[This paper was presented to a general audience at the event, Ideas at the Powerhouse, August, 19, 2001, in Brisbane at the Powerhouse, New Farm on the Brisbane River. It represents the interface between theology and culture and appears here with only minor modifications for this medium.]

At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the Turrubul people and other traditional owners of this land on which we are located, in one of the many bends in the great Brisbane River, which traverses the lands of the Turrubul and Jagara peoples. I evoke the spirits of these peoples and the many other peoples whose spirits have shaped this place—spirits expressed in art and creativity, in ritual and dance, and during these days, in shared ideas which make our spirits soar to new possibilities and potentialities, soar toward transformation.

Initially, I would like to evoke a number of recent Australian experiences —the celebration of the beginning of a new millennium, the significant moment/s in the reconciliation process in May, 2000 and the staging of the Olympic Games in/on this land later in 2000. Each contains myriads of images, symbols and stories which have shaped our national, our human consciousness, our human spirit at this start of a new millennium. I vividly recall Legs on the Wall's performance of "Homeland" on a Sydney highrise during the New Millennium celebration. This performance sparked a wonderful imagination of the daring of the human spirit, the waves of migration to this land and the potential that this holds for a rich diverse future which will enable the spirit of this diversity to thrive. This was not without its heart wrenching moments symbolised in the slipping, the momentary falling of those dancers. [Those moments have become more poignant since the Ideas Event in August, 2001, as we have had our hearts broken at the plight of current waves of migration and asylum seeking and our national response]. The performance watched by thousands, indeed millions of Australians both live, on TV or later on video captured a new imagination expressed in the wonder on the uplifted faces of those who were in the crowds watching these performances.. And then the following morning, as the sun arose on a new millennium, the haunting music of "Breath of the Spirit" as the didgeridoo, the trumpet and the clarinet rang out from atop the sails of the Sydney opera house heralding a new millennium in this great south land—there was a quite extraordinary spirit of hope evoked.

Also in 2000! Many of us will vividly remember the weekend in May when the Reconciliation Document was handed to the Prime Minister and to the Australian nation by the Council who had worked on not only a document but a process over 10 years. And then the subseqent walk/s over the Sydney harbour bridge and other bridges in capital cities as the people of the nation committed themselves to the process of reconciliation which had only just begun and which has a future which needs to engage us all. And will any of us forget the Games which wove a story or stories in our national imagination. The flame which travelled the nation was instrumental in this weaving, drawing peoples from dusty country roads to populated, high-rise city streets into its magic. The opening and closing ceremonies wove a rich web of symbols shaping our identity—the 11 minute corroboree, Awakening, the cleansing bushfire, the thundering stock horses, creatures of our surrounding sea and land—images recalled memories and experiences and touched deep into stories within our shared psyches.

Finally, I can still remember the tears running down my face as Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic Fire and stood for so many minutes within that ring of fire and cascades of water. Water and fire—two elemental symbols of our land, a land ringed by water and yet so often parched as is the spirit of its peoples. Fire evokes an elemental fear as it devastates vast tracts of this land [an experience of the beginning days of 2002]; and yet this same fire was used by indigenous Australians to purge the land for regrowth and new life. We are a people shaped by our imagination—our stories, our symbols, the images we share enable us to touch not only our concrete present reality but also the yearnings of our spirits toward a new, a transformed future.

What I have just re-membered as significant moments in the shaping of our imagination were, indeed, transformative moments. They were moments which were shared by the peoples of our nation in their diversity. They were moments which sensitively touched this diversity by way of symbol and image. The artistry of the creators of these events reminded us in a powerfully positive way that, in the words of George Orwell, "the one who controls the present controls the past and the one who controls the past, controls the future". The way we, of the present, tell the stories of our past, shapes our imagination, our consciousness and hence our ethical sensitivity for the future. We were creating ourselves anew.

