David: Hi, I’m David Bell from the Trinity at Waiaki Learning Centre for Live On Air. I’ve got with me in LA, Vincent Vittorio, who’s a talented film-maker/Director and has just put together a new documentary about life in the world’s biggest refugee camp - Warehoused. Tell us all about it, Vincent.
Vincent: Thanks so much for having me on. We’re grateful to be able to be storytellers in this day and age that can [0:40] these worlds in the storytelling we do in documentaries. So, Warehoused is a documentary that looks at the Dadaab Refugee Camp, in Dadaab, Kenya. It’s one of the world’s largest refugee camps. Several years ago we had the opportunity to go there and share some of the stories of people inside the camp, and really give audiences an understanding of the plight that a lot of the refugees are up against.
It’s a very unique situation, because as you know in the world today everybody’s kind of looking at this refugee situation differently, and it’s less understood as what it was 40-50 years ago. I feel like our goal with the film is really to humanise these refugees that people sometimes are not realising are just like you and I, and are just trying to find safety from war, from famine, from things that are keeping them from being like you and I. This is a situation where the documentary hopes to give people a better understanding of the crisis.
David: Yes, the world really is in a much more precarious state at present. Vincent, you’re very skilled at what you do. What drives you to get inside of these complex and very moving situations?
Vincent: I think it’s the power to be able to unveil topics to people. I hear all the time that sometimes people wished they knew more about something, and I feel like with the distrust in the United States as well as the world necessarily, in journalism there is a greater respect for documentary storytelling. So, I think that’s really what drives us; we’re able to get people to begin to ask questions, or want to look deeper into something. Not all documentaries are the same; some have more of a voice than others.
I think that even the ones with the voice, even if it’s something you disagree with, it at least gets you to ponder what does this mean? I love using Mike Moore as an example, which a lot of people put him in a box that’s more of a large form editorial, which I might be able to agree with, but with that, even if you disagree with his perspective, it’s getting you to look deeper into a topic - getting you to want to know more. I feel like we’re in such a - the age of information; there’s so much content out there that we can being to enter into those conversations that our films can hopefully bring people to.
David: There’s a lot of creative energy in every genre of film-making, but I think in documentary you’re throwing together so many diverse elements. What’s the spark that gets you up in the morning - gets you going?
Vincent: I think it’s a combination of just realising that we’re all here with a purpose to contribute to something bigger. It’s what kind of gets me going every day to make me put the hours in and get with the people that I get to, and I think that it’s always been a calling of mine; I always felt like, as even a young boy, the power of storytelling is something that always intrigued me to want to go further.
So I feel like that energy in me that really wants to go deeper with it, and I think that’s one of the reason why, as well as a film-maker myself, and [I meet 4:29] so many friends or people in this network that know I want to just help them along the way, even if it’s something that I’m not a part of, by helping them be prepared for reaching a larger audience with a film, or making a better film. I think we’re put here to leave something, but have a large impact on the people that come after us, as much as we’re [4:54] each day able to truly help them to have a better understanding about these topics, or to emotionally connect with something.
David: I just wonder how difficult it is to promote some of the documentaries that you’ve done with the change of political situation in the United States. Many people around the countries perceive, in the Trump era, the new President saying, America first and then everyone else is second. With this, there’s been such a change of direction, it makes me wonder how hard it will be to get the kind of documentaries that you’re making out there in the public arena.
Vincent: Well, it’s always a risky thing to kind of [5:43], but I do want to suggest that while our new President is much different than anyone we’ve had previous, the majority vote still went to the losing candidate. With that being said, I think it’s important to realise while we are divinized on political backgrounds and ideological beliefs, there is a common ground that we all share with certain things; while we’re different because one person voted for Donald Trump or one person voted for Hillary or Bernie or whoever, there’s still [6:29] that are there, and I think that we want to look at it as a very black and white thing, but it’s not. So, in our films I think that people try to put you in a box of being one way or the other, but I like to always go back to a story I read on the United States Tax Code.
