Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Opportunity Knocks

THE past weekend was a milestone not just for the Roman Catholic Church in Fiji but for the wider Christian community. It presents an opportunity for all churches in Fiji to re-engage in dialogue and strengthen relationships within the "Body of Christ" in Fiji.
It is no secret that for the last decade, relations between the mainline churches have not reflected the unity expressed in the prayer of Jesus "that they may all be one".
I was encouraged to see a photo, taken by former The Fiji Times editor, Netani Rika, of the leaders of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Salvation Army, Samoan Congregational Church and the Pacific Conference of Churches, standing with Archbishop Chong and archbishop emeritus Petero Mataca. Rika titled the picture, "Brothers in faith".

A new archbishop and new president now lead the two largest Christian denominations in Fiji. Archbishop Winston Halapua, head of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia — another mainline church — was elected and consecrated in 2010.
Well into the second decade of the 21st century, we are in a time of transition. The world is entering an age that German theologian Hans Küng calls the ecumenical paradigm.
He describes it as the shift towards, "… a new global understanding of the various denominations, religions, and regions; that is, if the religious and theological origins of this term were not all too clear, and if this oikoumen, this inhabited earth, had not become, to so great an extent, uninhabitable — a state that, of course, is essentially connected with 'modern' developments. We have reached a crisis that some today would understand apocalyptically as an 'end time', while others, unwilling to abandon all hope, would see as a time of transition." (Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, 1984)
This transitional period has so far been marked by division. It is time for this to be replaced by embrace — an act of humility; an act of love.
Despite doctrinal differences, the mainline churches profess the same basic affirmation of faith via the Nicene Creed. Even the earlier Apostle's Creed expresses Christian unity as the catholic (the small "c" in this word refers to the universal) church.
Archbishop Chong's coat of arms has the motto: "To be church in the world". He has spoken about the need for the Catholic Church to be relevant in Fijian society.
The same sentiments have been articulated, in various ways, by other mainline church leaders.
The time has come for this relevance to be not only contemporary and contextual, but to be communal. This means not only being relevant to their particular community but to each other's community of faith. It means being relevant to Fijian society as a whole.
To set the example for an inclusive, just and peaceful society, churches in Fiji — both mainline and Pentecostal — need to be communities of faith that practise a radical egalitarianism the poor who are not only the economically disadvantaged but also those who are socially marginalised and excluded.
This means not only meeting others but deeply listening to their stories and including it as part of their own story. It means a preferential option for the marginalised as God's people and for the environment as God's creation. It also means celebrating the traditional values of relationship, community, mutuality and reciprocity which are hallmarks of the Ecclesia Primitiva — the Early Church; while at the same time opening eyes, ears and hearts to embrace the wider community of faith.
This embrace of the wider community of faith is part of the new ecumenical paradigm. The challenge of embracing ecumenism more fully so that the spirit of kononia of fellowship permeates all of Fijian society is a necessary challenge. But it is an encounter with other members of the body of Christ who are also seeking to manifest just peace in their communities.
Such engagement is not only a reminder that we are not alone, but also an opportunity to struggle together, from the global to the local level for God's shalom /peace.
Opportunity knocks for the churches in Fiji.
It knocks at the door of reconciliation and relationship strengthening for the mainline churches.
It knocks at the door of dialogue and cooperation between mainline and Pentecostal churches through both the Fiji Council of Churches and Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji.
It knocks at the door meaningful engagement in the social, political, economic and environmental issues affecting the nation and the region.
It knocks at the door of friendship and tolerance with the other faith communities to which the other 36 per cent of the population belong.
The door is heavy; it will take many hands to open and keep open.
The door is low, entry requires bending down.
Yet the door is wide enough for diversity to fit through.
Perhaps now is the time to respond to the knocking, before the opportunity is lost.
May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light and peace.
"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Human Responsibilities

Published as "Papua's Open Wound" in the Fiji Times' "Off the Wall with Padre James," 7th June, 2013

OF the many "summer" blockbuster films already released this year, two in particular have posed an important question about our treatment of this planet we inhabit. Both the Tom Cruise film Oblivion, and Will and Jaden Smith's latest starrer, After Earth, offer us a glimpse into the future, where humankind has rendered the Earth uninhabitable.

