

Since many Indigenous people have been in missions and subject to Christianisation it would surprise if these influences hadn’t manifested in their spirituality. Some old mission communities have become a centre of Christian revival, expressing an Aboriginal understanding and spirituality [8].

Some volunteered to accept Christianity as their only religion, others integrate elements of Christianity into their spirituality and expressive ways while not giving up their Indigenous beliefs.

The acceptance of Christianity today by some Aboriginal people is increasingly dependent on the example and teaching of Aboriginal advocates [8].

Christianity is strong in the Torres Strait, where some football teams gather for prayers before games [12].

Christianity is not about what more God can do for me, but rather what me and God can do for others. —Phill Moncrieff, Aboriginal musician and pastor [9]

Christian beliefs can also mingle with beliefs about the Dreaming, allowing them to reconcile two different viewpoints. Aboriginal people use their deep spirituality to comprehend Christianity.

Sometimes Aboriginal people need to fuse the western with the traditional way in order to find out who they really are [16].

Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian, Coordinator Nulloo Yumbah Learning Spirituality and Research Centre at CQ University, says: “I learned from my father one of the most precious things to live my life with. He once said to me, ‘Bubbi, just think, you come from a people that used to walk with [the] Holy Spirit across this land because this is His country and we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are His children. That is why our lands own us and give us our spiritual connections. Our Creation Beings walked with Him and with our ancestors for thousands of years.’” [15]

The Wontulp-Bi-Buya College in Cairns, QLD, supports the development of Aboriginal church and community leaders through study programmes in theology and ministry. Students undertake studies in Biblical foundations, theological reflection, personal development and field ministry.

But many Aboriginal people also blame Christians for the dark sides of history and prefer to sit on a beach and talk about spirituality than visiting a church [16].

Aboriginal spiritualty seems to clash with Christianity, but they can actually gel really well. It's up to the human, not the religions.—Warwick Thornton, Aboriginal director [17]

Video:

Watch what indigenous historians have to say about Christianity. In this 15-minute clip Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons (Iroquois Confederacy, northeast North America), Native Hawaiian historian Davianna McGregor, Australian Aboriginal elder and former Catholic priest Patrick Dodson, and Anishinaabe (Canada, USA) author and activist Winona LaDuke offer their insights into the history of Christianity in relation to indigenous peoples around the world.

Christian elements akin to Aboriginal signs

Aboriginal people lived by several signs that can be compared to Christian elements [16]:

  • Smoke can be compared to incense used in Christian ceremonies.
  • Fire reminds of the scene where God spoke to Moses through fire.
  • Water matches the notion that Jesus is understood to be the source of living water.
  • Blossoms can be related to the sacraments.

“Spiritually speaking I come from Jesus”

Steve, an Aboriginal man from the Sydney region, told me that he does not believe in the Dreamtime or Indigenous spirits. For him Jesus and God are the sole deities he believes in. Some day, he told me, God “revealed himself” to him. He believes in and reads the Bible but has to deal with the disapproval of some of his fellow Indigenous peoples.

“For me the Bible has answered all my questions about the past, present and future,” he explains. “Its history is in line with modern day historians. Scientists confirm its authenticity. Mathematicians are astounded and amazed concerning the bible code found in ancient texts predicting names, events and catastrophes past and still to come.”

“With this knowledge how can I not let go of former beliefs. I still respect the culture and honor the elders. Traditions and customs such as preservation of the land and native land title I’m very passionate about. It in no way conflicts with my chosen faith.”

“The God that I believe in is for Aboriginal people to help them with better education, health and letting go of substance abuse introduced by the British ruling classes. By practicing Christianity I become a better Aboriginal [person]. I don’t smoke (introduced). I don’t drink (introduced). I don’t swear (introduced). I promote preservation of the land and respect to the elders.”

I still respect the culture and honor the elders… It in no way conflicts with my chosen faith.—Steve, Aboriginal Christian

Steve concludes: “Biologically I’m part-British and part-Aboriginal. In terms of my soul I’m Aboriginal. Spiritually speaking I come from Jesus and to him I shall return.”

I once met an Aboriginal elder who was well versed in the Bible. When I asked him why he told me that since the Bible seemed such an important book to white people he had to find out more about it.

Fact Shortly after taking up boxing, Aboriginal man Anthony Mundine became a Muslim. He was influenced through Malcolm X. “I read his book and that got me interested in Islam and I started to learn about religion,” Mundine says [14].

What a friend we have in Jesus?