In this paper, I seek to explore some of the diverse stories which we tell and how these together with the symbols and images they carry can either stifle our imagination or can evoke new possibilities for a future which will enable the full human/spiritual potential of each person who calls Australia home. Sources for some such stories which transform the human imagination and spirit have traditionally been found among the major religions, particularly Christianity in western nations although this is changing radically in the multi-faith arenas of Australian life. Sadly in recent decades, the christian churches as carriers of transformative stories have failed to keep them alive in the imagination of many Australians or to bring them into dialogue with the transformative moments in the Australian imagination. Eva Cox asked the question in relation to social systems especially Western democracy but it could also be applied to religious systems of which the churches are one—what happens when a community moves to a loss of faith in the system beyond appropriate scepticism? For her this is dangerous because a society at a particular moment might destroy or abandon a system which we may need to work hard to transform. While Australians may be abandoning the churches, there is a profound longing in many Australian hearts for the transformative. In this climate, a new spirituality, a new transformative imagination is being forged among many Australians who may not be abandoning the tradition of Christianity but seeking to transform it. This longing for a new spirit is shaped by art and story as the memories evoked above make clear. It can be nurtured by a bringing together of traditional stories from religious traditions including Christianity [on which I will focus in this paper] and from the Australian memory; a critical deconstructing of these; and a re-telling of them in dialogue with a truly Australian imagination. From this process, something new, something transformative emerges.

I found similar thoughts shared by Lydia Miller in Part 4 of the Barton lectures on ABC Radio early in 2001, the year Australia remembered and re-storied Federation a century earlier. Speaking from an indigenous Australian perspective she says:

We are an imagined nation and identify as Australians due to what exists in our imaginations. We imagine that we are who we are as a people because we promulgate symbols, iconography, images and words that reinforce our sense of belonging, our sense of community and our sense of identity….we yearn for an imagined nation where we can transcend our interminable differences about our social structures, our beliefs, our prejudices and allow ourselves a moment of wonder at the richness of the society we have through the contribution of the many. We ask ourselves ‘what if…’ and fumble for an expression of what we may become as a nation…We are engaged in one of the most dynamic dialogues of our times. In its wake, old orders will be challenged and deconstructed and new orders will rise and permeate the landscape of our consciousness. This is the age of ethics. [ABC radio national website - http://www.abc.net.abc/rn/sunspet/stories/s253929.htm]

Stories of Origin: Peoples and land

Let's focus initially on our stories of origin.

Some of the memories we have just evoked have been significant in remembering Australia's stories of origins. It was, however, Inga Clendinnen who introduced me in a unique way to a number of stories of origin in her 1999 Boyer Lectures. One of the most powerful in stretching and challenging my imagination was her first, an incident on a beach in Western Australia in 1801 when a French scientific expedition came ashore and encountered an indigenous man and woman digging for shellfish. When the man saw the French strangers, he ran away but the woman was "seized with fright", according to the French account, and she pressed herself into the sand "like a frog on the edge of a pond" in their words. They lifted her up and turned her over so that they might examine her more closely from their scientific perspective. They discovered that she was pregnant. Only after their examination and withdrawal did the woman steal away on her hands and knees into the bushes "leaving behind our presents and her stick" are their final words. [Clendinnen, 1999: 1-3] Such a story is an important foundational story and it raises serious questions for us about the events that happened on this and other spots along the banks of the Brisbane River as white settlers advanced into this part of the country.

Clendinnen reminds us that we do not know the story of that aboriginal man and woman, and I could add, of the many other indigenous people/s along the seas and rivers of this land, except maybe through the lens of French male explorers and Anglo-Celtic settlers. And many may say nor does it matter that we do not know these stories, especially those who would call such explorations of our foundational stories "Black Armband History". But Clendinnen goes on to argue, drawing on the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum that knowing the stories of our past is "conducive to civic virtue and therefore to the coherence of a democratic liberal state" [Clendinnen, 1999: 6]. She indicates that it is essential to reflect on "such situations" to liberate "our imaginations to taste experiences other than our own" for in this is "the narrative imagination at work" [Clendinnen, 1999: 7]. This expansion of our narrative imagination to include the stories of the original inhabitants of this land, I would argue, also touches our spirits and shapes a spirituality as we seek to understand others with whom we now share this land.

And in that seeking to understand, we hear other stories of origins, sacred stories of indigenous Australians which hold together peoples and lands. Peter Lauer talls the story of the yimbun, the tall rush which grows along the Brisbane River and the blue waterlily. It is a story told him by his mother who had heard the story from the Kombumerri women who lived further south:

A long time ago there was a young man and a young woman. They always went together and they would soon be married. She looked very beautiful. Every time they came close to the water, a bad spirit who lived in it became very jealous of the young man and he decided to take the girl for himself. When he had taken her, he changed the girl into the blue flowering waterlily. This way he could always be reminded of her.

