Pita Sharples is one of New Zealand's most respected contemporary politicians, he is one of those people who seems able to embody the word irenic and seems to almost glow with wisdom and tranquility even when reporters are shoving cameras in his face and asking their questions. I was glad of the opportunity to go to Carey College and hear him speak last week (7pm, 22nd March) and although he is smaller in real life than on TV he remains an incredibly impressive man.
Sharples, born in 1941, told of a poor upbringing in a small town where you were either a rich farmer or a labourer, and all the labourers were brown. He was held back a year in school and went to university in Auckland with a barely scraped pass on his school certificate. He obviously found his groove at uni though as on finishing his bachelors of education he became a professor of education before completing a masters and a doctorate in anthropology. I don't know what the statistics are but I imagine he must have been among a select few Maori to acheive such academic success in the 60s. It was a shame he didn't go more into the specifics of how he really managed to find his academic mojo as there must surely be a mentor or something in there or something that gave him the key to change academic gear so dramatically.
When asked how the Maori people could move forward his reply was unequivocal, education was the only answer, but he also pointed out that many children are held back in their education by poverty, e.g. kids in run down housing get sick and miss school more often, and parents who valued education but did not know what it required. He told the story of an uncle who visited him the night before a test. He tried to excuse himself from his uncle's company so he could finish revising, but instead his uncle kept him up half the night lecturing him on the value of education. His uncle knew education was important but didn't understand he needed to let Pita get on with it.
He was asked about the founding of the Maori party (of which he is co-leader and co founder) and expressed his reluctance to become a politician. Apparently he had been asked 4 different times by different parties to stand for them over the years and had turned them all down but with the foreshore and sea bed act he felt he could no longer remain on the sidelines. He explained briefly how the whole controversy boiled down to a conflict between different concepts around the ownership/possession of land. I have long thought the Maori concept of land possession resonate well with the biblical concept of jubilee, and it would have been nice to explore that with him, but the interviewers had different things on their minds.
What I found very interesting about Sharples was his facing head on the issue of white guilt. He is the first person I have heard really put it that the Waitangi Treaty was a treaty that the tribes made with the Crown, and that the tribes don't need an apology from every white person in NZ, they need it from the government. This was interesting because there is certainly a lot of resentment from many pakeha New Zealanders about being held to account for ancient history. Sharples was clear though that an apology is needed, and that the apology is far more important than any financial compensation that might be handed out. An apology "clears the air and allows people to move on" and without that recognition of wrong done and attempt to restore the relationship the shame of the past remains a barrier to progress in the present.
When questioned about his support for the Destiny church and what other churches could learn from what they do, he simply said that his support for Destiny came from the fact that the church had empowered many Maori and did significant social work, at the same time he professed a strong dislike for "fundamentalism", which I presume meant Destiny church's theology. That intrigued me because I would find it hard to support a group that did some good but also taught an ideology which was at odds with my deeper values. Given Sharples incredible drive to strengthen Maori culture I would have liked to see him pressed as to whether Destiny's brand of Christianity, or even any brand of Christianity, undermine his cultural project.
He ended with a bit of advice, "Be yourself and that will help others be themselves." PLatitudes aside, he is certainly an exemplar of being comfy in ones own skin.
I have to admit there was not much new for me there, I kind of felt Sharples was just getting to repeat the sort of things the poor guy had already had to say a thousand times to different groups of pakeha. I would have liked to see him pressed, as a political and cultural leader and as an anthropologist, on the relationship between Christianity and Maori culture, on the tribes and the churches and on the attempts by some to remove the Christianity from Maori cultural practices. But that wasn't his fault. Perhaps I should send him an email, but I doubt he'd have the time to respond. Suffice to say, if I can still make as much sense and have the vision and drive that that guy does at the age of 73 (!!) I'll consider myself well blessed.