Matt Bell, "From Confession to Repentance on Stolen Land"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



The following case study will explore how a community project, the Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH), addresses foundational questions of injustice that lie at the heart of Australian identity, and how by employing the Christian practices and disciplines of Confession, Lamentation, Repentance and Atonement, a path towards healing can be discovered.

The land that we call Australia—the land upon which we have built our cities and towns, the land on which our communities sit—was stolen. It was stolen through a process of invasion and dispossession. It was stolen, and has been passed on to us. We have inherited stolen goods. This land was stolen from the First Australians. The invasion continues in the very structures, systems, mindsets and beliefs of those of us who have inherited the stolen wealth.[1] The impact of invasion and dispossession is experienced in the First Australians: in their poverty of spirit, in their grief, in their alienation from land, community and family.[2] The accrued privilege of invasion and dispossession is enjoyed by the rest of the nation, and the communities within it: in our vast national wealth, in our private wealth, in our ignorance of the foundations of our nation, and in the privilege of not having been born Aboriginal in a country where that means racism, shorter lifespans and inherited trauma.

This sad state of affairs gives rise to several important questions: What responsibility does our inheritance of stolen land, and the wealth that comes with it, give us? How do we live on stolen land, how do we establish communities? How do we seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, when the very ground beneath our feet belongs to a people that has been violently and unjustly dispossessed?

These are difficult questions for our churches, for our communities, for our nation and for us personally. How do we make things right, when so much wrong has been done over such a long period of time? There is no quick fix, no easy way forward. But there is a way forward, that is, if we can pick up our cross and bear it. The path forward can be found in the traditions, practices and disciplines of our faith as they are expressed in Confession, Lamentation, Repentance and Atonement.

No actions of atonement (restorative justice) can be taken until we confess, or in other words, tell the truth. This is important to note, as the Church too often wants to help, to do something, and too often we are unhelpful, because we have not understood properly the nature of the problem.

Australia struggles to tell the truth about the past, and therefore build an understanding of the present based on real understanding. We are a nation that has spent two centuries in denial, deliberately disremembering our foundations and the position of Aboriginal people in that foundation. The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, after conducting literary research identifying the broad absence of Aboriginal people in Australian literature, noted:

… that inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned into habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness at a national scale. We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.[3]

Since the 1960s we have tried to more honestly engage with this truth, but we still struggle. This struggle is evident in the so-called “history wars.”[4] The “history wars” is a debate about the true history of Australia. On one side we have those looking through a white blindfold, only seeing the colonial creation story of Australia, a story that focuses on the discovery of an empty land by the English, the brave and pioneering efforts of the first settlers, their grit and determination to turn this wild land into a new home. This narrative either ignores Aboriginal people, or views them as an inconvenience to be dealt with. On the other side is the “black armband” view of history. This approach uncovers the hidden, or denied, history. A history that begins with the acknowledgment that Aboriginal people had a complex and rich culture in this land at the time of European arrival, that this was interrupted and destroyed through a process of invasion, that Aboriginal people fought a war of resistance, that the invaders were deliberate in their attempts at genocide, through massacres, poisoning of food and water sources, and the removal of children from their families and cultures. The overwhelming historical evidence, found in the works of Henry Reynolds and Richard Broome, amongst many others, supports this narrative.

Yet we still have a debate in this country about what happened. We have competing creation narratives that shape our understanding and identity. The dominant and foundational narrative (“white blindfold”) creates a sanitised, distorted history, which the “black armband” seeks to challenge. The two approaches can be summarised thusly:

I am Australian. My forefathers civilised this land. They bought technology to this wild, wide, empty, inhospitable place. They worked hard, taming the land, feeding a growing nation. They are real heroes, such pioneers. They educated and civilised the natives. Helped create a nation peacefully and free of war. We are a nation born of hope, tenacity, grit, and a fair go for all.

I am Australian. My forefathers came to an empty land. They didn’t see the Aboriginal people. I mean, they saw them, but didn’t see them. Didn’t see their culture, their lore, their humanity. They tried to destroy them with massacres, poisonings, by tearing families apart. Aboriginal people fought and resisted. We are a nation born of dispossession, racism, bloodshed. We hope for a fair go for all.

