Why Waitangi Day?

Waitangi Day and Joshua 9

February 6th is Waitangi Day. Waitangi means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?  What words or emotions do you associate with Waitangi Day? Did you every think, however, that as a Christian you have a unique insight into Waitangi Day?

In public media, Waitangi Day is about lots of shouting, angry posturing, throwing T-shirts, spitting and shouting – did I mention shouting? Personally, I have been on marae on Waitangi Day and have only experienced fun and food.

So, what do they shout? “Honour the Treaty!” As a Christian “honour the Treaty” is the correct thing to say – but in a constructive and honourable way. How so? Because Christians on both sides – Maori and British – were deeply involved in seeing the Treaty signed and believed it was the right thing to do before God. More than this, they viewed it like a biblical covenant, and hoped that it would speak of the greater covenant between God and man in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Explanation: In the Bible we have a story that explains why honouring the Treaty is the right thing to do. But, before we look at it, let’s just remind ourselves what the Treaty of Waitangi/Tiriti o Waitangi is. In summary it is a legal covenant between most of the Maori chiefs and representatives of the British crown. The Treaty established a British Governor of New Zealand, but recognised Maori ownership of their lands and other properties, and gave Maori the rights of British subjects. Unfortunately, the English and Maori versions of the Treaty differed significantly, so people don’t agree 100% on exactly what was agreed.

The Treaty was signed because more and more Europeans were coming to Aotearoa looking for cheap land. In the early 1800’s only a few Pakeha lived here, and the most influential ones were Christian missionaries like Henry Williams. Most missionaries did not want NZ being colonised by Europeans, believing that Maori should be left to govern themselves with protection from Britain. However, because colonisation was already happening, men like Williams and Hone Heke agreed to support the Treaty. In Britain Christians lobbied their government to treat the ‘natives’ as equals. In fact, it was said that the missionary Henry Williams merely needed to ‘lift his little finger’ and none of the chiefs would have signed.

So, a majority signed according to the suggestion of the missionaries. The treaty was written without lawyers in four days, translated into Maori by Williams and his son overnight, and signed a day earlier than planned by Governor Hobson still wearing his dressing gown! As each chief signed, Hobson shook their hand and said, “He iwi tahi tatou”, meaning, ‘we are now one people’. They believed that they were doing the right thing before God and that it legitimised Britain’s claim to sovereignty and would protect Maori.

However, it was the missionaries who were the first Pakeha to start saying, “honour the Treaty.” What has caused us a headache today was the rejection of the Treaty by land-hungry colonisers, the unwillingness of the settler government to acknowledge the Treaty, and the unjust confiscations, and outright thefts of Maori land. Today less than 7% of land in NZ is owned by Maori.

So, that Bible passage?[1] Well it is a story of a dishonoured treaty that was dishonourably made. (Joshua 9) As the Israelite army took over the land of Canaan, the Gibeonites figured that they had zero chance of surviving. So they pretended to be from another country, and went to the Israelite leaders and requested a protection treaty. The Israelites (including Joshua) got sucked in, and made a covenant with the Gibeonites, not realising they were Amorites.

This treaty was soon put to the test (Ch. 10) when the other Amorite cities in the area formed a coalition to attack the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites called on the Israelites to honour the treaty and help defend them – which the Israelites did.

And then we hear no more of them – until 200 years later when David is king of Israel. The land suffers a severe famine (2 Samuel 21) and when David enquires of the Lord, he hears that it is because his predecessor Saul has failed to honour the treaty with the Gibeonites and had almost annihilated them.

David called the Gibeonites and asked them what he should do to honour the treaty, and they suggest the execution of seven of Saul’s sons. David carries out this grisly justice, but spares one of Saul’s grandsons, a certain Mephibosheth. Why? Because David had made a personal covenant with Mephibosheth’s father Jonathan. And God? He removed the famine curse from the land that he had put in place because of the dishonoured treaty.

What can we learn from this Bible account? Are there parallels?

No covenant is perfect. The Gibeonite covenant should not have been made. The Gibeonites deliberately misled Joshua, and Joshua and the leaders failed to properly investigate their claims. It was also an imbalanced treat between the power of Israel and the vulnerability of the Gibeonites. With the Waitangi Treaty, although all parties involved denied trying to deceive anyone, the reality was that a primitive tribal people were dealing with the might of the British Empire. In 1847 Henry Williams wrote, ‘As I  did  explain  the nature  of  the  treaty  in 1840,  I must  continue  to  explain,  in  self  defence;  for  I must  not  be accessory to such deception, but continue to stand upon the treaty alone.’ However, in spite of their high aims, mistakes were made and later governors and NZ governments ignored the Treaty.

God takes covenants seriously. The missionaries and Christian chiefs signed the Treaty like a biblical covenant – a bond in blood. It was seen as a sacred pact before God, like God’s covenant with Abraham and the one with us founded on the Lord Jesus Christ. The Israelites take this covenant with the Gibeonites deadly seriously – they stake their lives on it, and so should we.

Dishonouring treaties brings a curse. David was the king who had to deal with the curse that resulted from Saul dishonouring the Gibeonite treaty. The famine occurred under his rule, not Saul’s. We today have to deal with the dishonourable actions of land theft and unjust and large-scale land confiscations.

Justice needs to be done. Here the might of the Israelite nation at the height of its power bows to the grievances of a complaining minority group. Sound familiar? They willingly set things right. I think that we as a nation have been attempting to do that. Obviously the millions of hectares taken cannot be returned, but money and apologies help somewhat.

Both are subverted by a higher treaty. Remember the Mephibosheth bloke? He was the semi-crippled grandson of Saul who was spared symbolic justice. Why? Because his father and King David where best mates and sealed their love by making a covenant with each other (1 Sam. 18:3; 20:16, 42). This covenant of love overrode the Gibeonite peace treaty.

 As I said, the principal movers and shakers behind the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi were God-fearing Maori and Pakeha whose lives had been changed by Jesus.  And, while this truth doesn’t remove the need to honour the Treaty and to do justice, it does show us a higher way of humility and forgiveness. Mephibosheth was spared because of the life-saving love of Jonathan for David. You and I are saved because of the life-saving love of God in Christ Jesus.

At the end of the day, we are all covenant-breakers and ‘dishonourers’ of God’s treaty – ‘do this and live, disobey and die’. Our sin brings the curse of death, but Jesus dies in our place through his covenant of love on the Cross. This is a reality that I believe lets each of us as Christians – Maori and Pakeha – rise above the anger, fear and resentment that surrounds so much talk today. Therefore as God has forgiven us in Christ Jesus, so we also are empowered and freed to forgive each other as Maori and Pakeha bound to God by a covenant of love – a better and eternal way.

[1] This parallel was first suggested in an article in The War Cry, 1983.

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