We had a lot on the film that were [6:51] to Steve Forbes to Mike Huckabee. I remember I was speaking at an NYU film school - NYU law school, and I had a guy stand up at the Q&A, and he goes, I hate Mike Huckabee but you had me agreeing with him - how did you do this? My answer was very matter of fact; I didn’t do anything. I’m just not taking your words out of context, and I’m not just taking one short byte and getting your to try to run with that - I’m challenging you as a viewer - as an audience to take this information and go further.
I think that’s one of the beauties of what we get to do as documentary film-makes; bring people to these worlds to ask these questions. So, while it is interesting that the new administration is about America first, and this protectionist idea that maybe doesn’t seem to hold up, I want to stay positive because 1) there’s nothing I can do, and 2) I think that at the end of the day, even the people that look to have completely separate views from your own can still be a partner - can still be a team-mate, and you have to find the good in any situation.
David: That’s a great attitude. Thank you so much for talking to us down here in New Zealand, Vincent. We wish you all the best with how your crowd source funding goes for finishing off Warehoused. Just keep doing it, Vincent. Just keep doing it. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Vincent: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on.
Posted on 02 March 2017, 9:22 PM
Last updated Thursday, 02 March 2017, 9:43 PM
The full text of the interview follows
David: Good evening everyone. Welcome to Live On Air this Sunday evening. It’s my very great privilege to have Professor Peter Lineham with me this evening. Peter is a professor of history, and does numerous other things within Massey University here at the Albany campus in Auckland. Peter, would you like to begin by telling us just a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you ended up in the subject of history, as one of New Zealand’s foremost historians?
Peter: Thank you. I was born in Karamea on the West Coast of the South Island, in a very isolated spot. I guess it really is, given that I hardly ever go back there; it’s just too hard to get to and from there. So, for the first 12 years, I’m one of five boys. Now, Karamea is a very isolated place, and its religious spread is pretty unusual. There’s a little Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity which at least when I was there, on alternate Sunday evenings services were held by either the Anglican or the Presbyterian ministers coming from Granity, about 50 miles South. The Sunday School, which was held in the Anglican church was run by the Open Brethren, the Jennings family and the [Garlic 1:39] family, and heavily attended by our family.
There was a very strong Brethren tradition that went back to the 1890s in Karamea, and we were part of a group that had split away from the Exclusive Brethren in 1919, and had affiliated with a group which we called the Redding Brethren, but were from the points of view of others offered called the [Stewart or Kelly Low 2:10] Division, which went back to a split in the Exclusive Brethren in the 1880s. So we met in a little hall opposite my grandmother’s farm every Sunday morning and mid-afternoon, but we participated in that district.
Basically everybody cooperated except the Catholics. The Catholics didn’t have their own school, so there was some cooperation, and my best friend was a Catholic, but we largely supported the Open Brethren when there was visiting preachers from whatever denomination. We all went, and we’d regularly go to the Anglican or Presbyterian services at night. Of course, things like that happened in small country districts, which didn’t happen in larger towns. A lot of that has shaped me quite profoundly, because I’ve always been a person who’s had a contact with a range of different denominations.
David: Just as a sort of sideline curious question; the distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant was very marked in the West Coast and in Southland, and possibly Otago in the early stages of New Zealand colonial history, so some of that still carried over into Karamea?
Peter: Well, it certainly did in Westport. If you went to Westport, [O’Connor 3:42] and the presence of Catholic institutions was very apparent and very strong. There were some pretty sharp denominational lines drawn in the mining towns of Millerton and Stockton and Denniston, which we passed to go into Westport, which was our big town, believe it or not. In Karamea though it was a country district - a rural district, so there were no miners. So, basically because everybody was farmers, there was quite a different relationship, and the priest only came out - I don’t think it was every week they held services. So, the Catholic members of the community went to the state school in primary school. They went elsewhere for secondary education. So, I can recall as a boy going to my friend Joseph’s place for the lunch or dinner or something, and being not quite sure about all this idolatrous stuff of this Latin grace that was said, but we were good friends.