White man came
With a Bible in his hands
Ransacked my culture
Dispossessed my lands

Then he closed his eyes
And said 'amen'
Broke his bread
Then shared it with his children.

Forced Jesus
Into my mind
My mind was wild
Forced Jesus into my heart
My heart was wild
Forced Jesus into my body
My body was wild
Forced Jesus into my soul
My soul was wild.

I became angry
I became confused
You say He is good
But I was abused.

Are you black Jesus?
Are you being used?

Did they crucify you to share my blues?
White man came
With a Bible in his hand.

Now Jesus is my brother
He was traded for my land.

Poem by K L Burns, MRRC Silverwater Correctional Centre [13]. Read more Aboriginal poems.

How Russell’s life changed overnight

When Russell Kapeen was 32 years old he has had a hard time all his life. He was an alcoholic, fighting and getting into trouble.

Then everything changed overnight.

He had been out all night “on the grog”. Waking up the next morning he was lying on the couch feeling grog sick. The TV was on. “It was a Christian show,” Russell remembers. “I started to listen. And then it came to me… All I knew is that I had to change my life, and this was the way. I couldn’t wait to get to church that night.” [4]

Now almost 60 years of age, Russell is a different man. “In all that time [since] I’ve never had grog, smoked or sworn,” he reveals.

Easter bunnies and mutton birds

Mutton birding, or just ‘birding’, is one of the few traditions that have remained unbroken by the attempted assimilation of Tasmanian Aborigines.

Around Easter time, instead of the traditional Christian feed of fish, Aboriginal children get a feed of mutton birds, sing in palawa kani (Aboriginal talk) about mutton birds, dance and make baskets lined with feathers of the bird to fill with chocolate eggs [3].

The Tasmanian Aboriginal word for mutton bird is yula.

Churches embrace Aboriginal culture

Traditionally, churches have barred Aboriginal culture from their services and asked Aboriginal people to ‘leave it at the church door’. Churches viewed Aboriginal beliefs and customs as pagan and demonic.

But this attitude has changed.

Church services now incorporate elements of Aboriginal culture, for example smoking leaves or traditional song and dance performed in language which are performed alongside liturgical Christian prayers. [18]

In its preamble, the Uniting Church’s Constitution acknowledges “a community of First Peoples and of Second Peoples” and that Aboriginal people remain “the traditional owners and custodians” of the land. It goes on to address the history of colonisation, the church’s mistakes in dealing with the Aboriginal people and its responsibility for the suffering it caused, “including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples”. Church members “were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land”. [19]

This new way of reaching out to Aboriginal people is important to address their view of the church as a contributor to their dispossession and disadvantage.

Incorporating cultural elements into the service allows Aboriginal ministers to use the stories of their people and employ them in the way Jesus used parables—to communicate guidance and wisdom to people who are suffering from an array of social and spiritual problems. [18]

“We identify and understand the importance of culture within the proclamation of the gospel,” says Gurindji man Christopher McLeod, the first Aboriginal bishop in the Anglican Church in SA. “Anglicanism as it spread around the world has been able to adapt itself to proclaim the gospel in a cultural context which is intelligible and understandable.

“I think we are able to encourage Aboriginal Anglicans to think about how they can proclaim their Anglican faith within their own cultural setting.” [18]

Coming of Light ceremony

Many Torres Strait Islander people are Christians because missionaries arrived here in the 1870s. Their arrival meant that traditional Torres Strait Islander customs and beliefs met Christian theology.

Every year on 1 July Torres Strait Islanders celebrate the “Coming of Light” or arrival of Christianity on Erub (Darnley) Island, Thursday Island, in Cairns and Townsville, remembering 1 July 1871 when the missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived.

Fred Gela, Mayor of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council, explains [11]: “On July 1, 1871 the Torres Strait changed forever. On that day, Dabad, one of the tribal elders of Erub Island, met the missionaries at Kemus Bech, where he denied his tribal laws and accepted the good news of salvation.”

“For many people globally, the coming of Christianity meant the end of traditional beliefs. This was not the case in the Torres Strait. Christianity was embraced and the light of God was welcomed into our everyday lives with our culture informing and playing a huge role in shaping our understanding.”

The festival marks the interaction of the two ideologies [5]. Ceremonies can be quite similar. “The Christian mass of sharing the bread and wine is similar to a part of Islander culture known as ‘good pasin’, where things of value are shared among community members”, says Desley Boyle, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister for Queensland [11].

The Coming of Light festival has physical, cultural and spiritual significance for all Torres Strait Islanders.