Of course, history is more complex than two opposing, mutually exclusive narratives, each competing for dominance. There are varied and complex histories that contain elements from each end of the spectrum. Our national project needs to be one of sharing a collective history that integrates differing histories and experiences, that doesn’t exaggerate one set of stories at the expense of another set, building a narrative that is warped and unbalanced, but rather embracing a robust history in order to build a fuller, more mature identity.

As things stand, we need to own and confess (privately, publically, in our churches and other public institutions) our shadow history by intertwining or integrating our two narratives. This integration is important so that we are not merely acknowledging the validity of both sides of the story and creating a situation where people make a choice for which side they show solidarity. This tends to create divisiveness, which has been the state of play since the 1960s and was hotly played out during the Howard era.[5] Instead, a history needs to be created where both elements are acknowledged and incorporated. Such confession is essential in building a truer, more just basis for our identity. Examples from across the world, including the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, demonstrate the practical importance of confession to restorative justice.[6]

In confessing we need to hear, listen and accept honestly the stories of those who have been wronged, no matter how difficult the challenge to our personal, institutional or national identity, or to the narratives that shape who we are. We need to hear the truth, then we need to tell the truth. This truth-telling will set us free from a false identity, from the insecurities and doubts that come from trying so hard to deny what is so evident. This truth-telling will free us up for the rest of journey of healing.

However, it is not just enough to confess. Confession can at times be solely an intellectual assent, an expression of what we know, starting in our heads, leaving our mouths. We need to lament. We need to express passionately our grief and sorrow from our hearts. When we can do this, we know that we have engaged on a deeper level, we have heard the pain, accepted it as truth, and then share that pain. Lamentation in this case is a deep act of solidarity with those who have carried the pain since 1788.

Once we have confessed and lamented, then we are able to begin to repent. In the process of repenting we turn away from the ideas, beliefs, narratives and identities built upon false history and injustice, towards frameworks of justice. Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, explores the requirements of repentance for both the oppressed and the oppressor. He applies this notion to the oppressors in the following way:

To repent means to make a turnabout of profound moral and religious import. Repentance implies not merely a recognition that one has made a bad mistake, but that one has sinned.[7]

Volf argues that without repentance (and indeed a confession that sets us free from “the suppression of guilt … [and] the armour of insensibility and defiance in which we encase ourselves) there can be no forgiveness, restitution or reconciliation.”[8]

Repentance for those of us who have inherited the stories and wealth based on Terra Nullius involves us removing our white blindfold. This can be very challenging (just as the liberation through confession can be painful), since it involves rebuilding or discovering a new identity, letting go of the old one that can no longer stand in the face of the truth you know, and the sorrow you share. Confession and lamentation can create a sense of disillusionment. Repentance is about saying: “That old way of thinking and being doesn’t make sense, and worse, was destructive, I turn my back on that.” However, the old ways will constantly seek to reassert themselves, to support the structures of invasion that still exist. So you might still say you were going to the Grampians, not Gariwerd, or we go to Gippsland, not Gunaikurnai country. Therefore repentance is a sustained act of turning away, a continued commitment to honour that which you confessed and lamented. This is hard work, and needs to be fed and nurtured. We’ll return to this shortly.

From this process of confession, lamentation and repentance emerge some possible answers to the questions stated earlier, about the actions that build atonement. Atonement, I suggest, is about making things right, restoring justice and bringing healing. Often our churches view atonement as a transaction that occurred on the cross: Jesus’ life for our sins, making things right between each individual and God so that we can get to heaven. Theologians like Carlos Abesamis, who explore atonement through the lens of liberation theologies, view atonement in terms of ushering in the Kingdom of God:

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God as; the good news of liberation for the poor, liberty to the captives, sight the blind, freedom to the oppressed, the Jubilee year release of slaves, rest for the land, recall of the debts of the poor, and the restoration of the land, property, and houses of the dispossessed ancestors … [Jesus’] message is about health, life, justice and liberation.[9]

Abesamis continues to discuss the coming of the Kingdom in the following way: “Our world of unresolved pain, hunger, and thirst will be restored to wholeness. … [A] universal restoration, when all things will be made whole again.”[10]

Acts of atonement, in our current discussion, are acts of making things right, acts that foreshadow and invite the Kingdom that is on earth as in heaven. They are acts that seek to bring justice, health, life and liberation, acts that restore and heal relationships, balance systems rife with power inequities and express God’s love.

