Hallelujah haka

Secularism has exorcised many devils, and church inanities deprived us of most counter-availing angels, so it’s no wonder that into the vacuum rush groups like Destiny Church, a Maori-based Pentecostal community with its strength in New Zealand’s North Island but with outliers in Australia.

After a slow start this seven-year old church now hits the headlines with great regularity in NZ.  On 4 March, for example, its leader, Brian Tamaki, addressed a ‘pro-family’, ‘Defend the Legacy’ march in Auckland that attracted 5000 people. He took the opportunity to launch a political crusade against NZ’s godless political parties. Prime Minister Helen Clark was denounced as an atheist, and Don Brash, the National Party leader, though of Presbyterian lineage, was also far too liberal to be a true believer. Prayer, Tamaki told his supporters, was no longer enough. They were urged to vote in the recent national election for Destiny New Zealand, the church’s political wing which campaigns under the slogan ‘Nation Under Siege’. Although it made a pitch for the Pacific Island vote, and claims God as its main sponsor, it hardly raised a whimper of interest, polling only 0.5 per cent.

Destiny Church looks, at first glance, like a typical American-style tele-evan-gelist network. It has a simple answer to everything and is very savvy in its use of the internet and the media. Tamaki is a gifted and personable speaker who got himself elected as ‘bishop’ on 18 June, though he does go on at considerable length. Like some of its close allies, such as the City Impact Church in Auckland, Destiny Church operates with big budgets, based on an in-your-face insistence on tithing, and appears to suggest that personal and financial success will flow to believers. Its razzmatazz is impressive and it has an undeniably popular—or should one say populist?—touch. It doesn’t talk, for example, of baptism but of ‘being dunked’.

It communicates enthusiasm, warmth and security. Much is made of Brian and Hannah Tamaki and their three married children as role models for the movement. It sees itself as a ‘breakthrough church’ that is ‘beyond church in the traditional sense’. Its official statement is somewhat coy about its own core values, but much is said about ‘establishing the Kingdom’, and restoring ‘biblical order’.

In New Zealand religion is generally treated with courteous disdain. It has been largely written out of the history books and the public arena. Almost the only public religious ceremonies taken seriously are those from the Maori tradition, itself strongly influenced by Christianity. But Destiny Church is different. It really stirs the spirits. Its fierce opposition to recent civil unions legislation, for example, which provides legal security for gay couples, led to angry and imaginative counter-demonstrations. Green and Labour Party MPs such as Judith Tizard have the church in their sights.

The Auckland City Council, citing safety reasons, gave a firm ‘No’ to Destiny Church’s original intention of marching right across the Harbour Bridge to protest against civil unions; so instead, it proceeded along Queen Street in the city centre. Secondary school students at Wellington High also wanted to say ‘No’ to the use of their school premises by the church, but were unsuccessful in the end. Such awareness of religious issues in schools is unprecedented in New Zealand. The considerable wealth of Destiny’s leaders, Bishop Brian and Pastor Hannah Tamaki, offers opponents hostages to fortune which are, of course, gratefully received.

Destiny Church regularly makes headlines because it thrives on provocation. It sees itself as a ‘genuine counterculture’ and is committed to exposing ‘current trends, philosophies and mindsets’, i.e. anything smacking of ‘liberalism’. It has ‘had enough of liberal behaviour’ and corrupt media. Soon, it fears, ‘expressing a biblical position on homosexuality will be a criminal offence’.

The church presents a militant face to the world, some of its members lining up in black shirts or—more recently—all in white. To see them at full stretch performing a haka is a somewhat fearsome sight, as it is probably meant to be. For those of us with longer memories, muscular Christians—whether in black or white T-shirts, bodyguarding their ‘bishop’— brings back very unwelcome memories indeed. Populist Christianity used to get off on anti-Semitism. Now it’s the turn of the gays.

Numbers are hard to estimate, but they are not insignificant—certainly in the thousands. Destiny says it has 20 pastors throughout New Zealand, and some 35,000 members. It has developed its own bookshop, health and fitness centre and bilingual early child-care centre. Leaders in the mainstream churches, including the Baptists, are warning that Destiny is a force to be reckoned with. There is some envy of its ability to find a style and a language that appeals to young, alienated Maoris, and well beyond.

One wonders, however, if it has bitten off more than it can chew with its latest move into politics. The Labour Party had, until recently, rock-solid political support from the Maori Ratana Church, but generally Kiwis see off religiously-toned parties very smartly. As a niche cultural movement Destiny Church has been quite successful. One cannot see it, however, making much headway politically in full-employment, pragmatic New Zealand.

Theologically, it is febrile, and one hardly needs to be a prophet to see the pitfalls ahead for it as a church. Personally, I feel sad for its gullible followers, and still more for those caught in its line of fire. It is, no doubt, a sign of our reactive times. Once again, the shortcomings of the mainstream churches come home to roost with a vengeance.



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