Reflection on the Lessons of Father Michael Lapsley’s Visit to Fiji

Postdate: 12/ 10/ 2005

Father Michael Lapsley in a letter to the Fiji Times (12/10/05) explained the generous and enlightened Christian perspective of the consequences of traumatic violent conflict and what need to take place as an important part of the recovery by way of spiritual forgiveness and healing between the perpetrators and the victims. Fr Lapsley’’s view should be taken very very seriously, because of his own personal experience of what as victim of racism and hatred. He suffered crippling injuries because of his courage in opposing apartheid. Yet he continues his mission of reconciliation, and healing in South Africa.

That is why he was brought to Fiji. His message must be food for thought and reflection especially amongst the leaders of the Methodist Church and the Assembly of fundamentalists Christian Churches. These have publicly supported the Government’s Unity and Reconciliation Bill, claiming that it has all the elements of Christian forgiveness and reconciliation. However, here I reflect on the elements of Christian reconciliation that Fr Lapsley stated in his letter and test these contextually against the claim of the RTU Bill adherents that is as an instrument for healing and reconciliation. 1) First of all, Fr Lapsley did not refer to the necessity for a legislation to implement reconciliation and forgiveness in Fiji. He mentioned instead poisonous feelings between perpetrators and victims that need to be let go and healed. He said it may be a costly and painful process, and could take a long time. 2) Fr Lapsley said there need to be an acknowledgement first of the wrong done and expression of remorse by the perpetrator. In our case, the Laisenia Qarase led government is one of the main perpetrators of the wrong.

Through the RTU Bill, the Government represents others who should be regarded as perpetrators. The government will deny but I say it is a perpetrator because it came to power as a result of George Speight’s treasonous actions. And it remained in power in defiance of a Court of Appeal ruling in March 2001 that it was illegal. The wrongs were the unlawful imprisonment and overthrow of the Chaudhry – led government, and, the Interim Government’s refusal to resign to allow for the recalling of Parliament and the continuation of the constitutionally elected Government in March 2001. Prime Minister Qarase was one of those who went to Parliament to express his support for George Speight’s action with food and yaqona. Neither he nor any of his colleagues in the government have ever acknowledged that the overthrow of the Chaudhry – led government was a legally and moral wrong. Instead the Preamble of their Bill starts with an ethnic nationalist, divisive and demeaning statement to the victims, justifying the failed attempt to abrogate the Constitution. The motive behind this Bill is revealed in the Preamble, which avoids acknowledging the wrong that was perpetrated. The message of the Preamble is that the coups of 1987 and 2000 were right. The Government in this Bill also poses as if it is an independent party merely trying to facilitate by legislation reconciliation between the victims and unidentified perpetrators. It does not identify the beneficiaries of the coup in the government as in the category of perpetrators. 3) Fr Lapsley said while it is the responsibility of the perpetrators to ask for forgiveness, the initiative sometime may come from the victims who wish to be free of the burden of unforgiveness.

This was the case in South Africa but it has not happened here. The Government on the other hand has not asked for forgiveness in this Bill. Nor has it expressed responsibility for what happened to the victims. It did not consult the victims first before it introduced the Bill. Had it done that, it would have given the victims the first opportunity to express forgiveness to the Government directly. Then each party could have agreed on the Bill as a bipartisan legislation for redressing of the wrong. The government still does not want to learn from the history of reconciliation in Fiji. We witnessed genuine reconciliation in 1995 when Prime Minister Rabuka began consultations with Mr Reddy and Mr Chaudhry on the review of the Constitution. It resulted in agreement on the process of review and unanimity in passing the amendments in Parliament in 1997. This is unlikely to happen with the RTU Bill, and the ALTA Amendments Bill. The government has compelled the members of the deposed FLP governments and its supporters to publicly repudiate the Bill and demand its withdrawal. This is what the Government expected, and probably wants, as part of its political strategy for the coming General Election. That is to forment racial polarization on all major national issues so it can shift the blame (in the eyes of potential Fijian voters) to the Opposition, the Indian community and minorities.