I can’t tell you what this looks like for you, because the answers will be contextual. You read this in a different place from where I write, you live in different place from me, and you have different skills and resources. However, I can say, that it will involve actions built upon your experience of confession, lamentation and repentance. What I can do is share how one group of people engage in this process.

The Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH)[11] is a Christian community project that offers a peaceful, homely atmosphere for Indigenous people supporting a family member in a Melbourne hospital. We do this in three main ways:

1.      Providing a bed, and place to call home, for as long as it is needed, for one night, several days or weeks;

2.      Providing dinner if needed;

3.      Offering our time and energy to our guests, chatting over a cuppa, giving directions, sharing stories and hanging out.

Since 2001, the IHH has hosted about 1600 guests, staying an average of around three nights per guest, from across Australia, but mostly from Victoria. The hospitality is provided by five to six volunteer residents (each paying rent), who cook, answer phones, hang out with guests and ensure the house is culturally safe and peaceful for Aboriginal people.

The IHH was established as an act of atonement. It is not a charity. It is not a service. It is a way for a group of people to live out the Christian imperative for healing and justice. It is also a site for people, perhaps new to these issues, to engage in a process of confession, lamentation and repentance.

So how has the process outlined above expressed itself at the IHH? Earlier I stated that the church too often starts with atonement, starting at the end of the process, or without fully engaging in the process. The founders of the IHH had certainly engaged in a deep process of confession. Various members of the founding group had spent time visiting and living with Indigenous people, hearing their stories, letting those stories seep into their hearts, feeling the sadness, learning a new way of understanding the world. Alongside this was a process of learning through seeking out new knowledge, through visiting people, through work, through private reading and through Bible study. As a group the IHH founders had begun to face the truth of history, feel the pain of this truth, and were seeking a repentant path.

When the need for safe, secure and affordable accommodation for Aboriginal people visiting hospital was expressed by the Aboriginal community, the IHH founders were in position to see this not as a chance for charity, not as a chance to set up a service, but a chance for atonement (restorative justice). They had accepted that Melbourne is built on Aboriginal land, and that Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of that land. They had developed an emotional investment, and were ready to engage in atonement. They were able to create a space for hospitality without domination, meeting mutual needs, a safe space for our complex histories to meet. They were able to identify the wisdom articulated by the Aboriginal woman Lila Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

As the founders have moved on, and new residents enter the project, they enter a space that provides an opportunity to engage in the process from the start. In sitting with guests over a cuppa or a meal, they begin to hear the stories about the impact of colonisation, learn about Aboriginal culture and identity, see Aboriginal people as people, not as media-constructed stereotypes, and begin to ask and seek answers to questions. They begin to move away from a “white blindfold” view of Australia, and become informed in a more honest way. In hearing these stories (confession), it’s impossible not to be moved, to share the sorrow to some degree, to discover our own sorrows, to lament. This process then leads on to a resident’s commitment to repentance and atonement. Frances, a recent volunteer and resident at the IHH, provides valuable insight into this process:

There have been situations that have arisen at the house that I have found confronting. These are the times when I have become aware of the lived realities of our guests (both past and present realities). I have been reminded and confronted by the injustice, racism and pain that our guests have experienced at the hands of “White Australia” and the Church (Confession). Our history as “the lucky country” has grieved me and brought me shame.

Despite the fact that I am the first generation of my family born in Australia, I can’t choose to ignore this history by saying “Well, it wasn’t my ancestors.” It grieves me that my family’s experience of Australia has been so positive while for many of our guests their lived experience has been fraught with pain and sorrow and injustices. This is my Lamentation.

