Gospel bicentennial: Has it been good news for Māori?

Marsden Cross
Marsden Cross

This Christmas marks the 200th anniversary of the first Christian service in Aotearoa New Zealand, held by Rev. Samuel Marsden and Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara at Oihi Bay. Many churches and evangelical campaigns have used this year as a great opportunity for mass evangelism as well as trying to market the New Zealand Church as both relevant and necessary for social hope (see the Hope Project). However, as history has shown, two centuries of the good news in New Zealand, has been anything but good news for Māori. In light of its pivotal role in the colonisation of indigenous Aotearoa, as well as its overbearing silence towards present day socio-ecological inequity, why should we be celebrating something that isn’t really good news?

In 1776 Arama Te Toiroa, a great Māori matakite (prophet/seer), made the following prophecy three years before the arrival of Captain James Cook to New Zealand:

Te ingoa o tō rātou Atua, ko Tama-i-rorokutia, he Atua pai, otirā, ka ngaro āno te tāngata. The name of their God will be Tama-i-rorokutia (Son who was killed), a good god, however the people will still be oppressed.

Arguably this prophecy (as well as other pre-European Toiroa prophecies) describes two crucial facets of the last two centuries in New Zealand – the Church’s role in the European colonisation of indigenous land, culture, spirituality and people; and the state of oppression (both social and economic) that Māori would occupy. Indeed the colonisation of New Zealand, which saw the annexation of “almost 95 per cent of Māori land from the nineteenth century well into the twentieth century” (Rashbrooke, 2013, p. 4), brought social disorder in a short and concentrated period. I don’t know how many New Zealand Christians know about the above prophecy, and I doubt that many would want to dwell on it as an intricate forerunner to the 1814 sermon preached by Samuel Marsden. As a Māori, and a follower of Tama-i-rorokutia, the last sentence of Toiroa’s prophecy grasps not only the pain I feel for those oppressed by dominant cultural hegemony but also the frustration (dare I say anger) I have with the New Zealand Church. The Kiwi Gospel has at best enabled socio-ecological inequity by not addressing systemic aetiologies, and at worst it has been a benefiting partner in hegemonic crime.

The people are still oppressed. In light of the gospel’s long history in Aotearoa New Zealand, does the Church care about the social and political exclusion experienced by Māori? Indeed as a perpetually stigmatised group, Māori experience discrimination in the housing market, education, “health care, and the criminal justice system” (Major & O’Brien, 2005, p. 396). Don’t get me wrong I am not hating on the New Zealand Church, nor am I totally discounting the great community work that some Christian organisations do (like the Salvation Army), rather I see illegitimacy in celebrating two-hundred years of faux-Good-News (especially in light of socio-ecological inequity). For a gospel message claiming to be the greatest news in the world ought to be doing better than this. Justly good news would challenge systemic injustice, target substantial global dysfunctions, and “provide hope and resources for making a better world” (McLaren, 2007, p. 34). At large the New Zealand Church, like a majority of the global Christian religion, is inadequate as a movement for social change. When one spends more time condemning people to hell as well as taking the moral high ground on every infinitesimal issue, it’s hard not to be assigned a silhouette of ignorance and apathetic self-righteousness. As the Church continues to live in its bubble, corporate globalisation continues to oppress the marginalised and rape the Earth of all her resources at an unprecedented rate.

We need better news than the gospel. The Church is redundant in changing, let alone challenging, the system in a prolonged and meaningful manner. Arguably the dream of a world shaped by social justice, economic equity and ecological sustainability is not the prime priority for the Church. As the Christian population in New Zealand continues to drop at a record level, and prominent Church leaders are more concerned with money and their own financial wellbeing, not to mention the Church’s neglect or ignorance of indigenous rights, it would be illogical to celebrate the gospel bicentennial this Christmas. I’m still pondering on the second half of Te Toiroa’s prophecy, wondering if anyone else is too.

Salaam.

Works Cited

Major, B., & O’Brien, L. (2005). The social psychology of stigma. Annu. Rev. Psychol, 56: 393–421.

McLaren, B. (2007). Everything must change: When the world’s biggest problems and Jesus’ good news collide. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Rashbrooke, M. (2013). Why inequality matters. In M. Rashbrooke, Inequality (pp. 1-17). Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.

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