I attended an amazing event at Parliament House in Sydney last weekend. Fifty wonderful Christian students from various universities and colleges reenacted parts of my book on Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie, Judging the Macquaries.
They debated the treatment of convicts and settlers and especially the treatment of Aboriginal people. And these student actors in full costume of the era did so well — their hearts were on it so much, as well as their minds. It was a great opportunity, and having the upper house of the NSW Parliament made it so real.
As part of that performance, the roles of the Sydney Aboriginals were played by Aboriginals from present-day Sydney, including from the Burundi Theatre. As these Aboriginals played the part of their Aboriginal ancestors affected by the penal colony of NSW, they spoke of invasion and oppression, carnage and death, and wept. And even though they played acting roles, we all knew their tears were real, that they couldn’t help but cry.
The continent we call Australia is a spiritual place. God did not come to Australia with the first fleet. Missionaries did not bring God to Australia. God had always been here. The creator of this continent – and whatever has been before – the creator of Gondwana land, the creator of the forces that tore it apart and forced this land from Asia to the poles – this was the God of, however, the first peoples who came to this land many thousands of years ago. And in this land, there has always been knowledge of God. As the psalmist declares, as Saint Paul so frankly tells us, the universe itself proclaims the existence of God.
I see the traces of the hand of God that can still be seen in Aboriginal culture. Wherever there is knowledge of good and evil, there is evidence of the True God who is eternally good. Goodness in humanity is not due solely to moral evolution, as the atheists would tell us: this is proof of God. Where there is law, the imprint of the Lawgiver remains through all millennia.
God is deeply rooted in Aboriginal culture. Yes, some things about God have been lost or distorted – just as Western society has lost some knowledge of God or distorted true religion. People of all races and cultures have always shown the ability to manipulate the truth of God for their benefit. But we are all still made in the image of God; that is, we are all capable of relating to the divine, to the spiritual realm. That ancient knowledge still flickers behind Aboriginal spirituality. It is there for those who want to search.
I work with the Kabi Kabi people of South East Queensland to help them revive or, as they prefer, wake them up in their sleep language. This is done by translating verses from the Bible. In examining the writings of explorers, herders, and anthropologists for this latest Bible Society language project, the awakening of the Kabi Kabi language, we found the reports of someone who had visited and spoken to an elderly Aboriginal woman around 1900 when Kabi Kabi still talked a lot.
They recorded her exact words. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I played on a big flat rock. I asked my mother. ‘Who put the rock here?’ My mother replied, “Birral put it here.” “Who is Birral?” I asked. My mother pointed to the sky. ‘He lives up there,’ she said. ‘What is Birral,’ I asked. ‘Is he like you and me?’ My mother replied, ‘I have not seen him. One day we will all see him.'”
If you are restless and nervous, seek Jesus.
How do we know what God is like? We know because he sent his only Son who said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.”
Indeed, God was here. And these were his people and my ancient ancestors in England and Wales. What the missionaries did bring here—sometimes terribly inadequate and sometimes mixed with European culture and values—was the knowledge of Jesus. And apostles had to get that into my culture, too, through St. Patrick and St. Augustine and everything else.
I owe a lot to my parents. I owe my love for the Bible to my parents. I’ve learned to read from the Bible, from my mother’s Bible, which is now falling to pieces. When I was a nervous little boy in church, she gave me a Bible and said, find the big letter J, find the big letter J. And I found Jesus. One day she told me, “Seek Jesus always, John.” It’s very good advice for all of us, I think. If you are restless and nervous, seek Jesus.
We sang a hymn about the spread of the gospel worldwide: “From the icy mountains of Greenland to the coral beaches of India.” And it went all over the world, the places where the gospel was presented. A line in it said, “The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.” My mother froze and didn’t say the words. She put her hands on my shoulder and said, “Not in their blindness, John, not in their blindness. In their hunger! The heathen bow in their hunger to wood and stone.” That deep longing for God. That deep desire to give spiritual meaning to life and the future.
We help Pastor Ray Minniecon, and his people bring his language back to life.
Everywhere I go, they ask me to translate the Lord’s Prayer. It is the first thing. Aboriginal people want in their language. The Father in heaven, you see. Biracial, the Kabi Kabi people, called him. “One day, we will know what he is like,” they say. That is why they needed the knowledge of Jesus.
And it was the first thing we did in the Kabi Kabi language, your new Bible translation project. We help Pastor Ray Minniecon and his people bring his tongue back to life. At Zoom, they have started to relearn that ancient language from southeast Queensland around Brisbane.
You see, as beautiful as the Bible is in English. As grateful as many Aborigines are for the Bible in English, especially those who lost their language, it is in the invader’s language. That’s how it would have been if Australia, the Allies, had lost World War II, and here we were, a colony of Japan, and we’re only allowed to read the Bible in Japanese.
It is the language of the intruder. And that’s why it’s such an immensely spiritual experience for people who have lost their Aboriginal language – who sometimes beat it out of children, are not allowed to speak it in school, and so on – to hear Biraal, to Biyamey or however God is called in those languages. , to hear again that Supreme Spirit, named in the language of their land. It is a deeply spiritual experience.
Of course, no Aboriginals boast of wood and stone. Aborigines did not worship other gods. That is a falsehood invented by anthropologists. Locals lived in a world inhabited by good and evil spirits. And they tried to avoid the evil spirits and cultivate the good, not unlike the world into which our Lord Jesus entered as a man.
So it is a huge thing for these people to know God in their language and through Jesus to see the one they wanted to know but didn’t know. And now they can understand.
Why are we doing this? The verse that inspires all translators and people who work in the distribution and printing of the Bible is John 21:30: “These words are written that you may know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living. God, and by believing, you can have life. Live in his name.” Amen
This is an edited version of award-winning author and historian John Harris given to the staff of the Bible Society this week.