Is “Acknowledgement of Country” showing respect or affirming paganism?
A message from Martyn Isles of the Australian Christian Lobby:
The “Acknowledgement of Country” has exploded in workplaces, public places and events right across Australia (see Appendix). How should we respond to it? There are many more serious practices associated with indigenous cultural recognition like smoking ceremonies, calling up spirits (which has been happening at some public events) and all that kind of thing. Presumably people can see on the whole that those are bad ideas and best not to participate in. But “Welcome to (or acknowledgement of; see Appendix) Country” is less clear. It’s not immediately apparent to everybody, but I have given it quite a bit of thought and those thoughts have led me to the point where I have now made a conscious decision to avoid saying it. Some will say I’m over-cautious, but let me explain to you why I’ve made that decision. It’s not out of any prejudice to indigenous people. Quite the contrary, it’s because I’m not convinced that it’s the right thing to do and if it’s not right, then it’s not right for anyone. That’s the whole point of finding out what is right and what is wrong. It’s for everyone.
A spiritual matter
There are a few reasons though why I’m convinced it’s not right, but one of the reasons is bigger than the others. It is a spiritual reason. Let me explain. The “Acknowledgement of Country” is about land, ancestors and descendants. Why? Well, we are told that it must include these components because these things are important to indigenous culture. To question that is to be told that you are coming from a white perspective and that you don’t understand the importance, for example, of the land in indigenous culture.
In other words, the “Acknowledgement of Country” arises from a certain foundation of beliefs. It’s not random. It’s not just the white guy that decided to be nice and polite. It’s rooted in certain convictions and a certain world view that belongs to ancient indigenous convictions and worldview which contemporary indigenous people either hold to or don’t hold to in varying degrees. They’re not some kind of mass who all think the same on this stuff.
But what convictions and worldview is this that we need to drill down into? Well, let’s go to a very good source the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”. Here’s a quote from that statement that will set us on a pathway to finding the answers, “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion”. It’s important right? A spiritual notion. “The ancestral tie between land or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born there from, remain attached there too, and must one day return thither to be reunited with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty”. Now, in other words, what you see there is a statement of pagan belief or a very strong shadow of pagan belief and worldview. And to explain why that matters I need to explain paganism.
Paganism is a belief system with a few key parts, and one part is this. And this is really at the core of it. Pagan gods are part of the universe. Pagan gods are of the same order of things as the heavens and the earth. Of creation itself. They are the same stuff that the universe is made of. They are like created things in that sense. Ancient pagan belief systems include a whole range of different things. For example, there could be tribal and indigenous belief systems. Also, there are pagan empires like Greece, Babylon and Rome. Notice they all have a common trait and there’s common themes that tie these together as pagan. And they manifest very similar practices as a result. They all have this common trait: Many gods and all of those gods are part of the stuff of the universe itself. Take ancient Greece as an example. From Hesiod’s Theogony, “The race of venerable gods who rose from the beginning, whom the spacious heaven and earth produced”. See, gods who are part of the heaven and earth paradigm. Who are part of the same stuff. Notice that they are produced by the heavens and the earth. Or you can take the ancient Babylonian myth where you find a very similar sort of connection between gods and stuff. Where Nammu, the lady of the gods is giving birth to the universe, and she is described as a “primeval sea” out of which the gods and out of which the universe emerged. The same stuff. Or the Dreamtime narratives like the rainbow serpent. Part of the stuff of creation. An animal in fact, which is significant in indigenous dreamtime, but this rainbow serpent created “more life” as in of the same kind for the world.
Does this really matter? It kind of does. I’m going to give you a couple of quotes. The first one is from Werner Jaeger on the difference between the Christian (or Judeo Christian) God and pagan gods and he is particularly taking up Greece and the Greek and Hebrew gods. He says this “Logos is God the creator who is stationed outside the world and brings that world into existence”. As Christians we’ll know ‘Ex-nihilo’ – out of nothing. “He brings that universe into existence by His own personal fiat or His own personal command”. “The Greek gods (pagan gods) are stationed inside the world. They are descended from heaven and earth. They are generated by the mighty power of Eros who likewise belongs within the world as an all-engendering primitive force”. So there’s this force of spirituality which is also of the stuff of the world and creation, Eros. This is what professor John Lennox says, “The key statement here (he’s talking about Werner’s comments) is the Greek gods are stationed inside the world. We should not think that the only difference between the Hebrew and Greek worldview (i.e., the Judeo-Christian and pagan worldview) is that the Hebrews reduced the number of gods to one. Hebrew monotheism is not a slim-down version of pagan polytheism. The God of the Hebrews is outside the world. This is an absolute difference in category, not a mere difference in degree. It is also why as we have already noted the God of the Hebrews gives meaning to the world, whereas the pagan gods do not.” In fact, they cannot. “The meaning of the system will not be found inside the system.
