A Complicated History

Among the buildings at Hermannsburg are a few remnants of the old mission life— a tannery, school room, chapel, cistern and some old machinery. A few mounted pictures and display boards document the decades of the mission’s heyday. Looking at these one is able to piece together fairly well what  life on the mission looked like. Yet there is often little left to explain the why of it. But a plaque in one of the buildings at the site offers the following insight:

South Australia’s generosity in granting the Lutherans a lease was partly motivated by a desire to see the Aboriginal people ‘civilized’ at other than Government expense.

The missionaries’ main concern was to secure for the Aranda a more perfect life after death. Unlike other pioneer settlers, they did not regard Aborigines as being either murderous or inferior to Europeans. However, they were convinced that Christianity was superior to Aboriginal beliefs.

The Aranda began receiving Bible lessons in return for food and clothing soon after Hermannsburg’s founding, but it was 10 years before any baptisms took place. The missionaries regarded these first converts as being far greater assets than all their works and buildings.

Now, there may have been some missionaries who were more motivated by the missionary fervor of the day than a sense of Christian superiority or philosophical elitism. But nevertheless, the gospel the missionaries brought to Aboriginal peoples was a complicated one — where new stories and hymns supplanted the centuries-old ones that the missionaries didn’t understand or care to and thus had no place for. The sense of superiority of the Christian missionaries was certainly noticed:

They did not perceive the deep spirituality of traditional ritual. They suppressed initiation and discouraged other ceremonies integral to the culture. For the great song cycles of our peoples’ Dreamtime rich in the beliefs and history of our ancestors, they substituted Goonya [white-European] hymns, whose imagery had little or no meaning for our people… Where Christian rituals were compatible with traditional ones, little or no attempt was made to graft the new on to the strong root of existing beliefs and custom. – From Survival in Our Own Land (175)

The missionaries believed they were bringing the light of Christ to a people who had not encountered him. They did so with the assumption that the best way for them to receive Christ was through the adoption of European-formed values and worldview. In this regard the missionaries kept in step with the assimilationist policies of the government. It makes sense then that the missionaries were more eager to keep record of what they counted as growth (baptisms, confirmations, church and school attendance) than of what was lost, since they never took the time to discover its value.

And without acknowledging the value and meaning of those traditions and customs, without attempting to identify the strong roots already present in Aboriginal cultures, it is easy to just carry on and not worry about the shadow that has been cast. I can’t help but think there needs to be a reckoning for this, lest the legacy of a perceived superiority precede our evangelical efforts today. There a great need today for an acceptance of criticism within the Christian tradition so that theologies can be pruned for changing contexts and missiologies interpreted for the current religious landscape. Since the Christian tradition is rich with imagery of grafting and bearing fruit, it is well worth taking the time to see where God is already growing something that we might not have expected.


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