“This is a very special day as being a Christian has made our lives better,” says one of the islanders, and another adds “My great, great, great grandfather Jimmy Dai brought the missionaries by boat from Darnley to Murray Island and told our ancestors they were good people. All the islands used to trade before the coming of Christianity.”

Video: Darnley Island - Coming of the Light

Watch how the On Erub or Darnley Island community prepares the Coming of the Light ceremony (hint: it’s a lot about food!):

Resources

The Lamb Enters The DreamingThe Lamb Enters The Dreaming

Follow the life of Nathanael Pepper of the Wotjobaluk people who converted to Christianity in 1860 and tried to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable.


Aboriginal Spirituality & Biblical Theology: Closer Than You ThinkAboriginal Spirituality & Biblical Theology: Closer Than You Think

This book offers an in-depth look at First Nations’ theology and parallels its key themes with Old Testament thoughts.

White Christ Black CrossWhite Christ Black Cross

Noel Loos interweaves his own more than twenty years’ personal experience with Yarrabah and other Queensland Aboriginal communities along with the voices of Aboriginal people, missionaries, and those who sat in the pews and on subcommittees and Boards in the cities.

Christianity in Aboriginal art

Others integrate only parts of Christianity into their lives and artwork. Paintings of the Daly River (Nauiyu Nambiyu) community, a former mission 300 kms south of Darwin in the Northern Territory, are one example. The community is still closely connected to the catholic church. Aboriginal artists like Miriam-Rose Ungunmer-Baumann and Mary Leahy Pumbum created paintings showing Christian scenes.

The inclusion of Christian stories and symbolism in traditional Aboriginal art and spirituality is often perceived as out of place and alien.

Dot painting showing three white angels atop a manger with Jesus, Maria and Joseph and the three kings. 'Jesus Nativity Scene' by Mary Leahy Pumbum. Three angels hover over the shed with baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph are on the right, the three kings on the left. The image is a good example of how Aboriginal people included other spiritual concepts in their own spirituality. Image: cooinda-gallery.com.au

“My own spirituality came flooding back”

Richard Campbell from the Gumbaingirr/Dhungutti people recalls the moment when he realised how close Christian and Aboriginal stories can be [7].

“A Catholic priest once asked me to connect Aboriginal spirituality with Bible stories through a painting.

“When I started to paint, I felt my own spirituality come flooding back and I started to remember the stories of my people. That’s when I became aware of the similarity between Aboriginal and Christian stories.

“We all have a spiritual connection…, we all belong to one big God—call it Christ, we call it Birrigun, we are all one in God.”

Footnotes

View article sources (19)

[1] 'Indigenous Catholics in the 2006 Census', http://www.catholicaustralia.com.au (retrieved 23/1/2010)
[2] 'Christian reply', readers letter, Koori Mail 467 p.24
[3] 'In Tasmania, Easter means mutton birds', Koori Mail 473 p.5
[4] 'Bundjalung man is right at home', Koori Mail 473 p.21
[5] 'Special services for day', Koori Mail 480 p.37
[6] 'Black Jesus painting a parting gift from sister', Koori Mail 502 p.47
[7] 'Spiritual art chosen for Youth Day', Koori Mail 414 p.4
[8] 'Aborigines and Christianity', Koori Mail 414 p.53
[9] via email, 6/3/2012
[10] 'Darwin could be 'spiritual mecca'', Koori Mail 473 p.33
[11] 'Lighting the way', Koori Mail 455 p.30
[12] 'Badu hosts 'Origin'', Koori Mail 434 p.14
[13] 'What a friend we have in Jesus?', Koori Mail 424 p.26
[14] 'Anthony Mundine: The Man', ABC, 21/5/2006, http://www.abc.net.au/sundayprofile/stories/s1643220.htm, retrieved 6/10/2012
[15] 'Are we becoming are [sic] own oppressors', LinkedIn, Australian Aboriginal Network 23/9/2011
[16] 'Aboriginal spirituality', Eremos presentation 10/8/2014
[17] 'Warwick Thornton in conversation with God', SMH 1/9/2014
[18] ‘‘Doing church’ in an Aboriginal way’, ABC, The Spirit of Things, 13/7/2015
[19] The Uniting Church in Australia Constitution, https://www.victas.uca.org.au/aboutus/Documents/Constitution.pdf, retrieved 5/8/2015

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info,
Aboriginal culture - Spirituality - Aboriginal Christians & Christianity, retrieved 24 June 2017