Old sins cast long shadows.

Old sins cast long shadows.

yarrabah church interior


Hearing and Heeding Australia’s Aborigines’ cry for justice: A Biblical call to action to resolve today’s challenges.

9th August 2013, St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane

 by Peter Adam


I thank you for your generous welcome and hospitality tonight, and acknowledge the prior custodianship of this part of Australia by the Jagera and Turrbal peoples and their elders.

My aim is to help us to understand and respond to a legitimate cry for justice from the Aboriginal people of Australia, and to expound a Biblical call to action on these issues.  I want to encourage Christians to take a lead in these matters, and I want to encourage all Australians to think about what God calls us to do through his written word, the Bible. [1]

There is an old English proverb which explains why we are here tonight: ‘Old sins cast long shadows’.  It means that sins have long-term unintended consequences.  It means that wrong things done many years ago have long term effects.  It means we must not underestimate the bad effects of bad actions.  It means that people suffer today because of what has been done in the past.  It means that ancient wrongs have consequences which last for generations.  It means that innocent people suffer because of the sins of people they do not even know, who lived in the past.  ‘Old sins cast long shadows’.

What were these old sins?  Quite simply, these old sins were the breaking of the ancient laws of God, given in the Ten Commandments.  We read God’s instruction, ‘You shall not steal’, in Exodus 20:15.  This is one of the Ten Commandments given by God to his people Israel though his servant Moses.  It expresses one of the significant consequences of another great command of God, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, from Leviticus 19:18.  That is, don’t put your own needs above those of your neighbour.

When I was young, I used to want to be Prime Minister, so I could pass a law which said that everyone had to be kind to others.  Would that life was that easy!  Jesus Christ described the command, ‘Love your neighbour’ as one of the two great commandments.  It is because we must love our neighbour that we must not steal.  ‘Love your neighbour’ is the positive command: ‘do not steal’ is the negative consequence.  ‘You shall not steal’, so that your neighbour might live without loss or injury caused by you.  Not stealing is basic to loving our neighbour.  You shall not steal: one of the Ten Commandments given by God.  No wonder Paul teaches in Ephesians that the thief who has become a believer in Christ should no longer steal but rather work in order to give to those in need [Ephesians 5:28].

The ancient sin was that of the theft of a land, a great island, a continent.  It was theft on a very large scale.  It was a theft that began in 1788, when the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay.  For the British government stole the land of Australia.  It justified large scale theft by a variety of arguments.  The land was not cultivated in European style, so therefore empty land: under-utilised, and so ripe for the picking.  It was partly a race for empire, partly a solution to the problem of too many people to fit into British gaols, and partly the desire for commercial profit.  Here was theft on a grand scale.

But it was not an empty land, it was inhabited.  It was not uncultivated. Bill Gamage has shown us that it was ‘the Biggest Estate on Earth[2], carefully, expertly, and effectively cultivated in a way that reflected both a common method across this vast land, adapted to local environments: a common method that both used and protected the land.  Every time we have a flood in a river valley, or a bush-fire in forest land, I wonder if we have done a better job of managing our environment? A high price has been paid for our prosperity.  Well, as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo wrote in the last days of the Roman Empire: ‘All empire is theft’.  The Government of Australia said sorry for the stolen generation, and quite right too.  We have not yet said sorry for stolen land.

Large scale theft incurs the judgment of God.  Hear these words from Psalm 82:

God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods”:

“How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance [Psalm 82:1-4,8].

And we read in Amos 1 and 2 that God will judge Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab because of their attacks on their neighbouring peoples. For example, the Ammonites ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in the process of enlarging their territory, and for those sins, God sent them into exile [Amos 2:13-15].  Even nations used by God to judge his own people, were condemned for unnecessary violence in that judgement [Zechariah 1:15].  And great symbolic figure of Babylon is condemned in Revelation 18, because ‘in her was found the blood…of all who have been slain on earth’ [Revelation 18:24].

