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A couple of poems, apparently.

Now. But not yet.

Stark, unmade tree

Violating Earth & Sky

Constructed to mock

Me and my sin

Us and our sin

Broken tree

For a broken body In a broken world.

The cross is wrongfulness on a hill.

And then

after a spread of poison hours

Logos asserts

to women’s witness

and the killing tree resolves to smooth-hewn wood

Earth & Sky clasp fingers, but no more.

The wood waits for its Real form.

Now, but not yet.

The method.

I watched the end of Last Tango in Paris the other day.

That scene

where Maria’s character

shoots Marlon’s character, and good job too.

I liked the way he died.

No glassy eyes staring up, limbs thrown about

like firewood.

But a gentle drop,

a curling inwards,


A gentle holding of the self,

corralling that escaping life,

to breathe it back in.

Not out.

Not yet.


Rāhui, Mana and Peter Ellis: the new way Tikanga Māori is growing in Aotearoa’s legal landscape.

RahuiirotoIt’s a quiet spot, this entrance to the Herekino forest. On this January morning the air was cool, and I wanted to get moving, to feel my body working by walking the track. I thought about ignoring the red-lettered sign in front of me at the track entrance. I thought about just…closing my eyes to the instruction it held that the track was prohibited to us. I could pretend that the sign was old; that it wasn’t really meant for me. Who would know, right? We’d be done in an hour, me, my cousin, our Aussie uncle & nephew too. it was only a quick walk. The ngāhere would barely even know we were there. Right?

Well, that little bit of self talk was never going to work. A rāhui had been placed over the area to protect it from the spread of Kauri dieback and it was not our place to challenge that law, or to argue about what the law was. The fierce and bloody lettering told us all we needed to know. The sign functioned just as a pou rāhui should: as a marker to tell us that the area was set aside, and prohibited to all to enter. Anyhow, there was a bunch of our whanaunga who would give us heck on our Ahipara Takiwā Facebook page if we got caught. We knew we were bound by this law, so we obeyed it. Easy.

And there you have it. It turns out there is not just one type of law in Aotearoa New Zealand. At one level this makes clear sense. There are lots of different rules to live by. Playing league on Saturday is governed by one set of rules, a tangi at the local marae is governed by another. My kids are pretty good at disobeying mine, but there are rules in our own homes, our own churches, our own spaces and places.

It feels a little bit different, though, when we refer to “the law” as in, “don’t break the law or you will go to jail”. This is, simply put, the notion that there is a nationally recognisable set of laws that we are bound by, we can be punished by, and that we are supposed to be protected by. To the extent that we ever think about it, we might know that Parliament and the Courts set out and enforce these nationally recognisable (and applicable) laws. 

What if there are nationally recognised laws that don’t originate from Parliament or the Courts? What if any or some law derived from tikanga Māori?

Pfft, you might say. Tikanga Māori is already the law of the land. It differs from place to place, it depends on the different hapū and iwi, but regardless of Pākehā laws, it exists anyway, no bunch of parliamentarians or judges makes any difference to what really goes on in Māori communities. Of course that is true. Nothing changes that. But in the main (usually) only Māori people and collectives might feel bound by tikanga, and bound to uphold it.

You might have a very different mindset.

Pfft,  you might say. Tikanga Māori is not law, it is not enforceable by the police or any institution, to has nothing to do with anyone outside the relevant Māori collective anyhow. They are not written down or confirmed by any recognisable institution, so how can they be nationally recognisable let alone applicable? Fine if those people want to see tikanga Māori for law or rules for them, go fill your boots. But the law is the law, and it is not my law. 

This is where rāhui are interesting.

Rāhui are interesting for what they reveal about how we understand law in Aotearoa New Zealand. These are tikanga; legal practices that have very specific functions for a specific purposes, they are birthed of te Ao Māori, although the word itself is understood similarly throughout eastern Polynesia (rāfui). (Check out Te Mātāpunenga’s entry about this term). 

A rāhui can be placed  where death has occurred in a specific area, in order to make the surrounding area now tapu; or to preserve and protect a natural resource, and to allow it to regenerate. Hirini Moko Mead (2003: 1) even suggested back in 1979 that a kind of ‘political’ rāhui could be placed on Māori rugby players who had been chosen to play in apartheid-era South Africa, to prohibit them from playing there. It wasn’t followed through, but the debate fostered the idea that rāhui could be used beyond its traditional sphere.

We have recently seen two very different and highly publicised accounts of rāhui. When the volcanic eruption happened on Whakaari in December last year, killing 18 people, an enormous rāhui was imposed over Ngāti Awa coastal territory at Whakatāne, Ōhope and Ōhiwa, including the Rurima, Moutohora and Te Puia ō Whakaari islands.  Te Whakatōhea and Te Whānau a Apanui, also placed rāhui over their coastal areas. People were prohibited from accessing, or taking food from, the rāhui areas, except for those involve in rescue and recovery. While some fishing an tourism operators ignored the rāhui, most did not. Government compensation was available to assist those who lost money as a result of not being able to operate.

We also saw the Covid-19 legally enforceable lockdown often referred to as a national rāhui. While some (like me) got cranky at this new suggested usage of the term, others felt very comfortable in calling the lockdown a rāhui: the word was gentler, it lacked the ugly prison connotations of “lockdown”, it got across the idea that we were prohibited from doing certain things and going certain places; that we ourselves were the subject of a rāhui because we were the resource that needed protecting, this time it was our mauri that needed replenishing. The chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori Ngāhiwi Apanui even suggested that Jacinda Ardern probably has the standing with Māori communities to declare a rāhui over the whole of Aotearoa. On the other hand, he remained unconvinced that the level 4 lockdown could really be called a rāhui at all, preferring the term noho taratahi, or quarantine. Time will only tell if the term rāhui will permanently incorporate that new understanding. Time will also tell if rāhui as a practice of tikanga Māori (rather than just a gentler concept and label) could be accepted, by Māori, as something that could be extended to the entire country.

What interests me about the place of actual rāhui in our complex society is that many people, Māori or not, will obey a rāhui if they know it exists. Of course, a significant number of people will be entirely content to trample on tikanga Māori. Nevertheless experience seems to suggest that many, perhaps a majority (although that is hard to tell!)  grasp the significance of rāhui, and will comply, as happened at Whakaari, and also in smaller local examples where deaths have occurred by drowning. 

If ordinary people can often get it, what about the institutions that uphold and enforce legislation, and regulation, such as local councils, central government and the New Zealand police?  On occasion, police have been involved in monitoring rāhui, local councils and conservation authorities have also promoted awareness of rāhui, and track closures in the Waitākere ranges, for example, (but only partially) coincide with the rāhui placed in 2018 over forests by Te Kawarau a Maki. On the other hand the authorities also fail to support rāhui, creating tensions, and the enforcement of rāhui has usually been left up to Māori communities.  There is some limited legislative support for the imposition of rāhui, for example under some Treaty of Waitangi settlement legislation (such as the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, ss 239–244; the Affiliate Te Arawa Iwi and Hapū Claims Settlement Act 2008 ss 51–62) and fisheries legislation (for example ss 186A and 186B of the Fisheries Act 1996).

Rāhui show Māori law intersecting with general law in surprising ways.  This has been the case for a while, and now the institutions of New Zealand’s general legal system are (slowly) catching on and catching up. 

There have been a pretty interesting conversations happening in New Zealand courts over the last few years, about the role and status of tikanga Māori in the laws of Aotearoa New Zealand.   One of the more important judicial statements was uttered in 2012 by our top judge at the time Chief Justice Sian Elias in Takamore v Clarke. This case was, at its most basic, a case about who had the right to determine where Mr Takamore could be buried – his wife as the executor of the estate, or his whānau who had buried him according to their own tikanga.  In her minority judgment in the the Supreme Court Justice Elias CJ said that:

“Māori custom according to tikanga is therefore part of the values of the New Zealand common law” (Takamore v Clarke [2012] NZSC 116 per Elias CJ [94] [emphasis added]).

