Voting yes to the Voice: reconciliation, restitution, theft, and repair
Why Australian Christians ought to vote yes at next week's referendum
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Voting yes to the Voice: reconciliation, restitution, theft, and repair
On October 14th, 2023, Australians will vote in a referendum to determine whether “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”. This would require a new chapter and section in the Constitution (9, s129). The referendum to establish a Voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples has come about in response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for a threefold process of Voice, Truth-telling, and Treaty in order to work towards the reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in our country.
There is considerable confusion within churches, and in wider society, around this question and broader issues it raises. I have had several conversations with people unclear about what is being asked of them, feeling ill-informed about the background to this referendum, and under-equipped to bring a robust theological framework to the question. Here I attempt to in some small way remedy this situation.
The Christian gospel is fundamentally a gospel of reconciliation. It is the good news that in Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself (Eph 1:10). That reconciliation only occurs on the basis of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrificial death, which pays the penalty for sin, making forgiveness available for those who trust in Jesus and repent of their sins, entering into a restored relationship of grace and right standing with God. Those who receive the good news of Jesus with repentance and faith are thereby reconciled into a relationship of peace with God, and are likewise reconciled to other fellow believers through this same atoning death.
The model of reconciliation between God and people that is found in the cross of Christ is also that which is at work between peoples. Wherever there is wrongdoing, wickedness, or injustice, a process for forgiveness and reconciliation exists with four key components. These are: truth-telling, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.
There must be truth-telling for there ever to be reconciliation. If there is no wrong done, then there is nothing to repent of, nothing to forgive, and no injustice that needs to be rectified. And yet, if there is a wrong done, the failure of either party to acknowledge it means that there is no path forward to reconciliation. If the victim of injustice declares that no wrong was done—“Oh, it was nothing, really” —then they are excusing or explaining away what was done. If the perpetrator declares that no wrong was done, then they are declaring they have nothing to repent of and no need to act to set it right. Justice, however, declares that we name evil as evil, and then deal with it as such.
This is the recognition that a wrong has been done and so a debt has been incurred. Forgiveness is a gift, granted by the victim, who chooses to bear that cost themselves and refuses to exact or inflict it upon the perpetrator. God in Christ chose to bear the penalty of sin, paying an infinite debt, so that we might be forgiven. In doing so, God acts towards us as if we had not sinned. Christians, who have experienced and received this forgiveness are called to practise this same forgiveness in their own lives. This forgiveness is offered even to those who do not repent.
To receive forgiveness requires us to acknowledge both the wrong done and the forgiveness offered. If we do not acknowledge the wrong done, we cannot receive forgiveness because we do not believe it is something we need. Confession, then, is the agreement in truth-telling about injustice and the ownership of evil committed. One also needs to accept the gift of forgiveness offered, which believers do in relation to God’s forgiveness by faith. As people freed from the penalty of their sins by God, Christians are bound to repent also of their sins towards other people, whether they extend forgiveness to us or not.
Where there is truth-telling, forgiveness from the heart, and true repentance, reconciliation is the joyous outcome. Both victim and perpetrator acknowledge the wrong done. The forgiver does not hold the crime against the perpetrator but releases them from the debt, and the perpetrator for their part confesses their sin and turns away from it, accepting the forgiveness offered. A new relationship is possible, though it may begin with small steps of trust.
This pattern of reconciliation takes and applies the fundamental shape of the Christian gospel and extends it to human relationships. It does not replace or deny the centrality of reconciliation in Christ. It applies, with some modifications, to groups of people, and with important qualifications to past and historic injustices. Before recounting the central and important realities of the past and present wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples, we need to discuss the concept of restitution and reparation for wrongs done.
The story of Zacchaeus in the New Testament presents a compelling and instructive example of repentance and reparation for wrongs done. It is told in Luke 19.1-10, where we meet Zacchaeus, introduced to us as a “chief tax-collector” and “wealthy”. Tax-collectors in Judea (and elsewhere) bid to supply a certain amount of taxation to the Roman government, and then collected those taxes themselves with whatever on top they could take. It was a protection racket, and Zacchaeus was far more like an organised crime lord than a government official.
This casts his encounter with Jesus into a new light. We should be struck by the radicalness of Jesus’ grace towards him. Jesus extends socially transgressive grace to him in choosing to go and have fellowship with this moral untouchable. The gracious kindness of Jesus towards Zacchaeus in turn elicits repentance and moral transformation, encapsulated in Luke 19:8:
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (ESV)
Zacchaeus’ words (and actions) are not invented on the spot as simply a surprising example of generosity. They draw upon clearly defined practices of restitution and reparation found in the Old Testament. Three passages in particular guide this: Exodus 21:33-22:15, Leviticus 6:1-7, and Numbers 5:5-8. These three texts give a series of case laws illustrating how various circumstances of loss, harm, negligence, and theft are to be dealt with. Throughout these case laws, those who possess stolen goods must return them. This principle is found across the board. Numbers 5:8 makes it clear that where restitution to the owner is impossible, it belongs first to their next of kin, and otherwise to the priest as God’s representative. The separation of restitution from the sacrifice for guilt (Leviticus 6:6-7) makes clear that where the guilt of the crime is forgiven based on a sacrifice, the restitution for the harm done is still required.
