The recent Just Action Conference confirmed the church as the rightful place to pressure society on issues affecting those in poverty. But it also urged persistence to action real social change.
During her opening address, Hon. Poto Williams, Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, said four-year-old James Whakaruru—killed by Benny Haerewa in 1999—was one of the reasons she entered into Parliament. His death served as a motivation for her work in the area of family violence.
Poto spoke about her Government’s focus on wellbeing and said it couldn’t achieve its goals in this area alone.
‘Collaboration is the way to achieve wellbeing goals: NGOs must have equality with Government. The partnerships can only come with true equality and that takes trust,’ she said. ‘We now need more than hope; we need action. Together we have a chance.’
Jay Ruka, author of Huia Come Home, spoke on Ti Tiriti o Waitangi. His father was a minister. But it wasn’t until he was 30 that he heard the story of Christianity in Aotearoa for the first time. The revelation made him both ‘angry and ecstatic’ and led him to both celebrate and critique the work of Christianity in Aotearoa.
Jay believes many New Zealanders have come to see the English and Māori versions of the Treaty of Waitangi as a deliberate misinterpretation by missionary Henry Williams—thanks to an article by Ruth Ross in 1972, that brought attention to the Māori text of the Treaty. ‘A lot of Māori felt let down by the missionaries, but Henry Williams was our friend,’ he said.
TEAR fund CEO Ian McInnes took conference participants on a journey through two projects the Christian charity is involved in—anti-trafficking in Thailand, and a milk co-op in Indonesia. Speaking on the topic of ‘Framing the disruptive voice: faith, hope and charity’, Ian illustrated the seven lessons when tackling an issue: choosing a problem no one else is solving, looking hard at the problem and then looking again, elevating your vision, playing to your strengths, going “all in” and not blinking, building coalitions, adapting and planning your exit, and living your faith in the open.
Major Ian Gainsford concluded the session by saying The Salvation Army was looking to ‘disrupt social inertia’. ‘We need to be bolder, we need to risk a little bit of insurrection. The just god is calling us into action,’ he said.
Laidlaw College principal Roshan Allpress spoke on the topic, ‘When you pray, move your feet …’. He began by explaining that ethics are developed by paying attention. The Good Samaritan saw a person made in God’s image—he paid attention to what mattered.
Tracing the history and complex nature of the abolition of the slave trade—and the role of Christians in that unfolding story—Roshan demonstrated that significant social change takes generations. For example, it took 40 years to develop a sustained attack on slave trade. William Wilberforce sits in the middle of an 80-year consistent intergenerational movement.
Roshan left us with the question, ‘For Aotearoa then, what are the stories/issues that The Salvation Army needs to be paying attention to? What are you called to learn and pass on to your children, so that social change is achieved?’
Hana Seddon, host for the session, wrapped up by asking, ‘What do we get credit for that we didn’t do?—Our pioneering ancestors work. This is our lineage as a movement, our whakapapa. We’re a link in the chain. So, we need to honour tradition and tupuna, but we must also disturb the present, to ensure a better future for those who come after us.’
Another session focussed on Addictions and the Marginalised. Major Sue Hay, Director of Northland Bridge, presented a thorough and disturbing snapshot of current statistics pertaining to alcohol and drug use in Aotearoa. In NZ a $150 million per year is spent on alcohol advertisement, and $85 million a week is spent on alcohol. We have 775,000 hazardous drinkers, with a third of all arrests being alcohol related.
Sue revealed that supermarkets are the biggest peddlers of drugs, with alcohol sales reaching record levels in 2018. Women and teenagers are increasingly targeted by advertising efforts, with a third of women drinking before knowing they are pregnant, resulting in 3000 babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome.
Kiwi are spending 1.4 million a day for meth—and users include professionals, models, truck drivers, jockeys, mother’s at parties, teenagers and addicts. But Sue spoke the power of community, and leaning on the work of Johaan Hari, suggested that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection.
Lieut-Colonel Lynnette Hutson, National Director of ASARS, further unpacked this idea with stories of the Army’s work with the Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob, and the crucial role of connection to whakapapa and culture in the healing process.
Major Campbell Roberts and Alan Johnson spoke on the topic of ‘Doing Justice: the policy challenge,’ in particular relating it to the KiwiBuy campaign—waged to encourage the Government to adopt a rent-to-buy scheme, which it recently did.
‘We live in a confused world of crisis, where there is questionable leadership around the world—poverty, hunger, climate change, racism, materialism and violence,’ Campbell said. ‘The Salvation Army is a pretty bold name. We have to reform, redeem, change.’
Campbell Roberts wanted to put fire in the bellies of all Salvationists to be vocal to politicians and activate for social change. ‘Whether you’re a territorial leader, in NZ leadership, an officer, solider or employee of The Salvation Army, everyone needs to question policies that marginalise people and sin against people who cannot experience abundant life,’ he said.