This position was also echoed by the majority [at para 164], Why was this seemingly simple position was such a big deal? It helps to think of how tikanga Māori has been viewed and understood within the New Zealand legal system, and more specifically in connection with what is known as the “common law”, the law made by judges in New Zealand courts, as well as judicial decisions that have developed over centuries in England and other Commonwealth countries. 

There seem to be three main views of how to understand tikanga Māori in our legal landscape.

View one: Tikanga Māori is a distinct set of laws, obligations and practices. It doesn’t matter whether courts and parliaments recognise tikanga Māori. Whānau, hapū and iwi exercise tikanga Māori anyway. Tikanga Māori is an independent source of laws in its own right. In fact, contact with, and recognition by the general legal system can distort and damage tikanga Māori, and Courts and parliaments must not create or determine it. 

View Two:  Tikanga Māori is a distinct set of laws, obligations and practices. It may be protected by the common law made by judges, but it is not part of the common law. On this view, tikanga Māori can only be recognised and protected by the common law if there is enough evidence that it exists, and has survive into modern times. If there is the courts can affirm it, and take note of it in making their judgments, as long as Parliament has not passed a law that extinguished that tikanga (which at least means it survives in Māori communities but Court and Parliament need not take it into account). Tikanga Māori, on this view, requires Crown acknowledgment and engagement to have validity in the legal system.

A third view builds on Supreme Court Justice Joseph Williams’ important 2013 speech Lex Aotearoa, opens up further possibilities. It is possible to identify a set of principles derived from tikanga Māori that can both form part of the common law in New Zealand and influence its development. Such principles inevitably reflect tikanga Māori and its on-the-ground laws and practices that will vary from community to community, but are understood at a more elevated level, and are therefore more broadly applicable, potentially to all New Zealanders. These tikanga-based principles can sit alongside common law principles such as “natural justice”, “fairness” “equality”, themselves based on centuries of customary law and practice and developed by the Common Law. Principles such as “mana” and “whanaungatanga” and “manaakitanga” can serve to guide judicial decision-making. They are not divorced from the rights, obligations and practices of tikanga Māori on the ground but they are necessarily abstracted.

When Justice Sian Elias made her statement in the Takamore v Clark case, hers appears to have been more of a “View Three” statement. 

This brings us to Peter Ellis. We are currently awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court that will send a very clear signal as to the fate of View Three.

You may recall Peter Ellis as the man at the centre of the Christchurch Civic Creche case in the early 1990s. He was convicted of, sexually abusing children in his care as part of a team of early childhood workers at the Christchurch Civic Creche, established in what used to be the gym of my old school, Christchurch Girls’ High before it became a part of the Christchurch Arts Centre. He received a sentence of ten year’s imprisonment, and appealed his conviction before the Court of Appeal in 1994, and 1999. He sought a pardon three times, and was turned down three times. Shortly before his death in 2019 he filed an appeal against his convictions in the Supreme Court. He passed away before the appeal could be heard.

It was at this point that the case took an unexpected turn. A case brought by a living Pākehā man to appeal his convictions became, after his death, a case about the place of tikanga Māori in our law and legal system.

How could this happen? Usually when an individual dies, with an active appeal case in the pipeline, their case dies with them. In common law legal thought and tradition, when a person dies he or she loses all will – all ability to make decisions and carry out obligations. They no longer have legal capacity. On such thinking, the dead cannot speak for themselves, so they lose the ability to take part in a criminal proceeding Death is both biological and legal.

Peter Ellis’ lawyers tried anyway to get appeal heard anyway. On the 19th of November 2019 the Supreme Court (Justice Glazebrook and Justice Williams) asked the lawyers for the Crown and for Peter Ellis a question that few had really been expecting: could New Zealand establish an entirely new rule about the effect of death on such proceedings based on, or influenced by tikanga Māori? Tikanga Māori, after all, has very different things to say (compared to the existing common law) about rights and obligations after a person’s death. Was it time to turn to Māori law for the answer to a legal issue that would affect all New Zealanders?

Mike drop.

The Supreme Court gave both sides five weeks to answer that question. In that five weeks a panel of tikanga experts was convened, including Te Ripowai Higgins, Pou Temara, Hirini Moko-Mead. I was lucky enough to be there for most of that time, and grasped a sense of the threshold we were were staning on.

In June 2020 the Court reconvened and heard the arguments. Remarkably all parties took a shared position that the evidence of the tohunga was uncontested:  Tikanga Māori represents common values, processes and principles that are of relevance to all Aotearoa New Zealand.

All parties accepted too, that a potentially applicable value based on tikanga was that of mana, as the mana of every person and of the collective to which they belonged, matters, and survives death. If injury or hara (such as an unjust conviction) has been done, that can affect the mana of a person even after death. Arguments on the day were quite brief, and simply turned on whether the tikanga-based value of mana required that the appeal be stopped in its tracks (the Crown’s position), or allowed to continue (the position of counsel for Peter Ellis). The court reserved its decision.

If the Court does find that mana is a tikanga-based value that is part of the common law and can determine if the appeal goes ahead or not; as has been said elsewhere, it will mark the first significant time in our legal landscape that tikanga Māori will have been applied to an essentially Pākehā common law dispute.

And so we wait for the Court’s decision. I wonder if I have time for a quick non-rāhui bushwalk.


A slightly shorter, edited version of this post recently appeared on E-Tangata. 

A Good Death

A Good Death


We all knew, as our mother got older that she wanted the “plug” pulled when the time came. In her view of the world, if she couldn’t have a drink or a smoke under her own steam, as her saying went, it was time to go. Hers was a position of utter belief in the worth of independence and autonomy. Anything other than an independent life was not worth living. At the age of 78, robbed of her precious independence by lung cancer and dementia, she smoked her last cigarette in the smokers’ yard at the Bethesda Rest Home & Hospital and left us a couple of days later, in 2015. As I cleaned out years of yellowed correspondence from her house a few days after her death, there were dozens of newsletters from the End of Life Choice Society. I felt sad for my Mum at the frustration of her beloved choice. I don’t think she ever knew how utterly dependent she became, in the end. But then again, as I have written elsewhere, her tiny life at the end still had beauty in it.

There is much to admire in my mother’s stance on end-of-life choice, one shared with at least some of her friends. They wanted, and still want, the power and the right to determine their lives’ ends. The scenario to haunt their dreams and to avoid at all costs, is one of being tethered to machines, with life’s pleasures stolen away, and intolerable pain, all signalling the worst thing of all: utter dependence. The dependent life, on this view, is no life at all. There is a great value placed on the idea of freedom of choice. Its antithesis, the absence of choice, is something to be feared and avoided. On this thinking a chosen death is a noble and compassionate death. An unchosen lingering death is ignoble and cruel.

Of course, there is much more to that debate.

There are all kinds of factors that play into the debate on assisted dying in New Zealand at present, lately manifested in response to David Seymour’s private member’s Bill still awaiting its second reading as at the time of writing. Often, the entry into the debate is by way of stories. The story of Lecretia Seales, and her fight in the courts to enable her doctor to assist her to die was compelling. There is no shortage of compelling stories that provoke our pity and fear for those caught up in those narratives, like Peter and Patricia Shaw, an Australian couple who killed themselves in October 2015, or the terminally ill 9 and 11 year old Belgian children who have been the youngest to be euthanised in that country in 2018. But a law on euthanasia needs more than the most compelling narrative.

I sometimes get asked what the “Māori perspective” is on assisted dying. I can’t pretend any expertise on this or to speak for Māori communities. There are many perspectives, although only rarely expressed in the public domain. However, some of those whakaaro have been reported by the Justice select committee on the End of Life Choice Bill. So I’ll let the Committee report back:

Although not all submitters who identified as Māori oppose the bill or consider it inconsistent with Māori tikanga (values), others have several concerns. Submitters described a Māori worldview where people are part of their whānau, hapū, and iwi, where care, respect, and reverence are shown for the elderly and terminally ill, and life and wairua (spirituality) are valued. Some believe that assisted dying would breach the tapu (sacredness) of the person and have spiritual consequences for those involved. Some submitters consider that the bill would breach the Treaty of Waitangi. In particular, they cited the Treaty’s underlying principle of tiaki (protection) of Māori values and, under Article 2, the concept of the taonga (treasure) of life. Other submitters consider that the bill would contravene holistic models of Māori health, such as Te Whare Tapa Whā, which sets out four equally balanced foundations of Māori health: physical, spiritual, family, and mental.

