Artwork: So Loved, by Glenny Naden
The following is an excerpt from Kurt Mahlburg’s new book, Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?
The Myall Creek massacre of 1838 was one of the darkest events in Australia’s history. A group of former convicts had been roaming the surrounding district to hunt and kill Indigenous people. They tracked down a group of women, children and elders who were in hiding at a stockman’s station. Part of the Kamilaroi nation, this group was well known to other whites in the area who had previously given them shelter. Many had taken English names like Joey, Martha and Charley; and some of the children spoke broken English. On finding this group, the marauding hunters tied them together and marched them to a nearby gully. There, they slaughtered some thirty innocent and unarmed Kamilaroi, dumping their bodies in the creek bed below.
In time, most of the murderers were captured, tried for their crimes, and executed. But the tragic events of this massacre have lived long in the memory of Indigenous Australians.
A century and a half after these events, in 1988, Christians from around Australia gathered in Canberra to dedicate the nation’s new Parliament House with prayer. Known as the “National Gathering”, this two-day event attracted a crowd of 40,000 believers from every denomination, with Indigenous Australians strongly represented among them.
In a very moving moment at this gathering, Indigenous leaders were presented with a wooden cross. Its two rough timbers had been taken from an old fence at Myall Creek, right near where that horrific massacre had taken place. In front of this cross, on behalf of their ancestors, white church leaders asked for forgiveness for the horrors inflicted on Australia’s First Nations people all those years ago.
In response, Reverend Charles Harris (1931-1993) of the Uniting Church Aboriginal and Islander Congress declared before gathered crowds,
We are deeply touched by what we hear your hearts say in the presence of this building and the great Creator God of the universe. We do not want superficial sorrow, but we do want recognition. We want you to know us as people, not just with the labels your minds have given to Aboriginal people but in the richness of Aboriginal life and experience God created.
Other gestures, speeches and prayers were offered during the ceremony that followed, which ended with a time of tears and embracing.
The Myall Creek cross is incredibly symbolic. Rescued from the site of one of the nation’s worst atrocities, it stood that day as a witness to forgiveness and new beginnings. The other moment that this cross pointed back to was of course the crucifixion of Jesus. Just like the Myall Creek massacre, Jesus’ death was a terribly dark event but one that ended in forgiveness and redemption. Though Jesus was betrayed, unjustly killed, and abandoned by his closest friends, on the cross is where he secured the world’s forgiveness, and victory over sin and death. “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself,” the apostle Paul declared. “He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”
Check out Kurt’s new book, Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?
The gospel isn’t merely a nice idea. Because Jesus’ death took place in a specific time and place in history, the forgiveness that it secured is a concrete reality, and a solid basis for all reconciliation—even in our times. Seen in the broader context, Jesus’ death makes even more sense of the forces at work in our world. According to Scripture, nature itself is under a curse. Though God created the world in a perfect state, the sin of the first man and woman brought death to all creation, cutting our world off from its Creator. By his death, Jesus paid the debt that was owed for Adam and Eve’s sin so that the entire human race could be reconciled back to God. Our reconciliation with each other is possible, then, because every tribe and race has been reconciled back to God in the finished work of Jesus. This is why that rough-hewn cross carried so much significance for both parties in Canberra that day.
The gospel message offers a real solution for divided societies because in the death of Jesus, God judged all wickedness ever committed, dealing with every grievance and injustice. In turn, this means that we no longer need to hold others responsible for the sins of their ancestors, nor judge people by the “tribe” they represent. Instead, we can move forward in grace and unity:
He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.
In Christ, group identity isn’t erased, nor should it be. As Reverend Harris noted, our ethnicities and cultural backgrounds are worth celebrating, since they all reflect the God who made us. One of the many benefits of our diversity is that it keeps us humble as we navigate life together. But importantly, group identity is no longer our defining characteristic, since there is something more fundamental that unites us. It’s a unity that can be traced all the way back to the biblical account of creation: “From one blood God created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.”
Christian churches are far from perfect, but they are one of the few places in the world where people—of every description you could possibly imagine—gather week after week, to lift their eyes to the God who honours and yet transcends our many differences. In this way, the church is a microcosm of what the West can and should be: a place where people of every tribe have dignity and worth; where everyone can find a place to belong in community; and yet where God still relates to each of us as individuals.
Taken to its extreme, it is true that individualism can foster greed and selfishness. But individualism is also the best safeguard we have against the terrible dangers of tribalism. Moderated by the bonds of community and informed by our shared values, the individualism that emerged out of our Christian past is still the key to safe and just societies today.
Here’s what two Australian Indigenous leaders have said about Kurt’s new book, Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?
“Uncle Ronnie Williams used to teach us young fellas that “the Bible is tribal”. For us as Indigenous people, we get the twelve tribes, we get the Ten Commandments, and we get the creation story. These stories are embedded in our culture. We also understand the blood covenant and the need for Jesus to die to save us from our sin. The picture on the front cover of this book will strike a deep chord with Indigenous people here in Australia. It shows the blood-stained cross, representing the high price of the covenant God made with humanity through his Son Jesus. This is the message that Western civilisation—with all its many faults—was founded on. Kurt Mahlburg argues that we—both white and black—ignore this message at our peril. Australia will not continue unless it comes back to its godly foundations, which Paul the apostle sums up as “Christ and Him crucified”. I commend Cross and Culture to you as a much needed message for our time.”—PS PETER WALKER, Indigenous Elder, Bundjalung Nation, New South Wales, Founder, National Solemn Assembly
“I am thankful Captain Cook came to Australia. Yes, the coming of the white man brought great heartbreak and terrible disease to our people. But in the midst of this darkness also came the light, and with it, blessing. The light was the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the message of Kurt Mahlburg’s book Cross and Culture. There is a blessing in the message of the gospel. It has the power to revive both us as individuals and our culture at large. Australia needs the revival that the message of the gospel can bring. Kurt’s book demonstrates the power of the gospel. I encourage you to read it!”—PS ANDERSON GEORGE, Indigenous Australian, Wuagalak Nation, Northern Territory