But the young man felt great grief at the loss of his companion. He searched for her along the water's edge where she had disappeared.

Even the bad spirit felt sorry for him. But he would not give back the young woman. So he took the man too, and changed him into yimbun [the water reed]. In this way the young man could again be close to the woman, because both grow alongside each other; and in a breeze the tall, tall yimbun will bend over to be even closer to his woman, the blue waterlily. [Lauer, nd: 10]

Indigenous stories are not only told in words but perhaps even more powerfully in art. One of the many collections of Indigenous Australian art that have resulted from recent exhibitions, Dreamings: the Art of Aboriginal Australia, edited by Peter Sutton, holds one spellbound as the viewer encounters "Water Dreaming at Mikanji", "Yam and Bush Tomato Dreaming" on the Yuendumu school door, "Kangaroo and Shield People Dreaming at Lake Mackay", "Women Dreaming at Wikingkarra" and "Old Man Dreaming at Yumari" among the many breath-taking pieces in the collection. They draw one into the "inseparability of territory, people, and mythical ancestors" in the words of Christopher Anderson and Françoise Dussart. They invite participation in the spirit of this inseparability as one enters the colours and the movements of the paintings just as one was invited into it in the story of ymbun. [I regret that facilities were not {and are not} available for visual presentations as I believe that the visual is as powerful or perhaps even more powerful than the spoken word in shaping a new imagination for transformation. Even though I cannot draw you into this experience at this moment, I have chosen, however, to make reference to it through the presentation in order to give it the emphasis which is its due].

These are spiritual stories/spiritual experiences which link people and land. They draw non-indigenous Australia closer to the spiritual world of indigenous Australia and of this land, to the spirit of the dreaming, a powerful spirit which has inhabited this land and its peoples for thousands of years. It is not a spirit to be appropriated by colonials but it is a spirit or spirits that will enable non-indigenous Australians to respect and know the spirits of indigenous Australians and their strong affiliation with their land, to work together toward true reconciliation and return of land, and to live in and with this land in a way that its spirit becomes our spirit as a new and different Australia.

One such story which invited me into this process which is creating a new spirit among contemporary Australians was Sally Morgan's My Place. She tells the story of her family coming to own their aboriginality and relationship to their land. As her grandmother, Nan is dying, we hear the incredible residue of pain from her journey. She asks Sally to rub her back and as she does so Nan says:

'Ooh, that's good, Sally,' she murmured after a while. As I continued to rub, she let out a deep sigh and then said slowly, 'You know, Sal … all my life, I been treated rotten, real rotten. Nobody's cared if I've looked pretty. I been treated like a beast. Just like a beast of the field. And now, here I am …old. Just a dirty old blackfella."

Nan's storied experience evokes a similar story for me in the Christian tradition enabling these stories to rub up against one another. It is the story of the Canaanite woman [named Justa in the later tradition] who seeks healing from Jesus for her daughter. As her story is told in the Matthean gospel, the Jesus of the story places a number of obstacles before her, finally citing the proverbial saying—its not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs [Matt 15:25] [words similar to those which Nan must have heard to have brought her to feel like a "beast of the field"]. As outsider to the resources the Matthean Jesus claimed only for Israel in this story, Justa, the Canaanite, appropriates to herself the status of 'dog' as Nan had appropriated the treatment from white Australia which had make her feel like a 'beast'. As if shocked by Justa's consequent appropriation, the Matthean Jesus sets aside the obstacles he has constructed and heals her daughter. While we hear Nan's own voice through her granddaughter Sally, Justa's voice is constructed by the Matthean storyteller who sets her story in the context of the ancient Canaanite/Israelite struggle. Jesus whose birth and life story generally placed him among the colonised of the Roman empire, preaching a message that was counter-Imperial, is placed in this story in the role of the coloniser. He stands with and for ancient Israel as this story evokes that of another conquest of land, namely ancient Israel's violent appropriation of the land of the Cannanites on the grounds of its being promised as divine gift. This is a story which has been used to support many land grabs especially among Christians informed not only by the stories of ancient Israel but by a story such as the encounter between Jesus and Justa. And yes, it is not surprising to learn that it has been used in white European appropriation of indigenous Australian lands.

