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September 11, 2018 | by  | in Features Te Ao Mārama | [ssba]

Ethnocentrism, Te Ao Māori and the Church

In 2014 my wife and I went to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, for six months to work. My wife is a nurse, so was involved with different NGO’s offering free medical care. I, however, was involved in a local church, where my role was to support the music team and be involved in leadership. Being overly enthusiastic about my role, I went about getting songs translated, teaching these and helping people use their voices in a more powerful way. It was, what appeared to me to be, a successful use of my time -with the church and teams eager to receive my ideas.

After our time in Cambodia I read a book about Christian missionaries working into Asia. As the book described the local people and how they, I believed, oddly lived out their Christianity; I noted an overwhelming sense of judgement in my heart. This was an alarming moment for me. I had thought I was “Mr Cultures”, successful at working cross-culturally. This realisation caused me to consider all that I had done in Cambodia. I had been teaching songs that I thought were good, songs that worked at home; but were they relevant to Cambodia? I had been teaching timings of songs that people were struggling to play; on reflection, these timings were not familiar to the Cambodian people and their traditional songs. I had tried to change the voices of the Cambodians to sound more like what i was used to; it sounded good to me but it certainly didn’t sound Khmer any more. What had I done?!

This is a true experience from my life, however it can also be a true reflection of the way that Western influenced Christians have historically done church; confusing their world views as scripture and preaching what is not necessarily biblical. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote “That which was unfamiliar to the church was condemned as anti-Christian”. I am not condemning Western influenced Christians for the way this has been done. I believe the cause is an ethnocentric attitude; an attitude which we are all guilty of having. After I recognised the ethnocentrism in my own heart, I knew it was something that I needed to change and so started my journey of being a learner instead of somebody who thought they had the answers. This must also be the attitude for others brought up in a Western influenced church.

In the Bible, the book of Revelation gives us an image of what the church is to look like: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. This is an exciting view of how church should be; all nations, tribes and peoples around the throne singing in their own languages! How boring it would be to have all these amazing differences but to all be singing in English, doing church in a typically Western influenced style. I believe if we want to see the church grow to its fullest potential in Aotearoa, we need to make space for te ao Māori in Christianity and church. By this I don’t mean create a neat little corner for it, but rather let Māori do Christianity in a Māori way; we otherwise run the risk of still doing the same Western influenced style of church, just in a different language, which is missing the point.

Mike Hosking has recently claimed that we should no longer promote the (supposed) dying Māori language in schools; we should instead teach languages that will be valuable for communicating internationally for business and trade. If we believe the only purpose of a language is communication, then perhaps Mike Hosking has a point. However, language is far more than just a means of communication. Anthropologist, Wade Davis, states: “A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the Human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world”. This suggests language is an expression of how a culture views the world; that by learning a language we learn about that cultures world view. We learn what is important to that culture, their values, the motives behind their actions and insight into their thinking. We learn words that have no direct translation into English because the meanings far outweigh a single word, we learn concepts central to their cultural identity.

Language also gives us insight into how cultures refer to God and how they interpret the bible. It’s unfortunate that (in my experience) western influenced christians believe their understanding of the bible is the only right interpretation; that we know more about the bible than other cultures – when the bible isn’t even a western book. Our world view is the lens by which we (usually unintentionally) interpret the bible, which may cause us to align scripture in a way that is implicit with western culture, when sometimes this is incorrect. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I am not saying that the Western way of viewing the bible is completely wrong, but I am saying that other cultures interpretations are needed to give a fuller understanding. From personal experience, by bringing te reo Māori and te ao Māori into church, our view of God can grow exponentially. Māori concepts such as Tūrangawaewae, Mannakitanga and Whānaungatanga can explain so much about the person of Jesus. The Te ara definition of Tūrangawaewae : “is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home”. Suddenly, through the use of te reo Māori, we have an incredible word that we can use to help us deeper understand the person of Jesus. He (Jesus) is our ‘place to stand’, the place where we feel ‘especially empowered’ and ‘connected’ to the Father, He is our ‘foundation, our place in the world, our home’.

Māoritanga is also important to embrace as it acts as a gateway for many nations to find their standing place in Aotearoa. After the first Christian sermon was preached on December 25 1814 by Ruatara and Samuel Marsden; Ngā Puhi responded with ‘Te Hari a Ngā Puhi’, saying “Ka nukunuku ka nekeneke’ – a response, making a place for Pākehā in Aotearoa. Today still,  Māori have an ability to make other cultures feel at home. From encouraging the use of te reo Māori in church and teaching on cultural concepts such as Tūrangawaewae, I have personally heard stories of people from Zimbabwe, Samoa and other cultures say that although they have lived in Aotearoa for many years, understanding these concepts gave them a knowledge that this was their home too, that they have a place to belong. I can recount a time during a church gathering when a Pākehā worship song was being sung and the worship leader translated a refrain into Māori to finish; but instead of finishing, this inspired a host of people from other nations to sing out this same chorus in their own languages. In my opinion this is far closer to how the church in Revelation is described!

Looking at the Christian history of Aotearoa, we see the church being responsible for some amazing things, things that they are unfortunately not given credit for; however we can also see times where they got it wrong. Using the same example as above, history tells us that Samuel Marsden preached the first sermon to local Ngā Puhi, but tells little of the role of Ruatara. Ruatara is known in this context for translating, however it is argued he would have also been interpreting world view; presenting the preach in a way Māori would have found relevant. I personally believe that Ruatara had the harder job in this situation. History also shows the difficulty faced by Māori to hold a place of office in the church; not only did they have to learn English but also Latin (an example of the Western influenced church using worldview to shape the churches outworkings). This was the case for Tamihana Te Rauparaha, son of Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha. When Tamihana first became a Christian his passion for the gospel was evident; travelling to Pēwhairangi to increase his biblical knowledge and facing persecution from within his extended whānau. However when he attempted to become a minister, he was faced with numerous hurdles. It is claimed that half of the Māori population attended church when Christianity first blossomed in Aotearoa, with the message of the gospel being preached by Māori to Māori. How heartbreaking that when there was an opportunity for Māori to take ownership of Christianity for themselves, they were hindered by their Pākehā brothers and sisters.

If we are to be the church the Bible describes in Revelation, then we must humble ourselves. We need to become learners – listening, challenging and taking the time to understand – in order to build a church community that reflects the character of God and the diversity He created. When cultures come together it can be messy as we bring different values, mannerisms and world views. However if we understand our relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can approach these differences in love, knowing that we are for one another.  Let me finish with the words of Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe when he spoke at Waitangi: “May God give us the courage to be honest with one another, to be sincere with one another, and above all to love one another in the strength of God”.

Tuhia ki te rangi, tuhia ki te whenua, tuhia ki te ngākau o ngā tangata katoa. Ko te mea nui ko te aroha. Tihei mauri ora!

Nā Sam Henare, Ngāti Hine


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