It is possible to imagine an assisted death taking place in the context of a warm and loving whānau environment. The range of viewpoints suggest that Māori are not of one collective mind in regards to how tikanga Māori may or may not fit with the idea of assisted dying. However, there are pragmatic concerns of more urgency. Many of the submitters on the Bill were just as concerned that racial inequities already existing in the New Zealand health system will be magnified with the introduction of assisted dying:

Some submitters believe that assisted dying would further contribute to discrimination and prejudice that already exists in the health system. They consider that Māori and Pasifika are less likely to be able to pay for health care, and that they receive lower standards of care and have less access to palliative care. Therefore, they believe these groups will be disproportionately more likely to request assisted dying than other groups. Submitters also believe that these groups are less likely to be treated by health practitioners of their own culture or those who understand their world view. They regard it as important that health practitioners understand the correct procedures for tāngata māuiui (sick people), their transition to death, and the treatment of tūpāpaku (the deceased).

The position described above is supported by  research by the Kia Ngāwari study (2010–2012) funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, a study of 27 whānau Māori that reveals how important collective processes often are for whānau Māori at end-of-life and how Māori are less likely to be able access sufficient palliative care. Rangatiratanga is vitally important for dying Māori too, but being able to exercise rangatiratanga fully means that whānau must be resourced properly:

…the economic and material ramifications of colonialism impact on Māori hugely at the end of life, directly influencing the ability of whānau to identify and access much needed resources and palliative care support. Generally, only whānau who had a family member with a tertiary qualification or employment within a health or related field were well placed to identify and access much needed statutory support, palliative care and resources. Knowledge of the health system, or previous use of specialist palliative care services, increased the likelihood of some whānau accessing palliative care support and resources. When combined, these things strengthened whānau to provide the best care, frequently under difficult circumstances.

One of the greatest questions about the prospect of assisted dying being enacted in New Zealand law arises because the proposed legislation establishes a process that presumes an individual can make a true choice to die. Many of the submitters opposed to Seymour’s Bill cite the problem of the vulnerable person being pressured or coerced to die by others. Dr John Kleinsman identified 5 types of vulnerability as an expert witness to the High Court in Lecretia Seales’ case.

communication vulnerability, represented by persons who are impaired in their ability to communicate because of distressing symptoms;

institutional vulnerability, which refers to persons who exist under the authority of others;

differential vulnerability, which includes persons who are subject to the informal authority or independent interests of others;

medical vulnerability, which refers to those with distressing medical conditions; and:

social vulnerability, which includes persons who are considered to belong to an undervalued social group.

While Lecretia Seales absolutely denied that she was in any way vulnerable as described in any of these categories, whānau Māori with dying members are likely to fulfil some or all of these vulnerability categories. As pointed out by Dr Hūhana Hickey Māori are also more likely to be experiencing disability, and thus more likely to be considered vulnerable in that context as well. As noted by the Disability Commissioner, the priority should be that disabled people should be enabled to exercise the choice to live:

Before the country legislated choice in death, it needed to work towards ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, all people had the same freedom of choice in life.

In any event, what would be the nature of the choice to die for any person in any of these categories?

Often to be found at the very heart of our general Western legal system is the notion of the freely choosing individual, the individual rights-bearer. The person who, when faced with a choice of courses of action, is capable of choosing one of those courses of action. Such individuals must have free will in order to exercise a real choice; an idea that is powerful and optimistic. Thousands of years of philosophical and religious thought have also upheld this idea, particularly in the West, that humans can, for example, choose obedience to a deity or a principle, or a moral.  Why not assisted dying?

At the heart of much opposition to the End of Life Choice Bill is a denial that all choice exercised under such legislation will truly be free. Those who oppose the legislation on a vulnerability basis will identify that there is no level of security that the Bill can offer that will reassure them that the choice to die in every single case will be freely made. Those who cannot truly and freely choose should be protected by the state, not exposed to greater risk of death. An open letter signed by more than 170 lawyers put it this way:

We believe that the mark of our civilised society is measured by the manner in which we treat and protect our weakest and most vulnerable members. While the Bill purports to be targeted to a “small but significant group of competent adults who are not vulnerable and who wish to die without unbearable suffering and pain”, we consider that it will in fact place many vulnerable members of our community (whether terminally or chronically ill, disabled or mentally ill) at greater risk of premature death by homicide or suicide as a result of neglect, coercion and other forms of abuse, as well as misdiagnosis or prognostic error and uncertainty.

I would count myself in that camp. Well, I should do. I signed the open letter. At present, all that stands between a vulnerable  person making a decision to die and the enactment of such a decision in the Bill, are a set of criteria. A qualifying person must be one who, on the current form of the Bill:

(4) […]

(c) suffers from—

(i) a terminal illness that is likely to end the person’s life within 6 months; or

(ii) a grievous and irremediable medical condition; and

(d) is in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability; and

(e) experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable; and(f) has the ability to understand—

(i) the nature of assisted dying; and

(ii) the consequences for them of assisted dying.

At present, to ensure coercion does not exist, the certifying medical practitioner must:

8 […]

(h) do their best to ensure that the person expresses their wish free from pressure from any other person by—

(i) conferring with other health practitioners who are in regular contact with the      person; and

(ii) conferring with members of the person’s family approved by the person; [..]

David Seymour, responding to submitters’ concerns, has proposed significant changes, including deleting the option under s4(c)(ii). In that case, only those facing a terminal condition would be eligible for assisted dying. He has also proposed strengthening the protection against coercion so that a certifying medical practitioner must be “satisfied” that no coercion exists.

I suspect though that even with these changes, little will change between the entrenched positions of this debate. Few on this side of the maunga are ever likely to accept that any caution or protection that may be inserted in the legislation can ever bring about true protection of the vulnerable, whoever we conceive the vulnerable to be. For many, I suspect the opposition lies more deeply than that and depends on a particular vision of humanity. We tend, I think, to divide into those two great camps; those for whom the idea of the autonomous individual is supreme, and those for whom human interconnectedness is the greater vision. The dividing line between these positions can be porous, it’s true, but the camps exist, and don’t neatly align with political concepts of left and right.

An additional and often unspoken factor in the public discourse is that many like me who have a religious faith have an understanding that we are dependent on what we conceive of as the Divine, as well as on each other, for our existence. This understanding of dependent existence will always make an assisted dying regime difficult (but not impossible) to accept. For others, such a position can be utterly offensive and even a denigration of autonomous individual personhood.

My mother and I resided in those two different camps and respected each other’s position. Perhaps the more salient point is that my brothers and I, because of excellent palliative care, were able to come together, in love, to accompany our mother to the veil, but not beyond, at the close of her day. Equitable and free access to excellent palliative care and a good death, as far as it is possible, should be upheld by law and policy for each one of us. The truly terrible thing is that it is not. assisted dying legislation represents an absence of hope that it ever will be.

[Please note, this column was first published on E-Tangata]

Photo Credit: Gina Smith.

Standing still in the whirlwind

Standing still in the whirlwind

[A column published on E-Tangata on Sunday 17 March, 2 days after the attack on our Muslim whānau in Christchurch]

Haere e ngā mate kua hinga i te toki o Aituā, haere, haere  haere atu ki te wā kainga, te kainga tūturu. Rātou ki a rātou, tātou ki a tātou, Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

The day. In the depths of darkness and fear, it was hard to write. It seemed arrogant somehow, as if death and horror had swallowed our words whole, permitting us only to reach for cliches and empty phrases. So many rocks continue to lie on our hands as we try to type, or in our mouths as we try to speak; to say something that truly means anything.

