Apr 11, 2008

Humans, Nature, & Human Nature: The Aboriginal Experience

One of the Tjapukai plays the didgeridoo.

Aboriginal art on display at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

Aborigines. They are the original, indigenous people of Australia. Like the natives of the Americas, they lived a simple life close to the land and close to nature until their encounter with the Western world brought a brutal end to their way of life. Now, they exist, much as their counterparts do, on the margins of the new order, strangers in their own land, struggling to preserve their cultural heritage from the relentless assualt of modern, Western culture.

On Tuesday, March 25, we began our day by visiting the Tjapukai Cultural Park, a place devoted to teaching visitors about the traditional customs and culture of the Tjapukai people. (As there are no generic "Indians" among Native Americans, there are no generic "Aborigines." There are many different cultures and languages among the indigenous people of Australia. We learned about the ones who historically lived in tropical North Queensland, Australia, the Tjapukai). There are two theaters featuring short multimedia productions. One theater tell the ancient stories of the history of the indigenous people of the area and the other focuses on the recent history of the Aborigines with the coming of European settlers. In addition there is a small museum with gorgeous Aboriginal art and artifacts from their past, a traditional village, an outdoor stage where the traditional dances are performed and the didgeridoo is played, a gift shop, a restaurant, and fields where visitors can learn to throw a spear or hurl a returning boomerrang. It was fun to try our hand with the spear and boomerrang, the dances were fascinating, and the art beautiful, but what really stuck with me was the story of these people--a story that has been told a hundred times over in as many places around the globe: Innocent people rudely cast off their land, their language and culture destroyed, their religion replaced by invaders who saw the resources of the land as more important than the land, the land as more important than the people who lived on it, and their own culture as more important and of greater worth than that of the heathens they encountered.

As a Christian I couldn't help being disturbed by the image of the cross of Christ forced onto the confused and unwilling shoulders of people who didn't ask for it. It made me ashamed of our eagerness to convert others, because so often that eagerness has been confused with an eagerness to convert others to our culture, our way of life more than to our Christ. (Or maybe that's the problem--that He is "our" Christ, made synomous with who we are rather than the other way around). It's sad when you find yourself thinking, "I hope they keep their religion, I hope they don't convert" when you really do believe that Jesus is the hope of the world. But then maybe that really is the thing to hope for when the conversion would be to a false Christ made in our own image--a white, English-speaking man who blesses the Queen and America. I think a rejection of such a Jesus is preferable to conversion.

I thought about the blessings and curses of our modern age. For a small percentage of us on this planet, our lives our extraordinarily comfortable and convenient. We've mastered the illusion of control over our world (an illusion the indigenous cultures were less inclined to have--sure, they tried in their own way to stave off various disasters by working with and placating the spirits around them, but they knew actually having complete control over one's own life was never certain). But that comfort we've come to expect comes at the cost of our planet's viability. I've become convinced that, at least right now, the modern way of life is not sustainable. The earth can barely hold up under our excesses now; how will it ever survive as the developing world, with it's teeming millions, races to embrace our lifestyle as well. The Aborigines may not have had air conditioning, the latest medical advances, and large spacious homes (all of which I'm grateful for and don't seriously intend to give up), but they had a way of life that could survive milleniums. I seriously doubt our way of life would be able to make it beyond the first thousand years. Our world is smaller, yes; globalization is breaking down the barriers between us--but we are working together more and more to build the Babel of our own destruction. I finally understand that story in Genesis now--God confuses the languages of humanity because "nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible to them." To me it seemed a rather small and petty thing for God to do: "Oooh, they're getting two powerful, providing Us some 'competition'; We better put a stop to that." But now I see that the emphasis was not on the "nothing will be impossible", as I'd always thought, but on the "which they purpose to do." I think God recognized that while selfishness and shortsightedness (basic elements of that dirty word sin) reigned in human nature, a globalized world bent on ever greater heights would only be one working towards its own destruction. In Revelation, God warns He will destroy those who destroy the earth. It appears He won't have to because those who destroy the earth, destroy themselves. Maybe that's what He meant.

I wondered too, why the white folks were always the bad guys and the browns always the noble innocents? As Mai observed in her blog, it was easy to conclude that the white skin was a sign that goodness had been bleached away. But I agree with her, that this isn't true. There are no good or bad races. There are only human beings. And history has shown that human beings, regardless of ethnicity tend to use their power for their own enrichment and at the expense of others less powerful. This is a problem elemental to humanity, not unique to any particular culture. If situations were reversed and it was a multitude of brown-skinned invaders armed with high powered weapons, steel & gunpowder, and a muscular religion of the Dreaming who landed on European shores, I don't think the story would be any different. Skin color and culture do not mute or magnify sinful human nature. Even the stories of the Tjapukai reveal this--stories, like all of ours, full of violence, jealousy, and pain--as well as love, life, and laughter.

I know it sounds terribly dark and dismal but much of this is why I believe in God; not because we are good and moral beings, but because inexplicably and against our own self-interest, we are not good or moral. We don't need God to tell us how to be good. Any thinking person can do that. My faith, instead, explains why we are not good, and provides a way for us to become what we know we should be. And this is why I love Jesus--someone who didn't come in anger or jealousy, someone who didn't want to put an ax in anyone's head (reference to a Tjapukai legend we heard--I guess you had to be there), someone who didn't arrive demanding worship and honor before handing out goodies to those who got the ceremonies right, but instead someone who came to love and to give His life in love, as a ransom for many.

Maybe if the bearers of His name had shown up quietly to love rather than to convert and conqueor, learned to live among the people, embraced and honored their simple and sustainable (though perhaps shorter) way of life, and then simply shared. Well maybe then I'd feel a little better about Christianity's arrival in Australia. But for now, I wish the Tjapukai and the rest of the Aboriginal people of Australia well. I hope their culture survives and thrives, and if they do embrace Jesus, may it only be the Jesus who speaks their language, knows their world (because He created it), and who comes to give them life abundantly.

We carry in our hearts the true country
And that cannot be stolen
We follow in the steps of our ancestry
And that cannot be broken

--Midnight Oil, "The Dead Heart"

This passage from the gospel of John was painted on a bench outside the Cairns SDA Church. The design relected the unique artistic style of the Australian Aboriginals.

The bench

A detail from the bench at the Cairns SDA Church

A Tjapukai dance depicting a kangaroo hunt.

The kids explore the mock Aboriginal village.

Babs throws a returning boomerrang.

Here I am throwing a traditional Aboriginal spear.

This was amazing! These two guys were able to start a fire with just two "fire sticks". Check out the second video to see how one of the men was able to pick up the smoking beginnings of fire with his hands and coax into flame.


yolland said...

Very nice entry. I was just lamenting to a friend today that, while few likely regret the passing of a certain patronizingly idealizing and exoticizing approach which often characterized the study of indigenous cultures a few decades ago, it often feels to me as if lately we've swung to the opposite extreme--a tendency towards a cynical dismissiveness that equates wonderment with glibness and empathetic imagination with weakness when it comes to contemplating ways of making sense of what it means to be human other than our own. Unfortunately, that shift in perspective doesn't bring us any closer to defeating our potential for the kinds of horrifically destructive acts we now cringingly associate with 'the' colonial era, even if it now takes different forms. In fact, the impulse towards enforcing monoculture seems to one way or another be a common thread in so many of human history's darkest episodes.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Sean. I'm so enjoying your life in these far-flung places. And your insights are great. You make me think outside of my box. I love it. :-D


G-rant said...

Did ya hit anything? I bet that spear throwing skill will come in handy if there's ever a complete power failure on the island....