I’ve got four brothers, and my father and mother; Dad had a small contracting business picking up the cream from the farmers, and picking up coal and wood and bringing it to people to keep their fires going. So he couldn’t afford to send us all to boarding school. So, in 1965 the family moved to Christchurch pretty regretfully from my father’s point of view, in order to ensure that the five boys could get a decent education. At that point, Joseph went to St Bede’s College, and so we kept up contact there, but yes the world of Christchurch was extraordinarily different form the world of Karamea. I’ll tell you a bit more about...
David: I was just going to say that shift is sort of like a change of universe in some ways, isn’t it; to go from one of the most isolated spots at the top of New Zealand’s South Island to its most popular city. Yeah, that’s quite a mind-blowing event.
Peter: You understand that for me it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened in my life. My mother was from Timaru, and much of her family was in Christchurch, and our summer holidays had always been in Christchurch. For me, Christchurch was the only hope for the universe, really. Karamea certainly wasn’t it. A small country school, for all of our family [6:54] on education. [7:02] had wanted to go to university or become a teacher, and she’d missed out. So we’d inherited from her a deep, deep love of education, and a feeling of total frustration in the Karamea District High school, which lay ahead of us with its two teachers. It was not a hopeful prospect, so to go to Burnside High School in Christchurch where it was a new school, my mum knew the principal - good Open Brethren person - this was like a dream come true. So, in 1965 I won a place to the great pride of the Karamea District High School headmaster - got a place in the top professional class.
So I was going to be learning French and Latin. I of course revelled in a new secondary school, and I was a prefect and I was the head librarian and very involved in the choir and the orchestra and things like that. So were all of my brothers, and it was fantastically exciting. So, we were still Redding Brethren, and the strongest Redding Brethren church in New Zealand - there aren’t that many of them - was in Christchurch. There were very distinctly two tensions pulling in that group; one of a connect with other Christians kind, which my mother’s family had strong connections with, and the other sort of instinctive Exclusive Brethren style of, you shouldn’t contact to other Christians - they pollute you. We were pretty firmly pushed in the positive line, and every now and then came up hard against the narrow line. I’m afraid I was clever enough to make life misery for the Bible Class teacher at the church, because I kept pushing.
I read widely through the Crusader Movement, and through other connections. For example, my best friend there at Burnside was Malcolm Glennie whose father was Don Glennie - very well known liberal Presbyterian minister. I’m the sort of person who has big conversations with everybody, so I could make life pretty miserable for anybody who was trying to teach me a kind of narrow typological interpretation of the Scriptures, which I think at least one of your listeners knows what I’m talking about.
David: You must be referring to Mr [Mannins 9:52]. You would know Stuart...
Peter: Yes, of course.
David: From Christchurch, and Burnside High School, you learned your French and Latin, but you must have developed an early affiliation for the subject of history.
Peter: Yes, well you might think so, and in a way I did from a very fine teacher, Derek Wood who later went on and became a principal in Lower Hutt, I think and very highly regarded teacher, but I’d have to say that most of the teachers that taught me history were not great at history. Some of them took the approach of fact regurgitation, which was not what I was interested in. So I was actually much more interested in English literature at this stage. I was totally caught up in [Bronte 10:49] and Dickens. I lived in the world of Bronte and Dickens, to be honest. So when I went to University of Canterbury, you understand that given my background, the careers advisors thought I really should do religious studies and get involved in religion, but it just wasn’t kind of wise, or wouldn’t have been approved of - would have caused anxiety. So I did a double major in English and History. At the end of my BA I really had equal marks in English and History - pretty good marks, and then had to decide.
Then I discovered that you had to learn yet another language - Old English, to do English, whereas I’d also done very well in mathematics, and there seemed just a little hope of using maths in history, but very little use possibility in English. So I did a masterate history, and did my MA thesis really trapped in the vision of Charles Dickens, and exploring the history of imprisonment for debt, which is one of the themes of some of Dickens novels; that world that he reflects of the hard, tough world of Victorian London. So I was able to use my mathematics to work and see whether his picture was in fact a true picture. So I did my masterate thesis, finished it, got an excellent mark, and then applied for and won firstly a New Zealand-tenured PhD scholarship, but then much to my surprise, in May of the year 1975 I won an overseas scholarship. I’d won the fairly coveted Commonwealth scholarship to England.