Oblivion is set 64 years from now in 2077 and prominent throughout the movie are giant extractors draining the oceans and converting the seawater into energy. 

After Earth is set over a thousand years from now and humans have rendered the planet unfit for human habitation and colonised another planet.
Last week I received a picture via social media of something I thought may have come from the sets of one of these movies. However, the shocking truth is that it was from nearby West Papua.

The text that came with the photo reads: "A gaping wound in the heart of Papua is visible from space". Every day thousands of tons of gold and copper are being extracted from Freeport mine. All the proceeds are channelled to Jakarta, while Papuans become poorer and poorer in their own land.
Freeport dumps over 238,000 tonnes of toxic waste into the local river system EVERY DAY. And pays the Indonesian military over $3 MILLION every year to kill local Papuans and keep them away from the mine."
Recently production at the US-owned Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold Inc. ore mine Grasberg, Papua was suspended for three months following the deaths of 28 workers in a tunnel collapse on May 14, and after one more person, a truck driver, was also killed three weeks after the May 14 incident.
According to Wikipedia, the Grasberg mine is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world. It includes a very large open pit mine, an underground mine and four concentrators. The open pit forms a mile-wide crater at the surface.
The concentrator's tailings, (the materials left over after the process) generated at a rate of 230,000 tonnes per day, are the subject of considerable environmental concern, as they wash into the Aikwariverine system and Arafura Sea. Native fish have nearly disappeared from now-turgid waters of the Aikwa River. The acidic runoff of dissolved copper, and the finer material gets washed into the headwaters of the Wanagon River. It settles out along the river course and then into the ocean, and will continue to do so indefinitely.
The mine is located within what used to be a small equatorial mountain glacier. Steepening of slopes related to mining activities, as well as earthquakes and frequent heavy rainfall has resulted in landslides within the open pit mine. While landscape reclamation projects have begun at the mine, environmental groups and local citizens are concerned with the potential for copper contamination and acid mine drainage from the mine tailings into surrounding river systems, land surfaces, and groundwater.
The Grasberg mine has been a frequent source of friction in Papua. Possible causes of friction are the mine's environmental impact on Papua, the perceived low share of profits going to local Papuans and the questionable legality of the payments made to Indonesian security forces for their services to guard the site.
I have discussed the continuing issue of West Papuan self-determination in previous articles in this column and on my blog ( and Facebook page.
However the fundamental issue raised by the Freeport Mine in West Papua and the films Oblivion and After Earth for me are that of the systematic exploitation and destruction of Earth for the sake of financial gain. For too long now humankind has ignored the fact that we are co-inhabitors of this planet. We share this planet with millions, possibly billions of species of flora and fauna — plants and animals.
I am a firm supporter of human rights. As a Christian, I believe that my faith affirms the essence of human dignity, equality and liberty. However my faith also calls me to recognise that I am not apart from, but rather a part of, and in an integral relationship with, the rest of creation. It is a relationship that recognises the inherent goodness of all creatures and their integral place in the web of life. Humanity's role, therefore, is not of owner but of steward of creation.
With that in mind I suggest that we not only focus on human rights but the rights of this planet we call home. What are responsibilities as humans, not just to other humans but to the rest of creation? In the discussion on land rights, how many stop to give pause for responsibilities to the land?
Sustainable development is an old catch phrase. But just how sustainable is the exploitation of land and sea and seabed? Who measures this sustainability?
The phrase "Noqu Kalou, noqu vanua" is a double edged sword. It is not just an expression of "my God" and "my vanua" that has been touted for so long as a claim of ownership. It is an affirmation of relationship and mutuality. God is not only mine, I am God's. The vanua is not only mine, I am the vanua's — and the vanua is God's.
We have a responsibility to each other as fellow human beings. We also have a responsibility to this planet as co-inhabitors.
"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."
* Reverend JS Bhagwan is a Masters in Theology Student at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not that of this newspaper.

