I have spent the past three weeks in New Zealand, a land of spectacular beauty and rich in ecological diversity. Little wonder that, following the success of the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” filmmakers have been descending in droves to this country.
My wife and I came away deeply impressed by the lives and work of some of the Christians we met from a variety of social and academic backgrounds. For instance:
â— A youth court judge practicing restorative justice who has incurred the wrath of the establishment by his unashamed Christian testimony
â— A countercultural Anglican bishop committed to a simple personal lifestyle and to building local community
â— University graduates choosing to live with the urban poor in tough neighborhoods
â— A professor of public policy, the country’s leading authority on child poverty, who openly challenges the ruling politicians
â— A theology lecturer who has overcome life-threatening illness by battling the arrogance of the medical profession
â— A business family building low-cost homes
â— A medical doctor helping refugees while struggling with her own deteriorating bones and joints
â— A nuclear scientist who has been studying the environmental fallout of nuclear weapons and monitoring the implementation of the nuclear test-ban treaty on behalf of the New Zealand government
The last-mentioned comes from an unbroken line of English missionaries and pastors, stretching back to 1819.
He shared with me his deep dismay at the spiritual hollowness at the heart of New Zealand society, which is accompanied by a pandering of government to the super-rich and a growing culture of alcoholism and drug-dependence.
He recalled standing by a nativity display in a large retail store one Christmas and overhearing a little girl asking her mother, “Who is that baby in the window?”
The mother replied, “I have no idea.”
“This is not the country that my forebears gave their lives for” was his immediate thought.
The strong theological currents that run through Tolkien’s trilogy are, thus, invisible to a population that has lost access to the biblical narrative and Christian thought.
Biblical illiteracy and historical amnesia are not, of course, confined to New Zealand. But there does seem to be a systematic effort to wipe out any Christian reference in state education and public life, despite the fact that there are large numbers of Christian Maori, the original inhabitants of the land, as well as large churches among Pacific island and East Asian peoples who have made the country their home.
Walk into the impressive national museum in the capital, Wellington, and you will find no exhibit on the Christian contribution to New Zealand history or contemporary society. I guess the issue will come to the fore next year, which is the bicentenary of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries to New Zealand shores.
The secularization of public life doesn’t just happen but is actively promoted by secularist elites through the media and some sections of the academy.
The answer should not be the setting up of rival media and colleges by Christians, but the courageous and wise engagement by well-educated Christians in these institutions.
The role of the media in forming one’s view of the world is crucial. It has to be addressed in churches and educational institutions.
Let me give you an example that links recent events in New Zealand with what is happening politically in Sri Lanka.
During the last week of our visit, the New Zealand media were dominated by the Fonterra story. The entire dairy industry (the country’s largest export) is in the hands of a single giant transnational corporation, Fonterra.
China, the largest buyer of milk powder, halted imports of Fonterra products following the discovery that some whey protein products were contaminated with botulism-causing bacteria.
Sri Lanka, the fifth largest market for Fonterra, followed China and Russia in halting imports. The ruling regime here adopted a moralistic tone in castigating Fonterra as a typical transnational corporate exploiter.
At the same time, a prominent local company in Sri Lanka, which also produces and distributes milk products, was challenged by villagers whose drinking water had been polluted by one of the factories of the company. Some prominent members of the ruling regime have vested economic interests in this company.
Peaceful protests by the villagers were met by the lethal intrusion of the army, which is under the command of the president’s brother. Three people were killed and others injured.
The use of live ammunition by the army and their desecration of a church into which the villagers had fled have been the subject of condemnation by local human rights activists and church leaders.
However, the stark contrast between the Sri Lankan regime’s treatment of Fonterra and its treatment of its own citizens’ demand for clean drinking water has been completely missed by the New Zealand media and the international media as a whole.
The prime minister of New Zealand, along with other heads of state of commonwealth nations, plans to meet in Sri Lanka in November.
Already luxury limousines are being imported (with funds from local taxpayers) for these heads of state from Britain, Canada, Australia, India and elsewhere to be driven from their hotels to their conference venue.
Should they be meeting in a country where there is no rule of law and whose “government” rules by spreading terror?
And is the global media complicit in hiding these realties from the citizens of those commonwealth nations, many of whom would be appalled if they only knew what their leaders are doing?
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka.