Friday, December 2, 2011

The Need for the Church to have Prophetic Voice in Fiji Today

Excerpt from: “Towards a contextual theology of prophetic communication :Communicating the Prophetic Voice of the Mainline Churches and the Prophetic Role of the News Media in Contemporary Fiji-Island Society”

(SUVA: PTC/BDES Thesis, September 2006)

The coups of 1987 and 2000 had contrasting responses from the mainline Churches. On May 14th, 1987, three hours after the military coup d’ētat of the democratically Labour–National Federation Party Coalition, the President of the Methodist Church contacted some of the leaders of the Churches and produced a message on behalf of the Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian and Assembly of God Churches. The message which was broadcast at midnight that night and published in the local newspapers the next day appealed for the upholding of the Christian values of justice, peace, tolerance, goodwill, freedom and love, patience and forgiveness, sacrifice and obedience. The message called on the (at that time) Royal Fiji Military Forces to release all hostages and surrender to the sovereign authority of the land and for all people of Fiji of all religions to pray for the end of the crisis and immediate restoration of the democratically elected Government.[1] Nine days later the Anglican Bishop, the President of the Methodist Church, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, the Regional Commander of the Salvation Army and the minister of the Presbyterian Church issued a joint statement condemning the coup and calling for the nation to come together. In the days, weeks and months that followed the leaders of the Churches issued two further common public statements. The Fiji Council of Churches, having been silent received letters of solidarity from the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The first public statement by the Fiji Council of Churches was in March of 1988 and addressed the issue of the Sunday Decree as well as Church and State. Further statements by the leaders of the Fiji Council of Churches were issued towards the end of the year (i) expressing concern on the constitutional process then underway and (ii) to give a combined Christmas message to the nation calling for the breaking down of barriers and creation of lasting peace.[2]

In May 2000 following the civilian coup, the prophetic solidarity of the Churches was not as evident as in 1987. The first statement on the events of May 19th came the next day when Methodist Church General Secretary Rev. Dr. Ilaitia Tuwere strongly condemned the civilian coup and associated looting in Suva city.[3] The following Monday, the Fiji Times newspaper carried a photograph of the Methodist Church President, Rev. Tomasi Kanailagi outside the Parliament complex.[4] The next day, in an article in the paper, Rev. Kanailagi disassociated the church from the coup, calling for prayers for the nation and saying that the church did not want “meddle into the politics” of the coup.[5] Five days after the takeover, with hostages still being held in Parliament, the head of the Anglican Church, Bishop Bryce also called for prayer, saying that it was the “Christian duty to obey and support the lawful authority of the state.”[6] The same day, former Methodist Church President, Rev. Joseteki Koroi in calling on looters to repent and for church leaders to be part of the repentance process, criticised the Fiji Council of Churches for its silence.[7] The next day the Fiji Times published a statement from the Council stating that it was against the “unchristian act of those who seized members of the democratically elected government,” calling the takeover a, “very thoughtless crucifixion of democracy,” and called for Christians to assist in restoring order by “little acts of love and kindness.”[8]

By the following week, newspaper reports contained more statements from the Fiji Council of Churches and church leaders, calling for peace and calm as well as condemning the coup. There was coverage of the daily peace vigil at the Holy Trinity Anglican church.[9] As the hostage crisis continued for the next month with more statements from the churches calling for an end to the crisis and support for first the President of Fiji and then after his stepping down, the military. The Methodist church, in particular was trying to distance itself from the coup makers, having earlier looked like was supporting them. Their defence was that they were providing pastoral counselling to the rebels in Parliament. This was an issue for the Anglican Church, Roman Catholic Church and the Salvation Army, who as members of the Fiji Council of Churches:

….wanted to take a united stand against the activities of those involved in the coup but were frustrated by the leaders of the Methodist Church who were, at that time, nationalistic in sentiment.[10]

