We are living in an era where social breakdown and moral decay are drawing heavily on the state’s resources and collective wisdom. The elucidative bankruptcy of the state’s ‘wise men’ is being exposed, as surely as it was in the ancient empires of Egypt and Babylon.
The next morning Pharaoh was very disturbed by the dreams. So he called for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. When Pharaoh told them his dreams, not one of them could tell him what they meant. ~ Genesis 41:8
The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean.” ~ Daniel 2:10
Take the very broken town of Alice Springs, for example. Overnight reports of an axe attack on a teenager by three indigenous youth is just one violent incident among countless attacks occurring every day in Alice Springs. Our governments appear at a complete loss as to what to do. The ‘wise men’ have no answers.
Years ago, I closely followed the violence that erupted in Aurukun, Queensland when teachers were twice evacuated after children threatened the principal with knives and machetes. Seven years on, Aurukun still resembles a war zone. Recent reports reveal dwindling attendance at the school, the closure of essential services, a council without a CEO, and residents walking the streets with metal fence pickets and crossbows. Many locals are reluctant to leave their homes.
Many of the insights I gained, as I studied Aurukun’s widely discussed demise in 2016, apply to the collapse into chaos of Alice Springs. There is talk of rugby league identities coming to Alice Springs to help in some way. This reminds me of the goodwill demonstrated in 2016 by Australian rugby league player, Johnathan Thurston, when he used a post-State-of-Origin interview to encourage children in the embattled community of Aurukun. “There’s obviously been a lot of trouble up there,” he said, “so to all the students there, I just want you to believe in yourselves and keep turning up to school.” The following day, an Aurukun teacher reported that the children cheered when they heard Thurston reaching out to them.
And yet for all such gestures of goodwill by celebrities like Thurston, and for all the strategising by government agencies, I don’t think all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put Alice Spring back together again, anymore than they could put Aurukun back together again. A certain wisdom is needed that transcends the most brilliant intellect of fallen men.
Exploitation and Alcoholism
Common to both the demise of Aurukun and the ruin of Alice Springs is the sidelining of the church and the introduction of alcohol. For Aurukun, the decade following the introduction of alcohol was the darkest decade in the history of the community. Herbert Yunkaporta, a pastor born and raised in Aurukun, laments, “I’ll tell you this: the community is asleep. When did they go to sleep? In the mid-eighties. This is a deep crisis. Aurukun needs help.” There must have been a cry of lament in Alice Springs by many Aboriginal elders when alcohol restrictions were removed six months ago.
Insights from the demise of Aurukun can help in understanding the lawlessness on display in Alice Springs. Aurukun’s history is a tragic story that begins with broken promises and broken dreams. It is a story of Goliath-like state and corporate interests outmuscling local and cultural leadership in a greedy grab for Aurukun’s vast bauxite reserves. It was Aurukun’s buried treasure that attracted mining leases and state administrators in the 1970s, followed by the imposition of a wet canteen in the 1980s. In the face of vehement objection by community elders, trucks laden with beer rolled into the town in 1985 and Aurukun took a nosedive.
Faith and Prosperity
It’s hard to imagine that, as recently as 1970, there was no hint of the misery that would engulf Aurukun. Professor Sutton describes his experience of Aurukun in the early 1970s:
Suicide was unknown. People who survived the rigours of infancy and early childhood had a good chance of living to their seventies…
Local men mustered cattle and ran the local butcher shop, logged and sawed the timber for house building, built the housing and other constructions, welded and fixed vehicles in the workshop, and worked in the vegetable gardens, under a minimal set of mission supervisors.
Women not wholly engaged in child-rearing worked in the general store, clothing store, school, hospital and post office.
(The Politics of Suffering, Melbourne University Press, 2010, p. 40)
This somewhat idyllic life, as described by Sutton, was the peaceful and industrious heritage left by the Presbyterian Church and the Archer River Mission Station. Despite being poorly funded, and notwithstanding its shortcomings, the mission station founded in 1904 is remembered for being supportive of Aboriginal rights and self-determination.
Natasha Robinson reports that in 1975, the “progressive [Presbyterian] church was advocating land rights, bilingual education and a return to outstation life.” A Queensland Government report describes the mission superintendents from 1924 to 1965, Rev. Bill Mackenzie and his wife, as being “unusually liberal in their support for their continuation of Bora traditions, traditional hunting and the use of Wik languages.”