So I was one of four of us who headed off from New Zealand in October 1975 to go to England to do my PhD. I’d chosen to go to the University of Sussex, because one of the foremost historians of Victorian England, John Harrison and some others who were quite well-known were based at Sussex, and I suspect I helped my chances by choosing not Oxford or Cambridge, but a new university. Also, I think I greatly enjoyed it more because I had friends who went to Oxford and Cambridge, and the formality and the rigidity of that traditional form of education. I don’t think anybody finds it easy to do a PhD, whereas it was much more of a community at Sussex. So I had three fantastic years doing my PhD. I wanted to do it on Methodism from I’d learned from John Cookson how crucial the Methodist revival was in reshaping into the 18th Century.
When I got to England my thesis supervisor, John Harrison said he was bored with Methodism and he had two students doing things on Methodism. He had this great little subject up his sleeve of the Swedenborgians; the followers connected with William Blake. William Blake was an early Swedenborgian for the brief period that he was anything. He then did his own religious thinking. So the chance to think in the context of Blake just delighted me. So, I explored a very [14:25] world of the Swedish 18th Century writer who had tried to produce his own enlightenment. He’s rejected the tenets of the enlightenment, and tried to create a world where there’d be some kind of spiritual theory you could draw from the Scriptures if only you could find a way to re-interpret it using some kind of analogies.
So, he produced a theory of interpreting Scripture, which ended up appealing very greatly to people who were fed up with Methodism and John Wesley, and wanted to think for themselves, especially the weaving population of Lancashire, this was a very popular movement in late 18th Century England, even though it ran out of steam fairly soon after that. So I did my PhD on this remote subject.
David: It had some influence, didn’t it, on some of the leading scientists of the 19th Century? I think it was Joseph Priestly may well have had some association...
Peter: Joseph Priestly - you are well-read, David. You are absolutely correct. Joseph Priestly detested Swedenborgians, and actually worked out much of his theory of empirical science. In one of his early books was an attack on the Swedenborgians which had resulted from a debate from the Swedenborgians when they had arrived in Birmingham. This is in the brief period before his church was burned down by the Church-and-King mobs in 1793, and he fled to America. So, Priestly was quite interested. Others who were interested; the James family had connections, and quite a number of Quakers. Cookworthy and the sculpture Flaxman were very influenced by Swedenborg. There was a kind of network of people who really were trying to make a bridge between evangelicalism and mysticism. The theories of Swedenborg gave them a nice bridge into this religious exploration.
David: I think a lot of Brethren, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Methodists today would be surprised to learn that Swedenborg still has quite a profound influence, and you find expressions of his way of thinking - his philosophy, even today. It also just raised the point; when you wrote your MA thesis in the period of Dickens, I’m recalling that Dickens in one of his novels I think made a big [17:38] about the British Mudfog Association for the Advancement of everything, which if my memory serves me correctly was his attack on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He hated what was emerging as a science of statistics. So it’s fascinating.
I didn’t know that you had that interest in mathematics, but I think for those that are listening to the development of your understanding of history, that they may not be aware that history has component subject areas that are quite specialist. For example, the history of mathematics or the history of science or the history of art; each of those becomes a major discipline - a major edifice in its own right. The kind of history that you’re talking about has I think a flavour of - would it be described as social history, and therefore is trying to embrace theories of society and community and so on and so forth? Or, am I on the wrong track, Peter? Where did you end up?
Peter: Okay, so you’re completely on the right track; I was trained by the foremost non-Marxist social historian of England. The Marxists were very dominant in the world of social history at this period. John Harrison was very interested in the thinking of Robert Owen, but was not a Marxist, but all his mates were Marxists, and he was certainly on the left. I was sent off, because I was John Harrison’s student who was interested in Blake, and at this point Edward Thompson was working - Edward Thompson’s interest in history came and went a bit. So this is the very prominent Marxist historian who had inspired many people. I was sent off to spend a bit of time with E P Thompson, and I had a very hilarious weekend staying with him, talking through Blake with him. I’ve always had a real soft spot for the Thompson family, having known them a bit, and also knew some of the others like Hobsbawm.
So I’ve always, from that, been forced having come out of a world in New Zealand where historians didn’t have to wrestle with social theory. No doubt sociologists did, but suddenly I discovered history did have to wrestle with that. So, this boy from the sticks had to work pretty hard in thinking through how do we understand our discipline, and what sense do we give of the shaping or the trajectory of history - where is history going, and by what means do we write about a society? Society is not just a potted sent of biographies; it’s got to be movements, it’s got to be forces, it’s got to be changes in the standard of living.
That debate was at the heart of the Marxist/non-Marxist discussions going on in England, where the whole question of, could the standard of living rise and yet the workers still feel denied in their sense of identity and struggling with their purpose and shape. So, those were really fascinating issues, which have kept me very deeply on the issue of the nature of history.
David: I think what has happened, Peter is that in those formative years where you’re starting to accumulate all the tools and techniques in the trade of writing history, you then came back to New Zealand and started lecturing at Massey in Palmerston North, which was the centre of something quite new, at the time that you got started. I’m thinking here of [Bryan Collis 22:01] and the Religious Studies Department, or was it combined with philosophy?
I can’t remember, but for people like me who were beginning Methodist clergy, and there were quite a group of us then, we were suddenly confronted with young historians like Peter Lineham, coming in and telling us about New Zealand missionaries, and implications of the Treaty, and all kinds of interesting things that perhaps we had not quite heard in the same way. So, I wonder if you could tell us please a little bit about what are the fascinating things you’ve done in writing and researching history since the early days in Palmerston North.
Peter: Yes, I was very fortunate to get a position at Massey University, and of course the forces for me were none of the forces that you’re talking about; the small religious studies department had been founded actually with an interesting story. Methodism in the Manawatu can play an important role both in the beginnings of religious studies, and the beginning of social work at Massey University and in New Zealand really, but for me the critical factor was Bill Oliver, that remarkable and astute historian, again with strong connections to the left, well-read in some of the stuff that I was interested in, though much more focussing on New Zealand history by that period - also, his colleague in the first appointee in the history department - in fact John Owens who had written his thesis on the first Methodist missionaries in New Zealand. So I came into the department at Massey where of course we taught predominantly - all the subjects were taught extramurally.
Our largest classes were extramural classes, and I was so very fortunate to inherit initially the course on English social history, which I took over, which had originally been Bill Oliver had gone through - a couple of others had taught it before I got it, and then was able to start the teaching of New Zealand religious history, which then the religious people used as part of the religious studies degree, as well as being part of the history degree. That course, I’m starting teaching for the year tomorrow. I’m teaching it. It’s developed a bit.
So then I set to work, because I realised actually it’s very - well, I had to make a big choice; when I accepted the Massey position I chose not to advance my work in British history, but to transfer to this almost empty field of New Zealand religious history, where really the only person who had done much at that stage, though of course what he had done was so extraordinary, was the professor at Knox College, Ian Breward but his was very strongly a Presbyterian history, though he knew a lot more. I’d nearly done a PhD under his supervision right back before I got the Commonwealth scholarship. So it was quite natural, and meanwhile I had written The History of the Brethren in a sort of gap that I had before going overseas. So I’d already had a book to my name, and no sooner that I get back, and I was invited to write The History of Scripture Union, which is a youth movement with strong emphasis on Bible study tools and the like.
I did that in my first year that I was at Massey. That was a really fun thing to do, which gave me a lot of understanding about the evangelical world. So I increasingly began to carve out this field of New Zealand religious history. Then in 1987 my very dear friend and colleague, Allan Davidson had come back to New Zealand and been appointed at St John’s College, and we began collaboration and cooperation, and really we’ve never looked back since. Even though Allan is older than me and has retired, we’re still collaborating on this, that and the other, and we’re friendly colleagues and critiques of each other’s work. Between us I guess, most - New Zealand religious history has just boomed, and there’s been such fantastic work now in most of the universities. There’s been some pretty wonderful links back to that early work in the 1980s. Meanwhile...