To identify whether something is paganism, you need to have to start with five key things:
1. Matter is eternal and it existed before the gods.
2. In its basic state matter was formless, unorganized and boundless chaos.
3. Some god imposed order and form on the basic stuff of the universe and this process is what is meant by creation.
4. Even this god, like all others arose out of the original matter and is part of the stuff or one of the forces of the universe.
5. Everything in this universe emanates out of this god like sunbeams out of the sun. And so in some sense everything is god.” The mighty power, for example, of Eros runs through it all. This primitive animating life force, this spiritual pulse.
Well, the indigenous Dreamtime belief has a very similar thing and that system of belief, the land is in some sense like Eros. It is the spiritual empowering, the spiritual pulse, which has its origin inside creation, in the bowels of the land itself. Within the heart of creation. It’s an all engendering primitive force of the divine. It is the animating power of spirits of ancestors, of people, of animals (and its very animistic belief). Ancestors, and that’s why we acknowledge them now because it’s all part of this spiritual force, the land which continues in perpetuity and descendants that are yet to spring from it. It’s why we acknowledge them now and in the Indigenous system Uluru is the most sacred land of all. It’s the sacred central nervous system of this spirituality and geological arteries, if you like, a belief to spread across the land from Uluru taking this spiritual force from the heart of the nation, or the heart of the land. It is a pagan system with the land at its core. It also encompasses animism with animal beings like the rainbow serpent taking on a god-like quality and these two come from where? The land. And animal spirits are closely tied to witch doctoring and it gets quite freaky actually, and spooky, when you get into some of that stuff. These are bound up with the life-force of the land and landforms are always named after animals and things like that. It’s all the god of the stuff. The god is in the universe. It’s in the land and that which is birthed from it.
The moral of the story is that here we have classic paganism. God is stuff. God is not outside the system. In a sense everything is god. The all engendering primitive force emanates from the land itself. That is the backdrop, and I go through all that theory, to say that that is the backdrop from which “Acknowledgement of Country” emerges. Or it is the context in which it comes up as a thing.
It is a big deal
But is it a big deal? It kind of is and this is what I have had to grapple with. It actually is a big deal and I can’t get around that. First of all because paganism is real. These spirits are real. They’re just not good.
Second, the first commandment was given by the Hebrew God or the one true God, the creator of heavens and earth, who made things “ex nihilo” out of nothing. He gave a first commandment to His people (the Hebrews) in a particular context. And the context was that His people were surrounded by exactly the same category of belief system. The pagan nations all around them. And the whole point continually made and continually established though their laws and practices was this. Separate yourselves. Don’t touch that stuff. Be pure. Be sanctified from it. Set yourselves apart. As it says “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:2NIV). In other words, pure and separated. And this is what God says when He gives the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Ex. 20:3-4). A likeness of something that is part of the stuff of creation. “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). It’s serious. And it’s repeated in the New Testament (1 Cor. 8:4-6).
Third, in Romans 1 this pagan spirituality is singled out as “the lie” (v.25), which is contrasted with the truth about God. It says, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God (the One who’s transcendent, the Creator) for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (v.23). They exchanged it for the stuff of creation. I think we’ve generally been slow to catch on to the spiritual issues that are going to be in play in this whole indigenous recognition stuff. Many indigenous cultural practices are intrinsically spiritual. And some are obvious and overt like I mentioned some of them earlier, and we’re even seeing a rise in those. Some are not so obvious, and I accept that “Acknowledgement of Country” is in the “not so obvious” category. But I’m left with enough doubt that given all that context and more than enough warnings from Scripture to play it safe, and to make a decision that I will avoid saying it. And I’m left with an answer as to why in my own spirit I was I troubled when I held it done. And I have heard that from many Christians who say they’re just not comfortable, and maybe this is why.
- People will say are there not Christian versions of “Acknowledgement of Country”? Yes there are. I’m not going to go through all the Christian versions out there and say whether one is completely free of ideology or whether one’s completely pure. There are versions and I accept that there are statements out there that people use that replace “Acknowledgement of Country” that are pretty good statements. I’m not going to go into all of that. What I am talking about here is the practices that people are encountering in the public squares – in their work, in their play, on their studies, and so forth. Churches will have their own ways of dealing with this. Personally, I’d rather just not because I feel like it’s not coming for a good reason from the very beginning.
- Someone is going to say to me, wasn’t Adam from the land? God said, “for dust you [Adam] are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). He did say that, but importantly what did He mean by it? He meant that Adam was a finite creature and he was going to return to dust and that would be the end of his physical body. He wasn’t being spiritually reunited with dust to continue in perpetuity as part of this spirit realm and force of the world. No, God made Adam’s spirit ex-nihilo, out of nothing, and God required it back when he died. You notice when God is outside the system, it changes everything. Don’t be deceived when people come up to you with verses like that, that sound like, “ooh this is a little bit of paganism”. No, it is not. It’s completely different because the nature of God is different.
