Life & Faith

A Great Spirit

Two Aboriginal women give their first-hand accounts of growing up on Christian missions.

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"I do a lot of praying. I just got to hand it over to the Lord. He understands what I’m going through and how I’m feeling. He went through a lot of grief himself and it must still break his heart to see the way some of us live."

Ngardarb Riches is a Bardi Jawi woman from the West Kimberley Coast of Australia. Aunty Maureen is a Barngala woman from South Australia. They’ve both lived on Christian missions, and they’ve both experienced the good and the bad that Christian missionaries and the government have done for Aboriginal people.

The bad includes the decimation of Aboriginal culture and language, and the removal from their land.

"My two eldest brothers went together to one boys’ home in Adelaide, my three youngest brothers went together to another boys’ home in Adelaide, and my two sisters went to a foster home in Adelaide," Aunty Maureen says. "The missionary said, 'could you take the other, the oldest girl?' And that lady replied, 'I only want the two pretty young girls.' That broke my heart because I wasn’t used to being separated from my family."

Aunty Maureen was eight years old when she was separated from her family. But somehow, she still calls the Christian mission where she lived a "happy place". She’s emphatic that, in the midst of all her loss and pain, the Christian faith was a source of comfort for her.

"We were just young kids all hurting," she says. "All we knew was the love of God and God loved us. The missionaries really cared for us and that’s the way they showed their love."

For Ngardarb, she was born in Derby during a period when her people were separated from their home, on what had been the Sunday Island Mission. It had closed down during the implementation of the Australian government’s assimilation policy.

It was another missionary couple who would later help the Bardi Jawi people return home – and Ngardarb was able to grow up on her people’s land.

"My people are the salt water people, so a lot of our living was in and around the islands and eating seafood, collecting it," Ngardarb says.

"So as a child, I still had that. Growing up I was so lucky to have those experiences where we would get the poison root from the bush, take it down when the tide went out and put it in the pools – that would stun the fish, it would take oxygen from the water and we were able to do traditional fishing. I was really lucky and it still happens where I come from now, that’s still being passed down to our generation today."

She says that if Christian missions hadn’t existed, a lot of her people would not be alive today.

"A lot of our families and tribes would have been wiped out because that was the intention of the government, because they said that we were a dying race," she says. "But we’re survivors, and a lot of the Christian missions gave us that opportunity to have our families survive, and to have that safe haven. We had to stop a lot of our practices and beliefs and stuff but at least it was somewhere safe."

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We interviewed John Briggs, Ngardarb Riches, and Aunty Maureen for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined - it's in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film

Learn more about the long road towards Aboriginal recognition and reconciliation by listening to this episode from the Life & Faith archives: http://bit.ly/2kz3I4l

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State of the Nation

Social researcher Hugh Mackay on building a more compassionate and less anxious society.

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"Some public health experts are now saying that loneliness is a greater risk to our public health than obesity."

Hugh Mackay, one of Australia’s leading researchers, believes there’s something wrong with the state of our nation and the lives of its citizens.

"You can look at specific factors in individual cases and say, this person is anxious because of rent stress, or because of job insecurity, or because of relationship breakdown, or loss of faith … but when you’ve got epidemic proportions, I think you have to look at society," he says. "We need to live in communities that sustain us and nurture us, protect us and give us a sense of identity. When we feel cut off from the herd, anxiety goes up."

In his latest book, Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, Hugh Mackay addresses some of the forces at work in our communities - including disappointment in political leadership, loss of faith in once-respected institutions like the church, faltering education standards, and the proliferation of social media - that are causing us to experience, sometimes paradoxically, more loneliness.

"[Social media is] training us to communicate with each other in a way that strips the process of all the nuance … all the things that imply meaning that’s not just in the words."

He also says things may have to get worse before they get better.

"It’s the death and resurrection model, in a way. There has to be a death before there’s a renewal. ... I think politics will have to become more of a shamble, education levels will have to sink even further, the epidemic of mental illness will have to become even greater before we say this is now out of control. That’s assuming there isn’t a global war or economic disaster of some kind.”

But Hugh Mackay remains confident that people will figure out a way forward, and communities will flourish.

“What I’m more optimistic about is that our sense of being human, and the sense of connectedness with other humans, will prevail - and will be the thing that pulls us back from the brink of disaster.”

And faith, he suggests, will play a role in the renewal of our communities towards a more compassionate and less anxious society.