In the depths of that darkness and fear, it was hard to comprehend that normal life goes on for those of us outside the cordon of atrocity. People still laughed in the staffroom that afternoon. I made three batches of fudge. The kids still played Last Card and fought over the Playstation. It was fish and chip Friday. We ate fish and chips. Did the kids not know what death is, yet? They seemed undisturbed. Did they not give a damn? How could they? But how could they not? How did I laugh? Would sleep ever come? It came.

I was afraid to know any more. I was afraid of the leaping, lurching numbers. My eyes felt hot and tired. I wept many times, in between the “have a nice day” moments with kind strangers, my face a rictus of sorrow at traffic lights. I started to ring home at one point to check on the kids, and dialled my dead mother’s number instead. I hung up.

When I did begin to read, and watch, and listen, in those first few hours, my mind skittered from fact to fact; never settling, never quite believing. I know those streets where people ran for their lives, metres from my old high school, but my mind still skittered away from imagining those people’s faces. I could not.

I saw the lady on the news, the one who looks like my friend’s mum, a woman with flyaway white hair and her story of men shot on each side of her car as they fled; one who lived, one who died. The man who lived tried to call his wife. The woman took the phone and told his wife to go to the hospital and wait. Is she waiting still? Is the floor slick with blood? My mind must skitter again, away from that image; forbid it to dig in and wait behind my eyelids.

The next day. Whenever my skittering mind stills for long enough, I grieve for those I do not know. Those individuals, those families, those children, those mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, those simply living their lives, those who love and were loved in return, victims, survivors, whānau pani. Auē, auē.

My husband and I fight even before we get out of bed, an ugly screaming of invective at each other based on nothing but horror. Then we realised what we were doing. And we stopped. We cannot afford to be infected by another man’s hate.

The hangi are prepared at our local marae. Our church fair carries on. Some of us worry if the fair should have been cancelled like so many other events had been in Wellington. Yet somehow, carrying on and being kind to each other seems a sane response to an insane time.

I don’t know enough of what really happened to describe it or understand it. I get that white supremacy is at the base of it. At some point during the day, I let out a harsh bark of unsmiling laughter. After all, surely this is the very terrorism for which the Terrorism Suppression Act was envisaged, not whatever the powers-that-be thought those Māori mā, Pākehā mā, who were subjected to the Operation Eight raids,were doing back in 2007.

The comparison, of course, is both obscene and absurd, as was the extent to which our police and government then failed to understand our own communities.

We are all failing now, too. My own preferred version is that a marginalised malcontent attacked this country and murdered our people while they prayed. Our people. It suits me best to think of this terrible massacre as something akin to an act of war by a foreign aggressor. I am afraid of learning that such a person could ever have been grown here. In truth, of course, they could, and I fool myself.

We haven’t “lost our innocence”, as so many have said. We never had any.

New Zealanders commit banal evil on a much smaller scale every single day. We know this to be true. Smaller evils don’t inoculate us against larger, grander ones.

We are not immune from atrocity, and our own history tells us this. Even if our national ethos is generally good and peaceful, it doesn’t save us. We are not special.

Victor Frankl, as he reflected on his time in concentration camps during World War II, understood that not one of us is immune from evil, no matter the label we bear or group we belong to.

… decent and indecent people are found everywhere, they penetrate into all groups of society … mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing … we must not try to simplify matters by saying these men were angels and those were devils.

There is no nationality, status, gender, ethnicity, or income bracket that is essentially good or bad, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that there may be — such is the quality of our online discourse as it once more, after a bipartisan blip, settles into its comfortable camps of mutual loathing.

Ah well. There is no point in flagellation, either of the self or of others. We can draw all the conclusions we like from our discourse and subcultures and so-called national characteristics, and still not understand the massacre any more than we do already. Is there any point, I wonder.

As a collection of peoples, we are good, we are bad, we are racist, we are tolerant, we are bigoted, we are peaceful, we are extraordinarily punitive, we are progressive, we are narrow-minded and parochial. All of these statements about us are true. We contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes. (Apologies to Walt Whitman.)

The days after that. In our broken world — and what more evidence do we need that it is so — the only logical and deliberate response to evil, no matter where or how it was grown, has to be love, if we are not to succumb to it. Not a feel good, convenient, heart-emoji-on-Facebook. Instead, reach for a love that requires us to act kind and be kind, even when we sure as hell don’t want to be. Even when all we want to do is retreat.

And for those of us with faith, and in the season of Lent, as we lay open who we really are, these words can matter:

     E te Ariki, meinga ahau hei kaihohou i tōu rongo;
     tukua, kia whakatōkia e ahau i roto i te ngākau o te hunga mauāhara
     he purapura nō te aroha;
     i roto i te hunga i whara, he whakaoranga;
     i roto i te ngākau āwangawanga, he whakapono
     i roto i te ngākau taimaha, he tūmanako;
     i roto i te hunga noho i te pōuri, he māramatanga;
     i roto i te hunga tangi, he mārie, he hari.

     Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
     Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
     Where there is injury, pardon.
     Where there is discord, union.
     Where there is doubt, faith.
     Where there is despair, hope.
     Where there is darkness, light.


The Empathy Gap & Me

The Empathy Gap & Me


A little while ago, I was driving a car down State Highway 1 and I was howling. Actually howling, snotty tears and all. Then I’d pull over for a bit, recover myself, move off again, and then something would catch in my throat. Then I’d be howling again.

Such car-cocooned moments are not unheard of for me in recent years. Ever since my mother died in 2015, I can get caught by grief, unawares, and find myself sobbing, or at least leaking, at traffic lights because something set me off. Last time that happened was when RNZhad the temerity to play Air Supply. It helps to have a supply of tissues on the ready.

These tears were not due to my mother on this occasion, though. I’d just left a house where a whānau had been sharing their history with me for a cultural report I was writing for a sentencing hearing that was coming up in the new year.

My howling was borne of inarticulate rage, and helpless misery that any family in New Zealand had to go through the utter trauma that they’d had to go through in their past and present. My hūpē and tears were never going to make a damn bit of difference to that whānau history, nor to the pain of the victim in that case, but they came anyway.

I think, too, there was some recognition that what they’d been through was not entirely disconnected to my own family history. I think some grief for our own family trauma was in there too — trauma far beyond my own direct memory. My empathy gap had been well and truly plugged.

It’s easy to have an empathy gap. In fact, it’s unavoidable.

By comparison, compassion, or the feeling of sympathy for others in misfortune, is, for many of us, not that difficult if we care to exercise it. And, of course, our society and its communities also suffer from a fairly healthy compassion gap, too.

But feeling compassion is probably less problematic, perhaps because compassion can be as much about what we don’t want to experience ourselves as what we feel about the lives of others.

Empathy is slightly different, though. Empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of another person. Perhaps, by definition, to empathise with another person we have to be able to feel what they feel. Perhaps we must have been through what that person has been through, or something similar, in order to empathise with them.

A lack of true empathy doesn’t necessarily mean a person can’t truly help another. Humans have resources to call upon other than just empathy. But it can help to understand a person well enough to be able to help in a way that makes sense.

Generally speaking, social welfare and criminal justice case-workers will usually (but not always) have some form of empathy gap between them and those they are supervising or processing or writing about — or judging.

This is not necessarily a moral failing. Many of us simply can’t feel or imagine the life of another. We can’t walk in their shoes. We might even lack the mental imagery and hardware to do it.

And although we can more easily feel for others, pity them even, if we allow ourselves to, often we can’t truly understand them, if our lives haven’t already somehow prepared us for that moment.

It’s possible to learn empathy, but I think that would be hard. Not impossible, but hard. Moral failing, including racism, may exist in the refusal to try.

Or there’s something more complicated. Sometimes we can bend over backwards to quash or deny our empathy for others. Merely sharing experiences is not enough. Sometimes we can view others only through lenses that just reflect us back to ourselves: “I went through what she went through, and I turned out okay.”

Perhaps also, some Māori who’ve come from traumatic backgrounds may not want to empathise or have compassion for others with similar backgrounds.

Denied empathy is one thing, pretend empathy another. I remember years ago, as a 20-something probation officer, having a young Pākehā guy come and visit me at the office. I was supervising him. But he didn’t want to be there — he had better places to be.

