October 2022

Bearing witness is intrinsic to the path of reconciliation and healing

The First Nations Voice to Parliament is an opportunity for us to bear witness to the crimes, the cruelty and misguided policies of the past, writes Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner SGS.

We know what it means to bear witness. The legal definition is to attest to something that is true. If you are called to court to testify, you witness to the truth of what you saw or what you know. 

But there is a deeper resonance and meaning. To bear witness to someone is to stand with people in the sacred space of their experience. 

We see countless examples.

Millions of people bore witness to Queen Elizabeth II during her long reign, but most especially when she died. Ordinary people, her family, governments, faith communities, and the media all bore witness in diverse ways: in ritual, prayer, floral tribute, story-telling, pictorial collages and videos of every aspect of her long life, in gun salute or in simple silence.

There were a number who, understandably, chose to bear witness, not to the British Monarch but to those who had suffered under British colonial rule.

Speaking on the ABC’s 7.30 program, the Special Envoy for Reconciliation and Implementation of the Uluru Statement, Senator Patrick Dodson, said he could understand that the National Day of Mourning for Queen Elizabeth would be difficult for many Indigenous Australians, “given that the dispossession of our countries was made by the British and the development of the legal fiction of terra nullius and so usurping our capacity to control and manage and live a life on our own lands in a way that we have been accustomed to prior to the British coming.”   

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse bore witness to victims and survivors of sexual abuse.  It was the first time that many of the victims and survivors had told their story or had their story believed.  Maya Angelou says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” 

Since the Royal Commission some people have approached our community with stories of sexual abuse, in most cases at the hands of priest chaplains in our orphanages or schools.  I have met with victim/survivors, a harrowing experience for them and for me.  I try and bear witness.  I listen, I believe, I honour their experience and I apologise on behalf of our community that they were harmed while in our care.  Bearing witness is intrinsic to the path of reconciliation and healing.

The artist, author and poet bear witness. 

Elie Wiesel in his bestselling novel, Night, bears witness to the unspeakable trauma of the Holocaust. “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” he says. These words are etched in stone at the entrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

In similar vein, consider the words of Alicia Ostriker, the American Jewish poet, who said, “It has always seemed to me that to fall silent in the aftermath of the Holocaust is to surrender to it. How can one write poetry after Auschwitz? How can one not?”

A most poignant example of bearing witness is captured in a poem by Ingrid de Kok, which tells the story of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died last year, opening the first session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa in 1996.

The Archbishop Chairs the First Session

On the first day
after a few hours of testimony
the Archbishop wept.
He put his grey head
on the long table
of papers and protocols
and he wept.

The national
and international cameramen
filmed his weeping,
his misted glasses,
his sobbing shoulders,
the call for a recess.

It doesn’t matter what you thought
of the Archbishop before or after,
of the settlement, the commission,
or what the anthropologists flying in
from less studied crimes and sorrows
said about the discourse,
or how many doctorates,
books and installations followed,
or even if you think this poem
simplifies, lionises
romanticises, mystifies.

There was a long table, starched purple vestment
and after a few hours of testimony,
the Archbishop, chair of the commission,
laid down his head, and wept.
That’s how it began.

Ingrid de Kok’s haunting words bear witness to Desmond Tutu, whose silent weeping bears witness to the countless black South Africans traumatised by the apartheid policy.

And so, to another Archbishop. In 1845, John Bede Polding, Australia’s first Catholic bishop, was called as a witness at a parliamentary inquiry into the parlous condition of the Aboriginal population brought about within a few decades of the first European arrivals. The transcript of the hearing reveals the unfeigned racism of Polding’s parliamentary interrogators and his own profound response. Polding declared:

“I am making myself a black, putting myself in that position, and taking away all that I know except that this is my country, that my father lived by pursuing the emu, and the kangaroo, that I am driven away from my hunting grounds, that my children and tribe are subjected to the grossest barbarities.”

Having been asked to be a witness, Polding responded by bearing witness to Australia’s First Nations people. 

So many examples.  So many calls for us to remember and to tell the truth by naming the crimes, the cruelty and misguided policies of the past.  Bearing witness is an act of justice. 

It occurs to me that at this time all Australians are being called to follow Polding’s prophetic stance in our support of the Uluru Statement From the Heart. This Statement, as observed by Phil Glendenning, the Director of the Edmund Rice Centre, provides us “with an opportunity to embrace our history, to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and to take practical and significant steps to ensure that these wrongs are never again repeated”.

The three steps of the Uluru Statement are Voice, Treaty and Truth. Obviously, as with any group, First Nations people speak in many languages and with different perspectives. In the context of the Uluru Statement, Voice refers to a constitutionally enshrined voice for First Nations people, aiming to enhance the participation of Indigenous Australians in Australian democracy. Simply put, it means that First Nations people will have a say in decisions that impact their lives, thereby enhancing their self-determination and human flourishing.

Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann is a renowned Aboriginal elder and the 2021 Senior Australian of the Year who has spent the majority of her life “walking between two worlds” and is a respected advocate for the Indigenous worldview. “It is important for the people of Australia to know it is the right time now to walk with us. To walk alongside us, it is important that it begins as simply as sitting down, particularly on country, and listening to each other,” she said. 

I intend to say “yes” to the proposed referendum question: Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice? For me, this will be a significant and necessary act of bearing witness.



Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.