Report on the Inaugural
World Christian Gathering on Indigenous People
Rotorua, New Zealand
10-17 November 1996
(The Voice of Reason in New Zealand)
"We’ve been deceived by the Devil too long,
What he said was his, has been ours all along!"
The Inaugural World Christian Gathering on Indigenous People was a spectacular event that marks the "coming of age" for many Indigenous followers of "the Jesus Way." But what does it hold for the rest of the Church in New Zealand? Some have expressed reservations about whether this Gathering can claim to be definitive at all. What can we say to alleviate the fears of Pakeha Christians? Specifically, these fears translate into the following concerns:
- What is all the fuss? Are Maori pushing for separatist, apartheid-style policies?
- Are Native forms of worship truly Christian?
This report sets out to answer these questions and others. It does so by drawing upon the personal experiences of its author. I and my wife were merely spectators ourselves during the Gathering, but by virtue of being a mixed Maori-Pakeha marriage, we find ourselves called upon to be a model for the reconciliation process this Gathering initiated.
There were 32 nations represented, with probably 1,300-2,000 people attending over the course of the week. A different group of nations had each day dedicated to it:
- Sunday Opening Ceremonies
- Monday Maori and Pacific Islands (Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, Hawaii)
- Tuesday North American and Canadian First Nations Peoples
- Wednesday Break
- Thursday Asia (Korea, Haka Chinese, Borneo Malaysians, Philippines) and Australia (Mainland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander)
- Friday The Sammi people (from north of Norway, Sweden, Finland & Russia) and Israel
- Saturday Africa
- Sunday Closing Ceremonies
Among the many enlightening comments heard during the course of the week, were comparisons between the WCGIP and a preceding "World Indigenous People Conference" minus the Christian influence. This earlier conference (held in Brussels) became a forum for voicing the hurts and anger of Indigenous People. Without the hope of peace that comes from the Prince of Peace, this earlier conference was unable to offer any solutions. Consequently, those who were present at both found that whereas the previous one left them feeling empty and unsatisfied, this one gave them hope for the future.
Most groups recounted only a brief summary of the historical, cultural & current events that affect their people. In every case, delegates discussed only the facts, not in an emotive, blameful way. An interesting point of note was the similarity of situations involving contact between indigenous people and colonial powers, although certain details were different, for example:
- All were banned from speaking their languages at school, from a misguided attempt at assimilation; but
- Colonial powers removed forcibly Australian Aboriginal and Native North American children to boarding school, away from their homes. This was from a similarly misguided attempt to "educate" them into the white man’s ways (this never happened in NZ).
Throughout the Gathering, the delegates gave due recognition that the source of our shared woes was not the white man. If God had turned the tables, our sinful natures would have caused us to behave in exactly the same manner. And in the matter of bringing to us the Gospel, the delegates throughout the Gathering maintained a proper attitude of thankfulness.
However, what has the Church of Christ lost through these attempts at "assimilation" rather than "partnership"? What does a Native world view have to offer the Church? For a more thorough examination of this issue, we highly recommend The Turtle and the Snail by Richard Twiss. A brief summary would be:
- A more relational, community-based society.
- A more environmentally friendly society.
- A more spiritually aware society.
Call To Repentance
Please note that the Gathering was not saying that a Native world view is necessarily a better, more Christian way to live than the prevailing Western, materialistic, individualistic way we currently have. Both have their weak and strong points. The point is, that both systems are equally valid, and we all should be free to pick and choose aspects from either system to the greater Glory of God.
Attempts to legislate or peer-pressure these differences out of people, for the sake of "unity," are wrong. These are attitudes from which the Church should repent. This form of assimilation is not unity, but instead is uniformity. Uniformity is a passive form of racism, in that it does not allow for the unique differences God has built into cultures.
At the beginning of this report, we have quoted from a popular worship song "We’re Going Up To The High Places, To Tear The Devil’s Kingdom Down." A recurring theme of this Gathering was that for too long, we have believed a certain lie of the enemy. Namely, that certain aspects of each of our cultures were repugnant to God, and therefore we could not use them in our churches to glorify Him. What we did not realise was that as the only Creator, everything we have belongs to Him, and should be used to glorify Him. God created every cultural thing, as only God can create. Satan misuses and corrupts these things, but Christians are to reclaim these cultural expressions to give glory to God.
So, for instance:
- Maori haka should be used for spiritual warfare;
- Sammi Yoik should be redeemed from "just a traditional pub song" to a distinctive sounding praise song;
- and so on…
There is no definitive list of what is right or wrong in each culture. For example, could not a marae be a "church?"