I was trying to establish some kind of rapport with him. It was the uncertain start to another new relationship neither of us really wanted. I had some wise point to make (for his own good, of course) that I now forget. I leaned forward in my chair, keeping earnest eye contact, and said: “Listen, mate …” as if I was going to impart something unprecedented to the lucky soul. He reared back as if I had spat in his direction. “Don’t call me mate! I’m not your bloody mate!”

He was right. I had presumed some kind of connection, but I was merely pretending that we were on the same team, that there was some kind of fellow experience between us. In short, I was trying to pretend that I empathised with him, and he called me on that bullshit.

I never forgot it. I try not to manufacture empathy. I try to feel it if I can, allow the seeds of it to grow, but I can’t pretend it exists when it doesn’t. Where it doesn’t, I have to call on other things, my compassion and aroha, my instincts, and my morality.

How do we make connection and offer support or help that makes sense if we don’t try to plug the gap?

I think what had happened, on that day in my car, was an upwelling of compassion but also the shock of empathy — one I hadn’t been faced with for a while, for whatever reason. On the surface, this whānau’s experience looked nothing like my own. Theirs was a story of extraordinary poverty both of love and money. An intergenerational story of gang affiliation and of repeated escape attempts. A story of loneliness, rejection, despair and some hope.

But, actually, that story had a similar point of genesis to my own whānau story. At the bottom of it all was war with the same enemies: land deprivation, urbanisation, fractured histories, and self-loathing leading to sexual abuse, violence, substance abuse and bad decisions.

Tempered, of course, by collective agency, individual resilience, ambition, sheer bloody-mindedness and some better decisions. We also shared a common Māoriness. We could lob the same words into our conversation, trusting each other to catch them. We knew some of each other’s family names. We could follow an unspoken tikanga of how to speak with each other. We had never met. We were from different parts of these islands. And yet.

Thus, my empathy was not predicated entirely on nice and chummy fellow feeling and understanding with another individual or two. It was predicated on the certain knowledge that my people and their people’s experiences were recognisable, connected, and of like substance.

Recent psychological research has suggested that there is such a thing as cultural empathy. We simply are more likely to empathise with those who are more like us than not. Well, duh.

That, and other experiences led me to question (as if any more questions are needed) the role of culture in criminal justice — in particular, the usefulness and role of cultural reports that can be called for at sentencing. After all, that was what I was doing in that family home that day: asking questions to write a cultural report.

I think I wrote a better report because of my empathy. That was of some help, I think. Small in context, but something.

But beyond that?

We all know the stats are bloody appalling. Within our criminal justice system generally and the prison population specifically, we know Māori are over-represented in comparison to the general population.

According to the Ministry of Justice, in May 2018, the total prison population was 10,435. Māori made up 50.7 percent of all sentenced prisoners in New Zealand, despite comprising just 17.5 percent of New Zealand’s population. Of all sentenced male prisoners in New Zealand, 50.4 percent are Māori men, while Māori women now make up 63 percent of all sentenced female prisoners.

An even bleaker and worsening position is occupied by Māori youth. Māori comprised 65 percent of all youth in prison in 2017, up from 56 percent a decade before. (See this report at p 11.) There are now more than 5,000 Māori people in New Zealand jails.

This over-representation extends well beyond the jail cells into the experience of being a victim, the exercise of administrative and police discretion, charging figures, bail decisions and prosecution figures (pick a colour, any colour, oh, here’s one teeny example). We all know this by now.

That’s where the reports do fit in. Parliament decided as far back as 1985 that such growing over-representation of Māori in the New Zealand prison population could, in some way, be addressed at sentencing, by way of the introduction of Section 16 of the Criminal Justice Act 1985 (now repealed).

That provision was originally enacted in order to encourage the use of alternative sentences to imprisonment. However, the provision wasn’t well understood by counsel or the judiciary, and as a consequence was completely underused.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and now we have Section 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002. This section was built on the idea of the original Section 16 from 1985, and now allows judges to gain insight into the cultural backgrounds of all offenders generally.

But it can be used to focus on Māori offenders specifically, with the overall goals of reducing imprisonment rates and, like its predecessor, encouraging more use of rehabilitative and community-based sentences. Until recently, Section 27 has also been significantly underused.

Under Section 27(1) an offender due for sentence may request the court to hear any person or persons called by the offender to speak on the following matters:

(a) the personal, family, whanau, community, and cultural background of the offender

(b) the way in which that background may have related to the commission of the offence

(c) any processes that have been tried to resolve, or that are available to resolve, issues relating to the offence, involving the offender and his or her family, whanau, or community and the victim or victims of the offence

(d) how support from the family, whanau, or community may be available to help prevent further offending by the offender

(e) how the offender’s background, or family, whanau, or community support may be relevant in respect of possible sentences.

Note that this is not aimed solely at Māori, but there is no doubt that Māori over-representation was at the heart of the design of the section. Section 27 is part of a code that also relies on Section 8(i) in the Sentencing Act which provides that the court must take into account “the offender’s personal, family, whanau, community and cultural background in imposing a sentence or other means of dealing with the offender with a partly or wholly rehabilitative purpose.”

Although an interpretation of Section 27(1)(b) on its face appears to require a causal link between the offender’s individual and specific cultural information or background and the commission of the offence — “the way in which that background may have related to the commission of the offence” — interesting and very recent developments in New Zealand courts appear to echo Canadian approaches that simply don’t require the demonstration of such a specific and individualised causal link. The permission has been given to look further afield at systemic deprivation.

In particular, in a recent decision in the High Court case of Solicitor General v Heta, Justice Whata accepted that, while sentencing does not on its face, require any discussion of the systemic deprivation faced by Māori, the operation of Section 8 in combination with Section 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002 certainly allows for the court to hear such material.

An important thing to grasp here is that the Māori experience of colonisation, disease, war, urbanisation and deprivation within this country is unique to Māori in this country, and is not shared with any other ethnic or cultural groups in the same way.

This realisation was part of what lay behind my tears on that road trip. We were alike in our culture, and part of that culture has been now recognised to include the intergenerational experience of trauma.

At long last, the courts are catching on, even if at a glacial pace, to what Tariana Turia was on about nearly two decades ago. And now, with the release of Every Four Minutes, a report on family violence, we have the Chief Science Advisor laying some of the impetus for family violence at the feet of the trauma of colonisation.

We’re beginning to understand that the modern experiences of Māori individuals can’t really be fully explained by reference to one such individual’s immediate and siloed history alone.

Of course, it’s not enough for us to have the emergence of yet more reports, more bad stats, and cultural reports being used more often in the way they were intended.

Māori being sentenced to shorter sentences of imprisonment on the basis of fuller cultural information being brought before a judge is hardly going to change the world. The young men and women that have cultural reports written about them aren’t going to be walking into courtrooms where the inevitable empathy gap has magically been eradicated.

We can and must push for better information to be put before judges in sentencing. We can demand improvements to the Bail Act. We can push for better programmes in prison, for more therapeutic jurisprudence, for something better than prisons. All of that.

But we can’t expect institutions to be empathetic and compassionate to the thousands of Māori in the system now, and to the Māori children who are going to be sucked into it in the future. That is our job on a daily basis.

And, if we just can’t find the empathy for whatever reason, then we use compassion, aroha, instincts, smarts, and all the rest to close the gap and keep our people out of the system.

Maybe then …

Maybe then.



Please note, this post appeared first on  © E-Tangata, 2018

Papatūānuku, Pan, and a lonely kid in Christchurch

Papatūānuku, Pan, and a lonely kid in Christchurch


I was a funny kind of kid. A lonely one, even. While I had older brothers, they were teenagers — too old to hang out with me. And I had few friends. I look at my own kids now and marvel at their ability to let new children into their lives. To not be as hesitant and aloof as I think I probably was.

Yet, I missed connection with others. I remember going to the house of a girl I went to school with for some reason I no longer recall. She lived several doors down from me on Papanui Road in Christchurch. It was Christmas time — they were wealthy and had a real Christmas tree. I’d never seen one before. I was nine, I think.

