Craig Vernall, National Leader for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand, delivered the address at the Waitangi Day Ecumenical Service on February 6. He is believed to be the first Baptist to speak at this event. The following is an abridged version of what he said. (Photos courtesy of Jay Matenga Wood, Pioneers NZ)
There are 246 Baptist churches in New Zealand. We are a mainline evangelical movement of churches. We occupy grand buildings on Queen Street [Auckland] and shop fronts. We have churches in provincial towns, cafés and any old pub that’s run out of beer.
The Baptist church movement began 405 years ago in Amsterdam when a small group of separatists fled from England. There they were being persecuted for their expression of the Christian faith.
Since their outset Baptists have always been strong advocates for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression. That includes all denominations and all faiths. This may explain why, in a little while, I’ll be reflecting upon the ministry of T.W Ratana.
Today, Waitangi Day, celebrates the birth of our nation. That’s why we are here, at the cradle of our beginnings. Waitangi is our nation’s Turangawaewae. It was 174 years ago that we signed an agreement: Maori, who are one parent, The Crown, the other parent. And we, the Church, served as the midwife to the Treaty being birthed by these two parents. This birth gave us something very unique.
That’s why Waitangi Day celebrations are so important. Because two parents return to revisit the day of birth and the birth of vision. And like any birthday, we measure how far have we come. That was a tradition in my household. Every birthday the tradition was to stand near the pantry door and measure the growth from the previous year. So we do the same as a nation. We also measure what’s good, what’s not, how far have we grown and how far we have to go.
New Zealand is now a diverse nation. Even in my 50 years it has changed considerably. Different ethnicities and cultures fill our cities and towns bringing colour and difference to Aotearoa—new people from different nations all seeking a dream. In doing so they bring the world to our neighbourhoods.
Equally, our young people travel overseas bringing culture home with them as part of that great Kiwi tradition, the great OE. Thirty years ago I returned from my two and a half years of OE. I returned and showed my parents my passport with the stamps of different countries that I’d visited. Now young people return and show their parents the tattoos they got from different countries!
When I meet a new New Zealander, someone who wasn’t born to our country or born to our languages, I think “Lord, the parents of this nation had better get things right.”
Tangata Whenua, the Crown and the Church. So much is invested in this foundational relationship that serves our nation. Because if we sow division we will reap division. But if we sow unity we will reap unity. Abraham Lincoln quoted Jesus Christ in a State of the Union address saying, “A house divided against itself will not stand.”
The hope that is carried within our Treaty is the hope both present and future for our nation’s prosperity. These new citizens, new cultures, look to the Treaty and ask: “This land that’s adopted me, this Mother and Father, Maori and Crown, these parents of this nation had better get it right.” For my hopes and dreams can only be achieved if the nation’s parents do this well. Or else this family of Aotearoa—New Zealand and it’s citizens—will never fulfil our God-given calling”.
This waka we are all paddling has such potential that others around the world can see it. But maybe we don’t?
Our story of nationhood is a terrific story. Other nations would love to have our story. Other nations have had centuries of war and conflict. By comparison our nation has had a terrific but staggered start. It’s where we go from here that counts.
The Treaty of Waitangi is more than a partnership. In fact, we belittle the Treaty by calling it a partnership. The Treaty of Waitangi is a covenant. A covenant is binding beyond the level of mutual convenience, beyond simple partnership.
The Christian story talks knowingly about covenant. Covenant in the scripture always speaks about death being an essential part of a covenant. Biblical covenant always contains a death of some sort: Death to self, or death by someone or something.
The central message of the Gospel, the Christian Covenant, involves the death of Jesus. When he voluntarily gave up his life on a Roman cross to die for the sins of the world, he made a covenant—sealed in the blood of Christ. It is for those who put their faith in His sacrifice for their sins, a covenant for all those who believe upon him. Death is irreversible, making the Christian Covenant immutable, unchangeable and everlasting. It is a covenant made by God, but founded in the death of his son Jesus.
For our Treaty Covenant to be successful it requires an ongoing death: Death to self or death to any claim to cultural superiority. This, we all know, has been our weakness. The Crown now freely admits this history. But the Church—the midwife—also needs to remember its place in this story, the good and the bad. The Church was an integral player in the original Treaty process. But we haven’t always fulfilled our God given responsibility.
