Bernard Collaery, Dr Joel Hodge, Susan Connelly rsj and Bishop Vincent Long.
Dance performed by members of the Sydney Timorese community.

Susan Connelly rsj provides a reflection on the launch of her new book, East Timor, René Girard and Neocolonial Violence: Scapegoating as Australian Policy published by Bloomsbury Academic.

The book was launched on 11 June at the Strathfield campus of the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and grew out of Sr Susan’s doctorate thesis completed at ACU’s faculty of theology and philosophy under the supervision of Dr Joel Hodge.

The launch began with dances performed by members of the Sydney Timorese community. They were dressed in traditional woven tais and used the babadook drum to accompany their cultural welcome and gestures of respect. There were over 50 people present, with another 25 or so on Zoom. Many of the guests have been staunch supporters of the Timorese people over many years.

Bishop Vincent Long from the Diocese of Parramatta launched the book and compared the Timorese people to biblical figures whose apparent insignificance did not prevent their enormous influence, saying, ‘The small and despised can teach and lead, while the strong need to look and learn’.

The book is an analysis of East Timor based on the work of the French American philosopher, René Girard (1923 -2015).

His theories illustrate the tendency of humans to imitate one another, which often leads to rivalry and violence. Humans have traditionally quelled their violence by turning on a weaker entity which becomes their ‘scapegoat’. Thus, the internal violence which threatens to tear the group apart is vented on an outsider, or someone different, bringing the group together for a time, but at the expense of the innocent.

I found Girard’s insights a most intriguing and satisfying tool with which to interpret Australia’s relationship with East Timor in three different historical events: in World War II in 1942, in the Indonesian invasion of 1975, and in the 24-year occupation that ended in 1999. In each of these events, East Timor can be seen as a convenient scapegoat that Australia used to deal with its own perceived fears and threats.

Girard discusses at length the ancient practice of scapegoating, and his studies led him to view the Gospel’s presentation of the scapegoating of Jesus as a huge leap in human consciousness. The Gospel shows Jesus as completely innocent of the sedition and threat to the society of which he was accused, and also shows him as identifying with society’s scapegoats. As a result, the lie that is the scapegoating process has been revealed, and people worldwide are now far more likely to realise the innocence of the victim. This realisation is, in Girard’s work, a type of ‘conversion’, a formidable example of which occurred among Australian people and others as the enormity of the violence against the Timorese people was exposed in the final stages of the occupation. People recognised East Timor as the victim of violent forces, a scapegoat of Australian bipartisan policy.

Dr Hodge remarked in his speech at the launch that: “No one has examined the relations between East Timor and Australia so comprehensively, bringing together in a clear and sophisticated way the political, historical, anthropological, philosophical and theological dimensions. If you don’t know much or want to know more about Australia-Timorese relations, this is the book to read.”

I believe that René Girard is a gift of God to the world of our time, and that his insights can teach every one of us about our imitation, our rivalry and our tendency to violence. Girard discovered the supreme value of the Gospel as the way to follow, advising that unless we imitate Christ or Christ-like figures, we will continue to imitate each other and be constantly thrown back into the old, and increasingly useless, practice of scapegoating.

East Timor, René Girard and Neocolonial Violence: Scapegoating as Australian Policy may be purchased from the Bloomsbury online store here.

Susan Connelly rsj