Christians throughout the ages have a long history of moral and theological reflection upon these principles. I want to lay before us three principles out of that tradition that apply particularly to the questions that lie before us.
Who is owed restitution?
In the first instance, restitution of stolen goods belongs to the owners of those goods. If a person steals from another person, they must return that which is stolen to them. If that is not possible—for instance, if the original owner has died—then the restitution must be given to the owner’s heirs, their next of kin or descendants as appropriate. That is because the right of ownership would have been theirs if the goods stolen had passed on to them. If all heirs are exhausted, then the stolen goods still cannot be retained but must be rendered to God and given for the care of the poor.
Who owes restitution?
Again, in the first instance, those who have committed the theft are required to restore those stolen goods. Those who are accomplices in any regard are also bound to make restitution. Lastly, the heirs and recipients of stolen goods are still bound to perform restitution. The logic is straightforward, and no amount of time passed changes this obligation. Those goods did not rightfully belong to the people who stole them, they still rightfully belonged to the original owners. Just as the right to ownership would have passed to their heirs, the stolen goods always and ever properly belong to the owners and heirs.
Why restitution is required
This is why restitution is morally required. If you receive or inherit or come into the possession of a stolen good, by whatever means, even if innocently and with no knowledge that it was stolen, it still doesn’t belong to you.
So far, we have outlined a theological framework for both forgiveness and reconciliation in human relationships, and the demands of justice in the case of theft, as it relates to setting things right where past crimes have occurred. We will return to these concepts later to apply them to the situation before us in Australia. First, however, we need to speak the truth about the history of Australia and the treatment of its Indigenous peoples.
The history of Australia since colonisation is not well or widely known. This is especially so when speaking of the interaction between European colonisers and the Indigenous peoples of Australia. The widespread ignorance of these matters is to be lamented and is one reason why many remain relatively indifferent to the ongoing disadvantages, discrimination, and suffering of Australia’s First Nations peoples. For the purposes of this paper, I draw our attention to the series of thefts that have characterised that history. I summarise these as stolen sovereignty, stolen land, stolen lives, stolen children, stolen wages, and stolen futures.
By the standards of international law at the time, the British colonisation of Australia was an illegitimate claim of sovereignty. Sovereignty refers generally to the supreme authority of a state as being not subject to any external power, exercising control over a territory and population as a legitimate authority recognised as such by other states.
When Arthur Phillip came to Australia in 1788 to found a colony, he had instructions to do so on the basis of Captain Cook’s earlier claim of possession to half the continent. The theoretical basis to do so, later commonly referred to as terra nullius, was that the land was unoccupied. The belief was that the Indigenous people of Australia did not form political units, did not have permanent ties to demarcated territory, and would cede territory without laying claim or contesting possession. Within the early years of settlement, all these facts were widely known by colonists to be false. The land was occupied by a large number of Indigenous peoples, with distinct political entities, permanent ties to demarcated territory, sophisticated traditional law, and they contested the occupation of their lands through war. Australia’s claim to sovereignty has never been tested in international law, but it is based upon a lie which underwrites a theft. There were no treaties, no cession of land, and since Britain never consistently treated First Nations peoples as enemy nations, there was no conquest as Britain so conceived it. Sovereignty over Australia is stolen sovereignty.
Sovereignty and land ownership are not the same thing. When one nation conquers another in war, it acquires sovereignty over that territory, but it does not ordinarily and automatically acquire the possession of every piece of land. The lie of terra nullius that underlay the theft of sovereignty thus simultaneously permitted the theft of land, as the Crown laid claim to own all this supposedly unoccupied territory and the right to distribute it to landholders. Not only did the Indigenous peoples of Australia have sovereignty over their lands, but they had a prior claim to the land as property—because they possessed it and demonstrated, through their unwillingness to relinquish it, that they considered it theirs to own. The original claims to own land in Australia by Britain are also thefts. It was theft by international law at the time and theft by today’s standards.
The onset of colonisation in Australia quickly brought with it violence. For 140 years, as the frontiers of the colonies expanded outwards, violence accompanied it. That conflict saw the overwhelming deaths of Aboriginal peoples, far outweighing those of British settlers. It was occasioned primarily by the expansion of colonial territory and the subsequent contests for access to valuable resources: land and water. It often took the shape of retaliation from one side against the other. It was not an even battle though. Accompanying direct violence, the deprivation of hunting grounds, starvation, and the effects of diseases that were unknown before colonisation led to rapid declines in population among First Nations peoples. 
