every story is contested. and the older the story perhaps the more challenging it is to unpick. i found myself really interested in the story of new zealand while i was there in a way i hadn’t anticipated. the particular aspect of that story that i was keen to find out more about was the story of missionaries and how they had shared the story of christ with maori and the degree to which they colluded with or indeed resisted oppression and empire. i work for the church mission society which was founded at the end of the eighteenth century by what now we would call a missional community - a group of people meeting in a pub dreaming up ideas of ways to change the world. the purpose of the cms was to share the story of christ with those who did not know it or indeed know him, which at the time was a lot of parts of the world. very early on new zealand was one of the places that cms missionaries travelled to.
i find in conversation with people that when i say i work for an organisation that sent missionaries some people wince! their assumption is that missionaries were part of the domination of the colonial enterprise. they assume the missionaries softened up the indigenous people and then the empire could grab the land in a sort of one-two move. in new zealand there is a particular twist to the story. because of atrocities elsewhere the british wanted to try and take a different approach in new zealand and this led to a treaty - the treaty of waitangi - which is the founding document of new zealand granting equal rights to maori and settlers signed in 1840. it’s a really important document and has been very significant in recent decades in a multi billion dollar programme of compensation because of the ways the treaty was ignored by the settlers. and good on new zealand - they have engaged seriously in this process of restorative justice and compensation whilst many other countries have not. the leader of cms in new zealand at the time was henry williams who was loved and trusted by the maori and he translated the document and met with the maori chiefs who eventually signed it. the point of contestation is that one spin on the story is this was a con and in translation the maori were manipulated. this felt like it was important for me to dig into and face my own story both as british and in terms of the legacy of mission - this is my whakapapa for good or ill.
when i asked around several people said you have to read huia come home by jay ruka and someone kindly gave me a copy (thank you stephanie). this intrigued me straight away because this is the indigenous bird i could now only find stuffed in a museum because it was extinct and this was the bird that appeared in several street art murals in christchurch. in the book, initially through a dream, jay reconnects with his maori roots and it leads him to explore the story of the early missionaries. he then gets into the maori worldview and spirituality and introduces that in a very accessible way. this book seems to be being read by young adults and stirring up in them a hope, a longing and a possibility for a different kind of engagement in faith into the future which is integrates maori spirituality rather than separates. i was pretty excited by those conversations. my own experience of connecting with maori was that i visited a maori church which is one of three strands of the anglican church there and i loved being there - big thanks to paul for pointing me in that direction. it did feel pretty separated in that space but i hope there are lots of quests for that connection to reimagine the future.
hula come home is a really fabulous book - it’s easy to read, provocative, and gives some of the history and maori sensibilities and worldview in an accessible way. that made me want to dig a bit deeper so i read nzcms account our story:aotearoa and bible and treaty: missionaries among the maori a new perspective by keith newman. i loved digging into these stories. i’m not going to attempt to retell the history of mission in new zealand in a blog post. as i said at the start every story is contested so i am sure there are counter tellings but a few things caught my attention...
the missionaries were shaped by their time without doubt. samuel marsden who preached the first sermon on christmas day in 1814 in new zealand believed that civilisation paved the way for openness to the gospel. my heart sank when i read that. beneath that is a worldview tainted by superiority - the dreaded colonial disease. and i am sure that was in the mindset of many missionaries however radical they were. it’s so challenging to do mission well in a way that lets go your own way of doing things and offers it as a gift inside local culture.
the missionaries loved the maori people and were trusted by them over time. cms and marsden wanted to see a flourishing maori nation and envisaged only a small number of settlers. they expected to introduce farming and other technologies to help but never envisaged the wave of settlement that took place and so had to respond accordingly. in fact in england cms were publishing pamphlets opposing widespread colonisation which got into national newspapers. cms at the time had members in parliament back in england and were weighing in at the political end to try and get a different approach to other places the empire had expanded and opposing some of the theories of colonisation being purported by those such as wakefield (see below). here’s how newman summarises the missionaries
Most were men and women of good character, determined to bring the gospel of peace, forgiveness and love to the Māori while attempting to build a life for themselves and their families. They were often accused of favouring Māori above the settlers, being opponents of colonisation, and having more land than their humble profession required.
