Anderson George

Why Aboriginal Ceremonies are Incompatible with Christianity: An Indigenous Man’s View

6 January 2020

9.9 MINS

Anderson George shares his views on Aboriginal Christian spirituality, and whether or not believers should participate in Aboriginal ceremonies.

Anderson George is a Wuagalak Aboriginal man who now lives on Jawoyn country, Wugularr community (also known as Beswick, located 110 kilometres east of Katherine in the Northern Territory).

Anderson’s Christian experience is foundationally shaped by his convictions by the Holy Spirit through his reading of the Bible. This article unpacks Anderson’s experience of ‘culture’ and the way in which it has informed his spiritual life and his navigation of Christian and Indigenous traditions. The primary objective of this article is to allow Anderson George to speak on his own terms.

The interaction between the Dreaming and the Christian faith is often contentious in remote communities. For example, in Beswick, some respected community men have taken a stand to say, ‘no more sacred ceremonies’.

As one of these men and as an Aboriginal Christian leader from this community, Anderson George shares how the Holy Spirit has convicted him about sacred and smoking ceremonies, particularly those he sees as involving the worship of other spirits.

Anderson’s particular approach, which involves a rejection of Aboriginal ceremony, contrasts with that of those who express a desire to ‘redeem’ traditional ceremony, many of whom profess a sincere Christian faith. His perspective contributes an important voice to this discussion, highlighting the diversity of belief within the Aboriginal world.

Anderson’s Conversion to Christ

Anderson is an Aboriginal man who originated from Ngukurr (Roper River), with some time spent in North East Arnhem Land, but who now resides in Beswick. In Ngukurr he had a strong Christian grandmother who would read the Bible to him.

Anderson gives thanks to the Lord for healing him from witchcraft in 1998. Since then, he has had a heart to share and preach the Gospel.

He is married to Emeriah and has two sons, a daughter and an adopted son. His extended family also live in Beswick, a place where their identities are deeply established.

Anderson has described his Christian conversion as follows:

I was in the Darwin prison when God said, “Wake up Anderson, wake up” – to stop sinning. My sister Loretta kept praying for me, even when I was an alcoholic and sniffing petrol.

In 1998 I was saved, and had a faith in Jesus, as small as a mustard seed. I knelt down and was praying in my language, Kriol.

The Lord just spoke clearly, “Anderson, do you want a good life or a bad life?” [I accepted Christ] and just cried more than I had ever cried.

I [had been] dying slowly of witchcraft. I had a grandfather who was a witch doctor and I would question, “how come he didn’t heal me?”

I have not been to Bible College, but through the journey growing up as a Christian, I had to really focus on the Lord. The Holy Spirit has revealed to me, because He is the teacher, comforter, counsellor and helper, and He knows the Word.

I didn’t have time to be a baby Christian. God just raised me up. It has been 19 years. Being a Christian means being part of the largest tribe of the world.

Anderson’s Relationship With Ceremonies

Anderson continues:

The topic of being in and practicing the ceremonies was burning on my heart as an Indigenous man. The Lord really put on my heart [in 1998] to ask Him a question. Reflecting to back when I was a teenager in 1982, involved in a sacred men’s ceremony, I asked God in Kriol, “Dedi God gin ai weship la Yu en weship main serramoni? Bikos main old pastor weship Yu Sandei en wen det serramoni bin on imbin weship det serramoni, gin ai dum lagijat?

The translation in English is, “Can I worship You Father God; can I worship You and worship my ceremony?

My old pastor back in Ngukurr where I come from – he worshipped You on Sunday and when the sacred ceremony [i.e. secret men’s business] was on, I saw him worshipping [i.e. dreaming spirits/totems/ ancestor animal spirits]. Can I do that? Can I serve God and serve ceremony?”

God made me realise, when I was being initiated … that the ceremonies [promoted] a wooden object and that in these ceremonies we were worshipping idols. From [that point on], I didn’t want to believe and be involved in the old way or interfere with them. This has led to total transformation, freedom, healing and blessing. [Now for] 19 years I have been healed from witchcraft.

I did not directly talk to my old pastor about his view on sacred ceremony and it was only much later that I learnt that he later expressed concerns about ceremony himself.

Anderson notes the pressure that ceremonies impose, particularly on men who have chosen not to participate in them:

Blackfella jealous saying, “You’re still young men because you haven’t seen ceremony”. They think that you need to go into the ceremony to be a man. I could boast about taking you to the business-men or lawmen [traditional Aboriginal sacred ceremony leaders].

I choose to speak blessings to you rather than to take you to worship the ceremony. Because what good will it do to you?

On Participation in Indigenous Ceremonies

Anderson will sit and watch public ceremonies, but wouldn’t be painted up or become involved. He will not encourage his sons to participate in sacred ceremonies, including the circumcision ceremony, because of the scriptural passage, ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15). He has chosen to take his boys to the hospital to be circumcised because of health issues and will teach them at home.

Anderson also acknowledges that ‘not everyone [that is, Aboriginal Christians] has come to the same conclusion [or revelation] or approach’ on the relationship between ceremonies and the Christian faith:

I was sharing with my cousin-sisters who have been serving the Lord for years and my brothers, where I originally come from. They said, “God gave us ceremony”.
I said, “show me in the Bible, maybe I am reading the wrong Bible.
God showed me [what I now believe about ceremonies and], I will stick with it”.

He explains the revelation that he has received from God about who to serve and his refusal to participate in ceremony:

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.
Either you will hate the one and love the other,
or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and money and man’s things.
That’s why we need to think about who we are serving and what we are doing.
That’s been on my heart.

This, Anderson says, is ‘One Way’ [as opposed to a ‘Two Ways’ approach], which means you need to leave all traditional ceremonies.

The particular theology of Christian Aboriginal people like Anderson has created conflict in the community, so he has often felt the need to clarify and defend his worldview. Anderson’s views are shared by some well-known leaders in remote, tribally-oriented communities and it is important to note the central place of testimony, or story, in his articulation of his navigation of the two cultural heritages, including his engagement with the spirit realm. Anderson desires that his adoption of the Christian faith be understood as God’s providence in his life and as a conscious decision on his part to embrace it:

Some people have criticised me over the years, but this story is not about myself but about how God came into my life and healed me. I was going with people on a mission trip and there was a smoking ceremony happening.

The other non-Indigenous Christians walked into the ceremony, but I didn’t want to. As a non-Indigenous it seems like a harmless act, but as Indigenous, to my knowledge, it’s about sending the dead spirit back home to his or her country, to make it peaceful for people not to get attacked [by the dead person’s spirit].

It’s connected to spiritual things [and] that’s why I don’t join in. Because in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus Christ is the author and the finisher of our faith. When we die, our spirit is not going back to our own homeland but to God’s Homeland (Heaven), a better place.

Anderson’s particular approach, which involves a rejection of Aboriginal ceremony, contrasts with that of those who express a desire to ‘redeem’ traditional ceremony, many of whom profess a sincere Christian faith.

It is important to note that Anderson’s position is not so much about rejection of these ceremonies as it is about a demonstrated allegiance to his Christian faith as an Aboriginal man. His participation in certain events and decision not to participate in others demonstrates Christianity to those observing, and declares who he is ‘putting first in his life’ in a community setting where ‘the culture has the potential to move into practices such as sorcery and the exploitation of women’ (Murray Seiffert, Gumbuli of Ngukurr, 2011, 334).

What Do We Mean By the Word ‘Culture’?

It is easy to confuse Western and Indigenous uses of the term ‘culture’. Within the non-Indigenous context, the term ‘culture’ is commonly used in a more general sense — defined by anthropologists as a pattern of interrelated activities. This differs from its use in some remote Aboriginal community contexts as a particular reference to sacred traditional ceremony. However, in wider Northern Territory Indigenous community life, the term ‘culture’ also refers to kinship, law, language and etiquette.

Within the community, sacred ceremonies must not be talked about, upon threat of the person who ignores this rule being ‘sung’ to death. As such, Anderson recognises how serious the issue is:

It is not easy for me to [share publicly]. I had a target on my back. It is like you are marked for dead, especially speaking [about] and exposing sacred men’s business. That is why I don’t take it lightly to [share] with you. I come humbly to share what God has given me.

It doesn’t worry me if we are going to die. We are all going to die one day. We might as well preach the Gospel and start preaching the truth. That’s what I told one of the communities: “If you sing me, go ahead, if it works you will send me home earlier to heaven. But if not, I will still preach the Gospel here.”

Anderson’s reflections in this article paint a picture of his strong position on the navigation of Aboriginal and Christian cultural heritages. While for some Anderson’s rejection of many aspects of Aboriginal ritual life might be uncomfortable, it is important to note that Anderson does not disclaim his Aboriginality altogether.

Rather, Anderson’s rejection of ceremony needs to be situated in relation to a nuanced anthropological view of Indigenisation involving both redemption and rejection of culture, along with his right to self-determination in deciding for himself how his Aboriginality and Christian faith are to be navigated.

Anderson’s Change Since Conversion

Anderson is clear that any change in him has not been imposed, but has occurred ‘from the Holy Spirit convicting [him], when [he asks], “can I worship You Father God? Can I worship You and worship my ceremony?” He reflects:

I am not denouncing my culture or my identity, but the worshipping of ceremony, my Dreaming. I turn my focus from worshipping ceremony to worshipping God. I will always be an Aboriginal person. I will die as an Aboriginal person.

This decision is controversial and causes him conflict within various relationships:

It affects me, even when I was a young Christian, as a young pastor. Being criticised for the preaching ministry I have been doing… it’s a journey that I have learnt to do. Not only that, I have been criticised by my own family, my brothers and sisters [in] debate about sacred ceremony and God.

Even by my own full-blood family I have been called a white man, ‘bible basher’. I have been criticised by [those] calling me everything under the sun. I am not trying to make myself a white man. I will always be a black man. I will always serve Jesus. It is Jesus Christ the son of the living God, it is Him who I am preaching about.

I am not preaching about Anderson. I am preaching about Jesus Christ; He is the Author and Finisher of our faith. He is the One Who saved us. That’s why we are all here, because of Jesus who came and died on the cross 2,000 years ago. He came as a man and died for our sins and rose again. That’s the only reason why.

It is clear then that Anderson is at pains to articulate that his acceptance and practice of a Christian faith should not imply that he is trying to be a ‘white man’. Rather, he demonstrates his agency in his articulation of faith and navigation of two spiritual traditions, grounded within a particular cultural context, without renouncing his Aboriginality at all.

Anderson’s story helpfully alludes to the diversity of opinion, spiritual identity and experience in the Aboriginal Christian world of the Northern Territory and beyond, and provides a forum for further discussion about matters of ‘legitimacy’ and ‘authenticity’.

The Challenge

For Anderson, continuing his walk in the revelation of the Gospel is about ensuring that he is faithful to the Christian message, not only for Aboriginal people but for all Christians. He states:

I like what the speaker at Surrender was saying: “a lot of people like to make Him Saviour. But no one wants to make him Lord of their life”. This is very true for Indigenous people. No one wants to make Jesus Lord of his or her life. We need to put aside the differences, not just for others but also for Indigenous people, and to worship the one true living God, and serve Him and only Him.

People throughout Australia think learning culture, [finding identity], which includes learning traditional ceremony, is the answer to the Indigenous issues today. Munanga [whitefella, non-indigenous] give money to black fella to make traditional cultural TV programs. This is how non-Christians think they are closing the reconciliation gap.

But to me from my point of view as a Christian Indigenous man, I see it as putting us in bondage. People will give money for culture but not for Christian things. Like a friend who is a Christian and wanted to start a drug and rehab place, but because he was teaching Christian values, the government would not support him. The government wanted him to run it how [they] wanted it. This [is] like bondage.

Anderson concludes:

I want to thank our Lord Jesus Christ and thank the Holy Spirit for helping me. I want to give all the glory to our Heavenly Father. What I have shared with you in this article, I do not share lightly.

I will always be an Aboriginal person, even with this view on sacred ceremony. I could die for it, but God’s truth, the Gospel, is worth preaching about. God’s word is alive and active. We serve an awesome, almighty God. Are you making Jesus not just your Saviour but also your King? God bless you.

___

This is an edited and shortened version of Anderson George and Rachel Borneman, ‘Anderson’s view on Aboriginal Christian Spirituality: “Who are you putting first in your life?“‘ in Australian Pentecostal Studies 20: Dreaming and Spirit-filled Christianity (2019), 55-76. Reproduced and edited with permission.

All quotes from Anderson George are from transcripts of his contribution to a panel discussion at the Surrender Conference 2018 and of his subsequent conversations with Rachel Borneman.

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25 Comments

  1. Michael 13 January 2020 at 1:12 am - Reply

    This is hard as a person identified as a first nation person walking ii the holy spirit I know how you feel it is not easy but you know that you are right in your walk with God the Father and Jesus just hang in there brother know that you are not alone in your struggle with Christianity and our culture but God wins every time Thanks for the strength you have shown in sharing your story

  2. Jim Munro 13 January 2020 at 11:26 am - Reply

    This brother is confronting issues similar to those faced by many people who come to Christ from other religious/spiritual cultures!
    e.g. Does someone coming to Christ from a Hindu family simply add Jesus to his/her collection of gods, or is he/she prepared to risk losing everything in making a stand for the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ?

    • Mike Fischer 14 January 2020 at 1:18 pm - Reply

      Exactly! Christianity calls for conversion, not syncretism.

  3. Drue Mc Laughlin 14 January 2020 at 11:35 am - Reply

    A well presented and pertinent article involving a topic which bridges the cultural divide…The “one way” movement is gaining traction in Arnhem Land, and is empowering first nation peoples toward a biblical defined faith..The trouble is the Western peoples(confessional Christians) will they also embrace the one way movement or remain captive to the present zeitgeist?

  4. Heather Clayton-Callaghan 15 January 2020 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    As a mature Christian white woman I am greatly enlightened by the sharing from Anderson about his walk with Christ as a Christian black man. How refreshing to know that when Christ sets us free, we are free in deed, no matter what our origin was !!!! The scriptures Anderson shared here to show how he is first a Christian, and then a black man. No different to myself: first a CHRISTian then a white woman. GOD made us both and we both need saving from “sin”.
    I feel greatly blessed that you (Anderson) have shared the need to be set free from the spiritual side of being a black man. This is a subject I have pondered over … how do these 2 world’s co-exist ? And my understanding was … they can’t. But I’ve never heard anyone express that from a personal point of view.
    THANKYOU Anderson. I’m always touched deep in my Spirit when I recognise the effort a fellow servant of the Lord, has made in stepping up in faith and sharing that which honours God our Father, but at the same time can anger/upset family and/or community.
    May God continue to guide you ANDERSON, and grant you knowledge & wisdom as you serve HIM alone as your Saviour AND as your LORD and KING, AMEN ???? Hallelujah ????PRAISE you Lord ????

  5. Debra Mieth 17 January 2020 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    Your stand against idolatry is wonderful to hear. I understand what it is like because I have family in Papua New Guinea who still cut their sons with crocodile markings in our village on the Sepik River. My ex-husband and children’s father is in the village witnessing to them but they refuse to stop because it brings money to the village when tourists come to watch the poor boys get sliced from shoulder to heel and all down both arms. They rub ash into the wounds to make them scar and stand out. Philip, my ex is the only man in his family not to be cut because he was at Bible College where we met. The village and whole area is very poor because of the curse it puts on them.

  6. Karl Taylor 18 January 2020 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Thank you Anderson for standing strong for Jesus. By this Word you will continue to set the captives free.

  7. Keith Sharples 19 January 2020 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Yes, I’ve been waiting for a clear response to the question of how to best bring about harmony between indigenous and other Australians.

  8. Tom Cleland 2 February 2020 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    I think a he shows an understanding of the Christian way. This does not mean he cannot actively preserve his aboriginal culture, it simply means that he choses the christian values. Christian values have often where possible been absorbed or adapted to fit in with significant cultural celebrations.

  9. […] Why aboriginal ceremonies are incompatible with Christianity – an indigenous man’s view – The … […]

  10. Tanya 27 May 2022 at 9:05 am - Reply

    What a beautiful heart felt testimony. God always comes first, before everything & anyone. Your culture is beautiful, but God comes first, i agreed with everything you said, & its answered a question i had. Thank you so very much. God Bless you

  11. Xavier 7 June 2022 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    And yet we still decorate a Tammuz Tree at christmas on the basis that it is CULTURAL syncretised with our CHRISTIANITY. Anderson’s difficult, righteous stance has inspired me. Thank you sir. I will abandon Tammuz celebration in my cultural christmas season!

  12. John Hunter 15 July 2022 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Thank you Anderson, now I know the Stolen Generations that took children away from their family and traditional culture was Gods work. We need to save the Aborigines from the work of the devil! Its obvious satan is behind Aboriginal culture and we need to get rid of it, actually everything that isn’t ‘Christian’ needs to be rebuked. We didnt need to say Sorry about Stolen Generations we need to thank Jesus and the Church. I will let my my mum know that the sexual abuse she suffered being stolen from her family by the church was Gods work . Also my granny being placed in a girls home and seperated from her brother my great uncle, how they were tormented in Jesus name by the church was for their benifit. Much appreciated! If you really get down to it, there are parrallels between traditional culture and the bible but you left your ceremony to quick to really learn about it. Its not worshipping idols, its understand that God is bigger than pages on a book. Don’t dare say that the evils perpetuated by the church were not of Christian people, you mob always take the easy way out of redemption. Funny how you preach but turn your eyes away from the real evil then virtue signal about others. Aboriginal culture teaches you about your responsibility and in fact obligations to walk a good path for god. In my family its Christians who preach love and forgiveness who actually were th ones that done the most hurtful and nasty things. Maybe they need to be rebuked as false! But I forgive you Anderson because I love you brother and that love is the ‘Great Creator of All’s light that keeps all creation together. I learnt that from ceremony.

  13. Andrew Palmer 7 December 2022 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    This was a helpful article. Thank you. It shows both the complexity of relationship between Christian spirituality and Aboriginal spirituality as well as the multiplicity of Aboriginal voices on these issues. Thank you, Anderson, for your thoughtful and personal reflections on your spiritual journey – may Creator God continue to bless and guide you!

    And may the conversation around contextual Christian mission continue!

    Any binary position (if you don’t believe ‘Y’, you must believe ‘X’) is super unhelpful, and I’m encouraged that the article notes that other followers of Jesus have come to different conclusions…and that the spectrum of conclusions is wide!

  14. Robert Razborsek 27 January 2023 at 6:14 am - Reply

    To be a follower of Jesus is going to impact our lives meaning leaving our sinful lives behind and
    our unsaved friends and family.

    A lot of pain is the cost, what the heck Jesus paid it all. He overcame the world. It’s all worth it.
    Look what other religions will do; Islam, if you convert to other than moslem, even kill one for
    departure from their faith. Or Judaism will dis-
    inherit adherent. Jews were baptised, when they
    passed crossing the Red Sea to the other side.
    Denotes leaving Egypt sin lifestyle and a fresh new start.

    When were born again we are new creation, turn
    backs one hundred and eighty degrees, previous
    lifestyle. Depart from idolatories etc. Sure it’s going to be tough,

  15. Winsome 25 April 2023 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    Well done Anderson and all the other people who are doing their best to shine God’s light on these issues, especially where family is involved as we care so deeply for them.
    You’ve helped my family a great deal this week by your courage!!!
    Our journey is often hard but we receive plenty of God’s blessings along the way.
    It sure is wonderful being in the family of God!!!

  16. tyler harrison 2 June 2023 at 10:59 pm - Reply

    I am so glad of this article, every time an beliefs of the ceremony and this appeared on television and at any other arena my spirit just did not like it and could not figure out why. Thank you so very much for this article my heart is so glad you made a stand which would have been very hard for some of your people to understand. My God bless you every day of your life and continue to preach the word with authority. GOD BLESS YOU!

  17. Warren Brown 19 December 2023 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    To Anderson George –

    The truth has been revealed to you about the things you have spoken about.

    Stay strong and never let it go.

  18. Gail Petherick 23 January 2024 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Thank you Pastor Anderson for sharing your faith and showing where the word of God applies to ceremonial practices. It is a courageous step to take to expose that the smoking ceremonies, cutting and other practices are not Godly and not according to Gods command for the Body of Christ. Also that there are blessings or curses on those who obey or disobey. (
    I had the privilege of visiting Wugularr (Beswick) when I worked for Distance Ed and meeting you and your sister Loretta and learning that the community stayed up often till 1 or 2am every night praying for revival and Gods cleansing. As a result many came to the lord and walked with the Lord.
    Your inheritance in Heaven will be great as you have stood on the truth and refused to bow to any graven image and to only worship and follow the true God of the Bible.
    You have also sought Gods won heart, like King David and sought only His will in these matters. For one man to stand in leadership in a community, and to point to God’s truth and to not follow the ways of the ancestors takes great resolve and conviction- God will reward you for being a Good Shepherd and for feeding the flock with truth and rightly dividing the word of God.
    There is much to forgive from the past and you have shown the love and forgiveness of Christ in your heart and forgiven those who may have caused harm or misled the flock earlier. Thankyou for being such a humble and obedient servant -one whom God loves and esteems. May God bless you, your family and community and use you to help others see there is no way we can the worship ancestral spirit world and God Himself as He is a jealous God who asks that we love Him with our whole heart, mind and soul and make no graven image.
    I thank God too for the wonderful way he met with you in prison. It is a glorious story of victory and obedience. Amen

  19. Jennifer Mok 29 January 2024 at 12:50 am - Reply

    Who the Son sets free is free indeed. Thank you Anderson for your sharing.

  20. Gail Petherick 29 January 2024 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    We stand with you Brother Anderson. You have taken such a strong stand and you already have said here there is a price on your head, just as there was for the apostle Paul. You have said you will go forth teaching the truth and standing for the Christ’s death in our place for our sin, and proclaiming His resurrection and a place prepared for all who believe in heaven, even though this may be contrary to cultural beliefs abut ancestral spirits…
    I thank God for your steadfast courage where you go on speaking truth, knowing its up to God how many will believe and follow. Thank you for being a trail blazer and your family.
    Thank you Rachel Borneman too for your many years of teaching, praying, mentoring and sharing the gospel with youth and women in the NT and around of Katerine region.

  21. Ian Moncrieff 1 February 2024 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    Thank you Anderson for your story, your faith, your courage.

    I love the photo at the beginning of this article – I can so imagine Jesus smiling like that.

    Thank you also Rachel for putting this together so well.

  22. Ian Clarkson 6 April 2024 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    A helpful, courageous and true contribution. Thankyou

  23. Ian Clarkson 27 May 2024 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Important and penetrating perceptions that need wide airing, especially during Reconciliation week. The Ikuntji people are speaking similarly. The 2016 Census reveals that less than 2% of Aboriginals identify with traditional religions or beliefs, and over 50% identify as Christians.

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