David: Three of you, beginning with Ian Breward and then yourself and Allan Davidson, have really created something that needed to happen for a whole variety of reasons amongst a whole lot of denominations, but I’m not thinking of that so much, as the secular impact of, for the first time, society - well, maybe not the first time, but for society itself to begin to really take notice of the fact that there’s been this religious history that has had a great deal to do with the shaping of the morays in culture, of the country over a very long time.
Peter: Yes, I couldn’t agree more, and one of my former students and very much colleague, John Stenhouse states his point more strongly than I would state it, and John and I have friendly disputes about this, but how John expresses it is that in a way the Sinclair tradition of history in New Zealand, like a lot of the arts in New Zealand, has been led by people from a very secular point of view. So this is the Beaglehole Sinclair approach in which religion is written out, but the history of the left wing is written up.
While the history of the left wing certainly should be emphasised and has a lot to say, the history of the left wing itself is laden with religious connections. Discovering that, and discovering that in fact early evangelicalism was largely, until it became very sectarian and fundamentalist, largely on the left. Effectively, early evangelicalism was Methodist, primarily. Methodism was aiming for the workers, and listened to the voice of the left. So, there’s those interesting connections that have been lost because of that American fundamentalist tradition that has just badly distorted the shape of evangelical movement.
David: I think that’s a really interesting point, and a lot of people don’t realise that fundamentalism as a philosophy for the religious right, only really came into being in the early part of the 20th Century. I think it was 1910 or thereabouts that they published that series of pamphlets [called 29:23] The Fundamentals. That was the thing that really got the whole Darwinian debate wound up all over again, whereas I think Dr Stenhouse really quite conclusively showed that a number of key religious leaders in New Zealand accepted Darwin very readily. I went on to develop that some of that in the mathematical field as well, but most of what occurs now is a little bit like Donald Trump’s alternative truths; that somehow the religious right ignores the [30:04] of our own history. They don’t want to know. Fundamentalism in their minds has existed since God delivered the 10 Commandments.
Peter: Yes, and this distortion of - well, people tell the story as they want to, in order to confirm that where they’re standing now is right, and has always been right. That’s unfortunately the way it’s been, but you see, remember that my background was, even though I’m a member simultaneously you might say of a Baptist and Anglican and a gay church, which is pretty whacky and makes my Sundays very busy. The simple fact is that my background has led me to appreciate that small religious movements actually play an unusually influential role in the shaping of the community, and it’s very worthwhile watching out for the ways in which people - I just think Anglicanism in New Zealand history has had a relatively bland contribution to make in the community, and Anglicanism has been predominant in this society, and it’s often been the other religious movement who have been able to gather momentum.
So, I’ve done studies over the years of the Mormons, the Adventists, and the Churches of Christ. Methodism; of course, a lot of studies of Methodism, and I’ve got a whole stack of material on primitive Methodists whom I want to work on more when I get some spare moments - on all sorts of other wacky groups like - oh well, I better be careful because I mentioned Christian Science in the same breath of wacky movements at a recent broadcast and it upset the Christian Scientists who had been very kind to me in supplying material about their history. Unusual groups from the fringe have actually made a significant contribution, and that’s why groups like Destiny which I’d loathe to [32:19] some respect, we should never downplay the significance that they’re having in the Maori community. That’s really what interests me.
David: Yeah, I think Destiny is a fascinating case-study. No-one’s highlighted it better than you; you’ve written extensively about it, and you’ve also had the unique ability to gain the trust of Brian Tamaki, its leader. I have a prior question that came in before tonight’s meeting; someone was wanting to know whether there was any similarity between the way Destiny structured itself, and the way the Open Brethren structured itself. They thought there must be, because you wrote so convincingly about Destiny, you must have some kind of prior knowledge. Any comment about that, Peter?