The 1996 report “Bringing them Home” brought to national attention the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families, who were fostered or adopted by non-Indigenous families, or raised in institutions. This practice affected between 1 in 10 to 1 in 3 children of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. The removal of Aboriginal children from their homes has its roots in the earliest days of colonisation and the very first missionaries, who considered it a vital and necessary practice to raise children apart from their Aboriginal families in order to both civilise and christianise them. It was kidnapping. It destroyed the fabric of Indigenous families and has led to ongoing, intergenerational trauma and disadvantage.
Less well known is the fact that from the 1880s until the 1970s, many First Nations people were subject to forms of servitude that are widely and incontestably considered slavery. This was facilitated by various state laws, including the Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 in the Northern Territory and the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 in Queensland, which created conditions where Indigenous people were kept in forced labour, unable to leave their places of work, and subject to having their wages held and controlled for them. Men were regularly sent to pastoral and agricultural work, women to domestic service (where they were regularly subjected to sexual abuse). This does not touch upon the practice of Blackbirding, whereby tens of thousands of Islanders were brought to Australia to work as indentured labourers, to work on sugar plantations or in pearl diving, with many forcibly deported at the end of this practice, at the cost of their own supposed wages.
It is a convenient fiction shared by many Australians that all this is simply the past, that we live in a society that is no longer racist and that has moved on from these unfortunate incidents. We can no longer be held accountable for the actions of previous generations of Australians. But the cumulative effect of the systemic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples means that to this day there exists “the Gap”; on almost every measure of health, education, incarceration, and societal outcomes, Indigenous Australians lag significantly behind non-Indigenous people. This is the effect of two centuries of disadvantage, realised in systemic injustices and structural disadvantage. Successive governments have failed to tackle this with any real success, not least because of the ongoing paternalistic efforts of non-Indigenous Australians to prescribe what should work best for Indigenous peoples.
We must recognise the truth of Australia’s history: that the First Nations peoples of this land have had their sovereignty, land, lives, children, wages, and futures stolen. This is not to paint them as helpless and passive victims. Their survival and in many cases triumphant thriving is a testament to their courage, conviction, and ability to endure and succeed. It is, however, to speak the truth about historic injustices that have never been answered for, and whose effects remain until this day.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart
It is with all this in mind that we now turn to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Beginning with the establishment of a Referendum Council, a series of 13 Regional Dialogues were held in 2016-2017 with Indigenous Leaders throughout the country, to discuss a path forward for reform. That broad consultative process culminated in a national convention in 2017 that drafted and approved the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It does not speak for all First Nations peoples, but it does represent a broad and significant consensus. This statement, which every Australian ought to read in full, acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ sovereignty over the land, speaks to the plight of Indigenous peoples today, and calls for three things as steps towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Australia. They are the Voice, Treaty, and Makarrata.
A Makarrata Commission would be a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to those that have occurred in other nations, and would seek to speak the truth about the history of Australia, and its treatment of First Nations people. A process of treaty making would recognise that Indigenous peoples have in the past, and still do, constitute nations, and that our governments ought to recognise them and make treaties with them, just as they should have 200 years ago when they were making treaties with Indigenous peoples in other colonial territories, in North America and in New Zealand.
What lies before the Australian people in 2023 is the Voice proposal. It calls for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament that would provide a constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. The Voice would be an advisory body made up of Indigenous people that would make representations to government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Responding to Arguments for No
There are a considerable number of arguments made against the Voice proposal. This has included considerable misinformation, confusion, and lies. Christians ought to have nothing to do with falsehood and misrepresentation. Here, I want to address just a few of those that are the most significant either in terms of genuine substance or widespread concern.
A number of commentators have expressed their concern that the Voice proposal entrenches a distinction between Indigenous Australians and all other Australians, embeds that distinction into the Constitution as the foundational document of our nation, and so leads to particular advantage and privilege for Indigenous peoples.
I recognise that this is a significant concern, insofar as there is a fundamental principle of equality before the law and of participation in democracy and representation to government. In responding to it, let me raise three points.
Firstly, our constitution already makes distinctions on the basis of race, under s51. Precisely such provisions were those used to implement the Northern Territory intervention in 2007, a non-consultative and invasive set of measures that were widely criticised as both ineffective and racist.
Secondly, we can recognise that there is a distinction between real and formal equality. On the whole, Aboriginal people have formal equality before the law and in representation to parliament in Australia. On paper, there is no difference in the participation in society of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However, this formal equality is belied by real inequality. First Nations people in Australia have experienced, since British colonisation, real and substantial powerlessness in representation and self-determination. It is right and proper to address this real inequality by a considered and deliberate formal inequality.