As I left their house, I remember having this sense of yearning for something. Connection. Belonging. Pine-scent, maybe. So I hid in the bushes of their long, sweeping driveway and pretended I lived there. Eventually, the girl’s mother came out and saw me. She told me in a gentle but very firm voice to Go Home.

Yeah. No wonder I didn’t have many friends.

I can blame some of my loner tendencies on a period of a couple of weeks around the same time when I had scarlet fever and rubella together. I was bedridden for a while, and someone, perhaps my Pākehā nana, gave me a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Age of Fable to read. Well, I had nothing else to do. So I immersed myself in this book, written in 1855, telling the stories of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.

This, not any church, not Māui or Tāwhaki, or any of the stories of Māori mythology, introduced me to images and ideas of the divine. I read and reread that book many times. The language, so dense and allusive, gradually became clearer and clearer to me, and more and more beautiful.

I read about Prometheus and Pandora, Cupid and Psyche, the Sphynx, Orpheus and Euridyce. Thor, Phaeton, and Pan. I imagined a world peopled with these creatures. I think these stories made me feel a little less lonely.

Each story in that book included snippets of poetry from famous 19th century English poets. Here I got my first taste of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others.

After the story of Pan, the goat-footed god of woods and fields, flocks and shepherds, there sits a poem by Barrett Browning. This poem broke my heart, and it still does. The Greek and Roman old gods, she told my nine-year-old self, had been swept away, and something new, Christianity, had taken their place.

     By your beauty, which confesses
     Some chief Beauty conquering you,
     By our grand heroic guesses
     through your falsehood at the True,
     We will weep not! earth shall roll
     Heir to each god’s aureole —
     And Pan is dead.

     Earth outgrows the mythic fancies
     Sung beside her in her youth;
     And those debonair romances
     Sound but dull beside the truth.
     Phoebus’ chariot-course is run.
     Look up, poets, to the sun!
     Pan, Pan is dead.

She was triumphant — I was desolate. How could this be? These gods and goddesses had … died. Replaced by something that meant nothing to me, at least back then. They had left me with nothing to imagine.

Sensitive kid, I was.

I was reminded of this sadness that I felt as a lonely kid when I was challenged this week by a young woman to explain how I, as a Māori woman, forty years on from being that lonely kid, could still profess to be a Christian and yet acknowledge atua Māori, and wairua Māori, as I do.

I don’t have any particular issue with that. Personification of nature and culture as Māori aspects of the creation is not difficult for me, or for most other Māori Christians I know. I had to learn to be Māori in my teens and twenties, long before I learned to be Christian, and those personifications and understandings came with the territory. Bishop Don Tamihere has spoken about this tension/not tension, and I’d recommend a read of his whakaaro.

But this conversation has reminded me of just how present ngā atua Māori remain in modern Māori life and practice. Of course, they are in pōwhiri and tangihanga, as we cross the boundaries between tapu and noa, between the realm of Tūmatauenga, god of war on the marae ātea, and Rongo, the guardian of peace inside the wharenui.

I expect to hear Rangi and Papa acknowledged in whaikōrero. I expect to hear our dead being acknowledged and then farewelled again beyond that impenetrable curtain, to the night, to Hine Nui i te Pō, the great goddess of death.

Reference to these denizens, however we conceptualise them, tells me we live still, as a people of shared language and concepts. Not all of us understand and use those concepts equally or with the same degree of importance or respect, but they do comprise a shared knowledge.

And then there is the use of atua Māori as emblems of political identity and survival. I’d say that, of all the atua Māori, the unparalleled atua of Māori political identity has been Papatūānuku, the earth goddess, partner of Ranginui, forever separated from him by Tāne Mahuta, forever yearning for connection again.

While Papatūānuku was spoken of in 19th-century Māori oral literature, only very rarely, as a physical earthen foundation point, she is now more often granted her own personality and actions. An early example of focus on Papa as a political emblem is provided by Hone Tūwhare, in Papa-tu-a-nuku, which was inspired by the Māori Land March of 1975.

     We are stroking, caressing the spine
     of the land.
     We are massaging the ricked
     back of the land
     with our sore but ever-loving feet:
     hell, she loves it!
     Squirming, the land wriggles
     in delight
     we love her.

Then there is the poetry of Roma Potiki:

     i am Papatuanuku
     giving them completely i hold strength in its upright form –
     my base maps the pattern of mottled life,
     rain and rivers.
     when the rest is gone
     you will know me –
     you who press on my skin
     tread the body you do not recognise.
     with my face made of bones
     my stomach eternally stretching
     i need no definition
     i am Papatuanuku, the land

Largely silent since the creation of the natural world, and always spoken of by others, in modern Māori poetry and art, Papa was able to speak for herself, no longer just one of two. This new voice accompanied the upsurge in the consolidation and recreation of a viable political iwi identity, of Māori sovereignty — tino rangatiratanga.

Instead of the eternal Rangi and Papa, the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s gave us a new coupled image: Papatūānuku and ngā atua Māori in a nurturing and embracing relationship on the one hand — and rootless tauiwi bent on destruction of the land on the other.


     You worked hard
     raping the belly of Papa
     slashing fern
     exposing inner fertility
     burning seeds
     raging fires
     across brown breasts
     – greed
     aborted tapu
     rooting ancient coverings
     bringing to Aotearoa
     ragwort gorse
     and new words:
     lazy black Hori –
     sowing money crosses
     across barren earth
     stripping Papatuanuku bare
     stamping your queen’s head
     on the land
     You worked hard.
     We are working,
     Covering our naked mother,
     Regenerating the earth,
     Nourishing with love,
     Unclasping greed shackles,
     Reshaping body beauty,
     Singing growing songs.
     Working still.
     (Hinewīrangi Kohu in Ihimaera, 1993)

In the fight for recognition of the foreshore and seabed, Sean Ellison and Angeline Greensill retold the story of Papa and other atua Māori before the Waitangi Tribunal in 2004:

Tangaroa still embraces Papatūānuku. Ranginui still embraces Papatūānuku. The foreshore is the space where one can clearly witness the movement and exchange of energies, and the preparation, bustling and adaptation made by the divine influences of the gods as they perpetually seek to express the inherent universal balance and harmony, one with another, within the ever-changing reality of the physical world …

Jessica Hutching, Rose Pere, and Tagan Paul, among others, have also identified Papa as the protector and progenitor of mana wahine:

Mana wahine is uniquely Māori in that it is grounded in Papatūānuku, with roots in tikanga Māori. Māori women, who form the fibre, are at the centre of this approach.

Papatūānuku is also the vanguard of climate change action and care for the environment. She has been co-opted, too, in national party political strategy focused on climate change and environmentalism. In 2008, a vote for the Māori Party could be described as a vote for Papatūānuku. Papa makes it into the Māori Party constitution, just as she was included in the Mana Motuhake manifesto more than 20 years earlier.

Kaupapa Māori is the foundation of Māori culture and is derived from this Māori world view. Growing from within the kaupapa are our tikanga, like the trees that spring from Papatūānuku. The tikanga are the policies, practices and organisational structures of the Party that are aligned to and consistent with the foundation kaupapa, and will benefit not only Māori but all those people who lay claim to this country as their homeland. (Māori Party Constitution, ratified on 20 February, 2016.)

In 2017, lawyer Kingi Snelgar argued for legal recognition of Papa:

Things like Papatūānuku as a concept should be recognised as part of our legal framework. And, if we’re going to flourish as a human race, we need to embrace our indigenous thinking and not rely on individual, corporate minds.

In July this year, an idea was publicly announced to erect a massive pou of Papatūānuku in Auckland, at Wynyard Point or Bastion Point. The role and authority for Ngāti Whātua in supporting the idea, pushed by Ian Taylor and Animation Research Ltd, has now been hotly disputed.

The idea caused a bit of a stir, not least because the pou is intended to speak to, and for, all New Zealanders, not just to Māori.

For others, perhaps, it is jarring to think of an enormous pou of Papa rising above the earth. What are we supposed to do when we utter, or hear, those words, “ki a Papatūānuku e takoto nei, ki a Ranginui e tū ake nei” — to Papatūānuku lying there, to Ranginui rising above — referring to the separated nature of our modern world, with earth and sky forever apart? Do we now say, “ki a Papa e tū mai nei”?

But, really, the idea is not all that startling when we see it as just another moment in more than a century of the development of Papa as a focal point, a personality, and a presence that serves to underscore and protect a broad Māori political identity.

Time will tell what happens with that pou, and whether we will ever see Papatūānuku as our great “statue of liberty”, rising from her very own … ground.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter in the great sweep of Māori cultural history.

From person to person, and from collective to collective, amid conflicting ideas of the divine and the transcendent, Māori exercise very different conceptions of what atua Māori really are.

And yet, such differences fall away. In short, we have imagined and recreated, in our modern and various understandings of Papatūānuku, our very cultural survival.

So, unlike Pan, Papa is not dead. She is not a quaint cultural artefact overcome by the brute force of modernity, who left us bereft and lonely. Our poets still sing of her — looking not to the sun but to the ground on which we all stand

Beyond the Bubble ep 2/2!

Beyond the Bubble ep 2/2!

Yay, part two of the first ep of our web series is up. Things get a teeny bit testy as Dion, Wendi & Maryan consider if we really can be certain that laws enabling euthanasia will have no effect on people who are vulnerable or even suicidal. How do we balance hope of a good life with the right to die, particularly for younger people? Watch & share whānau…

Beyond the Bubble: conversations across the divide. Ep 1/2!

Beyond the Bubble: conversations across the divide. Ep 1/2!

Something a bit different on this blog, episode 1 of a new web series I have been involved in. The topic of this first ep is euthanasia and assisted dying. Various people get exercised about the issue, but civilly so, including Wendi Wicks, Dion Howard and Maryan Street. Big issue, lots to say, we only get to some of it here, but better than a kick in the head as my Mum would say. My oath! Please watch here and share!

Kia ora!

Why is God and sexuality so bloody difficult?

Why is God and sexuality so bloody difficult?

Content warning. This column may contain half-pie, untrained theological musings, so will probably be bad for your health.

Sometime after my 30th birthday, I gave in. All my life, there has been something I recognised, if I truly slowed down long enough to listen to the world around me.

Francis Spufford describes one of those moments of recognition in Unapologetic:

It feels as if everything is with light, everything floats on a sea of light, everything is just a surface feature of the light. And that includes me. Every tricky thing I am, my sprawling piles of memories and secrets and misunderstandings, float on the sea; are local corrugations and whorls with the limitless light just behind. And now I’ve forgotten to breathe, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me … someone, not something, is here.

And, despite the long and depressing history of colonialism around the world that I was very well aware of, and the torturous history of the relationship between Māori and the various Christian denominations that arrived in this country, I became a Christian that year.

Or, more accurately, I took my first wobbly Christian steps then. It is taking me many years to work out what being a Christian really is. I started attending an Anglican church, and there I remain.

Ah, church. The ultimate programming tool, right? Why bother? I could just go down to the beach to talk to God (whatever I perceive that to be) and feel good.

The god of sunny days, waterfalls, and puppies is not a very demanding atua. In fact, I can mould that kind of entity into anything I need it to be. I could have a permanent spiritual mascot with all the right political beliefs and all the right cultural characteristics, and I would always be right and never be wrong. My faith need never be on the “wrong” side of any political, cultural, or moral issue ever again.

Why then choose a belief system that imposes any kind of orthodoxy, one not birthed in tikanga Māori, for example? The simple answer that any door-knocking God-botherer will tell you, is the Person of Christ, the guy who died on the cross and was resurrected, cracking the universe into “before” and “after”.

The framework is secondary to the Person. But without the framework, most of us haven’t a chance of seeing the Person at all.

Actually, what many people, including many Christians, don’t get, is that Christianity doesn’t impose a rule book as such. No Leviticus memes to live by. No clean and unclean divisions of behaviour and objects. No “good Christian” check boxes that we can fill in and then face the unknown future confident that we have Done What We Had To Do To Get In The Club.

Well, hang on. That’s not quite true. There is a paragraph or so of stuff Jesus chucks out there that we are supposed to do, mostly cribbed from the Ten Commandments, but missing a few.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)

“‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’”(Matthew 19:18-19)

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

So really, it’s all there in the last bit. We are to follow. To direct our feet and our lives, and our innermost beings, towards Christ. Along the way, we are to shuck off those things that would divert us from that journey. Apparently, that’s how you become perfect.

Except following perfectly is bloody well impossible. Thanks, E Hoa.

According to the stories Jesus told, and the life he led, we have to give up those material things that matter to us, like status and money. Turn the other cheek to those that abuse us. Feed the hungry. Love the outcast. Forgive every bastard that does us wrong. Go after the sheep that has strayed. Risk everything for the child who has let you down and probably will do so again tomorrow.

And, above all, love.

And WE HAVE TO MEAN IT. There’s no getting away with going through the motions, because the light behind everything knows us.

And so we fail.

And fail again.

And fail again.

Christianity is a religion of failures and dropkicks, hypocrites and losers, because most of us are goodish, but not one of us is good enough. We all know this regardless of belief, right?

Every one of us breaks things, be they relationships, promises, principles, or other people’s bodies. On one level, admitting the truth of this is terrifying, and goes against everything we think we know in this modern world.

Our failure is not softened by our individual skill set and general awesomeness, nor by Tony Robbins or inspirational posters with sunsets and cats and little quotes that say things like: “You are the best YOU you need to be right now!”

Self-improvement, while it can and does help us Do Life, will never mean we stop breaking things.

We will always break things.

But that hononga, that deep connection between all of us who break all the things, is also immensely comforting. We are never alone, thanks to the whanaungatanga of the fucked-up.

We will keep breaking things and each other and we will still suffer. But if we keep turning back to God and acting accordingly, we are rescued from our broken state again and again. And we are loved no matter what.

But Israel Folau reminded us that Christianity includes the notion of judgment. Furious struggle over what counts as brokenness (“sin”) and as turning back to God (“repentance”) and as following Christ (“righteousness”), has caused, among us inadequate humans, exclusion and bigotry and countless deaths over many centuries.

Sexuality, cultural practices, cultural autonomy, the rights of women to their own bodies, the rights of slaves to freedom — all of these things have proved, and still prove, to be battlegrounds. Human sexuality is just the most recent of these.

At one level, judgment is pretty easy to understand. We do it all the time ourselves, discerning what is the right thing from the not-right thing. We can only “judge” something properly when we know enough about that thing or that action.

I am judged right now by God because I am utterly known right now. There will also be judgment to come. I don’t know what that looks like. But now, or then, everything I am is known, good and not — regardless of my careful construction of who I would rather the world see “me” to be, that construction that secrets away my overuse of porn many years ago, my tendency to lie to myself, my subterranean arrogance.

It doesn’t matter what that “thing” is. What matters is that it draws me away from following Christ.

One of my favourite passages that explains how our “things” get in the way between us and God comes from Jane Eyre. This 19th century novel by Charlotte Bronte is often thought of as a simple, if wonderfully told, love story. You know, poor smart girl meets rich man with a dark past, they fall madly in love, and are about to tie the knot when she discovers he has a wife locked up in his attic all along. As you do. She flees, and realises in retrospect that her obsessive love for her would-be husband was the problem

My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.

Heterosexual love here was the broken “thing”. Jane and Mr Rochester did eventually marry, once they got each other off their idolatrous pedestals and put God back in the centre of their lives together. (Don’t hold your breath for this aspect of the story to appear in any BBC production).

So is homosexual practice itself one of those “things” that prevent any person from living a Christ-following life? The short answer is of course it can. Anything in the human condition that may be bad, benign, or even a positive good, can morph into “an eclipse [that] intervenes between man and the broad sun.”

“Ah!” say the eagle-eyed scriptural traditionalists, “you are copping out. What about Romans 1: 26-7 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11?” Indeed. We can’t gloss over these kinds of passages or wish them away, although there are way more passages condemning poverty.

