Christian state: A country in which Christianity is declared the official religion.
Secular state: A country in which there is a separation of church and state and no religion has more official status than any other:
This is undoubtedly the toughest article I have ever written, and the saddest. Because I feel that it is my duty to strongly criticise the head of the largest Christian church in Fiji – the Methodist Church – and the man who holds the position once held by my late father. I believe that I am reflecting the views of many people in the country when I say that I am aghast at the comments made in an interview with Radio Australia by the Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu, the new President of the Methodist Church in Fiji. By calling for Fiji to be officially declared a Christian state, Mr Waqairatu has shown himself to be misguided, intolerant and a threat to race relations and good governance in Fiji. The extreme nature of his comments mark him out as a rogue religious leader at the head of a rogue church. He is, quite simply, a menace.
It is one thing for Mr Waqairatu to say – as he did – that the Methodist Church does not recognise the legitimacy of the Bainimarama Government. This places the Methodists on yet another serious collision course with the state. It also places it on a collision course with many of its own members, a large number of whom support the government. But a strong argument can nonetheless be made that it is the church’s right to adopt such a position. If it wants to oppose the government, then so be it. It is merely confirming in the minds of many Fijians that the Methodist Church is the SDL at prayer, the religious arm of the racist political party deposed by Frank Bainimarama in 2006. At a political level, it has chosen its manger and can lie in it.
But it is quite another thing for the Methodist Church to seek to impose not only its political views but its own doctrine and the Christian religion on the rest of the country. In his interview with Radio Australia’s Bruce Hill, the Church President said that “about 52 per cent of Fijians” were Christians. “The largest number of the people in this country are Christians”, he said. Yes, but hardly an overwhelming majority and surely the barest of margins to advance the notion that 52 per cent of Fijians impose their religious will on everyone else.
In fact, it is an expression of astonishing arrogance for a major religious figure in Fiji to argue such a position. Imagine if the reverse was true, that 52 per cent of Fijians were Hindus. Would the Methodists have accepted Fiji being declared a Hindu state? Given the bigotry now being displayed by the Methodists, the notion is inconceivable. And yet had the Hindus wished to impose their will on Fiji they once had the numbers to do it. It’s only since the Indo-Fijian exodus from Fiji after the 1987 coup that the I’Taukei have become the majority race.
Mr Waqairatu’s arrogance is accompanied by the ignorance and prejudice of a religious zealot. Facts are ignored or twisted, the truth eclipsed by blind faith. Incredibly for a modern day mainstream clergyman, he justifies Fiji being declared a Christian state by citing the Old Testament of the Bible. “We look at our standpoint from the Biblical understanding of the writ covenant in the Old Testament because, Bruce, Fiji was given to God. When it was given to God it has already established its covenant relationship with God and that covenant relationship is eternal. It cannot be withdrawn. So people must understand that when we say this is a Christian state, it was historically and biblically established and we cannot withdraw that”, he said.
We understand alright, Turaga Levu na Peresitedi. We understand that this is gibberish, a theological justification for a temporal advantage for one religion that is so illogical that it beggars belief. Were the other religions in Fiji to make such a claim based on their own texts, Christians would shake their heads in utter astonishment. And make no mistake. There is a lot of head shaking all over the country right now as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other Christians digest the utterances of the President of the Methodist Church in Fiji. Of course, he regards his own logic as irrefutable. Because it is written in the Old Testament, it is and shall be evermore. This is an argument that no one else can win. The argument of a bigot.
What Mr Waqairatu glosses over is a bigger Christian truth – that Jesus Christ, who Christians worship as the son of God – came to rewrite the previous script, to give the Old Testament something of a Year Zero makeover. Christ replaced the Old Testament’s fire and brimstone – the narrative of punishment and God’s wrath – with a simple eternal message of God’s love, compassion and tolerance and the entreaty that we must all love one another as he has loved us. It’s a fundamental truth that these values are shared by most, if not all, of the world’s other major religions. Christianity and Islam, for instance, believe in the one God but place a different importance on his prophets, Jesus for Christians and Mohammed for Muslims. But it’s their shared values – those things common to humanity – that we must all emphasise if communities and whole countries are to live together in peace and mutual respect.
The last thing I would want to do is to get into a theological argument with the President of the Methodist Church. But as a humble luve ni talatala-a preacher’s son who was born in Fiji to Methodist missionary parents -I have heard the Christian message in my own life. And I believe that Jesus Christ said some profound truths that apply to the current position in Fiji. “In my father’s house, there are many mansions”, Christ said. I take that to mean that whatever your personal religious beliefs, striving for a life ruled by love, compassion, tolerance and understanding – the values of all the great religions – gives you a place in the afterlife. Christ also said : “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”. I take that as an entreaty to keep the spiritual dimension of one’s life separate from the organisation of society in the form of government. A biblical injuction for the separation of church and state, not for Christians to lord it over those who choose a different path to spiritual enlightenment.
