• Open Access

White Christ Black Cross. The emergence of a black church

By Noel Loos . Published by Aboriginal Studies Press , Canberra , 2007 . Paperback, 216 pages with index . ISBN 13 978 085575 553 9 . RRP $A 39.95 .

Reviewed by Gavin Mooney

Social and Public Health Economics Research Group (SPHERe), Curtin University, Western Australia

In Aboriginal health policy in this country, I have become more and more convinced of the need to recognise the relationship between culture and health. Such recognition is not one that comes easily to a health economist (which is my discipline). Monoculturalism in both health and economics dominates – no, monopolises most discourse. QALYs rule or at least Western health economics wants them to. The monoculturalism of welfarism (in essence the belief system of the market place) and of extra welfarism (the ‘new’ health economics paradigm that allows us to believe fundamentally that health care is about only health and that QALYs measure that) are the altars at which we as health economists worship.

But what of belief systems at a more cultural level? How do they affect health?

When I was asked to review this book I was hesitant. I suspect for any non Aboriginal person to grapple with Aboriginal culture and Christianity is tricky (but then the author is non Aboriginal); for an agnostic rational economist yet more so. But the book is partly about Yarrabah and I have happy memories of a visit there about 15 years ago and meeting some lovely, strong Aboriginal people such as Lesley and Mercy Baird. So I agreed.

My ignorance of the relations between Christianity and Aboriginal people has previously led me to think none too highly of the impact of the former on the latter. Missionaries and missions may well have been well meaning but my impression had been that there had been little attempt by the Christians to recognise – and recognise the value of-Aboriginal culture.

I would not suggest that that picture is wholly false but Loos as a minimum has got me rethinking my position.

The book I found less accessible than I would have ideally wanted. It remains unclear to me at whom it is directed. It is primarily a history of the interactions of three groups of people: Aboriginal people; missionaries; and the people ‘who sat in the pews in the churches and their priests and bishops who formed committees … [etc] in cities sanitised from the reality of the lives of Aboriginal people and the reality of the missions’(p ix).

The often conservative, sometimes racist church was at times capable of being much more progressive than society and governments. Loos writes of how Frank Coaldrake, the chair of the Australian Board of Missions which was the official voice of the missions of the Anglican Church of Australia, developed in 1967 a new policy entitled ‘Acceptance: The Next Step Forward’. Its aim was ‘the acceptance of Aborigines as Aborigines by white Australians and the acceptance of white Australians by Aborigines’. Up until then, as Loos states, the situation was very different with the ‘acceptance of Aborigines as inferiors living in an inferior culture that needed to be replaced … This had not only blamed the victims, but had also absolved most white Christians from having to confront their participation in the process’(p 138).

Loos suggests (pl39): ‘the policy of ‘Acceptance’ might seem very small beer, but its adoption by a conservative church, ahead of government policy and general community thinking, was in fact its great leap forward.’

More recently the Anglican Church, as Loos reports, has been active in calling on governments to recognise and address better the problems that have beset the Stolen Generations.

Christianity has been a mixed blessing for Aboriginal Australia. This book is clear that it is a mix but that on balance it has got better over time. The voices of the churches matter in social policy and in influencing social attitudes. In so far as the Anglican church of Loos’ account can succeed, as it seeks to further reconciliation, then that must contribute positively to Aboriginal health. In so far as being a member of ‘a club’, here the Anglican church, can contribute to social capital then individual Aboriginal involvement in the Christian church can promote good health. The worry remains for me however that this is white Christianity and that as such it results in – even if it does not aim at this – the erosion of Aboriginal culture and their health.

But let Loos have the final word on this. He lists and names Aboriginal people (including Lesley and Mercy Baird!) who with ‘many like them are living the faith the white man brought.’ He argues: ‘Yet it is their faith. For them, increasingly, a black man looks down from a black cross.’