The Romans reading looks back to the old story of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as the quintessential story of Screwed-up Humans Who Lost the Plot And Forgot God:

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Verse 24 is the important one, actually. The sexually immoral behaviour stems from the worship of the creature (themselves) instead of the creator. The behaviour is a symptom of wrongness, not the cause.

So what about the Corinthians reading:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Drunkards, thieves, and those who pursued sexual immorality in all its forms are to be treated the same. Sexual immorality was a big deal for Jesus, too. Merely looking at someone wanting to commit adultery with that person is enough to knock you off the path (Matthew 5: 27-28). He never mentioned homosexuality, but he made his position clear — sexual immorality would get in the way of those who follow Him.

Many orthodox Christians, I think, would probably say that there is, in these verses, a clear condemnation of homosexual practice, even though it’s no more serious or trivial than any other behaviour. Being habitually drunk is just as sinful. Therefore, homosexual practice (and by extension, for many, homosexuality itself), on this view, is one of those “things”.

For me, though, the question is not “what are the forbidden behaviours we must not do”? Remember, this is not a rule book.

Perhaps it would be more fruitful to identify the sexual behaviours that bring us closer to God. We know covenantal relationships do: marriage, for example, that places Christ at the centre of the relationship. Sexual practice within the context of truly covenantal relationships then becomes rightly irrelevant.

The very notion of the possibility of same-sex covenantal relationships is relatively new (in the context of a 2000-year-old religion), hard, and confronting. And one day it will need to be faced, despite the existence of Matthew 19, Jesus’ condemnation of adultery:

“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Traditionalists assert that all arguments end here. Marriage simply cannot be between men or between women. On this view, God cannot “join together” same sex couples. ‘Nuff said.

The Anglican church in 2014 affirmed that traditional definition of marriage. And yet, the 63rd General Synod (flash word for church parliament) of the Anglican Church in New Zealand and Polynesia, decided to allow for the blessing of same-sex relationships in New Plymouth in May 2018.

The vote was not about allowing gay couples to marry in a church. That debate for now is closed.

What was decided was to allow church blessings of gay relationships in this corner of the worldwide Anglican communion. To cut a long story very short, a recommendation was  made that bishops may authorise the use of:

a service blessing the relationship of two people, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation where the minister has satisfied him or herself that the relationship is loving, monogamous, faithful and the couple are committed to a life-long relationship.

Nothing about this blessing will be compulsory for Anglican clergy. The rights of members to take different positions on same sex relationships has been preserved.

Nevertheless, and regardless of the definition of marriage, this s a clear step towards recognising that all couples can enter into covenantal relationships, and therefore that sexual orientation and sexual practice are not merely, by definition, “things” that get in the way of the journey to follow Christ.

It is fair to say that people were be torn. And some walked away, and may yet still walk away from our communion.  The 85 million-strong Anglican church worldwide will probably experience some degree of schism as other countries wrestle with the very same issue.

And we, the equally broken, will continue to break ourselves and each other, until we return to the road we must travel, and whatever that requires of each of us.

Ka aru mātou i a te Karaiti

Tui, tui, tuituia mātou

Tuia ki te tumanako

Called to follow Christ

Bind us together

Bind us in hope.

[Please note this article has also been published on E-Tangata. This article has also been amended slightly in the wake of the 2018 General Synod vote]

Something about stories.

Something about stories.

One evening, a few months ago I found myself sitting on the couch opposite my son.  We were both filling out a Harvard University online test, testing our unconscious biases.  These tests , which make you hit specific keys in response to images of faces and words, are fun, and maybe not very accurate. At any rate, it turned out that I had a moderate unconscious biases against African-Americans and women. Oh bloody marvellous. All my carefully nurtured social liberalism and bleeding heart centre-leftism (with dashes of deep orthodox conservatism, truth be told) was rent asunder and I was left with the fact that, underneath it all, I remain a bundle of automatic reactions I can’t control. As are we all, I guess.

My son though, showed a moderate unconscious bias towards African-Americans. He couldn’t be bothered with the gender test and loped off to play Fortnite with his teen male mates, but still, he gives me hope.  A hope that something in his growth and development, and in the images and people that he sees around him in his teen world has gifted him better soil in which to nurture a more open view of people that look different to him.

Perhaps my (almost) relentlessly Pākehā-centric upbringing in 1970s Christchurch gifted me a different kind of soil. One that grew me into a person who has had to learn to not be afraid of difference. Hell, let’s not beat around the bush, of course it did. It took years of very conscious effort for me not to be afraid to walk into a room full of people darker than I was. Despite my strong matriarchal upbringing and all-girls state education it took years too, to realise that male leadership and breezy male authority in all matters are not written in the stars. I still have to fight to over-compensate, even today, the day I turn 48, for my own simple sexism and racism.

I think background is one thing, but also what really matters are the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we hear or read. When I think back on the stories I immersed myself in as a lonely bookish kid, they were the staples of what I imagine a 1960s English childhood would be: Famous Five, Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, the Hardy Boys, Bullfinches’ Greek myths, Narnia, Corrigan, and the occasional AW Reed story. My imaginary friends all had English accents and said “My hat!” a lot. We watched a lot of Queen’s Christmas Messages when I was growing up.

My movie memories are largely the black and white and sometimes colour ones I’d watch with my mother on Sunday afternoons while she did hours and hours of ironing. I just don’t remember, in the main, any stories with brown or black faces, unless they were the occasional Louis Armstrong or Sidney Poitier moment. I don’t remember female book heroes either (except for George in the Famous Five and Lucy in Narnia). I lived in a Pākehā visual bubble, with occasional Māori guest appearances from Prince Tui Teka and Billy T James. There was simply no narrative of Māori life that I ever saw until I was an adult, and my own post-urbanisation family story was simply too remote to create images in my head.

Things are different for my boy and I think his assumptions are different. He knows, very early in his life , where he comes from and that he is Māori, which is just how it is. The predominant mode of visual story surrounding him is still a Pākehā one, but Boy,  Dark Horse are (boy-centric) stories that he will watch again and again, even as he pretends to do his reo Māori homework for school. Neither film reflects his own life really, but to him, they are just normal stories, just part of the Great Story of Everything. Perhaps his openness to diversity won’t last. Who knows. Part of my job is to make sure he continues to see the world outside the bubble we have no doubt created for him.

So ever since he heard about this year’s Māoriland Film Festival up in Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga country in Ōtaki from 21-25 March he’s been keen to go. Actually he’s not that interested in going to the movies of this festival, in its fifth anniversary year, the ‘most significant indigenous film festival of the southern hemisphere’, according to the blurb. To him, stories made by and about Māori or by and about other indigenous peoples perhaps don’t sound all that different to anything else, really. I think he wants to go because he’s just never been to a film festival before; his uncle and aunty run it, and his Aunty Hinemoa will be down from Auckland. That’ll do. What more do you need?

So after work today (Friday, as I write) we’ll drive in. There’s a doco on late this afternoon, Defending the Fire, that promises to be a layered look at what we mean when we speak of a ‘native warrior’. Maybe we’ll sneak in to catch some of the Ookie-Spookies short films, perhaps the one about the Stállu a Sámi monster who is an outcast in society (Slincraze Stállu) or about a young Aboriginal tracker hunting down criminals on the Australian Western frontier (Blight).  

Actually we’ll probably dine out on ‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a feature documentary about the role of Native Americans in popular music history. The funny thing is that this movie will no doubt be revelatory to me, but not for my seriously musical son. My guess is, he’ll be utterly unsurprised that there has been such an extraordinary Native contribution to popular music. He’ll just enjoy the tunes, and effortlessly add this information to what he already knows is normal. We probably won’t be there for the closing day on Sunday, but the programme, with 100 movies in total, is full and rich right up until Sunday night.

Knowing my luck and his personality, my son will probably declare himself absolutely bored at some point and go find somewhere to hang out on his phone, while I’ll continue to bask in images and sounds different to the ones I grew up with. Normal, but enhanced, transmission after all, then.

[This post has already appeared in a very slightly edited form on E-Tangata.]

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