In Defence of Our Tūpuna: Māori and Christianity
Bronson Burgess Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa University of Auckland
During discussions on non-political factors that empowered colonisation, I am bothered by the way in which many of our tūpuna are constructed as passive receptors of their colonisers’ religion. It is not the purpose of this article, nor its place, to suggest whether any of their decisions to convert were correct or not, but as we will never know everything about our ancestors during our mortal life, we have no reason to withhold from them an attribution of greater sensibility.
Admittedly, the historical use of religion as a tool of social control is undeniable for me, and that is definitely how it was used here in Aotearoa. However, Māori in the modern day are not gullible nor void of rational thought, so I am instilled with confidence that the same goes for those whom we descended from. The imposition of Crown law at the hands of the colonisers was met with debate and resistance – why should we then think that the imposition of any other kind of law at their hands was not?
We must pay more attention to the free will of our ancestors who converted. Starting with this point of view, how can we explain our ancestors’ widespread conversion to Christianity, without demeaning them as impressionable sheep?
An answer can be provided by asking another question: if the European missionaries had come and preached some other god or faith, would our ancestors still have accepted it?
To suggest that would have meant that Māori were going to believe anything the missionaries taught them. But this cannot be correct if we are to consider them as rational thinkers. Instead, we must view the Māori embrace of Christianity as occurring independently of who was teaching it to them. If the first Christian missionaries had hailed from some other part of the world, I am of the mind that the extent of our ancestors’ conversion would have virtually been the same, because their belief was based on what was being said, not who was saying it. In addition, we don’t have to think of our ancestors as having accepted their colonisers’ religion. Christianity did not belong to the European missionaries. They themselves were converts to a religion that had its origins in Israel.
To suggest they wouldn’t have, however, would mean there was something unique about Christianity which persuaded many of our ancestors to accept it. If so, what exactly was it? As I have mentioned that Christianity has its origins in Israel, its native people in biblical times were divided into twelve tribes. Around 700 BC, ten of these fled or were taken away as captives following an Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom of Israel. Around 200 years later, the same happened to the remaining tribes in the southern kingdom when the Babylonians attacked. The Jews were able to retain their identity, but it is still disputed today as to what exactly became of the rest of them.
My own denomination holds the belief that we have records of these tribes continuing to practice their faith for a time in their new locations around the world, and that they were eventually visited by the resurrected Christ. Fortunately, no matter what system of belief you subscribe to, this is a narrative that can be viewed from a strictly historical perspective. Holding Māori as descendants of a lost Israelite tribe, you can advance a theory that our ancestors escaped their oppressors, and voyaged from Israel to the Americas, then to Hawaiki, and then to the rest of the Pacific. This line of thinking begins to provide an explanation as to why the Incas mistakenly thought the Spanish were gods upon their arrival. Their tradition dictated that gods who had once visited them would return again, but the finer details of the story had become distorted by time.
Similarly for Māori, key features of their original belief system were still embedded in the culture even after all the centuries that had passed, which is why Christianity garnered such widespread acceptance. Once again, independent of the European missionaries’ involvement, it evoked a sense of familiarity for Māori as an echo of their place of origin in the Middle East. To state it more plainly, I believe Māori and other Pacific peoples were not introduced to Christianity by the European missionaries, but instead, to varying degrees of awareness, our tūpuna in the 1800s recognised that they had encountered their ancient faith.
There’s far more to the story of the Israel diaspora in the Pacific, that others like Herewini Jones have already eloquently explained elsewhere. But the point being made here is that if we so wish, we are free to stake the claim during discussions of colonisation that our ancestors did not mindlessly abandon their beliefs for a set of foreign ones, but reunited themselves with something that our people had known long ago.
Lastly, as all Christian sects are not homogenous, neither are the intentions of each member. There are undoubtedly those who exploited our ancestors’ conversion for their own personal gain, but these were not necessarily always those who had taught them. If our ancestors encountered only those who wished to use religion for their own agenda, I submit that our tūpuna would’ve seen right through their fraud. In contrast, they met a number of sincere missionaries who demonstrated love for our people by living amongst them, teaching them in their own whare and learning their reo. The first missionaries are documented as experiencing little success during the first 15 years after their arrival, because as sound judges of character, our ancestors were unwilling to extend fair analysis to any kind of message, until the messengers themselves had proven enough trustworthiness and aroha.
While anyone is free to reject any of these arguments in any case, respect still needs to be put on our ancestors’ names. Our tūpuna should be described at the very least as earnest seekers of truth, who weighed every consideration in the balance before making their decision. It is what we would have done, so we shouldn’t think of them think them as less. Our tūpuna suffered much because of colonisation – let’s not commit any further degradation by painting them with a brush of naivety.