Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Why did we take the children?

Why did we take the children?

What we can learn from Christian complicity in the Stolen Generations

Dear friends

One of the most widely viewed editions ever of Two Ways News was our discussion of the morality of voting Yes or No in last year’s ‘Voice’ referendum here in Australia

That episode touched only very briefly on the problem that, for many people, was a key issue in the referendum—and that is the historical alienation, prejudice and disadvantage that Aboriginal and Torres St Islander people have suffered at the hands of white Australians over the past 200 years. 

The recent death of Aboriginal leader Lowitja O’Donoghue provides an occasion for us to revisit this issue, and in particular—for us as Christians—the uncomfortable reality that Christian churches and denominations played their own role in the sad history of the Stolen Generations. 

In today’s episode, Phillip and I talk about why and how Christians became involved in taking Aboriginal children from their parents, and what we can learn as we look back on it—not just in relation to that particular issue but more broadly.

Your brother


Why did we take the children?

Tony Payne: In the wake of Lowitja O’Donoghue’s death, there have been a number of articles about about her extraordinary life, and one of them gave an excerpt from one of her last public addresses—where she talked about her upbringing, her removal from her family and being placed in a Baptist mission. For many Indigenous Australians–or for Australians full stop–the Stolen Generations are almost like an original sin; almost like our counterpart to slavery in America. It’s one of those moments in our history that we’re ashamed of and that we look back on with enormous regret.

Phillip Jensen: Yes, and many of us are actually ignorant about it. That is, when we hear of the Stolen Generations, most people think that the underlying problem was that Aboriginal children were suffering deprivation in health, in education, in poverty, and were taken from their parents to be put into homes where they could be given proper food, proper housing, proper education. And because deprivation was statistically a much bigger problem in the indigenous population, then a greater percentage of Indigenous children were removed from their parents. 

But actually, that was not what it was about. It was racism–pure and simple racism—that was happening in the 1920s and 30s and right through to the 60s. O’Donoghue was born in 1932, and at the age of two was taken from her parents as well as her siblings. It was the kind of racism that came from the same eugenics that created Adolf Hitler and the Nazi rejection of Jews.

TP: Hang on a second, that's a big leap! What’s the connection between our Stolen Generation policies and eugenics and Adolf Hitler.

PJ: In the 19th century or early 20th century up to the middle of the 20th century, as a result of biology and scientific investigation, people looked into the question of whether your quality of life and your abilities in life came from your genetic background. And so lots of study was spent on the size of brains, the size of heads, the physiological characteristics, and the intelligence testing of different racial and ethnic groups. And it was considered, especially by white scientists, that we who were of European stock were physiologically, mentally superior as a race.

TP: This came out of, to some extent, the whole evolutionary view of humanity? 

PJ: Absolutely. Darwin is the father of it all, but it was very widespread. There was a famous professor at Melbourne University [Richard Berry] who had a building named after him— he was a thorough-going eugenicist. It was a fairly normal aspect of the intelligentsia of that period—that some races or physical types were inferior, and that society would be better off without them. 

TP: And in Hitler’s case, when taken to its logical conclusion, the Jews were like a cancer that needed to be removed for the good of society. 

PJ: Yes. And so part of that was looking at the Indigenous Australians and it was thought at that time that the Indigenous Australians were inferior beings who were unable–in the survival of the fittest–to survive. They were declining in numbers especially in the 19th century as many were killed by European diseases that they had no immunity for. And so they were considered to be weaker, frailer. And so they were dying out, but what do you do with the ‘half-castes’ (as they were called)? 

It was thought that if the mixed-blood Aboriginal children could be assimilated back into the white community, then the full bloods would peter out over time. And so most of the Stolen Generations were ‘half-caste’, like Lowitja O’Donoghue, whose father was Irish. It's an appalling view of life, a failure to understand the integrity of every human being created in the image of God. But it was the way of thinking in that time that was explicitly put forward into the government policies.