How did people at that time view what had happened?  Watkin Tench, a marine who was on the First Fleet, lived in the colony at Sydney Cove from 1788-92. He wrote of the natives:

When they met with unarmed strangers they sometimes killed and sometimes wounded them. I confess that, in common with many others, I was inclined to attribute this conduct to a spirit of malignant levity. But a farther acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity…has entirely reversed my opinion and led me to conclude that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them by unprincipled individuals among us caused the evils we had experienced.[3]

But the unprovoked outrages committed by unprincipled individuals only reflected on a small scale the great unprovoked outrage committed by an unprincipled Empire, the whole-scale theft of Australia.[4] The English author, William Howitt, gave his enlightened view, so different from most of his contemporaries, in 1838:

We have now followed the Europeans to every region of the globe & seen them planting colonies and peopling new lands, and everywhere we have found them the same—a lawless and domineering race, seizing on the earth as if they were the first-born of creation, and having a presumptive right to murder and dispossess all other people …Many are the evils that are done under the sun; but there is and can be no evil like that monstrous and earth-encompassing evil which the Europeans have committed against the Aborigines of every country in which they settled.[5]

But the actions of the British in the case of Australia were unusually bad, because whereas in other instances they respected the property rights of the people when they took over land, this did not happen in Australia.  All land rights were abolished, ignored, trampled on, and extinguished.  It was so bizzare, because many of the convicts were guilty of theft, but here was theft on a massive scale.  Most of the convicts brought here by the British government were thieves.[6]  They may not have stolen very much, but the Government of the day decided that stealing was wrong, and such a serious offence, that it justified transporting men, women and children half way around the world to penal colonies here in Australia.  This was extreme punishment for relatively minor crimes.  But the government of the day regard property as sacred, and so imposed great penalties for theft.  And the reality was that the British government not only stole the land, but also then allowed avaricious individuals to take and possess land, land stolen from the original inhabitants.  And what grotesque behaviour, what extraordinary moral blindness, to regard stealing a few handkerchiefs as such a serious crime that it justified sending the perpetrator half way around the world to a penal colony, and yet to steal a continent from its indigenous people in order to establish that penal colony!

We read Paul’s words in Acts 17:26, ‘God, who made from one ancestor all nations of to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence, and boundaries of the places where they would live.’  We have committed a great crime.  We have failed to acknowledge that God allotted nations times and boundaries in this land. In order to commit these sins, we have committed the even greater sin of failing to acknowledge that we all come from one ancestor, that we are ‘one blood’, that we are brothers and sisters of the indigenous peoples of this land. The doctrine of terra nullius treated people as if their existence had no meaning.  But we must not treat people that way. For, as Calvin preached, the duty to love our neighbour extends to all:

Since [God] has stamped his image upon us, and since we share a common nature, this ought to inspire us to provide for one another. The one who seeks to be exempt from the care of his neighbour is disfiguring himself and declaring that he now longer wishes to be a man. For whilst we are human beings, we must see our own faces reflected, as by a mirror, in the faces of the poor and despised, who can go no further and who are trembling under their burdens, even if they are people who are most alien to us. If a Moor or a barbarian comes to us, because he is a man, he is a mirror in which we see reflected the fact that he is our brother and our neighbour; for we cannot change the rule of nature that God has established as immutable.[7]

God’s Ten Commandments include the following: ‘you shall not covet’… ‘you shall not steal’ …’you shall not murder’ [Exodus 20:13-17].  But we Europeans coveted space for a penal colony, new land, new opportunities, and great wealth. We coveted, and so we stole, and we stole, and so we murdered. We read in the Law: ‘Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbour’s boundary marker’ [Leviticus 27:17]. We not only moved the boundary markers, we removed them, and stole the land. We coveted, stole, and murdered.  As one white Christian commented in 1923, in language of the time:

The white men…took the best of the land for their sheep and cattle, killing the black men’s food… The blacks tried to drive these settlers out of their country…but the white men were not to be driven back. They armed themselves and made open war upon these poor blacks…As we look back over these years there is much that we have to be ashamed of.[8]

British settlement began with convicts being sent to Australia for petty thefts.  It then moved to the grand theft of a continent by a government, and then sank to entrepreneurial theft by avaricious individuals.  We were called to love our neighbour, and we stole instead.  And letting others steal is as serious as doing our own stealing.  Governments that allow theft are in serious trouble with God.  And our history shows the damage done by Government when it tackles the problem of petty crime but ignores large-scale theft of natural resources by wealthy and powerful people, even today.

We read in the Bible of Ahab, an ungodly king of Samaria, in 1 Kings 21.  He wanted the vineyard of Naboth, which was Naboth’s ancestral inheritance, given to his family by God.  Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, caused Naboth’s murder, so that Ahab could take his vineyard. God sent the prophet Elijah with these two accusations: ‘Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ [1 Kings 21:19]  How would those British settlers have answered those questions?

