I’ve Always Wanted To Be An Eagle

Thursday, 7 April 2016
Writer Nick Wight

The Walpiri of central Australia have a saying about the wedge tail eagle (or Warlawurru). To be a good hunter like the eagle, you must be a silent hunter… quiet, a great listener, able to hear and observe what’s going on around you before making a move.

In the Walpiri way of integrated living and learning, hunting is analogous with learning or gaining in wisdom… so stories to do with hunting often are indications about ways to grow in understanding and wisdom as well.

The red desert of the Walpiri in the centre of our vast land is a long, long way from where most of us go about our daily rhythms and ministries, yet this is the mental image many of us have when Aboriginal people or culture is raised. It’s not an unreasonable question to ask, ‘What does Aboriginal Australian culture have to do with me? I don’t see it in my street or neighbourhood, I don’t know many (or any) Indigenous people, although there’s always stuff in the media about Indigenous issues. Are there any implications for the way I minister and worship in my neighbourhood?’

In his inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture of 1996, previous Governor General Sir William Deane reminded us that Australia will remain a diminished nation until true reconciliation is achieved. It is plain to see why. The present plight of so many Aboriginal people, he said, flows largely from the dispossession, injustice and oppression of the past.

More recently, ex-Prime Minister, Paul Keating said “… the more we rejoice in their [Aboriginal] identity and their one-ness with the country, the more the country will become ours as we become nearer its spirituality and meaning. The more we view the country through the prism of Aboriginality, the more likely we are to get the angle right.”

These are both considered and strong commendations for at least exploring our shared history and its resulting contemporary context for Aboriginal and Islander peoples, and what it might mean for our communities and neighbourhoods. Readymade answers simply aren’t readily available, but I don’t think hard work would deter us if we thought that healing and hope for our communities, for all of us, was on offer. When it comes to issues facing Indigenous Australia we’re often faced with a deficit approach to reporting and addressing those issues—that is, looking at what is wrong or missing as a starting point for awareness and understanding. I want to offer instead an asset-based approach. If there is something in what a previous Governor General and Prime Minister have to say, how can we begin to look through Aboriginal eyes?

When I was around 18 or 19 I had a chance to visit Hong Kong and China. This was a very formative experience for my faith journey. I went as a member of a small team and amongst a range of great experiences we got to watch videos of house churches in inland China that would experience regular oppression and persecution. We heard stories of how they often had only one Bible for a whole community, or sometimes even less; just a few pages.

I’ve spent many moments in the years following wondering… if we only knew a broad outline of the Gospel, if we only had one small section of the Bible on a scrap of page, what could we know about Jesus what could we extrapolate about how we might live?

One such ‘scrap’ of a passage that I love to use for this not so scientific mental experiment is Philippians 2, 6-7.

“[Christ] who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

What would be the one ‘Jesus principle’ we can learn or ‘hunt’ from this passage? He had everything and gave it up to connect with us! The principle or value is humility. Humility is central to the whole nature of Christ and frames his story of incarnation, death and resurrection—that’s how important it is!

Humility is variously seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others, or conversely, having a clear perspective and respect for one's place in context.

In other words, it’s about relinquishing power—Paul is saying this is the way of Christ. Understanding power—where it exists, who has it, how it’s used—is vital to us living into Christ’s example of humility. What does this mean for us and Aboriginal Australia? How does it inform how we might minister and live amongst the first Australians?

Okay, back to the Walpiri story of the eagle. One of its primary meanings is that Warlawurru, the quiet hunter, is also the humble learner.

Philippians 2 verse 5 and this Walpiri understanding both speak directly to our relationships with one another… in particular, our relationships with Aboriginal Australians. Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus who had power and position but put this aside to enter his whole ministry, his relationship with human kind, as a servant, even incarnating as a vulnerable baby.

Historically this hasn’t characterised the way we as Christians have related to and ministered amongst the Indigenous.

A few years back, through the SURRENDER Conference, we were able to hear from International volunteerism expert, Dr Ram Cnaan (University of Pennsylvania) who shared that significantly better social outcomes are achieved when those doing the volunteering work out how to put their power aside and connect personally with those they are volunteering among.

The Gospel insists that the experience of powerlessness is the absolutely necessary starting point for transformational healing. This is perennial wisdom. For Jesus it was the way of the cross, and he told us to follow him on the downward journey into powerlessness. It is there where we will find what is real, what lasts, and what matters. Through the crucifixion, Jesus showed us that powerlessness is the way through. It is not the end, but truly the beginning.

I think this has a direct application for how we go about sharing the Good News in our own neighbourhoods, especially when you are looking to make new connections and foster honest relationships outside of our church or ministry teams. Ask yourself, who here has power and how are they carrying it? Don’t enter your neighbourhood like a cow or water buffalo, crushing subtle and often fragile local ecologies. Be encouraged to enter quietly, like the eagle, in a posture of learning and receiving. In this way I’m convinced we gain the gift of seeing our neighbourhoods afresh, through new eyes. We see connections, stories, and suffering in ways we may never have previously.

So it’s the same in everything we do with and among our Indigenous brothers and sisters: let’s be quiet hunters—humble learners that can see that our own healing and transformation is linked to powerlessness. Our engagement with Indigenous communities must start with us quietly learning, exercising humility first and foremost. The best way we can make a difference is to enter relationships and partnerships this way… as quiet hunters… humble learners.

The best hunters would hunt together in this way, each knowing their role and place, working as one. What a great picture of how we can walk together with our brothers and sisters in Indigenous Christian communities; quietly, humbly learning together.

Have you ever had a big organisation or church want to come and ‘help you out’ or ‘bless your neighbourhood’ with a one way transaction of material aid or volunteer support? Mutuality is the key—words like solidarity, side by side, or walking (and learning) together. Here’s a well-known but powerful quote from an Aboriginal elder in Queensland that really captures this idea.

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.

— attributed to elder Lila Watson

The best healing happens in the context of relationships and the best relationships are characterised by mutuality. Mutual respect, mutual learning and mutual understanding.

I would confess to there being more mystery than clarity when it comes to this link for all of us with white and black engagement in this country but I am convinced there is a connection between the efficacy of our neighbourhood ministries, our desire to be agents of reconciliation and healing in our local communities and us becoming more aware, more connected to the land on which we live and work out our vocations and its first inhabitants, so I’d encourage you to be more out of control in your own neighbourhood.

Originally published in YVQ11: OUR PLACE

Written by Nick Wight. Nick Wight is the East Coordinator of IMA (Indigenous Ministries Australia, a program of GMP). He also helps coordinate Indigenous engagement at SURRENDER and, along with his family, is a member of Footscray Salvos missional community. Nick previously helped establish St Kilda Gatehouse and Matthews Party faith community.

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