Memorials and Myths

The Rev. John Fairbrother

17 December 2013


Preparations for Christmas 2013 have been almost overcome by the events marking and surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela. Various international public media have inundated news cast and commentary with images, memories and discussion.

Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter, prisoner, political inspiration and statesman has left the stage. The inevitable processes of reflection and analysis will now become enveloped in historical and creative narratives of his life. The making of the myths that will carry meaning to future generations has begun.

For Aotearoa New Zealand 2014 will witness both a bicentenary and a centenary, memorials of events that are key to understanding what it means to be a Kiwi. The year will mark 200 years since the advent of institutional Church in these islands and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1.

Where the very recent death of Nelson Mandela will remain present in living memory for much of a generation, the arrival of the Rev Samuel Marsden in 1814 and the World War of 1914-18 are beyond recall. Memorials will be held to mark the significance of the time and meanings accumulated. Myths will be embellished.

In this country many will revere Marsden for being the bearer of the Good News. His sermon delivered at Oihi beach has no record beyond the biblical theme he chose for that Christmas day: ‘Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy”. The arrival of institutional Church is a great occasion for contemporary Church to celebrate.

Was the establishment of the Church his only reason for arrival? His relationship with the young chief Ruatara also appears well founded on the commerce of trade that would bring benefit to both parties. Marsden has grounded good cause for a sound religious memorial. His actions also left wide paths for myths to grow around his intentions, relationships and outcomes.

In 1914 this country, then relatively very new with identities found more in provincial locations than any sense of nationhood, pledged itself to participate in a European war. New Zealand suffered proportionate losses greater than any other.

The pain of families and localities must have been visceral, perhaps unimaginable to our present era. Yet out of such industrialised hell we learn a sense of nationhood emerged. The ritual memorials of the day, the memorials of stone and wood, remain to command our respect and challenge the value placed on such disastrous loss of youth. Heroes they may have been. Young men and women they most certainly were.  

The myths that come from inherited memories are well worth holding with care. Care to serve the realities of lives deserving memorial and care to offer minds yet to come the scope to understand the complex depth of history’s tradition on which we stand.

New Zealanders have memories of Nelson Mandela to share. The meaning of these memories will inform the worth of inevitable myths that will inform any future memorials of his life, struggle and inspiration. Such worth is likely best interpreted via the truths any of us seek to live by.