Enhancing empathy

Published in the Fiji Times' "Off the Wall with Padre James" on May 29th, 2013

LIVING in a situation with people of different ethnicities and cultures and trying to create a sense of unity, we can often overlook the difficulties experienced because of our differences or particularities.
In my time away from home these past two years, I have lived closely with colleagues not only from Korea, but India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Kenya, Togo, Liberia and Sri Lanka. Being a seasoned traveller, I consider myself extremely adaptable to differing contexts. However listening to their situations, both in Korea and, for the foreigners, back in their homeland, gave me a greater understanding of the struggles.
Sometimes that is the case for us in Fiji where communities have existed side-by-side for generations and know of each other but do not really know each other. By "knowing" I mean not just knowing names and occupations, but knowing their problems, their dreams, their fears, their reality.
I recently read an article by Steven Youngblood, the director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. Youngblood is in Lebanon in this month directing peace journalism workshops for students and for professional journalists.
Peace journalism aims to open the framework for how reporting and journalism is done, especially during times of crisis. It calls for journalists to look beyond the immediate events and to frame them in a wider context. At the same time it calls for not just news of the parties engaged in conflict but also those affected on all sides by the conflict.
Youngblood's article, written in Beirut, illustrates this: "We've all walked past the poor or the homeless asking for money, usually not giving them a second thought. I was about to do the same thing yesterday until the young journalists I was accompanying on a reporting assignment stopped and engaged one such middle-aged man, whom I'll call Hakim, in conversation.
"Believe me, Hakim doesn't have your usual down-on-his-luck story. But then again, the same can probably be said for the other 463,000 Syrian refugees (UNHCR) who have made their way here into neighbouring Lebanon.
"As we approached Hakim, the first thing we noticed was the odour. It's hard to guess, but it's been many days, perhaps weeks, since Hakim has bathed. He was sitting on the sidewalk, splayed, ironically, in front of a fancy jewellery store on Hamra St, in the centre of Beirut's upscale shopping district.
"As the well-heeled shoppers robotically wheeled around us, we stooped to speak to Hakim.
"He explained three times that he had never been in this position before, that he "never had to beg" to survive. Hakim said he was going to get bread for his family in Syria when a massive explosion killed his entire family and left Hakim's foot injured. To dispel any doubts about this, and to elicit sympathy, his foot was prominently displayed, jutting out into the middle of the sidewalk. I could see that the foot was injured, but didn't want to look too closely.
"Hakim said that he smuggled himself in to Lebanon almost two years ago, right after the explosion. He crossed the border with nothing but his ID. He has been looking for relatives who live in Lebanon, but hasn't located them yet.
"Even as a self-described beggar, Hakim said that life on the streets of Beirut is 'safer than the streets of Syria. If they see me in the streets of Syria, they would run me over'. In fact, he said that in comparison, life in Lebanon 'is almost like a hotel'. But one minute later, Hakim did an about face, commenting, 'I have no help. The situation is very bad'.
"Hakim is one of 88,000 Syrian refugees living in Beirut, according to the UNHCR. This makes sense, since Beirut is only 55 miles from Damascus, Syria's capital. Syrian refugees come from all walks of life, as I learned during our visit to Hamra Street. In fact, we met a group of four very well dressed and presumably wealthy Syrian women who were window shopping, a Syrian retail clerk who charmed my female companions with his intelligence and good looks, and four Syrian construction workers laying concrete blocks.
"Their stories all differ, but unlike Hakim, all were reluctant to call themselves refugees or admit that they have been in some way victimised. My Lebanese companions insisted this refusal to admit victimisation was Arab pride. I told them that I believe that no one anywhere likes to admit that that they are vulnerable.
"Our discussion with Hakeem and the others was part of an assignment in my peace journalism workshop to produce stories about Syrian refugees. As the participants wrote stories about the Syrians the day after their reporting forays into the city, we all shared a 'count your blessings' moment.
"The Lebanese student reporters said that they now have a better and more sympathetic understanding of the refugees who have crowded into their tiny country. I hope that, through their journalism, these students can help spread this enhanced empathy among their Lebanese neighbours."
(Source: Follow Steven Youngblood onTwitter: @PeaceJourn)
In Fiji, where sometimes the coconut wireless is faster and has more news than newspapers, radio or television can provide, the example set by these student reporters in their new understanding of the "others" in their communities is not only for student and professional journalists to follow.
We are all citizen journalists in Fiji. We all share the stories we hear or of our experiences. However, it is no longer enough to just report what we see or hear, but to try to understand each situation and share our understanding. It is no longer enough for us to share stories about events and people. We must share the lessons learned from our experiences and also share the experiences of those different from us so that we can truly start to understand each other.
"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, and currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.