‘We live with this idea of ‘just desserts,’ Alan Johnson told the conference. ‘One of the things I find most encouraging about the Army is that we always give people a second chance. That’s what we need in society. Remain hopeful and provide a vision of a better world.’
Julianne Hickey Director of Caritas NZ spoke on the topic, ‘What is holistic spirituality?’, and referred to Pope Francis’s ground-breaking Laudato Si’.
‘Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.’
Anglican Rev Charles Waldegrave spoke alongside Julianne and said social justice action is blindingly obvious in the Gospels, but not always in churches. Charles developed the New Zealand Poverty Measure in 1995, which was adopted by the Government in 1999. ‘It was 25 years before social research was adopted into law, with Jacinda’s ten areas of policy in her Child Poverty Bill. We need to respond as the Gospels respond—be like a magnet to the pain. We don’t need social justice heroes, but to build public consciousness to bring about change.’
Prof Chris Marshall spoke on the parable of the good samaritan and that of the prodigal son, which is unquestionably the most influential story that Jesus told. ‘Justice encompasses mercy and mercy advances justice. There can be no love for God without love for neighbour.’
Major Dr Harold Hill spoke about ‘Holistic Spirituality for Social Action’.
Beginning with the premise that social action changes spirituality and vice versa, Harold traced the attempts of our movement to balance these two important facets of Salvationism throughout our history. Using a seesaw to depict the tenuous balance between the two, but also the continuum they both must rest on, he commented, ‘spirituality always ends up being about me, and social action about others. The seesaw tips—even when we don’t intend it to.’
Harold observed that while William Booth wanted integrated mission—salvation for the whole person—he ended up with institutions. Practicalities took over. The result being that, here in New Zealand we ended up with two armies. ‘Social work became separate from the lives of everyday salvationists. In corps we experienced social and cultural evolution—redemptive lift. Our people became respectable, and our corps became inward focused,’ he explained. ‘We’ve spent the past 30 years trying to bring them back together.’
Harold also noted the importance of forums like Just Action and Thought Matters for giving space for salvationists to think about why we do what we do. ‘We don’t talk enough about theology in The Salvation Army. Just because doctrine was written hundreds of years ago doesn’t make it the best theology. Theology is faith seeking understanding.’
Colonel Margaret Hay (MBE) addressed the conference on ‘Values-based Community Development’. Drawing on a variety of biblical passages and compelling personal stories from her extensive overseas service, Margaret managed to convey the beauty that is the complexity between theory and practice.
Traversing the themes of ‘let the Word speak’ and ‘let people speak,’ Margaret’s stories showed the Word in action in surprising and unlikely places, but expressed so often through ordinary people simply living their lives wholeheartedly for Christ. There was something especially moving about realising that lives that might seem unremarkable to many (like our own), had an extraordinary impact upon Margaret—so much so that she was sharing about those very people years later in Aotearoa 2019.
Margaret’s third theme explored how necessary it is to ‘do theology backwards’ and allow experience to inform theology as much, if not more, than doctrine. ‘We must disturb the present, but we must also take a good long look back,’ Margaret explained. ‘How else can we reflect, and change and grow?’
Māmari Stephens spoke about ‘A tale of two acts and visions’—how our understanding of Ti Tiriti o Waitangi has created different visions of Christianity and citizenship in this country. Speaking on the 1938 Social Security Act and the 1945 Maori Social and Economic Act, Māmari said two different visions of Māori social life and citizenship came from Article three of the Treaty of Waitangi.
‘Social welfare is highly targeted and individualistic, the same as it was in 1938; it pursues an obvious view of what society should look like,’ she said. ‘There is no room for Maori ways of doing welfare.’ Social security has forced people to change the way they live and their lives in the practice of culture.
‘This deeply affected Maori households; because they are communitarian, they would deserve less from the State.
‘I’m not sure how Michal Joseph Savage would view how his vision has been carried out.’
One of the highlights of the conference was the last session of the last day, when five social activists spoke to the audience—Rev Dr John Fox from Elevate Christian Disability Trust, Annie Newman (Te Ohu Whakawhanaunga), Terrance Wallace (Inzone Project), Murray Edridge (Wellington City Mission), and Murdoch Stephens (refugee campaigner, Massey University lecturer, and publisher at Lawrence & Gibson).
As part of this year’s programme, there were two evening events. The first night was a youth debate featuring cadets from Booth College of Mission. The topic was: ‘A vegetarian diet is the appropriate lifestyle response for Christians who care for all of creation.’ The second evening was a screening of the film Celia, followed by a Q & A with filmmaker, Amanda Millar.
Photo: Jay Ruka at Just Action Mission Conference 2019