Vinoth Ramachandra

News and New Zealand

Posted on: August 15, 2013

I have spent the past three weeks in New Zealand, a land of spectacular beauty and rich in ecological diversity. Little wonder that, following the success of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, filmmakers have been descending in droves to this country.

My wife and I came away deeply impressed by the lives and work of some of the Christians we met from a variety of social and academic backgrounds. For instance, a youth court judge practicing restorative justice who has incurred the wrath of the establishment by his unashamed Christian testimony; a counter-cultural Anglican bishop committed to a simple personal lifestyle and to building local community; university graduates choosing to live with the urban poor in tough neighbourhoods; a professor of public policy, one of the country’s leading authorities on child poverty, who openly challenges the ruling politicians; a theology lecturer who has overcome life-threatening illness by battling the arrogance of the medical profession; a business family building low-cost homes; a medical doctor helping refugees while struggling with her own deteriorating bones and joints; and a nuclear scientist who has been studying the environmental fallout of nuclear weapons and monitoring the implementation of the nuclear test-ban treaty on behalf of the New Zealand government.

The last-mentioned comes from an unbroken line of English missionaries and pastors, stretching back to 1819. He shared with me his deep dismay at the spiritual hollowness at the heart of New Zealand society, which is accompanied by a pandering of government to the super-rich and a growing culture of alcoholism and drug-dependence. He recalled standing by a nativity display in a large retail store one Christmas and overhearing a little girl asking her mother, “Who is that baby in the window?” To which the mother replied, “I have no idea”. “This is not the country that my forebears gave their lives for” was his immediate thought.

The strong theological currents that run through Tolkien’s trilogy are thus invisible to a population that has lost access to the Biblical narrative and Christian thought. Biblical illiteracy and historical amnesia are not, of course, confined to New Zealand. But there does seem to be a systematic effort to wipe out any Christian reference in state education and public life, despite the fact that there are large numbers of Christian Maori, the original inhabitants of the land, as well as large churches among Pacific island and East Asian peoples who have made the country their home.

Walk into the impressive national museum in the capital, Wellington, and you will find no exhibit on the Christian contribution to New Zealand history or contemporary society. I guess the issue will come to the fore next year which is the bicentenary of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries to New Zealand shores. The secularization of public life doesn’t just happen, but is actively promoted by secularist elites through the media and some sections of the academy. The answer should not be the setting up of rival media and colleges by Christians, but the courageous and wise engagement by well-educated Christians in these institutions.

The role of the media in forming one’s view of the world is crucial. It has to be addressed in churches and educational institutions. Let me give you an example that links recent events in New Zealand with what is happening politically in Sri Lanka.

During the last week of our visit, the New Zealand media were dominated by the Fonterra story. The entire dairy industry (the country’s largest export) is in the hands of a single giant transnational corporation, Fonterra. China, the largest buyer of milk powder, halted imports of Fonterra products following the discovery that some whey protein products were contaminated with botulism-causing bacteria. Sri Lanka, the fifth largest market for Fonterra, followed China and Russia in halting imports. The ruling regime here adopted a moralistic tone in castigating Fonterra as a typical transnational corporate exploiter.

At the same time, a prominent local company in Sri Lanka which also produces and distributes milk products, was challenged by villagers whose drinking water had been polluted by one of the factories of the company. Some prominent members of the ruling regime have vested economic interests in this company. Peaceful protests by the villagers were met by the lethal intrusion of the army (which is under the command of the President’s brother)- three people were killed and others injured. The use of live ammunition by the army and their desecration of a church into which the villagers had fled have been the subject of condemnation by local human rights activists and church leaders.

However, the stark contrast between the Sri Lankan regime’s treatment of Fonterra and its treatment of its own citizens’ demand for clean drinking water has been completely missed by the New Zealand media, and the international media as a whole.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, along with other heads of state of Commonwealth nations, plan to meet in Sri Lanka in November. Already luxury limousines are being imported (with funds from local taxpayers) for these heads of state from Britain, Canada, Australia, India and elsewhere to be driven from their hotels to their conference venue. Should they be meeting in a country where there is no rule of law and whose “government” rules by spreading terror? And is the global media complicit in hiding these realties from the citizens of those Commonwealth nations, many of whom would be appalled if they only knew what their leaders are doing?