the change point that came in terms of maori responding to the story of jesus christ was when the bible was translated and it got into maori hands. they became the ones who shared the story with their own people. the european missionaries had faithfully shared the story and some had responded to it but the reality was a hard slog over twenty years or so with little results. but it was the local maori evangelist/disciple who set it alight in extraordinary ways. there was a maori prophet toiroa who had visions of settlers in 1766 before captain james cook set foot on the shores who had said that ‘the name of their god will be son who was killed, a good god’. so this came as the fulfilment of that prophesy. the same prophesy also said that ‘however the people will still be oppressed’ which proved to be only too true.
there were some horrible characters in the early history who sound very like today’s free market capitalists - people like edward wakefield and governor earl grey (yes that is his name) out for profit regardless of the means to achieve it. some of them arrived ironically on a ship called the tory (!!). wakefield and the new zealand company were seeking to do deals to get land by hook or crook to sell to settlers. if no one was on land they claimed it was free to be taken and so on. they hated cms because missionaries advocated for the maori in the face of this injustice. and it was largely the lawlessness that was unfolding that led the crown and cms to think that a treaty was essential. coming back to henry williams, everything i have read suggests he was a good man - he loved maori, was deeply trusted by them, and was mortified that the treaty he had helped broker was largely ignored or overridden such that the maori came to feel they had been duped and it did turn into a fiasco. it is sad that there is this widespread myth about the treaty - jay ruka and keith newman say the accusations simply don’t match the historical accounts. his is a sad tale in that there was a campaign against him which sounds so like politics today - governor grey, bishop selwyn, the wakefields wanted him out of the way. cms sadly removed him from office over what proved to be false accusations and whilst he was later reinstated he was broken by the experience. i intend to ask the cms archivist to dig a bit to see what i can find out about that part of the story. this quote from newman sums up his take on the missionaries and the difference between them and those greedy for power and land
The high-minded social reformers of the Clapham Sect who set out the template for Māori to have a full say in what happened to their country well before colonisation gained any real momentum, would have been horrified at what eventually played out. Greedy men, hungry for cheap land and temporal power, betrayed and delayed the proposed partnership plan outlined in both the Bible and the Treaty of Waitangi – mocking the humanitarian promises, undermining the missionary influence and misinterpreting science with a borrowed bias from the era of slavery. Until history found them out, those responsible were determined to dispossess an indigenous people of their land in the belief that they were superior and ‘the natives’ would soon become extinct. For over forty years, dozens of European missionaries generally stood firm like guardians, concerned for the welfare of Māori and against injustice, rivalled in their passion only by the scores of Māori who brought the message of transformation to their own people.
i was interested by the tension between cms and the church of england. in the very early days cms wanted missionaries ordained but the bishops in england refused so john venn sent them as lay catechists - it sounds much like discussions around pioneers today and a good hack by john venn! bishop selwyn sounds like the kind of bishop i would hate - i bet there is a smug statue of him somewhere on his high horse. he had an abrupt manner, was very into the english churchy ways (robes, surpluses, vestments, english prayer book), looked down on those not ordained, and insisted missionaries and others come under his authority. he colluded with the corrupt new zealand company who offered him funding. he held back the possibility of ordaining maori for years creating ridiculous hoops that they could not jump through such as learning greek and latin classics and so it goes on. it reminded me why the church needs mission movements and not just denominational structures.
on that point while i was there i was reading binding the strong man which i blogged about previously - that book sees the life of christ as a confrontation with two powers of domination - dominating religious power and dominating imperial power. it was so pertinent to the stories i was reading. and in terms of my own whakapapa i feel more shame at the church of england and english empire parts than i do the cms missionaries. i feel good about being in their legacy overall.
this is all getting a bit long for a blog post… but i loved engaging with these stories though feel the pain of them too. and it raised so many important questions. is there a place for mission today? if so how can it be done in a way that has no superiority or colonial whiff about it (the technical term is post colonial i guess)? and how come these two powers of dominating religion and imperialism are so prevalent still? and what does it mean to follow in the way of christ today in the face of these powers? small questions! i downloaded post-colonial theology to read on my kindle on the flight back to london (hoping it would be helpful or send me to sleep or both!). and i hope to conclude this blog series with a comment or two about that. thanks if you have made it this far!