Attentiveness to present Australian experience and a telling of our stories has brought with it a critically attentive reading of a traditional religious story which has functioned in the past and still functions in the meaning-making process among many Australians. Just as our spirit and imagination is touched by Nan and her indigenous sisters and brothers, so too is it touched by Justa, the fiesty Canaanite and all her Canaanite ancestors whose names we do not know. Both stories take our spirit beyond self-absorption to an awareness of, an encounter with the experience of the other as Clendinnen suggests, enabling us to allow space for the sacredness of the story of the other. And as these two stories intersect, the Jesus of this new story-telling, this shaping of a new spritual imagination emerges not in doctrinal or dogmatic formulae but engaged in the process of recognizing his own complicity in colonialism even while steeped in a broader life vision of seeking to eradicate it. We are always unlearning and learning on this path toward transformation and stories which remind us of this aspect of the journeying can sustain our spirits along the way. Justa, the fiery Canaanite who is being re-membered in diverse contexts from Musa Dube's native Botswana to our ideas fest here at the Powerhouse; Nan, the dying indigenous Australian grandmother; and Jesus, the first-century Jew who stands between coloniser and colonised accompany us through our re-membering, our re-telling of their stories.

Just briefly before leaving this consideration of stories of origin, I want to turn more explicitly to our stories about the land itself. We have already noted the profound interconnectedness between land, people and spirit ancestors in indigenous Australian art and story. Lydia Miller drew our attention to this and its foundational or origin-al significance when she said:

It is through art and culture that the identity and diversity of Indigenous people is asserted and that non-Indigenous Australians begin their journey. It is the beginning for the understanding of the world inhabited by Indigenous People as told by Indigenous people. [ABC radio national website - http://www.abc.net.abc/rn/sunspet/stories/s253929.htm]

She is making a radical claim to a new imagination, namely that the storytelling of indigenous people is the beginning of the journey of non-Indigenous Australians. What a far cry from that other story told by early explorers and later settlers and Governments, namely that this land was terra nullius.

I want here to share some personal reflections that touch this interconnection. Recently an Australian friend who is currently working in New York was in Brisbane and she was telling me of the profound experience of walking down the street of a Brisbane suburb and seeing the melaleucas in bloom and thinking to herself—this is my land, I belong here!. As a result of this exchange, I asked myself – what do I call the land where I belong and very quickly I realised that it is the place on the Darling Downs where I was born and grew up, a land of gums and iron bark, bushland, the land where my spirit is profoundly 'at home'. And I was reminded of the deep affinity that my father has to that land which he has loved all his life and which he has farmed with deep respect. When I was first being challenged by my awareness of white Australia's theft of aboriginal land and the aboriginal land rights movement, I found myself deeply torn—my father's deep association with the land that he has loved for a lifetime gave me at least a slight glimpse into the deeper and more long-standing relationship of the aboriginal peoples to this land and yet I was faced with the challenge that this land that we call our land was only very newly our land and that it and the other lands around Umbiram, the land of pretty waters, had belonged to indigenous peoples whose names I did not know and whose stories I would never hear and who had been removed from this land when it was their tribal land. Knowing the pain such removal would cause my father, I glimpsed but slightly the pain of those whose spirit dwells in that land. The land itself holds their stories and now our family stories as well and both are profoundly sacred and interconnected.

This new spirit of place developing among many Australians is also being shaped by another spirit, that of the ecological movement. And both are shaping new imaginations as the stories of this land intersect with the larger stories of the universe itself which lead to new readings of traditional religions' stories of origin. The text called The Rainbow Spirit in Creation A reading of Genesis 1 is a co-operative work of Jasmine Corowa, artist, and Norman Habel, translator and editor for The Rainbow Spirit Elders from Queensland. Jasmine Corowa is a daughter of one of these elders. Her paintings are accompanied by the explanation of the Elders. Their description of Painting Eight opposite the text, "[a]nd God said, 'Let the land bring forth every species of living creature…and God saw that it was good" gives insight into the new storytelling:

The land, potent with life, brings forth every species of animal. Each animal is emerging from different levels in the land as the Rainbow Spirit watches—filled with delight. A crocodile encompasses a water hole, a goanna crawls up a tree, butterflies brush the sky, and an emu inhabits the drier parts of the earth—parts highlighted by the different undercolors of the land, some green and some orange. The kangaroo leaps between these areas. [Corowa & Habel, 2000] ….and God saw that it was good.