7 Responses to "News and New Zealand"

[…] For instance, a youth court judge practicing restorative justice who has incurred the wrath of the establishment by his unashamed Christian testimony; a counter-cultural Anglican bishop committed to a simple personal lifestyle and to building … View full post on anglican – Google Blog Search […]

Remembering the early churches, the lukewarm and the oppressed. If only we one church, linked and united against secularism and the corrupted leaders. Regards from Indonesia.

I am glad you enjoyed our country Vinoth, we certainly enjoyed meeting you! I am appalled that my national leader is meeting in a country where such obvious hypocrisy is employed against its own citizens. I have written to my PM John Key and expressed my views on this as well as making him aware of your writings. Hopefully he will pay attention. Maybe I will email spam him hahaha.

Thank you, Christine.

You could request that your prime minister and his cabinet read the report by the human rights commission of the UK bar: (especially the covering letter on that page).

I agree Vinoth … simply countering the secularization with Christian institutions is not the answer — media, universities, or otherwise. Intelligent engagement with the secular realm is critical — but how does one engage effectively when the Christian testimony is often simply disregarded? I live in Western Europe where secularization is king and religion (especially Christianity) is normally seen as a private matter not meant for the public forum.

Matthew, if I can be so bold to make a suggestion.

The gospel of Jesus is not simply good news for the soul of man but also good news for the whole of God’s material creation, our bodies included, and the powers and principalities. The personal and public must remain together but often in history there has been a swing from overemphasizing one to overemphasizing the other. For hundreds of years, from the time of Constantine until the Reformation (I am aware I am making a sweeping statement here) the mission of the church and public life were not mutually exclusive. Monasteries became future urban centers. But over the past few hundred years the gospel has been privatized. Bishop Newbigin refers to the facts-values seperation during the Enlightenment and you could also point to the church-state seperation in the American republic as part of the gradual privatization of the Christian faith. I am not calling for a return to the bygone era of Christendom nor do I feel any nostalgia for it. The question is what is the way forward. I do think the global church (I am aware the church is local as well) of Jesus in the 21st century has to grapple with the how to relate to this unique Western ‘Christian’ history in a critical and redemptive way. Western ‘Christian’ history is particular but it should not be made normative for the church worldwide.

What I am getting at is this. How to re-member and re-tell the story of Western ‘Christian’ history as a part of the global story of God’s salvation of the world? How should an Indian Christian re-member and re-tell the story of the Reformation in Europe. Its easy to think that history has nothing to do with me (an Indian) today but actually I am, as a Christian, now part a global story; the story of the church from it’s beginning in Jerusalm and all that has happened over the past two thousand years is now part of my own story. A state-centric reading of history divides history into German history and Indian history, and this state-centric reading of history has affected how we think about church history, but history of the church is first and foremost global then national. This means, Pandit Ramabhai, an Indian Christian, is now understand by European Christians as a fellow older sister in Christ and Detrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian, is now understood by Indian Christians as a fellow ‘older’ brother in Christ. As Christians, we share family-ties across national boundaries. Our Identity in Christ is primary and our national indentity becomes a subset of it.

What this means is today Western Christians have a lot to learn about how to re-member and re-tell their own story of Western Christianity from the migrant and marginal prespective of non-European Christians living in Europe. This kind of re-narration of Western history is subversive because it flies in the face of ethno-centrisim and nationalism. I believe, done right, this kind of re-membering and re-telling of the story of Western ‘Christian’ history as part of much larger global story that is still unfolding will become once again the basis for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus as ‘good news’ for the both the personal life of the individual and the public life of society.

I would also suggest you read books by Lesslie Newbigin and Vinoth’s books on mission. They will provide you with the information on engaging in mission in the Western context.

Thanks ever so much for the comprehensive response Philip. So for the purposes of clarification, are you saying non-European Christians in my part of the world should be re-telling the story “western” story (so to speak) as part of a much larger global story that includes them? Are you saying this is an effective way to bring the good news once again to this spiritually barren landscape?

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August 2013
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