In Samoa, Christianity is political – it is in the Constitution!

by Reverend Latuivai Kioa Faiga’a Latu

 Can politics and Christianity be separated? What place does the voice of Christian leaders have in Samoan Society?

Recent parliamentary actions are raising questions about whether the concerns of Christian churches and their leaders are being taken seriously in the processes and decisions of our parliament. This concern stems in particular from confusion surrounding submissions in relation to the 2020 Electoral Bill (see “Petitions rejection saddens Church leaders” (Observer, 06/05/2020) and “Parliament Denies Church Leaders & People’s Voices” (Talamua, 28/04/2020)., but it has been a growing issue for some time.

There are issues here not only for Christianity in Samoa, but also for Samoan customs which reflect Christian values, particularly concerning “land”, and also for general issues of transparency, and the avoidance of the appearance of corruption.

We need to consider what does it mean to say that Samoa is “a Christian nation founded on God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Constitution, Amendment 2017)? If ‘Christian principles’ such as love (alofa), mutual respect (tausi le va fefa’aaloaloa’i) and reciprocal caring (fetausia’i) are the core values of the fa’a-Samoa, how are church leaders able to perform their duty as tu’ualalo a le Talalelei or the ‘prophetic voice of the Gospel’ if their voice is denied and rejected?

In 2017, a crucial Amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution explicitly incorporated a doctrinal Christian notion of the Triune God, declaring that “Samoa is a Christian nation founded on God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” What is obvious in the 2017 Amendment, in contrast to the 1960 Preamble, is the clear separation of ‘Christian principles’ from ‘Samoan custom and tradition’ in paragraph 2, which states: “WHEREAS the Leaders of Samoa have declared that Samoa should be an Independent State based on [1] Christian principles and [2] Samoan custom and tradition.” 

These ‘Samoan customs and traditions’ are the concrete manifestations of the fa’amatai or matai system known to be the ‘traditional institution’ directed by the ali’i (chiefs) and faipule (law-makers) of each nu’u (village), which are not the same as members of Parliament (a political body shaped by the Western political system left by foreign colonizers). ‘Samoan customs and traditions’ remain as part of the Preamble, whereas ‘Christian principles’ are brought into the political realm and separated from the latter but supersede Samoa’s traditional political system called fa’amatai, the strongest pillar of fa’a-Samoa

This separation of Christianity and Samoan culture undermines the Samoan belief that ‘E malu le Talalelei i le Aganuu, e mamalu foi le Aganuu o le Talalelei’ (‘the gospel is safe because of the culture, and the culture is dignified because of the gospel’). The separation enables a re-colonizing of Samoans, weakening their right as heir (suli) to matai titles and especially customary “land” – their invaluable ‘gift’ of ola (‘life’), their ‘ele’ele (‘blood’), their fanua (‘placenta’), their ‘āiga (‘home’), their tinā (‘mother-land’), their Samoan suli’s ‘place’ (not a space), their fa’asinomaga (inheritance). 

For Samoans, ‘land’ or ‘ele’ele is a living being, her womb, which conceived and gave birth to humanity; it nurtures and receives back the bodies of lifeless human beings. In this sense, ‘ele’ele as the ground and womb is mother-earth. The second creation story in Genesis 2 parallels Samoa’s creation myth, where the name Sā-moa emerges from a name given to the first human being or suli born to Rock (Papa) and Ground/Land (‘Ele’ele). In Genesis 2:7, humans (made from ‘dust’) were also derived from the land/ground. In this understanding, land owns humanity and not the opposite. This is evident in the Sāmoan axiom, E lē soifua ‘umi le tagata faatau fanua, meaning ‘the person who sells [mother] land does not live long’ (Olson, 1997).

Ele’ele (‘blood’ or ‘land’) is a vital part of the upbringing and nurturing process of all Samoans, the source of family identity and security. However, the application of the concept of ‘land ownership’ in both the Bible and Western law is problematic. 