They are already being identified by the supporter in the news media as “foreigners” who are either refusing to reconcile or opposing what the government wants to do for the indigenous Fijians. There are also letters to the Editor from Government supporters attacking “Anglo Saxons” in the Judiciary. The government eschews genuine dialogue with the Opposition that could lead to compromise based on mutual respect and regard for all communities’ interests and concerns. The Prime Minister of course pretends to publicly offer dialogue (on the RTU Bill, the land legislations and Constitutional amendments) but he is not sincere because dialogue to him means the Opposition accepting holus bolus what the government demands. If the government had envisaged God as an inspiration behind the Bill, this could have been mentioned in the Preamble, like that of the 1997 Constitution. The Constitution is the only national reconciliation law that started with prior consultation and agreement with the victims (of the 1987 coups) before it was passed unanimously in Parliament. But unanimity in Parliament is not envisaged in the RTU Bill. 4) Fr Lapsley observed in his sermon last Sunday he had asked the congregation “If there is a “bicycle theology in Fiji”. This is a situation where I steal your bicycle and six months later I come to ask for forgiveness but I keep the bike.” There is a slight difference in our case.

The government and its supporters not only want to keep the bike, they also want the victims to lie down on the road so they can ride the bike over them at will whenever they want. And the Methodist Church and ACCF are standing on the side of the road proclaiming, this is the Christian reconciliation road. 5) Father Lapsley also said that if all citizens of Fiji want to live in peace then we need to accept that the future is an inter-faith one. His Christian theology is a broad and inclusive one that accepts the validity and depth of other people’s faiths. Those non Christian religions are different paths to our common creator. Enlightened Christians accept even that non Christian’s religions have a right to be treated as equal, at least on earth, notwithstanding the belief that they do not have the Christian passport to heaven after death. Like Fr Lapsley, we do not take a superior attitude towards non Christians. We are guided by the teaching that we should love all people as we love ourselves and accept that all human beings as created by God are equal before the creator. Unfortunately in Fiji, the Methodist Church leaders and the fundamentalists in the ACCF do not respect the Muslims and Hindus as valid religions.

They believe only their version of fundamentalist Christianity is the correct relationship with God. They cannot see common ground with other faiths they regard as false. Hence there is no compromise and no reconciliation with people of other faiths. It is the same intolerant attitude behind the demand for a Christian Constitution and a Christian state. 6) Whilst the Government has promised Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, that it will amend the Amnesty provision in the Bill (whatever that means), Fr Lapsley has advised for the total withdrawal of the amnesty clauses. That is almost consistent with what Mr Chaudhry has been calling for. And indeed with what most of us who we do not see the need for an RTU Bill to start a genuine forgiveness and national reconciliation and healing process. One that is based on personal spiritual change. As Fr Lapsley said, these have to do with “destructive memories” and poisonous feelings in the victims and the victimizers that have to be acknowledged and let go. This cannot be forced out by legislation upon the victims. The Government’s National Reconciliation Council is in a position to start this genuine reconciliation process without the RTU Bill, if only the Government will encourage it an adequately resource the Council to do that. But the path that Government is pursuing is only hardening the hearts of the victims, achieving the opposite of the words tolerance, unity and reconciliation. Because the initiators of this Bill do not accept any responsibility for the wrongs of 2000 and 2001.

The view of the victims therefore is that perpetrates have no respect for their feelings and their human dignity. It seems the government wants racial confrontation and to shift the blame on to the victims to cover up for own lack of concrete achievements in other areas. (Excepting of course the programme of building churches as community hall for hurricane relief, distribution of brush cutters, desks, sewing machine etc being funded from the PMs Office.)This seems to be to the governments’ strategy for galvanizing Fijian support to win the next General elections. Racial confrontation with the Fiji Labour Party all the way to August 2000. Finally stubborn pride also stands in the way of a softer path. Father Lapsley’s message I believe has been well received by the humble Fijians who do not have a stake in holding on to power at all costs and who do not believe in the politics of fear and racial confrontation. Whether they are enough in numbers to change the Government in the next election is the big question.

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