On Peter Sutton’s Pietism

Is theology the answer to the intractable problems of Indigenous and non-Indigenous reconciliation? Peter Sutton seems to think so, especially in his troubling and arresting work The Politics of Suffering. Or rather, one type of theological approach is the cause of the failure of reconciliation: sacramentalism. The other, pietism, offers a solution. What are religious, or rather theological, terms doing in the midst of a work by a fairly traditional anthropologist on the politics of reconciliation? Sutton introduces them only the last chapter, but they actually frame the discussion of the whole book. Yet he is tantalisingly succinct in describing these two positions:

There are two basic ways of framing a resolution of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I will call them the ‘sacramental’ and the ‘pietistic’. In religious talk, sacramental paths to spiritual grace require a collective and ceremonial act. Pietistic ones are those of the individual in quiet communion with the divine.
Pietists stress a one-to-one relationship with the deity, unmediated by priestcraft or the collective witnessing of a symbolic sacrifice. Pietism is in some ways much more at home in an age of individualism than in ages of greater corporatism and communalism. The sacramental-sacrificial approach represents the reverse. It also goes back deep into Old World prehistory, to a time when animals and humans, not symbols, were sacrificed in human rituals.

That is about it, except for a few passing comments that do not add to this basic description. For Sutton, ‘sacramental’ is really a code for government-sponsored public programs paid for out of tax dollars, endless reports and posturing by politicians, all of which have failed dismally. In the second quotation above he has deviously added ‘sacrificial’, which is another category altogether and largely left alone. By contrast, ‘pietism’ acts as a catchword for private and personal ways of working in the world, outside the programs that seem to have failed. Why choose the terms sacramental and pietistic when collective and individual would have done perfectly well? Are they merely camouflage for criticisms of social democratic approaches and a championing of liberalism? Why do his criticisms of collective, government-sponsored projects sound like commentary by Miranda Devine or Andrew Bolt? Is not the ideology of the individual one of the worse aspects of colonialism itself? And what is the role of theology in debates over reconciliation?

In what follows I will try to answer these questions, although in the end I argue that Sutton has confused matters. What really is at issue is at best obscures by these terms: agency. Sacramentalism acts as a cover for one-directional agency, coming from the non-Indigenous and directed towards Indigenous people. By contrast, pietism conceals a pattern of mutual agency, consultation and joint decision-making. Yet Sutton has unwittingly raised another issue: the implicitly theological nature of many of the key ideas used in debates over reconciliation. Before I get to those matters, a few words on sacramentalism and pietism are in order.

First, the evil term: sacramentalism, which is a deeply Roman Catholic term. As one might expect in theology, fine distinctions bedevil any simple overview. But some patience is needed, since Sutton uses the term loosely, so much so that he badly misrepresents theology and confuses his own analysis (and his readers). Sutton claims that sacramentalism is collective and ceremonial, sacrificial and pre-historic.

He is mostly mistaken, for the word actually has two senses, neither of which suits his purpose. First, the word may refer to a ‘sacrament’, such as baptism or communion. The problem is that—strange as it may sound—the church has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a sacrament. Technically, a sacrament works through the act itself (ex opera operato). God transfers grace through the act and does not rely on any person, institution, state of mind or whatever. The act is sufficient; it is an objective act on God’s part. It is a little like the story of the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, and the horseshoe. Bohr lay ill out on his farm; a friend called and noticed the horseshoe above the door to his room. ‘I thought you didn’t believe horseshoes made you well’, said the friend. Bohr replied, ‘I’m told it works even if you don’t believe in it’. Clearly Sutton does not mean this sense of sacramentalism, since that would mean the objective, disinterested act of, say, adequate healthcare, an apology or a treaty, would be enough. Out of the four ways Sutton describes sacramentalism—ceremonial, collective, sacrificial and pre-historical. Is the sacrament ceremonial? Yes. Is it collective, sacrificial and pre-historic? No.

Perhaps Sutton means the ‘sacramentals’ (to be distinguished from the ‘sacrament’). These are acts that convey God’s grace only through the intercession of the church (ex opere operantis ecclesiae). What kind of acts? Grace at meals, a blessing, a ring at marriage, a simply act of kindness and so on. There is no definitive list, for a sacramental is the process through which human activities are made holy, mediated by the church. Now we have a collective dimension, since a sacramental relies on the church. But it is not necessarily ceremonial (it may be, but is not necessarily so), sacrificial or pre-historic.

So the theological terms don’t actually fit Sutton’s definition of ‘sacramentalism’. Or rather, they have a partial fit, depending upon what element one chooses. What is really going on with Sutton’s use of the term? I would suggest that sacramentalism for Sutton is quite bad camouflage for social-democratic, hand-wringing, lefty approaches to Indigenous and non-Indigenous reconciliation. But then he includes in this collective mix state-sponsored programs, reports and legislation. All of which comes under the umbrella of a theological term that is less than useful.

Two final observations: Sutton plays into an old Protestant polemic with his use of sacramentalism, for the word is usually connected with Roman Catholic theology. A strange move this, since it harks back to the major issue of religious conflict in Australia back in the 1950s and earlier, namely the Protestant–Roman Catholic divide. Riots, debates, political allegiances, mutual suspicions, bans on marrying across the divide—these were part of the social and religious scenery at the time. It is hardly useful to resort to those differences once again.

Further, a pernicious subtext also appears with Sutton’s description of sacramentalism as sacrificial and pre-historic. He hints that it is pre-Christian, but there is a dangerous slippage to an image of Indigenous life before Europeans arrived. Does he want to suggest that before the arrival of Christianity and its theological terms, Indigenous people too were prehistoric, given to animal and human sacrifice? On the surface, of course not, but beneath the text the hint is there.

The favoured term is pietism, which Sutton describes as a one-to-one relation with God, one undertaken by an individual in quiet communion, more suited to an age of individualism (our own?). No mediators here, no priests or church or state, just individuals doing the best they can. For Sutton this is the way forward for reconciliation, although he does need to replace God with another human being. All that is needed is a ‘personal moral adjustment’ (p. 203) to interpersonal and collaborative reconciliation between two persons. Sutton uses the examples of individual acts of private reconciliation, in which people get on in their day-to-day lives, and in which the non-Indigenous person becomes a vocal critic of racist state policies: Lancelot Threlkeld and Biraban in the 1820s–1840s, Ursula McConnel and Billy Mammus in the 1920–1930s, and Lloyd Warner and Mahkarolla in the 1920s.

Is pietism up to task? At one level it is. Pietism has a distinct history with complex threads, but it is clearly a very Germanic, Protestant (especially Lutheran) and relatively recent development dating from the late 17th century. Its central concern was a life of deep religious commitment, rooted in inner experience and manifested in outward acts or the ‘practice of piety’.

So far, so good, at least for Sutton’s purposes. The catch is that pietism was ultimately a collective movement with strong political overtones. It sought to revive the church from within rather than break away from it. Indeed, the main stream of pietism was warmly welcomed by pastors and theologians in the German Lutheran Church in the 18th and 19th centuries and quickly became seen as a way to renew religious life. It soon spread to other parts of the world whether Lutheran Protestantism was strong, especially Scandinavia, Greenland and North America.

For Sutton’s argument pietism is useful in some senses but not in others. Inner experience, the place of God in one’s heart, lives lived in quiet faithfulness, and the impetus for individual philanthropic activity—all these elements work quite well for Sutton’s purposes. But he ignores the other elements of pietism, such as the collective and institutional nature of mainstream pietism, its desire for reform within the institution and its tendency towards conservatism.

Once again, I suggest that Sutton’s dip into theology is less useful than he might think. Pietism doesn’t simply mean individual relations, for it is also a deeply collective theological practice. In this respect, the word becomes in Sutton’s hands a cover for the sort of liberalism championed by Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, or their lesser followers in Australia like Andrew Bolt or Miranda Devine. Individual enterprise is the key, not collective approaches (which become totalitarian) or state intervention (the evil of ‘big government’).

Agency and Theology
Sutton’s use of the opposition between sacramentalism and pietism is in the end a caricature. By picking certain features and making them definitions of the whole, he has distorted both traditions, using them as poor camouflage for state-sponsored and individual solutions. However, I suggest that what lies behind Sutton’s argument is really the issue of agency. With sacramentalism he seems to mean agency from one quarter and moving in one direction: from non-Indigenous governments to Indigenous people. The former decides what is appropriate, depending more on the vagaries of electoral cycles, ideological positions, the power of lobby groups, and individual political careers. And then it acts, assuming it can fix all the problems with the latest program—the NT Intervention is the obvious recent example of this one-sided approach.

However, by pietism Sutton is pointing towards mutual agency, one that involves two or more people (I would add groups) who realise their own needs, shortcomings and limits, but above all the need to come to an understanding of one another and the need to act on that understanding. It takes little imagination to determine which approach is more desirable. The catch is that Sutton seems to think that this process is primarily an individual one, an argument that is ideological (in the bad sense) and hardly progressive.

My final question picks up another issue: the theological tenor of the reconciliation debate as a whole. Of course, a good of discussion has taken place on these matters within the progressive wings of the Christian churches, where debates and resolutions concerning reconciliation have been cast in explicitly theological senses. However Sutton, as a leading anthropologist, has done what the churches have not been able to do, since they so often remain closed circles: somewhat unwittingly, he has brought out and made public the underlying theological nature of the debate by invoking explicitly theological terms, even if he misses the mark in the specific terms he has chosen. In short, I would suggest that much of the terminology and mindset of reconciliation uses what may be called secularised theological ideas. Emptied of their theological content and refilled with political and social content, they still trail many theological assumptions behind them. For example, reconciliation itself is one such term (between God and human beings), as is the idea of guilt (collective or individual—an issue in the Howard years), and even covenant or treaty.

However, before we rush in to claim theological ideas for resolving the relations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we need to investigate those terms carefully, especially since Christian theology came with European invasion, embodied in the person of Samuel Marsden who filled the role in the early colony of both clergyman and judge. The problem is that all of these key terms assume an unequal relationship, God on the one side and human beings on the other. Guilt is what one feels towards God for having disobeyed and sinned; reconciliation is for human beings alone, since we need to be reconciled to God; a covenant is made between unequal partners, one more powerful and the other less so. This imbalance often carries through to the secular uses of such terms.

So I would suggest that in the current debates we would do well to investigate the implicit theological assumptions of the key terms. Who is the more powerful one in the process of negotiating a treaty? Who is the guilty party? The NT Intervention shifts the guilt squarely onto Indigenous people, who then need to be ‘punished’ for their ‘sins’. But then those who oppose the intervention argue for the guilt of the colonisers, who then need to make amends. And is it possible to produce a process of reconciliation that either recognises the thereby seeks to negate the imbalance of power, or is it possible to come up with a reconciliation that removes such imbalance?

Apart from taking voyages by ship and cycling as far and as often as he can, Roland Boer is a writer and a critic based at the University of Newcastle. His intellectual background is in theology, political philosophy and Marxism and he is finishing a five volume series called The Criticism of Heaven and Earth (Brill and Haymarket).

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