TP: In one of the last public addresses that she gave, interestingly, in an Anglican Church in Adelaide, Lowitja O'Donoghue said something about this. She said, 

For myself and countless other children, those so-called child protection policies and practices established a vicious cycle of damage that is continued from generation to generation. And let us be clear, the children were not taken because of policies about childhood neglect; they were taken on the basis of race. Because so many of our children were stolen from our families, we were robbed of the opportunity to learn our own ways and of bringing up our own children. You do not learn about love and care from books; you learn that by experience.

And she goes on further to say,

The history is important in understanding how a whole generation was denied the chance to pass on cultural knowledge. It was, of course, government policy of the time to take ‘half-caste children’, which is what we were known as, and civilize us, and to be acceptable in white society. In a book written in Adelaide in 1937 called Pearls from the Deep, we were seen as ‘waste material, rescued from the degradation of camp life, brought up from the depths of ignorance, superstition, and vice, to be fashioned as gems to adorn God's crown’.

PJ: Terribly sad, isn't it? It's appalling. And Christians didn't always have this attitude. You go back into the 19th century and you’ll find it was Christians who insisted that the indigenous peoples of Australia were–as their phrase was–’one blood’. They were not lesser human beings. They had the same rights. And you have missionaries like Mr. Threlkeld who worked up in the Central Coast of New South Wales and gave their lives to understand the language of the indigenous peoples. They learned how to read it and write it, learned how to teach them, learned how to translate the Bible into those languages. They were the kinds of things that today you would think were advanced anthropological values, yet the Christian missionaries in the 1820s had that view. It was sadly Darwinism and the whole rise of eugenics that led to this appalling mistreatment of so many children. What a dreadful thing to do to the mothers, to take a little child away from a mother! It almost doesn't matter in terms of poverty. The mother-child bond is just so profound and important that to do this to the children was just a shocking, horrible thing to have been done.

TP: Now in the way the narrative normally goes in popular culture and the Christian involvement in it, I’ve never heard about the eugenicist background, and that it was government policy that was driving it. It's sometimes seen as if the churches were desiring to take the Aboriginal children away and Christianize them. And so Christian churches are seen as the bad guys in this whole process. And we did do some things that were bad. But it's more complicated than that.

PJ: It's much more complicated, that's right. Let's take the bad. We were complicit with the government in the process. That was bad. Secondly, not every Christian organization or every Christian orphanage always only ever did the right thing. There were bad people. There were hard and cruel people there. And so there were bad situations and circumstances. By being complicit, we were complicit in taking children from their mothers, or at least receiving the children that Aboriginal protection societies had taken from their mothers. We were the recipients of them to look after them, and that meant that we had children who were under terrific stress in our care. It’s worth saying that the government didn't provide for them—the government used Christian agencies to provide for them. Yes, we wanted the children to become Christians, but we wanted the parents to become Christians too. Yes, our provisions for them were often weak and poorly, but then it was the depression. Everybody was weakened. 

TP: It was 1933.

PJ: Yes. O’Donoghue writes of eating boiled cabbage.. Well, yes, I can understand that; my father ate tripe and chokos during the Depression. That was a difficult period of time. You can't judge easily from where we are now regarding what the circumstances were like for the people who ran her particular ‘orphanage’–a couple of Baptist ladies who gave their life for the care of little children. They weren't making money out of it. They weren't getting rich out of it. Okay, one of them was harsh and the other was loving. Well, I’m sorry but that's life. 

TP: A lot of people's families were exactly like that. 

PJ: Yes, it's true. But it doesn't justify it; it doesn't make it right. But to portray the missionaries as being particularly nasty, evil people is unfair when it was actually coming from the government policy, and the government policy came from atheism. Whereas the Christian policy, which used the government to advance what it was wanting to advance—it was not out of dislike of children or wishing them to die; they actually did care. And although I would be opposed to it strongly now, you have to say that there were some good effects, and even with this very famous woman Lowitja O’Donoghue, who did what she did because of her education and her training. She had to fight hard–vastly too hard–for it. She had to actually petition the government to allow her to become a nurse. It was dreadful racism. But she could do that because she had been taken and had been given an education. But that doesn't justify taking her!

TP: But thinking back into the complication of that circumstance and to the Christian churches, who, as you say, were complicit, what is there in that for us to learn? Because at the time, it was widely agreed socially and culturally that this was what should be done; it was the accepted wisdom of the time. We look back on it now and say, “How could they think that was the right thing to do?!” But most people did at that point. 