Theft is a natural action for those who regard possessions and financial security as their God.  Christ told us that we ‘cannot serve God and money’ [Matthew 6:24], and that is evident in Australia.  Those who serve money find it impossible to serve God.  And you can have a good economy and a bad society: our economy is only a means to an end, and it must be just as well as effective.

Old sins cast long shadows.  For theft led to bloodshed.  Pitched battles by Government troops at Richmond in 1795, at Parramatta in 1797, at Bathurst in 1824 or Pinjarra in 184[9] were as appalling as local murders by thugs and thieves.  It was, as Laurence Threkeld of the London Missionary Society wrote in 1837, ‘a war of extermination.’[10]

After the Myall Creek massacre in 1838, the Baptist minister John Saunders preached on the text from the prophet Isaiah,  “For, behold, the LORD cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain” (Isaiah 26:21, KJV). He said,

It is not for us to state in what degree this principle shall be applied to any particular people, nor to predict the precise moment of its application, but we may be sure that the unchanging word of God has been fulfilled, and is still accomplished toward every one of the tribes of Adam. The measure of forbearance, the weight of visitation, and the time of indignation are in the hands of the Eternal, but the certainty of a righteous retribution towards all is clearly established.

An additional point is also obvious, that if there be anything which falls for a swifter and a more severe punishment than another, it is the shedding of human blood. For this the nations receive a prompt and condign visitation. Oppression, cruelty and blood, gather the clouds of vengeance, and provoke the threatening thunder of the Omnipotent, and attract the bolt of wrath. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed,” was the decree of the Eternal when the life of the brutes was placed in human power, and the reason for this solemn distinction is “for in the image of God made he man.” And this is a distinction which God has maintained, does maintain, and will maintain till the end of time.

It is a fearful thing to shed human blood, it is an act which has the deepest malefaction of heaven upon it – a curse from the dread power above…Pilate might wash his hands but he could not make himself guiltless of innocent blood.[11]

Saunders continued,

We have not been fighting with a natural enemy, but have been eradicating the possessors of the soil, and why, forsooth? because they were troublesome, because some few had resented the injuries they had received, and then how were they destroyed? by wholesale, in cold blood; let the Hawkesbury and Emu Plains tell their history, let Bathurst give in her account, and the Hunter render her tale, not to mention the South, and we shall find that while rum, and licentiousness, and famine, and disease, have done their part to exterminate the blacks, the musket, and the bayonet and the sword, and the poisoned damper, have also had their influence and that Britain hath avenged the death of her sons, not by law, but by retaliation at the atrocious disproportion of a hundred to one. The spot of blood is upon us, the blood of the poor and the defenceless, the blood of the men we wronged before we slew, and too, too often, a hundred times too often, innocent blood.[12]

Old sins cast long shadows, and the shadows of those old sins today include the memories of land theft and slaughter, and the fracturing and loss of structures of society, and the weakening of family identity and family life. The sin of slow genocide of most of a people still shadows our national life. For all our pride in our ethnic diversity and richness, we have not yet repented of our version of what is politely described as ethnic cleansing. As the pioneer British Christian worker with indigenous people, John Gribble, said:

If I am to work as a missionary, it must be on the lines of justice and right to the Aborigines of this land, in opposition to the injustice and wrong-doing of unprincipled white men. This is my decision and by it I stand or fall.[13]

In her crime novels, Agatha Christie often points out that murder not only damages the person who is murdered, but also damages the murderer.  That is true of all sins, including the sins of large scale theft and murder.  I believe that this theft of Australia, for which we have not yet repented, has severely damaged our whole nation, and especially in our attitude to refugees.  For one of the effects of theft is that those who steal are very possessive of what they have stolen.  This might be because they feel guilty about their theft, realising that they have taken risks get what they have stolen.  It might be because they have compromised their moral code to get what they want.  They are reluctant to share the benefits of what they have stolen with others, and will complain very loudly if they are in danger of losing it.  Why is it we in Australia are generally so reluctant to welcome refugees, and so reluctant to share our wealth and prosperity?  It may come from the worship of money, of possessions, of financial security.  It may come from a deep guilt about how we gained what we have.  It may be that old sins cast long shadows, and that one such shadow lies upon us today.  Because we stole the land, we are opposed to sharing it.  The consequence of idolatry is that we are captive to our idol, because, as Jesus told us, the one who sins becomes a slave to sin [John 8:34].  Because we have not repented of the sin of theft, we are still shackled by that sin.  This is because we have not set free by the Son, and set free by the truth of the gospel [John 8:36,32].  We are still overshadowed by 1788.

