A NAIDOC Requiem

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is the end of NAIDOC Week 2021, an inheritor of a tradition dating from 1937 when William Cooper called on Australian churches of all denominations to mark the third Sunday of each January as Aborigines’ Day, a day to promote what he termed ‘uplift’ for his community. In 1958, this nominated Sunday changed from January to July of each year and would later become a week rather than just a day. I have preached on themes directly relevant to NAIDOC on two previous occasions as well as on Reconciliation themes on a couple of others. [1] In two of those sermons, I mentioned William Cooper, an amazing Australian of first nation descent, a Bangerang man of the Yorta Yorta nation, who not only fought for his people, such as in the large petition he raised addressed to King George VI though it was prevented by the Federal Cabinet from ever reaching the monarch, but who also fought for justice for humanity. As an example of his global vision for fairness and justice, William Cooper organised the only known demonstration against the Kristallnacht of November 1938 by holding a protest rally to deliver a letter to the Nazi consulate in Melbourne on December 6, 1938.

In those previous sermons I have mentioned something of the life and work of this remarkable man; let me now add one more piece of information. William Cooper loved this country, but that love was never fully returned. In 1893 William Cooper married Agnes Hamilton and they had a son, Daniel who enlisted in the Army in WWI. Daniel eager to serve the country of his birth and ancient ancestry enlisted in 1914. Sent to the Western Front, Daniel died at age 21 in the third battle of Ypres on 20 September 1917. The death of his young son deeply grieved William Cooper and he would thenceforth argue against Aboriginal young men enlisting ‘until they had something to fight for.’ Indeed, he wrote something of a tragic requiem about it after Daniel’s death: [2]

The Aboriginal now has no status, no rights, no land … he has no country and nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the white race without compensation or even kindness.

In his grief, Cooper may for a time have lost faith in his country, but he never lost faith in his God. In a letter to Prime Minister Lyons in March 1938, Cooper said that he wrote from: [3]

The standpoint of an educated black who can read the Bible upon which (the) British constitution and custom is founded.

After the war he actively began to campaign for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. He lobbied government but knew that the wider community, including the churches, also had to be engaged. Hence NAIDOC. This year’s theme has been ‘Heal Country’ which:

Calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration and destruction.

‘Heal Country’ – there is something redemptive about such a phrase. This week, in Friday’s Advertiser there was an article about research by University of Adelaide ethnohistorian, Skye Krichauff which was published originally in the journal History Australia. In the article, reference is made to two Kaurna men who were ‘key players in the early, peaceful settlement of colonial Adelaide’, Kadlitpinna known as ‘Captain Jack’ and Mullawirraburka known as ‘King John’. [4]

Though we know almost nothing about the conversations Kadlitpinna and Mullawirraburka had with the early settlers, there was fortunately a scrap of conversation recorded by those early German missionaries G C Teichelmann and C W Schürmann, in their 1840 publication Outlines of a Grammar Vocabulary Phraseology of South Australia spoken by the natives and for a distance around Adelaide. In that slim volume appeared these words from one of these two Kaurna men who had been so ‘key … (to) the early, peaceful settlement of colonial Adelaide’:

Natta murriendi adlu; paini paininga adlu yanitya tikki; kutyonillanda tikkaneadlu paru paintyingga, kuyanilla yertangga. Yaintya atta natta jundo puma yerta.

Now let us go further. Formerly we lived here for some time. Otherwhere we will live, upon another district where meat is at hand. Here I feel now anxious for another district. [5]

‘Formerly we lived here for some time’ they had said – 40,000 years certainly is some time. ‘Otherwhere we will live’ – by these words they had indicated that they foresaw their displacement from the land; so it is hardly surprising that they would feel ‘anxious for another district’ – Yaintya atta natta iundo puma yerta.

Kadlitpinna and Mullawirraburka had felt anxious back in 1840, yet how much more would transpire over the subsequent one hundred and seventy years which would exacerbate the difficult journey ahead for first nations people as they sought to find a place in the confection we came to know as Australia?

When the idea of Australia had its sesquicentenary, William Cooper and others convened a Day of Mourning which was held on January 24, 1938. It was a requiem for all that had happened to indigenous peoples over that hundred and fifty years. But Cooper, then sought to find hope from that requiem of mourning and called, as I have mentioned, for an annual Aborigines’ Day, focussing on uplift rather than ongoing despair.

In our psalm 85 tonight we heard these words:

Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall flourish out of the earth. [v10]

And in our reading from Ephesians, we heard:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you. [1:17-18]

Mercy and truth met together … righteousness and peace kissing each other … truth flourishing out of the earth … a spirit of wisdom and revelation … the eyes of our hearts enlightened … knowing the hope to which God has called us. I suggest each of these are phrases we could focus on as we reflect on NAIDOC’s call for healing this land. They are words of forgiveness and redemption and of the peace which may come from them. They can allow us to touch the hurt and harm of the past with a spirit of grace which may permit renewal of our national spirit, reconciliation of our peoples; but only if mercy, truth, righteousness and peace abound in a spirit where wisdom seeks revelation and enlightenment.

