Uniting Church-Jewish Dialogue
“Big Issues for Indigenous People and the Nation as a Whole”
May 31, 2023
By Rev Lindsay Cullen, Assembly Associate General Secretary
In May the 55th dialogue meeting between the Uniting Church and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) was privileged to have as a guest Professor Tom Calma AO, Chancellor of the University of Canberra and a former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner. Tom is also a member of the Referendum Working Group regarding the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and the dialogue group were keen to hear Tom’s reflections regarding this period in our nation’s life and the relationship with our Indigenous peoples.
“He highlighted the need to address unconscious biases which lead to issues of discrimination across the whole community, including issues of religious discrimination."
Tom’s primary point was that this is a time when there are many big issues facing Indigenous people and the nation as a whole. He highlighted the need to address unconscious biases which lead to issues of discrimination across the whole community, including issues of religious discrimination. In relation to Indigenous issues specifically, Tom pointed to the fact that many people have made judgements regarding Indigenous issues or Indigenous people, without actually knowing any First Peoples themselves. He spoke of the key part that reconciliation events and acts of recognition play in enabling the nation to move forward.
Tom spoke passionately about the three strands of the Uluru Statement, the need for truth telling about our history and the persecution which Indigenous people have endured, and the importance of a constitutionally embedded Voice. Tom saw the third aspect of the Statement from the Heart, treaty, as being something which would be a very long term project and which would be enormously aided by the aspects of truth-telling and a permanent, morally persuasive Indigenous Voice. One of the key aspects Tom highlighted was the constant turnover not only of politicians engaged in the area of Indigenous affairs, but also the constant creation, dissolution and ignoring of a succession of previous Indigenous ‘voices’.
Tom listed a large number of issues which currently impact Indigenous people, and need to be urgently addressed, including the unacceptable ‘gaps’ in life expectancy, operation of law and justice, education and generational and other trauma with attendant high rates of mental health issues and suicide.
One area of particular concern and opportunity that Tom highlighted was the project of sustaining and recovering Indigenous languages and the way in which having a ‘living’ language produces a meaningful increase in the sense of identity and self-worth. Tom was particularly proud of the work being done by the “Living First Language Platform” group of which he is the Chairperson.
The dialogue group was also pleased to welcome the Uniting Church’s Advocate for Walking Together as First and Second People, Alison Overeem, a proud Palawa woman from south-east Tasmania and also a member of the National Executive of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. Alison welcomed the input from Tom and gave some personal reflections on the importance of language to First Peoples. Alison stressed the Referendum as merely the first in a series of ‘Yes’es that are needed in Australia and the ways in which the Statement from the Heart, but also First Peoples themselves are, and can be a gift to the wider Australian nation.
Following this significant input from Tom and Alison, and a period of questions and answers, the dialogue then heard reflections from Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio and from Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker focussed on this time of year in our respective traditions. Rabbi Ninio spoke of the importance of Pesach as the most observed festival in the Jewish calendar, its celebration in the home and family and its celebration of the coming out from captivity and the formation of the Jewish people. She shared the universal applicability of the central theme of freedom, but also that this freedom is a freedom in order to take on the binding of commitment to Torah. Rabbi Ninio went on to outline the festival of Shavuot and the ‘Counting of the Omer (grain offering)’ between Pesach and Shavuot as a time of preparation for Shavuot.
Rev Dr Whitaker spoke about the period in the Christian calendar known as the ‘season of Easter’ or Eastertide which runs in some traditions for forty days until Ascension Day but in other traditions including the Uniting Church runs for fifty days until Pentecost. Robyn talked about how this is a time of specific reflection on the resurrection of Jesus and the theme of resurrection more generally, with readings focussed on the resurrection appearances of Jesus, as well as readings from the book of Acts concerning the early church and the first apostolic proclamations of Jesus’ resurrection. She reflected on the geographic spread of the Christian message and on its expansion from primarily a movement within Judaism to a predominantly gentile movement.
Members of the dialogue appreciated the input from Rabbi Ninio and Rev Dr Whitaker and looked forward to the possibility of further discussion of these themes and traditions in dialogue meetings to come.
The dialogue meets twice a year and is co-chaired by Mr Jeremy Jones AM and Rev Tara Curlewis drawing upon members who are based in both Melbourne and Sydney. Meetings have been held on Zoom since 2020 with the next meeting scheduled for November. For more information concerning the Dialogue and relationships with other faiths please contact Rev Lindsay Cullen.
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