Process of Reconciliation
The Gathering gave various groups several opportunities for expressions of confession, repentance and forgiveness. All the groups did this with appropriate attitudes of love — not out of bitterness, resentment, or hatred. Three such calls were between:
- Jew and Gentile
- Indigenous and Colonial
- Maori tribes, one to another
In this process of reconciliation between Indigenous and Colonial Peoples, we recognised that there is a continuum along which we all lie:
- At one end, Native Americans and Australian Aborigines have their own independent indigenous churches. For these people, total vertical reconciliation between their ethnos and God mean bringing all of music, dance, drama, song and language to Him — dedicated and consecrated to God.
- At the other end, some groups are happy with an occasional song in their language. For example, we sing Maori words to English hymns.
Both ends of the spectrum are valid for that people group at this time. The Gathering did not seek to push one form over another. What it did accomplish was to introduce the various reconciliation ministries to one another, to aid in this on-going, continuing process.
A delegate told a story that relates well the feeling of many at the Gathering. It tells of the journey of the kahawai (a medium sized fish). A passing shark swam by the kahawai. The shark asked, "Would you like to journey together?" The kahawai thought this sounded like a good idea and agreed, since they were heading in the same direction. The shark promptly swallowed the kahawai. The kahawai was surprised at this and commented upon it, to which the shark replied, "Why are you complaining? We’re going in the same direction, aren’t we?" The kahawai thought about this and had to agree, so they continued their journey together. However, after a time, the kahawai noticed several difficulties about this arrangement:
- Because he could no longer see where they were, he could not be certain they were going in the right direction.
- When he asked the shark to relay the details of where they were, he received the information as seen through the eyes of the shark.
- Because he was unable to accurately work out where they were, his input into direction was misinformed as well as unwelcome.
- Over time, as he grew, he could only grow to the size of the belly of the shark.
The morals of this story are that in Maori to Pakeha Christian relations:
- Earlier colonial powers removed our indigenous forms of worship from us, so as a people we had to choose between being Maori or being Christian.
- The information necessary to our current growth is being relayed to us in Pakeha forms, which are inappropriate.
- When we attempt to influence the New Zealand Church, our brethren (largely) ignore us.
- The Pakeha church confines our growth.
Repentance Without Restitution?
It is the personal opinion of the author that repentance without restitution is like faith without works: a shallow faith (James 2:14-26). Another delegate told a story that relates to the depth of hurt felt by Native Christians:
Soon after the arrival of the Pakeha to New Zealand, most Maori were quick to adopt Christianity as the True Way. As a sign of gratitude to the missionary for bringing the Good News, Maori gifted a block of choice land near a particular marae to the Church. However, when the wars between the colonial powers and local Maori commenced, the missionary not only housed the soldiers upon this land, but also blessed them in their battle. When the Maori refused to battle on Sunday, "because it is the Lord’s day" but instead agreed to fight on Monday, the soldiers promptly went back on their word, and attacked the unsuspecting tribe. These actions caused a major negative reaction away from the Gospel. Subsequent to this, the Maori ceased worshipping the "white man’s god." This activity established a spiritual strong-hold, that we the Church must break before a revival for Maori can take place.
What are the actions we can take to rectify these situations? Would it be too bold and presumptuous of the author to respectfully submit that the Church has some attitudes and actions from which she needs to repent? Specifically, those earlier churches who committed these acts need to seek forgiveness. In those rare cases where the Church has retained title of gifted land not utilised for its original purpose, then returning this gifted land to Maori would be a monumental act of restitution.
Finally, the Pakeha church need not fear the formation of an indigenous church. Frankly, to question whether a people-group who have had the Gospel for 150 years can adapt it without compromising it, is patronising. Birthing these daughter congregations would become another form of restitution, as they will require resourcing initially.
In a secular sense, this Gathering did not achieve much. It did not pass any binding resolutions capable of being implemented by either governments or churches. Neither had the workshops been designed to "reach a conclusion."
However, in a peculiarly Native sense, the Gathering did achieve much:
- On a spiritual level, we sounded a declaration of war against Satan.
- On a relational level, many ministries networked together.
- On an organisation level, the people affirmed the Gathering’s usefulness. Other nations will now repeat it, probably in Canada 1997 and Australia 1999.
What needs to happen now is for more Christians to heed this call. For too long the Church has been the tail, and not the head. The two greatest social justice issues of secular society today have been for a number of years:
- Women’s Rights
- Maori Partnership or Tino Rangatiratanga
But when talking with Christians, it’s as if these issues do not exist in the Church and do not matter to God. They do and they do! It’s time for the Church to embrace and affirm the validity of these causes rather than attempt to ignore or run away from them. It’s time for the Church to lead!