If this is so, we will not be able to change our attitude to refugees until we repent of our theft and murder.  If we do this, it will help us to diminish the long shadows caused by old sins.

What then should we do?

  1. We should confess our sin to God.

The Bible not only tells us of our sin, it also tells us what to do about our sin, and how to minimise the bad consequences of our sin for others for ourselves. We read in 1 John.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness [1 John 1:7-9].

While those who took over the land hurt its inhabitants, in doing so they sinned against God. For God had said, ‘you shall not covet’… ‘you shall not steal’ …’you shall not murder’ [Exodus 20:13-17]. Our first duty is to confess our sin to God. While none of us were alive at that time, we all benefit from their actions. We should at least confess the sin of ignoring that sin, of thoughtlessly benefitting from it, and of failing to think who we should act in relation to the descendants of those who suffered.

Ultimately Australia belongs to God and to Christ.  Our greatest sins are not against each other, but against God.  We are all custodians of our lives, and custodians who are finally responsible to God for our stewardship. For the first fundamental reality about this world is that God made it through his Son, who later came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

We mar and spoil each other and our world in many different ways.  Our great dignity and responsibility as humans made in God’s image means that we can do great damage, as well as great good.  It means that we can do damage unintentionally as well as intentionally, and we can get caught up in great human movements that cause damage beyond our imagining.  Our shared sins cast long shadows, and the sins of other from which we benefit may also cast long shadows.

But God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  Christ came to reconcile us to God, to end the enmity between us, to bring peace by his blood shed on the cross.  Jesus died to bring us to God.  We can come to God even now: it is not too late.  We can come to God now: he is not too far away.  We can come to God now: he invites and welcomes to himself through his Son Jesus, and through his death in our place on that cross two thousand years ago.

  1. We should make peace.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ [Matthew 5:9].  We are called to make peace, that is, to reduce enmity, anger, and breakdown in relationships, and to build communication, mutual respect, forgiveness, and healthy and positive relationships.  This needs to happen in Australia, where we naturally privilege loyalty to our sub-culture to love of our neighbour, and prefer to love people we like, and ignore or suspect those we don’t.  There is still tension between the original inhabitants of the land, and those who have benefitted from their dispossession.  It is our duty to make peace.  As St Paul wrote, ‘Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ [Romans 13:17,18].

Making peace includes being reconciled to those who suffer from our sins.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ told his disciples what they should do if others have something against them.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift [Matthew 5:23,24].

So we should not approach God until we are at peace with others.  Non-indigenous Australians need to take this seriously: reconciliation with others must be a priority, and the indigenous people of this land have a legitimate complaint against us.  We have offended them: we must work for reconciliation, whether we believe in God or not.  Followers of Christ should take the lead in working for this reconciliation.

  1. We should provide recompense to those who have suffered.

Payment of recompense was required under the Law of Moses, namely five oxen for one ox, and four sheep for one sheep [Exodus 22:1].  In the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus the tax collector was commended by the Lord Jesus, because when he became a follower of Christ his repentance was evident and public in his offer of recompense to those he had oppressed.  He said:

Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount [Luke 19:8].

As we have seen, Paul has clear instructions for those who need to repent of theft.

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need [Ephesians 5:28].

We are a wealthy nation, and our wealth derives in part from our theft. We have also worked for our wealth, and we should be generous with it, and so diminish the long shadows caused by old sins.

Ernest Gribble, a son of John Gribble, and also a worker among Indigenous people said:

We have a three-fold debt to pay to the Aborigines. We owe them a debt for the country we have taken from them. We owe the race reparation for the neglect and cruelty… We owe them the best our civilization has to give, and that is the gospel of our Lord.[14]

It is time to pay our debts. St Paul wrote,

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law [Romans 13:8-10].

Love involves duty, as well as generosity.  We have wronged our neighbours.  It is now time to pay our debts, to confess our sins, to give the recompense that we owe. We who know God’s great love in Christ should be the most active in loving others. May God strengthen us to love the Lord our God, and so to love our neighbours.

What practical steps should we take?

At least we can say sorry.  We are sorry that we took your land.  We are sorry that so many died because we came.  We are sorry that your pattern of common life has been broken down in so many ways.  We are sorry for the damage that we have done.