A lack of prophetic voice in the crises in 2000 when compared to 1987 is discernable. In 1987, there were common statements by the churches condemning the coup and calling for immediate release of the government. In 2000, the churches did not make common statements until the Fiji Council of Churches was criticised for its silence and began to raise its voice after almost a week. The Lund Principle of the World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Commission states that, “churches do not say separately, what they can say together,”[11] in order to maintain solidarity and a visible unity of the Church Universal. According to Yabaki:

The churches have reached a point of maturity in their journey towards unity where they have been able to agree on an understanding of scripture, doctrine, baptism, to the issue of trafficking of women and unmasking hypocrisy and speaking to each other and together, as in the case of the Fiji Council of Churches and the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji.[12]

There is also a danger that by not speaking out on injustice and tyranny, the church, in its silence, may be seen as making a statement: that it is supporting the status quo.

The Methodist Church and other non-mainline churches raised and supported, in 1987 and again in 2000, the issue of Fiji becoming a Christian state. This goes against the image of the church in the secular world, where religion does not have a governing role. When a church is too closely aligned with the state, or traditional culture it is in danger of losing its prophetic voice as it concentrates on maintaining its power base, which is either the government support or the support of the people who favour the status quo. However, the Church is not a maintenance Church but an apostolic one, sent out with a mission to contextually address the issues of today.

For the Church to have a prophetic voice in the Fiji Islands, therefore, means speaking the truth, in love, to the issues of injustice, poverty, of peace, of making the church home for everybody in the household of God and being concerned about society. In a multicultural and pluralistic society, the Church has a particular mission to communicate the Gospel to that society. Therefore to be able to read the ‘signs of the times’ might entail having to do research on issues of morality such as homosexuality, or social injustice such as privatisation of water supply. A church with a prophetic voice, as Nathan, Jeremiah and Micah, must communicate with people in power in a way that challenges them about the use of power, about peacemaking and peace building.

Ernst calls for the Church to engage in a fourfold task to interpret the signs find solutions to the challenges of our times:

Reconstruction, in an attempt to identify and acknowledge the kinds of changes that have taken place and have negatively affected the lives of people;

Critique, to uncover ideological underpinnings and connections in order to unmask how economic and political power is maintained;

Denunciation, by assuming the prophetic role of identifying sources of evil and oppression;

Resistance, by mobilizing those who are oppressed;

Advocacy, by joining in solidarity in the struggle or in the promotion of specific projects in specified areas.[13]

The prophetic church needs to know how to speak to and about power in its own way, being biblical and informed by the power of the Spirit. The prophetic church is a critique of power, of how power is used in the world.

[1]Fiji Coups: Church Statements” in Pacific Journal of Theology, Series II No.1, Ed. Bruce Deverell, (Suva: SPATS, 1989), 38 – 53.

[2]Fiji Coups: Church Statements”.

[3] “Burning, looting shocks church,” in The Fiji Times, (Saturday, May 20, 2000), 5.

[4] The Fiji Times, (Monday, May 22, 2006), 8.

[5] “Methodists stay out,” in The Fiji Times, (Tuesday, May 23, 2000), 15.

[6] “Bishop calls for prayer,” in The Fiji Times, (Wednesday, May 24, 2000), 8.

[7] Tanya McCutchan, “Repent, looters told,” in The Fiji Times (Wednesday, May 24, 2000), 13.

[8] “Churches unite against crimes” in The Fiji Times, (Thursday, May 25, 2005), 13.

[9] Organised by the National Council of Women in Fiji.

[10] Lynda Newland, “Fiji” in Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands, M. Ernst (Ed), (Suva: PTC, 2006), 356.

[11] Yabaki, Interview.

[12] Yabaki, Interview.

[13] Manfred Ernst, “Conclusion: The Role of the Church and Christians in a Globalized World,” in Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands, M. Ernst (Ed), (Suva: PTC, 2006), 750.

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