Without a doubt, the church played an essential role in laying the platform for the 1970s optimism and social cohesion that existed in Aurukun. There was hope and resourcefulness in the community, a healthy work ethic, a trustworthy moral compass, and emerging cultural leadership.
Secularism and Moral Decay
While it’s not popular to say these days, the church led the Aboriginal community well and was the chief supporter of Aurukun’s journey to self-determination. Tragically, the church would be sidelined as the lucre and liquor interests exploited Aurukun and sabotaged its promising future. This tragedy in Aurukun is not dissimilar to that facing Alice Springs.
There is a direct correlation between social breakdown and moral decay and the sidelining of the church. This is evident in Aurukun, Alice Springs, and indeed in towns and cities across Australia. The church is irreplaceable as both preserving agent and physician. Where the church is maligned and neutralised (as in the case of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon), the state finds itself ill-equipped to halt moral decay or heal society’s wounds.
Both ancient and modern history teach us that the silencing and imprisoning of the church is never in the interest of society. Hitler scorched Germany’s soul with his murderous agenda — something he could only achieve with the church rendered dormant. With the exception of lone prophetic voices, like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there was little moral resistance to Hitler. The removal of the church and its prophetic voice left Germany in great darkness.
Greg Sheridan describes the rise of a “new religion of aggressive secularism” that is filling a void in Australia that used to be occupied by the church. While this aggressive secularism is “more self-confident and fundamentalist than ever,” he astutely observes that the western church is nowhere to be seen or heard because, “widespread, prolonged affluence has been more effective than oppression ever was in killing religious belief and practice.”
I know where Sheridan is coming from. While we have not really known tribulation and persecution, the cares of life and the deceitfulness of riches have been effective in choking out the potent Word of God and rendering the western church unfruitful.
Losing Our Savour
Jesus warned about the church losing relevance. He warned that if the salt loses its saltiness, and its preservation qualities are squandered; it is good for nothing except road base (Matthew 5:13). He taught that lamps that no longer provide light must be removed (Revelation 2:5). The western church would do well to heed these warnings and strengthen the things that remain.
In many ways, we have failed in our responsibility to be salt and light in the world. Many young people in the western church have been short-changed. Rather than energising them and capturing their hearts with a truly noble cause to die for, church leaders have fed them entertainment and the merits of upward social mobility.
The church always thrives when it believes and embraces its true mission statement, as taught by Christ himself. “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Self-denial, humility, and servanthood may have never been attractive, worldly ideals but these qualities underpin a satisfying and meaningful life and they give the church relevance.
The church, when true to form, has the power to provide young people with vision and intrinsic motivation for living a purposeful and selfless life. This is what Aurukun had, I believe. And this is what Aurukun and Alice Springs and Australia need today. This is what worked for David Wilkerson, founder of Teen Challenge, when he spent himself for New York’s bloodthirsty gangs in the late 1950s.
The church is the remedy to society’s ills. It is the preserving agent against moral decay and social breakdown. It is the steward of the Balm of Gilead that alone can heal the most broken lives. I remain a believer in the power of the Gospel message and what it can achieve when lived out. However, the western church has dropped the ball and we have work to do. And it is in our current, seemingly ‘irrelevant’ condition that we must once again prove our worth.
Ironically, the church is facing a fight for its existence at a time when our nation needs us the most. As a pastor and man of God, Herbert Yunkaporta knows the answer for Aurukun and troubled communities like Alice Springs.
“Aurukun needs to be awakened. When we throw a rock in the water, where does the ripple effect begin? From the inside out. We want to make a ripple effect in each and every individual man and young man, by helping them to restore what was lost.”
The hope for mankind and for our communities truly is a change in the human heart; a transformation of the human condition. And only the living organism, that is the church, can offer that miraculous remedy.
It is through the power of the Gospel that broken men and women receive true cleansing, a new heart, and the energising presence of the Creator Himself. It is in the God-breathed Scriptures that we find the blueprint for peaceful and productive societies. Australia boasts natural resources and underground treasure that are the envy of the world.
And yet it will be the rediscovery of the treasure in our people that will lead to the freedom and triumph of troubled towns like Aurukun and Alice Springs. Exploration companies and mining interests cannot help here. The state must ask for the church’s help. The church alone is the steward of the Gospel, wherein is the power to transform men and women “from the inside out.”
And Pharaoh said to his servants,
“Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph,
“Since God has shown you all this,
there is none so discerning and wise as you are.”
~ Genesis 41:38-39
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto.