A Surprising History: Christians and Oppressed Indigenous People

On the 10th of June 1838, a party of eleven colonists slaughtered at least twenty-eight unarmed Wirrayaraay people at Myall Creek, New South Wales.

Historian Meredith Lake writes about what happened next, in her new book – ‘The Bible In Australia: A Cultural History’:

“Appalled by the crime and the Supreme Court’s initial failure to reach a guilty verdict, Baptist minister John Saunders preached a blistering sermon on Isaiah 26:21—‘Behold the Lord cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth shall also disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain’.

[Saunders] denounced the way the colonists had ‘robbed’ Aboriginal people ‘without any sanction’: ‘we descended as invaders upon the territory and took possession of the soil … From these their hunting grounds, they have been individually and collectively dispossessed’.

Not only that, he went on, colonists had killed them ‘wholesale, in cold blood’: ‘The spot of blood is upon us, the blood of the poor and the defenceless, the blood of the men we wronged before we slew … We are guilty here’.

After a re-trial, seven of the perpetrators were found guilty and sentenced to death—a highly unusual outcome in the history of frontier justice.

The judge, (Catholic) John Plunkett, drew on Psalm 36:1 when he pronounced: ‘The crime has been witnessed in heaven and could not be concealed … You had not the fear of God before your eyes, but were moved and seduced by the instigations of the devil’.” [1]

 The judge, (Catholic) John Plunkett, drew on Psalm 36:1: ‘The crime has been witnessed in heaven and could not be concealed…You had not the fear of God before your eyes, but were moved and seduced by the instigations of the devil’.

In that dark moment of Indigenous history, many (white) Christians staunchly defended the rights of Indigenous people: no small surprise to some modern secular readers. And why did these white Christians stand with non-Christian Indigenous people? The answer may be even more surprising:

1. Many Christians Cared For Indigenous People, Not In Spite-Of, but Because of, Their Devout Biblical faith

In an age where Christians are being blamed for many of the great atrocities throughout history—the crusades, witch hunts, and the Inquisition to name but a few—a careful reading of history will also show Christians who stood up and did the right thing.

Such Christians acted rightly not in spite of their devout Christian beliefs, but because of them. As it’s becoming controversial to say that Christianity leads to good outcomes, let me quote Lake further:

[These Christians] had a moral vision rooted in an understanding of the theological Bible—especially in the idea of God’s concern for the poor and oppressed and his righteous judgement against injustice. This idea is pervasive in the text of Scripture … [and] gave a biblical shape to humanitarian defences of Indigenous people.” [2]

But it doesn’t end with God’s concern for the poor and oppressed:

Even more significant was the biblical idea that all people were ultimately part of a single human family. [Baptist Minister] Saunders referred to it when he pronounced that ‘the New Hollander is a man and a brother’. [3]

Lake then summarises:

[The biblical idea of common humanity] nevertheless constrained the development of alternative European theories of race. In colonial Australia, it provided the deepest and most important basis for condemning settler rapacity and upholding the rights of Indigenous people. With the authority of God’s own word, ‘one blood’ was the primary foundation for humanitarian thought and action.’ [4]

What about the secular Enlightenment thinkers? Surely all these people of reason saw the rights of Indigenous people as paramount? Not quite:

2. Many Secular Thinkers saw the Indigenous as Inferior, Because of their Secular Non-Biblical ‘Scientific’ Worldview.

In today’s world, many see religion as the source of everything bad, and science as the source of everything good. But let’s look at what happened when an (atheistic) view of science took hold of the moral imagination. Lake continues:

On the other hand, the idea of one blood came under fire from the new ‘science’ of race. In new scientific ways of thinking, the non-European ‘savages’ had not fallen or declined from an earlier state of equality with other peoples: they had been savage from the outset, and did not possess even the capacity for civilisation. [5]

Furthermore, with the advent of Darwinian notions of origin, the Christian notion of common human ancestry of all people came under fire. This had negative consequences for Indigenous wellbeing:

Some Europeans also began to question whether there was a single human family at all, or whether the different peoples of the world might spring from multiple origins. This view contradicted Christian theology, which depended on single, common humanity for its doctrines of creation and salvation to make any sense.

Yet it gained considerable traction from the mid-nineteenth century, undermining the old European consensus on common origins and dealing a severe blow to evangelical humanitarianism.‘ [6]

Of course, while many Christians were driven by this overt Biblical belief to protect Aboriginal people, many Christians did bad things (and many secular people did good things). We only need look at how many Churches were complicit in the Stolen Generations to see this.

Many Christians did bad things (and many secular people did good things), but Christianity gave enormous moral and intellectual resources for defending human rights

However, the point remains.  Christianity, as understood since the time of Jesus, gave enormous moral and intellectual resources for defending human rights. And yes, this included Indigenous people seen as inferior by dominant white cultures. Or to put it another way, Jesus gave us a beautiful tune. When Christians played that tune faithfully, beautiful things happened—such as the defence and care of Indigenous Australians.

On the other hand, popular ‘scientific’ secular worldviews of the time looked down on indigenous people. And you can understand why. Once you throw out the belief that all people are made in God’s image,  why would you treat the ‘less civilised’ as equal human beings?

3. If Christianity Drove the Western View of Human Equality, Then Why Drive It Out of The Public Square?

There’s an important lesson here for modern Australia.  The idea of universal human equality didn’t come from nowhere, much less from the secular Enlightenment. It came to us explicitly from the Bible. If we value universal dignity, we should be careful about excluding the biblical worldview from the public sphere.

As Atheist political commentator Chris Berg points out:

The idea of human rights was founded centuries ago on Christian assumptions, advanced by biblical argument, and advocated by theologians. Modern supporters of human rights have merely picked up a set of well-refined ethical and moral arguments.

Berg then sounds an ominous warning to those who would deny this:

[W]hile our age may be secular, it is, at the same time, still a deeply Christian one. If atheists feel they must rip up everything that came before them, they will destroy the very foundations of [our secular order].’

It’s a warning we would do well to heed, especially here in Australia. Just ask our Indigenous peoples.


First published at http://akosbalogh.com/

[1] Meredith Lake, The Bible in Australia – A Cultural History (Sydney, Australia: NewSouth Publishing, 2018), 94-95.

[2] Lake, The Bible in Australia, 95. Emphasis added.

[3] Lake, The Bible in Australia, 95. 

[4] Lake, The Bible in Australia, 95. Emphasis added.

[5] Lake, The Bible in Australia, 100.

[6] Lake, The Bible in Australia, 101. Emphasis added.

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