Review: Australia – whose land? (part 1)

Last Monday night (10th August) Dr Peter Adam delivered the Second Annual John Saunders Lecture in the Chapel of Morling College. His topic was Australia – whose land? The following day a very brief report of the lecture appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald website and in the week following various references to the event have continued to bubble up on websites around the world. An article even appeared in the Church of England Newspaper (UK) replete with opinions from Keith Windschuttle: “the politics of Aboriginal romanticism that Rev Adam endorses have little basis in reality”. The ‘History Wars’ have now come to the Anglican Communion (as if they didn’t have enough other things to argue about).

Aboriginal ArtThe level of reportage has generally been very poor, virtually every account has focussed on the series of recommendations that Dr Adam put forward at the end of his address. Particular attention has been given to Dr Adam’s call for the descendants of those who have arrived since British colonisation to make recompense, including asking the traditional owners of this country whether they would like the later immigrants to leave. Unfortunately, the radical nature of Dr Adam’s suggestions has overshadowed the substance of his lecture, particularly the theological, ethical, and social assumptions upon which it rests.

Dr Adam delivered a powerful lecture with gravity and sensitivity. The entire address was a stunning example of disciplined Christian ethical argument. The great shame of the evening was that there were only about 50 people there to hear it. The full text of the lecture was made available on the night and is also available electronically from the Ridley College website. I strongly encourage people to read it.

It is never easy to give an academic lecture on guilt to a room full of guilty people. There are two quite predictable reactions from the audience: either, a civilised denial expressed through detailed lines of questioning designed perhaps to probe for loopholes in the argument under the guise of academic rigour, or at least to elevate the discussion from the concrete (my guilt), to the less confrontational and abstract (‘Guilt’). Alternatively, hearers engage in a detailed self-examination that quickly becomes self-flagellation, designed, I think, as a public confession and work of penance but concealing within it a ‘self’-re-gathering/reinforcing act of judgement against those who cannot bring themselves to make a similar act of contrition. It’s much easier to say ‘sorry’ to a room full of civilised, academic (white) people against whom you’ve done nothing, and moreover, it gives you a certain gratifying moral power.

My natural reactions tend toward the former. After hearing Dr Adam speak I had a mind full of questions and exceptions. It was hard work just to sit still and consider his argument. I think that this was a good discipline for me to practice. However, I think we do need to go further. And that requires us to think a little bit further about the dynamics of moral discourse.

Our thinking about the processes of moral reasoning often focus on the active dimension of the task (what are the marks of a sound moral argument? what are the virtues of a good moral reasoner?). However, our participation in moral reasoning does not only occur from this ‘active’ direction. Sometimes (often?) our engagement with moral reasoning comes when we are the focus of moral exhortation: when, for example, we are called upon to do justice or make recompense. How do we engage with moral reasoning from this direction? What are virtues of a good moral Hearer?

Lest, you think that this takes us a long way away from the ethics of Indigenous Reconciliation, I think we will find that the central ethical difficulty in our practice of ‘Ethical Hearing’ is also the central problem for our discussion of the ethics of reconciliation.


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