In 1986, St. Pope John Paul II pronounced Fiji ”the way the world should be” — a country with different ethnic and religious communities living together in peace. However one year later the peace was shattered by a coup d’etat led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. This was the first of four coups the last of which occurred at the end of 2006.
Columban missionaries in Fiji decided in February 1990, in response to the 1987 coups and their aftermath, to prioritize work for justice and reconciliation. We needed to reflect on the social dynamics of Fiji society to understand the coups. We sought inspiration in the Gospel for becoming catalysts of social understanding. We tried to act as missionary peacebuilders.
Identifying the Roots of the Problem
The coups involved complicated political intrigues and personalities. But ethnic prejudice is a source of social division, available for manipulation by political and military leaders for their own purposes.
Ethnic prejudice in Fiji is based on stereotypes held by the main ethnic groups about each other. Hardworking ethnic Indians are dismissed as selfish, mean individualists by others and the relaxed communitarian indigenous Fijians are condemned as lazy and irresponsible by people with a different perspective.
To develop as humans we all need to belong to groups. But because we are socialized to accept our culture as normative we easily denigrate cultures that are different. We don’t see them just as different but as inferior.
This ”us and them” division becomes a negative emotional prejudice when used to incite competition, fear and suspicion in ordinary people by those seeking leadership and power. Ethnic prejudice, stirred up in this way, leads to discrimination and hostility.
Not everything in a culture is perfect. That is also true of our own cultures. But we usually compare the ideals of our own culture with the failings of other cultures. We must try to understand other ethnic communities in the context of their historical, geographic, social and economic environment. We need to be open to learn how each culture was adaptive in its context. We must widen the spaces in our tent to accept other cultures as different responses to the mystery of life in society.
Inspiration from Jesus’ Teaching
In Jesus’ time strong simmering prejudice, which often boiled over into hostility, existed between Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans refused to give hospitality to Jesus and His disciples because they were on their way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:53). Yet Jesus refused to allow His disciples to curse them. Jesus, a Jew, held up a Samaritan as an example of compassion to a wounded Jewish traveller (Lk.10:36-37). He cited a Samaritan as an example of faith, in comparison with Jews, after healing the ten lepers (Lk.17:17-18). St. John, too, contrasted the inability of Nicodemus, representing Jews, to surrender in faith to Jesus (John 3:1-21) with the enthusiastic faith of the Samaritan woman, representing Samaritans (John 4:39).
Self-critique reduces inter-group defensiveness. It inspires groups to take back projections of their unaccepted behaviour (that they attribute to the other group). Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman is an example of an open dialogue on inter-group differences ( John 4:4-42). It encourages the mutual respect that should characterize such a dialogue. It suggests the importance of a community taking its identity and tradition seriously, but being open to having these integrated with other identities and traditions at a higher spiritual level.
Columbans are missionaries. We experience the letting go of stereotypes and prejudices through our efforts to understand and live in other cultures. In Fiji we learn both Hindi and indigenous Fijian languages. We try to adapt to both indigenous Fijian and ethnic Indian culture with Gospel universalism. So we are well positioned to be bridge builders in Fiji.
After the first coup, Fr. Dick Keelan and I, with strong backing from Rev. Paula Niukula an ex-President of the Methodist Church started People for Intercultural Awareness to work for mutual respect between cultures. We held two-week courses for indigenous Fijian and ethnic leaders. We conducted many weekend workshops for parishes, schools and colleges. We targeted young leaders such as teachers and seminarians. I wrote two short books of intercultural exercises to help students, teachers and parishioners have an experience of intercultural dialogue. We encouraged prayer groups to meet and explore their cultural differences as well as celebrate their similarities.
Columbans arranged for Indo-Fijian lay leaders to live for a while in Fijian villages and for indigenous Fijian seminarians to live during their pastoral year with Indian families for four to five months. We facilitated reflection on these experiences to ensure the participants learned from them.
A biblical image that I found very meaningful was the story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger (Gen. 32:25-29). Though wounded in the encounter Jacob persevered and won a blessing from the other who proved to be the Other. I believe that in struggling to be inclusive of people of other cultures and faiths we come to know and love God better.
I treasure the image of a Columban missionary as a bridge builder. I am fascinated by culture and captivated by faith. I rejoice when I make friends with people of different cultures and faith. When I am able to deepen the respect and acceptance of people for each other I truly experience myself as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I feel I am working for Fiji to be the way the world should be.
Columban Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.