Peter: No, not at all. I’ve never been in the charismatic movement, but I’ve had a lot of friends who have been Pentecostals, or in the charismatic movement. I’ve always watched and tried to understand them. I think a key aspect for any historian, especially of religious movements, is to give some credit to the fact that something motivates these people, that shouldn’t just be dismissed, even though you might want to set it in a context. Most famously, I caused some surprise at the Mormon History Conference when I said, I can’t explain the miracles that persuaded the early Mormons to leave the Church of England and follow the Mormons, but something persuaded them to change.
So, what I do in many of these cases; I just say, well I can’t put all this together because it seems to happen in a wide variety of religious movements, but I just think more happens than my empirical tools enable me to fully explain, and I want to give some credit to that factor, along with this pretty significant credit on a whole [34:29] anything but pure and good and decent. [34:35] no connection between the Brethren and Tamaki; not even remotely. The Brethren would be incapable of organising a big church really, because they so hate one person running anything.
David: I think there’s probably a lesson in that for the Methodists. Wesley’s genius was starting small groups - not mega-churches, though Peter has written again - he’s gathered fascinating statistics about the growth of the Pacifica mega-churches, particularly the Tongan mega-church Methodists in a relatively small - well, a couple of square miles over in South Auckland way. That brings me to the final point I’d like to make for the evening, Peter; the breadth of what you’ve done, viewed by people like myself who have been at the coalface of Christian ministry - the breadth of what you’ve done - the intellectual drive that has enabled you to put statistics - to put history - to put the story of people in front of us, and make it live, I think has been quite outstanding. The last question I’d want to put to you; has it been easy, given all the things of your Brethren background, and your identity as a gay person in the community today - has that been an easy journey to take?
Peter: Of course not. It’s been an extremely difficult journey, but I’ve tried to make that journey - people think I’m mad in this, but I’ve tried to make that journey respecting people with whom I really have had to disagree, because I didn’t make this journey to hurt others. I miss everything that I lose, and I feel that loss. In some ways I’m going to three churches because I need three churches to make up for the Brethren, which is kind of all-consuming. So it’s been important to me; whenever I work with people on their story, to enter that story keep a bit of critical distance.
I need critical distance. Critical distance can enable you to see through what’s going on when you’re being kicked out of a church, but critical distance needs to be accompanied by - I don’t know what it is; it’s a compassion I think, that enables you to enter their story, and allow them - to give them credit for within their own limits, sincerely and earnestly trying to be what they’re trying to be. So I want to set them in context, but I don’t want to so squeeze them that nothing is left.
David: Well, I think on behalf of a huge number of people, but I’m particularly talking about the Methodist community and my colleagues; we would want to say a huge affirmation and thank you for the kind of Christian leader that you are. You’re primarily a religious historian who has made a personal story become a kind of inspirational educational legacy for so many of us. So, Peter we’ll bring our broadcast for this Live On Air to a close, with our huge thanks to you.
This was written for the Timaru Herald under the byline Christian Comment.
It has a particular relevance to Methodism in New Zealand 2017 as we have deliberately diminished our capacity for intellectually rigorous theological debate at a national and regional level, by dismantling structures and forums and arenas of engagement.
During Christian Action Week, which ended in July, Christians of many denominations throughout New Zealand were asked to think deeply about the continuing erosions of individual freedoms and parliamentary democracy in our society. And the timing of the snap election highlighted many of the issues raised during the week.
Orwell's prophetic novel, 1984, was used as the starting point for discussions and sermons. In the mythical land of Oceania the power of the state had assumed frightening proportions. Individual freedoms and the right to freedom of speech had been lost. Citizens were merely the objects of political manipulation.
Christian Action Week sought to ask how relevant was the Big Brother image of the state to New Zealand.
In New Zealand there are clear signs of the power of Big Brother increasing. The Wanganui computer facility is one example. And a variety of legislation in recent years gives more power to the state, and less to the individual, which is of great concern to the Churches.
Among these are the Immigration Act, 1984, which greatly increases the power of the Minister of Immigration to act against over-stayers; the Security Intelligence Service Act, 1977, which allows for the investigation of individuals on Prime Ministerial orders; the National Development Act, which severely limits the time for informed debate on major public works.
