Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Religion and reality laid bare in Fiji


Flashback to when then Methodist Church president Laisiasa Ratabacaca, with glasses, led a delegation to offer moral support to deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase. Photo: Fiji Times

By Dr Crosbie Walsh

THE DIFFICULTY for overseas readers in reading this story about the Fiji military clampdown is that they will equate the Methodist Church in Fiji with the Methodist Church (and other churches) in Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere. They do, of course, share similar spiritual roles and both are engaged in "politics".

But there the similarity ends.

"Politics" for overseas church leaders means working to promote social and moral issues for the perceived benefit of all the population. "Politics" for the Fiji Methodist leadership means advancing what they perceive to be the interests of indigenous Fijians (or, more precisely, perceived traditional relationships) with scant regard for other races, many of whom are neither Christian nor Methodist. Some 95 percent Fiji Methodists are ethnic Fijians. Some 43 percent of Fiji's population is not ethnic Fijian.

To better understand the situation one needs to trace its roots. The separation of spiritual and secular authority, and economic and political power, which emerged in the West as societies evolved from feudal to capitalist societies, was not evident in Fiji. And what was assumed to be traditional practice was left untouched by colonial authorities, who found it cheaper to administer ethnic Fijians indirectly, through their chiefs.

"Fijian 'collective consciousness' and 'identity' was — and is" — what a former, and more liberal, Church leader, the Rev. Ilaitia Tuwere, in 1997 called the "inseparable union of vanua (land), lotu (church) and matanitu (state). Their union is so complete that if one is affected, the whole is affected." [My emphasis.]

The Methodist Church assumed the mantle of lotu in this triumverate, and for this reason some of its leaders endorsed the 1997 Rabuka and 2000 Speight coups when ethnic Fijian hegemony — and control of the Fiji matanitu (state) — was seen to be threatened following elections which resulted in their "approved" political party losing power.

Church leaders promoted and took part in the Speight coup which overthrew the legally elected government led by Mahendra Chaudhry. And they supported Qarase's SDL-led party that was ousted by Bainimarama in 2006. This is why they oppose the Bainimarama government, the People's Charter and early attempts at dialogue, and why their leadership refuse to comply with government's insistence that "politics" be kept out of the annual conference meetings.

Overseas Methodists do not tell their members to support a particular political party. The Fiji Methodist Church endorses one or another ethnic Fijian political party. This is a very important difference. "Politics" has a different meaning.

In the current standoff, the Fiji Church had the right to decide who would chair its meetings, even if asked not to do so by government. It chose to ignore government requests because its leaders were upholding their lotu role, handed down from an idealised and largely fossilised tradition that is under threat from social change — no less than from the Bainimarama government. They are part of the ethnic Fijian "establishment" (a role they share with the Great Council of Chiefs, the Fijian Affairs Board, the Native Lands Trust Board or Fiji Holdings Ltd) that has perverted democracy in Fiji for many years.

If Fiji is to move towards a more genuine and inclusive democracy, its institutional structures need to be modernised: with the role of the Great Council of Chiefs limited to ethnic Fijian matters and the Methodist Church limited to spiritual, social and political affairs — without party political strings attached. Fiji now belongs to all its people, not just the iTaukei, and governments must ensure it remains so.

One wonders what the Rev. Tuwere would advise. Would he have urged the Church to take the political step of defying government, or would he have recommended the Church adopt a more conciliatory position, with the intention of allowing the conference to proceed? And what would he have advised the government, whose answers to too many issues seem to rely on force rather than persuasion, no matter how many times the persuasion has failed?

This is what he said two years ago as reported on ABC's Pacific Beat:
"A former president of the Fiji Methodist Church has called for the controversial church conference next month to be cancelled to save the country from further unrest. Several top church leaders are now facing charges over their decision to go ahead with the annual conference in open defiance of the interim government's decision to ban it.

"Reverend Ilaitia Tuwere says blame for the standoff should be equally shared between the church and the interim government. The former church president says that the Methodist leadership should have dropped all political issues from its conference agenda, but the has government overreacted with its series of arrests. "
Former University of the South Pacific professor Crosbie Walsh publishes a specialist blog on Fiji affairs.

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