Norman Habel in conjunction with other Australian scholars is also leading the way in initiating the Earth Bible project which seeks to read the biblical story in dialogue with a new ecological consciousness, giving agency to the earth, to the other than human. As I read Carol Newsom's interpretation of Genesis 2-3, I was also reminded of George Segal's giant installation, The Expulsion, which greeted visitors to the extraordinary exhibition of 20th century religious art, Beyond Belief, curated in Melbourne in 1998 by Rosemary Crumlin. Story and image intersect as Newsom reflects:

The expulsion from Eden aptly symbolizes humankind's historic shift from one ecological place to another, from what in anthropological terms we would call a hunter-gatherer state to an agricultural one…this was a deeply ambivalent event. As the succeeding stories make evident, the richness of human culture emerges from the capacity human beings have to discriminate and to choose for themselves. But that same characteristic is also at the heart of the greedy and arrogant violence that characterizes the human societies that emerge from this new economy…the human fall into anthropocentrism, should not, however, be cause for despair in regard to humankind's capacity to transform its practices. The story of the emergence of self-awareness and self-consciousness, the recognition that one can make choices, is also the story of the birth of moral agency. [Newsom, 2000: 71-72]

New stories, new images can shape a new imagination, transforming our moral imagination in a way that does draw our past into a new future.

Gendered stories

A shared comment made by Veronica Lawson and myself in the publication accompanying the exhibition Beyond Belief leads us into another area of exploration and points to the intersection of critical issues in Australian life requiring new storytelling. We said of Segal's The Expulsion:

The experience of women within patriarchy and the contemporary feminist reclaiming of Eve as active participant in the choice for cultural transformation—what is good, a delight to the eyes, and able to make one wise (Genesis 3:6)—provides a particular lens for viewing The Expulsion. From this perspective, the viewer is acutely aware that the man is foregrounded in the installation and that the woman shadows him as both step forward onto the right foot, with eyes cast down. While both hold fig leaves to their genitals the visual depiction of shame is twofold for the woman. The mutuality and equality of creation in the image of the divinity, male and female, remains behind them in the garden. Thus Segal's work can stir the religious imagination to see beyond traditional belief: it reminds the viewer that the foregrounding of the male becomes the order of a disordered world. [Lawson and Wainwright, 1998: 29-30]

As in traditional religious storytelling, so too in Australia's remembering of its past, women have generally been conspicuously absent, rendered invisible or presented stereotypically. The religious and social categorizing of Eve as temptress brings very readily to mind the ignored, the forgotten or the stereotyped presentation of the earliest women in Australia's first wave of European migration, namely the convict women. Joy Damousi's analysis of female convicts, sexuality and gender in colonial Australia called Depraved and Disorderly provides story after story of colonial male construction of these women. One particular story continues the use of animal imagery in relation to women seen earlier but links it with the erotisizing of convict women. This is taken from the travel diary of Leiutenant Colonel Godfrey Charles Mundy who visited the female prisoners in the factory in Van Diemen's Land in the early 1850's when discipline was so strict that women were kept locked in their cells in silence for most of the day. Of his encounter with "a small, slight, and quite young girl—very beautiful in feature and complexion—but it was the fierce beauty of the wild cat", Mundy says:

…at no period of my life would I, for a trifle, have shared for half-an-hour the cell of that sleek little savage; for when she purred loudest I should have been most afraid of her claws!…the turnkey informed me that this was one of the most refractory and unmanageable characters in the prison. That said beauty is a sad distorter of man's perceptions! Justice ought to be doubly blindfolded when dealing with her…the pang of pity that shot across my heart when that pretty prisoner was shut again from the light of day, might have found no place there had she been as ugly as the sins that had brought her into trouble.

What story would this woman without a name in Mundy's text have told? And what was her name? It is the women's voices, convict women like the one whom Mundy animalizes, that Babette Smith allows us to hear in her novel A Cargo of women: the Novel based on her historical research under the same title. She tells the story of Susannah Watson, Ann Kinsman and Sarah Bryant who were transported for petty crimes. This short piece in which they are each returned to the Female Factory demonstrates the bonds existing between the women and their service of one another. Susannah is restless her first night of return to the Factory and she wakes Ann to go outside:

'I needed to get out', Susannah said, glancing at her companion. 'Thank you for coming with me.'

Ann grunted assent but said nothing, so Susannah talked on, softly telling her about life at the Egans. When she mentioned Isaac and how much she missed him, she felt the other girl stir. Peering sharply, she could just make out her contorted features.

Ann had been listening to the quiet voice with growing anguish, her long suppressed misery silently welling up. When Susannah turned to her in concern, her control broke at last. Harsh sobs shook her. Susannah put an arm around her shoulders and, flinging herself down, Ann wept uncontrollably into her lap.

Susannah recognised the girl's need to cry and said little patting Ann's shoulder and murmuring occasional words of comfort. She stared into the darkness beyond Ann's head, saddened by her incoherent despair. [Smith, 1991: 176-177]

A very different story-telling to that of Mundy!

Both Damousi's and Smith's inclusion of convict women in the story of origins of European settlement in Australia allow us to hear two stories—the construction of these women by the men of those years of European settlement as well as an imaginative construction of the women's own lives. Both are important and both help to tell "true stories" of the gendered nature of our stories of origin. They also provide ways to enable women's own voices to be heard beyond the stereotyping. [By way of parenthesis, I want to draw attention here to the work of Elaine Lindsay, RewritingGod, in which she listens to the voices of Australian women's fiction as source for Australian women's new and emerging spirituality]

Listening to these stories which shape a new imagination in relation to the gendered future for Australia, I am reminded of the women of the Lucan gospel who suffer a fate similar to that of Australia's convict women at the hands of the Lucan storyteller: they are profoundly stereotyped. In chapter 8 of that gospel, the reader/listener meets a number of women who are said to be part of the company going about with Jesus, including Joanna and Suzanna, and these women are said to be doing diakonia or service in relation to the company. Unlike the men in the group, however, these women are said to be "healed of evil spirits and infirmities" and of Mary called Magdalene it is said that "seven demons had gone out" from her [Luke 8:2]. Critical engagement with this story as with the stories of the convict women suggests that these women were engaged in the work of diakonia of the Jesus' movement, namely teaching and healing. Like other women who healed in the folk and popular sectors of Graeco-Roman society, they were stereotyped as being demon possessed.

And very soon after this story, another woman of diakonia, Martha, possibly a healer or teacher, has her activity called distraction by the Lucan Jesus and she is pitted over against her sister who is characterised not as learner/teacher but as silent recipient of the words of the teaching Jesus. A creative re-telling of the story of the 2 sisters based on historical research as was Babette Smith's re-telling of the encounter of Susannah and Ann shapes a new imagination in relation to these two active women in early Christianity. It can have an effect, similar to that of Smith's Cargo of Women, in that it can develop an inclusive imagination for Australian women today in both society and church who are constantly engaged in transformative action toward full active participation for all women. Let me share with you such a reconstruction of the story of Martha and Mary:

Jesus together with the men women and children walking with him came into a village and they went to the house of Martha, one of the leaders of the movement in that village. Now Martha had just returned from a busy day of diakonia in the village and beyond. She had been called out this morning early because Suzanna, one of the women out on the edge of the village was in labour and it seemed that the birth was not proceeding as it should. Martha went off with her bag of instruments and herbs. She and Hannah, Suzanna'a sister had sat with her, supporting and encouraging her. As the morning wore on Martha took out a small flask of oil and began massaging Suzanna's body to help her to relax and she also prepared for her a herbal mixture. As Suzanna relaxed the birth process became easier and in no time Martha was able to give her her healthy newborn daughter. As Suzanna lay exhausted, Hannah and Martha rejoiced in the wonderful miracle of life and they gave thanks to Rahamim, the Womb Compassionate Divine One whom they had come to know in their sacred story and their women's gatherings for prayer.

As Martha hurried home, she was waylaid by young Samuel who was running toward her. Breathlessly he told Martha that his dad was at home very ill and all that they had done for him seemed to be of no avail. She hurried off after Samuel. Matthias was indeed very ill and Martha could not determine readily what was the cause. Again she drew on her supply of herbs preparing a drink for Matthias and washing him with herb-infused water. Then Martha sat with him talking with him:

Matthias, do you remember when Jesus was last with us in the village, how they took Jeremiah to him on his pallet because he was doubled up with that terrible pain that neither I nor any other healer amongst us could heal. Remember how Jesus stretched out his hand over Jeremiah and we watched in astonishment as the writhing pain seemed to leave Jeremiah's body and that in the coming days he regained his strength and returned to his fields. I want to stretch out my hands now over your pained body and together we will call the healing power of Jesus into our midst.

Martha stood with hands outstretched over Matthias for a long time and the room was in utter stillness as not only Matthias but all the family seemed to be drawn into the movement of power through Martha's outstretched hands. As time went on she lowered her hands with a deep sigh and all turned to Matthias. It was clear that his body was no longer wracked by the same terrible pain and he was sleeping. Martha left exhausted, promising to return early the next day.

Despite her exhaustion, Martha was delighted to welcome Jesus and the women and men in his company into her house and she gladly performed all the rituals of welcome until they were all comfortably settled. Just at that point Mary, Martha's sister arrived. Mary was a wise woman of the village and since she had met Jesus and heard his preaching she had been studying the scriptures each day trying to understand the way that Jesus was teaching them using their sacred story. She too welcomed their guests and she sat down among them as they began to share stories and Martha went off to prepare a meal for them.

There was great excitement as the group shared stories and remembered the scriptures. This evening they were talking a great deal about some of the healings which had astounded them all recently. Jesus recalled how the prophet Isaiah had reflected that the spirit of God had been poured out on him and that God had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, freedom to those held captive by oppression like that of the Romans and also by diseases of all kinds. From time to time Martha would come to the door to listen to a story or a discussion of a piece from one of the prophets, share elements of her healing ministry from the day which would provoke more reflection, and then she would hurry back to her task. Mary like all the others was remembering texts that she had studied that seemed appropriate to the stories of Martha, Jesus and his company. At one point she drew attention to the servant songs of Isaiah and how the prophet had imagined the suffering one taking on all their diseases and curing all their ills. Jesus and his little band of prophetic healers found this an insight that they could well use in their teaching. Suddenly one of the company  became aware of Martha having to come and go and suggested that they keep their storytelling until they were all assembled and in the meantime sing some of the songs they had constructed as a way of teaching and of linking their experiences to their sacred story. In this way Martha could participate too.

After they had broken bread and drunk wine together the group continued their storytelling. As the night drew to a close, they all  thanked Martha and Mary for their hospitality and prayed a blessing over these two women who were participating deeply in the teaching and healing ministry, bringing forth God's transformative dream for the people around them whose lives were so depressed by Roman occupation.

Blessed are you, Womb compassionate One, Divine  mercy. You have given the gifts of healing and of wisdom to these two sisters of ours, Martha and Mary. May these gifts be never taken from them.

I have told this story at greater length since it is the type of story-telling which is shaping a new imagination among many Australian women for whom the christian tradition still nurtures their spirituality but is only able to do so if it is critically re-engaged and re-told in dialogue with the movements of spirit happening within their Australian context. And as I have shown the interconnectedness of the stories we have explored, I am very aware of the words of Val Plumwood, Australian feminist philosophy who calls for a critical deconstruction of the dominant Western paradigm which she calls the "master" paradigm in order that gender and ecological domination might be overcome. She says:

“It is usually at the edges where the great tectonic plates of theory meet and shift that we find the most dramatic developments and upheavals. When four tectonic plates of liberation theory – those concerned with the oppressions of gender, race, class and nature – finally come together, the resulting tremors could shake the conceptual structures of oppression to their foundations.” [Plumwood, 1993: 1]

The exploration in this paper has seen a critical engagement with the oppressions of gender, race and nature as they come together in order to deconstruct some of the old orders and their supporting narratives in the Australian imagination and to participate in the shaping of a new imagination that is emerging among many Australians, nurturing an Australian spirituality among those yearning for transformation. I would have liked also to explore the issue of class, particularly through the lens of diversity and the waves of immigration to this country, especially the challenge of the present but time has not allowed this. Perhaps it is this which will engage your creative and spiritual imaginations as you draw it into dialogue with the spiritual traditions which nurture for you a new ethical imagination shaping a new ethical praxis which will transform not only Australian but also global life.

Orwell is indeed right, that the one who controls the present controls the past and the one who controls the past controls the future, especially if that one controls our imaginations and shapes our spirit. The more inclusive of all the voices of diversity, socio-cultural and religious, that our Australian storytelling, our Australian image making can become, the better we will be able to shape our future, freeing ourselves for transformation.


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Elaine Wainwright joined the theology staff at McAuley Campus in 2002 where she will teach New Testament Studies and Feminist Studies.