- People say, “Why can’t you just be nice? You know this is important to some people. Why can’t you just say it”? My answer to that is that I am being nice. If we define nice as acting in people’s best interests. Because affirming paganism or entangling oneself in false spirituality is not in anyone’s best interests. And by the way, acting for the good of others is the biblical definition of love, which is actually a Christian virtue. Niceness is not. Being nice is not a fruit of the Spirit. We’re here to do what is best and right for everybody, and on that definition we need to find the truth about these things and act accordingly.
Finally I do want to suggest this because I really do believe it and I know of a couple of organizations that are doing great work here, doing practical charity, economic empowerment work. And Christian organizations doing evangelism, discipleship and charity and so forth in indigenous communities. And they are very much worth supporting because they are doing a lot of good and are likely to achieve far more good than the sorts of platitudes that we’re now asked to make over dinner like “Acknowledgement of Country”.
In 2010, both the Senate and House of Representatives in Australia introduced an Acknowledgement of Country before the reading of prayers at the start of each sitting day. The Acknowledgement of Country is, “I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia’s Indigenous peoples”. These prayers are part of the rules of the Senate and House. However, there have been pushes to remove prayers from parliament. So in parliament “Acknowledgement of Country” is placed on equal footing with acknowledgement of God. And in society “Acknowledgement of Country” now gets higher priority than acknowledgement of God.
“Acknowledgement of Country” addresses particular custodians of the land and expresses respect to particular people. Why does it only address previous custodians of the land and not present ones? And why is respect being paid only to Indigenous people and not all people? What does the Bible say about this?
The Israelites were commanded to respect (honor, hadar Strongs #1921) the elderly (Lev. 19:32). They were also told to honor (yare, Strongs #3372) God (Lev. 19:32; Mal. 2:5), their leaders (Josh. 4:14) and their parents (Lev. 19:3).
The Israelites were judged by God because, “They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of His hands” (Isa. 5:12). They ignored what God had done. That is the situation in society today – many people show no respect for God or His message to us in the Bible.
In the context of submission to governing authorities the Bible says, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Rom. 13:7). Christians are to honor the civil authorities. They are to be good citizens, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their allegiance to Christ.
Christians are commanded to, “Show proper respect (honor) to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Pt. 2:17). They are to value all people, regardless of who they are (Rom. 12:10; 13:7). God created each person in His own image and Christ died for each one. And they are to fear (reverence, be in awe of) God and honor the government.
So for Christians, the “Acknowledgement to Country” is too restrictive. Acknowledgement and respect towards God and what He has done is much more important. And we are to respect all people and the government. And all custodians of the land are responsible to God for their stewardship.
There is a view that the Aranda people had a concept of the eternal, of the divine, and using it for the name of God. This has been used to challenge the view that Aboriginal beliefs are necessarily pagan. But even if this is true, it doesn’t counter the limitations of the “Acknowledgement of Country” discussed above.
The “Welcome to Country” and “Acknowledgement of Country” favor Indigenous people and omit our obligations to recognize and respect God and all people. All people should be treated equally. So the range of respect in “Acknowledgement of Country” is too narrow.
We need to get our priorities right and honor and respect God most of all. And then respect other people and the government. Otherwise, these sayings are just pagan rituals.
Appendix: “Welcome to Country” and “Acknowledgement of Country”
According to Australians together, “A Welcome to Country is a ceremony performed by Traditional Custodians to welcome visitors to their ancestral land. It can only be done by Traditional Custodians of the land you’re on. If no Traditional Custodian is available, a First Nations person from a different nation, or a non-Indigenous person, may do an Acknowledgement of Country instead. A Welcome to Country usually takes place at the beginning of an event. The ceremony can take many forms, including singing, dancing, smoking ceremonies or a speech, depending on the particular culture of Traditional Custodians.
An Acknowledgement of Country is a statement that shows awareness of and respect for Traditional Custodians of the land you’re on and their long and continuing relationship with the land. Unlike a Welcome to Country, it can be delivered by a First Nations person or non-Indigenous person.”
A sample acknowledgement of Country: “I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
The meaning of “Country “in Indigenous Australian cultures incorporates more than just ownership or occupation of land. Professor Mick Dodson explains: “When we talk about traditional ‘Country’…we mean something beyond the dictionary definition of the word. For Aboriginal Australians, we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and we might mean more than just a place on the map. For us, Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains. While they may all no longer necessarily be the title-holders to land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are still connected to the Country of their ancestors and most consider themselves the custodians or caretakers of their land.”
“Country” in Indigenous Australian cultures includes: culture, spirituality, language, law, family, identity, and all living things in the environment: people, plants and animals. It also embraces the seasons, stories and creation spirits.
This post (except for the Discussion, Conclusion and Appendix) comes from Martyn Isles of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Posted, October 2022
Also see: “The Uluru statement from the heart” and racism
Writing racism into the Constitution
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