In his Radio Australia interview, the Methodist Church president also came up with a strange temporal justification for the declaration of a Christian state. He claimed that the chiefs of Fiji had ceded the country to God. “When we say that Fiji is a Christian state, we say that it had been decided by our chiefs who ceded Fiji to Great Britain, that Fiji be a Christian country. On any historical measure, this is arrant nonsense. The chiefs – led by Seru Cakobau, the “Tui Viti” – ceded Fiji to Queen Victoria, the British monarch at the time. They didn’t cede Fiji to Great Britain but to Queen Victoria personally.
Nowhere in the Deed of Cession does it say that the chiefs have ceded Fiji to God. The statement doesn’t exist. The preamble to the document says the following:
Whereas the Fijian Chief Thakombau styled Tui Viti and Vuni Valu and the other high native chiefs of the said islands are desirious [sic] of securing the promotion of civilization and Christianity and of increasing trade and industry within the said islands…
That is the only mention of Christianity. So the chiefs say they want to secure the promotion of Christianity. In other words, for the Christian message to be propagated, not for Fiji to be given to God. That compact between the chiefs and Queen Victoria and her heirs and successors has been honoured. The Christian message – embraced by the chiefs within their own lifetimes after a dark age of extreme violence and cannibalism -has continued to be spread. But with the arrival of the Girmit, the indentured labourers brought by the British to work the cane fields, came other religions, notably Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. And with the arrival of the Chinese came Buddhism and Confucianism. Fiji is therefore a multi-faith country. Why should one religion take preference over any other? At any level – aside from blind faith – it is indefensible.
It is also offensive to the 33 per cent of Fijians who are Hindus and the seven per cent who are Muslim. Their dismay at the following statement by the Methodist Church president can only be imagined:
“Whether we like it or not, this nation was given to God already when our chiefs, the owners of this land, gave Fiji to God and to Great Britain as well. That is something that we cannot change, and this must be really understood well by all people who live in the country. Fiji was already given to Jehovah God, our Yahweh, his son is Jesus Christ and his own spirit, full stop”.
This is tub-thumping, Christian fundamentalism that is unthinking, intolerant and has no place in a multi-faith country like Fiji.
But never mind the attitude of Hindus and Muslims, Mr Waqairatu’s views threaten a huge split in the Christian religion in Fiji. For they’ve been comprehensively repudiated by the second biggest Christian denomination – the Roman Catholic Church. Last week, the Roman Catholic Vicar General, Father Beni Kaloudau, said that declaring a Christian state was akin to “enslaving” people of other denominations.“The Catholic Church of Fiji favours a secular state. The right to worship is the greatest right for a human being. We all have the right to worship and we need to respect the different denominations that make up the population of our beautiful country,” Father Beni said. “We cannot be enslaving others with our beliefs. This is a faith journey which is up to each individual and the Catholic Church of Fiji respects this. We respect all denominations and feel that everyone has the right to worship.” The views expressed by the Roman Catholic Vicar General couldn’t be further from those of the head of the Methodist Church. So the country is now witnessing the once unthinkable spectre of the servants of Jesus Christ on a collision course with each other.
It is now time for the other Christian religions in Fiji to declare their position on this issue of grave national importance. Ordinary citizens have a right to know where the following denominations stand in descending order of their adherents – The Assemblies of God , The Seventh Day Adventists, the Anglicans, CMF (Every Home), Latter Day Saints, Apostolic, Gospel, Baptist, Salvation Army and Presbyterians. It is also time for individual Methodists to examine their own consciences and decide whether to support the views of their elected leader. Because Grubsheet understands that Mr Waqairatu’s comments have caused intense consternation among senior clergy and some former Methodist Church presidents. And it is time for the overseas churches which support the Methodists in Fiji to examine their own consciences – notably the Uniting Church in Australia and the British, New Zealand and American Methodists.
My own father, the Reverend Peter Davis, would have been appalled at the direction the Church has taken were he still alive. He was president in the late sixties and early seventies and saw interfaith goodwill and understanding as a key part of his own mission as leader. At the time of national independence in 1970, my father took part in an ecumenical service of thanksgiving at Albert Park. He was the head of the biggest church in Fiji. But he recognised –as did the entire church at that time – that he was merely representing one strand of faith in the country and insisted on equal status for all religions at that service.
The Methodist Church has had a long and proud record in Fiji. In many ways, it led the way to national independence by successfully becoming independent itself from the Australian church in 1964. It was led at that time by one of the finest churchmen Fiji has ever produced -the Reverend Setareki Tuilovoni, a man of deep personal faith, tolerance and mana.He was followed by leaders of the calibre of the Reverend Paula Niukula, another church leader who passionately believed in the church’s mission to spread the gospel but on its own merits.
But something happened in the lead-up to the 1987 coup, the growing identification of the Methodist Church with the indigenous nationalist cause. It led to massive tensions within the church between the moderates and indigenous supremacists such as the Reverend Manasa Lasaro and the Reverend Tomasi Kanailagi. It pains every moderate – and shames the Methodist Church – that the supremacists appear to have won. Certainly, it appears from his statements that the Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu is a religious supremacist and that is extremely bad news for Fiji as a whole. The word of Jesus – of love, tolerance and compassion – is there for the taking but voluntarily as an act of free will, not as an instrument of state policy as Mr Waqairatu would have it.