Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Converting empire: theologies of church and state in the encounter between British and Maori

News today that my paper proposal for Australian Association of Mission Studies (AAMS) 2017 gathering, in Melbourne, July 2-5, 2017 was accepted. The paper was sparked by my reading over the holidays of The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley. I was fascinated by mention of Wiremu Tamihana’s use of Scripture in responding to the claims of empire. I tweeted and within a few minutes, was in a fascinating, and affirming, conversation with the author, Vincent O’Malley. I wrote some thoughts for SPANZ and also shared some of my thinking at a conference in Clevedon in January. Again, I was encouraged by the response.

The AAMS theme, Re-imagining home, seemed an ideal occasion to share my thinking in an academic context, using the tools of post-colonial analysis, in which the focus is on the creative adaptations and innovative practices of resistance used by indigenous people as they respond to invasion. It is also relevant given our current political context. Amid anxiety about how to respond to global imperialism, what can be learnt from the witness of indigenous people in history?

Converting empire: theologies of church and state in the encounter between British and Maori

Following Jesus in someone else’s country is inevitably complexified by cross-cultural transmission. This was certainly true of indigenous peoples navigating the effects of colonisation. This paper examines how political categories introduced by British expansion in Aotearoa New Zealand were appropriated by Maori resisting the advance of Empire.

In 1861, faced with increased conflict and the settler lust for land, Waikato Maori were presented with an ultimatum: retain your land only if you are strong enough to keep it. In response, Maori leader Wiremu Tamihana used Ephesians 2:13 to offer a theology of church and state which defended Maori political initiatives, reconceived international relationships and reimagined home.

A missiological reading of Tamihana’s theology yields important insights.

First, a creative public theology. Christians often turn to the kings of Israel, the two-sided coin in Matthew 22:15-22 or Romans 13:1-7 to conceive the relationship between church and state. Tamihana’s use of Ephesians preserves difference, seeks justice and offers a different understanding of religion and politics.

Second, the reversal of home. In Ephesians, those who are “once far off” are the Gentiles, whom God acts to redeem. Tamihana interprets those who are “once far off” as the English, brought “nigh” by the blood of Christ. Maori are understood as Israel: a creative reinterpretation.

Third, the power of Scripture translated. By 1835, Ephesians had been translated into Te Reo. Translation allowed Maori to read Scripture for themselves. As a result, Tamihana – in 1861 – used the Scriptures the colonisers brought to challenge colonising behaviour. Such is the power available when people are able to read Scripture in their own language.

Hence, from this example we see that central to mission studies is neither missionary nor method, but the creative work done by indigenous cultures in converting the message and resisting the power of empire.

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