I have a role to play in this reconciliation we so desperately need as a country. Through my involvement in the IHH, I am reminded that this journey of reconciliation is a messy business. It’s not easy, it’s not clear cut. I cannot ignore the issues that exist. They are our collective issues as a nation which means they are my issues and I am resolved to try and address them in a new way (Repentance). A way that involves turning away from helping and offering charity and instead engaging with people, listening to stories and walking along the journey of reconciliation together, through the messy and confronting times (Atonement).

There’s another way that this journey from confession to atonement is expressed in the IHH. Earlier I noted that repentance must be nurtured and reinforced, if that sustained commitment is to be lived. The IHH provides a space for this.

So far I have expressed the process as a linear progression, but it’s actually a cycle, where we cycle through the process, returning to particular aspects at different times. The IHH provides a space where we are brought back to, or are reminded of, different aspects at different times. While we are living an act of atonement, we can be brought back to an experience of lamentation while sitting with a guest and sharing stories, or by witnessing their struggles and pain. We can be reminded of the deep connection to land and culture that our guests have when we hear them talk about the pride they have in their Aboriginality, or the sadness they express in not being connected to their country. Through this continued engagement in the process, our sense of repentance is sustained.

Finally, the IHH recognises the importance of continually engaging in this process through our spiritual practices. In prayer we confess and lament, support each other in our repentance, seek to keep our experience grounded in the wisdom of the biblical narratives and traditions.

A key practice for the IHH mob has been the Easter retreat,[12] where we engage in a liturgical walk, linking what are often known as the last seven words (more properly phrases) of Christ on the cross to the historical and current suffering of Aboriginal people. In what has become quite a moving and reflective liturgy each of the below phrases is read alongside a reflection on a current or historical injustice.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Jesus said to his mother: “Woman, this is your son.” Then he said to the disciple: “This is your mother” (John 19:26–27).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34).

“I thirst” (John 19:28).

They put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and handed over the spirit (John 19:29–30).

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

In this way, we link the crucifixion of Jesus with the many ways Aboriginal people are metaphorically crucified in this nation. The walk engages elements of confession, lamentation and repentance, becoming an important experience for the IHH mob as we seek to engage our work for justice with our spirituality.

The IHH has now provided this valuable space for thirty-five residents and has proven to be a viable and sustainable site for Christians to engage in core Christian practices to enable them to address the questions identified above: What responsibility does our inheritance of stolen land, and the wealth that comes with it, give us? How do we live on stolen land, how do we establish communities and neighbourhoods? How do we seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, when the very ground beneath our feet belongs to a people that have been violently and unjustly dispossessed? The IHH is one model of how a group of people might engage in this work.

My challenge to you dear reader: Are you willing to take this journey of confession, lamentation and repentance? Are you willing to be transformed, to build a new repentant identity, an identity that finds the path to atonement and healing?

Note: If you would like to explore these issues further, or learn about the IHH please contact the IHH on 9387 7557 or You can also visit our website at


[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no.4 (2006): 388.

[2] Having said this, it is important to note the continued resilience and strength shown by Aboriginal people in the face all that has happened. While the poverty of spirit is evident in many people and places, so is the depth and richness of their spirit and culture in other places. Similarly, while many families exhibit the dysfunction we would expect of people oppressed for over two centuries, at the IHH we have be privileged to witness some amazing families—gracious, focused, insightful and full of laughter.

[3] W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays (Melbourne: Black Ink, 2009), 188–89.

[4] Sarah Maddison, Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia (Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2011), 56–61.

[5] Henry Reynolds, Why Weren’t We Told (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2000), 153–60.

[6] Elaine Ennes and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009), 121–40.

[7] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 113.

[8] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 120.

[9] Carlos H. Abesamis, “Jesus: An Asian Perspective,” in Global Bible Commentary, ed. Daniel Patte (Nashville: Abington Press, 2004), 335.

[10] Abesamis, “Jesus,” 336.

[11] Peter Lewis, Acting in Solidarity: The Churches’ Journey with Indigenous Australians (Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 2010), 224–26.

[12] Lewis, Acting in Solidarity, 240–41.


Image: Michael Coghlan, Flickr (Creative Commons)