Sunday, October 6, 2013

Wesley's "View" on Kava?

Last week, I reflected in this column on the recent call by the leadership of the Methodist Church in Fiji for clergy and members to abstain from drinking kava and smoking on church premises and on Sundays. My perspective was from the issue of health and vitality – both physical and spiritual.

In the week that has followed, I have received some very interesting and varying responses and comments. Some were supportive and encouraging of the move to reduce excessive kava drinking in the church, smoking and even overeating by ministers, lay pastors, lay leaders and even members.

A traditional iTaukei yaqona ceremony.
The author says discussion within the Methodist Church
on yaqona drinking needs also to be open
to the Wesleyan tradition.
There were, however a number of critics of this move. Some feel that this move is dictatorial , that it infringes on the freedom of the individual as from a human rights perspective and that it does not take into consideration the traditional i-Taukei culture.  Some, as I mentioned last week have responded by quoting biblical passages to  support their view.

As I reflected on the criticisms on the call for the reduction in kava consumption, for the church to be smoke-free and for a healthy church, I began to wonder what the founder of Methodism, John Wesley might contribute to the debate. Of course, Wesley lived in 18th century England which would only hear about “Feejee” or the “Cannibal Isles” towards the latter part of the 1700s.

18th century England was a “century of contrasts.” This period saw the development British economic and political expansion, the “Enlightenment” and relative stability within and without the United Kingdom.  However he also notes that this “imposing superstructure was built on a foundation of poverty and wretchedness,” that was for the most ignored by ruling class and intelligentsia who were satisfied with the status quo. “Prosperity of the nation presupposed a permanent pool of poverty to sustain it and that there was a providential arrangement which had decreed that the many poor should serve the interests of the few rich.”

The cost of food was in low supply but high in price which led to regular riots. 50 percent of Britain’s wheat was used in distilling liquor. Oats were consumed by horses used for transport rather than for cattle and sheep which could provide meat.

Wesley was no stranger to the issue of excessive drinking, particularly in the area of alcoholic spirits.  While food was expensive, distilled liquor, in particular gin was produced cheaply and readily available. Gin shops, an estimated 17,000 in London alone, required no license to operate and the public were able to “get drunk on for a penny or dead-drunk for two-pence,” with free straw to lie on.  The consumption of distilled spirits more than doubled between 1750. When the Gin Act was introduced by the government in 1736 to raise funds to service the national debt through high duty, riots broke out across England and the Act was repealed in 1742.

Writing on the moral situation in the 1700s Wesley notes: 

Our nation stands on the brink of destruction. And why are we thus, but because the cry of wickedness is gone up to heaven? Because we have so exceedingly, abundantly, beyond measure, corrupted our ways before the Lord.”

Rev. Dr Lesley G Anderson writes that Wesley’s, ‘Letter to an Alcoholic’, revealed the unpleasant truth that the use of alcohol is, detrimental to persons and society. Utilizing the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, sociology and theology, undergirded by Scripture, Wesleylaunched a formidable attack against it and classified it as a social evil.
Concerned about the value and wellbeing of the whole person, each of whom was made in the image of God, Wesley made a personal plea for total abstinence. He was concerned that the habitual use of alcoholwas a ‘diabolical practice’, which leveled a ‘human’ to the inferior state of an ‘animal’ and therefore, degraded the human personality. This is what he wrote:

“You are a human being! God made you human, but you have converted yourself into an animal. What is the difference between a human and an animal? Is it not, perhaps, reasoning and understanding? But you have wasted your ability to reason and divested yourself of understanding”
Wesley makes the distinction between the human and animal to highlight the negation of selfhood and the debasement of Christian character, self-respect, dignity and worth. He was therefore unambiguous in his plea for total abstinence. He was concerned about the harm alcohol caused to the body and the soul.

I agree with Anderson in that while Wesley’s letter was very strong in tone, it was also basically pastoral, because his primary purpose was to ‘save souls’ for Christ. As a result he highlighted the fact, that standards of behaviour for the Christian must be different from that of society. The Christian must make a difference. The Christian should live out his/her faith and put his/her beliefs into practice.

For Methodists in Fiji, this Wesleyan tradition calls leaders to pledge not to drink alcohol (with exception made occasionally for Holy Communion) and encouraged their congregations to do the same.

In the situation of excessive kava consumption, I would suggest that if we apply the Wesleyan “method” of reflecting on issues based on Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, we would find ourselves drawing similar conclusions to that of Wesley on alcoholic spirits.

It is important to add here that I understand that kava is an important part of I-Taukei  culture. However at the same time I would suggest that we also need to remember the difference between the historical and traditional use of kava and the contemporary and common cultural use of culture.

In his Master of Social Sciences in Anthropology Thesis for the University of Waikato, by Sekove Degei writes of kava as “a stumbling block” (reflected from Romans 14:13; 1Corinthinias 1:23 )for the church.

According to Degei, the presentation of yaqona has symbolic significance to the village people, especially Methodist church members in Fiji. Sitting together in the customary ranked order in a yaqona drinking circle after church, listening and observing the rituals that go together with it, is seen as helping consolidate the traditional communal living of the community and reaffirming social ties and relations. As Tomlinson (2002:52) writes” “Not drinking kava [yaqona] cuts oneself off from the social life of the community.”

Degei adds that all the Methodists he interviewed in his research “agreed that the reason why the church leaders are trying to encourage limiting the consumption of kava is that too many members have abused the practice. It was stated that some talatala and the vakatawa are really heavy drinkers of kava and this can be seen in their skin and complexions, which tend to be grey, even scaly.”

I understand that the issue of the tradition of I-Taukei culture in relation to kava/yaqona is being deliberated by the Methodist Church’s Standing Committee. This is an important conversation if a clear understanding of how and when, kava may be consumed by Methodists. However, any discussion needs also to be open to the Wesleyan tradition, of which the people called Methodists in Fiji need always to be mindful, if they wish to be part of that legacy.

For example, the “Ticket” issued to Methodist Class members was a visible sign of discipline in life and society, regardless of social situation. Even for poor members it was a source of self respect and respect by fellow members as it signified that their moral life was taken much more seriously and maintained at a higher level in the society than in the national church.

This “membership ticket”, which remains an essential (if often ignored) element of the Methodist Church Constitution, could serve as a reminder that the Methodist community is not just an institution or a leg of the “Three Legged Stool” but an alternative Christian community, that is not afraid or satisfied to follow the norm, simply because it is common practice in society.

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