We must remember that only 39 Maori leaders signed the Treaty here on these grounds 174 years ago. What’s important to remember is that 500 more signatures were solicited throughout this nation by missionaries—of Anglican, Methodist and Catholic denominations—who travelled the length and breadth of the country with copies of the Treaty.
The Treaty was born here at Waitangi, but the labour pains of birth continued for months as the Church—the midwife—gathered the signatures needed to ratify the Treaty by going from tribe to tribe, chief to chief, forging this new covenant.
Sadly, with the passing of time, the Church—now of all denominations—failed in its responsibility to nurture this new-born Treaty into maturity. That’s why the Treaty today has yet to reach its fullness. It was not parented well by one of the parents or remembered by the midwife.
Time—unchallenged—will always see us default to the old Adamic nature, to the Garden of Eden where self-interest prevails over “death to self” or covenant. Death, or death to self, has its own mystery that brings depth and reflection, honesty and vulnerability. Covenant means death to self and the serving of our own interests.
A personal experience my family is living with now illustrates this point. Four years ago our daughter married a terrific young Australian named Karl. One year ago, at the age of 24, Karl was diagnosed with Leukaemia. Three weeks ago he was told there was nothing more the doctors could do for him. For our family this has brought an enormous level of depth, reflection, honesty and vulnerability. Any selfish ambition is exchanged for seeking the best for each other. It’s both a challenging and surreal experience that we are having with Karl, our daughter Brittany and God.
In the Bible there is a confusing sentence of scripture found in the book of Ecclesiastes 7:2. It says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting”. These words by King Solomon make sense to me now. For through our own experience with Karl we’re growing in understanding about how “the house of mourning” sadly brings it’s deeper rewards.
In this nation during the 1920’s and 1930’s “The house of mourning” belonged to Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. This prophet was accredited to us by God with signs and wonders following. Ratana’s healing ministry was astounding and the Ratana museum is still filled with crutches and wheelchairs. These are the evidence of people being healed as he prayed for them. Historians will tell us that it was petty jealousies that caused the mainline churches to abandon him.
Throughout his ministry, Ratana had two goals: Ture Wairua—the ministry of the Spirit—and Ture Tangata—the ministry for the people.
Ratana was deeply troubled about the Treaty or the lack of its presence. Ratana was a burden bearer—an intercessor. He heard and carried the pain of his people. In 1924 Ratana took a petition to London to seek an audience with the King and the League of Nations. Ratana had collected 40,000 signatures. These represented nearly three quarters of all Maori. But no one gave him any time. London ignored him. The New Zealand government worked hard to block his efforts.
Later in 1935 Ratana went to Parliament and presented to Prime Minister Michael Savage four symbols. Two of these symbols were a potato and a broken watch. The potato symbolised the land that was taken and how Maori could no longer feed themselves. The broken watch symbolised the Treaty that was broken. It no longer worked and wasn’t being honoured.
Little was heard and even less was done to right the injustices that Ratana identified.
The Treaty of Waitangi was seen as history and so no longer needed. Sadly, it was cultural superiority by both the Government and the Church that caused us to miss an opportunity to begin to reconcile this Treaty Covenant.
So I ask the question. How different would our nation be today if we had listened to the burden for our nation that Ratana carried those years ago? How much better off and further ahead would our nation be if during Ratana’s time 80 years earlier had we became serious about our Treaty?
It was a missed opportunity that undoubtedly scarred Ratana and his people. The distance we see today that still separates Ratana from the mainline Church still reflects this rejection and disappointment. Much more needs to be said and much more needs to be reconciled.
But the call to us is still evident. That’s why we are here today. The Treaty is a gift from God.
So as two parents and a midwife we must continue to make covenant by laying aside our temptation for cultural superiority. We must listen to each other in the “House of Mourning”. Jesus said, “No greater love is there than this than to lay down one’s life for his brother”... seeking each other’s highest in a spirit of Christian forgiveness and reconciliation. We must ensure each generation hears the story that God has given to our Nation and for us to continue to write our own chapter with the heart of putting others first.
We need to feel the pain that Ratana carried in his heart for our Nation. We need to be burden bearers, intercessors for the travail of our nation in the way that Ratana first did.
His vision took our story to London and the League of Nations. God’s vision brings us here today so we can capture afresh the spirit of humility with which, and only which, we can make this journey together.
May God bless us all.
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