At least we can respect and honour you, learn from you, and ask your forgiveness and grace.  At least we can as a nation say sorry and to acknowledge the prior custodianship of the land by you who lived here before us.

At least we can amend the Constitution in order to acknowledge the legitimacy of the prior Indigenous ownership of the land.

At least we can is work to ‘close the gap’ in health, education, employment and welfare.

Most of all, of course, our government should ask the Indigenous people of this land what they reckon would achieve a satisfactory situation of reconciliation, justice, and respect.

And those of us who are Christians should be the first to say sorry, the first to respect and honour you, and first to ask your forgiveness and grace, because we know the commands of God, ‘you shall not steal’, and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

The church I belong to in Melbourne held a service of thanksgiving and reconciliation with the Indigenous people of Carlton in March.  Our Vicar, Archdeacon Richard Condie, began the service with these words:

Today is an important moment in the life of this church.

In 1866 the land on which we now stand was given to the Church of England in Australia as a Crown Grant to establish St Jude’s Church, without the permission or welcome of the original inhabitants – the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.  It has taken us far too long -146 years – to acknowledge this injustice.

We are pleased to belatedly receive with great honour and much thankfulness a formal welcome to this country from one of its elders. We are very grateful to have Aunty Diane Kerr here today to welcome us in this way.

Our prayer is that today is not an end but a new beginning for our church, for we are also custodians of something.

As God’s people, we are custodians of a message: a message about Jesus of Nazareth, who himself was born in an occupied land and knew such pain and injustice.  He was a man who bore the image of God to bring reconciliation to the world between humanity and God, so that we might know God and have eternal hope in Him.

As such we too are people of new beginnings borne in reconciliation.

And so our prayer is that as we now continue to discharge our custodianship of the Word about Jesus, we might be a blessing to the original people of this land and the ones who have come here since.[15]

For those of us who are Christians should be the first to say sorry, because we know that we are accountable to God, and that all things have been made through Christ and for him, and so we are called to live through him and for him, and we called to be reconciled to God by his Son, by his blood shed on the cross.  We say sorry today, and we want to do what we can to build friendship, trust, and respect in our community and in our nation.

May God in his mercy forgive our sins, and help us to learn to love him and to learn to love our neighbours.  We pray this prayer through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our reconciliation. Amen.


Peter James Adam OAM (born 1946) is an Australian Christian minister. He served as vicar of St Jude’s Church in Carlton, Melbourne for twenty years, and principal of Ridley Melbourne for ten years.  He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to theological education and to the Anglican Church of Australia.

[1] This paper builds on a lecture I gave in 2009, ‘Australia, whose land?’ http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/118.pdf  and at http://www.stjudes.org.au/images/documents/peter_adam_files/Australia_whose_land_Peter_Adam.pdf

[2] Bill Gamage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2011.

[3] Tim Flannery, ed, Watkin Tench’s 1788, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2009, p. 91.

[4] In fact Great Britain was not formally an Empire until 1876, when Queen Victoria was made Empress of India. But through acquisition of other countries for trade and commercial gain, it had gained control of lands in many places. It was in fact a commercial empire.

[5] William Howitt, Colonization and Christianity: a popular history of the treatment of the native by the Europeans in all their colonies, London, Longman, 1838, pp. 499–501.

[6] Geoffrey Blainey, A Land Half Won, Revised Edition, Sydney, Sun, 1992, pp. 30-48.

[7] John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, tr. Kathy Childress, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997, Sermon on Galatians 6:9-11, pp. 624,625.

[8] No author named, Neighbours of the Never-Never,  Sydney, Church Missionary Society, 1923, p. 16, as cited in John Harris, We wish we’d done more, Adelaide, Openbook, 1998, p. 449.

[9]Harris, 1998, p. 432.

[10] As cited in Harris, 1998, p. 432. See further, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians#1700s

[11] John Saunder’s sermon, ‘The Claims of the Aborigines’, can be read at http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/20835.htm  The verses he quotes are Genesis 9:6 and Matthew 27:24.

[12] Saunders, ‘Claims of the Aborigines’.

[13] As quoted in John Harris, ‘John Gribble’, pp. 137,138, in Brian Dickey, ed, The Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, Sydney, Evangelical History Association, 1994.

[14] As quoted in John Harris, ‘Ernest Gribble’, in Dickey, 1994, pp. 136,137.

[15] http://stjudesnews.org/archives/5685

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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