Thirdly, if the Voice proposal arises out of the pervasive and systemic disadvantages faced by Indigenous Australians, some object that it privileges one minority group and forms a real form of racial discrimination. In response to this, we should observe the consistent language of “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. This is not a proposal founded upon the category of race but on the recognition of the diversity of the nations and peoples of Australia. However, the First Nations have a unique and historic relationship to country, precisely because they are the First Nations. The history of the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous peoples is unique, not in the sense that it didn’t happen in other parts of the world, but in the sense that no other people group in Australia were dispossessed of their land and subject to colonisation in this way, in this nation. It is precisely this that calls for the recognition of First Nations in our constitution and a permanent Voice to parliament.
Others raise the concern that if we pass the Voice, what next? Does this lead to treaty, (financial) reparations, the loss of land and property? In response, the Voice doesn’t do any of those things. It is important to keep in view the exact thing, and no more, that is being asked in the current referendum: constitutional recognition and the formation of a Voice to parliament, which will provide representation by Indigenous people on issues that affect Indigenous people. No more than this, no less.
The argument I have laid out here does, however, provide Christians with a prima facie case to be in favour of those things also. I don’t shy away from those implications. We should do no less than pass the Voice proposal, but arguably justice and right require us to do much more.
Every non-Indigenous Australian, whether the descendant of convicts or settlers, whether immigrant or refugee, has come into a country of astounding wealth and opportunity. We are thus all beneficiaries, directly or indirectly, of the goods stolen from the Indigenous peoples of Australia, the original possessors of this land. We are recipients and heirs of stolen goods, and no passage of time, no protestation of innocence, no simple declaration that we didn’t know or that our predecessors didn’t know better takes away the fact that we possess these things—most of all sovereignty and land—as stolen goods that remain rightfully and in perpetuity the possession of their original owners and their descendants and heirs.
It is true that we are not morally culpable for the sins and crimes done by others, including past generations. However, we are required to acknowledge and lament those past evil deeds, and to seek to make right the situation we now find ourselves in as inheritors of an unjust society built upon an original theft, enabled by a persistent lie, and made real by pervasive violence.
The Aboriginal peoples of Australia have made clear to us all what they believe would be a path forwards to reconciliation and to address the injustices of the past and the disadvantages of today. It is far less than they could rightfully ask. Given the magnitude of the injustice done, it is right and proper that we hear that call. Consistently, over 80% of First Nations people support the Voice. To fail to make restitution where we can, to delay it, to hold on to stolen goods, is to become accomplices in theft and continue that theft today. We can have no reconciliation without acknowledging the wrongs of the past and seeking to make restitution as best we are able, and as we are asked. On October 14th, that means voting yes to the referendum on the Voice. On October 15th, it means committing ourselves to the ongoing work of reconciliation with our fellow citizens, Australia’s First Nations peoples.
Dr. Seumas Macdonald
 The model of forgiveness and reconciliation I outline here draws upon several works. At a philosophical level, Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation Revised Edition (Abingdon Press, 2019). At a more accessible level, Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a culture stripped of grace (HarperCollins, 2006). And at a more popular level, Timothy Keller, Forgive: Why should I and how can I? (Viking, 2022).
 Matthew 6.14-15, 18.25-35.
 The section that follows draws upon and endorses the theological reasoning in Duke L. Kwon, Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Brazos, 2021), especially chapter 5.
 Consistently is important here. There were periods where the instructions of the British Colonial Office were that Indigenous peoples were to be treated as combatants for enemy nations. On the whole this policy was not carried out, and the more common policy was to treat them as British subjects.
 It is important to recognise that conquest is an appropriate way to describe the wars that characterised Aboriginal resistance to British colonisation, but it was not how Britain, or Australia, has conceived or treated the sovereignty question. The British government did not treat Aboriginal resistance as an opposition to their claim to sovereignty. See the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs’ 1983 report “Two Hundred Years Later …: Report on the feasibility of a compact, or ‘Makarrata’ between the Commonweal and Aboriginal people”.
 Henry Reynolds, Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement (NewSouth Publishing, 2001), chapters 1-3 cover this in some depth.
 On the Frontier Wars in particular, see John Connor, The Australian frontier wars, 1788-1834 (UNSW Press, 2002), and Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the Europe Invasion of Australia (Penguin Books Australia, 1982). A three-part documentary, “The Australian Wars” covers some of this narrative. https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/tv-series/the-australian-wars . An interactive map based on research from the University of Newcastle provides a visual and textual orientation to these conflicts. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2019/mar/04/massacre-map-australia-the-killing-times-frontier-wars
 See the 2006 Australian Senate report Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages. https://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/senate/legal_and_constitutional_affairs/completed_inquiries/2004-07/stolen_wages/report/index . Stories of this form of indentured servitude are told in the documentary “Servant or Slave” https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/movie/servant-or-slave/810629699644