PJ: Yes, it is a problem. We all live in the bubble of our own culture, or in some culture. And that's why we Christians need to fight hard to read our Scriptures properly, to have the Scriptures critique not just other people's cultures, but to critique our own culture, to be able to see how the forces that work in our Western materialistic culture actually do not come from Christianity, and to see where some of those forces come from. And we need to decide where we need to part company or be with it. 

I've got a book in my hand called Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work 1890 to 1945 written by an American academic named Regina G. Kenzel. It's not a Christian book; it was published by Yale University and it seems to me she is a feminist unbeliever. But she's written a very interesting parallel to our issue of the Indigenous Australians—that is, what happens to unmarried mothers? Well, in the 1890s and the first couple of decades of the 20th century, the only people who cared for the unmarried mothers–in the sense of actually doing anything about it–were Christians. The Christians set up homes for unmarried mothers to help them in the confinement. Not only that, they helped them in the early days of breastfeeding and of having the baby and in giving them job training and in finding positions for them where they could continue to live as single mothers looking after their own children. That was happening for the 1890s through 1920-1930s. 

Now, the title of this book also says something else: the professionalization of social work. From the 1920s onwards, social work became an academic phenomenon with professional standards and status. Up until then, it was mostly generosity or charitable work, so to speak. But now it became a profession where you got a degree and you had to have status. And therefore you had to have scientific investigations as to the best ways to treat people under different circumstances. But of course, social science is not very scientific. By the 1940s, it had been determined by the professional social workers that these dear old ladies, in the generosity of Christian work, had failed to produce the best practice for unmarried mothers. The best practice for unmarried mothers from the middle of the 20th century was to take their babies from them as soon as they were born and give mothers as little contact with the baby as possible, and they would adopt the babies out elsewhere. But of course, the only homes for unmarried mothers were Christian homes, and the Christians running the Christian homes were persuaded by the professionalism of social work to do best practice: take the babies from their mothers before any bonding could have happened, which, of course, we now know is ridiculous. The bonding happens in utero before the baby's born. It was devastating to the young women, it was unhelpful to the babies. Sure, you can see good things: children are adopted, and that was to their benefit. But now we are horrified by this whole process. And now, these homes are attacked for doing such a wicked thing as taking babies away from their mothers.

TP: I've seen a few movies and TV shows that have delved into this narrative and the horror of these nasty Christian homes that callously snatched the babies from their mothers, because of the immorality of of unwed mothers, and so on. They play it up big time.

PJ: Yes, but it was secularist social work professionals who did it.

TP: So those who drove the ‘best practice’ policy were the smart secular people at the time. And the Christians went along with it. 

PJ: And became complicit. 

TP: Yes, in much the same way.

PJ: But it was not what we set out to do. We got conned by social science into thinking the world knew better than we did as to what to do. That's an interesting parallel. 

TP: It's also because humanity is something you can't put in a test tube or run an experiment on because humans and human society are incredibly complex. You see this once you start all the intricate web of interrelations in relationships and the effects we have on one another, the values we have, the things we do, the way our hearts move us or don't move us, our imperfections, our glories, our terrible mistakes. Humans and human culture and human interactions are fabulously, almost infinitely complex. And so to think that we can comprehend what is going to be a predictable set of policies that will always work with people and then declare that to be best practice—that just fails to understand what the Bible says about the incredible complexity of and bigness of the universe and of humanity, and the inability and smallness of the human mind to comprehend it.

PJ: And that's why it's so important to make policies at the local ground level rather than in the capital of the state or the capital of the nation. 

TP: The technical term for that is ‘subsidiarity’. I think that's what the political philosophers call it—the idea that the closer you get to the local environment, the better equipped people are to make decisions about things that directly affect them.

But drawing this together,  what does it all mean for the way we as Christians relate to and interact with the policies, thought patterns and trends of contemporary society and social science?

PJ: I don't need a degree in the humanities to have read the book of Proverbs, which tells that there is wisdom to be found in this world. There is real wisdom to be discovered by carefully observing the world and how it works—and so the book of Proverbs also gives us some proverbs that you can find in Egyptian writings as well. 

