Tuesday, January 17, 2006

God of the Whenua

Bill Bennett

The Judaeo-Christian tradition has deeply permeated Pakeha culture. For some, festivals such as Rogationtide (blessing the land for spring planting), Plough Sunday, and Harvest Thanksgiving, continue to remind them of a God who creates and sustains the earth, monitors the seasons and encourages a responsible work ethic. There is a strong cultural affirmation of a God who brings life out of dormancy, and provides for human need, who shapes the landscape and invites the farmer to participate in oversight of the land, the crops and the living creatures under his care. Many land owners affirm the biblical ideas of giftedness, especially those whose association with land is measured in generations. They honour and respect the primal creative forces which have shaped the land and the Creator God who has brought it into being. Land is precious and they are its stewards. Still others have experienced dispossession through financial loss associated with economic depression and climatic disaster.

However, there are many others whose relationship with the land is more utilitarian. It is something to be purchased and from which a living is made. In contrast to Maori, Pakeha accept the principle of individual title and ownership, a profitable rate of return and personal responsibility and personal rewards. This is a cultural rather than a biblical principle.

It is hard to determine where the biblical scenario finishes and where a distinctively Pakeha theology begins. As Neil Darragh comments: ‘The contemporary Pakeha Australasian Christian understanding of God and human life exists in a form of an overseas reality, the origins of our denominational traditions.’ Land, its management and care, its changing usage and profitability, its meaning for generations of farmers and those who gain their livelihood indirectly from it, are all part of the theological landscape. Land is a flexible tool.

For many Pakeha there tends to be a separation in heart and mind between occupation or ownership of land and that of identity. Unlike that of the Maori, this is a Pakeha cultural reality – identity is general not dependent on place. Yet, increasingly, there are people whose self-awareness is inextricably bound up with the land they have inherited or purchased.

Boyd Wilson’s reflective essay, ‘Malkuth: Parables from the Community of Land,’ superbly captures the vast canvas of time and creativity that enables recent generations to work the land. He teases out the sense of vocation and daily work that characterises those who work on and with it, and the succession of gain and loss that has transformed people’s lives.

From chapter 6 of God of the Whenua – rural ministry in Aotearoa New Zealand, published by Philip Garside 2005
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