The churches have a vital role to play in scrutinizing such legislation and where necessary objecting to it.
The basic biblical themes are to do with care and concern for the global village of humanity and the environment in which it is located. Whenever the worth or rights of humankind is detracted from, the Church is obliged to speak out. Whatever disadvantages people is an affront to God and arepeat of the sin of the Cross.
Christian Action Week belies the notion that the Church and individual Christians ought to be obedient to the state.
The earliest example of the notion of defiance of the power of the state was Christ himself.
His often quoted statement, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, unto God that which is God's” indicated in hi own thought that the claims of God exceeded the claims of the state.
This attitude is again shown in his action of cleansing the Temple, which was an outright attack on the ruling politico-religious party of the day, the Sadducees.
Eventually, his attacks, verbal as well, led to his death as a matter of political expediency.
In the English tradition, Thomas More stands out as a brilliant example of the clash between Church and state, a man who believed the righteous demands of God were higher than any man-made laws of state.
In the modern period, the brave actions of Bonhoeffer and Neimoller defying the Nazi tyranny are among the better known cases of Christians speaking out against the power and abuses of the state.
Many committed Christian leaders believe that our society now stands at a crossroads. Though our humanitarian record has been excellent, there is a feeling abroad that the fabric of society, based on equality of opportunity, the right to certain liberties, and the enduring style of a parliamentary democracy are being replaced by a rising powerful state machine.
The former Chief Ombudsman said, “In New Zealand we can now feel substantially less secure about our rights to free expression. People who express a certain point of view are denigrated; they might become afraid about what could happen if they speak out in New Zealand. I think there is an atmosphere of concern about this dwindling freedom of expression.”
In recent months the former Minister of Education curtailed debate on the curriculum review, and dismissed arguments over the retention of the University Entrance examination.
Archbishop Paul Reeves said, “The Parliamentary Press Gallery gives its award to an organization named the Coalition for Open Government, this decision is attacked by politicians who seem to equate open-government with an anti-government attitude.
“The Minister of Education, Mr Wellington, is inclined to announce when public debate on a matter should end. I thought that democracy meant that debate ended when people stopped talking.”
Christian Action Week asked fundamental questions about the growth of power by the executive arm of government, and ruling by regulation
Sir John Marshall said, “There's nothing wrong with changing the law if your objective doesn't encroach on human rights. But the law can be used oppressively, to achieve ends not consistent with the accepted rights of people.”
There appears, then, to be disquiet among some community leaders and church men about the erosion of rights and freedoms within New Zealand society.
The signs of Orwell's Big Brother are being seen as timely warnings.
The Christian churches stand in a tradition, which they have disregarded to ill-effect when it is neglected, of speaking out against the state when the state is wrong, or acting against the spirit of the gospel.
The denominations who back the aims of Christian Action Week, the members of the national Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, are encouraging hard, disciplined thinking of individual members as a result of raising these issues.
But the historical and biblical mandate for this kind of challenge is overriding. The Christian churches are inevitably involved with the world-wide spectrum of social justice issues.
Christians in New Zealand are not constrained by the state or a political party line. But they are constrained by the values of the Kingdom of God.
This means that they are called to to enter the political arena, as in every other part of life, and transform it to conform with kingdom values. The Christian transformation of life touches the political as much as any other aspect of living.
The ultimate aim of such transformation of society is to ensure a land where there is peace, justice and compassion.
When a politician or political party deliberately seeks to undermine that humanizing of our society, then the Christian conscience ought to be clear: to have glimpsed the will of God and yet denied it in the ballot-box is not the way of the Kingdom.
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this. A man is looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has, and buys that one.”
Christian Action Week 1984 highlighted that the pearl of freedom requires effort to be maintained, and that the cause of justice needs the very watchful eyes of very many people, including the Christian Churches, or one of our most precious commodities will in the end be lost.
The attachment gives a summary of how Practical Theological Reflection intersects with Moral Theology and Ethics