TP: So for example, you should plant your crops first, then build your house, as the proverb says, because you should secure your source of income before you start sinking capital into something. If you do it the other way around, it's not going to work. That’s something you could learn just from experience and observation.

PJ: Yes, but the revelation of Scriptures enables us to evaluate the wisdom of this world, because not all the wisdom of the world is right, and the Scriptures are right. So the Scriptures help us to choose which aspects of the human wisdom we will go along with and which aspects we will disparage. So if Christians had read their Scriptures and believed them and thought hard enough, we shouldn't have been complicit with this racist view of Indigenous development. We should have said, “No, we shouldn't be taking children away from their mothers because they are half-castes as opposed to full blood.” We should have known that from God's Word. Now, I don't know the history well enough to know whether there were people who objected, but we should have if we’d read our Bibles and thought Christianly.

TP: It's interesting you say “thought Christianly” because that kind of goes back to what we were saying in our discussion recently about the regulative and the normative and the way we read our Scriptures, the way it shapes our thinking and the way we apprentice ourselves to the way the Bible thinks. It's another example of the same kind of thing. It's not as if there's a verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not do this particular thing–taking half-caste children from their parents.” But if we read the way the Bible does speak about people, about parents, about families, about the obligations and importance of families, if we schooled ourselves in the wisdom of the Scriptures about the nature of the world (people, us, God) and our relationships and responsibilities about the moral order of the world, and the good that we should strive for in the world and under God, when we come to these circumstances we should sniff it and say this smells all wrong. And then why is this wrong? And this will drive us to articulate what it is about this policy that clashes with how we think about how to treat people.

PJ: And so what you're saying, and what Lowitja O'Donoghue says in that address, is that the great value of Christianity, the value of the human being, is something that was lost in the treatment of indigenous people. 

TP: Exactly. That’s right. 

PJ: And she had the wisdom to see. I don't know how much she did or didn't embrace Christianity, but she certainly embraced enough of Christianity to see that what we did was the denial of Christian belief itself. We've got to actually put Christian belief into practice, rather than following the ‘best practice’. 

TP: Yes, the best practice policy that's being urged upon us may also come from management theory. And it's the same sort of thing when we come as churches to think about which aspects of the wisdom of the world we adopt in terms of how to run organizations, or how to manage an enterprise, or how to work with a team of people. Which aspects should we plunder from the Egyptians (as we say) and which should we say, “Hang on, that doesn't smell right”—because it clashes with some aspect of what I've learned from the Scriptures about the way the world really is or the way church really is, for example.

PJ: Here’s another example—nearly everybody in the secularists mindset says, “Here is a problem. How do we solve it–education or legislation?” They only ever have those two levers to pull. Now we Christians believe in education and we believe in the government bringing legislation for justice to this world. But we don't think the solution is always education and legislation. We think regeneration is an important aspect. And we also diagnose the problem differently because we'll say, “Actually, the problem lies in human sin rather than just in being poorly educated or housed inappropriately.” So we really need to think and have confidence in the Christian thinking of the Scriptures.

TP: Because all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus Christ. He's the key to the wisdom of the world, the key to understanding ourselves and God and the world. And it doesn't mean that in knowing Jesus Christ we're immediately given the answer to every question, but it means we're given the wisdom, the foundation, the structure, the framework, the way of thinking and the understanding of ourselves and God and other people that allows us to think about what the world is really like. And we can lose our confidence in that, can't we? And the world comes along so loud and so confident and so in our face, and we don't want to be left behind or seen as outmoded. And so we go along and become complicit in something that down the track we deeply regret.

Philip, could you give us a Bible verse to finish? Some part of the Scriptures that wraps up this somewhat fluid conversation we've had that started with Lowitja O'Donoghue and the terrible problems of our complicity with the policies of the government, and ended up speaking about the need for theological wisdom for trusting in God and his wisdom as we interact with the world. 

PJ: Yes, how about Psalm 146. Why don’t you read it?

TP: Ok—here it is:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

 Put not your trust in princes,
    in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
    on that very day his plans perish.

 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord his God,
 who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed,
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
     the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
 The Lord watches over the sojourners;
    he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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