Tootooleaava Dr. Fanaafi-Le Tagaloa argues that, in the Samoan context, ‘land’ is a “tofi (inheritance) and every suli’s life blood” (2009). This view is distinguished from Telei’ai Dr. Lalotoa Mulitalo’s description of Samoa’s ‘customary land’ as a measina Samoa or ‘valuable possession’ (Samoa Observer, 2018), just like the ‘ietoga or fine mat (a non-living thing). The terms tofi and measina produce distinct meanings and applications, especially in relation to land. Land for Le Tagaloa is a necessity for ‘life’ or an ‘invaluable being,’ so it cannot be sold, whereas for Mulitalo it is a commodity that can be owned, leased or sold. Throughout history, Samoan traditional leaders were murdered or excommunicated from Samoa for their peaceful resistance against foreign rulers, in order for Samoans to regain possession of their inheritance (tofi/faasinomaga), their ‘land’ (‘ele’ele/fanua). 

Despite its affirmation that Samoa is a Christian nation, the 2017 Amendment to the Constitution can be viewed as erroneous in its limited understanding of Christianity in relation to fa’aSamoa. Guy Powles has observed that “traditional institutions were mentioned only where it was felt necessary to do so for the purpose of gaining public acceptance of the Constitution.” It could be perceived that this separation is a continuing stigma of colonisation. In the neo-colonial era, although ‘all laws are [ostensibly] made for the benefit of the people they are to regulate,’ (Samoa Observer, 2019), Albert Wendt, observes that “Our new leadership, our new elite ... is carrying out a form of colonialism which may even be worse than what we got rid of” (cited in Corbett and Shiu, 2014). Fanaafi Le Tagaloa accurately asserts that “Samoans could not blame the colonizers for the decimation of Samoan forms, rules and institutions concerning the tenure of customary lands and matai titles. They could only blame themselves” (Le Tagaloa, 2009). Despite the ‘three 2020 bills’, where the Land and Titles Court applies the ‘customs and laws of Samoa’ and operates in the Samoan language, he argues the Land and Titles Court is “a cross-cultural legal institution bridging the European and Samoan cultures and the colonial and post-colonial eras.” In other words, this Court is not purely Samoan in its truest traditional and customary sense, including the proposed separation.

Yet, I fully support the government’s view that Samoan language, customs and traditions must be enforced in Court proceedings, including civil and criminal matters. In fact, this was the basis of the Judiciary, and Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration’s (MJCA) review of the way in which young offenders are dealt with in the criminal justice system. MJCA with the assistance of the Attorney General’s Office undertook a wide consultative process with key stakeholders, including community groups (including village matai and faife’au) which resulted in the “Young Offenders Act 2007”. In this Act, “Part 2: Youth Court, 4. Establishment of Youth Court– (1) There shall be a division of the District Court to be called the “Youth Court” which is to be presided over by District Court Judges. (2) Proceedings in the Youth Court, where determined appropriate by the Court, maybe conducted in a manner consistent with Samoan custom and tradition. (3) Subject to subsection (4), proceedings in the Youth Court will be conducted in the Samoan language unless the young person’s first language is other than Samoan, in which case, the language to be used will be English. (4) If Samoan or English is not spoken by the young person an interpreter in the language spoken by the offender is, where practicable, to be provided.”  

My humble plea to our current politicians, is to remember what God had said to the Israelites and her leaders: “When you come into the land … The Lord your God [as referred to in our Constitution, Amendment 2017] will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deut. 18:9-15). With respect to our political leaders, why Samoa’s political leaders undermine the prophetic voice of the churches in Samoa today. However, the former Chairman of the Samoan National Council of Churches (SNCC) was used by the government to guarantee support for the legislation LTRA 2008 (Land Titles Registration Act 2008), which jeopardized the sacred inheritance of all descendants or suli as guardians of the land. Here the Samoan culture of fa’aaloalo (respect) for clergy, as evidenced in the influence of the clergy in the passage of the inheritance laws, contributed to the denial of the rights of all suli to their land as inheritance. 

In view of the above discussion with all due respect, serves as a careful and respectful response to what his Honourable Prime Minister told parliament that there is a need to separate politics and church issues “not to be mixed together - the heavenly and earthly issues” ‘aua le supo faatasia mea faalelagi ma mea faalelalolagi’ (Parliamentary sitting, 28th April 2020). Lastly, the response opens up the issues and the interplay between Christianity, culture and political processes for further discussions and how we can better go about working them out for a better and healthier Samoa.

May God save Samoa and our inheritance! Ma lo’u ava tele.       

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