Old Sins Cast Long Shadows: (1) Hearing Australian Aborigines’ Cry for Justice A Biblical Call for Reflection and Action

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a 4-part series from Peter Adam exploring one of the longest and most important issues facing Australia. 


My aim is to help us to understand and respond to a legitimate cry for justice from the Aboriginal people of Australia, and to expound a Biblical call to action on these issues. I want to encourage Christians to take a lead in these matters, and I want to encourage all Australians to think about what God calls us to do through his written word, the Bible.

There is an old English proverb: “Old sins cast long shadows”. It means that sins have long-term unintended consequences. It means that wrong things done many years ago have long term effects. It means we must not underestimate the bad effects of bad actions. It means that people suffer today because of what has been done in the past. It means that ancient wrongs have consequences which last for generations. It means that innocent people suffer because of the sins of people they do not even know, who lived in the past. “Old sins cast long shadows”.

Ancient wrongs have consequences which last for generations. Innocent people suffer because of the sins of people they do not even know, who lived in the past. “Old sins cast long shadows”.

What were some old sins committed in Australia? Quite simply, these old sins were the breaking of the ancient laws of God, given in the Ten Commandments. We read God”s instruction, “You shall not steal”, in Exodus 20:15. This is one of the Ten Commandments given by God to his people Israel though his servant Moses. It expresses one of the significant consequences of another great command of God, “Love your neighbour as yourself”, from Leviticus 19:18. That is, don’t put your own needs above those of your neighbour.

When I was young, I used to want to be Prime Minister, so I could pass a law which said that everyone had to be kind to others. Would that life was that easy! Jesus Christ described the command, “Love your neighbour” as one of the two great commandments. It is because we must love our neighbour that we must not steal. “Love your neighbour” is the positive command: “You shall not steal” is the negative consequence. “You shall not steal”, so that your neighbour might live without loss or injury caused by you. Not stealing is basic to loving our neighbour. “You shall not steal”: one of the Ten Commandments given by God. No wonder Paul teaches in Ephesians that the thief who has become a believer in Christ should no longer steal but rather work in order to give to those in need (Ephesians 5:28).

The ancient sin was that of the theft of a land, a great island, a continent. It was theft on a very large scale. It was a theft that began in 1788, when the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay. For the British government stole the land of Australia. It justified large scale theft by a variety of arguments. The land was not cultivated in European style, so therefore empty land: under-utilised, and so ripe for the picking. It was partly a race for empire, partly a solution to the problem of too many people to fit into British gaols, and partly the desire for commercial profit. Here was theft on a grand scale.

But it was not an empty land, it was inhabited. It was not uncultivated. Bill Gamage has shown us that it was “the Biggest Estate on Earth”, carefully, expertly, and effectively cultivated in a way that used a common method across this vast land, adapted to local environments: a common method that both used and protected the land. Every time we have a flood in a river valley, or a bush-fire in forest land, I wonder if we have done a better job of managing our environment? A high price has been paid for our prosperity. Well, as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo wrote in the last days of the Roman Empire: “All empire is theft”. The Government of Australia said sorry for the stolen generation, and quite right too. We have not yet said sorry for stolen land.

The Government of Australia said sorry for the stolen generation. We have not yet said sorry for stolen land.

Large scale theft incurs the judgment of God. Hear these words from Psalm 82.

God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods”: 

How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked? 

Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. 

Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked. “

Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance (Psalm 82:1-4,8).

And we read in Amos 1 and 2 that God will judge Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab because of their attacks on their neighbouring peoples. For example, the Ammonites ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in the process of enlarging their territory, and for those sins, God sent them into exile (Amos 2:13-15). Even nations used by God to judge his own people, were condemned for unnecessary violence in that judgement (Zech. 1:15). And great symbolic figure of Babylon is condemned in Revelation 18, because “in her was found the blood…of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24).

Australia today is based on theft of land. Old sins cast long shadows.

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