I have used the word ‘requiem’ a few times tonight. A requiem is a dirge or mourning but it literally means ‘rest’. In Verdi’s Requiem, these beautiful words are sung:

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem

Lamb of God, who forgives the sins of the world, grant them rest.

The Lamb of God … the Lamb is an image that is central to our faith; the sacrifice of that Lamb is foundational to it and its victory is the sublime hope delivered through such faith. Do we appeal to that Lamb of our faith in our engagement with this broken world, with brokenness in our country? In this week of NAIDOC, do we consider what our image of the sacrificial Lamb may mean in relation to national healing?

In my sermon on last year’s delayed NAIDOC week (held in November) I mentioned comments by Matt Andrews, of Common Grace, about William Cooper’s heart for the suffering of German Jews:

William Cooper identified strongly with the Jews. When he was born in 1860, whitefellas had all but taken their land of milk and honey … The new white masters could be as cruel as Egyptian slave-drivers – they denied Aboriginal pastoral workers their wage, and stories were told of landed men going on ‘blackhunts’ after church picnics of a Sunday. [6]

‘Blackhunts’ after church picnics had been a monstrous distortion of the Lamb of God. The reference to the Jews brings to mind that moving testament Terezín Requiem by Josef Bor which was a retelling of the bizarre circumstances where Jewish musicians, inmates of Theresienstadt concentration camp, had performed Verdi’s Requiem for the Nazi High Command. In that slim volume, Bor related the reason why Rafael Schächter, the person who orchestrated and conducted the performance, had chosen Verdi’s Requiem as the piece; for it had surely been a very odd decision for a Jewish group to perform a Christian work to an anti-Semitic audience. Bor wrote of Schächter’s decision:

Today a man can imagine the torments of the damned better than Dante ever could, and a Jew writhing in the talons of the Nazis knows hell in all its horror, here among the living. Moreover, the Requiem he would study here must not be a Christian requiem; that would not help or strengthen anyone in this place. It must be a new, a different kind of requiem, with a fanatical faith in historical justice here in this world. Only such a requiem could they sing here in a concentration camp; only such music would prisoners comprehend, Jews, Christians and unbelievers alike. He would perform for them a requiem that had never yet been heard. [7]

A requiem that ‘had never yet been heard’ gives new focus to the significance of its lines:

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem

Lamb of God, who forgives the sins of the world, grant them rest.

The idea of that theme ‘never yet been heard’ invites a new interrogation of forgiveness and rest offered by the Lamb of God; an interrogation that understands there is no room here for easy emotions, if there is to be the possibility of redemption, of hope. In 2019, there was another such interrogation of these words. This time it was at the premiere of Eumerella, a choral piece by the Aboriginal composer and singer, Deborah Cheetham. In this work it was Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem which was the focus. The words of her piece about the Agnus Dei and the requiem, or rest, which may come from it required a confronting reinterpretation. They were spoken in the Gunditjmara language: [8]

ngalam meen-ngeeye nhoomapee yoondapoora-na-yoota tyookooyong-ee, moongay wata moorroop-tyeen tamboora toota

This was not a literal translation of ‘Lamb of God, who forgives the sins of the world, grant them rest’ instead they translate as:

Our ancestors, who were sacrificed for the lambs, may their spirits find rest.

Deborah Cheetham’s work focussed on the Eumerella Wars of 1834-44 when 6,500 Aboriginals and 80 settlers died in a conflict where first nation people tried to resist expropriation of their land in the area between Port Fairy and Portland. The settlers moved their lambs in after they had killed many of the original inhabitants. Deborah Cheetham entitled her work Eumerella: a war requiem for peace and in doing so wanted it not to be a dirge but a siren of hope; but a hope only possible through truth-telling and redemption. ‘What I am trying to move us towards in Australia is understanding’ she has written.

NAIDOC itself should be considered a requiem which seeks redemption and reconciliation. William Cooper called for churches to take the initiative in achieving this. Are we prepared to take up the challenge?

[1] NAIDOC: Morning services 3/07/16 and Evensong 15/11/20; and Reconciliation: Morning services 25/05/14 and Evensong 29/11/20

[2] Cited in www.deaconessministries.org.au/news/william-cooper

[3] Op.cit.

[4] The Advertiser, 9 July 2021, p12.

[5] C G Teichelmann & C W Schurmann, 1840, p72

[6] https://www.commongrace.org.au/william_cooper

[7] J Bor, The Terezín Requiem, Alfred A Knopf, NY, 1963, pp 13-14

[8] Cries from the past inspire Deborah Cheetham’s requiem for the lost (smh.com.au) May 24 2019