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The white man’s gospel

By decolonizing, Pacific Islanders are writing a new story

by Theresa Fox | Mission Crossroads

Presbyterians from various South Pacific islands gather for Sunday service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Suva, Fiji. (Contributed photo)

At its heart, the Reweaving the Ecological Mat initiative, now coordinated by the Pacific Conference of Churches, is about reclaiming the Pacific identity, an identity intimately interwoven with the land, seas and skies, but stolen by a racist gospel. Stolen as well by neoliberal development models that glorify the “good life” of more money, more personal assets, more food and drink. This pursuit of the good life has decimated forests, plundered seas, ripped the skies. This model came from the Western world, which the white man came and told us was good, models that prescribed how we needed to deal with the trees, the fish, the land. Cut them all up, empty the ocean, gouge out the land until its insides lay bare, as if they were mere resources to be bartered and traded.

The model was inherently toxic, flawed by a superiority complex founded on racism, though not overtly stated. Left unsaid was the message that the “brown natives” rescued from cannibalism by the white man’s gospel were deficient in knowledge. They were new civilizations that needed to be taught how to live. And we believed, allowing the neoliberal models to be shoved down our throats. Why not?

Ever since the first white missionaries sailed across the world to deliver their God, we’ve been conditioned to believe the white man is superior. From the start, our rituals, our state of nakedness, our beliefs and totem systems, the way we honored the land and feared the ocean — were considered dark, like the shade of our skin.

We believed and helped him spread the gospel, taking it across the Pacific, to our kind, far and wide. More and more churches were built through the grace of God and the hands and feet of the natives. Yet there was barely any mention of the Pacific Islanders who shared the gospel and paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. In the annals of Pacific church history, countless native missionaries remain nameless and faceless — unlike the white martyrs, bless their souls, who are hailed across the Pacific, their names memorialized with churches, their gospel feats inked in Christian history books and applauded in sermons, many delivered by Pacific Islanders.

Women of the Pacific Theological College gather in front of Islander Missionaries Memorial Chapel to commemorate World Peace Day and International Women’s Day in 2020. (Contributed photo)

Across the Pacific, islanders became the staunchest church members, Christianized natives who took up the white man’s education and held up Western systems of living. We even propagated it and ridiculed our food, medicine, culture and traditions. We looked with contempt at those who still practiced the Pacific way of living. Their voices and calls for a return to it we branded simplistic, barbaric, dark. Just as we were taught, we parroted and normalized.

His most insidious gospel was our inferiority and his superiority. So subjugated, we believed,  even when we thought we were free with independence and the end of colonial eras. We believed that God is white. We continue to hold on to white statues of Jesus in our churches and are widely still afraid to use our traditional musical instruments in places of worship.

We believed the models that eventually stole our forests and water sources. Anecdotal evidence suggests women across the Pacific islands still walk miles to water sources and increasing water scarcity forces people to drink dirty water. Our men die young and our children are orphaned by the noncommunicable disease epidemic sweeping through our region just like Category 5 Yasa and Category 3 Ana — the former gutted us in Fiji with the worst winds on record, the latter drowned us with unprecedented floodwaters. The good life we chased, trading our forests, our land and skies for change — climate change. Now we stand but a shade of our glorious past, ancient civilizations of wonder and power, who sailed the oceans with nothing but the guide of stars — defeated.

Nothing like COVID-19 and climate change to lay bare the truth. Thousands without work run back to the land their ancestors once adored and depended on. Once more we long for the ancient pathways and accept that we have gone so far off track.

A traditional Fijian fan dance is performed to herald the Reweaving the Ecological Mat framework that places the well-being of Pacific peoples and their Indigenous spirituality at its center. (Contributed photo)

The truth is our ancient civilizations were great. Our ancestors didn’t need to be taught how to live. Their wisdom was superior. Admittedly, there are aspects of our societies that needed to change, like cannibalism and ritualistic human offerings, but not every part of us needed to be wiped out. Our identity did not need to be neutralized to fit within the white man’s gospel.

But we hold no grudge. It is, after all, the Christian way.

The only way we can stop the harmful effects of history is to make things right by choosing to cut off the tentacles of racism, propagated by church systems over thousands of years through decolonizing theology. Already, the decolonization of theology is a growing movement. As we decolonize, we also reconsider neoliberal models of development and redefine what “good life” means to us. We in the Pacific Island region are regrowing a new normal, a new story — and the churches are involved in this process.

Consider making an online gift to further the work among World Mission partners in Asia and the Pacific.

Theresa Fox is a journalist and communications coordinator for the Pacific Theological College (PTC). Her views are her own and not to be in any way regarded as representative of the views of PTC.

 This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. twice a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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