"Even among people who don’t have any religious faith, they admire it and often envy it," he says. "People recognise that the expression of faith, whether in medical care, social services, or education, is likely to be of a very high standard because it’s driven by this faith in the higher being, this higher power."

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Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society is in stores now and available online: www.bit.ly/2s8OVRx 

Hugh Mackay was a speaker at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. To find out more about the festival, or to listen to interviews with other speakers, go to: www.swf.org.au 

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In The Name Of Christ

The greatest facepalm of the Crusades - and more stories of crusaders turning on other Christians.

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"Three days was the accepted period of a sack in the Middle Ages. They sacked it for a little bit more than that … it greatly damaged the city of Constantinople. And that ultimately was the end of the Crusade. It had never raised a sword against the Muslim, but it had actually conquered and destroyed the greatest Christian city in the world."

When it comes to the sins of the Christian church, the Crusades are one of the first things that come to mind. The scholars point out that a lot of what we think we know about the Crusades is off the mark - but sometimes, the reality was even worse than people think.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we’re looking at a lesser-known aspect of the Crusades. It turns out that not all Crusades were against Muslims - nor did they all take place in the Middle East.

For example, the sack of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) occurred in 1204. The taking of this great Christian city, and the slaughter of Christians that was the result, was far from the original objective of the Fourth Crusade. The death of Christians was - in modern military parlance - collateral damage.

"Now once the city fell there’s no doubt that the crusaders did not play by their own rules," says Professor Thomas Madden from Saint Louis University, author of The Concise History of the Crusades.

"They all swore on relics before the attack that if the city fell they would not touch the churches, they would not touch any of the monasteries or the monks or the women in the monasteries. And in fact once the city fell, it was chaos."

The Albigensian Crusade also too place in the 13th century - in southern France, not the Middle East. It was a brutal campaign against other Christians who were deemed "heretics" because of their unorthodox and "dangerous" beliefs.

The Pope resorted to a military solution to address this rival spiritual movement: kill everyone.

"The Albigensian Crusade is in many ways an anomaly in medieval Europe," says Professor Christine Ames, a historian of medieval Europe from The University of South Carolina.

"It is shocking to people at the time, the war is exceptionally brutal, exceptionally bloody."

Justine Toh is your guide on this tour of how the church has been even worse than you ever imagined - and why it’s important to remember and acknowledge such history.

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For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film 

For more on the Crusades, here’s an earlier episode of Life & Faith covering the major myths and misconceptions about this period in history: www.publicchristianity.org/life-faith-crusades

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In Sickness and in Health

The hungry, the sick, the imprisoned - or as the Knights of Malta called them, "Our Lords the Sick".

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"The Knights Hospitaller, as they were known, got permission to set up the first hospital in Jerusalem. They were connected with the Crusades and they were a sovereign military order. Why? Because they had to, in the course of their work, actually defend - sometimes with the sword - their work of being Hospitallers."

Iain Benson is a Professor of Law the University of Notre Dame in Australia, he’s worked on human rights charters around the world, and he’s also a member of the Order of Malta (also known the Knights Hospitaller, among their many names).

Traditionally, their chief vow was "to honour Our Lords the Sick".

It’s a strange phrase, but what it means is that when they look at a sick person – any sick person, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim or Jewish – they see Jesus, their Lord. So, they care for him or her. When Jesus says "whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me" ... the Knights Hospitaller take him seriously.

Today, you may have come across some of the Order of Malta’s modern off-shoots such as St John Ambulance, which services concerts and sporting events across Australia, and still provide the main ambulance service in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

One thousand years old, this order of knights is still going strong – all inspired by a particular story Jesus told more than a thousand years before that.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we take a close look at the work of the Knights Hospitaller. We note how unusual and attractive this kind of extreme care and compassion was in the Roman world, when Christians first started practising it – it was one reason why so many people became part of the Christian movement in the first few centuries after Jesus. And we consider the perspective of thinkers who would challenge the idea that caring for the sick is a self-evident good.

"Christians believe that each person is made in the image of God, and thus each person should be cared for, even if they are very ill," says Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College.

"This shocked pagans who were really anxious to get out of the way of any kind of sickness, they just would flee a city or a town. And the Christians stayed. That made a real impact on the pagans who wondered how could these Christians love – even at the cost, perhaps, of their own lives."

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas now. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film 

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REBROADCAST: The Long Shadow of Slavery

A confronting - and deeply personal - look at the roots of racial division in the US.

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"We still live under the long shadow of the plantation. Indeed, freedoms have been spread to a larger group of people over time, but that spread has been at the cost of ongoing oppression of black people in ways that have become very apparent thanks to video cams and cell phones that betray the brutality of the police state that we sometimes live in as black people."

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling. These are names familiar across the world: the names of African-American men – three of many – who died after being shot by white men. Those who shot them have all been acquitted of their deaths, sparking national outrage and re-igniting the old debate on racial profiling and civil rights.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we asked Professor Albert J. Raboteau from Princeton University, an expert in the African-American religious experience, to walk us through the history of race relations in the US, and the deep roots of racial division – from the plantations to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

But he’s not just an expert – Professor Raboteau has lived the reality of racism as well:

"My father was killed by a white man in Mississippi, three months before I was born. The white man who killed him was never tried. He claimed self-defence and he wasn’t indicted even. … When I was 17 and getting ready to go off to college, [my mother and stepfather] sat me down and, for the first time, explained to me what had happened.  They said, 'The reason we didn’t tell you before was we didn’t want you to grow up hating white people'."

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas from May 9. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film

Professor Albert J. Raboteau's latest book, American Prophets
Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, is available to purchase here: www.press.princeton.edu/titles/10655.html

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This episode of Life & Faith was first broadcast on 2 March 2017.

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Belfast Cabbie

Jim lived through the Troubles. He takes us on a very personal tour of this fraught history.

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"When I used to get up out of bed in the mornings, my first thought was: how do we avoid being murdered, by the murder gangs? Also, how do we avoid the British army? And also, how do we attack the British Army? The change being today, when my kids get out of bed in the morning, they say, well ok, we have to go to work to get our mortgage paid. You see the change?"

It’s been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement ended the 30-year period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.

Jim was 8 years old at the start of the conflict, so 1998 was the first time in his life he really remembers seeing peace. These days, he takes cab tours around Belfast – which is how Simon met him, in the course of filming a segment on the conflict for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

The Troubles is often cited as evidence that Christianity inevitably causes division and bloodshed. And it’s true that it was in some sense a clash between Catholics and Protestants. But it’s also a lot more complicated than that.

"Remember, in 1979 the Pope got down on his knees here and he said please, please, stop the violence. It continued on. Also remember, the Queen of England on many, many occasions, she appealed to the Protestant paramilitaries, the loyalist paramilitaries, to stop murdering people. Again, they didn’t listen. So religion was never taken on board by these paramilitary leaders."

Jim tells Simon about life during the Troubles: about the first Protestant he ever met; a game called "spot the bomb" that he and his mates used to play; and the story of the time he was shot - twice - by a British soldier. Join us on a very personal tour of this fraught history.

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined is in cinemas from May 9. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film

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Dominus Illuminatio Mea

John Lennox on where science came from, religious violence, and God talk in post-Soviet Russia.

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"You probably believe in gravity - are you aware that nobody knows what it is? You believe in consciousness; no one knows what it is. You believe in energy; no one knows what it is. You believe in time; no one knows what it is. And yet they believe in these things."

John Lennox is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, a scientist, a Christian, and - as he finds reason to point out in this interview - not John Lennon.

We interviewed the good professor for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. In this episode of Life & Faith, we play an extended version of our in-depth discussion on topics ranging from the old chestnut that Christianity has opposed science, to visiting Russia in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

Here are some highlights.

On the rise of modern science from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards:

"They came to the conclusion aptly expressed by CS Lewis: men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a law-giver," John Lennox says. "So we owe Christianity a great deal - which is precisely what you’d expect, of course, if Christianity were true."

On the worst of religion, and no religion:

"I think that using a religious message for political purposes often loses the whole spiritual dimension that’s supposed to reside at the heart of it, so it simply becomes another kind of political attempt to overthrow the power structures that exist. This has happened all through history, sadly," says John Lennox, before adding: "As a Christian I’m ashamed of it, but we’ve got to face it."

However, Professor Lennox observes, "those who criticise most loudly Christianity are often totally silent on the bloody history of the 20th century. There comes to mind what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said … he was asked to give account for 100 million deaths in the former Soviet Union. He said, 'If you want the short answer it is we have forgotten God.'"

