Readings Luke 10:25-37 and Acts 9:1-19
In 1938, following the annexation of Austria and amidst the alarming rise of Nazi persecution against German Jews, the Evian Conference on Refugees was held. Deliberations at the conference naturally concerned the need for resettlement and protection of European Jewish communities. However, the Australian delegate at the conference, Colonel T. W. White, stated emphatically, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”
The first time I encountered this quote was when I visited the Holocaust Museum in New York City. It was as disturbing and disappointing then as it is now.
And yet, there’s another story. Also in 1938, Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper led a delegation from his home to the German consulate in Melbourne to deliver a letter protesting against violent Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany. According to the National Museum of Australia, it is considered by many to be the only protest of its kind in the world at the time. The protest and solidarity displayed by Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League has since been honoured by a plaque at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, with the planting of trees in the State of Israel, and a tribute held at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial. In 2017, 79 years after the protest, the letter was finally delivered and received by the German government.
And so, to ask again Jesus’ question from the gospel reading: Which of these, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
Cooper, a union man and long-time advocate for justice, who it should be noted was in his 70s at the time of the protest, was not (at least from the from the accounts of his peers and family)motivated by personal relationships with Jewish people in Melbourne. Rather there were two factors in play. One, Cooper and other members of the Australian Aborigines’ League knew what it meant to be a persecuted racial minority: the violence endured, the indignity suffered, the violation of rights and freedoms. This understanding led to identification, compassion, and action. The second motivation, was Cooper’s Christian faith and his particular experience on a mission where the evangelists, Daniel and Janet Matthews, held “a view of humanity that encompassed all people as God’s children, and so held the lives of Aboriginal people mattered, too.”
The Matthew’s theology “provided a prophetic… view of history that promised salvation for the Yorta Yorta, just as the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, had promised to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.” Cooper took to heart God’s love of justice, God’s siding with the oppressed, and God’s promise, proclaimed in the words of Christ, to deliver the captives.
In this way, we might say, Cooper was able to see and tell the truth in two ways – the truth of the treatment of his people, and the truth of the gospel which proclaimed that such treatment was not endorsed by God, but rather that God called for the overturning of injustice and the dignified treatment of all humanity. This comprehension of the truth, earthly and heavenly, is what it takes to love one’s neighbour.
And yet, the protest at the German consulate was not the only history Cooper made in 1938. For this was the year, as we referenced at the beginning of this service, when Cooper called for a Day of Mourning, and an “Aborigines’ Day” to be held in the nation’s churches every year on the Sunday closest to Australia Day. This was to serve as a reminder of the unjust treatment of Indigenous people and serve as a push for full citizenship and broader care for Indigenous communities.
The call for the Day of Mourning and the initiation of Aborigines Sunday are both acts of neighbour love. Naturally we can see how these are acts of love for Cooper’s Indigenous neighbours. But it is vital that we see how calling for such mourning, truth-telling, and solidarity is also an act of love for his non-Indigenous neighbours.
From the Bible we learn that the truth will set you free. The truth doesn’t lock us in shame, doesn’t humiliate, doesn’t lead to ruin, the truth sets us free. But for the truth to be witnessed, embraced, and allowed to renew and reconcile, scales need to fall from eyes. Truth needs to interrupt lies. Truth needs to interrupt lies such as that Australia in 1938, steeped in the White Australia policy, had no real race problem. It was the lie of assimilation that prevented the Australian government of the time from offering stronger solidarity and refuge to Jewish people, it was seeing the truth of persecution and suffering that led Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League to protest. Truth sometimes needs to unsettle, to disrupt comfortable narratives, to bring to a halt the very trajectory of our lives.
For what was Jesus’ most loving act toward Saul? Saul, we heard, was on his way to carry out further persecution of the fragile Christian community, on his way to bring (what he believed was) justice, on his way to protect his own community, on his way to serve God. And then Jesus knocks him off his way, blinding him with a great light. Jesus unsettles, disrupts, and reorientates all he knows through those famous words “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This is Jesus’ great act of love, for Jesus disrupts Saul with the truth and the truth sets him free to start a new life, no longer in hostility to the Christian community, but in reconciled service of that community. Paul needs to be taught to see again, to see the truth of his own violence, the truth of God’s plan.
This reading from Acts holds one of the most beautiful and moving moments in Scripture. It is Ananias removing the scales by putting his hands upon the vulnerable Saul and calling him a brother. “Brother Saul.” In this is the hope and promise of the gospel! Where there was enmity and estrangement, where there were persecutors and victims, something new can occur. Saul does not encounter revenge or retribution but repair, renewal, and reconciliation. Ananias lays down his right to get even and extends an invitation into a new life, one in which they are more than neighbours, they are family. Being confronted with uncomfortable truth of his actions sets Saul free from his path of violence, and the love Ananias shows for Saul finishes the process by which he is taught to see once more – this love opens before him a new life amidst and for those he was once against.
The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union acknowledges God has never left the Church without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word (BoU, paragraph 11). Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper is one such witness. One whose life displayed a love for his fellow Indigenous neighbour, his Jewish neighbour who he had never met, and his non-Indigenous neighbour who enjoyed far more rights and opportunity than he was afforded in his lifetime.
And so today we learn from Cooper and follow his invitation to a Day of Mourning. For we understand that just as Jesus confronted Saul with the unsettling truth of his actions in order to draw him into new life, community, and the service of God, we must confront the history of the land and churches in which we live and worship in order to be set free by the truth. We receive the invitation to listen and learn, to engage in services such as this one, offered by Indigenous Christians in much of the same spirit as Ananias. One which prioritises restoration, renewal, and repair through service, where scales fall from eyes, new family emerges, and we may be filled with the Holy Spirit, readied to be a neighbour.
Image: The Conversion of Saint Paul, Luca Giordano, 1690, Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy
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