Sorrow, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are elements of the great Christian process of dealing with sin. Christians use the word ‘sin’ for all kinds of relationship breakdown: the transgressing of God’s commands, the hating of another human being, acts of violence or ignorance or unkindness towards another. They are all sin in the Christian vocabulary.
First comes the sorrow – the heart-felt and brain-grasped realisation that something is wrong. You can be sorrowful for things you have done yourself, things others have done, things that have been done for your benefit or by your representatives.
That’s what we saw expressed today in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s motion commended to parliament and received by the Australian population as the culmination of many, many years of mounting pressure for such an expression from the parliament.
But there was more to the apology today. There was also repentance. Repentance involves turning away from the past – from the sorrow-making events – and heading in a new direction. Effective sorry-saying is in fact repentance; it’s saying that we regret what was done, and we want to make plans to head somewhere new so that it doesn’t happen again.
In Rudd’s speech, there were many elements of repentance: acknowledgement that what was done to the Stolen Generations was wrong (regardless of whether the perpetrators thought they were doing the right thing); plans to make amends and improve the lot of those who suffered; and a promise to ensure that this sin doesn’t occur again. These are all real expressions of repentance, with practical and volitional dimensions.
The other two elements of the Christian process of dealing with sin in relation to the nation’s history of dealings with indigenous Australians still remain to be completed. The Prime Minister has sought forgiveness from those who were stolen, and those who live with the consequences. It is up to those who represent the Stolen Generations to extend such forgiveness. If they do, then reconciliation will be possible. Then both sides will have humbled themselves, and the process of healing will be complete.
That’s the journey that Australia has undertaken under the leadership of Kevin Rudd. It is an exciting one to me, partly because as a Christian I see the dynamics of the gospel of Jesus in action here, and partly because it is a moment in which we have caught a glimpse of the dream of many people for a world in which previously antagonistic parties live together in peace and prosperity. It’s a dream expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, which opened proceedings in parliament this morning as it has done since Federation: ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.’
Dr Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney (with Dr John Dickson) and Director of the Macquarie Christian Studies Institute at Macquarie University.