On Russia, and how efforts to get rid of God and religion entirely didn’t quite work out as planned:

"Communism never completely crushed belief in God, just as no other ideology has ever overcome belief in God," John Lennox says. "I believe that is true because when people come to trust Christ and are genuine, they are not proceeding simply unaided under their own steam - and God gives them, sometimes, absolutely remarkable stickability, endurance, even under the heaviest of persecution."

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For The Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, is in cinemas from May 9. Buy tickets, or host your own screening: www.betterandworse.film

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Hope is Violent

Master storyteller Tim Winton on unlikely friendships, masculinity, and grace.

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“Hope deranges us. Hope breaks things and breaks things down. In order to change, things must be broken.”

Tim Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, opens with a quote from American poet Liam Rector’s “Song Years”: “Change is hard and hope is violent”.

Continuing the Winton tradition of celebrating the lives of outcasts (or, the “people with bad teeth”), the story focuses on the life of a neglected, abused teenage boy on the run. He finds himself in the unforgiving Australian wilderness, where he strikes up an unlikely and awkward friendship – with an exiled priest.

“They’re at each other, but they’re dancing around each other, they’re trying to figure each other out … they’re teaching each other, they’re educating each other, they’re unconsciously nurturing one another … they’re stuck out there together, and they realise that they need one another to stay alive.”

In this episode, we speak with Tim Winton about what draws him to these “outcast” characters, his understanding of faith, and the antidote to toxic masculinity.

“I’m interested in the way that men are blind to how rotten patriarchy and misogyny is for them as well. … You watch these lovely, tender, vulnerable, graceful boys, having all those lovely qualities – which are natural qualities in boys as much as in girls – having it shamed or beaten out of them. So they cleave to one very narrow view of masculinity, which is hard, narrow, silent, angry, and taking never giving.

It impoverishes kids, it impoverishes boys, it impoverishes their manhood, and it impoverishes and endangers everybody around them – and it’s not necessary. And I think the church has quite a bit to answer for in this regard.”

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Mary of Magdala

The story of one of the most elusive, controversial, and misinterpreted figures in ancient history.

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"The film does navigate a very intimate relationship that Mary has with Jesus, and an immense love she has for him both as a human being and as a divine person. Ultimately, what these two do together is far more profound than a marriage, or a relationship - it’s something far greater."

Mary of Magdala is one of the most elusive, and often misinterpreted, figures in Christian history. The Catholic Church mistakenly deemed her a prostitute for several centuries, and it has been suggested in some popular fiction that she was Jesus’ wife.

But Garth Davis’ film Mary Magdalene represents a deliberate attempt to rehabilitate her image.

"Jesus was the first person who actually saw Mary for who she was and acknowledged it," Garth says.

"Everyone else around Mary, even though they loved her and supported her, thought there was something wrong with her. Jesus was the person who gave her the courage to follow her calling."

Garth says he didn’t set out to make a Christian film, or a film for Christians – instead he believes Mary’s story is one that we can all relate to.

"With Mary, I can completely relate to her, the battle between flesh and spirit. How do you find a language between those two things? I think she really felt a spiritual connection to God - or whatever you want to call it - and found she couldn’t express it. I think a lot of people can relate to that. They go through their lives not even having any time to inquire about their own spirituality."

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For more information, film resources, and to book tickets, visit: www.marymagdalene.com.au

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Grain of Sand

What is an artist doing working for NASA? Dan Goods on the beauty and vastness of the universe.

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"I had one grain of sand, and that represented our galaxy. What was cool was that I could have someone at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory drill a hole a tenth of the size of the grain of sand into it - and that little, tiny hole is where we live."

The universe is a vast and beautiful thing. We know more about it than ever before, but there’s still so much to discover.

Dan Goods is a Visual Strategist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and his job is to make the universe just that bit more comprehensible through art – like drilling a hole in a grain of sand, or creating retro travel posters for other planets. For example, the tagline for the planet Kepler-16b? "The land of two suns … where your shadow always has company."

In this episode, Dan shares his enthusiasm for the mystery and wonders of the universe, and why he can never stop being in awe of the world around us – and beyond.

"Awe has to do with vastness and things that are much bigger than yourself – there’s a sense of reverence involved in it. That feeling draws you to something that starts a spiritual conversation. You may call it God, or the universe, or whatever … but I think it starts asking these questions."

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More from Dan Goods: www.directedplay.com

Find out more about the Museum of Awe: www.museumofawe.org

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